The 2011 Turkeys

November 30, 2011
A thought by James Berardinelli

Every year, I feel less confident about calling my roster of the worst movies, a "Bottom 10" list. The reason is simple - there are a lot of terrible films I intentionally miss. By all accounts, two of 2011's most abysmal are Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, but I can't include them because I haven't seen them. (Skipping them, by the way, earned me congratulations from fellow critics.) Then there's the Adam Sandler film I studiously avoided (Jack and Jill; I unfortunately saw Just Go with It). Still, even with my improved "standards", I catch my share of stinkers. So, although my list may not include the worst of the worst, it offers ten titles to be avoided.

When I began writing reviews at the dawn of 1992, I was determined to see everything. ("Everything" meaning all movies that opened within a 25-mile radius. I missed plenty of New York-only titles.) As a result, I saw some godawful wastes of celluloid that no one should ever be subjected to. That period of self-imposed torture taught me the meaning of "a really bad motion picture." I kept it up for a few years; starting around 1996, however, I began to ease up on the accelerator for the stuff that looked unwatchable. And, as time went by, I became more selective.

My methodology is not foolproof. It starts with avoiding movies not screened for critics. If the studio doesn't want me to see them, who am I to argue? Once in a while, something opens unscreened that I want to see for one reason or another (sometimes it's morbid curiosity). In 2011, that included Dream House (which had such a good cast that it was impossible to believe it was a total dud), Conan the Barbarian, and Immortals. Still, I must have skipped two dozen movies on this basis alone.

Second, there are some movies that just look bad. That doesn't mean they are bad - just that they look that way based on trailers and advance marketing material. For the most part, avoiding them has proven fruitful. Al Pacino notwithstanding, Jack and Jill is a good example, but there are others. On the rare occasion when word-of-mouth convinces me I bypassed something other critics have enjoyed, I generally go back and catch it at a later time.

Finally, there are some movies I simply have no interest in. Puss in Boots is a good example. The screening was at an "undesirable" theater and it opened on a weekend when I had already committed my limited theater-going resources to other films. So I skipped it. (I subsequently saw it, thought it to be relentlessly mediocre, and didn't write a review.) Puss in Boots isn't a bad movie, but I didn't feel a burning need to go out of my way to see it for reviewing purposes.

So we come to the 2011 roster. I can't promise these are the 10 smelliest stinkers to be left to rot in the sun over the last 11 months (December releases have gotten a free pass since I switched to late November for this list, which may be fortunate for the Garry Marshall-directed New Year's Eve), but it's doubtful anyone but a connoisseur of cinematic masochism would seek these out. As is my style, they are presented in reverse order, with the #1 representing the worst of the worst.

#10. Arthur :
For some unknown reason, I was kind to this movie and awarded it two stars. Remember the column I wrote recently about re-evaluating initial ratings? This might be one worth considering. Frankly, I wasn't much of a fan of the original Arthur - the concept of Liza Minelli as a love interest was baffling - but the remake has less charm. Audiences agreed as this one sunk like a rock and it was not "rediscovered" when it made its quick getaway to DVD.

#9. I am Number Four:
While there's probably some truth to the sentiment that there's nothing new under the sun, rarely has a movie been assembled so completely with the recycled bits and pieces of other (usually better) films. I Am Number Four feels like a compilation of action/adventure/science fiction "greatest hits" without a compelling or coherent plot to connect them. Worse still, instead of ending, it comes to a halt, offering the possibility of a sequel. If this saga is to continue, it will do so without me.

#8. Sucker Punch:
There are those who adore Sucker Punch and, to give the film its due, it offers a unique aesthetic. Unfortunately, aside from that, the film provides little else. The plot is so caught up in its own supposed cleverness that it reduces everyone and everything to a parlor game. The overt emphasis on style and visual chicanery is so extreme that the characters get lost in the process and it's easy to become bored by the entire endeavor. I wish I could have liked this more, but I found the entire experience to be pointless and depressing.

#7. Just Go with It :
Once upon a time, Adam Sandler was one of the bad boys of movie comedies. His films weren't always great, but they usually provided a few good belly laughs (often in bad taste). Somewhere along the way, Sandler lost it. Today, he can be as juvenile as ever, but his jokes are rarely funny and his stories are often painful. Just Go with It may be the last Sandler movie I'll see in a while (I subsequently skipped Jack and Jill - a wise decision by all accounts). If the comedian has been reduced to making garbage this uninspired, I can find better things to do with my time than to enable him.

#6. Trespass:
Rumor has it that Nicolas Cage once won an Oscar. You'd never believe it based on his recent work. I am informed the guy has major financial problems and it must be true. Nothing else could explain how or why he would appear in such a misbegotten thriller...

#5. Season of the Witch:
...or a trainwreck of a fantasy/horror film. Truth be told, while no one would mistake Trespass for a comedy, the same cannot be said of Season of the Witch, which sometimes skates dangerously close to Monty Python territory. Until Cage gets his finances in order, I guess it would be wise to approach his projects with extreme caution.

#4. Conan the Barbarian:
Some have argued that the failure of the 2011 version of Conan the Barbarian is a sign that the big Cimmerian's era is over. Although it's true that Conan's popularity peaked in the early '80s, audience rejection of this movie was not a referendum on whether a Conan movie could be successful in the 21st century. Instead, it was a statement against the wedding of bad storytelling and cheesy 3-D. Calling this "Conan" is insulting. Whatever it is has almost no connection with the Robert E. Howard creation; it's a second-rate video game come to life.

#3. Transformers 3:
Michael Bay has mastered the art of making awful movies hugely profitable. I think if it was just a matter of turning off my brain and riding Bay's theatrical amusement park ride, I might be okay with the Transformers series, but they actively annoy me. They're loud, chaotic, and really dumb. Plus, to be frank, I don't give a shit about anyone in these movies - humans or transformers. Watching them pound on each other for two-plus hours while things blow up in the background and we're fed inane exposition during pauses in the action is enough to put me to sleep. Just remembering makes me want to reach for the bottle of Excedrin.

#2. Abduction:
The good news is that Taylor Lautner shows his pecs more often than in the most recent Twilight movie. The bad news is that he's on-screen, showing off his "acting" chops, for almost the entire running length. I like him better as a hairy, CGI wolf.

#1. Zookeeper:
I despised this movie. Hated every moment of it. I almost walked out, which I never do. Somehow, when writing the review, I dug deep and found a wellspring of kindness that led to Zookeeper getting a whole star. Talk about generous. Kevin James has used up all the goodwill he accrued for Paul Blart. Next time, I'll have to think long and hard about subjecting myself to another of his family features.