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March is Oscar’s month, when Hollywood’s attractive millionaires gather to congratulate each other for being so awesome while they embark on the fool’s errand of declaring for posterity which movies are the best ones. So it’s the perfect season to talk about bad vs. good films, and how no one, even awesome film industry professionals, can really know whether a movie is good or not.

In an inspired act of Oscar counter-programing, The Criterion Channel released a collection of 14 “Golden Raspberry” winning films to stream in March. These “worst of the worst” movies prove that that “badness” of a movie can be as unknowable as its “goodness.”

Crash: When the “best picture” is actually horrible

If you consider the history of the Academy Awards (and ignore the subjective nature of our response to art), most Best Picture winners are “good” movies, in a flabby, middlebrow way, and most stay that way over time. Titanic is a good movie, I guess. So is Chariots of Fire, kind of. But some movies, for cultural reasons that can rarely be predicted, swing wildly from “the best” to “the worst” or vice versa based on the cultural world we live in when we see them. Sometimes critics, audiences, and “the industry” all think a movie is not only good, but the best, only to learn it’s actually terrible later on. Crash, for example, went from best to trash in fewer than 20 years.

When it was released in 2005, Crash was seen as a courageous examination of race in America, a movie that was not afraid to “go there,” as we said back in 2005. But Crash is really bad—it’s not “kind of OK, but didn’t deserve Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain” bad, but actively, undeniably, aggressively terrible. 

Even though the frames are same then as now, few people noticed how obvious, trite, and amateurish Crash was in 2005. It’s a movie populated with paper-thin characters who exist to wander into shallow, melodramatic, “racially charged” vignettes and preach at us. Crash has a message, and that’s where it goes from mediocre to odious. Despite its promise to “keep it real,” as we said back in 2005, Crash is designed to comfort its liberal white audience, not confront it. Its message is something like “racism is bad, mmm-kay, but you are good because you totally give a shit.” Or, as critic Clarisse Loughrey pointed out: “Crash is the dad from Get Out’s favorite film.” 

So how did Crash manage to hide its mawkish mid-ness well enough to win a best picture Oscar? It was partly through the then-hot narrative device of non-linear storytelling, but it was mostly because the Academy is made up almost exclusively of the dad from Get Out. The target market for sensitive, middle-budget movies about race are the dad from Get Out too, and he’s not going to miss an opportunity to congratulate himself for being not-racist, especially on Oscar night.

Cruising and Freddy Got Fingered: When “bad” movies are actually great

I’ve watched all of the Criterion’s Razzie collection, and a case could be made for the worthiness of any of these movies (with the exception of Gigli, a movie that has a 6% Rotten Tomatoes score and is still overrated), but two films stuck out to me as most deserving of reconsideration: Cruising and Freddy Got Fingered.

Directed by William Friedkin—whose credits include The Exorcist, Boys in the Band, and The French Connection—1980s Cruising is a hard-hitting crime drama/neo-noir set among the BDSM crowd in pre-AIDS New York. Al Pacino plays a detective who goes undercover in the leather daddy scene to catch a serial killer. 

Cruising is a tense, fast-paced, and fascinating thriller, but critics hated it. At first I thought maybe the graphic portrayal of violence and kinky man-on-man sex were a little much for critics in that less-enlightened time, but it turns out there was a different reason for Cruising’s critical beatdown: it was mostly a victim of events surrounding it. 

While it was in production, Cruising was at the center of a now-forgotten controversy. Gay activists protested over the fear that the film would stereotype all gay men as hedonistic, violent fetishists. Upon the film’s release, many critics decided Cruising’s enigmatic ending and its main character’s inscrutability were the result of a director knuckling under to outside pressure. Some panned it for the portrayal of gay men—and some critics, presumably, were just homophobes.

But seen through a 2024 lens and ignorant of the controversy it once caused, viewers can consider Cruising on its merits, and finally see the unflinching, taut, and fascinating thriller/psychological exploration that was always there. This is a matter of opinion, but Cruising seems to go to great pains to fairly represent the struggle and alienation gay men faced at the time, while making it clear that a small subculture doesn’t represent gay people as a whole. The unclear resolution and Al Pacino’s inarticulate main character’s is-he-or-isn’t-he journey doesn’t seem like waffling from a scared filmmaker as much as a stab at illustrating how complex sexuality, violence, and identity can be. Three thumbs up.

Freddy Got Fingered is a masterpiece

Upon its release, Tom Green’s 2001 comedy (I guess) Freddy Got Fingered was panned nearly as roundly as Gigli. Critics said it was scatological, puerile, annoying, and unfunny. As Roger Ebert put it: “This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”

All of that is true, but it was also ahead of its time. Green’s schtick was the first wide appearance of the wave of anti-comedy that went on to fuel The Eric Andre Show, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, and most of the internet. His shtick is not supposed to be “funny” in a traditional sense, but more off-putting and meta-funny. It’s funny because he keeps doing weird things that aren’t funny, leading us to question the nature of comedy and maybe chuckle at how stupid and excessive it is. 

But even if you don’t buy the anti-comedy pioneer angle, there’s a deeper level to Freddy Got Fingered in which the boundaries between life and art are stretched and shredded in a way that’s never been done before. If you strip away the gags about fellating horses or drinking toilet water, Freddy is the story of an unfunny weirdo who manages to annoy Hollywood jerks into giving him millions of dollars to make a TV show, which he promptly wastes on annoying people. This is the real story of Tom Green, and Freddy Got Fingered is both a fictionalized account of his journey and the result of it. It’s Tom Green saying, “People in suits actually gave me $14 million dollars to make this movie, and I’m going to blow it on a comedy with no jokes, no characters, and no point beyond me being annoying for 90 minutes. Now watch me roll around in deer guts.”

Lots of movies aim to be subversive, but not many actually subvert the artistic expectations of their genre. Freddy Got Fingered does, but the audiences and critics of 2005 saw Tom Green’s antics and missed his larger point. “That’s not even a joke” meant “this movie is bad” back in 2005, but it “hits different” now, as I’m told some people say in 2024. I don’t know if Freddy Got Fingered is genius, exactly, but it’s way more interesting than Crash.

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