We all have one. Some of us have two or three. It may be a movie. It may be an actor. But there's no doubt there is some film-related icon that you just don't get. Everybody else loves it, or him, or her, but not you. You're constantly reminded of the emperor's new clothes every time the conversation turns in that direction. But you're afraid to say anything. You're afraid that maybe the problem... is you.
Well, I'm here to tell you it's OK. You don't think Citizen Kane is all that and a bag of chips? There are plenty who agree with you. Meryl Streep -- not the greatest thing since the thermos? You can still have friends. Daniel Day-Lewis, overrated? OK, no one really believes that. But still, it's OK. And I'm also here to take a bullet for you. I'm here to admit that there are plenty of sacred cows that, in my opinion, are Dexters at best. (That's a very small breed of cow, for those of you who didn't grow up on a farm.)
My epiphany came almost 20 years ago. That's when Shine, Scott Hicks' 1996 movie about David Helfgott, received seven Oscar and nine BAFTA nominations. I thought that with the exception of three outstanding performances (from Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, and Armin Mueller-Stahl), Shine was actually a bad movie, far too eager to buy into the myth of human benevolence for artistic genius, far too much a publicity piece for a piano player and his wife. But people seemed to love it. My sense is that over time, its reputation has diminished and Hicks has never recaptured similar acclaim, so I am less inclined to wonder what I was missing back in 1996. But when I recently walked out of Pawel Pawlikowski's contemplative new movie Ida, the doubts returned. The friends and critics I most respect kept using words like "masterpiece" and "brilliant." I thought it was good, but not... sacred. So I write this as a public service or a confession, whichever makes me look better. And I need to look as good as I can. Because I suspect this is the kind of piece that results in me losing friends.
In loose chronological order:
Metropolis (1927): Michael Sicinski called it "the ur-text for cinema's ongoing fascination with visionary dystopia." Maybe it is, but Fritz Lang's highly influential silent classic has always seemed to me to be an oversimplified dramatization of the haves and have-nots, more interested in architecture than in actual people. And though I agree that the early Shift Change sequence is a stunning piece of cinema, I greatly prefer Murnau to Lang in this period, and I even prefer Lang's Mabuse stories to Metropolis from his German period.
Rome, Open City (1945): Heresy. The circumstances surrounding Roberto Rossellini's creation of this film are truly astonishing and I don't for one minute dispute the heroism that he, his crew, and his actors displayed in portraying the even greater heroism of the underground in the waning days of World War II. I just don't like the loose, episodic story very much. If I allow for the impossible conditions under which this creation took place, I have to say I prefer Marcel Carne's similarly-impossible Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), despite its length. Rome, Open City, like many of the titles on my list, strikes me as more influential than great. Speaking of which...
Rashomon (1950): They don't come much more important than Rashomon. Its appearance at Cannes and Venice announced that there was great cinema outside of Western Europe and the USA. Ozu and Mizoguchi had been around a while, but no one had seen them. Everyone saw Rashomon. Soon, Satyajit Ray would show us what India could do, and the era of a true world cinema was upon us. I find Rashomon to be a better intellectual argument than a narrative. It plays to me more like a treatise than a story. But I know it has many passionate devotees. In subsequent years, Akira Kurosawa became almost exclusively identified with his Samurai pictures. But I find myself much more involved in the contemporary, realistic movies that Kurosawa also made, crime movies like Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949). And the contemporary Ikiru (1952) is among the most emotionally-involving movies ever made, with Takashi Shimura delivering one of the truly great performances.
Nancy Kelly/Maggie Smith: I didn't want to confine myself to titles, so I am taking a shot at performances here. These two actresses delivered Oscar-nominated performances (Kelly in The Bad Seed, 1956, and Smith in Travels with my Aunt, 1972) that I find virtually unwatchable. Kelly won a Tony for playing the mother in Maxwell Anderson's stage version of The Bad Seed before she was hired to do the movie. But what works on stage does not necessarily translate on screen, and her over-emotive scenery-chewing is simply headache-inducing when blown up to 30 feet wide. Smith, now beloved as Professor McGonagall, was a very intense young actress, especially in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), but her quasi-comic adventuress Aunt Augusta is so overplayed, that I find myself actively rooting against her in George Cukor's beautiful, but very unsatisfying movie.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962): I know, you're ready to throw down now. I mean, David Lean's epic was number five on the AFI's top 100 films list (number seven when the list was redone in 2007). Lawrence is beautiful -- as is Peter O'Toole -- and it has some great moments. At over three and a half hours, it better have some good stuff. I find it long and at times very distant, and about the fifth time I hear Maurice Jarre's Desert Theme, I am usually ready to desert.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): I'm just a tiny bit too young to have experienced this when it came out and that may contribute to my undervaluing it. For despite the stunning opening sequence, and despite the truly inspired conception that the computer HAL would be the most human of the characters, this just struck me as long and very slow. I never cared about the characters, which I suspect is by design in a Brechtian fashion. I'll take Duncan Jones' more modest Moon (2009), with a great turn from Sam Rockwell, and Kevin Spacey recreating HAL, over Kubrick.
George Clooney/Tom Hanks: Look, I really like these guys. They are steady performers. They have done a lot of good movies. And, politically, I share many of their views. They are also true throwbacks to an earlier Hollywood era, an era which I love. For Hanks and Clooney, with very rare exceptions, always play some version of Hanks and Clooney. So did Grant and Mitchum and Gable and Wayne. Modern actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale are much better able to lose themselves in their roles, and I find myself much more drawn to their work. I don't downgrade Cary Grant for always being Cary Grant, so why do I downgrade Clooney and Hanks? I don't know. If there are any therapists out there, I'm willing to listen. I just know that I don't think either of these actors has ever given a truly great performance. Both are good, and Hanks has come closer, but I can't rank either near the best of his generation.
Argo (2012): Ben Affleck's Oscar winner seems to be everything that Hollywood does best. It's a good story about bravery and inventiveness in the face of danger. It's hugely entertaining, both in its comic and its suspenseful sections. It has memorable characters and moments. And it also features the self-congratulatory aura that undercuts serious drama and seems just a wee bit off-putting to me. It suggests that American individualism (AKA, balls) combined with Hollywood's ability to transcend real life and accomplish anything, will triumph over our backward, albeit menacing, adversaries. The fact that the "bad guys" in Argo are fools undercuts the dramatic potential and removes any deeper understanding of what it means for America to be a player on the world stage. We'll just dispatch the Justice League, and all with be made right. That off my chest, I should add that I enjoy watching Argo and fully understand why people love it. It's just that I can't rate it that high, and that's what this whole exercise is about.
Thanks for reading. Defend your favorites or add your own. Read contrarian critics like Ray Carney and Armond White. And get ready to throw down.
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