My Ten Worst of 2004

Staying away from bad films isn't difficult, even for frequent moviegoers. Reading reviews helps, but you don't even have to do that. You just have to ask some basic questions. Someday I'll compile a comprehensive list, but for now, here are some examples:

  • Is the director's name Joel Schumacher?
  • Is Keanu Reeves at all involved?
  • Does the movie have talking animals even though it's not animated?
  • Do the ads quote someone from “Wireless Magazine?”

Using these and other common sense questions, you can easily avoid the dregs. I proudly did not see Garfield the Movie , Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, Envy, Twisted, and White Chicks, just to name a few.

But even I'm not immune to the occasional stinker. That's why I can offer my ten worst for 2004. I do not claim these were the absolute lows for the year, just the worst of those I had the misfortune of viewing. My only defense is that I didn't pay to see most of these:

10. Man on Fire (dir. Tony Scott)
The sad part of this film is how Scott's direction and screenwriter Brian Helgeland's script waste strong chemistry between Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning. Their scenes together may be cliched but their talent and their characters' (a bodyguard and a rich girl) growing affection for each other draw you into the film. How disappointing it is that once Fanning's character is kidnaped, the film becomes a routine revenge thriller. Scott shows little interest in even making the film a good detective story. Instead it's just about the unusual and gruesome ways Denzel can dispatch anyone involved with the kidnaping. I've never had a problem with violence on film, but violence for violence's sake, without any purpose or artistry, is just boring. A tacked-on ending, which makes no sense whatsoever, further damns Man on Fire to mediocrity.

9. The Reckoning (dir. Paul McGuigan)
This inconsequential mystery echoes The Name of the Rose in its historical setting, but little else. Instead of Sean Connery we have Paul Bettany as Nicholas, a defrocked priest who joins a traveling actors' troupe. Willem Dafoe and Brian Cox show some sparks as other troupe members, but instead McGuigan focuses on Nicholas, whose whining self-pity quickly grows tiresome. The troupe reaches a town victimized by a child rapist/murderer. Audiences will guess the killer's identity in 30 seconds, but the film draws out the investigation as though it were a CSI episode. As such, the grand revelation is not only anticlimactic but entirely forgettable, as is the entire film.

8. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (dir. Brad Siberling)
Perhaps the most disappointing film of the year because it could have been so much more. Jude Law's sly narration suggests a wicked but fun fantasy, as does the splendid production design. Emily Browning and Liam Aiken, as the newly orphaned Violet and Klaus Baudelaire, wisely underplay their roles. Their deadpan reactions highlight the absurdity of everything happening around them. But then comes Jim Carrey as the supposedly villainous Count Olaf. Carrey can be an excellent actor – he's proven that in The Truman Show , Man on the Moon and, most recently, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind . Alas, here he just does his Jim Carrey shtick, which is fine in The Mask or the Ace Ventura movies, but completely out of place here. The film simply grinds to a halt every time he appears. Not only that, but he projects no menace at all. Count Olaf is supposed to be a grave threat to the Baudelaire children. Instead he's just an annoying clown. This miscasting deflates the whole story and ruins the movie.

7. Blade: Trinity (dir. David S. Goyer)
My fellow film geeks will sometimes refer to “The Curse of the Third Film.” In other words, film three is often when a good movie franchise can go downhill. Think Superman III or Lethal Weapon 3 . We can now add Blade: Trinity to the list. The first Blade was solid entertainment. The second, directed by Gulliermo del Toro, had better villains, dazzling visuals, cool effects, and was overall more fun. This time you get the sense that Goyer, who also wrote the film, and star Wesley Snipes were just going through the motions. Dominic Purcell wins the “Most Boring Dracula of All Time” award and the fight scenes are nothing you haven't seen hundreds of times before. The only new wrinkles are Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds, in an attempt to lure the WB crowd. Reynolds's funny wisecracks are the movie's only highlights, which more than anything illustrates just how uninspired this effort was. We know many movies are made only for the money, but it shouldn't be so blatantly obvious.

6. Taking Lives (dir. D.J. Caruso)
Cinema Lounge, the DC Film Society's discussion group, once had a session called “Get a New Agent!” We talked about talented actors and directors who just seem to pick the wrong projects. Angelina Jolie might very well be at the top of this list (or at least second behind Ben Affleck). Between Taking Lives and Alexander , Jolie may have had the worst year by any actress in recent memory. In Taking Lives Jolie stars as a profiler called in to track a (drumroll, please . . .) serial killer. The film adds nothing new to the serial killer genre, and mostly just borrows from other, better films. The ridiculous ending assumes that the cops would know something about the killer they could only know by reading the script. Jolie and costar Ethan Hawke have zero chemistry, while Kiefer Sutherland appears all too briefly (although that was a smart move on his part). And Oliver Martinez simply cannot act. You'd think as a French actor he could at least do a French accent well. I suppose his Pepe Le Pew “You sthupid Americans” talk brings some unintentional comic relief. Perhaps I should have been grateful. Then again, no.

5. Catwoman (dir. Pitof)
Hey, I'm a red-blooded American male. Give me Halle Berry in a skimpy outfit and a “catfight” with her and Sharon Stone, and how could I not like it? Well maybe because there's nothing else. The film covers Catwoman's origins although it's just a rehash from Batman Returns . But this time the film takes the character way too seriously, with a “wise woman” telling of the “catwomen” who appeared in ancient Egypt. The dull, flat script feels as thought it went through too many rewrites, which it probably did. Benjamin Bratt as the obligatory love interest barely registers. Add in a completely out of place stereotypically gay character and you have a film that hits all the wrong notes. You don't go into most comic book movies (especially those directed by someone called “Pitof”) expecting great artistry. You do expect fun, and that's what this film lacks more than anything.

4. The Phantom of the Opera (dir. Joel Schumacher)
Both The Phantom of the Opera and Chicago were based on hit Broadway musicals. Both took many years to get to the silver screen. That's where the similarity ends. Chicago had wit and style. The songs advanced the story. Where Chicago was sleek, The Phantom of the Opera is slow and ponderous. While the film boasts impressive set design that does not compensate for deficiencies elsewhere. The songs don't add to the film but instead weigh it down. Emily Rossum, as the ingenue Christine, has a superb voice but adds little to an already underdeveloped character. Patrick Wilson is a nonentity as Raoul, Christine's boyfriend. Most of all there's the Phantom himself. Gerard Butler does not convey the torment and the hurt that drives Phantom. Butler can't be blamed, though, for faulty makeup work. The Phantom is supposed to be so hideously deformed that he cannot be part of society. The film's backstory indicated that he was even a circus freak in his youth. But, even with the mask off, he doesn't look that bad. His “deformity” looks like a very minor burn. That's what the fuss was over? That's why he was so ashamed? Perhaps Schumacher thought that a severely deformed Phantom (a la Lon Chaney in the 1925 version) would alienate audiences. Maybe, but by making the choice he did, Schumacher completely undercut the crux of the story, taking any pretense of legitimacy away from what was already a very weak film.

3. The Village (dir. M. Night Shayamalan)
Has any writer-director fallen so far so fast as Shayamalan? The Sixth Sense was only five years ago, but it seems like an eternity. Like Haley Joel Osment in Sense, Bryce Dallas Howard shines in a breakthrough performance. But unlike Osment, Howard does not get an effective showcase for her talents. The sad part of all of this is that Shayamalan starts with an intriguing premise – an isolated 1890s village where all live in fear of monsters in the surrounding woods. Instead of exploring how this fear can affect the different characters, Shaymaylan goes to his usual bells and whistles, which have become tiresome. He has grown so used to the “surprise” ending that it's become a crutch. To get to it this time he sets up one plot twist that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and another that completely ruins the whole story. Shayamalan has become a prisoner of the formula he created. He needs to start over.

2. The Day After Tomorrow (dir. Roland Emmerich)
We've recently seen tsunamis kill thousands of people for real, but a few months ago Roland Emmerich thought that people dying from tsunamis, tornados, and deep freeze in a movie would be good for some cheap thrills. It wasn't. In many ways Emmerich follows the same formula he did for the 1996 hit Independence Day : a threadbare plot carried by special effects spectacle. The difference is that ID4 didn't take itself too seriously. It was a fun, tongue-in-cheek “Let's go kill the aliens fantasy.” The Day After Tomorrow plot is even more ridiculous. At one point we have our heroes running around in an abandoned ship dodging wolves. But the movie also pretends to be a earnest cautionary tale about global warming. The environmental warnings don't hold water even in the film's flimsy narrative. Emmerich beats you over the head with the message, but it rings hollow. It's just his attempt to lend legitimacy to a third-rate popcorn movie. One other thing – In the wake of 9/11 is it really fun to see New York City destroyed on film again? Obviously some people think so – the film made plenty of money – but I don't see it.

1. Alexander (dir. Oliver Stone)
What's wrong with Alexander ? In a word, everything. The story tries so hard to make you like Alexander it completely robs him of any depth. He just conquers everyone because he wants to free them all. Yeah, sure. He's the kindest despot since “Saturday Night Live” presented “Jorge Garcia: Nice Guy Dictator.” The script never gives any sense of what makes Alexander different; what made him unique. Proof of this is Anthony Hopkins's narration, as he constantly tells you how special Alexander was. If a biopic needs to tell you that it's subject was important, it hasn't done it's job; it should show you and let you come to your own conclusions. The acting is not any better. Val Kilmer plays Prince Philip as though he were still channeling Jim Morrison. I couldn't tell what accent Angelina Jolie was going for as Alexander's vampy mother. Colin Farrell is completely miscast and seemed ill at ease the whole film. The film's editor must have taken an early vacation. The film is not just long (nearly three hours); it feels long, stopping sand starting, lurching toward its destination like the Metro during rush hour. Even smaller items like the makeup were botched. Alexander and his crew all look like drag queens. Did ancient Greece have a mascara surplus? I could list so many more faults but let's skip to the end and examine Mr. Stone. He used to be a good filmmaker, before he let his self-conscious directing tricks distract from the stories he was telling. He always had a point, but he didn't used to beat you over the head with it (not as much, anyway). With Alexander, Stone let his worst instincts run amok, and the result is a mangled mess of a film.

Side note – One last thought about Alexander: Oliver Stone recently blamed the film's box office failure on the outcry over its homosexual content. Not only is that statement insulting, it's plain wrong. There's very little overt homosexual content. Most of it is Alexander gazing into his pal/lover Hephaistion's eyes and saying something along the lines of “Oh Hephaistion, you mean so much to me. What would I ever do without you? Hold me.” (OK, I added the “Hold me” but it seemed to fit.) No, Mr. Stone. The film failed because IT'S A BAD MOVIE THAT'S WAY, WAY TOO LONG!!! Don't blame the evangelicals, the media, or whoever else is on your list of usual suspects. If you want to identify the source of your film's downfall, look in the mirror.

Adam Spector
January 24, 2005

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