At about this time last year, I predicted that 2022 would be remembered as the year that broke the film industry. Oops – it turned out that I just needed to wait 12 months, two strikes and one giant economic tailspin for things to get genuinely dire.
Sure, it’s true that there were a wealth of against-all-odds highs this year, even beyond the Barbenheimer phenomenon. But there was also a whole lot of trash, too, so much of which unintentionally symbolized the signposts of industry rot. For those who avoided the 10 films below, consider yourself lucky. For the filmmakers and producers responsible, let this serve as a warning: Moviegoers are catching on.
10-9. Pain Hustlers & We Have a Ghost
The streaming wars are over, and Netflix has been declared the victor. Not only has the industry giant consistently performed above and beyond its nearest competitors, but it has also spent the past few months releasing a genuinely impressive slate of high-tier awards contenders, including David Fincher’s The Killer, Todd Haynes’s May December, Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, and George C. Wolfe’s Rustin. Still, because of Netflix’s sheer size, it is also responsible for clogging up our digital queues with truly dreadful stuff, further erasing the line between cinema and mere “content.” To wit (or, more accurately, to non-wit): These two high-gloss titles, both of which speak to Netflix’s self-created fault lines.
Pain Hustlers was afforded a splashy premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, in the hopes that it would become a people-pleasing Oscar favourite. Yet David Yates’s pharma-crime comedy landed like a depressingly limp Wolf of Wall Street, made even more depressing by the fact that it wasted the precious time of star Emily Blunt. The supernatural comedy We Have a Ghost, meanwhile, proved that Netflix still needs way more time to figure out the family-audience market. Even in the normally capable hands of director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day), this bargain-bin Beetlejuice rip-off starring David Harbour felt designed solely to lure in subscribers who were trying to find the latest season of Stranger Things.
The astounding financial success of Five Nights at Freddy’s and Saw X aside, it seems safe to say that Hollywood has a horror problem: The Boogeyman, a Pet Sematary reboot, The Pope’s Exorcist, a new and flat Insidious. There were not one but two failed attempts this year to create a decent Dracula flick – first with the dreadful Nicolas Cage gore fest Renfield (more of a comedy than a horror flick) and then just a few months later with the bloodlessly dull vamp-on-a-boat thriller The Last Voyage of the Demeter (which I insist would have performed better had that one also starred Cage and been titled Boatferatu).
Meanwhile, someone decided to spend an unholy amount of money securing the rights to the Exorcist franchise, only to deliver the head-spinningly boring Exorcist: Believer, the first in a planned trilogy whose sequels I doubt will ever reach an audience, no matter how much the power of Christ compels its producers to recoup their investment.
While Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom delivered a surprisingly decent finale to the DC Extended Universe, it still didn’t erase the dreadful year(s) that Warner Bros. endured with its slate of superhero films. The purposeless Shazam! sequel was expectedly dead-on-arrival, but it was the tremendous hype for The Flash, which studio leaders foolishly touted as one of the best comic-book movies ever made before any outside eyes could witness it, that made the movie’s supersonic crash all the more embarrassing. (The studio’s fourth DC production of the year, Blue Beetle, felt too much like a sitcom with VFX to qualify as an out-and-out big-screen disaster.) Perhaps James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Suicide Squad) will be able to save the intellectual property when he reboots the entire DC universe in 2025 with a new Superman film. Or maybe this just means we can go back to watching a new Batman trilogy every decade, and leave it at that.
4-3. Freelance & Expend4bles
Just how hard is it to properly kill a guy these days? In addition to Worst Films of 2023 contenders The Equalizer 3 and Heart of Stone, it has been an especially tough year for movies about tough guys. In the woefully cut-rate action-comedy Freelance, John Cena underlined the unintentional irony of his film’s title in that he will take on any gig that comes his way, up to and including the most flattened of action-comedies. Meanwhile, Sylvester Stallone and his depressingly diminished crew of mercenaries delivered second-rate slaughter in Expend4bles. Its ridiculous title hinted that the movie might be knowingly stupid. But instead it arrived as merely stupid-stupid.
Although two of this year’s three Marvel Studios productions flopped hard and fast – only James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy capper came out relatively unscathed – I wouldn’t be so quick to announce the death of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You don’t get to make 30-plus game-changing blockbusters without learning a few things about survival, after all. But the confusing, ugly and soulless Captain Marvel and Ant-Man sequels undoubtedly highlighted big and fat signs of MCU fatigue – both from weary audiences, and filmmakers who have completely surrendered themselves to the machinations of a depressingly bland moviemaking monolith. It is time to blow this multiverse up and start from scratch.
Bonus Canadian Entry: Simulant
This homegrown sci-fi thriller (which somehow found the money/kompromat to convince real-deal movie stars Simu Liu, Jordana Brewster and Sam Worthington to participate) will make you question the very necessity and notion of Canadian genre cinema. In an industry where so many filmmakers struggle to realize their visions, Simulant is an especially egregious Telefilm-funded example of chasing bad money with even worse money, a disaster whose deficits demand to be high/lowlighted.
Double Bonus Kick ‘Em When They’re Down Entry: Haunted Mansion & The Little Mermaid
This won’t get me back on Disney’s Christmas card list, but 2023 cannot end without stressing that the Mouse House needs a serious restructuring of its live-action films unit. I have never before so strongly fought the urge to bolt from a theatre than when watching these two movies, which are both in fact just craven opportunities to raid the corporation’s intellectual-property vault. Bah humbug.