Nothing pleases everyone.
We learn that when we’re kids, but a lot of us don’t really want to believe it. Even when we know better, we fly into a rage when movies like Jaws or Toy Story 3 have their 100% Tomatometer scores “ruined” because someone wrote a single negative review, shattering our precious illusions that every single critic on Earth is giving our opinions the precious validation they deserve. Here’s the hard truth: even the movies that are still 100% on Rotten Tomatoes are just movies that haven’t had their scores “ruined” yet.
Likewise, when filmmakers win an Oscar, it’s one hell of a rush, and they can pretend for one night that the world is cheering with them. But most of them know better. Most of them know that for all the smiling faces they see, there’s the face of a critic somewhere that’s not merely politely distant, but frowning in disgust. In that spirit, we present the contemporary quotes below, reminders that even at the time of a “Best Picture”‘s release, not everyone was cheering for it.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
In [Vietnam’s] 20 years of war, there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette, not in the voluminous files of the Associated Press anyway, or in my experience either. The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie… Even more preposterous than using Russian roulette as his metaphor is the morally irresponsible way that Cimino casually telescopes the years of the Vietnam conflict into a convenient backdrop for his bizarre macho heroics. So is history laundered. Absent are the disillusion at home, the bitterness of those who served, the destruction of a country and any other factors that might lessen his epic theme. (Peter Arnett, The Los Angeles Times)
Arnett went on to protest the movie’s demonization of the Vietnamese, who certainly suffered during the war as well. He knew what he was talking about. The legendary old-school war journalist was in Vietnam for 13 of those 20 years, 1962 to 1975. The movie spoke to the then-scarred American psyche, and Arnett admitted it was great drama, but couldn’t forgive the way it fudged the facts. Speaking of which…
I propose to demonstrate that the film grotesquely distorts both Gandhi’s life and character to the point that it is nothing more than a pious fraud, and a fraud of the most egregious kind. (Richard Grenier, Commentary)
Thus begins the longest pan on this list, which Grenier was eventually motivated to turn into a book. He delves into many “inconvenient” facts, among them Gandhi’s not-so-admirable family life, historians’ disagreements about his achievements, and his hatred for the technologies of the modern world.
Rain Man (1988)
The press has been full of accounts of the research into autism done by Hoffman and [Barry] Levinson and the principle scriptwriter, Ronald Bass, but what’s the use of all this research if then they rig the story and throw in a big sequence with Raymond using his whiz-bang memory to make a killing in as Vegas that takes care of Charlie’s money troubles? And what’s the point of setting up Raymond’s avoidance of being touched if Charlie is going to hold him while showing him how to dance and Charlie’s warm-hearted Italian girlfriend (Valeria Golino) is going to teach him how to kiss? (Is that something that Raymond is likely to be called on to do?) Everything in this movie is fudged ever so humanistically, in a perfunctory, low-pressure way. And the picture has its effectiveness: people are crying at it. Of course they’re crying at it – it’s a piece of wet kitsch. (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker)
Kael’s influence on criticism is impossible to overstate. Roger Ebert, Armond White, and Owen Gliebermann, all influential critics themselves, spoke in the most glowing terms of what she meant to the form. And she often disagreed with her contemporaries, especially here, where she savaged Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an autist as “his dream role, [because] he gets to act all by himself… E.T. in autistic drag.”
Dances With Wolves (1990)
For the record, no officer of the Union Army ever defected to any Indian tribe. To the contrary, many (Sherman, Sheridan, Custer) became famous Indian fighters. Kevin Costner… does not appear to know any of this. He took a novel written by his friend, Michael Blake, about the Comanche and, preserving intact the story and proper names, moved it hundreds of miles to the north into an entirely different linguistic family, leaving himself open to the suspicion that he can’t tell a Comanche from a Sioux… [The movie] is vehemently, dishonestly, even illogically anti-white. Its portrait of the Sioux, the most bloodthirsty of all Plains Indian tribes and neither pacifists nor environmentalists, is false in every respect. (Richard Grenier, Chicago Tribune)
Richard Grenier, taking an even more unpopular stand than his anti-Gandhi essay. He never shied away from politics in his reviews, slanting them with a perspective somewhat different from that of high-minded directors like Costner.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Fans of this film have weighed in with the comment that it illuminates the dark side of man. Not for me. The Silence of the Lambs romanticizes the dark side. Serial killers are hardly glamorous psychiatrists like Dr. Lecter, who is to be feared, Foster is told by her boss, because he can devour your mind just by talking to you. Any 10-second video image of Charles Manson is more frightening than what goes on here, as Lecter is interviewed behind a specially built glass prison wall-specially built for a movie, that is. (Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune)
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert hosted point-counterpoint reviews on TV, as well as writing them for the Chicago Tribune, for 24 years. He sometimes came across as the Bert to Ebert’s Ernie; prickly and harder to please, but there were only two occasions where he disagreed with the Academy on a multiple-Oscar-winning picture, this and the following year’s Unforgiven (about which he saved his choicest barbs for TV).
Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest is less a character than a tour guide, and Zemeckis, desperate to move us, ends up packing every teary device he can — death, marriage, the joy of parenthood, AIDS, another death — into the last 20 minutes. It’s a shameless display, though not much more dishonest than the rest of the movie, which reduces the tumult of the last few decades to a virtual-reality theme park: a baby-boomer version of Disney’s America. (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly)
Despite Glieberman’s admiration for Pauline Kael, Entertainment Weekly has not been a very contrarian institution, more likely to follow public opinion than lead it. Like Siskel’s review above, this was a rather extraordinary exception. EW even sort of apologized for it in its recent 25th anniversary, claiming “we were wrong.” Notably, Glieberman had ended his long association with the magazine one year earlier, so this apology was kind of stretching a pronoun.
What really brings on the tears is Cameron’s insistence that writing this kind of movie is within his abilities. Not only is it not, it is not even close… Instead, what audiences end up with word-wise is a hackneyed, completely derivative copy of old Hollywood romances, a movie that reeks of phoniness and lacks even minimal originality. Worse than that, many of the characters, especially the feckless tycoon Cal Hockley (played by Billy Zane) and Kathy Bates’ impersonation of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, are cliches of such purity they ought to be exhibited in film schools as examples of how not to write for the screen. (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times)
To be honest, this isn’t a complete pan: Turan admits the destruction of the Titanic itself makes great cinema. But by his lights, Cameron joins George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and others among the ranks of accomplished filmmakers whose efforts land with a wet thud when they set out to write their own love story.
…muddy, fuzzy, and indistinct… Gladiator lacks joy. It employs depression as a substitute for personality, and believes that if characters are bitter and morose enough, we won’t notice how dull they are. (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
As mentioned above, Ebert had a reputation for cheerfulness when he was Gene Siskel’s opposite number, and it only continued in the years ahead, as he met even his final, cancer-ridden years with a great ability to find the joy in life, and love of movies. But he’s also the guy who frowns disapprovingly on the cover of a collection of reviews titled Your Movie Sucks.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Kurt: It’s all buildup, and then Tommy Lee Jones has a cup of coffee.
Jason: Yet another gunfight wouldn’t have been a decent ending, either!
Kurt: No, it would’ve been a decent climax. It would’ve been a climax!
Jason: That would’ve been just like every other crime thriller ever made. This movie’s original.
Kurt: If “originality” means cutting out the fifteen most interesting minutes of a story, then I don’t want any. (Gordon McAlpin’s Multiplex)
If webcomics has a Siskel and Ebert, it’s surely Kurt and Jason, lead characters of a strip that recently entered its second decade. Like many fiction writers, McAlpin tends to split his opinions up among his characters, usually putting Jason in the highbrow role and Kurt in the lowbrow one… which makes it all the more rewarding when Kurt gets off the occasional quotable zinger.
The Hurt Locker (2009)
This film offers a vicarious thrill through yet another standard-issue psychopath, high on violence in somebody else’s country where the deaths of a million people are consigned to cinematic oblivion. The hype around Bigelow is that she may be the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director. How insulting that a woman is celebrated for a typically violent all-male war movie. (John Pilger, The New Statesman)
Pilger had no more love for The Hurt Locker‘s competition, calling all the nominees “a parade of propaganda, stereotypes and downright dishonesty… When will directors and writers behave like artists and not pimps for a world-view devoted to control and destruction?” One imagines he and Richard Grenier would have a pointed thing or two to say to each other.
The Artist (2011)
The idea of making a film about the American cinema between 1927 and 1933 seems as daunting a prospect as making a film about the entire cinema—in other words, the difference between conceiving the magnitude of a galaxy and the magnitude of the universe. You might as well make a 100-minute film about the Renaissance. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist neatly sidesteps this unsolvable dilemma by ignoring everything that’s fascinating and memorable about the era, focusing instead on a patchwork of general knowledge, so eroded of inconvenient facts that it doesn’t even qualify as a roman à clef. (Jamie N. Christley, Slant Magazine)
Christley goes on in some detail, contrasting a rich and informed history of the silent movie era with what The Artist mercilessly condenses into a story with only a few real characters and simple narrative through-line. The details are so fascinating that this might be a rare negative review that’d be an enjoyable read even for fans of the movie.
When the fake production’s executives in Tinseltown (John Goodman, Alan Arkin) are repeatedly asked by snoopy journos what their film is about and why it is called Argo, they finally reply “Ar-go f*** yourself”. That is the wittiest and pithiest this film gets. Elsewhere a woolly script, underpowered characterisation and rabbit-in-headlights direction by Affleck – whose talents were more apparent in less publicity-freighted projects (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) – mean the movie plays like a one of those gauchely deadpan heist-instructional flicks that screen crooks used to show each other before they robbed banks. (Nigel Andrews, The Financial Times)
Affleck knows a thing or two about getting static from the peanut gallery: consider Gigli or all the online controversy over “Batfleck.” But Andrews was one of very few dissenters over Argo, which weds two of the Oscars’ favorite topics: historical biopic and the power of filmmaking (even phony filmmaking) itself.
12 Years A Slave (2013)
I’m convinced these black race films are created for a white, liberal film audience to engender white guilt and make them feel bad about themselves… As a black person, I can honestly say I am exhausted and bored with these kinds of “dramatic race” films. I might have to turn in my black card, because I don’t care much about slavery. I’ve already watched the television series Roots, which I feel covered the subject matter extremely well. Of course, I understand slavery is an important part of any black person’s history, but dwelling on slavery is pathetic. (Orville Lloyd Douglas, in The Guardian)
Douglas’ view is, if nothing else, a reminder that race and the opinions it engenders are more complex than we often like to believe. It may be worth pointing out, however, that Douglas is a black Canadian, sharing many cultural touchstones with Americans but somewhat less likely to face the racial tensions of a Ferguson. (And no, he didn’t like Selma, either.)
Did we miss any other eviscerations of beloved movies that are worth reading? Let us know in the comments below!