Trashing the Classics: Harsh Reviews of Legendary Films


I’m criticized all the time that I have awful taste in movies, which for a part-time film critic, probably isn’t the best thing to hear. But while that’s mostly based on my occasional praise of The Fast and the Furious series and the scorn that I heap on overrated fluff like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I wouldn’t go so far as these critics have.

I use a combo of IMDB and and Rotten Tomatoes to find movie critics who would go so far out on a limb as to trash movies that are universally beloved and recognized as legends of modern cinema. I look for the one or two lone reviews on RT that didn’t care for the top 5 movies of all time on IMDB (I skipped The Godfather as it had no dissenters).

Yes, the IMDB list is all fan-made, and RT is all rather pompous critics, but at least for the first hundred or so on the “best of” list, the two audiences generally line up. These critics I’ve highlighted are either idiots or very brave to go against the grain the way they did. See for yourself below:

5) Schindler’s List (1993)


“Already as close to a canonized masterpiece as a film can get a mere ten years after its release, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List seems to these eyes a misguided failure that aims to please where it should instead be challenging and confronting. In the opening minutes, when we watch the Polish Jews registering after the loss of the war to Germany, the camera is more concerned with the chaos and excitement of the event than the dehumanization. What should be the first in a line of intolerable acts is a snappy set piece. Close-up after close-up of people stating their names to the camera doesn’t dehumanize these people.

It does the opposite. The script demands that the Jews be humanized, though, and since this is an expository scene, it has an apparent function as entertainment to serve before it serves the people it’s portraying. It might be churlish to complain about such things, but these sins are revisited repeatedly throughout the film and come to a head in Schindler’s (or, more accurately, Liam Neeson’s) climactic speech. While it works, somewhat, as an inversion of the God complex that Schindler’s foil Amon Goethe clearly has, it is factually inaccurate, brazenly manipulative, and so capable of presenting Schindler as a saint that it allows the audience feel alright about the horrors they have witnessed over the previous three hours.”

– Jeremy Heilman,

[Full Review]

4) Pulp Fiction (1994)


“This fictional world, though rendered imaginatively, can’t sustain the movie. The characters undergo no changes whatsoever–which is convenient to this world’s amorality (nothing can get better or worse)–but scarcely cinematically engaging. And Tarantino (“Reservoir Dogs”) keeps repeating his effects. Time and time again, characters are taunted at gunpoint. Time and again, grisly melodrama is played against mundane chitchat–which seems to endorse violence as just another way of shooting the breeze. Time and again, the plot shifts consciously. Interspersed graphics and titles have a certain freshness, but no unifying purpose.

Like last year’s “The Piano,” this one took the Palme d’Or at Cannes. There’s some reason for this honor in the inventive camerawork: Actors are provocatively in and out of the frame, characters are introduced from behind (one with a Band-Aid the size of a two-by-four on his neck). But even these effects are repeated an nauseum. Or maybe it only seems so. When there’s nothing to want, nothing to hope for on behalf of any of the characters, not even the cleverest camera can shoot a movie worth watching.”

– Marc Vincenti, Palo Alto Weekly

[Full Review]

3) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)


“Bad is the word for the wooden acting, and Leone’s addiction to the cramped values and stretched probabilities of the comic strip. And ugly is his insatiable appetite for beatings, disembowelings and mutilations, complete with closeups of mashed-in faces and death-rattle sound effects.

After liters of fake blood have oozed. dripped, spilled and spouted over the landscape—all three arrive at the cache at the same time. Who gets it? Director Leone doesn’t seem to care very much, and after 161 minutes of mayhem, audiences aren’t likely to either.”

– Uncredited, Time Magazine

[Full Review]

2) The Godfather Part II (1974)


“The only remarkable thing about Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part II” is the insistent manner in which it recalls how much better his original film was. Among other things, one remembers “The Godfather’s” tremendous narrative drive and the dominating presence of Marlon Brando in the title role, which, though not large, unified the film and transformed a super-gangster movie into a unique family chronicle.

It’s a second movie made largely out of the bits and pieces of Mr. Puzo’s novel that didn’t fit into the first. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from leftover parts. It talks. It moves in fits and starts but it has no mind of its own.

The plot defies any rational synopsis, but it allows Mr. Coppola, in his role as director, to rework lots of scenes that were done far better the first time: family reunions, shoot-outs, ambushes and occasional dumb exchanges between Don Michael Corleone and his square, long-suffering wife, Kay (Diane Keaton). “Oh, Michael,” says the slow-to-take- offense Kay when Michael is about to sew up the Vegas rackets, “seven years ago you told me you’d be legitimate in five years.”

– Vincent Canby, The New York Times

[Full Review]

1) The Shawshank Redemption (1994)


“Speaking of jail, “Shawshank”-the-movie seems to last about half a life sentence. The story, chiefly about the 20-year friendship between Freeman and Robbins, becomes incarcerated in its own labyrinthine sentimentality. It wanders down subplots at every opportunity and ignores an abundance of narrative exit points before settling on the aforementioned finale. And leave it to pandering, first-time director Frank Darabont to ensure no audience member leaves this film unsure of the ending. Heaven forbid a movie should end with a smidgen of mystery!”

-Desson Howe, The Washington Post

[Full Review]

“Darabont’s version of King’s story is gimmicky and schematic and panders to our most contrived sexual anxieties and base notions of revenge and guerrilla justice. By film’s end, the heroic Andy has not only escaped prison, but every villain has been punished.

The film’s naïve sentimentality undermines serious issues of violence, rape, manhood, and male bonding. Indeed, after the Sisters are silenced, Darabont cranks up the unilateral act of hero worship: prison goes from being “mean and scary” to, well, “cute.” Andy writes letters in order to get books into the prison library, starts doing everyone’s taxes, and wins the hearts of guards and prisoners alike. Someone should bake a pie. Oh, wait, they do!”

– Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

[Full Review]

 If you liked this article and want to see me do it with other classics (Star Wars, LOTR, Indiana Jones, etc), let me know in the comments.

  • filmfan

    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Review is from 1968, before the film had attained its canonic status. Quite many of the reviews of the time were unkind to the film. These may not be available online, but libraries are full of them. This review echoes most of the other criticisms at the time, espescially the violence, which may seem tame now, but was discussed at the time as we discuss the Saw films now. The Time review is much more positive than certain other critics were at the time,

    Critical consensus, and espescially canonizing, can be a scary thing as it seems to remove the possibilty of discussing a film’s merits beyond “why it is so awesome”. If many people disliked a movie in 1968, isn’t it odd that no one is allowed to dislike it now, for fear they might be wrong? (P.S The Good, the Bad & the Ugly is my favourite film ever)

    All the historical value in the world will not stop me from saying that Birth of a Nation (100% fresh on rotten tomatoes) is a steaming pile of melodramatic tripe, posing as high brow when it is decidedly middle brow. Even if you removed the atrocious KKK racism from the picture, all the innovative narrative techniques in the world would not be enough for me to praise it.

    Classics which received poor or mixed reviews when they first were released:

    Citizen Kane
    It’s A Wonderful Life
    Pretty much any horror classic, except Psycho
    Star Wars
    The Thing (1982) (more of a cult classic, maybe?)

    Can’t remember more on the top of my head, but there are loads of them. Any cult classic will probably have received poor reviews initially.

  • I actually agree with the Pulp Fiction review. Great videography. Great acting, but that acting should have been a five minute clip in a much more enthralling story with several other characters of much greater development.

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  • Sarcastos

    “part-time film critic”

    That’s the funniest thing i’ve heard today, but to be fair i haven’t seen a cancer research commercial yet.

  • Madison

    These are funny looking back, but they’re also extreme examples. I think generally, I like a film more or less than I did right after I saw it. Meaning, after its marinated in my brain for a few days, I have a better formed opinion about it. For instance, I think I like Moon better now than I did when I saw it last weekend.

    Still, I don’t know if I’ve ever hated a movie and then later loved it.

  • Actually, Citizen Kane had many good-shining critical reviews, but wasn’t popular with audiences, due to it’s somewhat confusing film nature. I personally don’t understand what makes it so great. Above average yes, greatest film of all time, no.

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  • Taephit

    Look for the reviews for the incredibly shitty “Lost in Translation” that everyone loved.

    One of the few voices of decent summed it up PERFECTLY that it is “a deep movie for shallow people”

  • Perry Carter

    I kind of agree with the review of Godfather II. The first movie was far superior. Al Pacino can’t hold a candle to Marlon Brando, and even if he could, his character of Michael is not as interesting as Vito. The best part of Godfather II is the flashback portion starring Robert De Niro as Vito.

    I’m not going to go as far as say that it was a bad movie, because clearly it was not. I enjoyed it. But it was clearly lesser than the original by a wide margin. Even Coppola recently admitted that Godfather II should not have been made and was only about making money.

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