SEAN’S 10 WORST FILMS OF 2019
by Sean Burns
Every year around this time the usual scolds chime in, tut-tutting and finger-wagging about the practice of making a Ten Worst List, claiming that film criticism should be about sharing enthusiasm and uplifting good work instead of dwelling on the bad. These days I’m lucky enough to be able to spend the majority of my time writing about stuff I enjoy and championing smaller films that don’t have the benefit of multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns. But I also have to watch a lot of crap. And since people were paid very handsomely to make this garbage, then turned around and asked you fork over the cost of a ticket, overpriced concessions, parking and a sitter to watch such dreck, I humbly submit that they should be able to handle a parting shot or two before we ring in the new year.
An empty simulacrum of feel-bad ‘70s-cinema signifiers, the year’s most bafflingly popular blockbuster mashes up and hollows out “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” among other classics, carefully side-stepping any of the issues explored in the films it’s stripping for parts. This is a cowardly, tedious corporate product posing as quote-unquote dangerous art. I guess every era gets the Joker it deserves, so this one wallows in victimhood and self-pity while the movie feints at blaming “society” for his actions but is really more interested in setting up sequels.
Almost every year the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award goes to the movie I hated most. Picked up by Amazon Studios at the tail end of the fest for an obscene $14 million, this is one of those ghastly-looking lil’ indies thrown together with such indifference to aesthetic concerns they might as well have left the lens cap on. Jillian Bell stars as a flip, sardonic party girl who takes up jogging — losing weight along with any vestige of a personality. Self-help affirmations ensue. This is why people hate runners.
A reactionary crock even by Stallone standards, Sly’s boringly sadistic, molasses-paced finale to his ultra-violent adventures in ideological incoherence gets a MAGA makeover. With his long hair, headband and hunting bow, our disaffected Vietnam Vet was always visually coded as a Native American warrior, a man apart fighting alone. Now he’s all cleaned up with a cowboy hat and Winchester rifle, a rancher defending hearth and home from bad hombres and foreign hordes. It doesn’t even feel like a “Rambo” movie so much as an even more racist remake of “Taken.”
This year’s terrible John Travolta movie finds the wayward superstar giving an awfully committed (and committedly awful) performance as an imbalanced superfan obsessed with a horror movie has-been, charmlessly played by real-life horror movie has-been Devon Sawa. Ineptly directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, it’s a grindingly unpleasant little picture, wallowing in misery and running down the clock until the inevitable, ugly bloodshed. The only respite comes when two characters kick back and listen to some sweet Bizkit tunes on the car radio. (This is seriously something that happens.)
There were probably worse blockbusters this year but none so baseline incompetent at visual storytelling. This is a movie that kills off a major character but you can’t see it happen so they put a picture of her up on a computer screen with the word “DECEASED” over her face. I learned days later that Ziyi Zhang is actually supposed to be playing two separate roles here but the movie is edited so incoherently it’s impossible to tell. And what kind of director gets a bad performance out of Kyle Chandler?
In the curious case of M. Night Shyamalan, I find myself torn. On one hand you’ve gotta salute his heroic commitment to wrestling this singular, specific and often very strange creative vision through a studio system increasingly hostile to anything a shade off from homogenous anonymity. But on the other hand I think his movies are stupid and boring, with this ret-conned trilogy-capper prompting a particularly egregious round of logy eye-rolling. When I told my friends what happens to Bruce Willis at the end of this picture none of them believed me.
You could throw this summer’s “Aladdin” in here as well, in so far as Disney’s joyless, weaponized nostalgia re-enactments don’t work as movies in their own right, but rather exist as a depressing form of corporate brand extension, sucking all the life, wonder and color out of beloved cartoon classics. The whole concept of this one confuses me. No expense has been spared to painstakingly mimic the fur patterns and limited movements of actual jungle cats, who I guess are supposed to look like real animals while they’re singing Elton John songs.
Tom Hooper’s gaudy, guileless big-screen blow-up of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gibberish Broadway perennial is already being hailed as a disaster of legendary proportions. The un-kitty valley CGI turning these mugging performers into “Island of Dr. Moreau” half-feline hybrids is deeply disturbing, with their monkey tails and the not-to-scale, super-sized sets making you wonder if anyone involved has even seen a cat before. This may sound like a kitsch classic, except remember the show is just the same scene over and over again and feels like it’s never going to fucking end.
The most mystifying of this year’s massive flops starred Natalie Portman in a puzzling adaptation of that tawdry 2007 tabloid tale about a NASA Space Shuttle Commander who wore adult diapers while trying to kidnap a co-worker. Prestige TV auteur Noah Hawley leaves out all the interesting, pulpy parts in favor of doom-laden, metaphysical free-associations and annoyingly ever-changing aspect ratios. Leering, sexist and over-directed within an inch of its life, the film wastes an unhinged Portman going full “Hee-Haw” on a movie where the meaning seems to escape its maker.
No movie in years has made me angrier than this cutesy-wutsey take on the Holocaust from writer-director Taika Waititi, who had the unmitigated gall to make an Anne Frank story with a happy ending. It turns out fascism is just a phase you’ll grow out of if you’re lucky enough to find a cool Jewish girlfriend in the cupboard. Gross in so many ways, it’s a movie made by and for those of an insulated and intensely arrested sensibility, processing atrocity via anachronistic in-jokes and audience-flattering asides. Watch it win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.