The Fallacy of the “Worst Movie Ever”

Originally published in April 2014

Yesterday, my father forwarded to me an email he got from a good friend who’d just seen Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. His verdict: “Possibly the worst movie ever made.” Boy, did I ever cringe when I read that. First of all, it’s patently untrue. Noah isn’t even the worst movie this year. (I’d nominate I, Frankenstein or Need for Speed for that dubious distinction.) More importantly, it was another example of something that always gets under my skin. That term, “worst movie ever,” gets thrown around a lot. I know someone who claimed Gravity was one of the worst movies ever made. A lot of people equate “movie I hated” with “worst movie ever.” They are not the same thing.

The truth is that the average moviegoer has no clue what the worst movies ever made are. That’s not critical snobbery, it’s just a mathematical truth. Allow me to explain. Someone who goes to the movies once a month is considered a “frequent moviegoer.” Let’s imagine a hypothetical film fan. We’ll call him Pharrell (because that “Happy” song is running through my head right now). Pharrell goes to the movies once a month and, just to make things interesting, we’ll also say that he rents one from Redbox just as frequently. That’s 24 movies a year. How does he choose which ones to see? That’s easy – he opts for the ones that look good to him, the ones he thinks he’ll like. And he will like a lot of them. Some of them will disappoint him. He may even hate one or two. But – and this the key to my argument – he will actively avoid films that: 1.) don’t appeal to his tastes; and 2.) look like complete crap. So imagine that one of the movies he sees in the theater is Noah and he loathes it. Is he justified in declaring it “possibly the worst movie ever?” No, because he’s selectively chosen which ones to see. He simply hasn’t seen a wide enough sample to make that claim.

I’ve had this discussion with colleagues, and they agree. As critics, we see just about everything. And some of the stuff we see is so insanely, unspeakably awful that it would curl the hair of the average moviegoer. People often ask me about the worst movies I’ve seen. In my book Straight-Up Blatant, I wrote an entire chapter devoted to the subject. One of them is a 2008 flick called The Hottie and the Nottie starring Paris Hilton. It’s the story of a guy who learns to see the inner beauty in an unattractive woman after she’s taken drastic steps to make herself more outwardly beautiful. (Real hypocritical, huh?) This is the movie in which said guy, needing to create a spontaneous pseudonym for himself, sees a can of cole slaw and promptly dubs himself “Cole Slawson.” Yep, The Hottie and the Nottie is so bad, it makes you want to gouge your own eyes out. The movie made a whopping $27,696 during its release, according to Box Office Mojo. In other words, almost no one saw it. Take a look at the trailer for The Hottie and the Nottie and then check out the trailer for Noah. If someone put a gun to your head and demanded that you watch one of those films right now, which one would you choose? I’m guessing you’d choose Noah. Why? Because The Hottie and the Nottie looks like – pardon the language – an unadulterated piece of dog shit.

While it’s true that Noah is a long film that makes the audience work to uncover all the spiritual themes in the story, it clearly contains some filmmaking skill, whether you like it or not. It’s professionally photographed and edited, with visual effects that don’t look like they were done on someone’s PC. It has three Oscar-winning actors in the cast (Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Anthony Hopkins). They, unlike Paris Hilton, understand the mechanics of acting. And, most importantly, it has a visionary director behind the camera. You may not like Aronofsky’s vision of the famous Bible story, but it’s hard to argue that he isn’t using his art to challenge you, as all great artists do. The fact that the film has these things is what drove people, including my dad’s friend, to see it on opening weekend. If it had looked as inept as The Hottie and the Nottie, they wouldn’t have bothered.

It’s okay to not like Noah or Gravity or 12 Years a Slave (which a Facebook friend deemed one of the worst movies ever made). Not every film is for every taste. That’s part of what makes talking about them so much fun. But if you’re going to declare a film among the worst of all time, you need to know what you’re talking about. Seeing a small sample of the hundreds of motion pictures released every year doesn’t cut it. Anyone – film critic or not – who sees in excess of 200 movies a year can tell you what the real worst movies ever made are. And I’m not even talking about “so bad it’s good” stuff like Birdemic or The Room. I’m talking about the stuff that makes you think punching yourself in the face for two hours would have been a preferable entertainment option. I’m talking about The Human Centipede 2, Freddy Got Fingered, Tideland, A Haunted House, Old Dogs, I Know Who Killed Me, Bratz, Vampires Suck or anything directed by Uwe Boll.

Recently, Screen Crush ran a list of movies with a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There’s not a single hit on there. Audiences knew to stay away. I’ve seen way too many of them, as have most critics and hardcore cinephiles. Most people will have seen one, maybe two, if that. This is why equating “movie I hated” with “worst movie ever” bugs me. If most ticketbuyers knew what the worst movies ever made really were, they wouldn’t throw the term around so loosely.

We’ll end with a friendly challenge. If you’re a casual moviegoer, the next time you come out of a theater ready to declare something the “worst movie ever made,” go check out InAPPropriate Comedy (starring Lindsay Lohan and Rob Schneider, and directed by the guy from the ShamWow commercials) and get back to me on which one is the real monstrosity.


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