Written by Anthony Burch
In the world of filmmaking, truly visionary directors are tough to find. Seemingly visionary directors may turn out to be one-hit wonders, and a director’s visual style can become antiquated faster than you can say “we don’t use zooms anymore.” When a truly great director is found, you’ve got to hold onto him, and appreciate him, and, most of all, ignore the occasional shitty movie from him.
It’s with a sense of profound admiration, then, that we chronicle the worst films by the best directors: films that, despite the fantastic qualifications of the men who helmed them, totally failed to be anything less than total disappointments.
Keep in mind that many of these films are quite good, in their own rights: they just suck when compared to some of the better work by their respective director.
Steven Spielberg - War of the Worlds
Imagine Independence Day, but take away all the good actors and any sort of climax and you’ve basically got War of the Worlds. Having never read the book or watched the 1950’s version I can’t speak on its accuracy (though I know the ends are the same in all three versions), but I’m willing to bet that the other versions weren’t as self-defeating as Spielberg’s remake.
The film has moments of timely brilliance, like when Tom Cruise and his family get yanked out of their car by an angry mob who then begin to shoot one another, or when a totally unprovoked Tom Cruise decides to murder the shit out of Tim Robbins just because he thinks Robbins might give away their position. Dark scenes like this would have made the movie great, were it not for the fact that they’re sandwiched between scenes of either total mediocrity (“this is your safe area”), ridiculously misplaced patriotism (as when a random and unnamed US soldier leads an effort to pull Tom Cruise from the belly of an alien tripod), or outright ridiculousness (Tom’s son not only surviving a massive explosion, but somehow managing to get to his mom’s house before Tom).
Spielberg has a great track record for ending dark and meaningful films with pointlessly tacked-on happy endings, and War of the Worlds may be the best example of that.
Brian DePalma - The Black Dahlia
If there are two things in this world that almost never disappoint, they are (A) film noir and (B) Scarlett Johansson. There must be a mathematical formula somewhere that explains how combining these things somehow ends in heartbreak, but director Brian DePalma obviously never saw it.
The Black Dahlia should have truly been a match made in heaven: an adaptation of a James Ellroy book, based on a true event, directed by Brian DePalma, and starring Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, and Josh Hartnett (3 out of 4 ain’t bad). It’s endlessly tragic, then, that the entire film was an exercise in schizophrenia and uncertainty. The film should be about how the unsolved murder of an aspiring actress drives two cops to the brink of desperation (as the trailer led us to believe), but it instead focuses on no less than four different subplots, including:
-A boxing match between Josh and Aaron
-An about-to-be-paroled criminal who raped and cut up Scarlett
-Scarlett and Josh having an affair
-A lesbian nightclub
The film can’t decide what the hell it’s actually about, and as a result it’s impossible to care about anything: the ending, in particular, comes out of nowhere and includes at least an hour’s worth of unseen (and occasionally irrelevant) information thrown at the audience in totally random order.
Some may call Bonfire of the Vanities DePalma’s biggest misstep: to those people, I say that you should probably watch The Black Dahlia a few more times.
Akira Kurosawa - The Hidden Fortress
Choosing the worst Kurosawa film is sort of like trying to pick the ugliest Victoria’s Secret model: technically, you could do it, but why? Still, though, The Hidden Fortress does fall short of Kurosawa’s other works. Many film students flock to it after hearing that George Lucas borrowed heavily from it (which turns out to be a disappointment in itself, because Lucas really only steals the droid characters and some plot devices), only to be underwhelmed.
The story of a soldier escorting a princess across enemy lines sounds pretty interesting, but turns out to be almost astonishingly dull: Toshiro Mifune is way more interesting when playing flawed antiheroes (e.g., Yojimbo), the princess is irritating and whiny, and the servants/droids aren’t really that funny. It’s an entertaining movie, of course, but it’s also short on the mix of excitement, drama, and meaning that Kurosawa did so well.
Francis Ford Coppola - The Godfather III
Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Godfather Part III wasn’t anywhere near as good as the first two. It’s not bad, by any means, but it’s definitely inferior to its predecessors and undoubtedly Coppola’s worst hour.
But why? Well, start with the fact that Coppola only did it because he needed money, add the fact that Robert Duvall refused to take part unless he was paid as much as Pacino, take away the possible casting of Winona Ryder as Mary Corleone and replace her with a less-than-stellar Sofia Coppola, add Al Pacino’s sudden decision to overact, and you’ve got yourself a qualified disappointment. Somehow, neither Pacino nor Francis Ford Coppola realized how far Pacino had fallen since Godfather II; where the majority of his performance used to be situated in knowing glances and eerie silences, his version of Michael in Godfather III is loud and over-the-top (“I have DONE what I had to DO to PROTECT my FAMILY”).
In a way, it’d be easier if the film was flat-out bad – we could all just ignore it and move on. Unfortunately, the film has some relatively good scenes (the last shot, in particular), but their presence is lessened when placed next to a scene where a fucking helicopter shoots into a board room and kill everyone in it except Michael. Christ, that scene was in the first Lethal Weapon movie, and it didn’t even work then.
Stanley Kubrick - Eyes Wide Shut
I’d argue Barry Lyndon is actually Kubrick’s worst, but Eyes Wide Shut is definitely his most universally reviled. Shame to have your last movie end up as your most detested, but them’s the breaks.
Films about “sexual reawakening” are usually either gussied-up pornography, or intensely boring. Eyes Wide Shut manages to be a bit of both. As Tom Cruise walks around New York and gets sexually propositioned by almost every single fucking person he meets, it’s pretty hard for anybody to care amidst the leaden pacing and typically Cruise-esque acting.
According to R. Lee Ermey (whom I would never dare call a liar, for fear he’d track me down and kick the shit out of me), even Kubrick knew the film was going to be a piece of shit because Cruise and Kidman had essentially taken it from him and used it for their own purposes.
Well, at least his memory lived in the movie A.I., right? Right? Guys?
Martin Scorsese - Cape Fear
The original Cape Fear was fantastic: it somehow managed to combine two of the biggest badasses of the day (Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck) into one film without either one overshadowing the other. It was creepy, subtle, and quietly terrifying.
Martin Scorcese’s remake has none of these things going for it. De Niro plays Max Cady as a ridiculous-sounding redneck (De Niro should, by law, be prohibited from ever attempting a Southern accent again), Nick Nolte plays Sam Bowden as a slightly less-drugged-up-than-usual version of himself (not to mention that Sam Bowden is revealed to have fabricated evidence to put Cady away, thereby making Cady more sympathetic and thereby defeating the entire purpose of the fucking movie), and there’s a pedophilia subplot that worked much better in the first film when it was simply hinted at, instead of fully explored.
Not to mention the fact that the entire climax seems like something out of Looney Tunes, as Cady dresses up like a woman, strangles Joe Don Baker, and dies screaming, tied to a sinking boat during a rainstorm.
Do yourself a favor and rent the original Peck/Mitchum flick. It’s a hell of a lot better.
Terry Gilliam - The Brothers Grimm
I say this having never seen Tideland – if that flick is worse, feel free to send us an email.
Despite good turns from Heath Ledger and Matt Damon (one of the more entertaining aspects of the film is that the casting should have assumedly been reversed – Heath as the smooth-talker, and Matt as the quiet one), The Brothers Grimm is really nothing more than a very pretty Scooby Doo episode. The set design is good (but not as good as the posters would have led us to believe) and Gilliam’s direction is, as always, very meticulous, but the plot is stale, the characters boring, and the jokes unfunny.
While nobody could ever accuse Gilliam of selling out, it remains his most studio-friendly work to date: no real theme, no real message, just a few hours of two extremely attractive protagonists getting into computer-generated hijinx. It’s unfortunate that Gilliam eschewed the miniatures and practical special effects that made Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen so great – as nice as CG is, the special effects in Grimm have none of the personality of those in Gilliam’s earlier works.
Alfred Hitchcock - To Catch a Thief
Considering it was directed by a master of suspense and starred one of the most charming actors of its time, it’s almost amazing that To Catch a Thief manages to be so utterly unsuspenseful and charmless.
With no intrigue or murder to work on, this Hitchcock “thriller” basically revolves around Cary Grant and Grace Kelly almost having sex for about an hour and a half. The “real” plot involves Grace attempting to capture Cary Grant in the act of cat burgling (his criminal alias is “The Cat,” which may be the most uncool criminal alias of all time), but what little entertainment exists in the film comes from the quasi-chemistry between Grant and Kelly.
If anything, the film’s one great scene occurs when Grace Kelly opens a door, kisses Grant for absolutely no reason, and then closes the door. If that scene sounds a bit boring to be the best scene in the film, then you’re absolutely right: Cary Grant seems absolutely bored, and Grace Kelly (though painfully gorgeous) is even colder than usual.
Ridley Scott - Matchstick Men
Ah, the conman film. How wonderfully dependable you are. From The Sting to Matchstick Men, every conman film ever made consists of three clearly recognizable acts: in the first, we learn some clever and interesting small cons that the protagonist uses on a daily basis. In the second, the protagonist builds up to one big con. In the third, the big con goes down but twists and turns in a way the audience would have never imagined. This works for The Sting, but when Matchstick Men does it, the movie essentially destroys its one purpose for being.
Ostensibly, Matchstick Men was supposed to stand out from the pack of con artist flicks because while it dealt with the life of a professional liar (an OCD-plagued Nicholas Cage), it was also about him learning to love his newfound daughter. The film is actually somewhat entertaining throughout, even if the jokes fall flat and there’s not much chemistry between Cage and Alison “simultaneously looks twelve and thirty years old” Lohman.
The real problem comes with the ending: while The Sting’s twist-within-a-twist of an ending worked as light entertainment, Matchstick Men essentially makes the entire relationship between Nick Cage and his estranged daughter – you know, the basis of the entire film – irrelevant. We find out that the girl isn’t really his daughter, and she’s just been conning him. All of the themes about redemption and forgiveness are more or less lost once the twist ending comes around, in favor of a cheap surprise and a too-long denouement.
Sam Peckinpah - The Ballad of Cable Hogue
You wouldn’t think that the same guy who directed The Wild Bunch would also helm a comedy-western-musical. You might think that said comedy-western-musical might suck pretty hard, and you’d be right.
Sam Peckinpah was a gruff, serious kind of guy. This may come as a surprise, but gruff, serious guys don’t usually do comedy very well. Even though Jason Robards will always be a badass, even he can’t save Ballad from its plethora of childish sight gags (OH NOES, CABLE’S WIFE IS NAKED AND THEY HAVE GUESTS HOWEVER WILL HE COVER HER UP) and out-of-place musical numbers.
Not to mention that at the very end, Peckinpah suddenly decides that he wants to get serious. Unfortunately, Peckinpah’s version of “serious” equates with a forced and misplaced bit of story symbolism, wherein the first automobile of its type drives up to Cable’s watering hole. It begins to drift down a hill, and – for no discernible reason whatsoever – Cable tries to physically stop the car, is run over, and dies, killed by the piece of new technology.
Gee, I wonder what that could possibly mean? It’s not like that scene wasn’t done immeasurably better in any one of Peckinpah’s other films.
Quentin Tarantino - Death Proof
First things first: if you’re one of those people who’s going to defend Death Proof by saying “you just didn’t get it, you’re a mongoloid who needs to be entertained by explosions every three seconds, you can’t appreciate simple dialogue,” then shut up. I love Tarantino dialogue, I don’t mind slow films, and I’m okay with plots that go nowhere (I own and enjoy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, for Christ’s sake).
The real problem with Death Proof is that it has its priorities seriously confused. For a grindhouse-style film, it’s remarkably modern: while I’m not the connoisseur of sleaze cinema that Tarantino fancies himself, I do know that grindhouse films never spent the majority of their running time filled with pointless, superficial dialogue that served only to stroke the director’s ego. If there’s one thing a grindhouse film should never, ever do, it’s bore the audience. And Death Proof does exactly that.
And yeah, I get what the point of the dialogue was. By hearing the girls talk about regular, everyday bullshit, we’ll connect with them emotionally and it’ll be a much bigger deal when Stuntman Mike wrecks their shit. Just one problem, though: the girls have almost totally interchangeable personalities, and are more or less impossible to care for. Yeah, Zoe Bell and the Angry Black Chick stand out from the other characters, but they only stand out in that they’re really fucking annoying. Could Zoe possibly squint more in order to accentuate her bad girl dialogue, or could Angry Black Chick be any more stereotypically Angry or Black?
Not to mention that the single coolest and most interesting character in the entire film, Stuntman Mike, is only in about a fourth of the entire movie. Stuntman Mike is so cool that it’s really hard not to root for him, thus making all the bullshit dialogue with the women totally pointless. Mike’s too awesome: just let him kill these bitches and we’ll be on our way.
While the car scenes are probably the best ever put on film, you have to wonder: why on Earth didn’t Angry Black Chick just slow down when Stuntman Mike started chasing them? Or at the moment when the car actually comes to an almost-complete stop, why the hell didn’t Zoe just get off the hood and run into the car? I’m willing to suspend my disbelief pretty far in a movie called Grindhouse, but not enough to believe that an assumedly intelligent woman didn’t have the common sense to get off the hood of a friggin’ moving car when she had the chance.
I wish I could have enjoyed Death Proof more than I did, but considering it was preceded by the hilariously action-packed Planet Terror, there was no way for Death Proof to seem anything other than ploddingly slow and, overall, disappointing. The films could have probably been switched in order and Grindhouse would have worked better as a whole – not to mention that chronologically, the events of Death Proof take place before Planet Terror.
PS: Mary Elizabeth Winstead was the single hottest girl in either movie, and she did absolutely nothing. Unfortunate.