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year in culture 2013

David Edelstein’s Worst Movies of 2013

Criteria for a Worst Movies of the Year list must be stricter than for a Best. To earn one of these unhallowed spots, a film should not merely be poorly made (some of the worst movies of all time are quite well made), it should be obnoxious on all sorts of levels. It should be worse than the sum of its parts.

Many philosophical issues are thereby raised. Should one show mercy to filmmakers who take huge artistic risks and fail proportionately? Consider Michael Cimino’s 1980 film Heaven’s Gate. I think it’s stupefyingly terrible — and its consequent box-office failure was so immense that it helped to bring down a great studio, United Artists. But given its level of ambition, should a critic working back then have deemed it the worst film of 1980 against, say, Saturn 3, Oh Heavenly Dog, Can’t Stop the Music, or The Gong Show Movie? My answer — pace many critics and academics — is yes, yes, yes. But your answer might well be different, and we can agree to disagree (though I’m right).

Closer to home, one of this year’s biggest flops was The Lone Ranger. Had the box-office muscle behind the film, Johnny Depp, been less committed to portraying the slaughter of Native Americans by white settlers, it’s possible that the movie would have been less jarring and would have earned back its astronomical costs. Should it be penalized for its laudable attempt to correct the historical record — as well as three quarters of a century of cinematic malpractice? I seriously considered keeping it off this list for just that reason.

Then I thought: “Screw it. If that’s not a ten-worst movie, I don’t know what is.”

And yet you won’t find on this list such films as The Canyons and The Fifth Estate. In the first instance, Paul Schrader (who wrote some of the best American movies of the last 50 years) infused the material with so palpable a disgust that the film is genuinely evocative. (“Genuinely evocative of what?” you ask. Its own rottenness.) The Fifth Estate is dramatically clunky and politically reactionary, but it has excellent acting and a whiz-bang first half, and it does raise legitimate questions about Julian Assange and his legacy. I was more tempted to include three of the year’s most overrated films, Frances Ha, Spring Breakers, and Blue Jasmine. But Most Overrated is its own category and shouldn’t bleed into this one.

I am very grateful to my esteemed colleague, Bilge Ebiri, for allowing me to avoid seeing so many of the films on his own ten-worst list — so much so that between us we have come up with Twenty Great Disgraces. You’re really getting your money’s worth here.

By no means should you consider the films below Must Avoid. Some of them can inspire a great deal of merriment. None more so than my No. 1 Worst Movie of 2013.

Labor Day
America’s most overrated director, Jason Reitman, has finally made a film that will have even his most slavish devotees choking back bad laughs. It’s a fancy adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s primitive romantic fantasy about a depressed woman (Kate Winslet), her fatherless son (Gattlin Griffith), and the convicted murderer (Josh Brolin) who escapes from prison, takes them hostage in their home, and … bakes pies. Peach. Best crust they’ve ever had. Butter and shortening. Would have used lard if there was any. You gotta keep the butter cold. Work the dough with your hands. Work it. Don’t overmix. Let it rest. Omigod, omigod. That’s so good. How ’bout some fresh chili? Yum! Alas, there’s no time for poulet en croute or paté de foie gras. There are leaks to be fixed, fences to be mended. The boy must be taught to catch a baseball. And the lady must be made love to like no one has made love to her before, so that her broken faith in love itself is repaired. (It doesn’t hurt that the hunky escapee ties her up first — because, you see, she has to be able to pass a polygraph test if the cops accuse her of harboring a fugitive … Peach pie and bondage: double yum!) Nearly every scene in Labor Day is high hilarity, although I didn’t enjoy seeing Winslet make a fool of herself.

Only God Forgives
In Upside-Down-Opposite Land, the reunion of Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling is an entrancing revenge drama, hallucinatory in its palette, Kabuki in its pacing. In this world, it’s one of the stupidest movies ever made.

Machete Kills
It’s the lowbrow version of Only God Forgives, but no better for its aggressive lack of pretension.

Salinger
The publicity-shunning author goes under the microscope in this rare rotten documentary (insofar as many bad docs are made but few released). On one hand, he wrote The Catcher in the Rye and the Glass family stories. On the other, he sent a letter to 18-year-old Joyce Maynard when he saw her on the cover of a magazine, lived with her for a few years, and then broke up with her. Burning Question: Could he bake a peach pie?

Oz the Great and Powerful
Oz the Bloated and Lackadaisical is more like it. Sam Raimi’s fantasy is surprisingly joyless, and James Franco might be the least convincing actor you’ve ever seen in addressing Creatures to Be Computer-Generated Later.

Saving Mr. Banks
The making of Mary Poppins mixed with the sad memories of Mary’s prim creator. Both naked Oscar bait and tedious corporate (Disney) propaganda in the service of its Great White Father. A Facebook acquaintance has proposed a potentially more interesting film about the making of Saving Mr. Banks.

Carrie
Kimberly Peirce’s beat-for-beat rehash of Brian De Palma’s classic — plus a fat dose of sentimentality, minus wit or style.

Elysium
A good, angry satirical premise comes a-cropper in Neill Blomkamp’s big-budget follow-up to District 9, the worst dystopian space film in a year that included After Earth and Oblivion
(both of those movies have defenders, but no one thinks Elysium is any good).

Olympus Has Fallen
A piece of jingoist vigilante crud — and far less entertaining than the piece of liberal vigilante crud with the same premise, White House Down.

The Lone Ranger
It just has to be here. With the noblest intentions, Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski mix slapstick hijinks with the massacre of Native Americans and come up with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: The Disney Ride.

Photo: Columbia Pictures, Radius-TWC, Phil Caruso/FilmDistrict, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures