Now that we can track box-office revenue and critical consensus with Internet-enabled ease, making a list of the 21st century's worst films might seem simple: Just crunch the numbers and find the lowest performers.
That's not quite fair, though. Take a movie like "Transylmania," a 2009 spoof from the Long Island-raised Hillenbrand brothers that opened with $263,941, making it the lowest opening for a wide release in history. You could find hundreds of little independent flops like that one, but are those really worse than the big-budget, star-packed failures produced by major studios?
If we're going to pick on someone, let's pick on the big guys whose egos and wallets can take it. That means you, Adam Sandler.
BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000)
Riding high on a wave of public goodwill and newfound Hollywood power after his remarkable comeback in 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” John Travolta made "Battlefield Earth," a notorious sci-fi turkey based on the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. What was intented as a profound allegory for the human condition struck most viewers as fourth-rate “Star Trek,” with goony alien costumes and overacting so ham-fisted that it made William Shatner look like Philip Seymour Hoffman. “Battlefield Earth” nearly re-sank Travolta’s career and is now considered one of the worst films ever made.
Mariah Carey’s would-be entry into film stardom tanked so badly that it essentially kept her out of the multiplexes for nearly a decade. "Glitter" probably seemed like a sure-fire money-maker: Cast Carey as an aspiring singer, sketch out a quick price-of-fame narrative and tie the release to the soundtrack on Virgin Records. Too bad the album dropped the day of the World Trade Center attacks, but all blame rests with the movie itself: a grindingly dull drama whose first-time actress looked almost terrified of the camera. Carey subsequently starred in a few lesser projects and then, in 2009, received glowing reviews in Lee Daniels’ Oscar-nominated “Precious.”
SWEPT AWAY (2002)
Madonna’s genius for pop showmanship has rarely translated well to film (“Dick Tracy,” anyone?) but never as poorly as in "Swept Away," her collaboration with then-husband, director Guy Ritchie. It’s a remake of Lina Wertmuller’s 1974 classic, with Madonna unwisely cast as a despicably rich socialite shipwrecked on an island with a sailor. The latter role went to Adriano Giannini (son of the Italian screen legend Giancarlo Giannini) in his film debut. They’re both abysmal. Their utter lack of chemistry (or even of life) makes the movie feel less like a comedy and more like a grim, Sartrean drama. Madonna’s work behind the camera (“Filth and Wisdom,” “W.E.”) hasn’t fared much better.
DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO (2005)
Rob Schneider’s first “Deuce Bigalow” film may have been cringe-worthy, but this "European Gigolo" sequel -- notable for its jokes about gays, Asians and ugly women -- was so bad that it inspired a book. After film critic Patrick Goldstein called Schneider a “third-rate comic,” Schneider publicly blasted Goldstein as unqualified to judge because he had never won a Pulitzer Prize. Then Roger Ebert jumped in: “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified,” he wrote. The last three words of his review (“Your movie sucks") became the title of his 2007 collection of bad reviews. Now that’s a legacy.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008)
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” gave us so much joy that it’s sometimes painful to recall what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas eventually turned it into -- namely, an increasingly hokey, pandering and soulless franchise. The final film (to date), "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," is easily the worst, cheapened by awful-looking styrofoam props, a Soviets-and-space-aliens plot and the grating presence of Shia LaBeouf as Indiana Junior. Just as Fonzie once jumped the shark, Indiana “nukes the fridge” in this movie, protecting himself from a nuclear blast by hiding inside a refrigerator.
THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010)
Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan began as a visionary auteur (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable”), then became a dependable manufacturer of duds like “The Lady in the Water” and “The Happening.” This adaptation of a Nickelodeon action-fantasy series, however, marked Shyamalan’s first (but not last) all-out disaster. "The Last Airbender" failed on all basic levels, from the incomprehensible script to the not-quite-acting. It also added a new level -- an eye-straining 3-D conversion -- and failed on that. Richard Corliss of Time judged “The Last Airbender” the worst movie of the last 30 years.
BUCKY LARSON: BORN TO BE A STAR (2011)
If you don’t know the comedian Nick Swardson, this movie is one reason why. A bit-player who specializes in repellant characters (a creepy stalker in “Blades of Glory,” an alcoholic bus-driver in “Grown-Ups 2”), Swardson here takes the lead as Bucky, the world’s most underendowed porn star. Alright — but did he have to show us? The combination of grisly sight gags, Swardson’s grating persona (he mostly screams and twitches) and the strained dignity of Christina Ricci as his impossibly tolerant girlfriend made “Bucky Larson” the year’s worst-reviewed film, with a rare 0% rating on RottenTomatoes. Adam Sandler co-wrote and produced it.
In a year of truly terrible movies, from "Cloud Atlas" to "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" to "The Amazing Spider-Man," the Hasbro cash-in "Battleship" took first place. It starred the wooden Taylor Kitch (in his second bomb of the year, after "John Carter") as a Navy guy caught up in an alien invasion; fighting at his side are Liam Neeson and Rihanna. Relentlessly loud, exceedingly dumb -- especially whenever the dialogue becomes audible -- and shamelessly trading on post-9/11 patriotism, "Battleship" was a massive insult even to the intelligence of its 9-year-old target audience. In a word: Miss!
THAT’S MY BOY (2012)
Much of this list could be taken up by Adam Sandler films, but his 2012 comedy, "That's My Boy," about a crude slob (Sandler) and his prissy son (Andy Samberg), can stand in for all of them. Here, Sandler’s humor devolved from merely gross to truly tasteless, due mostly to a story that begins with statutory rape (Sandler plays a guy who, at 14, impregnated his high-school teacher) and includes a subplot about incest. It was Samberg’s first starring role in a major movie, and has so far been his last.
MOVIE 43 (2013)
Possibly the most widely regretted movie in history, if only because virtually every living actor appears in it. A comedy anthology directed by Peter Farrelly and others, "Movie 43" is a mind-boggling example of poor decision-making and bad taste among otherwise talented and intelligent people. Starring in several skits that focus mostly on excretions and genitalia are Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Anna Faris, Chloe Grace Moretz, Richard Gere, Halle Berry and about 20 other people you'd be depressed to recognize. Generally, the material is so distasteful that it would wrinkle the noses of even Hustler's editors. It won Golden Raspberry awards for worst picture, screenplay and all 13 directors.
AFTER EARTH (2013)
M. Night Shyamalan’s second film on this list seems like a case of history repeating itself. A big-budget vanity project, "After Earth" starred producer Will Smith and his son, Jaden, as future cosmonauts shipwrecked on a wild planet. The Smiths’ star-power couldn’t hide the translucently thin script, and some critics suspected that the film’s central volcano was a coded message from a crypto-Scientologist (Smith has been a donor to the church). Even the title recalled John Travolta’s “Battlefield Earth.” This movie isn’t as bad, perhaps, but it’s getting there.
LEFT BEHIND (2014)
Anyone up for a remake of Kirk Cameron’s legendarily laughable Rapture epic from 2000? Nicolas Cage said yes, and wound up playing an airline pilot who watches half his passengers go poof in mid-air, leaving behind their clothes and tell-tale Bibles. Not only is “Left Behind” one long, spiteful sermon -- basically, “nanny, nanny, told you so” -- it’s an astoundingly inept film, so jumbled and disorganized that it literally cannot keep track of night and day. In a rare show of unity, secular and faith-based critics came together to voice their condemnation. Jackson Cuidon called it “the most mean-spirited, insensitive, idiotic thing I’ve seen in my tenure reviewing for Christianity Today.”