Movies made for the purpose of entertaining audiences went mainstream in the early 1900s. More than a century later, IMDB has more than 250,000 titles in its database and, even then, it’s safe to assume that some have been left out. No one person can watch them all. The average person can’t even watch all the good ones—the Criterion Collection, commonly thought of as the gold standard for foreign and classic films, has re-released over 700 movies, which means that if you wanted to tackle the whole library, which is expanding all the time, you’d need to watch one a day for two years. And this still barely scratches the surface of American film.
Plenty of folks have tried to chip away at the mountain of cinema, and one of the ways they’ve done so has been resorting to that most human of traditions: making lists. One of these is a Wikipedia page called “List of Films Considered the Worst.” The movies here have been drawn from sources like Roger Ebert’s list of the most-hated films, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the Golden Raspberry Awards, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. If this page is to be believed, then all of these movies aren’t just bad; at times, they’ve been considered the most bad. They’ve been accused of being the actual dregs of a hundred years of film-making.
What’s a better plan for achieving immortality, or at least a long-tenured place in the cultural lexicon: making a great movie, or making a terrible movie?
The earliest entry on the list is Reefer Madness, a classic of drugsploitation that has the same understanding of narcotics as your grandma does Twitter. Reefer Madness is hilarious. It feels like a PSA made by lunatics, an almost Grecian myth of excess—the characters smoke marijuana and then literally kill each other. This is one of the first films ever to be considered transcendentally bad, but over the years it’s gotten even worse, which is to say, better; it belongs in a very particular tradition of bad movies, which are the ones that you should watch as soon as you can. Other titles in this group include Plan 9 From Outer Space, failure-auteur Ed Wood’s magnum opus; Robot Monster, a Space-Age parable so incompetent it makes children playing with stuffed animals seem documentary; ’80s camp classic Mommie Dearest, in which Faye Dunaway gives a performance of histrionics that feels like trying to watch an air-raid siren; Skinemax standard-bearer Showgirls; and probably the most enjoyable of all, The Room, a movie so incomprehensibly, indescribably terrible that it loops around the spectrum of quality and becomes delightful. If you haven’t seen The Room, see it tonight.
Unfortunately, not all bad movies are the worst in this way. Two other types of films fill the Wikipedia list. The first are those sabotaged by their own ambition, scale, and size, which fail despite the presence of talent and money and all of the other ingredients you normally expect to produce a good film. This includes Heaven’s Gate, Myra Breckenridge, Caligula, and Ishtar, and is heavy on work from the ’70s and ’80s, when Hollywood was still rife with funding, drugs, an inclination toward risk, and an environment that could get a little too friendly toward the artist. Then there’s the third category, and the least interesting—movies that are made cheaply or insincerely or crassly, movies that are incompetent in the most ordinary of ways, movies like Adam Sandler’s recent oeuvre, failed children’s films, and Battlefield Earth. These movies are never worth watching, even out of morbid curiosity; there just isn’t anything there.
MAKING ART IS INHERENTLY a risk, and there’s a certain cruelty in calling a film the worst of its kind. The first category, the movies so bad that they become good, all have one thing in common, which is incomprehensible sincerity. It’s hard to fault men like Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau for believing in their own visions so fiercely and then actually bringing them from concept to screen, and this is part of why the experience of watching them is joyful—their effort and affection elevates what would otherwise be painful schlock into something worthy of being watched. Of course, you could also argue that this is sad, that inadvertent comedy, especially when it’s derived from lovingly made drama, is inherently a bummer. But realistically—and compared with, say, obscure mediocrity—can there be a better fate for a movie like The Room than this?
The other two categories don’t offer the same opportunity for celebration. The ambitious failures usually fail due to some of the worst human traits, ones like hubris and megalomania and madness. And the pure trash is pure trash, made without any genuine honesty or optimism. If a film is born out of insincerity, there’s really no way to meet it but with the same disingenuousness.
But at the very least, the worst movies ever made offer some comfort: Even in absolute disaster, there’s something to be learned about why we make entertainment, and how it can go wrong. Occasionally, the failure even succeeds, albeit on a different rubric than the one it originally had in mind.
And this list of movies raises another question. What’s a better plan for achieving immortality, or at least a long-tenured place in the cultural lexicon: making a great movie, or making a terrible movie? It might be making a bad movie. A really, really bad movie. A movie so bad, so bizarre and rough, so inexplicably terrible, that some people will call it the worst movie ever made; a movie so bad that its existence forces viewers to question what they know about art and artists. There are plenty of good films. Fewer are the worst.