Good and bad are just, like, words, man. Taste isn’t strictly binary, it circles back to devour its own tail like an ouroboros of subjectivity. Sometimes things are so bad they’re good (see: The Room) and sometimes they can be so good they’re bad (see: any Oscar chum-bucket starring Eddie Redmayne), and sometimes, sometimes even the worst-remembered movies of Hollywood history are actually, secretly, maybe, kinda… decent. This is all to preemptively defend the ten choices below, a cluster of films taken from the bottom of the bargain barrel, dusted off, and given one last chance at not being all that bad.
Death to Smoochy (2002)
The film: Danny DeVito directed this satire that’s so black it’s purple, starring Edward Norton as a friendly man in a rhino costume (shades of Barney, natch) who finds the world of children’s entertainment to be a surprisingly nasty and dangerous place.
Why the bad rap: Ostentatiously crude and aggressively misanthropic, the comedy rarely leaves a low-hanging fruit unpicked. For years, Jon Stewart’s go-to self-effacement was that he was the “fourth lead in Death to Smoochy” and none other than Roger Ebert concluded his one-star review with this straightforward declaration: “In all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant.”
Why it deserves a second chance: DeVito is an auteur by any definition of the word. His films (Throw Momma from the Train, War of the Roses, Matilda) are united by a carnivalesque directing style, chockablock with dolly zooms and Dutch angles, and a poison candy coating of dark irony. Nowhere is this more true than here. Maybe you need to be appropriately puerile, but there are scenes in the film that are gaspingly funny, especially ones featuring a expletive-laden, go-for-broke comedic performance from Robin Williams as Smoochy’s time-slot rival.
Speed Racer (2008)
The film: So you’ve made bank with a trio of Matrices, what next? If you’re the Wachowskis, you convince your studio to give you hundreds of millions of dollars to adapt a Japanese anime from the ‘60s with a moderate cult following. What could possibly go wrong?
Why the bad rap: Audiences had a hard time figuring out whether the film’s wide-eyed innocence was child-like or just childish. And it was hard to tell for whom the film was intended, other than the directors themselves. Certainly not epileptics.
Why it deserves a second chance: While the story is as rudimentary as the source material’s animation, the visuals fly across the screen with the manic energy of a hyperactive kid in a candy store. Saturated colors and hieratic poses are unmoored with traditional montage techniques and made elastic, bending and stretching and swirling across the screen so that the actual experience of watching is akin to mainlining a fat track of Froot Loop dust. But, you know, in a good way.
The Fountain (2006)
The film: Only a film as personal as this could have survived fate’s efforts to derail it. Over the years, Darren Aronofsky has disengaged himself from plenty of projects (Batman Begins, The Wolverine, the RoboCop remake) but he was the one left at the altar when Brad Pitt pulled out of this cross-temporal cosmic love story barely months before filming was to begin, effectively burying the project. Unfazed, the director just waited and made it a couple years later with Hugh Jackman as a man reincarnated in multiple chronologies.
Why the bad rap: Big, beautiful, but terribly, terribly earnest, The Fountain takes as its subject matter what often gets derided as mumbo-jumbo -- reincarnation, past lives, gorgeously-rendered floating bubbles in the froth of nirvana… that kind of stuff. It’s not hard to see why many stamped this one with a big, red, capital-P “Pretentious”.
Why it deserves a second chance: You can’t be pretentious without pretensions, and Aronofsky clearly had plenty. Love and death and the soul are all mighty vague subjects, but the director builds steadily to a lovely crescendo of light and color and emotion that looks you in the eye and dares you to snark.
One From the Heart (1982)
The film: After getting lost in the Cambodian rainforest, not to mention the wilderness of life-imitating-art, during the notoriously grueling shoot for Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola retreated to the controlled sanity of the soundstage for his next project: a simple story of working-class lovers in Las Vegas given the old studio treatment.
Why the bad rap: A soundtrack of Tom Waits warblings, bittersweet atmospherics, and hyper-artificial art design didn’t endear this heartsick neon musical to many moviegoers. The slow pace and experimental style zapped much of the pizzazz out of the strip setting and One From the Heart was a critical and financial bust for Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios.
Why it deserves a second chance: It’s no Godfather, sure, but if you manage to find yourself on the film’s wavelength, you’ll find that it’s not trying to be. Rather, Coppola has toned down his style, if not his ambition, to produce a softly glowing elegy to practical romance and private dreams that hums with the quiet sublimity of a Hopper painting.
Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
The film: Not quite of a kind with Tom Hanks’ other early high-concept work like Splash or Big, John Patrick Shanley’s screwball adventure-comedy is the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories: given only months to live, bureaucratic peon Joe is convinced by a tycoon to jump into a volcano to appease the local natives so he can mine a rare mineral from their island. The film was the first time Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan worked together. In fact, it was the first three times, since Ryan plays a triple role.
Why the bad rap: Hanks is more beloved than a favorite dog, having burrowed into the hearts of Americans like a favorite dog’s parasitic worms, and so one imagines there aren’t a whole lot of skeletons in his closet. However, if anything might qualify, it’d be early bombs like The Man With One Red Shoe and this film, where the goofy tone and ridiculous plot turns left many more confused than charmed.
Why it deserves a second chance: It’s actually a super fun ride that goes for broke way more often than Hanks’ more successful comedies, settling into a lovably manic groove that’s somewhere halfway between Preston Sturges and Terry Gilliam.
Last Action Hero (1993)
The film: Arnold Schwarzenegger re-teamed with Predator director John McTiernan -- before the former was governor of the state of California and the latter was a guest of its correctional system -- for this big-budget metafiction about archetypical shoot-first-ask-questions-later hero Jack Slater, who escapes out of his action sequel and into reality.
Why the bad rap: Imagine The Purple Rose of Cairo, except replace all the old-school charm and romance with Ah-nold’s bug-eyed adenoidal yelling and grunting. Fun, right? But the real problem had nothing to do with Schwarzenegger: Originally intended to be a full-on action-movie parody, the studio defanged Last Action Hero by trying to make it Kindergarten Cop 2, adding an immeasurably obnoxious pre-adolescent protagonist who enters the film-within-a-film using a magic ticket.
Why it deserves a second chance: Even the presence of “the kid” can’t diminish some genuinely exciting action set pieces, nor the bonkers existentialism that arises when Slater finally realizes he’s fictional. At the very least it makes you wonder who else ever had such a sui generis star status as to have an entire big-budget movie plotted around “themselves” in quotation mark. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance is more than worth watching as the unnerving villain with a creepy collection of glass eyes.
Ernest Goes to Jail (1990)
The film: Ernest P. Worrell was a great American character. Born of a local advertising campaign, Jim Varney’s doltish pitchman was popular enough to earn his own slate of films, where he subsequently went to camp, saved Christmas, got scared stupid, and, naturally, spent some time in the hoosegow.
Why the bad rap: Not all (or any) of the Ernest films were what an educated critic might call “good” or even “tolerable,” aimed at a lowest common denominator so low they probably couldn’t tell you what a lowest common denominator is.
Why it deserves a second chance: Sure, being the best film in the Ernest series is like being the skinniest kid at fat camp or the smartest person at a Tony Robbins seminar, but Ernest Goes to Jail best captures Varney’s manic comic energy, harkening back to the absurdist comedy of the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers with a classic doppelgänger plot that spits out low-ball gags like a haywire pitching machine.
The film: If you’ve heard of Showgirls sometime in the last twenty years, it’s more likely than not been as a punchline. Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) is a young girl with big dreams and well-trained pelvic muscles who attempts to make it big in the Las Vegas dancing world and finds it to be a little more dangerous, and a lot more ridiculous, than she ever expected.
Why the bad rap: Like All About Eve if you pumped out all the wit and replaced it with helium, Showgirls was the definition of laughably bad when it came out. From aggressively unsexy sex scenes, to conversations about eating dog food, to the fact that you could replace all of the actors with department store mannequins halfway through and nobody would notice -- it’s a movie that’s impossible to take seriously.
Why it deserves a second chance: Because it’s not a movie that is meant to be taken seriously. Sure, director Paul Verhoeven’s maximalist style of satire works better with violence (Starship Troopers, Robocop) than it does with sex, but it’d be hard to look at his other works and determine that Showgirls’ trajectory wasn’t always intended to go at least a good three feet over the top of good taste. For all its cringeworthiness, it should also be on the record as a brutally and bitingly black parody of Hollywood and fame whose “badness” is, in part, the point.
The film: It was the early aughts and superhero movies were still in their infancy. Sure, like a baby Superman, they were already pretty strong with various over-performing Spider-Man and X-Men movies, but Hollywood had yet to figure out how to reliably crack the comic-book storytelling nut. Case in point: hiring Ang Lee, fresh off the beautiful and intelligent Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, to direct an Incredible Hulk movie. Eric Bana plays Bruce Banner, although he ends up ceding most of his screen-time to a jumping, tank-smashing CGI creation.
Why the bad rap: Philosophy? Metaphors? Daddy issues? In my comic-book movie? “No, thank you,” said audiences and critics, who reacted negatively both to the movie’s non-blockbuster aspirations and to the visual effects that were so plastic they made the titular character look like an over-roided Gumby.
Why it deserves a second chance: Lee made an effort to personalize the film, which is more than can be said for most subsequent superhero adaptations. He also tried to develop a new style, one that melded the experiences of watching a movie with that of flipping through the pages and panels of a comic book, and while it may not have caught on, it’s arguably more interesting cinematically than some of the more recent attempts.
Southland Tales (2006)
The film: If there’s ever been a worthy successor to Paul Verhoeven’s mad satire of excess, it might as well be this. At the very least, Richard Kelly’s confusing, messy, fascinating follow-up to Donnie Darko features the craziest fake car commercial since Robocop. With an all-star (and confused-seeming) cast of pop actors like The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, and Justin Timberlake, Southland Tales resists summary and is many things at once -- SoCal Satyricon, semiotics seminar, multimedia meta-experiment, and a post-9/11 fever dream. Oh, and the only place to see Jon Lovitz playing a terrifying badass.
Why the bad rap: Unsurprisingly, the film collapses under its own weight almost immediately. More sprawling and incomprehensible than Los Angeles itself, no one knew how to make heads or tails of it (including, one gets the sense, Kelly himself). When it debuted at Cannes, at the peak of Donnie Darko’s cult rehabilitation but missing a number of finished effects, it received a chorus of French-inflected boos.
Why it deserves a second chance: I won’t pretend to tell you I know exactly what’s going on and anyway I’m generally not a fan of movies that require reams of homework to figure out the plot basics, but Southland Tales offers more than just narrative. It’s a dreamy, trippy prophecy from a beach-dude Cassandra that managed to predict and reflect a decade of national anxieties, including the influence of reality TV, political balkanization, surveillance culture, and paramilitary police. Plus, where else are you going to get to see Amy Poehler and Wood Harris play Neo-Marxist pop stars or Mandy Moore hiss at Sarah Michelle Gellar?