Given that I do not do this for money and therefore mostly have complete freedom in my film selections, my worst-of list is always void of some of the more popular choices. Indeed, not a one Happy Madison production makes my list this year despite all three 2011 efforts from the company making the rounds on damn near everyone's worst-of list. I did almost see Jack and Jill out of sheer morbid curiosity, but sanity prevailed. Nevertheless, I still saw my share of absolute duds this year, for as much gold as 2011 offered, it also had more than its fair share of god-awful pieces of trash. So if I may, let me purge but 10 of these miserable experiences from my mind forever.
10. Cars 2 (dir. John Lasseter)
The first Cars was a useless but benign romp, a half-baked concept built upon themes that had already been explored with far greater depth in the Toy Story films. But money talks, and the runaway merchandising success guaranteed a sequel, one that abandoned the thin premise of the first only to come up with an even more asinine narrative of global conspiracies and spy chases. An already nonsensical universe becomes downright insane, but far worse is the focus on rustbucket hick Mater as the protagonist. Being There with big oil commentaries and gunfire, Cars 2 has nothing for children or their parents, and it stands as the first Pixar film to be motivated solely by financial greed rather than artistic ambition. Judging from the sudden greenlighting of sequels, however, it sadly may not be the last.
9. The Help (dir. Tate Taylor)
Dressing up the brutality of Jim Crow-era Mississippi with sugary pastels and sorority girl shrieks, Tate Taylor's adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's unseemly wish-fulfillment novel makes that book look like Light in August. Dumping racism into one perfectly coiffed avatar, The Help fatally lowers the stakes even as it promotes minor "triumphs" as big victories. There's something intensely gauche about staging a tearjerking "hurrah" around a black woman being told she can work as a white family's maid forever, to say nothing of the greatest win being the white woman's book deal. A great movie was never going to be made out of this novel, but Taylor takes what minimal stabs at emotional complexity Stockett made and tosses them out for an unending series of easy shocks and easier resolution.
8. Red State (dir. Kevin Smith)
I'd been eagerly awaiting this since 2007, but Kevin Smith's vague stab at horror is not scary, timely or insightful, nor is it even coherent. Crawling out of the gate with a series of dragging monologues, Red State only gets worse when it gets down to the action, shot with handheld cameras and editing so erratic as to make Michael Bay films look like Béla Tarr's. Eventually, Smith's half-baked rants against church and state give way to a wannabe Coen brothers film, complete with a shaggy dog non-ending that, if nothing else, shows how sophisticated the Coens are at pulling off that sort of thing. For years, I bought the notion that no one would bankroll Red State because it was too darkly uncommercial. Now I'm simply left with the impression that the Weinsteins know when to save their money.
7. Season of the Witch (dir. Dominic Sena)
I only permit myself one Nic Cage film a year on a worst-of, which always gives me a bit of a Sophie's Choice. But what makes Season of the Witch so unbearable is not the fact that it is a terrible Nicolas Cage film but that it has none of the freewheeling mania of a Nic Cage crapfest. Both he and Ron Perlman look as if they had to stare at their paychecks off-screen to keep going. The movie isn't even about witches but demons, but it's a slog to even make it to that contradictory revelation with all the hilarious anti-war commentary as filtered through the Crusades (Cage and Perlman kill a LOT of people before they realize it's wrong). The film is so dim, so murky and so cheap that I could have sworn I saw it in 3D. I suppose the fact that I didn't is the movie's one saving grace.
6. The Iron Lady (dir. Phyllida Lloyd)
It takes a lot for me to feel sorry for Margaret Thatcher, especially when her biopic presents her absurdly cruel right-wing views as shows of feminine strength. But Phyllida Lloyd's utterly embarrassing The Iron Lady so vigorously exploits Thatcher's current dementia as a plot device that I was left repulsed, watching at times through my fingers. Haphazardly constructed as a borderline farce about a plucky brownshirt showing men a thing a thing or two, The Iron Lady says nothing about Thatcher's deeds and even less about her character. All the film can do is present Thatcher outside her politics as a symbol of female empowerment, but it takes moral shortcuts to do so, such the prime minister defending the dispatch of troops to die for the Falklands by saying she "does battle" every day in a man's world. Suddenly, the excuses for Iraq don't seem so bad.
5. Sucker Punch (dir. Zack Snyder)
I'm already amused by some critics carping on David Fincher's adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for not casting Lisbeth Salander as some kind of symbol of feminist empowerment, as the horribly reductive image of that character they have in mind is really no different from the one they rightly lambasted in Zack Snyder's wankfest of teenage metalhead notebook scribbling. A woman trapped in an abusive asylum acts out elaborate revenge fantasies that suspiciously double as music videos, allowing Snyder to feel as if he's engaging in Girl Power while really just continuing to mold his tortured ladies into thin veneers of action heroines. In a way, he succeeds: they are as hollow and repellent as so many of the males in action films. Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish and Oscar Isaac elevate the film somewhat, but they are actors, not miracle workers.
4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (dir. Michael Bay)
The fourth worst film of the year is actually a marked improvement over its 2009 predecessor, a disgusting movie on the short list for worst films ever made. But just because Bay holds his shots for two seconds instead of .5 doesn't make things any neater, and the fascism of the series reaches fever pitch. This is a film where the heroes let thousands, if not millions, of humans die in order to teach them a lesson about never doubting your "protectors." Replacing Megan Fox with an even more blatant prop of a woman and (finally, I admit) relegating Sam to being the side player of the story, Bay finally disposes of that pesky human element. How sad and revealing it is that this may be the reason this film is the "best" of the three.
3. Red Riding Hood (dir. Catherine Hardwicke)
Catherine Hardwicke's hackdom knows no bounds. No, I take it back, now her incompetence has been bounded by post-Twilight rip-offs that make her job on that franchise's first film look like Best Director material. Red Riding Hood is such a miserably turgid movie that it cannot even be laughed at. A return to production design for Hardwicke, who celebrates with a village that looks made of toothpicks and trees with spikes on them. Movie magic! Gary Oldman, who gives the most nuanced and quietly powerful performance of his career this year as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, has rarely been so firmly in paycheck mode, screaming at the top of his lungs in magnificent velvet. This isn't the first time he's taken a crap gig, but this role is more depressing than most, and it's saying something when not even an unhinged Oldman can inject life into your dour movie.
2. I Melt With You (dir. Mark Pellington)
Valhalla Rising for Ed Hardy enthusiasts, Mark Pellington's childishly nihilistic rumination on midlife crises is comical in its pretension. Bad as the dialogue is, Pellington shortchanges his own movie by constantly prioritizing his rocking but ill-fitting soundtrack over the film itself, which suggests that even he got bored while watching it in the editing bay. The characters are uniformly simplistic, with only Christian McKay doing anything at all like "acting," and he departs the film sooner than the rest to get a head start on damage control. But he leaves the film with another hour of ludicrous spirals into druggie madness that teach the audience nothing but acts like every bullshitting fast-talker who thinks he's the only one brave enough to tell you the "truth." A hideous film in every respect.
1. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (dir. Rob Marshall)
Gore Verbinski finally freed himself from service on this franchise in time for mega-hack Rob Marshall to drive it to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Marshall's primary impact has always been to remind people that, by way of comparison, Baz Luhrmann actually knows what he's doing, and his profoundly artless sequel tosses out what vestiges of entertainment remained in this franchise. Not a single action sequence wows, not a line of dialogue doesn't feel forced, and not a single second of Johnny Depp's acting doesn't come off as soulless and bored. Jack Sparrow has gotten ever more manic as these films have progressed to make up for the fact that his actual character keeps losing more and more of its charm, and the increased hamminess only works against the streamlining brought on by budget cutbacks. Some will call this an improvement over the third film, but at least movie tried to use its big, stupid nonsense to an end. This film, like the pirates it parades around in empty setpieces, just wants more money.