Here in New York, a night out at the movies for two might run you upward of $50, including two tickets, a bucket of popcorn, a trough of Diet Coke, and a shovel of Milk Duds. Factoring in the chance of picking up bed bugs (the removal of which might be $1,000 or more), and you’re really talking about $1,050 for one evening of watching Jennifer Aniston fall in and out of love. I’ve made a personal commitment not to take this risk for anyone less than Batman.
The next best thing to actually going to the theater, of course, is to pay for a home movie subscription from a service like Netflix, to sit through movies for which you otherwise would have never paid. (This is how coupons work, by the way – that 2-for-1 diaper deal sounds great until you buy them and realize you don’t have children.) This happens to us all the time: we get home from work, tear open the red envelope, and one of us inevitably blames the other for putting the live-action Super Mario Brothers movie on the list.
This got me thinking about how many truly terrible movies exist. The answer is, of course, lots. But then I wondered: how many of those terrible movies are actually enjoyable? The answer isn’t “lots,” but there are a few. This is all highly personal – so much of movie viewing depends on your state of mind, where you are in your life, and why elements of the movie might speak to your particular brand of psychopathology.
The more brain space I gave to this question, the more I realized that I have loved some truly horrible movies in my life. Truly! I’d like to share them with you so I don’t have to sit in the shame corner by myself. So, without any further hoopla, here is my list of the best worst movies — alphabetized, because I have no idea how to otherwise order their wonderful terribleness.
In the Cut
Why It’s Bad: You guys, this movie. It makes none of the sense! It’s about a New York City high school English teacher, played by Meg Ryan, who gets embroiled in a murder mystery, and we don’t know whether her sexy cop-love interest, played by a full-lipped, mustachioed Mark Ruffalo, is friend or foe. A serial killer is on the loose, and his MO is putting an engagement ring on the fingers of the women he kills before he dismembers them. (Aw! See? There are marriage-minded men in New York!) Meg Ryan’s sister, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, runs around a lot in her underwear and lives above a strip club; however, those two things are unrelated. There’s some poetry mixed in, and vague nods to female sexuality, empowerment, and feminism, but the movie’s a hot mess that can’t decide what it wants to be. Also: there’s a scene where Meg Ryan takes one of her underage students to a bar to go over his English paper with him, which… I mean, so ridiculous. Everyone knows English teachers can’t afford to go out! They grade papers in fingerless gloves by candlelight because the electricity keeps getting shut off!
… And Also Awesome: Mark Ruffalo is in it. Mark Ruffalo is naked in it. Mark Ruffalo participates in one the best sex scenes in any movie anywhere, ever. Forever and ever, amen.
Why It’s Bad: There are very few words spoken in this film about the wild American frontier in the 1800s. One of the first lines happens when our hero, Jeremiah Johnson (played by Robert Redford), enters a frontier settlement and asks, “Just where is it I could find bear, beaver, and other critters worth cash money when skinned?” The answer: “Ride due west as the sun sets. Turn left at the Rocky Mountains.”
WHY THANK YOU HOW PRECISE. In the time before GPSs and jokes about beavers, there lived a tight-lipped man named Jeremiah Johnson who wanted only to beat nature so he could properly love it. Redford bursts onto the screen in a handsome bubble of craggy skin and manly fortitude, playing a character who wants nothing more than a life of solitude in the mountains. He is the original GET OFF MY LAWN protagonist, recent Clint Eastwood roles notwithstanding. In his travels, Jeremiah takes on a wife and an orphan, but, unlike a movie with few words, it would take me too many to describe how this happens. Just go with it – it’s charming. Anyway, he then proceeds to accidentally piss off some Native Americans when he trespasses on their sacred burial ground, and then all hell breaks loose. They send warrior after warrior to take him down, but he defeats every. single. one. And, well, you know the Old West story. White people done settled it, without asking. Eventually, the Native Americans take from Jeremiah the things he never wanted in the first place, leaving our lonely hero in the same place we first met him. Except we know that his way of life is ending, and that the great taming of the West is a-coming. His log cabin is eventually going to be an Applebee’s, and there isn’t a damn thing His Grizzly Highness can do about it.
… And Also Awesome: Directed by Sydney Pollack, this film has some of the best cinematography of any man-vs.-nature film. And in between all of its self-important silence, its racist implications about white man’s right to take what’s not his, and all of Redford’s blank genuflections, you actually feel sad that this character doesn’t have the foresight to match the hindsight that we now have. What? I don’t know. You just pity his ignorance of the events yet to come, is what I’m saying. More than anything, I wanted Redford to be wearing sunscreen because I knew what his future looked like.
The Last Unicorn
Why It’s Bad: So this is an animated children’s movie from the early ‘80s – one of my favorites as a child – and once I explain it to you, you’ll understand why I am the way I am. This is basically a movie about the dangers of adulthood and growing up, where the unicorns represent innocence and childhood (aka, virgins). King Haggard (representing Death, voiced by Christopher Lee) sends out his evil Red Bull (representing puberty, so basically: he’s a giant period on four legs, my worst nightmare) to round up all the virgins – sorry, unicorns – to throw them into the sea (of adulthood). All but one – the last unicorn. Who, for some reason, doesn’t know she’s the last unicorn in the world until a butterfly tripping on acid in the forest tells her. Did I mention this is a children’s movie?
So, the Unicorn sets out to find the others like her, to rescue them from King Haggard’s prison. She comes across a crazy cast of characters, like a three-boobed harpy. Yes, boobs on a bird. Not A-cups, mind you, but at least Double-Ds. You and I know it’s not possible to fly with those things, but this is fantasy, after all. There’s a magician named Schmendrick (Alan Alda channeling Woody Allen), and Jeff Bridges as Price Lir, who falls in love with the Last Unicorn when she takes a human form. He sings a love song to her. It’s awkward. You will suffer from second-hand embarrassment because of it, trust me. There’s also a skeleton that guards an all-important clock, and he can only be bribed with red wine. In fact, he’s obsessed with it. Wine, wine, wine. Think Buster Bluth and his juice boxes.
Did I mention this is a children’s movie?
… And Also Awesome: Mia Farrow, that raspy alien doe, voices the character of the Last Unicorn, and she is perfect. The soundtrack, with music by America, is simultaneously medieval and ‘70s-crusty. So, pretty amazing. Come to think of it, the fact that this movie brought together Christopher Lee, Alan Alda, Jeff Bridges (singing), and a three-boobed harpy means that it is as close to terrible perfection as possible. Think of it as the sun: enough distance, and it is warm, life-giving; get too close to try and analyze it, and you will die.
Like Water for Chocolate
Why It’s Bad: This movie could have been called Romeo and Juliet: South of the Border. Tita is the youngest of three daughters of a single mother running a farm in late-1800s Mexico. As tradition would have it, as the youngest daughter, Tita is never meant to marry, but instead has to live with and take care of her mother until her mother dies. But because this is a movie (novel first), and movies require drama and tension, Tita falls in love with a neighbor boy, Pedro – even before her older sisters have any suitors at all. That little tramp!
Because they cannot be together, Pedro instead marries Tita’s eldest sister, Rosaura, in order to be closer to Tita. Tita’s evil mother agrees with the coupling and expects Tita to get over it. Let’s stop here and talk about what a lady boner-killer that would be. Also: how stupid is Pedro to think this would work? Ug. He’s such a little shit. Poor Tita takes to the kitchen and perfects her cooking skills because the only thing she’s really allowed to be is a servant. So sad is she that her lover has married her sister, she cries into the food she’s making. In the grand tradition of magical realism, anyone who eats the food she makes also cries.
Lot of other stuff happens. Like Tita’s middle sister, Gertrudis, runs off naked with the captain of the local army, and she later comes back as the general of that same army. I don’t know about you, but that’s a story worth telling, so someone should work on the screenplay. Rosaura bears Pedro a child and also suffers from digestive issues. And then Tita’s mother dies.
But Tita’s mother still bothers her from beyond the grave! Talk about helicopter parenting. She hovers around the kitchen to criticize Tita for continued attraction to the married Pedro – a situation the mother-ghost caused in the first place. But then Tita decides she’s had enough, does a little talking back, and closes the window. Boom! Mother-ghost is gone for good – carried back on the wind from whence she came. And speaking of foul breezes, Tita’s sister, Rosaura, now basically a large intestine wearing a dress, farts herself to death. (At least one character in every movie should suffer from this. Imagine, for example, had Rose been able to keep Jack warm this way when they were afloat in the icy Atlantic in Titanic.)
Later, once Tita and Pedro are finally able to be together, he dies while they’re having sex, and poor Tita eats matches so she can combust internally. Then the whole farm goes up in the flames of their lust. I’m sorry – there is no moral here. If you don’t give in to love, you have a miserable life; if you do, you die a fiery death from rubbing your loins together. The only reasonable thing you can do is cry into your food. See: earlier.
… And Also Awesome: Magical realism is beautiful because it convinces us that our deepest, hidden desires might become manifest, that certain forces unseen might help us along or give us special powers to overcome our enemies. You want to believe a version of this world can be true. You want Tita and Pedro to get what they want. Every time I watch this movie, I want them to run off together early, leaving the farm and making their way to a village where Tita can run a bakery and Pedro is a blacksmith and where they have four children and run the PTA. Spoiler alert: it never happens.
Why It’s Bad: The title of this glorious 1974 sci-fi comes from the eponymous flying, hollow stone head that roams post-apocalyptic Earth dropping off weapons to barbarians. Just so you know what we’re working with here. Sean Connery plays Zed, a barbarian with chest hair and long braid, wearing a sort of fireman’s outfit sans shirt and pants. No, really. The barbarians think the flying head is god, but only the one with the Scottish accent is smart enough to question that, so Zed hops aboard the flying head and discovers that it is, in fact, not a god, but powered by a pilot. Like any good barbarian, he kills the pilot without asking questions. The not-a-god head that is Zardoz then delivers Zed to the land of the Eternals. (I’m zorry; the Z-namez are confuzing me – are they confuzing you, too? I’ll just refer to Zed as Sean Connery going forward.) The Eternals are corrupt and bored with their existence because – guess what? – they live forever. “Eternal” is not just a figure of speech, like in diamond ring commercials.
Sean Connery, with the aid of some friends, kills lots of the Eternals and restores natural life to the planet, making everyone mortal again. Except… Sean Connery himself seems eternal, doesn’t he? Hm.
… And Also Awesome: For every reason listed in the “bad” category. This movie is on its own plane of existence. Imagine Stefon from SNL saying, “This movie has everything: flying stone heads, man braids to swing on, artificial aging, bored models walking into each other, and half-life. What’s half-life? It’s that thing when a midget comes at you wielding death.” That’s Zardoz.
So, what are some of your favorite terrible movies?