The first week of the year always provides me with a few constants. The need and budding desire to clean my apartment usually follows me taking my Christmas tree down, and when all that is said and done, I turn my focus onto my year end lists. This year, however, due to some commitments, I still have not cleaned my apartment nor taken my tree down just yet.
Regardless, being as I’m already one of the people who publishes their year ends lists late as is, I don’t want to wait any longer. Unfortunately too, I wasn’t able to watch The Color Purple nor Maestro in time to make my list. That said, I still watched 109 movies, 71 of them in theaters. That tells me two things: my handle on 2023 releases was not only strong, but heavily dominated by theater releases.
For some additional fun math as well, seeing as I am an AMC Stubs A-List member, I did some math several days ago and realized that my Stubs membership has resulted in me paying about $3.88/ticket this year. That’s amazing value, and if you’re someone who goes to the movies at least two or three times a month (or could see yourself going at that rate, for that matter), and have an AMC Theaters near you, you need to become a member.
But you cannot have the great without the bad, or downright loathsome, in some of these cases. Without further adieu, here are the worst films I saw in 2023. Unlike my favorites list, I did not include where you can watch these films. Best to leave these ones unseen, if you value your time.
1. Zoey 102: Some might argue my subsequent additions on this list are worse than Zoey 102. However, my undying love for the Nickelodeon series Zoey 101 along with my emotional investment of it during its initial run made this film sting hard enough to warrant its rightful place on this list.
Zoey 102 makes the iCarly reboot look like Drake & Josh. This is coming from someone who was once emotionally invested in the Nickelodeon show like a devout fan of All My Children. Beyond missing significant characters, this reboot reeks of sadness and desperation. It’s like watching people you knew in high school who are keenly aware that they peaked before they could legally drink yet are so stuck in their ways they know no other path forward.
Zoey 101 was a cut above other Nickelodeon shows of its era. Unlike most Dan Schneider properties, it was one of the only without a conventional laugh-track. Set almost exclusively at a fictional boarding school, Zoey 101 was less about broad situational comedy and more about the interpersonal relationships and friendships between the characters.
In contrast, Zoey 102 is all about the antics, most of which simply not funny. This long-awaited reunion is burned by the additions of dreadful new characters, glaring absences from recurring ones, juvenile subplots, and a busy main plot that loses sight of the charms that made this series one of Nickelodeon’s all-time best.
2. Camp Hideout: This is the second year in a row where a horrifically lame Christian campground family comedy sits near the top of my list. Last year, Family Camp was my pick for the worst film of 2022. This year, the nicest thing I can say about Camp Hideout is it wasn’t the worst movie I saw in 2023.
Camp Hideout is the latest misbegotten effort that finds itself lucky to play in (mostly empty) theaters for a couple weeks. Directed by Sean Olson — whose filmography includes such gems as The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation and Squeaky Clean Mysteries: Hazardous Duty — the film is a kids-centric summer camp comedy, which borrows a little bit from everywhere. A little Home Alone here. A little Camp Nowhere there, until it’s completely diluted to the point where all you can do is bear witness to how the film so boldly and unapologetically wastes your precious time.
3. Mafia Mamma: Remember when Adam Sandler said the quiet part aloud regarding that many of his movies are just opportunities to vacation in lavish locales with his friends? It feels like Toni Collette, Monica Bellucci, and Catherine Hardwicke are all on a sabbatical with Mafia Mamma, a dour excuse for a comedy.
What has the potential to be a commentary on middle-aged women searching for a change of scenery is instead a witless trudge through sitcom clichés and poorly written dialog. The marriage of broad humor and gritty violence is uneven, and the editing suggests it was lobotomized in post — assuming it had a brain in its head to begin with.
4. White Men Can’t Jump: Where Ron Shelton’s streetball classic was rugged and felt lived-in, Calmatic’s White Men Can’t Jump is pretty and soft — exactly what you don’t want to be in basketball. Charismatic performances and insightful navigation of racially tinged trash-talk are traded for a story that’s shockingly less believable than its counterpart, coupled with pacing as lethargic as its contemporarily rendered characters.
Like all great sports movies, White Men Can’t Jump had more meat on it than Shelton’s kinetic streetball scenes. It inverted stereotypes in its depiction of its interracial leads, and offered a lot of delicious dialog, namely in the in-game sequences themselves. Calmatic — director of Lil Nas X’s award-winning “Old Town Road” music video — offers nothing resembling the energy nor deft narrative touch of Shelton. His White Men Can’t Jump suffers the same fate as his recently released House Party reboot. It doesn’t know why it should exist, lacks any meaningful, modern spin on the story, and is rendered listless by its screenwriting.
5. Bird Box Barcelona: In typical streaming era fashion, Netflix’s Bird Box was a cultural touchstone for the tail-end of 2018 and the start of 2019 before fading into almost complete obscurity thereafter. While predictable, it was no less disappointing that one of the streamer’s best original flicks came and went like most everything else on the platform.
The memories of that taut and engaging thriller are sure to remain long-gone even in the wake of its first (of several planned!) sequel in Bird Box Barcelona. It’s remarkable that even Netflix — the epitome of a quantity over quality streaming service — would do their one of their most watched films of all-time such a disservice with this lousy, bargain bin follow-up that drains all the intrigue out of a premise that was once rife with it.
6. Back on the Strip: Let me paint this picture for you. It’s Friday night, and my local theater has merely one showing of Back on the Strip on its opening weekend. It’s 8:30pm, far later than the last start time of any of the other films showing in the same theater. I walked into the sparsely attended multiplex and requested a ticket. “Oh, I forgot we had that movie,” said the one usher. “I didn’t even know we show movies this late,” said another. Now, imagine, if you can, a theater that has closed and locked up for the evening, but one film is still playing to empty seats. That was nearly the fate of Back on the Strip.
The fate of me, the moviegoer, was an experience both isolating and borderline excruciating. Back on the Strip boasts a noteworthy cast of A-list talent, who are saddled with a Z-grade script. The directorial debut of longtime actor/comedian Chris Spencer, this is a film that, despite its strong cast, feels destined to be relegated to the bowels of Tubi, where it will be played by unsuspecting people as a curiosity and more-than-likely shut off after barely 30 minutes.
7. The Shift: Angel Studios had their surprise hit in the dead-of-summer with Sound of Freedom, which prompted a national buzz about human trafficking and subsequently went on to gross over $200 million worldwide. Interestingly enough, the studio had a separate creative gamble already set to go this year in The Shift, their first original film crowdfunded by more than 6,000 investors known as the “Angels Guild.” Herein lies one of the strangest works to be released in theaters this year, which is saying something given this movie shares the same release-year as Camp Hideout and The Retirement Plan.
This is a faith-based, science-fiction thriller that incorporates the multiverse. Say that sentence aloud in effort to fully wrap your brain around the concept. Are multiverses part of the Christian doctrine? Can the two even coexist? By its very existence, The Shift suggests they can. But don’t get your hopes up that the two will merge together to create something coherent, both in a biblical and entertainment sense.
8. Sweetwater: A comatose biopic about one of the first Black NBA players, Sweetwater mistakes its handsome production for human interest to the point where you wonder if the movie itself has even the faintest pulse.
It’s not a fault of the actors — most of whom serviceable — but the fault of Martin Guigui’s flat direction and oversimplified script. Guigui apparently fought tooth and nail for decades to get the story of Nat Clifton on the big screen. Most of his passion must’ve been reserved for boardrooms and pitch meetings as desperately little of it shows up in the wholly forgettable final product.
9. Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey: With several beloved properties having recently entered — or soon to be entering — the public domain, Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey will either be the dark, twisted fantasy you never knew you wanted or the nightmare fuel you don’t want to go near. Rhys Frake-Waterfield’s much-discussed and highly anticipated horror take on the classic A. A. Milne’s books (which hit public domain last January) should get any devout horror fan interested from the jump. However, don’t act surprised when the cheap and admittedly scummy concept leads to a lackluster film.
Alas, Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey doesn’t work very well, and it’s even a tax at a slight 83-minutes long as it devolves into another slasher in need of more imagination than a cocktail napkin-premise. I saw this with a horror filmmaker and a group of his friends, which livened up the atmosphere on an otherwise unremarkable winter evening. In the middle of it, he remarked that Blood and Honey looks better than the project on which he’s currently working. Maybe it was self-deprecation. I’ve seen uglier pictures that had more effort in the writing department.
10. Fast X: Fast X — or “Fast Ten Your Seatbelts,” as it should be known — puts us on the end of the road of a franchise predicated on muscle cars and pretzel logic. Initially reported to be part one of a two-part finale, the film reportedly is part of a three-part finale. When the eleventh film comes out, I’m sure we’ll be hearing that spin-offs or perhaps additional miles in this never-ending road will follow.
This is a dangerous proposition, as the franchise verged on parody with F9, and now appears to be shifting into cruise control with Fast X, the worst installment thus far.
Taking the gusto and gravity out of seeing the deaths of characters is the fact that multiple individuals, most notably, Han, have died multiple times over and have found convoluted ways to justify being alive. As has been the case now with several Fast and Furious films, Fast X plays like a Marvel film — an inconsequential and stupid one at that.
Honorable mention: Murder Mystery 2
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!