What constitutes a masterpiece? For the sake of this list, we’ll say that a masterpiece is simply a flawless (or at least a near-flawless) film.
Judging a movie is, of course, subjective, but there will always be some kind of consensus. While some people may try to argue that The Last Crusade is better than Raiders of the Lost Ark, no one is arguing that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is better than either of those Indian Jones movies. Or even Temple of Doom for that matter.
So what makes a movie a masterpiece? To put it simply: Everything needs to work.
We’re looking at the movies that came close to being masterpieces, but for one reason or another they ended up falling a little short. The faults in the films listed below could range anywhere from a single scene to a sprinkling of small (yet easily fixable) problems throughout the entire film. All of these movies are undoubtably great, but we can’t help but think that they could have been perfect.
Here are 15 Movies That Were Almost Masterpieces.
15 Django Unchained
Tarantino is a cinephile in the truest sense of the word. It’s as if every time he sits down to write a script he chews up a hundred of his favorite films and spits them out onto the pages. (We mean that in a good way.) While most people would agree that Tarantino makes wildly entertaining genre movies that pay homage to some of the greats, others would call the director an unoriginal rip-off artist. However, our problem with some of Tarantino’s films is not that he relies too heavily on other people’s work, but rather that he’s become a bit too self-indulgent.
Tarantino has made small appearances in many of his movies, which wasn’t a big deal in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction — most people probably didn’t even know what Tarantino looked like in the early '90s. But now everyone’s become familiar with the director and his larger-than-life persona.
We thought Tarantino might have taken the hint after giving himself a larger role in his one and only flop, Death Proof. Then he returned for some more screen time in Django Unchained, this time donning an Australian accent to play a slave transporter. The performance is awkward and downright distracting, as it takes place between the most critical sequences of the story. Ironically, the movie gets back on track right after Django blows Tarantino’s character into oblivion.
14 Garden State
It’s hard to perfect a movie about what it feels like to return to your hometown after a prolonged separation with your past life. Zach Braff’s directorial debut Garden State almost manages it. Drawing from real life experience Braff wrote, directed and starred in this 2004 romantic dramedy that became a box office hit and was beloved by most audiences and critics. It’s also worth noting that Braff handpicked the music for the film, which won him a Grammy Award that year for Best Compilation Soundtrack.
The movie features a quirky cast of characters headed up by Braff, along with Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard. While the movie as a whole is absolutely delightful, it does suffer from a few minor problems.
Problem number one is that Braff’s character, Andrew “Large” Largeman, is just coming out of a lithium-induced haze, making the character rather flat and sedated for a majority of the film. Large is eventually able to open his heart and feel again, but most of the movie relies too heavily on more interesting side characters.
The second problem is a single scene involving a bell hop (played by Method Man) who watches the hotel guests having sex through the walls. In a movie full of quirky and uncomfortable vignettes, this scene branches way too far into creepy territory. It's a blemish on an otherwise heartfelt film.
Martin Scorsese had been trying to get Silence produced for decades. The film is considered by many to be the director’s passion project. He wrote the script along with Jay Cocks (who previously worked with Scorsese on The Age of Innocence and The Gangs of New York) and it’s clear that the religious themes in Silence are an exploration of the director's own doubts and devotions (after all, Scorsese had planned to be a priest before he ever picked up a film camera).
Scorsese is no stranger to tackling religious subject matter, as he did before with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. But where those films succeed in challenging the viewers beliefs and pre-conceived notions, Silence is one of the director’s more alienating films. It asks the audience to sit through all the suffering on screen with little explanation as to why. Silence is beautifully captured and powerfully acted, but it fails to offer any insight on why the Japanese hate Christians in the first place, which unfortunately keeps the scope of the film too narrow for a near-three hour epic.
12 A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Much like Scorsese’s Silence, A.I. Artificial Intelligence spent decades in development hell. Stanley Kubrick wanted to adapted the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” as far back as the 1970s, but the director spent the next two decades firing multiple screenwriters over creative differences. Kubrick eventually asked Steven Spielberg to direct the film in 1985, though it would take another 15 years before the film ever went into production, and Kubrick had already passed away.
Ultimately, Spielberg decided to write the final script for the film, making it one of only a few feature length scripts the director has ever penned. While both audiences and critics disliked the upbeat ending, believing that Spielberg had decided to sweeten Kubrick’s original vision, the 2,000 year time jump and quasi-happy final scene was in fact Kubrick’s ideal ending. But that still doesn’t mean it was the perfect fit for the film — which may help explain why Kubrick struggled for years and years, trying to perfect the story.
Danny Boyle is a master at making his audience feel like they’re in the hot seat. Both figuratively and literally. In that regard, Boyle’s lesser-known 2007 space thriller Sunshine is no exception.
Upon its release, Sunshine was a box office bomb, even failing to recoup its moderate budget of $40 million. Today, the movie has become a bit of a sci-fi cult classic, with many wondering how they missed this film during its first go around.
The story centers on a crew that’s been sent to reignite the dying sun and save mankind. The film is visually breathtaking, with the blinding enormity of the sun becoming almost hypnotic, making it a welcome departure from the often cold and dark atmosphere of most space movies.
The problem with Sunshine is undeniably its third act, where the movie veers away from its sci-fi roots and turns into somewhat of a slasher film (similar to Event Horizon). The cinematography also takes a turn for the worse in the final act, when they continue to show the villain in a constant state of distortion which very quickly becomes annoying.
People have very strong feelings about how Zack Snyder is reimagining the DCEU. Wherever you may sit on the spectrum, we can all agree that the director works better under the freedom of an R rating. Dawn of the Dead and 300 turned out a lot better than we thought they would, and the same can be said about the director’s third film, Watchmen.
Admittedly, when adapting something as iconic as Watchmen -- one of the greatest graphic novels of all time -- you can't make everybody happy. For the most part, Snyder did a great job of bringing the insanely ambitious story to life. While Snyder’s hyper-stylized visuals may begin to wear out their welcome with a near-three hour runtime, the real issue here is how the movie decided to alter the ending of the source material.
While the giant alien squid ending of the graphic novel is no doubt bizarre, it’s also kind of the point. After all, what could do a better job of bringing opposing forces together than something so unexpected as an otherworldly attack? If the filmmakers wanted to tweak the ending to appeal to a wider audiences, they certainly could’ve went with something a little closer to the graphic novel.
Not to mention that the sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre is one of the most unintentionally awkward sex scenes in recent memory.
After the phenomenon that was The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan continued to bank on twist endings, but with every film, the twists seemed to pack a smaller and smaller punch, until they were downright ridiculous. The problem with Shyamalan’s second film is not with the twist per se, but with how the final moments are executed.
Though it certainly didn’t help that the film was being measured against The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable is still an excellent film in its own right, presented as a slow-burn character study of what it might be like to discover that you’re a real-life superhero. The twist in the film is that Samuel L. Jackson’s character is actually the villain. This is revealed in the final moments of the film, and the performances by Jackson and Willis, along with the score by James Newton Howard, make for a powerful scene.
So why did Shyamalan decided to interject text into the middle of this moment? The text explains that David Dunn (Willis) went on to bring Mr. Glass (Jackson) to justice — as if Shyamalan didn’t trust the audience enough to know that our hero would do the right thing after the credit's rolled. It’s insulting not only to the audience, but also to Shyamalan’s ability as a storyteller.
8 The Tree of Life
It’s hard to find someone who’s on the fence about The Tree of Life; people either love it or hate it. There’s certainly one thing about this Terrance Malick film that everyone can agree upon: it’s absolutely beautiful to look at, thanks to cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Even if you hated this movie, it’s also hard to deny that Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain give powerful performances, despite a story that has no interest in a three-act structure.
You don’t walk into a Malick movie expecting answers, but there are parts in The Tree of Life that even seem to pose contradicting questions. The theme of the film (which is stated to us directly) revolves around the choice between the way of nature and the way of grace. The scene in which a predatory dinosaur decided to spare its prey seems to suggest that the dinosaur has developed consciousness, and opted to choose a way of grace. Then again, we're told that no one who loves the way of grace comes to a bad end, which didn’t seem hold true for that dinosaur when a meteorite slams into earth.
7 The Dark Knight Rises
We all wanted Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to end flawlessly, but even the most devout optimist knew that The Dark Knight Rises wouldn’t be able to measure up to its predecessor. That being said, The Dark Knight Rises is still a fantastic film and a (mostly) suitable ending to the trilogy. We can't help but notice the number of easily fixable plot holes within the film. Like why did Commissioner Gordon have to send all of his men into what very well could have been a trap? Or why didn’t the United States government do anything to help Gotham?
The reason these moments probably didn’t have better explanations is because the filmmaker put far too much on hisplate. Nolan tried to raise the stakes even higher after The Dark Knight, and attempted to work in a few too many new characters, including Bane, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul and, most regrettably, Robin. If they had only taken a few secondary plot lines out of the film, The Dark Knight Rises wouldn't have had nearly as many inconsistent moments.
6 Training Day
Some critics loved Training Day. Others hated it.Denzel Washington still walked away with his second Oscar for playing the downright dirty Detective Alonzo Harris. The sensationalism of this cop-thriller made it more popular amongst mainstream audiences, so long as you’re willing to suspend the belief that all of this action and coincidence could take place in one 24 hour time period. (For all the crime scenes these cops wander through, shouldn’t there be more paperwork?)
But we’ll gladly suspended disbelief for these stellar performances… for the first two-thirds of the movie at least.
Officer-in-training Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) finds himself having the worst day of his life. He’s tricked into smoking crack, becomes a witness to murder, and gets left behind with a gang of drug dealers who plan to blow his brains out in the bathtub. Then he becomes the luckiest guy in Los Angeles! His life is spared by a conveniently lost-then-found wallet, he survives a shootout and a brutal beating from Alonzo, and he even makes it home to his wife before sun up. Which makes us wonder why this by-the-book cop never even decided to report back to the precinct?
The ending of Training Day certainly isn’t terrible, but it’s no where near as solid as the rest of the movie.
5 Eyes Wide Shut
The final film in Stanley Kubrick’s career, Eyes Wide Shut follows a New York City doctor (Tom Cruise) who embarks on an a lust-fueled all-night adventure after discovering that his wife (Nicole Kidman) once fantasized about leaving him for another man.
The film is beautifully shot and brimming with subtextual imagery that many people still debate today. For instance, why change the backdrop of the story from Mardis Gras to Christmas? Why is there a Christmas tree in almost every scene? And why so many Christmas lights? The list goes on, and for most of the two hours and forty-five minutes, Eyes Wide Shut succeeds in exuding a distinct and unsettling atmosphere.
The problem with the film really rests within its characters. Does it ever feel like we’re really in the shoes of Dr. Harford? Do we ultimately care what happens to him? Cruise’s performance is a little too stiff, and when the stakes keep raising Cruise doesn’t act like he’s in any worse shape than he was fifteen minutes before. Or fifteen minutes before that. If only we had felt a little more emotionally invested in the film, Eyes Wide Shut could have been one of the director’s most captivating films about the frailty of masculinity.
4 True Grit
The Coen Brothers have undeniably helmed a few flawless films over the course of their 30-plus year careers. While they’ve made a few duds in that amount of time, they always seem to return to form. The Coens can seamlessly float from one genre and time period to the next, but their one trademark without fail is their off-beat humor.
Even their straight-forward Western, True Grit, is laden with quirky comedy that can only be a result of such well-developed characters. The film ultimately proved to be a better adaptation than the John Wayne classic, as well as being one of the best Westerns within recent memory. Still, that doesn't make True Grit a flawless movie.
Unfortunately, True Grit failed to deliver the goods during the film’s climatic sequence. The movie feels like it’s building up to a showdown between Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) that never comes to pass. Instead, Rooster decides to have a showdown with the secondary antagonist, Ned Pepper. Even in this. Rooster fails, and it’s ultimately LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who ends up putting down the outlaw. This climax may have been closer to the source material, but it was ultimately a letdown to never see our drunken hero emerge from battle victorious.
When you make a prequel to a beloved classic, people will hate the film before it even hit theaters. Don’t get us wrong, Prometheus has its fair share of problems, but it’s not nearly as bad as many people make it out to be. The film looks great and there are some stellar performances by Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, and Idris Elba. What’s most frustrating about Prometheus is how easily many of the movie’s faults could have been fixed.
For instance, horrific things could have happened to Fifield and Millburn without the scientists turning into complete idiots, and there’s also no reason that Weyland has to lie about being dead if he’s already able to stay hidden aboard the spaceship.
There are a number of other small plot holes throughout the film that could have been easily patched over, but the overall story was on the right track and it shared enough DNA with the first few Alien films to keep fans of the franchise invested. We only hope that Ridley Scott and Co. have smoothed out these inconsistencies for the soon-to-be-released Alien: Covenant.
2 The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King
Peter Jackson adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic is no doubt one of the most ambitious undertakings in cinema history, as well as one of the greatest trilogies of all time. Which makes it a bit of a shame that the worst part of the entire series is the ending of The Return of the King.
Of course, people argue that after nine hours of story you need multiple endings so that each character can be given a suitable conclusion. As an audience, we not only want to see the One Ring finally cast back into the fire of Mount Doom, but also want to know that Frodo and Sam also make it out alive. At a certain point, though, you’re only playing to the most hardcore fans of the series by approaching a half hour of resolutions, and the emotional impact begins to dull as one sentimental scene makes way for another.
Many of these ending could have been consolidated into fewer scenes, and much like the many appendices in Tolkien’s books, the extra endings might have had a better place in the extended DVD edition of the movie.
1 The Master
P.T. Anderson is known for putting particularly bizarre third acts in his movies. With 2012’s The Master, P.T. Anderson directed some of the most captivating performances in recent memory — most notable during the "auditing" scene between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Unfortunately, The Master isn’t able to sustain that level of unnerving intensity during its final act.
Instead of speeding up, the story slows down. Way down. Freddie speeds off on a motorcycle into the desert, and the following scenes really begin to meander. Freddie tries to track down his old flame, only to discover that she’s moved on long ago. He gets a phone call from Dodd while sleeping alone in a movie theater, advising Freddie to come to England — a scene which is almost certainly a dream. And when the two finally do meet again, Dodd sings Freddie a farewell song, “Slow Boat to China,” which comes seemingly out of no where with its overtly sexual connotations.
Of course, you don’t walk into a P.T. Anderson movie expecting answers. That doesn't mean the final moments should drag on, especially when the earlier scenes packed a much bigger punch.
So which movies do you think were almost perfect? Let us know in the comments section!