Film, as any art form, is subjective. People are going to view movies in different ways, even though we all see the same shots and performances that make a project what it is tangibly. And no matter how beloved an acclaimed film like Goodfellas may be; or how derived a work like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is, there will always be someone (even if it’s the extreme minority) who feels a different way. That’s just the way the world works and what makes film discussion so interesting.
Still, generally speaking, many films that come out during the year form a consensus that define them as a “good” or “bad” movie and history remembers them as such. Then there are those projects that have an equal amount of supporters and detractors, and public opinion is largely across the board. These are the films that inspire fiery, passionate debates that make us question others’ taste in film. Screen Rant presents 10 polarizing popular movies that the movie community may never come in agreement on.
11 Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles’ ambitious portrait of Charles Foster Kane is considered by film historians to be one of the most artistically significant works of all-time. Many of the techniques employed by Welles were revolutionary at the time (the cinematography, for instance), pushing the art form of cinema to a new level in terms of craftsmanship. The film’s powerful narrative (chronicling the rise and fall of an interesting public figure) was also compelling to watch unfold. Citizen Kane is frequently shown in film study classes to illustrate how to tell stories via a visual medium.
But even acclaimed projects like this aren’t without their quarrels. Welles based his portrayal of Kane heavily on real-life journalism tycoon William Randolph Hurst, and people in Hearst’s camp viewed the film as an unwarranted attack on the man. Outraged, Hearst banned the movie from his papers and worked on disgracing Welles’ name. The director was forced to make cuts to the film before it screened to avoid offending Hearst further, but that couldn’t lift the cloud of controversy that plagued it in theaters.
10 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic is considered one of the most influential works in the genre. From a technical standpoint, it’s thought of as a strikingly beautiful movie, with the images serving as a form of visual poetry that worked in harmony with its iconic soundtrack. Captivating and hypnotic, 2001 dared to ask big questions about the history and future of humankind, taking viewers on a strange journey from the prehistoric times to the far corners of the universe in search of answers.
But there’s also a section of moviegoers who feel that the film fails at these things. Upon its initial release in 1968, 2001 was subject to a bevy of negative reviews, with some pundits referring to the final product as “boring” and others claiming that the movie’s ideas and themes were too abstract to make a strong emotional connection with the viewer (the ending being the biggest point of contention). Its deliberately slow pacing has also been subject to criticism, especially with today’s audiences.
9 Kids (1995)
A twisted coming-of-age tale, Kids centers around a group of sexually active teenagers in New York and their reckless behavior with substances like drugs and alcohol against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s. Needless to say, many took issue with the film’s primary subject matter, with some going as far as calling it child pornography and exploitive due to the nature of some of its more adult scenes. Indeed, some of the material is highly uncomfortable for viewers, and the film received the rare NC-17 rating as a result.
However, there are those who feel that Kids has strong artistic merits, despite its controversial narrative. Critics who spoke in favor of the film described it as a stunning portrait of youth life in the modern world and should be a “wakeup call” to society due to director Larry Clark’s honest and raw approach to production. The decision to make Kids in a quasi-documentary fashion helped hammer its points home even further, adding doses of hard reality to the proceedings. Despite its shock value, some felt it had important things to say and we should all stop and listen.
8 Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
This Kubrick film was subject to much hype and anticipation leading up to its theatrical release. Not only was it the director’s first film since 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, but it was also, sadly, his last due to his death shortly before its premiere. Like so many of his other works, it inspired a wide range of opinions. Some felt that the erotic thriller was a deep study of the human psyche that was just as interesting as Kubrick’s earlier projects. Fans also appreciated the work done by then real-life married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, considering their performances to be bold and brave, given their stature in the Hollywood A-list.
But Eyes Wide Shut could not escape the same criticisms that plagued Kubrick’s filmography. Detractors claim that the narrative is too abstract and barely makes sense even when you’re paying attention to what’s on-screen. Others were not so enamored with Kubrick’s filming techniques, most noticeably his decision to film New York scenes inside a studio as opposed to in the City itself, hurting the film’s setting. However, even those who didn’t like it will still admit that there’s something about Eyes Wide Shut that makes it an intriguing watch, so that has to count for something.
7 Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Bring this one up at a party and you’re sure to fire up a heated debate. This is a film where there seems to be no middle ground. Those who love Napoleon Dynamite say that the cult hit has a quirky charm that makes it hard to resist. Star Jon Heder’s performance was also well received, with people praising his sense of deadpan humor and considering him a new face for socially awkward geeks. Others said that its comedic nature was sly and subtle, making it enjoyable and full of laughs throughout its running time.
One of the main claims from the fervent anti-Dynamite crowd is that all that beloved “quirk” and oddball style amounted to nothing more than some hipster self-indulgence, with the "jokes" being unfunny stupidity than genuine humor. The Napoleon character was also subject to much criticism, as some feel that he is an “unlikable” protagonist that is difficult to latch on to. Others thought the situations the characters were in didn’t offer much for viewers to laugh at, making the movie a confusing exercise in what was so amusing about the whole thing.
6 The Fountain (2006)
Darren Aronofsky is always one with an eye for visual panache, and that aspect of the auteur was on full display with The Fountain. Those who support the drama say that it is visually stunning and its multi-story narrative is quite daring, making it a gorgeous bit of cinema that looks to tackle heady ideas of faith and metaphysics. People appreciated the filmmaker’s vision in crafting something that stood out from the crowd and challenged viewers on an intellectual level.
The film sharply divided viewers, with that same multi-narrative plot serving as one of the biggest points of contention. The constant jumping around from storyline to storyline was considered problematic and pointless, especially since The Fountain runs just over 90 minutes. Its critics felt that it tried to do too much within that limited timeframe, making it hard to sufficiently develop the character and thematic arcs that could have made it a truly compelling work.
5 Quantum of Solace (2008)
Daniel Craig's second outing as James Bond threatened to completely derail the forward momentum acclaimed franchise reboot Casino Royale had established. Longtime fans of 007 were largely displeased with the hyper-cut editing style for the action sequences, dismissing it as a poor Bourne imitation that made everything difficult to comprehend. The film was also criticized for its portrayal of a darker and grimmer Bond, saying that it stripped the character of the traits that made him so beloved in the first place. It also didn't help that chief villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Almaric) is considered one of the weakest in the series' five-decade history.
But in the years since its release, a vocal pro-Quantum crowd has emerged, calling it one of the more underrated offerings in the canon with several standout moments (the Tosca sequence, for instance). Craig's performance was the recipient of much praise, as he continued to put his stamp on the iconic spy with his suaveness, dry wit, and rugged toughness. Some fans also thought its depiction of Bond hellbent on revenge was an interesting watch, and the core plot (in which a criminal organization looks to seize control of Bolivia's water supply) made for timely political material.
4 Avatar (2009)
James Cameron’s sci-fi epic became the highest-grossing film of all-time and scored a bevy of Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) when it was released. Many critics thought that it was the new Star Wars, in that it pushed moviemaking technology to the next level by delivering something revolutionary and awe-inspiring. The immersive world of Pandora was a groundbreaking achievement and gave us a stunning place we all wanted to visit.
That said, there are just as many people who believe that Avatar is nothing more than a fancy lights and display show when you look beyond the superficial surface. The film’s story was subject to much eye rolling, getting called out for its derivative nature (Dances With Wolves) that didn't offer much in terms of originality. The characters were thought of by many as one-note, paper-thin caricatures, which was a far cry from the interesting and memorable inhabitants of Cameron's earlier films (Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley). Some also felt that its core anti-technology, anti-corporate message was hypocritical, given what it took to get the project to the screen.
3 Man of Steel (2013)
Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot served as the foundation on which the upcoming DC shared cinematic movie universe is built, but from an overall reception standpoint, it was hardly WB’s Iron Man. Several moviegoers felt that Snyder’s “grounded” and “realistic” take on the character created a darker, brooding version that was the antithesis of what Superman stood for. The action-heavy finale, particularly the mega-destructive Superman vs. Zod fight, was also a point of contention, with some feeling that it dragged on too long and portrayed Kal-El “saving” the world in an irresponsible manner.
However, there’s also a large pro-Man of Steel camp (read our review) who believed that the film was one of the better offerings in recent comic book movies. This segment feels that the story (which showed Clark Kent as a child of two worlds struggling to form his identity) made the Kryptonian more relatable and believable than previous incarnations, giving outcasts someone to look up to. Also, their stance on the action is that it was jaw-dropping visually and never disappointed in terms of scope, even if it was a bit excessive. The people who fall on this side of the fence feel that too much time was spent discussing what Man of Steel did wrong, as opposed to talking about the many things it did right in establishing a new franchise.
2 Lucy (2014)
Director Luc Besson gave audiences a slick piece of sci-fi fare last year when he teamed up with Scarlett Johansson in Lucy. While even those who like it say that it is somewhat silly in its executions, they feel the film is still an entertaining watch with its starlet in bona fide action heroine mode. Others credited it for trying to crack a bigger picture, as its study of the advancement of human intelligence and philosophical ideas gave it some heady food for thought to compliment the genre thrills. Sure, it required some suspension of disbelief, but if you went into it with the right mindset, Lucy would be a fun and wild ride from beginning to end.
However, that are also many aspects of the film several took issue with. Its reliance on the disproven "10 percent of our brain" theory made it impossible for some viewers to take the film seriously, no matter how smart Besson tried to present its concepts. Others also stated that as the Lucy character became more and more powerful (inching closer to 100 percent brain capacity), it was harder to become invested in the story, as the protagonist was rid of all vulnerability, becoming an unstoppable machine that nobody could challenge. There's nothing wrong with badass action stars, we just prefer if their lives are in danger.
For as long as they make films, there will continue to be those that are polarizing for a variety of reasons. As the old saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That there is no objective way to judge a movie’s merits is why cinephiles are so passionate about the works they love. There’s no “right” answer when trying to determine if any of the projects listed here are “good” or not.
Of course, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to share some of your favorite polarizing films in the comments section below. Let the debate rage on (but keep it civil, folks!)