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I Watched These So You Don't Have To: THE TEN WORST FILMS OF 2019

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2019 offered no shortage of cinematic dumpster fires, so much so that this year's Ten Worst list features 14 titles, with one spot holding a four-way tie. Congratulations to Bruce Willis and Nicolas Cage--who didn't make the final cut despite their best (or, in Willis' case, least) efforts to secure a position--and especially to John Cusack, who only appeared in one movie in 2019, and it was actually very good (the grim western NEVER GROW OLD--well worth seeing). But don't be alarmed--Ten Worst perennial Steven Seagal puts in his usual appearance, along with a couple of legendary filmmakers who had their worst year, some awful sequels, some long-shelved duds, and one thriller containing what might be the single most ridiculous plot twist in film history.


Before we begin, one film deserves special mention, and I'm talking about THE FANATIC. Don't misunderstand me--it's quite awful. But it's on such a different plane of awful that it transports you to a level of Bad Movie Nirvana that's rarely seen in the modern era. From the moment that still of a bowl-mulleted John Travolta--as "Moose," a socially inept and obsessive autograph hound and unhinged celebrity stalker--went viral, alerting the world to the existence of an ostensibly serious John Travolta thriller directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, THE FANATIC instantly became 2019's must-see bad movie. And my God, it was everything I hoped it would be. Travolta's absolutely go-for-broke performance is a sight to behold. He screams at people, he cuts off conversations because "I gotta poo," he drools, he rubs behind his ears and sniffs his fingers when he gets nervous, he practices what he'll say when he gets to meet his favorite actor Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa, who actually seems to be taking it seriously), he sneaks into Dunbar's house and sniffs his toothbrush, and he ties Dunbar to his bed and cuddles with him. You simply can't take your eyes off Travolta no matter how ridiculous and cringeworthy he gets, and that has to count for something (but maybe not the "For Your Consideration" ads that have been taken out). The movie is all kinds of terrible, but it's such a misguided, jawdropping train wreck and it's so alive with the kind of shamefully perverse fascination that comes with, say, being in a checkout line behind a Karen screaming for the manager--you just wanna see where this goes--that I can't, in good conscience, include it among these ten (14?) other films that offer absolutely zero entertainment value whatsoever (starting with #9, click on the title for the original review). And with that, let's get this over with and get ready for 2020.



10. THE DEAD DON'T DIE


Deadpan to the point of catatonia with a cast that seems to be in a somnambulant HEART OF GLASS trance, THE DEAD DON'T DIE is a completely DOA misfire from cult icon Jim Jarmusch, who displays no affinity for the zombie genre, leaving one to wonder exactly what he was going for with this lifeless zom-com spoof. Sure, there's a lot of cool people on hand here--Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Chloe Sevigny, Caleb Landry Jones, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, RZA, Rosie Perez, Selena Gomez, Carol Kane, and, of course, Larry Fessenden--but they probably had more fun hanging out on the set than you'll have watching the end result. One amusing joke about the Sturgill Simpson theme song is subsequently beat to death, but aside from that, I counted three times where I almost laughed but only chuckled: a fourth wall break where Murray calls Jarmusch a dick, cop Driver rolling up to a crime scene in a tiny Smart, and Buscemi as a local racist sporting a red "Keep America White Again" hat and complaining that his coffee's too black. Everything else falls flat. Sure, you get Swinton as a Scottish samurai mortician but is that the extent of the joke? Or did Jarmusch just assume that his eclectic ensemble and the idea of "Jarmusch zombie comedy" would predictably lead to hipster approbation and instant accolades sight unseen?  It's his worst film.


9. DOMINO


Brian De Palma's first film since 2013's PASSION, the counterterrorism non-thriller DOMINO was shot back in 2017 and finally got a stealth VOD burial from US distributor Lionsgate this past summer. That was a couple months after the trailer went online, when De Palma was already actively distancing himself from the released version (he denied initial rumors that it was cut down from 148 to 89 minutes). His name is still on the film, though other than a few scattered deployments of his signature split diopter shots--which everyone does now in homage to him--the severely-compromised DOMINO never feels like a De Palma film until the climax, and even that is so gutted and badly-assembled that it plays more like someone trying to rip off De Palma and blowing it. De Palma claimed this wasn't his project and that it was given to him by the Danish producers who never had enough money, were constantly cutting corners, and didn't even allow him to properly finish the movie. He even called it the most miserable experience he's ever had on a film, and that's coming from the guy who made THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. The only thing more embarrassing than DOMINO itself was the number of incoherent word salads tossed by the filmmaker's most fervent and delusional admirers in the days after its release to passionately defend a film already disowned by its own director. Why are you doggedly championing a Brian De Palma film that Brian De Palma didn't even want you to see? There's no need for anyone to die on this hill.


8. POLAROID


Pulled from the release schedule in the fall of 2017 when it became a casualty of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, POLAROID was eventually picked up by Vertical Entertainment and given a publicity-free VOD release just in time for Halloween. Forget being in limbo for two years--POLAROID feels like a forgotten, expired roll of film that's been left undeveloped and slowly deteriorating since the waning days of the post-SCREAM craze as an attempt to cash in on both FINAL DESTINATION and THE RING. It's bad enough that it comes off like a tired retread, but the filmmakers also made the bizarre decision to set the film in almost complete darkness. Making it even worse is the total lack of logic, with the primary antagonist being a possessed Polaroid instant camera from the '70s that claims the lives of anyone who's in a photo snapped by it. The camera was once owned by a serial killer who abducted and murdered several high school students back in the 1970s, and none of the kids in this small rural town where this tragedy took place seem to know something that would certainly be passed down from generation to generation as the urban legend of their area. Why does the heroine have to go to the archive room at the local library--a building that appears to be lit by a single 15-watt bulb--to peruse old newspapers for this shocking discovery? Prior to the Weinstein scandal breaking, POLAROID was bounced around the release schedule several times, almost as if they knew they had a dud on their hands and finally had a horrific enough excuse to pawn it off on another distributor.



7. REPLICAS


Or, HONEY, I CLONED THE FAMILY. We all love Keanu Reeves, and the upcoming BILL & TED reboot will probably be a lot of nostalgic fun, but if it wasn't for the JOHN WICK movies, he'd be stinking up your nearest Redbox kiosk with Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage, and Steven Seagal (anyone a fan of recent Reeves gems like EXPOSED, THE WHOLE TRUTH, THE BAD BATCH, or SIBERIA? And you just wait until that fourth MATRIX movie you're all so excited about ends up reminding you how much you hated the second and third ones). REPLICAS arrived in theaters in the second week of 2019 adorned with all the tell-tale signs of an ignominious January dump-job that should've gone straight-to-VOD: multiple bumped release dates after playing everywhere else in the world months earlier; credits sporting a 2017 copyright; bush-league CGI that can charitably be described as "almost finished;" a script that's a melange of half-baked ideas shamelessly stolen from at least a half-dozen other, better sci-fi movies; and a slumming star who seems mildly irritated that his paid vacation is being interrupted by work. Shot in a pre-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico in 2016, REPLICAS is an utterly illogical and thoroughly incoherent mess with Reeves as a scientist who clones his wife and three kids after they're killed in a car crash. The film's idea of science is just giving Keanu a bunch of gobbledygook exposition that's ultimately just him trying to look serious while blurting Philip K. Dipshit-sounding buzzwords like "Stasis modality!" and "Execute the memory cortex!" and "Initiate the neural implant!" while he dons a virtual reality headset and starts emphatically conducting a symphony in front of a MINORITY REPORT holographic screen. REPLICAS might've been stupidly enjoyable with someone like Nic Cage going off the chain, but Reeves numbly walks through it with the look of an actor who knows things just aren't clicking and is just doing his professional duty by sticking around until it's over.



6. SERENITY


Another January 2019 release that spent most of 2018 being frantically shuffled around the release schedule, SERENITY is truly something special. And it's not just because Matthew McConaughey (born in 1969) and Anne Hathaway (born in 1982) are supposed to be former high-school sweethearts. It's not just because it has Hathaway as a convincing and very game femme fatale and wastes it by having her purr clunky and flaccid dialogue like "We're both the same...damaged but in different ways." It's not just because it takes place in some fishing town where everyone obsessively follows McConaughey's pursuit of a mythical giant tuna named "Justice." It's not just because it asks you to buy Diane Lane as a woman who has to pay a man to sleep with her. And it's not just because McConaughey plays a guy named "Baker Dill." No...what makes SERENITY so special is a third-act development that's a legitimate contender for the dumbest plot twist in the history of motion pictures. What was sold as a perfectly acceptable BODY HEAT noir knockoff becomes something else entirely. The end result feels like an homage to the heyday of the erotic thriller borne of a doomed alliance between James M. Cain, Joe Eszterhas, M. Night Shyamalan, Charlie Brooker, and Jack Daniels, and for generally respected LOCKE writer/director and PEAKY BLINDERS creator Steven Knight (he also wrote EASTERN PROMISES and got an Oscar nomination for scripting DIRTY PRETTY THINGS), SERENITY is the kind of catastrophically bad career-killer the likes of which we haven't seen since GIGLI sent BEVERLY HILLS COP and MIDNIGHT RUN director Martin Brest into the DGA's witness protection program, apparently never to be seen or heard from again.



5. GENERAL COMMANDER


Yet another DTV excretion pinched off by former action star and probable Russian sleeper agent Steven Seagal, GENERAL COMMANDER has an even shakier foundation than usual. It was conceived in 2017 as a 12-episode TV series, but the project was abandoned after just two episodes were shot. The solution? Just cram those two 40-minute episodes together and release it as a new Seagal movie. That certainly explains the abrupt non-ending that probably served as a cliffhanger to the third episode. Almost nothing happens in the first half of GENERAL COMMANDER, since it has to establish all the characters and exposition that any premiere episode of a TV series has to do, but in the context of what GENERAL COMMANDER became, it takes up literally half the movie, and the situations that develop in the second half have no payoff. Seagal plays another mysterious black-ops CIA operative, this time going after wealthy creeps who rule the "dark web," dabbling in everything from cryptocurrency to black market organ harvesting. Not a bad idea for the kind of CBS procedural that our dads would watch, and it could work with a real star who was either invested in the project or could convincingly pretend to give a shit, but even in the two completed episodes, there's still long stretches where Seagal disappears, which is pretty much on-brand for the laziest actor on the planet.




4. THE LAST MAN


The first narrative feature from Argentine documentary filmmaker Rodrigo H. Vila is a resounding failure on almost every front, save for some occasionally atmospheric location work in what appear to be some dangerous parts of Buenos Aires. A dreary dystopian hodgepodge of THE MACHINIST, JACOB'S LADDER, and BLADE RUNNER, the long-shelved THE LAST MAN (shot in 2016 as NUMB, AT THE EDGE OF THE END), is set in a constantly dark, rainy, and vaguely post-apocalyptic near-future in ruins from environmental disasters and global economic fallout. Oppressively dull and with classic rock references inanely smuggled with a wink-and-a-nudge into some dialogue exchanges (one character is admonished with "You're trading your heroes for ghosts!"), THE LAST MAN is further dragged down by Hayden Christensen, who still can't act (2003's terrific SHATTERED GLASS remains the only film where his limitations have worked in his favor), and is saddled with trite, sub-Rick Deckard narration on top of that (at one point, he's actually required to gravely mumble "If you look into darkness, the darkness looks into you") as a PTSD-stricken combat vet obsessed with building a fortified bunker after being convinced of the coming apocalypse by a deranged street messiah played by Harvey Keitel, who looks like he's been caught in the midst of some hardcore C. Everett Koop cosplay. Vila achieves a gloomy and foreboding atmosphere with the Buenos Aires cityscapes, which just reinforces the notion that he should stick to documentaries.



3. (tie) UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2, THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE, BACKDRAFT 2, and JARHEAD: LAW OF RETURN


Universal's 1440 DTV division has spent years cranking out belated sequels demanded by no one, turning one-off projects into unlikely franchises that are only discovered when someone browsing through some streaming options suddenly realizes "There's three sequels to JARHEAD?!" Recent years have seen Universal 1440 raiding the studio's back catalog to come up with HARD TARGET 2 (with Scott Adkins in place of JCVD), KINDERGARTEN COP 2 (with the always-available Dolph Lundgren stepping in for Arnold Schwarzenegger), and COP AND A HALF: NEW RECRUIT (with Lou Diamond Phillips subbing for Burt Reynolds) among others, but things went completely off the rails very early in 2019 when they unveiled THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE, coming 42 years after 1977's THE CAR. It has almost nothing to do with the first film, and Universal 1440's boasting that CAR co-star "Ronny Cox returns as The Mechanic" is a strong indication that no one in their marketing department has even seen THE CAR, since Cox played not a mechanic but rather, the deputy to sheriff James Brolin, who was probably the first to get a call to appear in THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE before wisely letting it go to voicemail and blocking the number.


Universal 1440 had a busy year, and while the utterly unnecessary INSIDE MAN: MOST WANTED--the sequel to Spike Lee's heist thriller that only has IMDb head shots of Denzel Washington and Clive Owen to connect it to its 2006 predecessor--wasn't terrible, the rest was one shitshow after another: the 28-years-later BACKDRAFT 2 managed to get a returning William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland to embarrass themselves for a quick paycheck, and BACKDRAFT director Ron Howard has a courtesy executive producer credit even though he probably won't even be aware of BACKDRAFT 2's existence until his accountant shows him his 2019 tax return. JARHEAD: LAW OF RETURN--starring Devon Sawa, capitalizing on that FANATIC momentum--is a series of sub-literate bro-downs that offers formulaic action and bonus One America News Network-level xenophobia for the MAGA hat crowd. And the 17-years-later UNDERCOVER BROTHER 2 has BLACK DYNAMITE's Michael Jai White replacing Eddie Griffin and then spending 75% of the movie in a coma while Undercover Brother's Brother (grating comedian Vince Swann) takes center stage. 2019 also saw Universal 1440 release such highly-anticipated gems as DOOM: ANNIHILATION (a sequel to the 2005 Karl Urban/Dwayne Johnson video-game dud that nobody liked, and obviously, neither one of the stars are back), GRAND-DADDY DAY CARE (with Danny Trejo, Barry Bostwick, George Wendt, and Hal Linden), and BENCHWARMERS 2: BREAKING BALLS (with Chris Klein and Jon Lovitz), but I didn't watch them because, well, frankly, I feel I've suffered enough. Don't worry, 1440 is kicking off 2020 in a big way with BULLETPROOF 2, the sequel to the 1996 buddy action comedy with Faizon Love and Kirk Fox in place of Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler, as well as DRAGONHEART: VENGEANCE, featuring a dragon voiced by Helena Bonham Carter, who really should have better things to do. Hey, Universal 1440...wake me when you get around to convincing Scott Eastwood to risk being cut out of his dad's will with HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER 2.



2. (tie) KILLERS ANONYMOUS and MARY


Remember when Gary Oldman ruled the awards season a couple of years ago and capped it off with a Best Actor Oscar for his work as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR? By any chance, does Gary Oldman remember? I only ask because the projects he's chosen in the wake of an actor's greatest triumph have been enough to make Cuba Gooding Jr and Adrien Brody look away in embarrassment. At least it took those two several years to squander their good fortune and scrape bottom. It took Oldman about three months. Not since Michael Caine followed HANNAH AND HER SISTERS with JAWS: THE REVENGE has an Oscar curse been so maliciously cruel. The laughless, unwatchable "support group for assassins" comedy KILLERS ANONYMOUS looks like something that was shot five years ago and was only released because of Oldman's DARKEST HOUR triumph. But no...it began production in the summer of 2018, with Oldman arriving on the set a newly-anointed Academy Award-winner. He appears sporadically and usually alone, as his character is running surveillance, meaning this was probably a Bruce Willis-type gig where he was on the set for a few days and split. Likewise, the ludicrous "possessed yacht" horror movie MARY is not something that a recent Oscar-winner should be doing, and it's an even more bizarre career choice when you discover that Oldman stepped in after Nicolas Cage bailed during pre-production. Dude, you just won an Oscar and you're taking Nic Cage's turndowns? Sure, Oldman also appeared in Steven Soderbergh's Netflix film THE LAUNDROMAT with Meryl Streep, but projects like KILLERS ANONYMOUS, MARY, and THE COURIER (I haven't seen it yet), a straight-to-VOD action thriller where he's second-billed to Olga Kurylenko--currently third on the action heroine depth chart after Milla Jovovich and Noomi Rapace--are proof positive that if Uwe Boll was still making movies in 2019, Oldman probably would've turned up in one.




And the worst film of 2019:



1. 3 FROM HELL


If you thought Rob Zombie shit the bed with 31, then fuckin' hold his motherfuckin' beer because the unwatchable 3 FROM HELL is so bad that even some of his "gooble gobble, one of us!" fanboy faithful began turning on him after the film's three-night Fathom Events run a month before its Blu-ray/DVD release. The third chapter in what's--fingers crossed--a trilogy that began with 2003's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and 2005's THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, 3 FROM HELL seemed like a desperation move after his pointless remake of HALLOWEEN and its disastrous sequel, his ambitious but unsuccessful THE LORDS OF SALEM--which at least tried to do something different before falling apart in the end--and the dismal 31 were all starting to make him look like a hick-horror one-trick pony whose entire filmmaking career was an endless tribute to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. A brutally intense and absolutely uncompromising throwback to '70s grindhouse at its grittiest, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS remains Zombie's masterpiece, and he's never come close to duplicating it since. Even with 14 years to think about it, he doesn't even seem to have the slightest semblance of a game plan with 3 FROM HELL, which ends up looking like a flimsy excuse for Zombie, his wife Sheri Moon Zombie, and some friends from the convention circuit to hang out under the guise of belatedly continuing the saga of the homicidal, serial-killing Firefly clan. There's clearly no script. Zombie and the actors are just making it up as they go along, and it's even capped off with a big shootout set to Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida," as if goddamn MANHUNTER doesn't already exist.


Sid Haig (1939-2019)

The sole saving grace is the brief appearance of the late Sid Haig, returning as Captain Spaulding before exiting the film at the seven-minute mark. Frail-looking and obviously gravely ill, the beloved cult legend, who died just a few days after the Fathom Events screenings in September, nevertheless brings his A-game to his one scene, but when he's gone, 3 FROM HELL crashes and burns and never recovers. Tedious, ploddingly-paced, and ridiculously overlong at just under two miserable hours, the embarrassingly self-indulgent 3 FROM HELL is Rob Zombie fuckin' scraping rock fuckin' bottom, and the only thing it accomplishes is proving once and for all that THE DEVIL'S REJECTS was a fluke. But no matter how bad it gets, Zombie will always have a loyal--albeit dwindling--core of die-hard apologists who will stand by whatever he does, so best of luck to them going forward. I'm leaving.



Missing the cut (in alphabetical order)

ABDUCTION
CORPORATE ANIMALS
ELI
JACOB'S LADDER
KILLERMAN
LUCKY DAY
A SCORE TO SETTLE (which does have this amazing moment)
SLAUGHTERHOUSE RULEZ
10 MINUTES GONE
TONE-DEAF


And for the record: Ten Favorite Films of 2019 (so far)




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