It’s the holiday season, and that means the studios are releasing all their Big Important Films for Oscar season. But what if you don’t want to see any of the so-called “prestige” pictures? Here are ten films — many of them spectacular misfires — that failed to find audiences in theaters this year. Some of them are actually very good; others are so-bad-they’re-good. All of them are truly guilty pleasures.
1. “The Boy Next Door”
Arguably the most sublimely ridiculous film this year, “The Boy Next Door” contains so many deliciously awful moments, it simply has to be seen to be (dis)believed. Claire (Jennifer Lopez) has been estranged from her cheating husband Garrett (John Corbett) for nine months. When she has trouble with her garage door, she meets Noah (Ryan Guzman, 27, playing 19), her ailing neighbor’s strapping orphaned nephew. He seems like a nice boy because he gives Claire, a classics teacher, a first edition of the “Iliad.” (Alas, it’s not signed).
But he’s naughty, too. One lonely, rainy night, he seduces her. Claire feels vulnerable and puts a stop to their inappropriate relationship. But the obsessive Noah feels rejected and won’t be ignored. And in the classic erotic thriller tradition, Noah will make Claire’s life a living hell. Check out the horror on Claire’s face when she realizes the flowers she thinks are from Garrett are actually from Noah! Or when Claire discovers her classroom is covered in photos of her and Noah having sex! Will Claire be able to get her revenge and even save her broken marriage? The answer is revealed in the film’s lurid finale. But what makes “The Boy Next Door” so enjoyable is not just its low-budget quality, but the hysterically funny contribution from Claire’s bestie, Vicky (a campy, chirpy Kristin Chenoweth). Vicky doles out great dating advice — “Laugh a lot. Take off your wedding ring. Give him head!” — and her confrontation with Noah regarding a student whose skull he fractured is a hoot. “The Boy Next Door” has it all: an out-of-control car crash, Claire peeping on naked Noah’s cute caboose and a wholly original, albeit unpleasant, use of an EpiPen. Lovers of ripe cinematic cheese won’t be disappointed.
2. “By the Sea”
The unhappy couple in writer/director Angelina Jolie's unfairly dismissed drama try to reinvigorate their stalled marriage by peeping through a hole in their hotel room wall at the newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) having sex next door. Viewers, however, won’t get much of a glimpse at the Jolie-Pitts being frisky when watching “By The Sea" (ironically filmed in Malta during the couple’s own honeymoon). The world’s most beautiful people have unsexy problems that hinder their physical intimacy. Mostly, Jolie wears fabulous hats and stylish clothes and mopes palpably. Pitt, a blocked writer, displays his penchant for drinking and speaking French. She leaves her sunglasses face down in their hotel room because of her deep depression. He turns them over in a repeated gesture of symbolic protection.
“By the Sea” has been called languid and lugubrious, portentous and pretentious, and it is, but look past those claims. This utterly fabulous film is subtle and engaging. Jolie has given curious voyeurs gorgeous eye candy, with a magnificent backdrop for the characters to smoke intensely and revel in despair. If the big reveal seems like a letdown, that may in fact be the very point. That “By the Sea” is all filmed in a louche kind of way, as if to suggest it's a 1970s European Art Film and not the glorious vanity project that haters have branded it, only makes what folks may think is a skin-deep film so devilishly satisfying.
Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is “loved and respected by all who know him … slightly.” Unfortunately, too few moviegoers got to know “Mortdecai,” even slightly. But to appreciate this film — a Peter Sellers comedy written as if by someone at “Mad” magazine — one needs a juvenile sense of humor. The plot, about a stolen or lost Goya, involves globe-hopping, gunplay, swordplay, duplicity and other criminal mischief. But that's secondary to the slapstick-y comedy — like comic fighting and a great vomit scene — plus dozens of naughty double entendres. For example: Mortdecai, acknowledging his crushing tax debt, states, “I had no idea I was so deep in Her Majesty’s hole!” The dialogue — which includes a pricelessly funny description of a fart and a series of comic repartees about Mortdecai’s offensive mustache — is more smutty than witty, but the cast’s British accents make it sound refined. Director David Koepp may not have tried to make a cult film on purpose, but, strangely, he has succeeded.
4. “The Riot Club”
Not for the squeamish, Lone Scherfig’s “The Riot Club” — adapted by Laura Wade from her own play, “Posh” — depicts handsome, rich, white male Oxford students behaving very, very badly. This gripping film contains scenes of such mental and physical abuse that it may be the privileged, fancy-dress version of torture porn.
And viewers who fall under its spell may find themselves quietly rooting for some of the despicable characters. Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin) are initiated into the title secret society, which forms an extended (and extensive) old boys network. They plan a dinner — a high-class version of a blow-roast — that “raises debauchery to an art” before descending into chaos, destruction and criminal assault.
To explain the particulars of the story, however, ruins the “fun” of lives being irrevocably shattered. Suffice it to say, “The Riot Club” is one of those films you actually might be ashamed to admit liking because it favors the rich white men at its amoral center. Viewers will likely be outraged by the bourgeois, who are being outrageous. You have been warned.
5. “Miss You Already”
Need a good cry? Catherine Hardwicke's messy "Miss You Already” is a comedy-drama in the “Beaches” mold that concerns two BFFs — Jess (Drew Barrymore) and Milly (Toni Collette) — in the UK. Milly is a reckless youth, a responsible adult, then, after she is diagnosed with breast cancer, just a wreck. The film treats the disease scenes well and with injections of humor and poignancy, as when a Pinewood studios wig specialist (Frances de la Tour) shaves Milly’s head in the “symbolic life change” scene.
Because money isn’t an issue for the tragic heroine, “Miss You Already” contains episodes of Milly’s credit card footing a huge bar bill, an impromptu shopping spree and a 250-mile cab ride to the Moors to live out her “Wuthering Heights” fantasies — and have an affair with a ex-bartender. (Though why anyone would ever cheat on dishy Dominic Cooper is one of the film's head-scratchers). There are pregnancies that are jeopardized, people putting their lives and dreams on hold, misbehaving children and uncomfortable scenes of Milly acting out at a surprise birthday dinner. There is also a “Before I Die…” chalkboard, just to make sure all of the emotional buttons are pressed hard. But there really is no point in resisting. Non-cynical viewers will be welling up with tears, if not bawling outright, during the luxury hospice scenes.
Sometimes feel-bad issues movies like “Shelter” can be good-bad movies. In actor Paul Bettany’s debut as writer/director, Tahir (Anthony Mackie) is a Nigerian immigrant who has overstayed his welcome in New York. Homeless and living on the streets, where he drums for change, he follows Hannah (Jennifer Connelly), a heroin addict — she has his jacket — and they soon become lovers. “Shelter” is a curious, compelling film. On one hand, it is effective in capturing the humanity and humility of the protagonists: Tahir talks about his faith and belief in God, even as he breaks several commandments. On the other hand, Bettany has scenes of his deglamorized real-life wife shooting heroin into her crotch and wiping semen off her face as she repeatedly hits bottom. The actors are nobly committed to their roles and they survive Bettany’s script contrivances, his emphasis on water imagery — particularly an underwater kissing sequence — and heavy-handed symbols like a phoenix kite. Oddly, despite all its flaws, there is something engrossing and even cathartic about “Shelter.”
7. “Shaun the Sheep Movie”
For anyone who may be embarrassed about going to see a family film in the theatre, “Shaun the Sheep Movie” is a sheer — ahem — delight. This veddy clever Aardman Animations feature (based on a series of shorts of the same name) has some terrific movie in-jokes, from a “Silence of the Lambs” reference to a “Night of the Hunter” homage (a jailed dog with the words “Bark” and “Bite” on his knuckles). The animated sheep are wonderfully expressive and funny, especially when they're in various disguises. There are hilarious set pieces, ranging from the sheepdog, Bitzer, being unprepared to perform surgery to a madcap sequence in “Le Chou Brûlé,” a fancy restaurant whose name translates as “The Burnt Cabbage.” Baa-d puns are also on display, as in the “spring discount” advertisement on trampolines and a Baa Baa Shop Quartet. Adults will revel in the comic tidbits and most of the pop culture gags will fly over younger viewers’ heads like pigs through windows or cows jumping over “The Moon” — both of which are seen here. And it’s hard not to laugh shamelessly when these sheep stick a fork in the microwave or get stuck in a freezer.
8. “The Transporter Refueled”
Trying to jumpstart the Jason Statham franchise, filmmakers hired Ed Skrein to take over the iconic role of Frank Martin. But the handsome actor is about as emotive as a crash test dummy. And that’s just fine.
The film, a silly thriller about the driver getting involved with a Russian gangster and a bevy of bad, beautiful, bewigged blonde women (all of whom look like they stepped out of a Robert Palmer video) lumbers from one ridiculous, over-the-top action sequence to another. (One set in a room of filing cabinets is particularly nifty). Cars and fists fly, guns go off and things blow up or go boom. The driver gets a scratch on his chiseled face.
“The Transporter Refueled” is mostly mindless fun, in part because Ray Stevenson has a grand old time as Frank’s kidnapped dad. He gets all the best lines and injects this reboot with a dose of humor that insists he isn’t taking this seriously — so why the hell should viewers?
9. “We Are Your Friends”
It may require a copious amount of SFRB vodka to get into (or through) this EDM DJ movie, but those viewers who find the groove will enjoy watching Zac Efron spin. As San Fernando Valley DJ Cole Carter, Efron dances, wears tank tops and takes purifying showers. (Zac must have it in his contract to dance and/or be shirtless). There is a fun vibe at work during scenes when Cole trips out on PCP, illustrates how to “rock a party” or creates a soundscape from all of the ambient noise he hears. As the 127-beats per minute music throbs, the paper-thin characters say things like, “Don’t bro me if you don’t know me,” and ask hard-hitting questions, such as, “Are we ever going to be better than this?”
“We Are Your Friends” also includes an obligatory love-triangle involving Cole, DJ James (Wes Bentley) — who thinks Cole has “an acute sense of assemblage" (whatever that means) — and his girlfriend/assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski, a terribly wooden actress, whose lips seem to be in perpetual “duck face”). Ultimately, this film is the cinematic equivalent of a hangover. As you watch it, you wonder if the room is spinning, because the thin story spirals out of control when it introduces a crazy ethical subplot about Cole and his friends working for Paige (Jon Bernthal), a snaky businessman who resells foreclosed properties. Nevertheless, “We Are Your Friends” has a good beat, and you can dance to it. I give it a 17.
10. “American Ultra”
The stoner comedy/action film “American Ultra” has Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) clerking at the Cash-n-Carry in the thriving metropolis of Liman, WV. He’s a burnout who can’t seem to find the right time to propose to his patient girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Meanwhile, at the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) learns that her colleague Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) plans to kill Mike, a secret operative in a failed program she ran. So Victoria re-activates Mike, and he takes out two of Yates’ men using a spoon. (He’s also adept with a frying pan, except when using it to make an omelet). So begins a “Spy vs. Spy” film featuring an OCD hero with memory loss and action moves.
“American Ultra” benefits from Eisenberg’s sly performance and amusing supporting turns by John Leguizamo as a dealer with a black-lit room in his house and Walton Goggins as a killer named Laugher who loses some teeth (but finds them). Even though Mike has an extended, philosophical conversation with Phoebe about cars in motion and trees that are stopped, this film is more fun and ultra-violent than it is deep.