Is this not the most “2020” list that there is? Granted, “disappointing” is a polite word for what 2020 was; which helps explain this list, actually. There’s too much negativity in the world already, but there was especially too much negativity in 2020, which was one of those truly astonishing things where literally everyone is in complete agreement that the year sucked ass. Like, usually there’s at least one group of people who comes out of a contentious year happy, either because of an election going their way, or a sports upset. What can I say; lockdown is an equal-opportunity ball-buster.
So instead of an out-and-out “Worst Of” list, here I’m going in a different direction; the most disappointing. Now, this is happening in part because I didn’t see enough bad movies to justify a full list; yeah, even with all that extra lockdown time, I just never got around to 365. But I also think that “disappointing movies” are much more interesting than “bad movies” from a discussion standpoint, because there were a lot of movies that came out last year that were completely without worth (again, 365) and just aren’t worth talking about. Which means that there were some horrible movies from last year that aren’t going to be on this list, because really, they were hopeless from the word go: for example, Dolittle was an embarrassing failure, but it looked like it was going to be an embarrassing failure since well before it came out, so it doesn’t count for this. In order for a movie to be disappointing, there has to have been at least a chance for something worthwhile, which is something at least all of these movies had.
The brilliant thing about Nolan’s best movies – Inception, The Prestige, Memento, his first two Batman flicks – is how they balance these genuinely heady concepts with a populist sensibility. They’re complicated movies, but never so complicated that the average audience member wouldn’t be able to keep up. With Tenet, the scales finally tip over, resulting in a movie where you’d need a doctorate in temporal physics to keep up; and even then, probably not. And while I’d much rather have a movie fail for being too weird and out there rather than too formulaic and dumbed down, it does still lead to a moviegoing experience littered with moments of brilliance, but one that doesn’t add up to something worthwhile like his other films. The fact is, for as cerebral and introspective as Inception and The Prestige could be, I got a legit emotional charge out of both those movies, whereas this film felt hollow and sterile to its core. Strange as it is to say, all the time travel stuff in Bill & Ted 3 made more sense than it does here, and worked better dramatically as well.
Admittedly, I went into this film with some degree of hype, as the way it was getting described at the time was “2020’s The Irishman.” This pushes all my buttons, what with The Irishman being well regarded as one of the best films from 2019, which in a year that also gave us Parasite and Knives Out, is hella impressive. Unfortunately, The Traitor lacks the central cohesion that made Scorsese’s masterpiece such a comparatively easy watch, even though that movie was a whole hour longer than this one.
When I wrote that whole disclaimer up above about how this isn’t a “worst of” list, this is the movie I was thinking about. Because I didn’t like this movie very much – I thought it was derivative of Pixar’s previous heights, and it suffered from some truly shoddy worldbuilding – but the baseline competence you can expect from Pixar is enough to save this from any conventional “worst of” lists. But in terms of disappointments…yeah. My feelings about Onward is that it’s essentially a reverse Up; you’ll remember that that movie famously peaked in its first ten minutes, after which point it shifted gears and became just a pretty great animated movie. Onward goes the opposite way, plodding along as a below-average Pixar film for its first two-thirds, until the last act, where it finally gets a sense for legit emotional stakes. And credit where it’s due; this thing has a great ending. But until that comes, what we’re stuck with is a messy script, with subpar visual invention as a result of the aforementioned shoddy worldbuilding, which is at once way too complicated – this thing opens with a voiceover trying to explain the logistics of the world, something no previous Pixar movie had to do – and strangely lazy, with a lot of scenes feeling like they just took the bog-standard real world, and added some orcs. Seriously, you compare this to previous Pixar movies, which excelled at this exact thing – Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. especially – that this can’t help but come off as very poor.
The Old Guard
I would have thought, what with the rise of superhero flicks over the past decade, and the increasingly dominant force of nerdom in popular culture, that we had finally moved past the phenomenon of movies with inanely fun premises, that tend to shy away from those premises. But here we are, with a dire Netflix Original that seems for all the world like a throwback to the early-2000s X-Men movies, the ones that always seemed vaguely embarrassed of their comic book origins. That’s the vibe of this film, which takes a hell of a setup – immortal globe-trotting mercenaries – and strips it of any potential fun that might’ve been had with that premise, until all we’re left with is a plodding, ponderous bore, a film that acts like it’s deeper than it really is.
I was rooting for Josh Trank, as I’m a fan of directors who get fucked by the studio system (or fuck themselves; by all accounts, Fant4stic was a messy situation) and then go on to prove themselves as an interesting director on smaller projects. And in fairness, that’s sort of what happens here. I actually was really into Capone for its first half hour or so, and in a sea of vitriolic reviews and career postmortems, I was gearing up to be one of the few people who was like, actually, there’s something here. It’s a biopic of Al Capone, but it completely does away with the usual indulgences that come with gangster biopics, eschewing the traditional “kewl” aesthetic of the lifestyle in favor of portraying this guy like the monster he was; pathetic, and small. That’s all well and good, and as far as movies like this go, kind of brave. The problem is, once the movie sets off in this direction, it kind of has nowhere to go, and the result is a film that starts strong and focused but which ultimately peters out well before the climax.
Sonic the Hedgehog
This might seem weird to say, but I’m actually more disappointed in Sonic the Hedgehog for it not being the insane, Cats-like disaster we were all promised in that initial trailer. Because that would’ve been horrible, don’t get me wrong…but it would’ve at least been memorable. Because while the final product of Sonic the Hedgehog gains points for a surprising baseline competence, especially when you consider how the vast majority of video game movie adaptations turn out, it does kind of become a problem when “baseline competence” is both the best and only really good thing you can say about a movie. Call me crazy, but I almost prefer the live-action Super Mario Bros. style of failure to what this is, because while that film is awful, it’s at least awful in a way that’s fascinating and imaginative. This film inevitably ends up feeling like a checklist, a studio-mandated slog through mediocrity in the name of shamelessly corporate franchise building.
It is significantly easier to make a great horror movie trailer than it is to make a great horror movie (want proof? Just look at The Grudge, another 2020 horror film which could’ve easily ended up on this list for much of the same reasons as this film. This can count as a dishonorable mention, I guess). We had nothing to go on but a trailer, and that trailer was all we needed; this movie had me on its side simply by completely bucking the trend of trailers that go out of their way to spoil the entire movie (looking at you, Marvel/DC) and instead leaving us with just a feeling, an impression. Like a good trailer should. Turns out, it was all in service of a movie with a premise Octavia E. Butler did way better.
The New Mutants
In an age where superhero stagnation has never felt more prevalent, The New Mutants promised to be something different; an X-Men horror movie. Everything was lined up for this to work; it was positioned to come into a moviegoing landscape dominated by crushingly “same-y” Marvel movies, and DC movies who at that time were still struggling to get their act together. The New Mutants promised to be a breath of fresh air. Instead, it’s the same incompetent schlock we’ve come to expect from the Fox X-Men division, right down to its legendarially staggered release date. Well, now that it’s finally out, we can definitively say: it wasn’t worth the wait. In fact, the only positive thing you can say about it is that it’s blessedly short.
Movie-wise, Sherlock Holmes has been through the fucking ringer these past couple of years. 2018 was a franchise low point, where we got two of the all-time worst Sherlock Holmes movies all in the same year – Holmes & Watson and Sherlock Gnomes – which is especially damning when you consider just how many times this literary character has been adapted. The best thing you can say about Enola Holmes is that it doesn’t quite sink to that level, but even taking that into account, it still sucks. It’s less a tale of a pint-sized deductive genius than it is a bland YA fantasy, and not a good one at that; this is the little sister of the world’s greatest detective, and the smartest thing she does all movie is unscramble a Scrabble board. Deductive genius.
My relationship to this movie is akin to that of Charlie Brown and the damn football. Because there was a time where I did honestly think, you know what, if there was ever a Disney live-action remake that had the chance of actually justifying its own existence, it’s this one. And in my defense, every reported change did sound like a good one; less songs, less annoying talking dragon, more emphasis on wuxia action. Then it came out, and I was crushingly reminded that this was, at the end, a Disney live-action remake, so really, what was I expecting? Something good? Please. The only halfway-decent thing that can be said about the Mulan live-action remake is that it bucks the trend of every one of these remakes being improbably worse than the one that came before, if only because instead of being worse than the “live action” Lion King from last year, it’s only as bad. So, progress? Honestly, I’m still reeling from the fact that this film is a whole half hour longer than its animated counterpart, and yet the plot feels infinitely more rushed. Like, mathematically, that should be impossible, and yet.
What a biopic needs to do in order to work is manage to engage me in a story I otherwise would’ve had no interest in. Case in point: I don’t give a shit about Facebook, or the making of Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg as a person can suck a toad. But somehow, The Social Network is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and a defining movie of the 21st century. There was no reason to assume Mank wouldn’t turn out the same way, given that it was the same director at the helm, David Fincher, making his first proper movie since 2014’s Gone Girl. But Mank is almost overpoweringly boring, due in no small part because it absolutely fails to actually sell you on why this is a story worth telling. It’s a biopic about the making of Citizen Kane, and stupidly, it seems to operate under the assumption that you already know and care about all the circumstances involved in that.
Birds of Prey
It’s rare for a movie to be so completely one-upped by a TV show, but by the time Birds of Prey came out, all I could think was, “Yeah, Harley Quinn did it better.” And isn’t that the most damning thing? There’s a 20-minute animated series that not only beat you to the punch when it came to “R-rated Harley Quinn,” but did it with better writing, better characters, better action…and just being better?
Train to Busan: Peninsula
2016’s Train to Busan is often heralded as one of the defining zombie movies of the 2010s, and for good reason; not only is it amazing, but it came out at a time where everyone in the world was sick to death of the walking dead (both the TV show and just the general concept), and it felt like nothing new could be done with the concept. And then this movie came along, and roundly kicked everyone’s asses by showing us what happens when zombies are done right. What’s funny is, the original Train to Busan doesn’t even do anything that unique; plot-wise, it’s a paint-by-numbers zombie tale, with all the tropes and cliches that come with that. But it was done with such competency, it felt brand new. It also felt like it didn’t need a sequel, but you know what, there was still some reason to hope, given that it was the same writer/director at the helm. As it turns out, lightning can’t strike twice, and what we’re left with is worse than a bad zombie movie; it’s a zombie movie I’ve seen a million times before.
If I’m being honest, this barely counts for this list, since this looked like a disaster from the moment the first trailer dropped (and even before then, the year’s long development cycle certainly didn’t bode well). But even though we had been warned beforehand that this would be taking significant liberties with the source material – by which I mean, they missed the whole point of those books and made Artemis a good guy – the sheer magnitude of how cobbled together this movie feels is genuinely staggering. This movie made headlines for being one of the first major release pictures to be dropped on streaming early in the pandemic, but I don’t know; judging by how minimum effort this whole thing is, I can’t imagine they were ever going to put it in theaters.