'Maudie' and 'Pirates' highlight 2017's worst movies

'Maudie' and 'Pirates' highlight 2017's worst movies

December 29th, 2017 by Mick LaSalle/New York Times News Service in Life Entertainment

Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot star in "Justice League."

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

It's sometimes daunting to realize that when foreigners think of American movies, they think of our garbage, such as "Justice League" or "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales." Those movies make good money domestically, but it's outside our borders where they really clean up.

Conversely, our friends across the oceans never know about movies like "Lady Bird" or "I, Tonya" or "Novitiate." Their idea of American culture is of an aggressive, paranoid, stupid people blowing each other up. So these bad movies are often not just lousy, but bad ambassadors, defaming us in the eyes of the world. Yet here's the twist: Foreign audiences actually love these awful movies, so who knows what to think?

In any case, it should come as no surprise to find such monster international hits on a worst movies list. But this is America, and we're not limited to one kind of terrible movie. We also know how to innovate and fashion bad movies from humane impulses and inspirations.

So this list of the worst movies of 2017 represents various varieties of wrong, with one essential common element — each was enough to wreck an entire evening.

1. "Maudie": This real-life story, based on the life of the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, is this year's winner of the Vera Drake Award — the awful movie you feel obligated to like if you want to consider yourself a nice person. But don't feel guilty for noticing: This film was entirely without drama. No drama was found in Lewis' artistic pursuit, her marriage or even her severe and lifelong arthritis. Nor was she weighed down by domestic chores — she lived in a one room house! The movie called forth two of the year's most unintentionally hilarious performances, with Sally Hawkins, in the title role, doing lots of precious furtive glances and sneaky smiling, and Ethan Hawke, as her brutish husband, grunting.

2. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales": This attempt to resurrect the very dead thing known as the "Pirates" franchise found its analogue in the story, about a bunch of dead souls wanting to return to life. Fat chance. The story was a convolution, in which all the main characters wanted to kill each other, and wouldn't it have been wonderful if they'd all succeeded? But no. Johnny Depp used to play Captain Jack by imitating Keith Richards, but here he seemed to be channeling Dudley Moore in "Arthur," just drunk and sloppy and desperately unfunny.

3. "Gold": This one was amazing. A movie about gold prospecting in Indonesia, it was very loosely based on real events, but the names, circumstances and time period were changed, so Matthew McConaughey wasn't actually playing someone specific when he chose to gain weight for the role, make himself bald and smoke in virtually every scene. Likewise, there was no reason for him to give himself a snaggle tooth and go through the movie with his mouth open so we'd notice it. Basically, he turned himself into a fat, bald, chain-smoking, nervous-wreck version of the Nutty Professor entirely for fun — a sweaty, fidgety, grotesque figure, in a movie in which we were supposed to take this guy seriously, that was all about a man and his dream. The story made no sense. McConaughey was insufferable, and the ending was ludicrous.

4. "John Wick: Chapter 2": It takes a lot to feel sorry for movie stars, but this one inspired pity for poor Keanu Reeves, who was reduced to a killing machine, performing elaborate choreography as he shoots people in the head, scores of them, perhaps hundreds. What's worse, the film's story made the title character into a hapless victim of circumstance, someone barely, if at all, in control of his destiny, despite his facility for homicide. This was soulless entertainment and a terrible use of Reeves' true screen essence, which is not just benign but gentle.

5. "Great Wall": Somebody had an idea to make a Chinese action film, but have it star an American actor, so as to bridge two markets. The result was this utter bomb, with Matt Damon as an English mercenary (with a Midwestern American accent), who happens to be in Imperial China at a time when killer iguanas, each the size of a Honda Odyssey, start attacking. From there, it's just 90 minutes of monster attacks and scenes of Damon somehow keeping a straight face.

6. "The Dark Tower": When Matthew McConaughey won the best actor Academy Award nearly four years ago, he said that his hero was himself in five years. So chalk his 2017 output as an interesting detour. In this one, he played a sorcerer with the power to bring down the universe with the power of overacting and self-infatuation — or maybe it was just his sorcery that was dangerous. In any case, he needed the psychic force of one particular boy to bring down the tower that regulates the universe, Thus, the whole movie was him trying to get to the boy, and the boy evading him and evading him, until finally the movie was stretched to feature length. The movie was based on a series of novels, but there was barely enough story here to fill a 30-minute episode of "The Twilight Zone."

7. "Paris Can Wait": Diane Lane played a dissatisfied wife, married to a major Hollywood producer, who goes on a long road trip with a charmless Frenchman, stopping to take taking little nibbles of various desserts and sips of local wine, leaving the rest on the table, because that's what people do who don't know the value of things. This was a movie with nothing at stake — the audience didn't care about the woman or either of the men in her life, and the conversation was stiff and dull. Even the travelogue aspect of driving through France failed to ignite.

8. "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword": Guy Ritchie opened his version of the Arthurian legend with a scene of elephant-like monsters trampling Camelot's soldiers, and with fireballs causing these same soldiers to spontaneously combust. In doing so, Ritchie accomplished something not seen since the silent days: Before a single word of dialogue was spoken, he established that his movie was lousy. Here Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) was like most Guy Ritchie characters, just a fun-loving bloke, without much interest in the kingdom, so why should we be interested? The only fun to be had was in the campy, flashy performance of Jude Law, as an evil usurper, who combined casual physical elegance with the facial expressions of a man coming apart.

9. "The Last Face": Sean Penn directed this weirdly off-key film about emergency relief doctors working in African war zones. The problem was that the movie was essentially about an on-again off-again romance between two of the doctors, played by Javier Barden and Charlize Theron. It was just really hard to get worked up about whether Bardem would get over his commitment issues when there was a lady on the table with her legs blown off. The problem of emphasis was compounded by an uncharacteristically wispy performance by Theron and by Hans Zimmer's strangely distanced score.

10. "Justice League:" DC Comics answer to Marvel's Avengers just isn't working. It can't work. Batman (Ben Affleck) may be fine within his own Gotham City sphere, but his only function, on a team of superheroes, is to always be the first one to get pummeled. This time out, Superman is dead. But you know dead like Spock at the beginning of "Star Trek III." This was another bad action movie that was all about the preparation for a single confrontation. Everything else leading up to the confrontation was filler, and the actual climax was a disappointment. DC should retire the whole sad crew and just make "Wonder Woman" movies.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic.

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