by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Welcome back to our collective journey through the arse of film in 2014. If you’re still here, then that means that you either recovered from my inclusion of Boyhood on yesterday’s part of the list, or you didn’t read yesterday’s part of the list, didn’t know about that fact and therefore are still on speaking terms with me. If you did miss it, or just want a refresher, you can go here to get all caught up. Otherwise, we’re going to get going with the lowest of the low. So, with no more delay, AVATAR STATE, YIP YIP!
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
05] Tarzan/The Nut Job/Escape From Planet Earth/Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return/Planes: Fire & Rescue/Rio 2/The House Of Magic/Postman Pat: The Movie
Dir: Too many to bother listing
Star: No, seriously, we’d be here all day
This is a message to the feature-length animation medium as a whole. I AM ON TO YOU. Regular readers of this fine website will already be very well aware that I am a very, very big fan of animation and take criticism of every animated effort that comes my way with the same amount of seriousness and weight as most real critics do “real films” (if you don’t think that many critics find animation some kind of a lesser medium, you are deluding yourself). It doesn’t matter if you are a Disney effort, or a low-budget produced by a studio demanding to make a name for yourself: you step into a cinema, you better believe that I am going to hold you all to the exact same standards of quality and creativity. And if you think that you can sneak past an animated venture with no skill, passion, effort or heart put into it without my calling you out on it? Oh, son, you are in for a very rude awakening, let me tell you.
2014 was the first year since 2005 in which Pixar did not release a film, and many studios took this as an opportunity to get complacent. To think that sufficiently filling the space where Pixar would normally sit would be enough to sucker a whole bunch of monies from parent’s wallets and earn an “eh, what else are you gonna see?” from more uncaring film critics. Those studios would be wrong. Almost every film listed up there is being called out for having open contempt for its audience, thinking of them only as walking wallets rather than moviegoers deserving of entertainment and wonder. Some of those are just plain awful, some are passable, one of which was even rather entertaining as I watched it in the cinema and filed my review, but all but three exist for the sole purpose of trying to ape their much better competitors in search of their residual cash.
Each film listed up there has a laundry list of the tropes and cliches of crappy low-effort animation. These films either have awful, terrifying or personality-free art styles; dull, cheap or just plain poor animation with corners cut at every opportunity; scripts that are devoid of wit, characters, themes and any semblance of originality or unique voice; awfully directed, miscast or just plain bad voice actors – typically celebrities busy cashing their paycheques whilst recording is still ongoing – a complete lack of heart, an overdose on pop-culture references, a cynical desire to just poorly ape the better competition and call it a day, or any combination of the above (and, in one case, all of the above). And in no instances will I stand for it.
Especially since the other companies who did show up to play in 2014 each tried their damndest to raise the bar that these films worked so hard to lower. The Lego Movie gave us a fresh, original, heartfelt and hugely entertaining look at creativity with amazing animation in what could have instead functioned as a 100 minute commercial for Lego. DreamWorks Animation shot for the heart with How To Train Your Dragon 2 – I personally didn’t think it worked, but I’m done repeating myself with that series – shot for straight fun with Penguins Of Madagascar, and attempted to marry the two with Mr. Peabody & Sherman, scoring creative home-runs each time. My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks took a look at the criticisms of the very good first movie, went away, and proceeded to actively better itself and fix every single one of them near-totally. The Boxtrolls had a messy screenplay that nearly derailed the entire ride but had charm and heart and energy to carry itself through regardless, whilst The Book Of Life allowed an underrated auteur the money and scope to run wild, creating one of the most visually astounding animated films I have ever seen, and one with enough heart and love to downplay its various issues.
Point is, these films try. They really try. They’re not just trying suck money from wallets, they’re trying to be great and do their own unique things. Christ, even the Tinkerbell series is aiming for the heart and has enough sweet sincerity and joy to carry it through its lightweight and occasionally more low-quality moments (turns out that, Pirate Fairy aside, I am a fan of that series). Animation means a tonne to me, the whole process, the whole medium – you should have seen how legitimately bummed out I was upon hearing the news of Christine Cavanaugh’s passing – and I refuse to let blatant, low-quality contemptuous cash-grabs like the films listed above drag the pure wonder and imagination and possibility of this medium down by their mere existence. No fucking way. I am not going to let them prove the snottier members of the film industry right.
So allow me to send out this message to the feature-length animation industry at large: you are all on notice. As long as I am walking this Earth – whether that be in this body or in a cyborg version of my body that my consciousness downloads into, like those in Ghost In The Shell – you will all be going through me. I will be merciless, you will never hear the phrase “good enough for the kids” part from my lips because I know for a fact that, as a kid, I would have demanded better always, and I will most of all be honest. I expect a lot because this medium can do so much, and I will not let low-quality or mediocre wastes of space pass by unscathed. If you can’t match, or don’t want to match, the quality of animation on television right now that I and kids around the world can watch for free – like Gravity Falls, Regular Show, Wander Over Yonder, or The Legend Of Korra – then scrap everything and start again because why the fuck should I and we devote time and money to you if you’re not aiming for the level of free entertainment? You have all been warned.
Oh, and for the record? Worst animated film of the year is The Nut Job, maybe even of the decade. It’s not even a contest.
04] Men, Women & Children
Dir: Jason Reitman
Star: Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, Dean Norris, the disembodied voice of Emma Thompson
Oh, Jason Reitman. What the f*ck happened to you, man? You made Juno, Up In The Air, Young Adult, and Thank You Smoking! And then, in the space of 12 months, you make Labor Day and Men, Women & Children? Is this some kind of James Franco-esque performance art piece? Did you voluntarily take a torch to your once-promising career just to see how devoted fans like myself would react? Did you trip over something in the dark, bang your head and just forget how to make good movies? Was your family held hostage by madmen who refused to let them go until you shat out two utterly irredeemable stinkers to sully your track record possibly irreparably? What is it? I need answers, man!
Men, Women & Children is the kind of film that I would have spent almost the entire runtime inadvertently and derisively laughing at and mocking had it come from anybody else and were it any less self-serious about itself. Men, Women & Children is a walking self-parody that is way too goddamn serious about its overly delusional fears of the Internet and technology to find the slightest bit funny. A tone-deaf, one-sided, hysterical (in the sense that it’s gone mad from trying to make its point) two hour screed against the Internet and modern technology that only serves to make its co-writer and director seem like the kind of crotchety old man who yells at those darn kids to get off of his lawn and who lives for Bingo night.
It saddles its very talented cast with material better fit for a failing first year drama group, creates a hateful straw-woman to invite viewers to throw righteous scorn at only to turn around and spend 95% of its runtime agreeing with her, and maniacally believes that all of the world’s relationship and intimacy problems would be solved if the Internet and modern technology didn’t exist. It has an incredibly conservative and dim view on any kind of sex and sexual arousal that doesn’t have to do with the ‘traditional’ way of doing things. It constantly tries to make its point that all of our personal problems that technology amplifies are ultimately small and meaningless by repeatedly cutting to the Hubble telescope and very subtly hinting that we should drop our reliance on technology and instead get to work on technology, in a blissfully ignorant piece of hypocrisy. It is a film with nothing new or interesting or nuanced to say despite its grim, serious, sermonising message-movie tone.
It, may I remind you, is a film in which Dean Norris actually jumps back in shock and mild fear from his computer when he discovers that pressing up on a keyboard causes a videogame avatar to move forward. And let’s not forget the moment in which Adam Sandler tries to straight-facedly finger 9/11 as the moment where we as a society retreated into technology and everything subsequently changed for the worse.
Look, I am not inherently opposed to media that portrays technology as evil or a thing to be feared – I, like any good person, adore Black Mirror – but if you are going to make a serious and frequently anti-tech look at the way that technology and the Internet have affected our modern day relationships, spending two hours hysterically shrieking at the top of your lungs that “THE INTERNET IS EVIL! IT MUST BE PURGED TO SAVE US ALL! I AM THE VERY FIRST PERSON TO EVER COME TO THIS CONCLUSION! PAY ATTENTION TO ME!” is not the way to go about it. The most maddening part of Men, Women & Children is that there is a damn great, nuanced, smart and thought-provoking film to be made using these actors, this director and this set-up, and at no point does the finished product ever hint at that better movie. It sucks, it sucks uncontrollably and insufferably, and I worry that Jason Reitman may be incapable of bouncing back. I really hope I am wrong.
03] Nativity! 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?!
Dir: Debbie Isitt
Star: Martin Clunes, Marc Wooton, Catherine Tate
Nativity! 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?! is the worst film of 2014. It is the worst film I have ever sat through to the very end. Nativity! 3 is the abyss of cinema made corporeal. The Nativity! series has never been good, but at least the first one attempted to be a film that was watchable and the second was still a film – sort of, in that it at least had a coherent plot even if it bordered on being unwatchable. Nativity! 3, however, is a giant middle finger to the entire concept of film, filmmaking, and the audience who voluntarily chose to part with their time and money by watching it.
There is no plot to Nativity! 3. The other instalments in this abominable series at least attempted to have something resembling a coherent plot. This one has no such attempt. Stuff happens, with no rhyme or reason. Plots and arcs and characters are brought up, discarded, brought back, dumped in the bin, treated with absolutely no care or sensitivity, used to simply mark time and nothing else, or force their way into proceedings at the most inopportune moments. Nothing makes sense and the film doesn’t care that none of this makes sense. I’d say that a 5 year-old could do better than this but, quite frankly, I get the feeling that this is all very deliberate. “Go on,” the film seems to taunt, “Try and make sense of this. Try and explain how we got from Martin Clunes arriving at the world’s worst primary school to whip the kids into shape, to an entire class full of kids serenading Catherine Tate at a wedding in New York that’s not to the fiancée she started out the film with, without frying and killing several of your most important brain cells.”
And I assume that it’s deliberate because, quite frankly, everything about Nativity! 3 seems carefully controlled and co-ordinated to be as deliberately offensively awful as is humanly possible. Why else would every performance be screeched at the top of everyone’s lungs with no subtlety or variation? Why else would the film purport to be a musical yet drop its musical conceit for half of its runtime and, despite having already done this twice before, have every single one of its songs be shot and choreographed with no flair and a faint collective embarrassment about it all? Why else would the film revel in its sub-CBBC production values and shooting style? Why else would Mr. Poppy, the single worst, most annoying and most evil character in film today, continue to hang around and be treated like some kind of saint and somebody we should all look up to?
And this sh*t is being peddled for kids! Everybody involved believes that the abomination that they have crafted is perfect for kids! Maybe it is, if you hate your kids and think that they are no more intelligent than the bacteria that thrives in your toilet bowl. No kid deserves to be forced to sit through this tripe, no matter how bad they’ve been. This is a film that thinks kids are total imbeciles who should reject any and all authority, follow around a clearly mentally-ill man who they don’t have permission to run off with and who is not even employed by the school he keeps hanging around at, do the bidding of said man with no hesitation or complaint, blame the victim for anything bad that happens to them frequently and mercilessly – seriously, the film keeps loudly shouting that it was recent amnesiac Martin Clunes’ own fault for losing his memory and that the reason that he doesn’t get his memories back is because he doesn’t want to, and is proven to be right – and angrily and threateningly rap at said victim for any perceived mistake.
Nativity! 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?! – and, incidentally, I am immensely saddened by the fact that it is 2014 and we are still making “Dude, where’s my car?” jokes – is anti-cinema. It is a film that hates everyone and everything, spending every last second of its inexplicable 110 minute runtime actively daring the viewer to keep watching, and has such a blatant disregard for the basic tenants of good filmmaking that I can only take it as a deliberate and intentional desire to make the worst film ever released in human existence. If it was, then congratulations, I am 99% certain that everyone involved has succeeded in their lofty goal.
The film’s writer-director Debbie Isitt, who once upon a time brought us the genuinely decent Confetti, hit back against critics who derided her film claiming that we critics are “just so out of touch with what people like or want.” If this is what the people like and want, then God help us all.
02] What If
Dir: Michael Dowse
Star: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Rafe Spall
01] The Riot Club
Dir: Lone Scherfig
Star: Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Douglas Booth
So, after 7,000 words, 11 pages, 16 films and pretty much every single negative adjective in the English language, we have arrived at my Bottom Film of 2014. We have gone through films that disappointed me, films that encapsulated everything wrong with current cinema, films that fail at the basic tenants of filmmaking, and films that just plain pissed me off. But none of those have taken my absolute bottom slot on my 2014 list. Instead, and from the moment I saw it I knew it was destined for this slot, it went to The Riot Club. So, why? Why The Riot Club over “the abyss of cinema” and a sh*tty rom-com that wouldn’t stop infecting my brain for at least a month after I saw it.
Simple. Because, unlike those two films, I was literally five seconds away from walking out of The Riot Club.
Allow me to explain. The Riot Club is a British thriller centred around the exploits of the titular club – a very unsubtle expy of the famous Bullingdon Club – home of the richest, poshest and most spoilt male members of Oxford University. These are the men who will go on to basically run the country and the club is their place to abuse their privilege, blow off steam, and generally just behave as vile, loathsome degenerates. They mentally and physically abuse each other, recklessly destroy public and private property, sexually harass any and all women they see, and spout things like “I am sick to death of POOR PEOPLE!” It is not unclear as to what exactly this film’s message is. And whilst that would lead to the question as to why one would sit through 107 minutes of this stuff, it’s not inherently a problem since the film sounds clear and consistent in its message.
Except that it is not. Not at all. The Riot Club spends 107 minutes being openly, loudly and insufferably hypocritical. See, The Riot Club wants you to hate these disgusting cretins, and spends much of its runtime screaming at you about how terrible these upper-class twits are. However, The Riot Club also spends its time indulging them, egging them on, wanting them to be bad, evil, violent, sexist, rape-y so that it has more material to film. For every scene where it invites the audience to fling fruit at its cast, there’s another where it turns around screams “More! MORE! MORE!!” at the cast it supposedly hates, revelling in the debauchery it otherwise spends its runtime constantly denouncing as evil and awful.
In other words, it’s a worst case scenario equivalent of The Wolf Of Wall Street. That film never openly denounces its despicable cast of characters because it knows that the audience will get how awful these characters are through their actions. It doesn’t indulge them, it doesn’t openly judge, and it always keeps its moral compass and central message clear and lifted above the muck of everything else. By contrast, The Riot Club is a humourless nagging nanny that thinks the audience won’t understand that the posh upper classes think of the lower classes as pond scum unless it has multiple walking cartoon characters state as much out loud every 5 minutes. It indulges them frequently, sets them up to make themselves look awful, and lowers itself to their level as if it is having just as much fun preying on and exploiting their antics as they do preying on the lower-classes.
And when the film gets to its centrepiece – a near 50 minute sequence set at a club dinner that screams “this is where we’re just going to do the play the film is based on now, if that’s OK” – it becomes a test of just how much longer one can take the hypocrisy. Does one stop during the endless drinking games? How about when they continually insult the perfectly nice lower-class hosts? When they bring in a female sex worker and try everything to keep her from leaving? How about when Milo’s middle-class girlfriend turns up and we seem about 3 seconds away from a rape scene? All the while, the film practically jerks off to itself on screen. “Yes! Yes! More! Threaten Natalie Dormer a little more! Smash up that back room like a group of apes flinging their poo around! Yes! Phwoah!”
My final straw came when the lower-class pub owner, who has had enough of their degenerate antics in his establishment, comes to throw them out and everybody takes turns beating him to a state of near-death. This scene, much like everything in this goddamn f*cking movie, goes on for an uncomfortably long time, as the film takes its sweet time deriving its own sick pleasure from the action being depicted. Much like everything else in the film, what starts as The Riot Club shouting “Shame on you! You people are despicable!” morphs into it yelling “Yeah! YEAH! KICK HIS FUCKING HEAD IN! THE TWAT DESERVES IT!”
And at that point, I reached over, grabbed my bag and jacket, stood up and started walking towards the exit. I was done. I was tapping out. I was about to walk out of a film, which I had never done before in my entire life. The sole film I had ever stopped on its first showing because I refused to witness one more second of it was Disaster Movie and its dubious club was about to get a new member, only this time I was actually going to walk out of a cinema.
But then I checked my watch, to see how far in I’d made it to what was about to become the second film to ever beat me. To my surprise, I discovered that I only had 20 minutes left to sit through. Of the 107 minutes that the film was scheduled to run for, I had survived 87. The finish line was in sight and I was about to give up. So, reasoning that I’d managed to make it this far and that there wasn’t enough time left for the film to somehow sink even lower, I turned around, went back to my seat, put my jacket and bag back in place, and sat back down. Sure enough, the film didn’t manage to plumb even further depths in those remaining 20 minutes and I managed to avoid my first walk-out by mere seconds.
That is why The Riot Club is #1 on My Bottom 10 Films of 2014. It is an evil little film and it was literally 5 seconds away from beating me. If that doesn’t deserve the top placement, I don’t know what does.
And so wraps up My Bottom 10 Films of 2014 list, as well as my review of 2014! It, despite this list, has been a great year for films (although not so much for everything else) and I am so grateful for the ability to use space on this website to talk about it all over the past year. Thank you to every single one of you for reading my work, leaving your feedback and generally just not chasing me away with pitchforks and torches! Here’s to 2015!
Callum Petch is about to run through more cities than Attila The Hun. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!