Worst of 2016: 10 movies that failed spectacularly to deliver on their promise

Forget trainwrecks like "Suicide Squad" and "Nine Lives" — these 10 films aimed high and still fell short

Published December 30, 2016 11:59AM (EST)

"Me Before You" (Warner Bros)
"Me Before You" (Warner Bros)

The worst films of 2016 go beyond just disappointing, but extend to films that truly waste talent and ideas. Not to dance on Garry Marshall’s grave, but having endured his “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve,” one didn’t need to see his holiday film “Mother’s Day” to know it would be as bad. It was clear just from seeing Julia Roberts’ wig.

Likewise, “Nine Lives,” starring Kevin Spacey as a nasty, cat-hating “daredevil billionaire” who transforms into a feline — so he can learn to appreciate his life and family — was relegated to the cinematic litter box. The idea of the film itself was awful, so it really couldn’t be any good, could it?

Even superhero action films like “Batman v. Superman” and “Suicide Squad” got such disrespect from legions of fanboys that there is no point in bashing those films further. Why shoot fish in a barrel?

It’s more appropriate to dismiss films where the outcome falls so short of expectation that the films fail to deliver on their promise of creating an experience. Bad films go beyond just being stupid or boring or unnecessary sequels. Seriously, no one should be disappointed that the execrable waste of talent that was “Now You See Me 2” didn’t deliver the magic of the first one. (And this suggests “Now You See Me” was indeed magical.)

1. “Captain Fantastic”

This Sundance favorite, an argument for homeschooling, is a twee-dious affair with Ben (Viggo Mortensen) living off the grid with his six kids. The film celebrates the family’s idiosyncratic life, showing how the kids are wise beyond their years and father knows best all because they have not been corrupted by modern society with its evil technology and rampant consumerism. So of course when their mother kills herself, these bohemians must re-enter the world they left to pay their last respects. (That irony of that just smarts, doesn’t it!)

This contrived road-trip plot therefore becomes series of step-and-repeat awkward encounters that show how this bohemian family is morally superior to everyone else. Plus there are agonizing scenes of forced whimsy, as when the family celebrates “Noam Chomsky Day,” or when the clan goes to a diner and the kids want hot dogs, burgers, Cokes and milkshakes, and Ben insists there is no real “food” on the menu.

One of the beefs with “Captain Fantastic” is that it promotes an all-or-nothing extremism that rings hollow. (Does anyone really want to spend two hours with — much less live with — a dad who won’t let his kids have any junk food at some point in their lives?!) “Captain Fantastic” is so sanctimonious that one practically expects the daughter reading “Lolita” to rip out the pages and use them as toilet paper while praising the biodegradable value of paper. That doesn’t happen, but when the family does steal food from a store as a way of getting one over on society, it seems to go against the family’s righteousness. Sure, Ben’s young daughter can recite the Bill of Rights to her older, dumber cousin, but the film never quite proves why life completely off the grid is better than, say, a more balanced existence. And when the film gets cloying and manipulative with a last-act accident that threatens the life of one of Ben’s kids, the film becomes really unbearable. Critics and audiences praised Mortensen’s performance and “Captain Fantastic,” but this crap-tastic film is the cinematic equivalent of a bran muffin. It’s supposed to be good for you, but it just makes you shit.

2. “Goat”

As much fun as enduring a fraternity hazing, this “issue” film, based on a true story, has the naïve young Brad (Ben Schentzer) giving a ride to two strangers who rob him and beat him senseless. So he joins his brother Brett’s (Nick Jonas) fraternity to absorb more abuse (both verbal and physical) and perhaps overcome his trauma. The film, which is supposed to expose the rituals of manhood and brotherhood, is a cautionary tale that has as much depth as an after-school special. “Goat” is never particularly insightful regarding the conduct of the men it presents. The fraternity jocks are vicious and amoral; Brad is an innocent teen who must “man up” to join their ranks. But Brad is such an unlikable, unsympathetic character, who makes a series of bad decisions, that watching him struggle and suffer for 96 minutes is itself pure torture. “Goat” adds nothing new to the reputation of frat houses, and having James Franco show up as an alum challenging Brad to punch him in the stomach simply adds insult to injury. How did the once respectable David Gordon Green come to co-write this?

3. “The Nice Guys”

Shane Black’s 1970s-era buddy cop comedy wheezes and groans its way through a lackluster mystery like an aging detective carrying an oxygen tank up a steep hill. The film, set partially in the adult film world (so it can justify its gratuitous female nudity), is without style, substance, or even a truly funny moment. A typically lame pass at wit has Holland March (Ryan Gosling) correcting his young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) who says, “rimjob” when she means “rimshot.” The slapstick humor involving bodies being discarded inappropriately is as strained as the “chemistry” between Gosling and his uneasy partner Jackson Healy (Russell Crow). The mismatched actors may be going for Three Stooges-type comedy, but Black never finds the right tone, shifting from one-liners about Hitler and unfunny dick jokes to violent set pieces and over-the-top jerry-rigged action scenes. Even the “ironic” title is bad; there is just nothing “nice” about this film.

4. “Miles Ahead”

Don Cheadle overreached when he wrote, produced, directed, starred in and did the music for this “exploration of the life and music of Miles Davis.” The film depicts the rocky period in Davis’ life between albums, which is good — Davis’ life shouldn’t be given the conventional biopic treatment — but the film becomes a goofy buddy action comedy in which Davis and Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), a Rolling Stone journalist, try to track down a missing session tape. There are car chases and gunfire, but little in terms of providing an understanding of Davis’ creative funk, which would be far more interesting and enjoyable. The music is fine when it comes, but this wacky drama likely disappointed Davis’ fans and won’t gain any new ones.

5. “Max Rose”

This film was released in theaters this year, despite having been made way back in 2013. It’s a terrible film whatever year it is. Jerry Lewis, in his first film role in nearly two decades, played the title character, a miserable widower. Max has contempt for everyone — and he should, given the film’s weak script. He is sent to a retirement home, where he and viewers suffer forced, unfunny scenes of Max being urged to knit potholders in the shape of kidneys. All Max wants is to track down his late wife’s lover and confront him. But those scenes, when they finally come, are dramatically inert and unsatisfying to boot. But wait, there’s more. The film also chronicles Max’s touchy relationship with his adult son Chris, (Kevin Pollak), which turns this sour film into shameless Hallmark-y treacle. Lewis has a pained expression throughout “Max Rose,” and anyone who saw this debacle did, too.

6. “The BFG”

Not even my 6-year-old nephew liked Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book. Overlong, underwhelming, and full of special effects over-designed to be “magical,” this family fantasy was a misfire on many levels. As the Big Friendly Giant of the title, a digitized Mark Rylance seems to be doing an ersatz impression of the late Robin Williams that never serves the film well. The comic farting scenes involving Queen Elizabeth (Penelope Wilton) go on so long that the target audience of kids may became restless. The giant imagery is more insipid than inspired, as Spielberg and his screenwriter Melissa Mathison seem intent on recapturing the spirit of their decades-old hit, “E.T.” The story has Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) befriending BFG (Rylance), who aims to protect her from being eaten by some bigger, badder, unfriendly giants. However, the entire film feels sluggish and labored; rarely is it any fun. No wonder it fizzled at the box office, too.

7. “Me Before You”

Thea Sharrock’s screen adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ tearjerking bestseller has a terminal case of the cutes. In fact, the romantic leads’ good looks seem contrived to distract viewers from how grating the characters are. The story is highly irritating: Lou (Emilia Clarke), a young woman so cheerfully upbeat she ought to be strangled, is hired to amuse Will (Sam Claflin), an impossibly handsome and fabulously rich quadriplegic. (The beefy Nathan, played by Stephen Peacocke, is on hand to do all the hard and dirty work that Will requires.) Over their months together, Lou and Will teach each other how to live life to the hilt. Audiences can learn that lesson just by reading this review and avoiding this diabetic coma of sugar-coated romantic claptrap that is “Me Before You.” What’s more, the film is irresponsible in regard to its presentation of disability. Activists described the film as “insulting and condescending,” which may be its biggest crime against humanity.

8. “Rio, I Love You”

Less is not more in this international omnibus of short films set in the titular South American city. Sure, shorts programs are often a mixed bag, but this collection is more bad than good. As a valentine to the city, the films showcase mostly tourist-board Rio locations, never emphasizing what makes the city or its neighborhoods truly special. Moreover, a few of the shorts are set largely indoors, which seems beside the film’s tourist-y point. The love stories feature unpleasant characters — such as the scheming Dorothy (Emily Mortimer) in one segment, or the vain Jai (Ryan Kwanten) in another — making it hard to fall in love with the characters. “Rio, I Love You” wastes talented Brazilian actors, including Oscar nominee Fernanda Montenegro, Wagner Moura (Pablo Escobar on Netflix's "Narcos") and “Westworld’s” Rodrigo Santoro, as well an international roster of directors including Jose Padilha, Paolo Sorrentino and Nadine Labaki.

9. “The Hollars”

Dysfunctional family comedies have their place, but this lousy entry is either embarrassingly bad or just plain dumb (or often both). John (John Krasinski) returns home to care for his mother Sally (Margo Martindale) who is about to undergo surgery for a brain tumor. Apparently, her husband, Donald (Richard Jenkins, in a career-worst performance), didn’t think her symptoms were cause for concern. Hilarious, right?! To be fair, Donald may have been preoccupied trying to revive his very failing business and handle his immature, divorced adult son, Ron (Sharlto Copley), who lives at home. Meanwhile, John is battling his own career issues — he really wants to write comic books! — and worried about impending fatherhood; his rich wife Becca (Anna Kendrick) is expecting any day now.

As John tries to deal with his immediate family in crisis, he also jeopardizes his impending family by visiting his ex, Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose current husband (Charlie Day, in annoying, wisenheimer mode) is John’s mom’s sarcastic (but unfunny) nurse. Packing all these characters and their foibles into less than 90 minutes fails to give them any real definition, and Krasinski directs without creating any dramatic or comic tension. There is the expected scene of Becca’s water breaking, and it happens at a funeral no less. That is one of many cringe-inducing moments in a film that also includes an uninspired Indigo Girls’ sing-a-long in Sally’s hospital room.

10. “Collateral Beauty” 

As staggeringly bad as it is painfully obvious, David Frankel’s film insists, “Life is about people.” His film is about “love,” “time” and “death.” These abstractions become “bereavement hallucinations” for Howard (Will Smith), who is depressed after the death of his 6-year-old daughter. They appear in the guise of actors — Amy (Keira Knightley), Raffi (Jacob Latimore) and Brigitte (Helen Mirren) — who are hired by Howard’s colleagues Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Peña). The morally reprehensible idea — which is so crazy it just might work! — is to manipulate Howard’s pain and snap him out of his depression. Or prove he’s crazy so Whit, Claire and Simon can take over his business. Of course, Howard’s colleagues are the ones who need to learn the true meaning of life, love, time and death.

Howard, however, is self-destructively biking at night against traffic and learning to appreciate “collateral beauty” from Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who runs a bereavement group. The discussion of what “collateral beauty” is is head-scratching. Moreover, Frankel’s film cudgels viewers by repeating everything nine times when just thrice would be more than enough. He connects every dot, aggressively ignoring nuance. He telegraphs the waves of emotions viewers are supposed to feel with dominoes falling and syrupy music playing. This is instinct-free filmmaking, full of didactic dialogue and not a single earned emotion.

When Howard writes a letter about “dead tissue that won’t decompose,” one might actually think he was talking about a Kleenex he used crying over his dead daughter. Adding to the awfulness are bad performances. Helen Mirren is hard to watch as a needy, hammy actress, and poor Kate Winslet can barely muster the energy while sleepwalking through her role to play a woman actively searching for a sperm donor while also trying to save her job and her friend’s life. The collective talent wasted is more collateral damage than “collateral beauty.” But then again, any film that has the line “When something starts with a 6-year-old dying, nothing is going to feel right” was damned from the beginning.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Captain Fantastic Film Goat Max Rose Me Before You Movies Rio I Love You The Bfg The Nice Guys The Hollars