The films you’re supposed to love, but don’t

Posted by · 5:49 am · July 24th, 2009

Gene Kelly in Singin' in the RainBound to raise many a film buff’s hackles, The Guardian carries an entertaining piece today by novelist Tim Lott on the subject of “the worst best films ever made” — in other words, the roundly lauded and canonized classics that routine appear on “all-time greatest” lists but, well, simply aren’t all that.

It’s a wholly subjective issue, of course, and Lott is unashamedly provocative (if overly glib) in tackling it, taking down some seriously big targets along the way. Films in the firing line include “The Searchers” (which he accuses of both racism and “rude mechanicals”), “Les Enfants du Paradis” (“dated, overlong and absurdly wordy”), “On the Waterfront” (“a masterclass in ham acting”) and “Death in Venice” (“a colossal piece of soft-focus masturbation”).

I disagree on most counts, but now and then his venom strikes a chord of with me. I wouldn’t go as far as he does in calling “La Dolce Vita” a “turgid, lazy mess of half-realised conceits,” but I agree that it’s not a film that has aged particularly well; compared to the still-pristine “8½,” its experiments in anti-narrative look idle and incomplete. And I’m glad someone else has the courage to say that subsequent decades of radical reinvention in the field of the movie musical make “Singin’ in the Rain” look like a very ordinary achievement indeed. (I’ll just come out and say it: I can’t stand Gene Kelly.)

(But then Lott goes and slams “Three Colors: Red” — a personal top-tenner — and declares “Psycho” less effective than “The Blair Witch Project,” and thus loses me all over again. That’s the fun in such pieces.)

He takes on a few more modern standards as well, puzzling over how “The Shawshank Redemption” (“a perfectly OK B-movie”) has taken on classic status via public rather than critical consensus.  (I tend to agree — I personally love the film, but missed the moment where it took on “all-time” status.) That, however, is mild compared to the spitting venom with which he attacks “Schindler’s List”:

This film is actively offensive. To watch a group of cringing Jews gather around the “good German” during the Holocaust is bad enough. To manipulate one’s emotions, as when a group of incongruously good-looking refugees are tempted into the camp shower block only to receive – yes, showers! – is disgusting. And the final scene, straight out of a prime-time soap, when Schindler breaks down in tears and weeps “I didn’t save enough”, is enough to make the toughest stomach regurgitate its contents.

(In a handy coincidence, today also finds The Film Experience’s Nathaniel Rogers and friends insightfully, and rather more charitably, taking on “Schindler’s List” — including a discussion of that very shower scene — in the latest installment of their must-read “Best Pictures fom the Outside In” series. Check it out.)

What titles would I add to Lott’s list? That’s tricky. I rarely get as actively resentful as he does over universally acclaimed titles; I am usually able to understand and appreciate what others revere about such titles, even if I stand at a comfortable distance from them myself.

Thus, there’s a lot thats falls into the category of “films I admire, but don’t like.” I can, for example, absolutely see the livewire combination of inventiveness and ambition that lands “Citizen Kane” in the top spot over and over again, but nothing about the film moves me on a personal level. I find Robert Bresson’s work formally beautiful, but oddly calculated and unstimulating, and “Ninotchka” aside, I put far too much effort into laughing at Ernst Lubitsch comedies.

Moving to more recent territory, I sometimes feel like the only person in the world who found “Fargo” a smug, heavy-handed exercise in underlined irony, while the explosion of critical (and Academy) adoration for Roman Polanski’s dramatically stilted, stylistically embalmed “The Pianist” befuddles me still. But I’ll save my exasperation for later in the year, when “The Lord of the Rings” series inevitably top multiple decade-best lists.

What are your worst “best” films? What classics are you chastised for not loving, or even getting? Vent away in the comments.

→ 90 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

90 responses so far

  • 1 7-24-2009 at 3:20 pm

    Mike_M said...

    I am going to add another to my list (what some people call a modern classic) but I could not stand Brokeback Mountain, it was so boring to me… it was brutal.

  • 2 7-24-2009 at 3:32 pm

    James D. said...

    I found Gone With the Wind to be a bit of a bore. Also, all of the old musicals. The genre died for good reason.

  • 3 7-24-2009 at 3:50 pm

    Clayton said...

    ““Breathless” is the closest I would ever come to calling a film pretentious.”

    So, I take it you try to resist using the word “pretentious” to describe films. But…you can’t think of any films more “pretentious” than Breathless, of all things?

  • 4 7-24-2009 at 3:52 pm

    AdamL said...

    Like this post, I have absolutely no problem calling out the supposed classics for the absolute rubbish they actually are (most are guilty of simply aging badly, which is not really their fault but they are still heralded as stunning.)

    Duck Soup. Just painfully unfunny. Puerile, immature, brainless humour, unless of course you find cream pie in the face gags to be the height of sophistication, in which case it is probably hilarious.

    City Lights. Tedious, unfunny, repetitive schtick that is on a par with Duck Soup.

    Metropolis. I can watch very very old stuff and get something out of it, as long as said old stuff is Battleship Potemkin, which is very good. This wasn’t and has aged badly.

    Lord of the Rings trilogy. Just painful to watch. I nearly cried during the 2nd one I was so bored. Nothing of merit in these films at all. nothing. Okay maybe that Enya song is okay, but that’s it.

    The Grapes of Wrath. Unwatchable. Far too earnest, humourless, ‘this movie has a message’ style filmmaking.

    There’s more, but that’s the first few off the top of my head.

  • 5 7-24-2009 at 3:54 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***So, I take it you try to resist using the word “pretentious” to describe films. But…you can’t think of any films more “pretentious” than Breathless, of all things?***

    Well, I was actually hesitant saying that because I had Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” constantly flashing in my mind, but I actually kind of like that film. “Breathless” is unrelenting.

  • 6 7-24-2009 at 4:00 pm

    Clayton said...

    I dunno…I just think Breathless has too many playful qualities to be slapped with the “pretentious” label, though certainly some of Godard’s (particularly later) work could be accused of it.

    Blow Up…I understand completely, but also kind of like.

  • 7 7-24-2009 at 4:04 pm

    Clayton said...

    To further clarify, to me, a film has so be almost completely humourless, and utterly convinced of its own profound significance, to qualify as “pretentious”.

    Your mileage may vary on that.

  • 8 7-24-2009 at 4:05 pm

    Clayton said...

    *has “to” be*

  • 9 7-24-2009 at 4:08 pm

    red_wine said...

    Wow, this post has opened a real can of worms. One would almost think that the classics are secretly hated films which everyone just pretends to love just so that they are ‘in’ on the talk. But of course I’m kidding, its just that films become classics with gradual and persisting critical consensus gathered over several years. But its hard agreeing with every one of them.

    I absolutely love E.T., Pierrot Le Fou, Contempt, Marienbad, Antonioni & Godard though I found Breathless very unappealing.

  • 10 7-24-2009 at 4:14 pm

    Clayton said...

    A question: Is it Bellamondo’s sort of sneering attitude in Breathless that mostly turns you off?

    Personally, I think I found Contempt to be more closely approaching tedium, with its repetitive you-love-me, no-you-don’t motif. But I haven’t watched it in a while.

  • 11 7-24-2009 at 4:51 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Too many to list so I’ll stick to recent-

    The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
    City of God
    The Lives of Others
    The Pianist
    The Departed
    Spirited Away
    Slumdog Millionaire
    Pan’s Labyrinth
    Hotel Rwanda
    Batman Begins
    Donnie Darko
    Kill Bill
    Million Dollar Baby
    The Hangover
    The Incredibles
    Children of Men
    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
    Letters From Iwo Jima

    Just the tip of the iceberg.

  • 12 7-24-2009 at 4:58 pm

    JC said...

    Chad: Care to list some of your recent favourites, so we can compare and contrast with your “don’t love (hate?)” list?

  • 13 7-24-2009 at 8:20 pm

    Glenn said...

    Two biggies for me: La Dolce Vita (I’m not sure why I’m supposed to want to watch rich people lead meaningless lives) and – the really blasphemous one – Annie Hall.

    I used to feel the same way about “Singin’ in the Rain” but then I rewatched it and think it’s astonishing. Same goes for “Jaws”, “The Exorcist” and “Cabaret”. Love them now, didn’t originally.

    If you want recent, the most glaring option is “Oldboy”. Hated that trash. Oh and “The Host”.

  • 14 7-24-2009 at 9:19 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Star Wars – all of them!
    8 ½ – I actually own it!
    Batman Begins – I really hate you Christian Bale!
    Scorsese’s filmography – with few exceptions!

  • 15 7-24-2009 at 11:35 pm

    R.J. said...

    Other films on my list:
    -A Beautiful Mind
    -The Ten Commandments
    -The Matrix Franchise (I thought the first one was good enough initially, but the sequels were awful and actually made my disdain for the first one grow because without it, we would’ve been spared those atrocities.)
    -Brokeback Mountain (Left me cold despite the solid direction and, admittedly, outstanding performances.)

  • 16 7-25-2009 at 12:28 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Chad, you cannot seriously hate every movie on that list?

  • 17 7-25-2009 at 1:10 am

    Fernando said...

    I can’t believe nobody has mentioned CRASH… what a piece of well, trash that movie was. I’m sorry but I just don’t get it.

    Besides that I rhink anything where Mr. Russell is involved or Foxx as well.

  • 18 7-25-2009 at 2:05 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Some of you have changed the subject from canonized classics (modern or otherwise) to merely successful recent prestige fare. Which is fine, but I hardly think that expressing dislike of “Crash” or “A Beautiful Mind” or “Atonement” is particularly contentious.

  • 19 7-25-2009 at 2:41 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Quite a few I hate. Some I just don’t like. The films I really like is much shorter but would include

    United 93
    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    Paranoid Park
    All the Real Girls

  • 20 7-25-2009 at 2:50 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    OK, I’ll just say it: I really dislike “United 93.”

  • 21 7-25-2009 at 5:53 am

    Hero said...

    Say it ain’t so! United 93?!

  • 22 7-25-2009 at 6:47 am

    El Rocho said...

    ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. I was the film years ago when I was much younger and loved it. I saw it a couple days ago on TV and hated it. The acting was lame (Beatty–who’s usually excellent–was hammy and lazy in this role), the direction was shotty, misguided and lazy. The music was comical. The screenplay was ridiculous. I just hated everything about it. It was barely ‘ultra-violent’, thought the final scene was well done. Yet the rest of it was pointless, senseless and boring. I was extremely disappointed with it and was shocked, when I did research, how celebrated it is. I just don’t understand how people think it’s so good. I thought it was, frankly, a piece of shit.

  • 23 7-25-2009 at 7:07 am

    Hero said...

    El Rocho,
    Thanks for reminding me of Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, a lot of the supposedly great 1967 movies are overrated. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Dull. In the Heat of the Night? Merely okay.

  • 24 7-25-2009 at 7:53 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    Amazing. Mere days after the release of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and you all are here bitching about Singin’ in the Rain and Fargo?

  • 25 7-25-2009 at 8:16 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    The existence of crap is no excuse not to be discerning, Robert ;)

  • 26 7-25-2009 at 8:59 am

    James D. said...

    How could you not like United 93?

  • 27 7-25-2009 at 9:26 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    Describing Joel and Ethan Coen as pompous, self-obsessed, smug brats and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as boring is not being discerning at all. It’s a series of gross overstatements thrown at directors and films, probably out of anger about how beloved they are than their actual quality [or lack thereof]. Think about “discerning” when comparing Tim Lott’s rant about Schindler’s List to the discussion on “Best Pictures from the Outside In.” Which one of your links reads like an adult is evaluating them and which one does not?

    To be fair, quite a few of you have understood Guy’s question and acknowledge a film’s technical merits while not understanding the “love” for it. For me, it’s Casablanca. If I hadn’t known about its imprint on American culture, I would thought of that movie as a fairly decent but pretty forgettable vintage film. But see how I didn’t go nuts and call it “a piece of shit,” or “painful to watch,” or “sentimental, hugely indulgent, overambitious, [and] bombastic,” or any of the other venomous labels applied to what’s undeniably better than 98% of what Hollywood normally produces?

    I understand that it would be impossible to love – or even like – all of the canonized classics, but seriously, enough with trying to think of the most heavy-handed insults to try and make up for the adoration that a certain movie has recieved.

  • 28 7-25-2009 at 10:49 am

    Mark Kratina said...

    @ Robert:

    I would love to give a thoughtful, discerning review of “Sierra Madre,” I just simply thought it was boring to the point I honestly don’t remember a thing about it. Just being honest. I saw the film probably 10 years ago and nothing resonated with me.

    If you think something is dull or a drag, it is difficult to find something insightful to say about it- especially 10 years later. Hence, my “dull” and “boring” statement. Perhaps my opinion would change if I watched it today, but the one experience I had watching left a vanilla taste in my mouth, as did the other Bogart films I listed.

  • 29 7-25-2009 at 7:38 pm

    SHAAAARK said...

    New internet rule: Think of a movie, any movie. There is a 100% that someone on the internet has posted a comment or blog post hating on it.

    That said, there are a very few films I’ve seen I just don’t get the love for. Pulp Fiction is one. It’s a Wonderful Life is another. Aaaaand…American Beauty. I wouldn’t say I hate them. Actually, fuck American Beauty. But other than that, I wisely reserve my hatred for useless trash with retrograde messages, like Transformers 2.

  • 30 7-26-2009 at 2:35 am

    slayton said...

    La Strada was noxiously sentimental and needlessly manipulative and cloying.

    But I loved Nights of Cabiria!

  • 31 7-26-2009 at 3:41 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Hero and James D: You asked, so I’ll answer. “United 93” is an expertly crafted achievement, but I find it an oddly cold, cowardly film in that it has nothing whatsoever to say about the events it so painstakingly restages. I get that the lack of perspective works for a lot of people as it turns the film into a vessel for their own feelings, but it left a very curious taste in my mouth.

  • 32 7-26-2009 at 6:23 am

    Hero said...

    Fair enough, Guy. It’s hard to get beyond the admiration stage with a movie that leaves you cold. For instance, I can appreciate the acting in No Country for Old Men (especially Tommy Lee Jones), but I pretty much have zero desire to ever watch it again, simply because the point seems to be that there is no point, and that’s not exactly what draws me to a film.

  • 33 7-26-2009 at 8:49 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Guy, that’s the exact reason why I admire it so much. I think with a topic like that, it’s much harder to get through an entire film without saying anything (and much more admirable).

  • 34 7-26-2009 at 8:56 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    But then why make it? I’m not being facetious, I just really don’t get the film.

  • 35 7-26-2009 at 9:26 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    It’s an amazing story, that’s why. But it had been turned to legend. Everything about 9/11 had risen to mythical proportions in people’s minds and his non-judgmental, no bullshit approach to the story brought it back to personal terms.

  • 36 7-26-2009 at 9:48 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Very well said, even if I don’t quite agree.

  • 37 7-26-2009 at 10:30 am

    James D. said...

    What I loved about United 93 is that it didn’t take the route that the awful “World Trade Center” took, making up ridiculous subplots and resembling a sequel to Pearl Harbor. United 93 made me cry, and that is so rare the more movies I watch.

  • 38 7-27-2009 at 9:44 am

    Robert said...

    @ Mike_M

    Ah, Brokeback. It was, at the time, my favorite film of 2005. I certainly wouldn’t place it there now — its first act is a tad too leisurely — but Ledger’s is THE performance of this decade (with just 5 months to go). I remember thinking afterwards that this must have been how an earlier generation felt when seeing Brando in Streetcar.

  • 39 10-02-2009 at 9:55 am

    Daniel Bickersteth said...

    I weep for the future. No doubt the people who left such ignorant comments on here are the same people who go and see Transformers or Cheaper By The Dozen 2 and say to there friends “dude that was awesome!!”.

    Or perhaps you all just don’t like films at all, in which case why are you on a film website?

    Its a sad world we live in.

  • 40 2-02-2012 at 7:19 am

    Walt D in LV said...

    For me, it is SO easy a list to make:

    Thin Red Line
    2001: A Space Odyssey
    Apocalypse Now
    The Passion of the Christ
    Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

    All EASILY the worst movies I’ve ever seen (though 2001 had its moments with HAL)

    VERY Overrated:
    The Godfather (though 2 is a masterpiece)
    Blazing Saddles
    The Hangover (it’s good, but not GREAT)