The Worst Movies of 2023

The worst movie I saw in 2023 was at a film festival; it was an indie production that has yet to be released and, perhaps sparing the filmmakers’ dignity, will remain in this liminal state indefinitely. This is a perfect encapsulation of why many people understandably dislike worst-of-the-year lists. To take a shot at some big hit or critical favorite or Oscar contender when countless genuinely incompetent or horrible productions circulate through the movie world seems disingenuous. And to compose a list of ten such productions seems cruel. Classic lose-lose situation.

At the same time: Sometimes enormous hits are absolutely terrible (particularly when, say, informed by YouTube fandom, rather than any sense of genre, style, or narrative). Sometimes awards contenders go into rigor mortis while you’re watching them. Sometimes other critics inexplicably give a pass to absolute garbage. And sometimes scrappy independent productions are genuinely loathsome. Ah, the dimensions of cinema! Also, watching and writing about movies is how I make (most of) my living – which most of the time constitutes a miraculous stroke of luck on my part. But it can nonetheless involve some measures of frustrations, insecurity, and uncertainty. Those things aren’t the fault of the worst ten movies I see in any given year – but the worst movies of the year can do their part to exacerbate those conditions, however briefly or superficially. These are the moments where this job starts to feel really stupid. That, this year, there are only 10 such occasions out of 200-plus movies is a great sign of life at the movies. So if you’ll indulge me a lot of paraphrasing myself, let’s review the worst of this particular year.

The Worst Movies of 2023

10. Wonka
Look, I could have put Knights of the Zodiac here, or Good Burger 2, or Freelance, or any number of two-star-or-less efforts somewhere on the theatrical-to-streaming spectrum. None of them are as well-made as Wonka, and if I wanted to ding something a bit more ambitious than absolute shlock, I sure didn’t care for Origin or Rustin very much. But starting from the designation of “a Paul King confection” that opens Wonka’s credits, something felt deeply off about Wonka’s candy-shoppe bona fides, something that would lodge itself in my memory as a particularly fetid attempt at confectionary whimsy. King isn’t the first filmmaker to baldly and boldly misinterpret Roald Dahl (or recast him in his own image) as a quirky goofball with a sentimental streak, but to do so in misguided nostalgic tribute to a mediocre children’s film that Dahl purported to hate feels particularly hostile, in that passively adorable Paddington-esque way. What are King and his star Timothée Chalamet doing here, exactly? That they’re definitively not performing an impression of Gene Wilder counts as one of the film’s small mercy, though it actually might render Wonka even more nonsensical: Why reimagine Wonka as a starry-eyed-yet-illiterate dreamer with as many nods to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as possible? This prequel by way of Cruella is like that incoherent Disney slog minus the ace costume design and committed Emma Stone performance; all that’s left is the general impression of Taika Waititi-esque “offbeat” humor and the handful of times that humor actually lands (less, by my count, than the half-assed but at least somewhat involving Next Goal Wins from Actual Taika). Honestly, there are multiple Disney live-action remakes I’d take over this strained articial sweetness.

9. The Machine
The Machine is as surprisingly stylish as it is surprisingly unfunny. The final and grimmest surprise is how the movie attempts to give [Bert] Kreischer some therapeutic growth, premised on an eventual hogwash revelation about a comedian serving as a de facto protector of the people. Expecting audiences to cheer with excitement as Kreischer guzzles vodka and becomes an unstoppable fighting machine is bad enough; hoping that they’ll take away some valuable life lessons about balance and being yourself seems an awful lot like denial.” (review for The Guardian)

8. The Boys in the Boat
“What on earth drew Clooney to this material? The opportunity to work with Turner on disguising his British accent by using that corn-fed, flattened-out voice British actors tend to do when playing American? The chance to shoot the past in – get this – a somewhat faded and reserved color palette to signal that this story takes place in the past? A desire to “but also” Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics? This movie would be a disappointing, anticlimactic slog from the likes of Jon Turteltaub or John Lee Hancock; George Clooney has been nominated for Oscars for acting, writing, directing, and producing. Does he not remember how to do any of those things?” (essay for Decider)

7. Zombie Town
Maybe it’s my fault for expecting a movie this Canadian to have more to offer than its extreme Canadian-ness, but I thought maybe, maybe, a kid-horror R.L. Stine adaptation featuring Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bruce McCulloch, and Scott Thompson might manage a little bit of funny-creepy juice. Collectively, those four guys have been so funny and so creepy in so many different ways! Alas, this seems like a project made to keep Stine humble while the Goosebumps money rolls in; it’s the kind of low-rent, tone-deaf, sterile exercise in YA genre-mashing that might have been adapted from Stine’s work if he never made it past a couple of moderately profitable Scholastic book orders.

6. Love Again
“Celine Dion encourages Rob to take the brave leap into stalking, in scenes where she plays herself as a ruthlessly condescending and self-impressed despot of MOR pop who demands compliance with her every shopworn, nonsensical, pro-love sentiment. This would be very funny if the movie acknowledged it in any way, or if Dion’s performance reflected any hint of comic mischief. Unfortunately, this material – including a tangent recounting her late husband and manager’s courtship of her – is played straight, possibly because Strouse’s joke-writing is as aimless and uncomfortable as Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s hand placement.” (review for Paste)

5. It’s a Wonderful Knife
“It’s not a good holiday movie, and as a horror movie it’s not scary at all. It has no tension, and it’s shot in a style I would call Coca-Cola Emerging Filmmakers, you know, you used to see at AMC, where you’d get the feeling the contest winner was allowed to submit some keywords to some program that would spit out a commercial. This movie feels like that, an ad pretending to be a movie pretending to be an ad. By the end, I actively loathed it. It’s got a bit of smugness to it, how it pulls in a completely unconvincing queer relationship. They telegraph it from a mile away and I still didn’t believe it in the least. It’s so opportunistic and transparently designed to trick people into going, ‘oh, this is really very sweet’…they were very confident that what they had here was enough, and I find that so mind-boggling.” (adapted from audio review on The New Flesh)

4. Flamin’ Hot
“The zeal with which Flamin’ Hot perpetuates these misleading ideas, and its refusal to engage with the idea of Richard Montañez as any kind of embellisher or showman, gives the movie the unsettling demeanor of a true believer. Whether consciously or not, Longoria is genuflecting before a higher power: the additional money that can be made by taking the inspirational, prayer-friendly Richard Montañez story at face value. Flamin’ Hot has the trappings of a tedious faith-based drama, but it ultimately treats God as just another middle manager between CEO and Chosen One.” (essay for Decider)

3. Five Nights at Freddy’s
“The movie’s convergence of youth culture doesn’t make it especially good, but it does help explain why it shows so little familiarity with the affairs of mere humans. In the context of Freddy’s creating its entire world out of pop culture signposts, it’s more understandable that the movie’s characters are untethered from any sort of basic reality, or each other.” (review for Polygon)

2. Mafia Mamma
“How in the world did Nia Vardalos not write, direct or star in this movie? At least Toni Collette has learned from her erstwhile Connie and Carla co-star, bravely pioneering a new paradoxical acting technique that will be known going forward as resting mugging face. Even in Kristin’s quietest, most contemplative moments, Collette can’t stop bugging her eyes or yanking down her mouth – which, to be fair, is a natural reaction to being repeatedly poisoned over the course of 101 endless minutes. It’s easy to imagine Melissa McCarthy or Anna Faris willing Mafia Mamma into some proper comic set pieces; Collette is a more prestigious performer, and hardly inexperienced at comedy, but she just goes with the movie’s distractingly erratic flow. She does what is asked of her, with rubbery, misguided gusto, and the movie’s big comedy ideas, many of which involve Collette making a “yikes!” face during scenes of surprisingly gory mayhem, simply bounce off of her and land with a thud.” (review for Paste)

1. Fear
“Deon Taylor… he has a real gift for not understanding how people interact. His movies often have this feeling that the characters feel like they’re going into sleep mode when they’re not on camera. You can see actors giving bad physical performances in his movies because they’re being badly directed in terms of where they should stand, what they should do with their bodies. The blocking in this movie is bad, the physical performances are bad, the emotional modulation is bad… it all comes down to bad directing. And what this movie is actually doing – and it really comes together knowing they made it in August 2020, which makes the movie seem fervently insane, rather than just misguided – is trying to make a point about how COVID is just fear. And that’s the problem. Not the disease that killed a million people in America alone. It’s fear. Don’t be afraid! By the end, it’s like, God will guide you. That would still be obnoxious if it were made three months ago, but I would fall short of calling it reprehensible. But they made this movie in August fucking 2020! And when I’m saying it’s ideologically reprehensible, that’s true, but also, as a horror movie, it emphatically does not work. And the fact that this movie was written during the pandemic, and shot before the vaccine was available, reframes how I felt about Deon Taylor. Before, I found him sort of likably incompetent, and now I have to wonder if he’s insane or an idiot.” (adapted from a podcast rant for The New Flesh)