OK, now here’s the really funky part. The part where I decide to break down the bloated reception of some movies all throughout film canon and history et. al. The party where the people who study or looks up to or talk about film will really want to tear me apart because the film scholars will be wanting to defend the pictures they see as pinnacles of the medium, absolute watermarks of the artform.
I really can’t think to prolong that thrashing any longer so, I’ll just put the usual disclaimer that this is my, y’know, opinion and most of the entries on the observation of how much praise I see it received (you might never have heard a single person mention a single one of these movies). There will be movies in here that I don’t hate, dare I say, even movies I fucking love. Hell, one of my favorite movies even. Take that as you may alongside my this-time-brief ramblings to explain why I find each movie overrated. This could easily double as half of a list of movies I once adored and learned to step back from and half as a list of movies that get enthusiastic praise that I have trouble understanding how it earns that.
Let’s do this…
Battleship Potemkin (1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein)
Ahhhh, here’s something we’ve got especially put into the canon in terms of technique… as its Odessa Steps sequence, powerful as it is, is constantly used as an example of tremendously effective editing.
You rarely see people bother mentioning the rest of this film, though. Not because it’s boring (no Eisenstein has bored me), but because there’s not much to it except as a progandistic history piece. Eisenstein has made better with more of his heart into it – preventing Ivan the Terrible‘s third part from being made is maybe one of the worst things Joseph Stalin has ever done while in power. Y’know, besides the Great Purge and being cool for a while with the Nazis until they pushed him and indirectly causing famine…
The Grapes of Wrath (1940, dir. John Ford)
Ford is maybe the most blessed filmmaker in history, both in his effortless and efficient skill and in the amount of output he’s had, but this is the one of his many I have seen where he’s simply disinteresting. Doesn’t seem like he gives Steinbeck’s ideas any damn mind (I mean, no way would that ending work if the movie otherwise were as truly depressing as the book was) and it’s undoubtedly just him sitting out of the way for Fonda, Carradine, and co. to give out their acting ability. It’s an actor’s picture, not a filmmaker’s picture.
The fact that it’s still a great worthwhile movie should say quite a bit about Ford’s awesomeness.
Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles)
Oh yeah, that favorite I was talking about that I love unashamedly. Basically the Fury Road of this bunch to keep my opinion in check. It is considered the Great American Movie and totally picked out as a cornerstone of sound design and cinematography and yet I hear people half the time telling me they can’t stand it, finding it boring, or outrageous as a story.
If you’re expecting ME to trash it, no way, I can’t think of anything I could hold against it, but I will have to represent the other guy in some way and so I take one for the team with this choice.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, dir. Elia Kazan)
Fuck outta my face telling me Marlon Brando is the best actor of all time. If he ever proved himself worthy of that title, it’s not his casual-in-a-really-unimpressive-way performance here. I’d have to give it more to On the Waterfront where Brando totally gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a movie or on stage, but that body language is put to sloppy effect here and the sympathetic nuance is outright missing. It’s simply the fact that he’s thrown into being an animalistic sex symbol because of his physicality here and… dawg, I don’t see us claiming Emily Ratajkowski can act just because we find her hot.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955, dir. Nicholas Ray)
I just really want to punch out every character. I know I should feel sorry that the enigmatically talented James Dean didn’t have many films before his untimely death, but what I’m really sorry about is how one of them is so frustratingly off-putting. It’s basically what I dislike about most high school movies mixed with the sobriety of Reefer Madness.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967, dir. Arthur Penn)
Sigh, what this movie has done had been done by the French New Wave in a much badder and cooler style. That it brings their noir-based influence all the way home is fine by me and I love the movie. That it gets credit where credit for doing in small portions what Godard, Truffaut, and Melville did in spades really grinds my gears.
A Clockwork Orange (1971, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
My sister and I were actually talking about this movie earlier today since she’d been digging in my movie collection and watching random picks – amongst them, this piece from Kubrick’s extremely solid output.
She hated it.
And I can’t say I completely disagree except in a manner. A Clockwork Orange is not anything less than impeccable craftwork. Everything Kubrick made from Dr. Strangelove til his death is impeccable craftswork. That’s just the way it is, that is his legacy, that he got everything done the way he wanted and the majority of his films are masterpieces of visual micromanagement.
A Clockwork Orange, we both agreed felt single-mindedly cruel and mean-spirited. And that’s of course the point, but man, two hours is a long way to deal with that and I can’t stick around for the ride the entire way.
The Last House on the Left (1972, dir. Wes Craven, prod. Sean Cunningham)
I know the apparent consensus by those who love is that it is a shocking and realistically nihilistic portrayal of cruel and unusual violence happening at random points. But that only goes for the, uh, centerpiece rape scene. That is entirely a hard-to-watch piece of docurealism work by Craven.
And there’s still hella movie on the way there. And it’s in no way possibly realistic. Not the dialogue that seems like the worst episode of Full House. Not the Keystone Kops knock-off bumbling about. Not the pornish way of introducing the girls. Not the way the dog reacts to a joke about tits. Not the soundtrack. It’s all pretty poor cover for Cunningham’s original intention to make a sexploitation flick (the acting is exactly how you expect those type of actors to be) and it’s absolutely tasteless to me to have such a picture surround a rape scene.
And to take Bergman’s name and besmirch it!
Network (1976, dir. Sidney Lumet)
Paddy Chayefsky may very well be my favorite screenwriter in cinema (give me a moment to weigh him with Charlie Kaufman, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coens) and Network is undoubtedly the ideal masterwork in his impressive output, largely on account of how easy it is to spit out all this fire dialogue (it’s like a more coherent Robert Altman) and its revelations about television culture turning prophetic. But a script with this amount of of personality in it brings some baggage with it on account of the writer and Chayefsky turns from sharp satire to juvenile cartoonery (and borderline racism) around the second half of the picture. It thankfully never overturns the movie to keep it from being one of the hallmarks of a great year.
Taxi Driver (1976, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Speaking of hallmarks of 1976 that are also kind of racist in a manner, the more I look at the script for Taxi Driver (like literally read the script online… I had a habit of reading those in high school), the more and more obvious it is that screenwriter Paul Schrader is (or hopefully moreso, WAS) in a pretty ugly mindset and, even worse, expected us to fully sympathize and identify with Travis Bickle, who is clearly a sociopath (and later a psychopath). No, this is still one of my favorite movies and it’s because clearly De Niro and Scorsese do the impossible in having their cake and eating it where the audience sympathizes with Travis without forcing them to accept his twisted worldview (there’s particularly a brief moment that illustrates Travis’ racism at arms length that I really appreciate) by giving the movie an extra layer of theme in its visuals and atmosphere on the dangers of loneliness and isolation.
Caddyshack (1980, dir. Harold Ramis)
Man, it’s funny as all hell undoubtedly. But it’s a movie I could only really love in high school back when I first bought it. Now I just can’t shake off the double standard it has about two of the characters being promiscuous (each a different sex) and the incredibly disjointed (and honestly disinterested) manner it tries to pretend it’s not just a free-for-all raunchy comedy unconcerned with the story of Danny’s coming-of-age. We don’t give a fuck about Danny, we all just wanna get laid like Rodney Dangerfield promised!
Akira (1988, dir. Otomo Katsuhiro)
Ahhhh, I love the hell out of this movie as perhaps the first anime movie I’ve ever watched (not the first anime outright – I know I got into, like, Outlaw Star and Dragonball Z and Future Boy Conan and all when I was young), but what I really regret is that most of this movie’s praise come from being the West’s biggest breakout for anime and most of the things Akira does being done better in most films, many of which are animated as well. It really hurts me to recognize that is where its canonization comes from, especially when Akira‘s animation still looks crazy good in consideration of how its fearless choice of framerate makes it one of the most fluid traditionally animated films I’ve ever seen.
Rain Man (1988, dir. Barry Levinson)
I really can’t say it possibly better than Pauline Kael said it: “Rain Man is getting credit for treating autism “authentically,” because Raymond isn’t cured; in a simple transposition, it’s Charlie who’s cured. Actually, autism here is a dramatic gimmick that gives an offbeat tone to a conventional buddy movie.”
I’m serious… I can’t say it better than Kael…
“Rain Man is Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes. It’s his dream role.”
Cinema Paradiso (1988, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore) and Life Is Beautiful (1997, dir. Roberto Benigni)
Man, the Italians can give you some of the most powerfully realist portrayals of sentimentality against harsh times (see: The Best of Youth or Bicycle Thieves or Mamma Roma) and then sometimes… it gives us some two to three hours of saccharine atmosphere to an nauseating degree against a tasteless backdrop of melodrama or, dare they, the Holocaust.
Last Action Hero (1993, dir. John McTiernan)
You know, I’m kind of not a fan of the frame narrative… it’s a full 30 minutes before the plot actually kick starts, a home invasion/robbery scene that adds nothing, and it’s confusing to tell what time it is when the child is meant to be at school… at fucking night. From what I understand, they didn’t have time to finish editing before the premiere which makes this the worst kind of movie – an unfinished one.
But, mainly I just can’t stand how the movie spoonfeeds the in-jokes like “didja get it? Didja?! Let me tell why Arnold is doing this or that…” It’s worried that you’re stupid or jaded. Its own stupidity jades me, especially when its considered amazing simply for falling under “parody”. Go watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang instead, it does everything Last Action Hero wants to do, only better.
The Lion King (1994, prod. Walt Disney Animation Studios)
It’s the one they picked. That’s it. There is nothing about the animation or storytelling that makes this any more better than some real gems in the Disney Renaissance like Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, it’s just that this is the one people pick to call the watershed moment. Maybe it’s because of its classical roots on taking the bare skeleton of Hamlet‘s plot (but with none of the weight or consequence Shakespeare’s play forced on its characters – Almost no character has to worry about anything, they have no stake in the fight between Simba and Scar).
The Shawshank Redemption (1994, dir. Frank Darabont)
It’s number one on IMDb. It’s a really run of the mill melodrama that is incredibly enjoyable and makes one feel good, but that’s about it. You couldn’t possibly make an essay on all of its cinematic elements, how it achieves its storytelling on a textual level, or how the acting is worth consideration as a performance for the ages.
That never crossed your mind at all when you watched it. You watched it because it was on TNT and it was a good movie.
The Usual Suspects (1995, dir. Bryan Singer)
OK, yes, we have the twist and then… It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill neo-noir genre piece in the 90s, maybe the biggest era of neo-noirs. Kevin Spacey and the twist and that’s it… no more replay value.
And honestly, the twist actually pisses me off… it seems retroactive to the antagonist’s goals and makes him look like an idiot to me. Damn you, Keyser Soze.
Scream (1996, dir. Wes Craven, wri. Kevin Williamson)
I basically said all I had to say about the film in my review but the gist of it is: Wes Craven is one of the best directors that could happen to any horror film and the problem is Kevin Williamson doesn’t really realize that “horror movie references” are not the same as “horror movie introspection”. That and it’s smug as a motherfucker about not being a slasher film… which is exactly what it is. Man, that dude is stuck in the 90s.
American History X (1998, dir. Tony Kaye) – SPOILERS
I honestly do not think American History X is the best movie to showcase the idea of race relations. It’s a movie that kind of doesn’t know how to make its own point (which I attribute largely to the struggle of authorship between Tony Kaye and Edward Norton).
Derek and Daniel are both portrayed as intelligent and charismatic which is actually quite a balanced way to portray supremacists rather than black-and-white dickheads, but the worst part is that there is literally nobody to actively dispute or debate Derek’s views reasonably. The movie is inadvertently one-sided for this. There ARE arguments against what Derek says and instead everybody is supposed to just be fumbling and mumbling over their words?
How does Derek change his life? In the form of a one-dimensional comic-relief character that would feel so much like a parody of the magical negro if it wasn’t obviously not parody, and in a rape scene that occurs solely because Derek happened to be actively steadfast on his beliefs as opposed to his rapists who were a lot more hypocritical about their racism.
I really don’t think either reason is enough to change Derek’s mind. Plus, after all of that, we still don’t get any speeches or convictions against racism from any of the other characters – much less Derek, easily the smartest man in the film, who could easily be the character to present those anti-racism arguments (and is even given a good platform to do so with his final confrontation with Cameron). But nope, the movie is more concerned with Derek convincing Danny to change his ways too and instead of explaining “this is why bigotry is wrong”, the method is instead “here’s what happened to me in prison.”
Then, as if the message wasn’t muddled enough, the infamous ending happens where the same sort of tragedy that led Derek and Danny to their ways is repeated and suddenly the movie stops. That’s it. We don’t see any repercussions of this act except Derek’s immediate shock and grief. And I understand there is an alternate ending where Derek uses the moment to spur him back into being a Neo-Nazi, but what the fuck is he going to do then? Go back to Cameron? The other neo-Nazis will eat him alive and leave his bones for the gangbangers. It really made no sense as an ending, except that the movie couldn’t figure out a way to end itself on.
I like the movie solely for Edward Norton’s performance but it is among the last movies I’d consider a worthy look into racism in America.
Saving Private Ryan (1998, dir. Steven Spielberg)
It’s totally the first 20 minutes that we love and damn well should. It is maybe one of the finest moments in Spielberg’s entire esteemable filmography (the guy’s my hero, so putting this movie on the list was hard). It’s a masterpiece of physical surrounding fear and confusion and it makes war feel like a circle of hell.
The rest of the movie is not as surrounding and physical… it’s just great. That’s it. It’s your usual war film about a company of brothers who are close but never fall out of being just stock personalities, who deal with the moral question of whether or not killing is right for their country and why they joined. That is literally every war film that has existed since as far back as the 30s. It is not a question that has not been asked.
American Beauty (1999, dir. Sam Mendes)
I’m probably the only one who feels like this movie’s attitude towards people is just, kind of, maybe, nasty and off. Lester and Caroline both are apparently lost souls, but Lester is championed and giving out Moral Speeches at every damn turn from the dinner scene to the couch scene to his narration (maybe it’s just how Spacey’s voice is, but it is impossible to hear it without snark) while Caroline is the movie’s punching bag and given not one ounce of introspection. In the meantime, we got the comatose Thora Birch and Wes Bentley playing a teenager that made me hate teenagers (and I saw this movie at 15, so I WAS a teenager). It’s so convinced that its commentary on personal relations is the gospel, but it’s so broad and spiteful to everybody that isn’t Ricky and Lester and trying to sell their caricatures as real people that I can’t get on its side in the slightest.
The Boondock Saints (1999, dir. Troy Duffy)
If Duffy had not gotten himself blacklisted in Hollywood by coming off as a poisonous person, he probably wouldn’t have gone far based on how this movie came off. Irritating and repulsive, it’s a thinly veiled revenge fantasy where that poisonous personality spills out like Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flannery’s shit accents. Honestly, the movie would have tanked from the get-go anyway.
Fight Club (1999, dir. David Fincher)
Fight Club is at least well-made, but it’s also a pointed example of David Fincher’s way of making films – he gives his impressive all to the craft of making the film, with absolutely little to no interest in having it connect to anything in the story save for as presentation. And why that hurts Fight Club for me is this – people love the movie for its style, because it looks good, because much of the bullshit in it the movie ends up inadvertently making appealing and never giving itself a moment to intellectually go back to that stuff and say “fooled ya” although the book did. The movie spares energy making Tyler look really cool, takes a moment to say its horrified, and then remains entranced and in love with the character for the entirety of it.
Which is probably why the fans of this movie are always such a mess split between catching the satire on account of its surface commentary or simply idolizing Tyler Durden because he is so cool. That’s what happens when this is your first “edgy” film, as I saw this just as I was entering high school and spitting Tyler’s rhetoric like I’m suddenly enlightened because of this movie.
The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003, dir. Peter Jackson)
It is the single most ambitious and admirable piece of art of my lifetime and we recognize that it’s essentially the fantasy epic’s version of Star Wars. But it’s also kind of a narrative mess and a lot of that is, of course, more the fault of Tolkien… because the source material couldn’t even be arranged by the greatest editors in the world. Terrence Malick himself wouldn’t be able to clean up the track of this movie. Just look at the ending, a slothlike pace unpacking resolution for EVERYBODY as much as possible, and how much the second film had to screw itself around with the second literary volume (which does not adequately follow the two teams of protagonists in real-time) so that it doesn’t tip its focus on one group or another. The Lord of the Rings are among my favorite works of literature and it works specifically as literature – it is fantastic that Jackson and co. were able to make great sprawling adventurous films out of it, but it’s not without its damages.
And the other thing is… they’re telling a different story from the books, which are decidedly not adventures insomuch as they are just commentary on how war affects people and environments (*winkwink* to Saving Private Ryan, a war of which Tolkien himself fought in). That’s not what the movie is interested in at all and while I don’t think that hurts it, I can’t pretend that I don’t mind to have such rich themes removed entirely.
Though, if I were REALLY a Tolkien stickler, I’d probably hate the very ground Jackson walked on, much as his son Christopher clearly does.
Crash (2004, dir. Paul Haggis), Finding Neverland (2004, dir. Marc Forster) and A Beautiful Mind (2001, dir. Ron Howard)
Listen, I don’t want to be here all night. They’re oscarbait in the most manipulatively bothersome way without an ounce of self-awareness.
Garden State (2004, dir. Zach Braff)
Oh wow, it’s the Sundance darling… and… I guess it’s quirky enough…
Saw (2004, dir. James Wan)
I threw up all my hate here during October. Let me charge myself again before I rip apart the entire Saw franchise. It’s not smart. It’s not fun. It’s just ugly.
And wow, that is a lot of movies that some of you readers probably love unabashedly. Feel free to call me out, rebuke me, or talk shit about me in the comments. In the meantime, hopefully the next two UNDERRATED movies lists will get me some goodwill…
… just in case, here’s pictures of my dog and cats to cool your anger, though…