Every film fan has fallen into the trap of buying that a venerated classic must be a mentally stimulating, if not highly entertaining experience. Then, a couple very long hours or so later, they found just how wrong the tastemakers of cinema can be. Let’s consider this list 10 dire warnings to the well-meaning, open-minded viewers of the world: Some sacred film cows are overdue for a trip to the slaughterhouse.
To attempt to quantify such an abstract notion as the quality of a movie so that we can come close to creating a list of this type, one of the main metrics will be the disparity between critical consensus and audience feedback. After all, critics have more reason to prop up a movie to appear high brow to justify the cost of their diplomas. They will also see so many movies that a film will very likely entertain them more than average theatergoer because of its uniqueness rather than its objective quality. There are times when what you really need is an amateur’s perspective.
NOTE: Spoilers are inevitable for a list of this nature.
10. Sausage Party
For whatever reason, critics were agog over this raunchy parody of family-friendly Pixar or DreamWorks animations (with some religious satire mixed) in from Seth Rogen and company. Its story of how food in a grocery store lives in ignorance of how the human customers that they explicitly label gods intend to eat them struck such a chord that it has an 82% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a site where 60% is considered the baseline for a movie to be worthwhile. Audiences were much less kind, giving it a 52% rating in aggregate.
An issue with pointing out the problems with Sausage Party is that it’s easy to do so and look unbearably uptight. Still, the fact remains that the movie’s dialogue, with its over-reliance on profanity from every character, becomes much more tedious than shocking. Its racial stereotype characters, which ostensibly make some sort of meta-comment on such stereotypes in advertising, in practice just read as racist cliches. As a result they’re the sorts of uncompelling stock figures that would be found in an even cheaper bargain bin equivalent of this movie. Also, the supposedly nuanced religious message implied by the dynamic between the grocery product and the customers isn’t introduced or discussed until roughly the beginning of the third act, and the movie answers all the questions that idea raises so quickly that there’s no tension.
9. It Follows
A movie being included on this list doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. Audiences even beyond horror fans seemed to like this film, as it has a 66% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s just critics went so nuts for it that it was given a 96% rating, which was pretty much setting it up to disappoint at least a little. So what’s the big issue with this movie, which is the story of teens being stalked by, essentially, a sexually transmitted disease in murderous monster form?
The main problem is a lack of consistency regarding the rules, as writer/director Quentin Tarantino pointed out in an interview with Vulture. One of the main hooks for the monster is its relentlessness, and that its targets never know when it’s coming. They only know in the back of their minds that, eventually, it will find them. Yet there are also moments where it stands around simply looking at the characters for scenes that do nothing but undercut its menace. During the climax, the monster — which up to that point had only been killing people with its bare hands — develops an out-of-the-blue approach of throwing things at the protagonists. Being killed that was is less scary on a primal level, in addition to making the monster’s characterization inconsistent.
The problems with the climax are further compounded by excessive ambiguity. It’s implied that water is a weakness for the monster, so even though the monster previously took a gunshot to the head as if it were a mere inconvenience, in the swimming pool it’s implied that it might have killed the monster. There’s a shot of the pool filling with red to further reinforce the notion. But then it cuts away, and the protagonists perform some precautions (i.e. one of the protagonist’s friends has sex with a prostitute) without any discussion or explanation. But it’s not intriguing or haunting for many; it’s just confusing because of course the protagonists would want to do something to confirm whether the monster was dead, and they have no stated reason that they cannot. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it does lower it from “all-time classic” to simply “good.”
8. It Comes at Night
One reliable way to anger audiences is to lie to them. Distributor A24 tried to skirt the line on that for this movie when they marketed a post-apocalyptic chamber drama as a monster movie. From the title to the cheap but eerie poster featuring a dog barking into the woods, the ad campaign for this movie clearly wanted audiences to expect a beast of some kind, not a person with some disease. Scenes in the trailer such as black muck leaking from a character’s mouth were clearly meant to reinforce the idea. So when critics went and gave it an 85% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, they only set the audience up for disappointment even more. Like, a 44% audience rating level of disappointment.
While It Follows had issues with consistency, this movie is too consistent in its overbearing bleakness. From the first scene where a funeral for a recently infected grandfather is performed before the body is set alight to the downer ending, there’s barely a scene of any levity to keep the audience invested. One attempted happy scene about the adolescent Travis disliking all desserts except pies is very awkwardly written. While large portions of the movie do aim for tension and suspense, it’s also willing to resort to cheap jump scares and red herrings. In the former case, it turns out scenes of black muck emerging from mouths are all nightmares meant as excuses for creepy imagery in the trailer, and character tics such as characters drawing human figures on trees is left completely unexplained. It’s very distracting for the movie to be littered with content that’s included seemingly because it would be good for the trailer.
It’s going on two years, and the entertainment industry is still reeling from this $30 million project from Darren Aronofsky, director of such critical and audience darlings as The Wrestler and Black Swan. Some have argued that it was the misleading marketing that resulted in it being misunderstood by mainstream audiences, who gave it a very unusual “F” rating through Cinemascore while critics gave it a positive 69% rating. While the movie does contain extremely violent imagery and the symbolism might seem abstract, there’s an aspect of the movie that shows the masses are not in the wrong for rejecting it: Its central metaphor is broken.
In brief, the movie is about a famous poet and his wife (only credited as Him and Mother) who live in a nice house out in the country. One day another couple, completely unknown to Mother, moves in and gets increasingly obnoxious until they cause damage and the poet kicks them out. Then Mother gets pregnant while Him finishes his masterpiece. This causes large crowds of increasingly violent fans to swarm the house until they kill the couple’s child and eat it. So, Mother destroys the house. Then we see the house recreated and the process begins again.
As Darren Aronofsky explicitly explained, the entire movie is a biblical metaphor where Him is God, Mother is Mother Earth, the first couple of guests are Adam and Eve, the Baby is Jesus, etc. It’s also supposed to be an environmental film. Neither makes any sense even as a metaphor, as pointed out on the website TVTropes. For example, if God is Mother’s husband, then he must have made her, meaning their relationship was incestuous, which presumably would be a bigger issue than uninvited guests. If their baby is supposed to be Jesus, that would make Mother the Virgin Mary, but she’s not supposed to be either Mary or a virgin and consuming the baby does nothing to redeem the guests (as is supposed to be the point of the Communion ritual) since Mother kills literally every character minutes later. On the subject of the environmentalist commentary, it also falls flat because the movie shows the creation of the Earth and destruction of its life as a cyclical event, something that will clearly not be the case for Earth. Seeing how bungled the movie’s metaphors are shows that it’s not as deep as its arthouse trappings would have you believe.
Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest hit has many components that have lost none of their power in the past few decades. Bernard Herrmann’s score is still a pulse-pounding classic. It’s still a taut, exciting, suspenseful flick for its first half. Tippi Hedren as part-time protagonist Marion Crane, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, and Martin Balsam as Detective Arbogast remain top tier performances. The shower scene remains iconic enough to be often parodied decades later.
The problems with this movie are pretty much all in the second half, but they are numerous.
While the scene at the end with the psychiatrist delivering exposition is often held up as the movie’s great weakness (even the late, great critic Roger Ebert called it indefensible), the real problem is the scene where Norman Bates is apprehended by Marion Crane’s sister and her lover. It’s done in mere seconds after the body of his mother is discovered. Even to audiences in the 1960s that would have found the sight of Bates in his mother’s clothing more depraved than comical, that’s a grievously rushed climax for what had been such a well-paced movie. Little wonder that no one bothers to parody that portion of the movie.
There’s not really a plot to summarize this movie that received a 97% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s nearly three hours of short vignettes of a boy named Mason as he grows from 6-years-old to 18. Some scenes feel like they could be life-changing (Mason’s confrontations with his two alcoholic stepdads fit), while many others are far more mundane, such as Mason receiving a Harry Potter book at a party, or visiting a zoo with his biological dad. It could be argued that there’s value to appreciating the normal moments in an average life, as critics such as Kyle Kallgren do. It could equally be wondered how writer/director Richard Linklater convinced anyone to film nearly half the scenes in the movie.
As Bob Cesca wrote in the Huffington Post, the biggest problem with this movie is that the vignettes largely don’t pay off or connect to each other, and for a movie that’s ostensibly about a person growing up, this lack of narrative means we never really see any evidence of growth from Mason. He never takes initiative, and his perspective doesn’t really change in any palpable way because he’s so passive. Characters around Mason have arcs, such as his mother (played by Patricia Arquette), who goes from feeling she needs to marry even abusive men to raise her kids, to level-headed independence, to empty nest syndrome in a deservedly Oscar-winning performance. To have an experimental film that fails is one thing; to have one that shows repeated glimpses of how easily it could have been much better is almost an act of cruelty towards the audience.
For years, this epic disaster movie was simultaneously the highest grossing and one of the most hated blockbusters ever made. Even as it won 11 Academy Awards, detractors spent years filling the internet with vitriol towards it. Even writer/director James Cameron had to admit that he was aware of and irked by how vindictive people were toward his epic romance for years. An excuse was offered in one of his profiles that a significant factor against the film was that its fans tended not to be very internet savvy in the late ’90s and early 2000s, meaning that its haters could post about it without anyone feeling a need to contest them.
Whatever defenses fans might have offered in those bygone days, the fact remains that Titanic is a deeply flawed film even for those who prefer the romance of Jack and Rose to the spectacle of the ship sinking. As critics including Alex Maidy and Mike Stoklasa pointed out, neither Kate Winslet or Leonardo DiCaprio gave anything like their best performances in a movie that the two of them needed to carry. Cameron’s dialogue has also been criticized for being cheesy, if not downright carelessly written. There’s no denying that Titanic is an entertaining, clearly massively rewatchable movie for many, but it’s certainly not a great movie when it comes to the human element. Hmm, sounds a little like another Cameron movie… but we’ll get to that soon.
3. The Forbidden Room
Guy Maddin has been a bit of a critical darling for more than 25 years. His films are basically intentionally bizarre homages to silent films, with film stock that matches their grain and colors and the actors giving over-the-top performances to match. The Forbidden Room may well be his masterpiece as far as critics are concerned, considering it has a 95% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences, however, only gave it a 50%.
The film is essentially an anthology film of 17 fragmented short films. As critic Kyle Kallgren explains, the shorts are all homages to real lost silent films that only exist in pieces. While you can understand how that would appeal to a film critic, particularly one with an antiquarian taste, it’s far too niche for the vast majority of viewers. But even a silent film purist will likely have problems with some of the short films in terms of style and content. For example, one is about Udo Kier arranging to be lobotomized to cure himself of an obsession for rear-ends, which are shown nude in abundance during the sequence. Even during the least censorious periods of the Jazz Age, that sort of subject matter wouldn’t fly in anything like the style Maddin employs.
Of all the cases that needed to be made for a movie to be included on this list, this science fiction epic, the highest grossing film of all-time and a multiple Oscar winner, may be the most difficult. Not that it’s so well-executed that it’s an unassailable artistic achievement. It’s because it’s kind of hard to make the case that the movie is rated or even thought about at all by anyone not directly employed by James Cameron as he works on its multiple sequels. Indeed, even pointing out how forgotten Avatar is has become something of a cliche since articles to that effect were published as early as 2014.
Why did this beloved and wildly successful movie sink without a bubble? For one thing, there’s how derivative it is. Not for nothing was it labelled everything from “Dances with Wolves in Space” to “FernGully in Space” to “Pocahontas in Space.” As Matt Singer pointed out a mere five years after it came out, he couldn’t quote a single line of dialogue from it that wasn’t a reference to another movie, which is curious given how quotable Titanic was. It’s enough that even after surprising the world multiple times with the world’s highest grossing movies, the industry still has low expectations for the upcoming Avatar sequels.
1. Citizen Kane
From the American Film Institute to Sight and Sound magazine, Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece is at least as famous for being held up by critics as the best movie ever made as it is for its content. Many Simpsons fans are more likely to know the many, many parodies and references the show has done to the film. In another list, we pointed out a popular piece of trivia about this movie that can be debunked merely by watching it, showing that it’s a much more discussed movie than it is one people go to the trouble of watching, or the misconception never would have caught on.
One of the main problems with the movie is its celebrated innovative story structure. From the beginning, Charles Foster Kane is dead, leaving behind a mystery of why his last word was Rosebud. We already know the broad contours of what happens to the central figure of the film from the beginning, removing much of the suspense. The reporter figure who functions as the protagonist for much of the film approaches the story with a sort of ironic detachment, meaning there’s no emotional cipher for the story, making it almost impossible for the viewer to get invested.
Kane himself does not have the most compelling of arcs. He achieves great wealth through no effort of his own right away, and seems to spend his youth trying to paint himself as a plucky underdog even though his fortune means nothing is really on the line for him, even as he suffers his supposedly tragic setbacks that result from his hubris. Even many mediocre films can get audiences invested by making the events a matter of literal life or death for the characters. Unfortunately Welles and company seemed to be too busy being clever to make their movie more than an academic exercise for many moviegoers today. Even Ingmar Bergman, hardly a director known for a short attention span, dismissed it as a total bore.
Dustin Koski assures you that his occult horror novel Not Meant to Know is not one of the most overrated books ever written.