Usually, around November of each year, I contribute a ballot of fifteen terrible movies to the A.V. Club, which they aggregate into a list of the year’s worst films. In 2020, owing to a slowdown in studio movies (which usually provide at least a few juicy targets) and overall feelings that the year has had enough pain and punishment without asking critics to relive their worst experiences, my editor decided not to do a Worst-Of list. Elsewhere, there’s a growing consensus that Worst-Of lists are pointless endeavors, designed to reward cheap and easy snark; the exact opposite of what a critic should do.
As Adam Sandler says in Uncut Gems: I disagree.
Worst-of lists are cathartic. There are all kinds of bad movies critics wind up watching out of curiosity, completism, assignment, or, if you’re a freelancer trying to cover some bases, the futile hope that you may be able to parlay having seen it into an assignment. Sometimes you just want to write a few words to try to process the experience. Also: if the most valuable function of best-of lists is to shine a spotlight on movies you think people should prioritize, is it not helpful to explain which movies you found particularly unworthy of the time it takes to watch them? I tend to be pretty loose with recommendations; if you want to see a movie, I say, you should just see it. Read my review afterward. I’m not a consumer guide; who knows what you’ll like? That said, sometimes there are movies that deserve special attention, and sometimes that attention is not positive.
So, because I’m happy to keep the bad vibes flowing, here are my personal choices for the worst movies of 2020. I’ve quoted from my review when a review exists; otherwise, I re-opened these wounds and let some blood flow.
The Worst Movies of 2020
15. The Craft: Legacy
There was some minor debate over whether this belated companion to the 1996 teen-witch fave is really an as-advertised sequel or a remake with a dash of fan service. I say it’s neither: This is a quote-retweet of The Craft, where most of the teenage characters talk like cringeworthy social media fragments and their nonchalant inclusiveness (the best thing about this largely misbegotten and often hard-to-follow enterprise) doesn’t preclude some light blaccent from one seemingly white character. This movie includes a climactic confrontation set at a nondescript location where the central villain only vaguely refers to his master plan and is then killed by the heroes, who in the next scene are laughing it off with no mention of how his disappearance from this Earth is explained to anyone else who did not attend said nondescript face-off. No matter; on to a final scene that offers, in place of a proper ending, a relocated post-credits tease for, essentially, the sequel we just watched. What? Why? There must have been a lot of ways to follow-up The Craft; that writer-director Zoe Lister-Jones, who seems smart and talented, chose this one suggests a movie conceived and made on a pointlessly tight deadline. You can hear me discuss this one in great detail with my buddy Brett on his New Flesh Podcast.
It may not seem difficult to be the definitive big-studio disaster in a year where many big-studio movies fled to 2021; after all, the competition was lighter than usual. But don’t sleep on the baffling ineptitude of this would-be social thriller, a grimly clunky literalization of the Get Out formula. While Jordan Peele got knottier and more ambitious with his own Get Out follow-up Us last year, the filmmakers behind Antebellum simply ask the provocative question: What if slavery, but now? (For that matter, Get Out better answers this question without even making it text.) A movie that wants the shock value of slave imagery but has little to say about it beyond it’s bad and white folks like it anyway, this is a shockingly tone-deaf and meandering exercise in time-tripping and would-be catharsis, directed like a fashion ad that thinks it’s satire.
13. The Last Thing He Wanted
Usually when I describe a movie as akin to a magic trick, I’m talking about some kind of unexpected, ineffable charm. I guess The Last Thing He Wanted is more like pulling a fast one, only it swindles itself in the process, too. Catching up with this respectable-sounding movie starring Anne Hathaway, directed by Dee Rees, and adapted from a Joan Didion novel, I was convinced its alleged awfulness was overhyped: This is compelling enough, I thought repeatedly during the first half-hour. As it goes on, I accumulated so many questions about what was going on and why that I lost track of my own confusion. I was confused, and couldn’t remember why. Even more vexing, there are remnants of something watchable, floating around in this endless fog. The camerawork is sometimes striking but just as often muddled with mashed-up coverage, and the adaptation feels like the shuffling of an enormous de-paged manuscript. Truth be told, I felt some of these things beneath the respectable surface of Mudbound, also from Rees. But there the performances and writing kept things steady enough. Despite Hathaway and Willem Dafoe, The Last Thing He Wanted has no such guiding principle. It’s like watching a ship crash into rocks, only you can’t ever see the rocks.
12. The Binge
Why are comedies so obsessed with riffing on The Purge? There are eight Saw movies but there aren’t multiple movies about how there’s a serial killer just like Jigsaw, but funny. Anyway:
“When Garelick and VanDina try to construct a passable joke instead of screamed nonsense, they grind down their own material. One early bit of dialogue sets up an elaborate drug-trip musical number, which eventually plays out at a time-killing length and is merrily reprised over the credits. The song itself is also not especially funny, but at least the sequence looks like something from a real movie. Elsewhere, locations as exotic as “interior of bar” and “empty field” appear green-screened.”
11. The Devil All the Time
This one’s the bad-movie version of a grower: It may seem at first like a moody, evocative portrait of midcentury American tragedy, but as it sinks in and has some time to develop, you start to appreciate what a magnificent crock of shit it is. Here’s what happens in almost every scene: Two to three miserable people simmering with frustration have some kind of conflict that’s resolved in brutal murder. Occasionally the movie mixes it up with a rape. It’s the Southern Gothic version of a Tarantino knockoff from the ‘90s, except with high-toned miserablism subbing for would-be postmodernism–and arguably more in love with the important shock value of its violence. Amazing, really, that Netflix can make me yearn for the presence of a hypothetical studio executive who might bravely step forward and say: What the fuck is this and why are we paying for it?
10. The Prom
”It’s been a decade since Murphy directed a feature. He’s been so prolific as a TV creator that it’s easy to forget his previous career teasing out the toxic self-regard from various bestsellers. Ten years later, Murphy has yet to find an inexplicable camera angle he won’t use for a second or two, and The Prom’s editing sometimes makes it actively difficult to discern simple scene-setting information like the time of day. At one point, the movie cuts between Dee Dee on a dinner date and kids engaging in prom-posals, implying that the two events are either closely related (they’re not) or happening simultaneously (also no). If nothing else, Murphy’s first movie musical doesn’t bolt down the camera like so many theatrically inspired productions. To the contrary, he’s learned from his post-Glee television work that the camera should be moving as often as possible, in any direction, even or especially if it conveys no meaning.”
9. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made
“This is a knotty, worthwhile character type to untangle—or it would be, if Timmy Failure didn’t ultimately see itself as a lightly inspirational story about the power of embracing quirky dreams. After spending much of its runtime performing cutesy winks over Timmy’s cluelessness, the movie ends not by truly grappling with his insecurities, nor even by tying together the threads of his various “cases” in a clever or meaningful way. Instead, Timmy is encouraged to be himself, passing off elaborate delusions as a unique worldview that shouldn’t be silenced by insensitive doubters. That Timmy makes the slightest of gestures toward not intentionally tanking his classes at school or actively harming others is taken as a triumph.”
From the same essay as above: “As the movie continues, it becomes clear that the filmmakers are no better-equipped to deal with these issues than Stargirl herself. She cycles through appearing chastened, defiant, whimsically demonstrative, and chastened again (mostly through Leo’s eyes, naturally), before the movie finally somehow concludes that she is a bold free thinker who has altered Leo’s life forever, martyring her social status before leaving town. The nonconformist messaging doesn’t land because the movie takes place in a wan, sexless version of high school that seems further and further removed from any kind of emotional reality with every passing minute. The attempt to blend complexities and blandly inspirational lessons renders every character either incoherent, flat, or both.”
I didn’t get to review Endless when it came out over the summer, but I did long-list it for my worst-of-the-year list, which is how and why I sat on the couch for several minutes today, actively trying to access a sense memory of watching this movie so I could remember what the hell it actually is. It’s all coming back to me now: Alexandra Shipp… ah, fuck, I had to look it up again. Alexandra Shipp’s boyfriend dies in a car accident, but lingers between worlds over their unresolved romance. Kind of like the ghost, from that movie, you know… I forget the name. Anyway, she makes contact with her boyfriend’s ghost, but his presence causes her health to deteriorate so he realizes he must attempt to move on and leave her alone. In the rich tradition of If I Stay, it’s about someone who has basically already died deciding whether or not to continue being dead. Endless wants to portray grief, young love, and healing. This would all be just a little easier to accomplish if it had any sense of time, place, space, character, or reality. At one point, a character who has graduated high school and subsequently acquired an internship gets a college acceptance letter dated October 2019, saying that she’s been admitted for the fall semester, which she notes begins in five weeks. Why does so much YA cinema feel like everyone involved with it was homeschooled their entire life?
“Though Stein assembles his early sequences with precision, laying out geography and shorthanding through set design, that sharpness is undermined by basically everything else in the movie, from micro to major. The script is plagued with awkward phrasings and garbled dialogue: William refers to receiving a “bump in the polls” in the same sentence where he mentions slipping in popularity in those polls. Another character says “inclination” when they seem to mean “inkling.” These are small moments, but in a blatantly ridiculous story, they ensure that even the quieter moments strain credibility.”
”[The filmmakers] lack the courage of their stupid convictions. They never go into full-on conspiracy territory — truly, this is a movie that’s Just Asking Questions. Many who saw the movie’s trailer feared a grand political statement; instead, the movie offers an ideological muddle that can’t even stay consistently paranoid, fearmongering about “quarantine camps” while nodding in approval in favor of drones that can commit murder. Its dramatic confrontations amount to a series of minor stabbings, some sleight-of-hand, and dumb luck.”
4. Artemis Fowl
After several delays to its theatrical release, Disney used the pandemic as an excuse to finally send this Kenneth Branagh adaptation of a popular book series to its streaming service. This just raises further questions, such as: Is this movie good enough for an unceremonious dump onto Disney+? I’m half-convinced that The Secret Society of Second-Born Royals, not considered for this list because sometimes TV-movie vibes are impossible to shake, was commissioned in large part to make Fowl look slightly more like a professionally made film. Surprisingly labyrinthine for a movie set largely in a handful of rooms, Artemis Fowl wears its dottiness so gingerly that the book’s whole reason for being–a tongue-in-cheek origin story for a pint-sized supervillain–barely clicks into place until the closing moments. A children’s fantasy so mirthless that it’s a wonder Chris Columbus didn’t have a hand in it.
3. Hillbilly Elegy
As much as I hated most of The Devil All the Time, it looks downright thinky compared to this fellow literary-hardscrabble adaptation from Netflix, which nearest I can tell is about how author J.D. Vance bravely overcame a series of disconnected, voluntary traumas that his weak and stupid family was too weak and stupid to keep from happening–except his grandma, of course, who is a good terminator, or possibly neutral. Putting aside the real-life Vance, who seems like a fucking dipshit: It’s shocking that Ron Howard, whose whole job is making this kind of supposedly populist entertainment go down easy, failed to realize what a charisma vacuum he had playing the adult Vance, who needs to think about his entire miserable life whenever he encounters an unfamiliar fork. Maybe Howard was too distracted by the ceaseless mugging of Glenn Close and the Big Acting of Amy Adams, who gives what may be her all-time least effective (and, to quote the Whedon Cut of Justice League, thirstiest) performance as Vance’s addict mother. (She is addicted to awards clips.) Hillbilly Elegy goes big, but it’s shouting into a void. It’s telling that Vance’s life story feels like it’s being told under duress, like he’s running through the greatest hits by intense demand. Without any real introspection or insight, it becomes a deeply pointless origin story for “I grew up poor in Ohio,” as if a poor white kid getting to Yale Law is an unsolvable puzzle to which only this drippy yutz has the key. Vance’s central dilemma is ultimately so ineptly framed, with so little feeling for the rhythms of real life, that the looks actively stupid, someone who can’t add “my mom needs a place to stay and will kill herself with heroin if left alone” to “I need to do what’s right for me and get to this job interview on time” and come up with, uh, putting him and mom in the same car.
As research for this essay about the movie careers of various Community cast members, I watched Babysplitters, in which Danny Pudi plays a neurotic man part of a couple who plans to split parenting duties with another couple. Looking for evidence that Pudi, like his co-stars, refuses to shy away from material about the discomforts of adult life, I found a terrible bounty: a two-hour farce performed at the speed of a languorous melodrama, in which a fraught series of variously familial, romantic, and sexual negotiations provide an uncomfortably deep dive into the psyche of whoever wrote this awful movie.
1. A Nice Girl Like You
Look, I get how obnoxious I sound. It’s easy to degrade some poor, dumb, innocent movie for its timid sexuality, adopting the position of a pansexual libertine who wishes more romantic comedies were like Shortbus. I assure you, this is not my position. (Pun intended, in an attempt to make the imagined target audience for A Nice Girl Like You laugh very, very hard.) But why make a movie about porn just to simulate the feeling that everyone involved with it has learned about porn primarily from the dubious memoir Pornology? With streaming movies liberated from the arcane rating systems and the insistence that they must be seen in a theater to be legitimate entertainment, the point of a sex comedy that essentially comes with a pre-written defense about why it should never be considered for the NC-17 entirely eludes me. There’s an old, hacky bad-movie dunk that compares whatever film in question to a porn movie with the nudity and sex cut out. A Nice Girl Like You is like a softcore porn movie with the nudity, sex, and movie cut out.”