A proper accounting of the year’s most egregious cinematic stinkers cannot limit itself to Adam Sandler comedies and pointless Marvel reboots alone. It must take in the full spectrum of cinematic awfulness — which is to say, even those movies ostensibly made with the best of intentions. In that spirit, we’ve asked our critics not only to pick the worst films of the year, but also to name the acclaimed, serious-minded prestige film of 2015 that left them cold. Here are the results:
The worst: I’m tempted to put forth the unholy Happy Madison trinity of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,” “Pixels” and “The Ridiculous 6” (for shame, Netflix). But in the end, I have to call it a tie between “No Escape,” an utterly vile piece of Third World exploitation that might as well have been titled “White Lives Matter: The Movie,” and “Some Kind of Beautiful,” some kind of hideous excuse for a romantic comedy which was mercifully spared a wider release. Taken together, it’s the most moronic and enervating Pierce Brosnan double bill imaginable; I’m not one to suggest that an actor fire his reps, but forcing them to watch these two back-to-back sounds like fair and constructive punishment.
Empty prestige: For Oscar-humping banality and excruciating politesse, Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” was hard to beat. Even the strongest element of this gorgeously insipid movie works against it: Every vividly inhabited minute of Alicia Vikander’s performance puts to shame the mannered self-regard of Eddie Redmayne’s star turn as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe — all studied feminine mimicry with barely a flicker of interior life. Not that anyone else could have done much better with such gutlessly watered-down material, especially when Lili undergoes a groundbreaking gender-reassignment operation dramatized with all the corporeal trauma of a root canal. Wake me when the David Cronenberg remake shows up.
The worst: An embarrassment to America, Michael Moore’s latest editorial cartoon of a documentary is as sloppy as its author’s appearance (easily twice his “Bowling for Columbine” heft). Unlike his earlier, urgent wake-up-call docs, “Where to Invade Next” cherry-picks aspects in which other countries can be made to appear more progressive than the States, while conveniently overlooking the limitations of each grass-is-greener locale. At the base, it’s a fine idea, implying the humility to ask what we can learn from others, though Moore is a boorish ambassador at best, and his disingenuous approach undermines his own argument.
Empty prestige: On paper, Patricia Highsmith’s juicy lesbian romance might well be the film Todd Haynes was born to make, yet in “Carol,” the wooden result fails to communicate why we — or for that matter, Rooney Mara’s character — should love its vapid heroine. The hand-me-down script reduces an actress as gifted as Cate Blanchett to an aloof fetish object, defined more by her fabulous hair, lipstick and wardrobe than by her personality. It’s further crippled by a lamentable PC stance that projects tragedy upon the novel’s smoldering, period-appropriate sense of illicit perversion. In short, Haynes forces subtext to the surface, while keeping his character insights skin-deep.
The worst: Shortly after I left the first — and to date, only — public screening of Mathew Cullen’s calamitous adaptation of Martin Amis’ “London Fields,” the film was pulled from the Toronto Film Festival due to a legal brouhaha between Cullen and the film’s producers. It hasn’t been seen since. For any other film, this would be a disaster. In the case of “London Fields,” it could well be a blessing in disguise, as the lawyerly intrigue, contradictory accounts and lingering questions of authorial legitimacy surrounding its release are infinitely more interesting than anything in the film itself. Best-case scenario: It enters the realm of cinema legend, unseen, as the postmodern noir version of “The Day the Clown Cried.”
Empty prestige: Risking frostbite in subzero temperatures, sleeping in animal carcasses, eating chunks of raw bison liver, shooting only with natural light — judging solely from the pre-release mythmaking surrounding “The Revenant,” you’d be forgiven for thinking Alejandro G. Inarritu and Co. were busy making the world’s most expensive episode of “Man vs. Wild.” The actual film is considerably more refined, and frequently wondrous to watch — placing one of the greatest living cinematographers in some of the world’s most scenic locales will always produce breathtaking vistas — but its insistence on substituting actual physical suffering for serious philosophical inquiry left this viewer as cold as the freezing rivers Leonardo DiCaprio so boldly hurls himself into. As a collection of stunning nature imagery, it’s Terrence Malick without the underlying intelligence. As a survivalist parable pitting man against the pitilessness of nature, it’s little more than a gussied-up, drawn-out retread of Joe Carnahan’s future classic “The Grey.” And for all its ballyhooed frontier bloodletting, any halfway faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s similarly minded “Blood Meridian” would make “The Revenant” look like “Rugrats.”
The worst: It seems almost enabling to hand one-trick auteur Tom Six any more acknowledgment for making “The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence),” whose only virtue was the word “final” in the title. But you can’t say he didn’t earn it: No other film this year worked so hard to be so childishly obnoxious. The viewer runs the full gamut of emotions from boredom to despair for these 102 minutes, trying to figure out which aspect is worst. Is it Dieter Laser’s bellowing, amateurish lead turn? The endless degradations dished out to former Charlie Sheen “goddess” and adult-film star Bree Olson as sole female here? Six’s own smug cameo as himself? Or the fact that erstwhile Oscar nominee Eric Roberts managed to shoehorn this career opportunity in among a purported 40-odd screen ventures in 2015? Impossible to choose.
Empty prestige: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Sundance darling “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” does everything short of roll over and wag its tail in its quest for cuteness. But the title should have just been “Me” (too bad Katharine Hepburn got there first): The generically quirky, self-absorbed adolescent protagonist shares with the movie a reluctance to waste quality time on anyone else, dying or otherwise; even the terminally cancerous “girl” has to act grateful that he occasionally grants her some attention. And don’t even ask about Earl: How such an underwritten, blatantly tokenistic role (“Look, this angsty white boy is cool! After all, he’s got an African-American friend!”) got a free pass from critics in 2015 is an issue more fraught than any probed in this evasive tweefest.
The worst: Spare a thought for Rosamund Pike: Rarely has an actor’s Oscar-nominated breakout been sandwiched on either side by such acrid dreck. Before killing us softly in “Gone Girl,” she had to endure the humiliation of “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” After came “Return to Sender,” Fouad Mikati’s nonsensical and lazily misogynistic rape-revenge thriller, which extracts Pike’s Hitchcock-blonde tartness to far dopier effect than David Fincher’s adult chiller, and dramatizes post-rape trauma as a series of OCD tics. Even if you were after dim-witted, ’90s-aping erotic trash, Jennifer Lopez’s “The Boy Next Door” had far more high-spirited giggles to offer than this plodding exploitation pic.
Empty prestige: I admit I wasn’t as enamored as many critics (and Academy voters) of Paolo Sorrentino’s Fellini-lite extravaganza “The Great Beauty,” but it had a kind of rich formal bluster that impressed in spite of its vacancies. But in “Youth,” in service of his thinnest, most sentimental philosophizing to date, all Sorrentino’s signature opulence merely wilts and putrefies, like a banquet left out in the sun for several days — even Luca Bigazzi’s exacting widescreen imagery has a sticky creosote finish. Beneath the torpid spectacle, meanwhile, its ideas are solipsistic and small: Aging is hard, mainly for privileged white men, yet nubile beauty flourishes through their eyes.
The worst: Leaving aside the question of whether a putative thriller about George W. Bush’s murky military record is worth the bother, James Vanderbilt’s loftily titled “Truth” shills obligingly for former “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes, who, along with Dan Rather, was fired for flawed reporting of gaps in Bush’s army service. Adapted (not loosely enough) from Mapes’ memoir, the movie careens between lionizing the Mapes-Rather dream team and indulging in boozy self-pity over the fall from grace of a show that has done more than most to accustom us to the newshound as rock star. Worse yet, it drags an overcooked performance out of Cate Blanchett, gifting her with what must be the year’s most hapless line of dialogue: “We’re ‘60 Minutes!’” she shrieks. “We’re the gold standard!”
Empty prestige: Speaking of shoddy journalism, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has succumbed without a murmur to “The Hunting Ground,” placing on its documentary feature shortlist a loaded piece of agitprop that plays fast and loose with statistics and our sympathy with victims of campus sexual assault. With death-defying leaps of logic on the basis of skimpy and distorted evidence, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s film does violence to both the legitimate fight for women’s rights and the honorable cause of advocacy filmmaking.
All of which is to say, you should probably rush out and see “Spotlight.”