Of course I was going to…
Apropos of the Premiere list, my own thoughts on not just the most overrated films of all time, but also the most underrated. Which is even harder, because the temptation to just list my favorite films is intense. But that list comes tomorrow.
Both lists are chronological. And nothing from 2000-present, because otherwise the overrated list would be a bit unbalanced towards the last few years.
(I know I said an honest list should include Citizen Kane. I chickened out.)
List 1: The 20 Most Overrated Films of All Time
Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
I like editing as much as anyone. But it can’t carry a film all by itself, even when it’s this good. And this film, with perhaps the most heavy-handed propagandistic intent outside of a Nazi documentary, needs a lot of help being carried. The Odessa Steps sequence is justifiably famous, but the rest of the film is absolutely leaden.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Connoiseurs of the musical often cite this as one of the best. I myself (no stranger to the musical!) find it to be a tedious slog through the life of America’s most overrated songwriter, George M. Cohan. And James Cagney’s performance is just weird. One good line of dialogue came out of this, and it is used about a dozen times.
Les Enfants du Paradis [The Children of Paradise] (Marcel Carné, 1945)
There’s nothing in this film’s three hours that wouldn’t be there in half of the running time. And what’s there, as far as I can tell, is a fairly unexceptional theatre drama. Oh, those French, with their theatre dramas! The story of how it was made (during the Nazi occupation, spies in the cast, etc.) is far more interesting than the story in the film.
The Best Years of our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)
When they tell you about how this is the best American film about life after World War II, they forget to tell you how unnaturally long it is. And how, except for Myrna Loy, the actors don’t have a clue as to what the fuck they’re doing. Suggestion: watch Brief Encounter twice in a row, and spend the afternoon humming Rachmaninoff.
Ladri di biciclette [Bicycle Thieves] (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
In 93 agonizing minutes, two plot points happen. At either end of the film. In between…an Italian man and his son wonder around. L’Avventura is an action extravaganza compared to this. And yet, it is universally considered one of the Most Important Films Ever, because it effectively created the Italian film industry. A heavy price to pay for Fellini and Antonioni.
The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
Middleweight adventure picture, with Kate Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart phoning it in. Between those actors and that director, something amazing should have happened, it didn’t, whatever, cute movie. Somewhere along the way, somebody decided it was a career-best picture, all around. That person was very, very wrong.
A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
I want very badly to think that Marlon Brando’s work here defines cinematic acting. But I don’t. I really, really, really don’t. At all. To quote Pat King: “I’m way better than Marlon Brando.”
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
I’ll be kind, and assume that time hasn’t been kind to this film. Wait, no I won’t. I have a sneaky suspicion I’m supposed to like and identify with James Dean here, or at least Sal Mineo, or something. I don’t. I want to smack them. I can’t think of another film where I want, so badly, to smack every single character – the kids, the bad kids, the parents, the cops.
Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959)
In this vast monolith of a film, two interesting things happen: there is a naval battle, and there is a chariot race. And the naval battle is really only interesting because of the field of tepidness surrounding it. Oh, there’s also the ending, which is mesmerising for just how far off the rails a major film can be driven in the last five minutes of 3.5 hours, but that’s not why people like the movie. (A word: although he’s the only director with two films on the list, I actually like William Wyler. Usually).
Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
For the reasons given in my previous post.
The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
I know that this is the scariest movie ever made, because many, many people have told me so. Why is it, then, that I was scared precisely 0.5 times when I watched it? Apparently, because I don’t believe in God. Fucking Catholics.
Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)
Boxing. Training. “Eye of the Tiger.” Adrian. Moral victory. The question is, why, of all the underdog sports movies, is this the one that people adore?
The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)
Marty is a great director. But great directors can actually make bad films. Especially when they’re Catholic, and their screenwriter is a nutjob loony-tune Catholic, and they cast Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot.
Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988)
Maybe I’m wrong, and people don’t actually like this one anymore…but Levinson’s name has a lot of love attached to it, and I hear the name of this film pop up in really random places. For what? An utterly predictable road movie in which a character is an asshole, then picks on his autistic brother because he is an asshole, then is redeemed by being nice to his brother. It’s A-B-C plot diagramming for people who think that A Christmas Carol has a too-ambitious character arc. Plus, I think it’s really not very nice to autistic people. They’re not fucking pets. Fuckers.
Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1989)
It’s like having saccharine injected into your tear ducts. I have the most utter hate for the way this film fucks with the audience – sentimentality is okay, at times, but this is the schmaltz equivalent of Agent Orange.
The Lion King (Roger Allers/Rob Minkoff, 1994)
It might well be that this is the most well-animated film of the modern age. But those luscious visuals are in service to a hackneyed plot with inert characterizations. Simba is uncharismatic even for a Disney hero, and that is saying one hell of a lot. I believe that no action in this film happens except because the plot requires it to – certainly, no plot point develops organically out of characters and situations, because neither of those things exist.
The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)
Go ahead. Give the hate. I can take it.
It’s not bad, but come on – it’s just not that good.
The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)
Take away the mindfuck of an ending, and you’ve got an okayish Pulp Fiction knockoff, with above-average performances. Of course, Singer got to the X-Men films off of this one, so it’s not all bad.
Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)
I’m sorry, Steven. You know I love you, very much. And the Omaha Beach sequence is just about the best scene in the history of war movies. But there’s another two hours of movie after that, and it’s pretty fucking tedious. It’s like a war movie Mad Libs – a Cliche-O-Mat platoon, French village, sniper nest, war is hell, other French village. Plus, that framing device is physically hurtful. But, I love your other films. I even loved A.I. So we can still be friends, right?
Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)
Oh, it’s stylish, all right. And witty. And Brad Pitt acts like he never had before, and never would again. But I can’t convince myself – and I’ve tried, oh my droogies, I’ve tried – that it’s a satire. No, I am fairly comfortable in saying that the movie believes itself: that all of the hatefully macho, misogynist, anti-intellectual bile that this movie spits out is its legitimate theme. I am willing to be convinced that I am wrong. Please try. I will change this if I am so convinced.
(And I know calling it “overrated” implies that it has a reputation for high quality outside a narrow band of college-educated 18-35 year-old film nerds, which isn’t really the case. But all – and I mean ALL – of my friends seem to love it, so in it goes).