NOTE: this article originally appeared, in somewhat different form, at The Bug.
Being grouchy from both the inanity of the upcoming Oscars and the usual top ten lists everywhere, I found myself playing the list game again, hopefully releasing some of the bile that’s accumulated over the years. A caveat: some of these movies listed below are actually decent. In fact, a couple of these films I’ve enjoyed very much, just not as much as the majority of the world. And time is of the essence, as there is not one film from this year, as it is a film’s staying power that makes it overrated. For instance, I firmly believe that a number of recent titles are overrated, like True Grit and Winter’s Bone, both films faring better at the box office than The Builder and Mid-August Lunch, to name but two. However, time may heal those very public wounds. If they’re still being regaled in fifteen years, then I’ll amend my list. Dogs are left out–everyone knows that Congo is hideous, therefore it’s not overrated.
Furthermore, the Academy has no bearing on this list. Gandhi and Titanic took the brass ring, but so what? They’re not overrated by anyone but the Academy.
Of course, I also haven’t seen everything that’s ever been released. Great are the gaps in my history: Cassavetes I haven’t seen, nor much of Rossellini (though what I’ve seen I love), and super small independents like Hal Hartley, whose work I’ve caught glimpses of, was unimpressed, and therefore resisted future screenings. Chaplin could be on this list–now that I’ve seen many of his movies, I can appreciate The Circus and the underrated Limelight, but you can keep Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and the awful by any standard Monsieur Verdoux. Still, I can see the brilliance, but I just hate the mediocre direction and the self-pitying.
If you see something here you dislike, complain. If you want to post a grumble about my leaving David Lynch off the list, fine, but I love Lynch, and that’s how it goes. Keep that in mind… and post your own complaints, or the movies you think are overpraised hoo-hah. Maybe next week I’ll post an under-rated list.
10. Psycho, 1960. My father saw Psycho a couple of years before he passed, and said, “I forgot that I was bored by it the last time”. So true: Psycho has not dated well, despite great analyses as of late. The film’s not necessarily bad, it’s just not that great (though it gets worse when placed beside Hitchcock’s other classics, including and especially Rear Window and Vertigo, much better examinations of voyeurism and its trappings). Watch it again, however, and it starts to get a bit creaky. Gone are the rich characterizations of Hitch’s past films, and really, the central conceit, which everyone knows by now, isn’t enough to float an oddly tension-less film. Not to mention the fact that Perkins has been much better doing nearly the same shtick, including Orson Welles’ The Trial and the underrated Pretty Poison.
9. Fargo, 1996 and No Country For Old Men, 2007. I like Fargo. Despite this, I still don’t believe it belongs in the Coen Brothers’ top five (Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple, and Barton Fink are all better). No Country is a slasher flick, in the same school as Halloween and the Friday the 13th films, that says nothing about border violence, but is pretentious and fraught with plot holes (like who the hell can shoot up a small town without police intervention? Among many others.) Fargo is well made, but empty. Is it a crime caper, a comedy, a meaningful examination of life on the frozen prairie or the wages of greed? Who knows? Too often, emotional connections are never fulfilled, characters killed or tossed aside cruelly. What, for instance, is the point of the scene in which the rotten father (played by William H. Macy) comforts his son… who is never seen again? Or the father-in-law who gets blown away? The movie reaches for moments of intense emotional clarity, only to devolve into jokes like the shredding of an accomplice in a wood chipper, which has had tongues wagging now for over ten years (please stop–it’s not that incredible). And then there’s Marge, a character who no one really seems to know. Can anyone truly relate to her? What are her goals, ambitions, sorrows, frustrations? No Country suffers from a deep seated indifference to its characters, and Anton Chigurh, played well by Javier Bardem, is nothing but a deus ex machina. Yes, we are told he’s the bubonic plague, a force of nature (in case we didn’t get it), but so what? And what’s with the wife’s accent?
8. To Kill A Mockingbird, 1962. Perhaps it’s the source novel that should bear the blame, but this classic has always grated on my nerves. Maybe it’s the endless preaching, the lessons that are hammered on your skull every fifteen minutes, or perhaps it’s that the true story is not about little Scout learning her lesson, but poor, crippled Tom Robinson having to defend himself, unsuccessfully, from the charge of rape. He dies, of course, but the little white girl sure grew up fast! And consider the names: Atticus, Scout, Dill, Boo Radley, Heck Tate, Robert E. Lee Ewell, and… Tom Robinson, the black prop with the dull moniker (why bother to give him any character, even in his name?) Here, African Americans are there for white folks to earn salvation, to learn lessons, or reveal their dark side. And Gregory Peck has been so much better in stronger films (Duel in the Sun, Cape Fear, Roman Holiday, and the almost totally forgotten I Walk the Line). Why, you might forget the guy has range…
7. American Beauty, 1999. A hateful, misogynistic film. Apparently, ladies, you can only find beauty by paying attention to the guys in your life who film garbage blowing in the wind. Annette Bening is light years better than Kevin Spacey, and her role is thankless, the shallow woman for whom Spacey gets to bounce his lines off. See, Spacey’s character knows that red convertibles and underage girls are transcendent, but Bening’s love of fine clothes and SUVs is a reflection of her shallow nature. Go figure. Unfunny, unprovocative, and deeply insulting, I am at a complete loss as to why anyone likes this film.
6. The George A. Romero Zombie Flicks. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a good movie, with its political message shoved on at the very end, and quite potent. But then Romero got it into his brain that these were going to be serious films. Dawn of the Dead (1978) with its goofy blue-faced zombies (yes, makeup wasn’t that bad then, even in cheap films) is dull; Day of the Dead (1985) is worse, claustrophobic without tension, mean-spirited and lacking wit; and Land of the Dead (2005) wowed critics because it took on the Bush Administration! That’s a bold move in 2005. (Let’s try to forget Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, shall we?) Interesting to see that the underclass of Romero’s Land are the Irish, and that his cities, and his undead, don’t contain Muslims or Asians. This is important because Romero seems to think of himself as a social critic, and yet he seems more a man who is the product of his times than someone who thinks outside of the box. Without that, his films had better be interesting. And they’re not.
5. Nashville, 1975. A perfect summary of Robert Altman’s erratic career. At times brilliant, with some magnificent performances, like the always splendid Lily Tomlin. But mix that in with the self-indulgent crap Robert Carradine calls acting, and then fold in all the songs that were written by Hollywood stars who don’t seem to have a clue what a country-western tune should sound like, and this is one flat cake. Nashville’s ending is insulting, as is Altman’s need to browbeat you with obvious clues as to the identity of the assassin (“Are you a musician?” is asked of the killer over and over, to which we eventually shout “no, he’s going to shoot someone!”) Altman cares little about his audience, with his gratuitous celebrity shots (a common occurrence in his movies), and his lack of understanding the eponymous city or its music. No, he’s better than those rubes, and his arrogance comes through. Technically interesting (especially the sound), it’s still baffling that his so-called ‘command’ of all his characters is what is praised, as so many are forgettable. Considering Altman’s made McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Gosford Park, that Nashville is considered his masterpiece is confounding.
4. An American in Paris, 1951. Easily the most difficult entry for me on this list, as American is a favorite, and in fact is downright fun the first time around for practically everybody. But it’s widely acclaimed as one of the greatest musicals ever, and it isn’t. In fact, it really isn’t close, for you’d have to forget Singin’ in the Rain, Fred Astaire, and many, many others. As a vehicle for both Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant it’s wonderful, but the plot is creaky, nonsensical, and its ballet goes on and on and on, and only emphasizes that there’s no plot to keep you occupied. The film also lacks wit. For instance, Singin’ is an abundant pleasure even without the music and dancing. An American in Paris is not so good in its quiet moments, actually quite a forgettable experience outside of a few great songs (and how could you go wrong with Gershwin?) A film whose potential was never realized.
3. All About Eve, 1950. Probably shouldn’t include this one here since it’s going to show at the Trylon in a few weeks. Considered the apex of sharp wit, All About Eve should also be regarded as the nadir of story-telling technique. A film that begins with so much narration you feel as if you’re watching a book on tape. When it finally gets rolling, well, then the action stops while another character sits down and tells a story, with cuts to the actors shocked faces at the words coming out of her mouth. It only gets worse. You could rightly criticize My Dinner With Andre as slow, but Eve is roughly the same film, all yakity-yak. Does anybody actually do anything in this movie? The answer’s a resounding no, and the performances are sterile and hackneyed to boot. This film walked off with an armload of Oscars and has been widely regarded as one of the few films to deserve them. Horribly dated, lacking insight, not even fun by bitchy standards, All About Eve is instead a wretched bore.
2. Schindler’s List, 1993. The greatest Holocaust film ever made. We know that because Spielberg and his minions have made sure to tell us, over and over (even going so far as to distribute the thing to schools). True, Schindler’s List has about 90 minutes of great filmmaking. Too bad, then, that it’s still got another 100 minutes to account for. Included in its crimes are the creepy shots of the doomed blonde girl in the red coat, apparently heading off to die, and, we learn, one of the secret motivations for Oskar Schindler’s kindness. A girl in a red coat in a black and white film? Why, it’s just another way for the master of schmaltz to drive home a point. Of course, Spielberg has a dozen moppets flung about, including one cute little boy in a toilet, who, like the rest of them, has no personality or character (Spielberg could quite possibly be the worst director of children, which is sad because he used to be one of the best). His camera zooms around like he’s chasing giant sharks again, and the whole thing looks like Nazi Germany from an Indiana Jones perspective. Then there’s the patronizing attitude toward the victims, culminating in Schindler’s reminding a rabbi that it’s the Sabbath, so why doesn’t the old fellow go ahead and pray? News to Spielberg: you can bet that the rabbis knew exactly what fucking day the Sabbath was on, and did what they could to praise their God, without Schindler’s little grin to egg them on. Or the fact that the director didn’t trust us to have a film with an enigma at its center, and Schindler, in the last ten minutes, becomes a weepy and sentimental guy, thus sparing an unintelligent audience difficult questions about the nature of selflessness. The problem with Schindler’s List is that its failures are so great and resound so loudly that they upend its strengths. Furthermore, I’m convinced that Polanski saw this too, and that The Pianist, flawed though it is, is a no-holds-barred response to many of Spielberg’s soft-centered conflicts (most notably the scene with a Nazi officer’s gun jamming–there’s one in each film, and Polanski’s is truly disturbing.)
1. Every Kubrick film since Spartacus. What happened to Stanley Kubrick? The Killing is very good, Spartacus is a fun spectacle, and I’m convinced that Paths of Glory is the greatest anti-war film ever made. All three are masterful, moving, with rich characters carrying plots that are both supremely entertaining and challenging. You can’t walk away from Paths of Glory and not be moved.
Then he made Lolita, which to this day makes you wonder if he read the damn book. Nabokov wrote a screenplay that wasn’t used, and what Kubrick did was take a curiously touching (and disturbing) story and make it into a collection of cheap double entendres and empty performances, including an indulged Peter Sellers and a wasted Shelley Winters. That film was the beginning of Kubrick’s removal from the world of people–only George Lucas’ second Star Wars trilogy is colder and less human than the Kubrick oeuvre. Dr. Strangelove has a few fun moments, but it doesn’t withstand repeated viewings, its jokes echoing through empty rooms as if delivered by robots. 2001: A Space Odyssey is itself a joke, a vision of the future and the dawn of man whose depth has been eclipsed in imagination by any number of Star Trek episodes (and that is not to praise Star Trek). 2001 is overlong, obsessed with its special effects, a story that could have been told in a twenty minute short, and with an ending calculated to take advantage of an audience of stoners. I’m convinced that if anyone else had made 2001, we’d be laughing about it today.
A Clockwork Orange is a loud, boorish insult, poorly acted (Kubrick was never an actor’s director), and cannot be said to have influenced anything of quality, though its look can be seen most notably in the idiotic Pink Floyd The Wall (that’s a legacy for you). Orange has so little to say about the nature of violence, and there’s tons of other movies (Peter Weir’s Witness comes to mind) that speak with much clearer insight on this subject. These four films alone make you wonder if Kubrick has actually ever known people who have been in love or victims of violence.
Of course, after Clockwork Kubrick was pretty much through: I haven’t seen Barry Lyndon or Eyes Wide Shut, though perhaps someday a cruel judge will sentence me to endure both. Kubrick’s movies since that time have all been flops, barely resonating with society in general and Hollywood in particular. The Shining was easily the most popular, though it ushered in the age of Screamin’ Jack, and Kubrick couldn’t get over his new toy (the Steadicam use was gratuitous and called attention to itself). Again, what could have been a decent horror film is bogged down with Kubrick’s usual ponderousness and his inability to relate to his characters.
Finally, Full Metal Jacket utterly ruins a magnificent little novel (The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford) that was absurd and could have been Kubrick’s second anti-war masterpiece after Paths of Glory. But look at those two films: in Paths there is a perfect balance between beautifully executed shots and the actors within them. It boasts a tight script, intelligent and emotional performances, and comes in at a brisk 87 minutes. With Full Metal Jacket (and who knows where that title came from, and Hasford loathed it), Kubrick again treats the examination of war and violence as mere intellectual exercise, as opposed to being something that actually affects people. The casting of Matthew Modine as Private Joker is a reflection of Kubrick’s inability to see his characters as people–Modine was never a great actor, had virtually no range, and is as full of himself as Kubrick (he once claimed he’d never been in a bad movie.) Kubrick, as David Thomson says, was a “‘master’ who knew too much about film and too little about life–and it shows.” Indeed.