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The Problem With ‘Worst of the Year’ Lists

The Problem With 'Worst of the Year' Lists

Time Magazine released their lists of the best and worst movies of the year yesterday; Richard Corliss took care of the best-of honors (and picked Michael Haneke’s “Amour” as his number one) while Mary Pols spearheaded the worst-of list, topping it off with the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s “Cloud Atlas.”

“‘Cloud Atlas’ is so much like the bong-fueled conversations I had in college that I almost ordered a Domino’s pizza afterward. The problem is there’s no emotional hook in this bloated fantasia of special effects and makeup wizardry; the passion is all in the brute labor of adapting David Mitchell’s novel for the screen. Co-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer flit across centuries and genres in a whirlwind of bloody violence and cross-dressing, ethnicity-shifting performances, but there’s as much opportunity to get attached to characters as there would be watching people go by on a roller coaster.”

For the record, I totally disagree with that pick (also for the record, that is a killer Domino’s joke). “Cloud Atlas” is actually one of my favorite movies of the year — maybe not top ten worthy, but certainly not anywhere near the worst thing I saw in 2012. Still, I’m not shocked to see it on a worst of 2012 list. It was a very polarizing movie. It wasn’t to Pols’ taste, and it wasn’t to a lot of people’s tastes.

In spite of our divergent opinions, I don’t have a problem with Pols’ specific list, which is a very fun read. I do have a problem, though, with most worst-of lists in general, including the one I myself invariably write every single year: with very few exceptions, no critic on the planet really sees all the worst movies of a year.

Granted, if we want to get really nitpicky here, no critic sees all the best movies of the year either. But at least most critics work hard during the final months of the year to hunt down all the best possible candidates for their lists. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve been watching one or two 2012 movies every day for weeks just to make sure my list is as informed as humanly possible. With about five days left before I’ve got to hand the thing in, my must-see pile still includes more than a dozen titles. A few may get overlooked. But I’m trying to see as much as I can.

Nobody — except maybe the guys who work for Rifftrax and a few really warped masochists — actually sets out to see all the candidates for the title of the worst movie of the year (to her credit, Pols did a quite a bit of research for her worst films list; “November was very bleak,” she wrote me this morning on Twitter). When you think about it, there are really no definitive resources for truly terrible cinema; no cottage industries devoted to compiling and vetting all of the contenders, or ranking and handicapping the favorites as there are for the Oscars (Grantland had a fun weekly column devoted to the Razzies last year, but it didn’t return for 2012). As a result, the vast majority of critics’ worst-of lists are far from authoritative, and they’re more determined by the quirks of scheduling, assignments, and happenstance than the careful assessment of all the most (un)worthy contenders.

Take Pols’ picks, for example. Besides “Cloud Atlas,” I saw five of her worst films of the year. One — “John Carter” — I would have paid to see in the theater. One — “This Means War” — I saw because I was trapped on an airplane and couldn’t sleep (at the very least, it helped with the insomnia). The other three — “Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Alex Cross,” and “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” — I only watched because someone paid me to write about them. 

All three of those movies were bad, but I saw worse in 2012, all because of other freelance criticism assignments. ScreenCrush sent me to review “The Apparition,” a high concept horror movie so atrocious it didn’t even include the high concept its advertising campaign promised. Time Out Chicago had me cover “Hick,” a skin-crawlingly icky movie about a thirteen-year-old runaway (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the man who picks up her on the side of the road and repeatedly tries to sleep with her. For Time Out New York, I endured “That’s What She Said,” a comedy about a trio of women so shrill they made an ambulance siren sound like an Enya record.

Don’t get me wrong; in all three cases, I was happy for the work. And watching a terrible movie is better than watching nothing at all (what else am I going to do? Talk to my wife? Please). But all three stand a reasonable possibility of making my own worst-of list ahead of titles Pols cites like “The Lorax” and “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” not because they’re necessarily worse than her choices, but because I never saw her choices in the first place.

I’m not exactly rushing out to see them now, either. I haven’t been scouring local Redboxes to track down a copy of “One For the Money,” Pols’ tenth worst movie of the year. The fifteen minutes of “A Thousand Words” I caught on another flight were enough to ensure that I never see the rest of it in any situation that doesn’t involve CIA interrogators and stress positions — but it currently has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes out of the 54 reviews submitted to the site, and is therefore probably required viewing for anyone who wants to put together a “serious” list of the worst films of 2012. 

A part of me wants to demand that critics treat their worst films of the year list with the same level of care and research as their best films of the year list. But then I realize I would be one of those critics, and I decide it’s a horrible idea.

Read more of Time’s Best and Worst Movies of 2012 Lists.

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