The Nine Most Disappointing Movies of All Time

The previews gave you thrills. The wait drove you crazy. Finally, after all that, the opening weekend arrived and you were among the first to get a ticket. You grabbed popcorn, found a great seat, and smiled as the lights dimmed.

And then it sucked.

There’s nothing worse than a movie that shows great promise, then fails to deliver. If it’s just bad, you regret the money and time wasted. If it’s terrible, you wish you could erase the memory from your brain and punish those responsible.

Sadly, a lot of movies fit that description. Here, I modestly suggest, are the nine most disappointing movies of all time:

Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon, looking hot9. Showgirls. I know you’re thinking, but wait… let’s take a trip back in time.  It’s 1995: Elisabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon are smoking hot young actresses, featured in a movie about strippers, Vegas, and girl-on-girl action.  It had trailers like this. It looked like it would be two hours of Phoebe Cates coming out of the swimming pool. Any straight guy under the age of 40 was at least be curious and intrigued about the film, if not counting the days until its release. What we didn’t know was that it would be a dreary, humorless 128 minutes of boredom.  Worse, it turned out that Berkley, naked or not, seemed awkward, unsexy, and ridiculous in every scene she was in.  Her dance moves sparked unintentional laughter in theaters.  Oh, and just for good measure, the producers of this film threw in a shocking, violent rape scene to somehow turn the would-be 2am Cinemax movie into a grim revenge drama.  Not quite the cheap thrills people were expecting…

An Ewok8. The Return of the Jedi. In 1983, George Lucas had yet to tarnish his franchise with the “prequel” disasters. The first two films were beloved blockbusters. The Empire Strikes Back, arguably the best and most memorable movie in the original Star Wars trilogy, set up this film to deliver a fantastic close to a three-part epic. Han Solo was frozen. The rebellion was in trouble. Luke was wounded, humbled, and ready to settle the score once and for all with Darth Vader. There was no reason to imagine that Lucas could screw this up. And what did he do? Re-do the “blow up the Death Star” finish from the first movie, put a jabbering fish-creature in charge of the rebel forces, and drop a bunch of animatronic teddy bears in the middle of the film. Somehow, the movie was still vaguely satisfying, but filmgoers would be forever haunted by the silliness of an ewok army and the closing “dance around the campfire” scene.

Matthew Broderick, looking silly7. Godzilla (1998). In the summer of 1997, I was at an opening weekend screening of Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, and before the film, they showed this teaser trailer for a remake of Godzilla by the producers of the smash 1996 hit Independence Day. The crowd went wild. A few people literally jumped out of their seats. It seemed likely that Godzilla was bound to be the biggest hit of the following summer, if not the decade. If only the movie lived up to the teaser! Instead the next summer brought a movie starring — I’m not making this up — Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller) and Hank Azaria (Moe from The Simpsons). The movie itself was dull and unoriginal, seemingly constructed out of old scenes from the Alien and Jurassic Park films. Worse, the special effects were unimpressive and murky, with almost the entire film set in the middle of a rainy night, which seemed to suggest the filmmakers hoped we wouldn’t look too closely at the screen. Worst of all, the movie reduced one of the most beloved, classic monster movie icons, Godzilla, to nothing more than a giant crazy dinosaur with no personality. Not only did the producers of Godzilla deliver a dud of a movie, they tarnished the franchise upon which it was based.

Sofia Coppola and Andy Garcia in a scene from Godfather, Part III6. Godfather: Part III. With the first two Godfather films each winning an Oscar for best picture, and widely viewed as among the ten greatest films of all time, the third chapter in the Godfather series had two tough acts to follow. This 1990 dud has a few memorable moments, but it will mostly be remembered for a) Al Pacino’s wild over-acting, b) the glaring absence of Robert Duvall, and c) the scene-wrecking presence of Sofia Coppola. Pacino spends the whole movie screaming at the top of his lungs (in the sixteen years since Godfather II, he lost any sense of restraint). Sofia Coppola looks awkward and confused every time she is on screen. George Hamilton (?) has a big role in the movie. In short, the film is a mess. I wish it had never been made. Almost as much as the remaining movies on this list…

Ripley and a scary Alien5. Alien 3. Why must third films in a trilogy be so terrible? Is there some strange, unseen law in the universe that corrupts and infects the third acts in filmmaking? Anyway, Alien and Aliens are both science fiction classics. The first is a quiet, creepy, suspenseful haunted house story set in space. The second is a thrilling, action-oriented adventure that mixes humor and terror brilliantly. The third film wasn’t as thoughtful as the first, or as much fun as the second. It was just noisy, dark, and repetitive. Worse, it’s just utterly forgettable. Newt, that adorable girl from Ripley saved in Aliens? Ooops, she died while they slept. Oh, and there’s an alien loose in a steamy space station… just like the first movie, only with more techno music and loud noises! Director David Fincher would go on to make some great films, but this one was a truly awful and needless piece of filmmaking.

Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Morrison in Rocky V4. Rocky V. Many of us refuse to even acknowledge that this film exists. The original Rocky won Best Picture (deservedly so, I’d argue). The next three were increasingly campy and silly movies, but still entertaining. My best friend and I still quote from Rocky III all the time (“Prediction? Pain!”). At the end of Rocky IV (1985), our hero defeated the towering, murderous, steroids-inflated Ivan Drago, in Moscow, on Christmas Day, for free. So where could they possibly take the series after this? Moviegoers got the answer five years later with Rocky V: Balboa discovers he has brain damage, goes bankrupt, moves back into a rough Philly neighborhood, and starts managing some meathead boxer named “Tommy Gunn,” who eventually betrays him. Rocky ends up beating up Gunn in a street fight outside a bar. The End. If you never saw this fiasco, you might think I just made that up. But I didn’t: they spent months working on scripts for a fifth Rocky movie, and this was the best they could come up with. In a 2008, Sylvester Stallone told BBC interviewer Jonathan Ross that if asked to rate the Rocky V himself, he would give it a zero. Sounds about right to me.

3. Spider-Man 3. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 were both fantastic adaptations of a classic comic book, setting new marks for how smart and entertaining superhero movies could be. And then this happened:

Jar Jar Binks2. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Many would put this movie at number one, and deservedly so. It’s hard to describe the intensity of the anticipation for this movie before its release in 1999, and to overstate the crushing disappointment with this film once it hit the screen. It was the prequel to the most iconic and beloved film trilogy of a generation. People camped out for months in front of theaters to have good seats for the premiere. So what went wrong? Let’s see:

  • George Lucas was so enamored with new special effects technologies, he insisted on creating a fully digital character for the film: Jar Jar Binks. Goofy, incoherent, and cartoonish, Jar Jar added nothing to the story. Six year olds might have enjoyed the stuttering, stumbling lizard man, but not the rest of us. Each time he shows up on screen, a tiny piece of me dies.
  • In the first three Star Wars movies, the idea of “the force” served as a compelling mystical, philosophical element to the story. Luke became powerful because he believed and learned to trust the force. In this movie, we learn that it’s actually just some chemicals (midi-chlorians) in your blood that make you a good Jedi. So the Force is like having anemia or something? Lame.
  • Jake Lloyd, the boy chosen to play Anakin Skywalker might have been the worst child actor in the history of film. He almost single-handedly destroyed the movie.
  • Natalie Portman was inexplicably coached to speak her lines in a strange accent that seemed to be a mix of 80-year-old Kate Hepburn and an automated customer service telephone robot.
  • The script sucked. Lines that Lucas wrote for this film include: “Yippeeeee!” and “‘Now THIS is pod racing!”

Depite all this, if you were to skip every scene in this movie that included Anakin or Jar Jar, there was still some cool action sequences and a thrilling light-saber duel between Obi-Wan and spooky, sinister Darth Maul. Those fleeting moments of coolness spare this film from taking the overall #1 most disappointing movie spot. Which goes to…

Neo1. Matrix: Revolutions. In 1999, The Matrix premiered in the same summer as Episode One, and provided a stark contrast. The Matrix was everything the plodding, tired Star Wars prequel wasn’t: fresh, stylish, innovative, and original. It blended an unlikely mix of science fiction, mind-bending philosophical puzzles, and kung fu fighting into an entertaining surprise hit. Its original style, with 360-degree freeze-frame sequences, comic-book physics, pulsing techno music, and the trench-coat-and-sunglasses look spawned countless imitators. The movie’s impact on pop culture was viral. People quoted the film in classrooms, offices, and bars (and still do): “Take the red pill”… “Free your mind”… “There is no spoon”… “Stop trying to hit me and hit me”…

Underlying all this was an intriguing story: the human race had become enslaved by machines, crammed into pods, where they became little more than bio-electrical “batteries.” The “matrix” provided humans with a simulated reality that replaced their ability to see the real world. Neo (Keanu Reeves) discovers the truth, realizes he has special abilities inside the matrix, and that he may be “The One,” who can free the human race. The sequel, Matrix: Reloaded, while not quite as well-received,still delivered an exciting film that left viewers with an astonishing cliffhanger to ponder until the final act of the trilogy arrived. Web sites like this, this, and this popped with essays, articles, and discussions of the symbolism and philosophical questions raised by the films.

So when Matrix: Revolutions lit up screens in 2003, fans expected answers and a fitting sense of closure to the story. Most than that, the hoped for the same originality that fueled the first two films. Instead the films’ creators, the Wachowski brothers, cranked out a dud that lacked everything that made the first two films memorable. Most of Matrix: Revolutions takes place “outside” the Matrix, in the real world, and machines try to attack the remaining free humans living in in an underground colony called Zion. As a result, it was like countless other movies that pitted robots or aliens against humans: lots of guns, lasers, explosions, and chase scenes. It looked like a bad imitation of a Terminator or Aliens Starship Troopers, or (ouch) Star Wars: Episode One. What a difference four years made…

But worst of all, it failed to deliver a satisfying close to the trilogy. The ending is too convoluted and complicated to summarize here, but they key problem: Neo doesn’t free humanity from the Matrix! Most people will continue to live their lives in the “dream world” that Morpheus railed against. Almost as an aside, we learn that humans who “want to be freed” will be allowed to leave. But how the hell will that work, since they don’t know they’re in a fake reality?

The ending is all noise, special effects and flashing lights, but as a work of storytelling, it fails completely. Imagine if the empire remained in power at the end of Star Wars, or if the Kobra Kai bullies beat Daniel at the end of Karate Kid, or if Chief Brody failed to kill the shark at the end of Jaws… Fans of the film who bought into the premise of the original film were robbed. In the end, the audience was supposed to happily accept that most people would remain blindly lost inside the Matrix. Truth and freedom? Just optional. You call that a “revolution”?

The blue pill, it turns out, was just fine after all.

Read of the Week: “Comic Book Hero”

Browsing the cover story archives of the Washington Post Magazine, I came across this gem of a story, “Comic Book Hero.” by David Rowell. The story profiles Andre Campbell, a 44-year-old legally blind would-be comic book artist.

It’s not the story of how he succeeded in overcoming the odds and cracking into comic book publishing along side D.C. Comics and Marvel — he doesn’t. Instead, it looks at how one man’s dream, no matter how unlikely, has driven him since childhood.

Early in the article, it is clear that the story is about Campbell, not his business prospects as a comic book tycoon. Rowell accompanied Campbell to his first visit to an eye doctor in two years. Campbell is able to try out a “CCTV” device that would greatly improve his ability to read. He tests it out on a Hulk comic from his bag. Rowell captures the moment beautifully:

Garber kept talking, but Campbell was captivated by the eyeball, which belonged to Bruce Banner, who had spent his life trying to rid himself of the Hulk and who, in that moment, had just been hit by a cosmic blast. In the panel, he is laid out in a giant crater. Is he dead? Veins shoot out in little rivers of pale blood from the pupil, and his emerald eye, rendered, as Campbell could see now, with three shades of green, radiated a lifetime of failure and heartbreak. Campbell had never seen a piece of art so clearly, and he was lost in that single eye.

Rowell also closes with a fine scene at his son’s elementary school “Career Day”:

In the last class, Jason’s fourth-grade class, the kids were asking for his autograph — another first. Some had comics from National Free Comic Book Day — a publicity event dreamed up by the industry during more desperate times — and put those in front of him, and others handed him blank sheets of paper. Then others decided that he should sign their backpacks.

Here, no one asked him about his plans for distribution. No one wondered how much of his own money he had spent on Heritage or what he could do with members who didn’t show up for meetings. They didn’t criticize his dialogue or originality as an artist. They didn’t know how long he had worked to keep his dream alive, and they couldn’t understand that, in fact, it was on this very day, with them, that he had finally arrived. He couldn’t see the students clearly, but it was clear to Campbell how they saw him.

Great stuff, especially that closing line.

In addition to the story, the Post does a nice job with some bonus features, including a narrated slideshow, a video of Campbell drawing, a side feature about some of Campbell’s characters, a transcript of a live chat between readers, Campbell, and Rowell the day after thge release of the story, and a few final notes from the author. The beauty of the web is that while the article itself stands alone, all these bonus online features are relatively cheap and simple to add the story, yet add value to readers who want to explore further.

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Nieman Conference: Wrap Up

Nieman Conference LogoI’m back from Boston now, after my second Nieman Conference. Overall, another really impressive, well-run event. Kudos to everyone at the Nieman Foundation for putting on a fine conference.

A few quick closing thoughts:

Books I want to buy now, based on what I saw in Boston:

A few overall impressions from the conference:

  • Journalists are in a rough spot right now. Issues involving the collapsing newspaper business and the seemingly shrinking prospects for good, meaningful journalism kept coming up. It was the elephant stomping through the Boston Sheraton. I will remember Connie Schultz‘s words to the people in the hall: “The business model is broken. You are not broken.”
  • I’m an experienced, professional web and multimedia designer who wants to do more writing. I found myself surrounded by lots of experienced, professional writers who want to do web and multimedia. Maybe we can meet in the middle someplace?
  • Most journalists and writers seems to genuinely love what they do. Often, they make financial sacrifices to stay in their careers, but few seem to regret it. A lot of conferences feel cold and formal, with people milling about, shaking hands, handing out cards, trying awkwardly to seem excited to be there. Not here. Most of the people I met were passionate and excited about their work, getting better, and learning from others. That’s the kind of people I like to be around.

I hope to be back in 2010…

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Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day Two, P.M.

Over lunch, a bunch of strangers and I tried to figure out how to save the newspaper business. We didn’t succeed in finding a solution, but the brownies were quite tasty.

For the first afternoon session, went to “Conversation on Craft” on Magazines. The conversation focused on this powerful feature story from the New Yorker: The Last Tour by William Finnegan. Interesting session, from which my biggest take away is that William Finnegan is a hell of writer.

The second afternoon session was a tough call. I wanted to attend five of the seven sessions, but ultimately wound up in Tom French’s talk on “getting organized, mapping a story, finding a structure.” This handout is a great summary. Again, I was really impressed with Tom French. A few interesting tidbits you won’t find on the handout:

  • Cover of 'D.C. Comics Guide to Writing Comics'The best book on structure, according to French, is the D.C. Comics Guide to Writing Comics. Seriously.
  • Readers are smarter and more open to new approaches than we think. Reader are often ready for a lot more than editors and writers expect. The conventional wisdom about what they read or won’t read is often wrong. Sometimes, you can bury the lede and the world wont come to the end…
  • Even great writers often think their work sucks, especially when their working on it. It is common, he says, to be frequently “fighting off panic and terror.” “It’s good to be scared,” French says. “That means that you’re pushing yourself.”
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Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day Two, A.M.

The Keynote session to kick off Day Two was a discussion with author and writer for the New YorkerJon Lee Anderson.  To me, it seemed like a little too much fawning over Anderson.  Felt like I was watching “Inside the Actor’s Studio”…  Despite that, I did take away a few morsels of value from Anderson’s talk.  

First was the idea that he often learned a lot about the meaning of his own life’s experiences through the act of writing itself.  

Second, he talked about “going the distance” as a reporter.  By that, he meant that you have to keep researching, keep interviewing, keep talking to people, even when you’d rather quit and take a shortcut.  If you feel like there is still more to try and unearth, you have to pursue it.  His example was illustrative:  when researching his book on Che Guevara, he almost didn’t bother to interview an old Bolivian military officer, but dragged himself over to do it.  That man, at the end of a long interview, admitted to Che’s murder and revealed the fate of his body, which had long been a mystery.

Following that, I sat in on “From the Ordinary to the Extraordinary: Mining narrative gold in the everyday” (perhaps the longest title for any session at the conference).  Interesting, well-organized panel on how three writers — Katy Butler, Louise Kiernan, and Victor Merina — developed feature articles, selecting scenes, developing structure, and spending time with their subjects.

Moderator Christine Larson kicked off the discussion with a great analogy comparing the writing process to romance. You fall in love with an idea, and fall even deeper in love with the story as you report it and talk to people and collect material for it. But then when you take it home to try and write it up, the romance fades away and you’re stuck in a troubled relationship with something that drives you crazy. I’m not doing justice to Larson’s entertaining set up, but you get the idea…

Some important ideas I took away from this session:

  • Kiernan talked about the importance of being “willing to embrace the gray” in our storytelling; that is, be willing to accept and write about complexity. It’s easy as writers to try and tidy up reality into a nice package, but sometimes, reality is ambiguous and unresolved, and our job is to present that in all it’s maddening grayness.
  • Merina described his process of visualizing his stories on paper and mapping them out, literally, so that you can step back and look at them, seeing where themes and content overlap, and where there are clear holes and missing spots that need to be filled.
  • Butler explained the idea of looking for turning points and key moments in your stories, then walking backward from those spots to construct a compelling narrative structure
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The 11 Most Overrated Movies of All Time

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that millions of people can be utterly, shockingly, and inexplicably wrong. There’s simply no other way to explain the repeated success and popularity of David Spade, Taylor Hicks, or George W. Bush. And people are even worse when it comes to judging movies.

The following, in my humble assessment, are the 11 most overrated films in history. If you love these films, good for you. You probably hate some of the movies I love. Let’s call it even, despite the fact that you’re so wrong not to recognize how weak many of these movies really are.

First, a disclaimer: For the purposes of this article, I’m focusing on films that either won major awards, rank highly in the IMDB Top 250 or AFI’s 100, or have a significant cult or fan following. Godfather 3 or Rocky V, for example, can’t be overrated, but most people already think they sucked. A second disclaimer: this article contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen any of these movies, stop reading if you don’t want to read how some of them end. Finally, just because I call a movie “overrated” doesn’t mean it’s not a good, even a great, film. It just means that some of these films have gotten more of their share of acclaim than they deserve.

That said, some of these movies also flat out suck. Onto the list:

11. Fletch. A lot of people, myself included, still quote this movie often (“It’s all ball bearings nowadays!”) This 1985 Chevy Chase Comedy has a handful of memorable lines and funny moments. Fletch’s dream of playing for the Lakers, with a big bushy, white-man afro, and being interviewed by announcer Chick Hearn was endlessly amusing to me as a kid. But in between those memorable lines and short bits of goofiness, there’s not much of a movie here. The film’s producers clearly wanted to showcase Chase’s comedic silliness, but felt compelled to wrap it up in a conventional smart-but-unconventional-cop-gets-results storyline. For every one of Fletch’s great lines, there are three or four attempts that just don’t work. The guy is just a snarky wise-ass, in an early-’80s, Jack Tripper kind of way. Some comedies from the 80s hold up well, and they remain clever, entertaining, and funny. Fletch isn’t one of them — it’s half a dozen good lines, stretched out over 90 minutes of tedious, B-movie junk.

10. Crash. When I walked out of the theater having seen Crash, I thought maybe the movie was supposed to be some sort of parable. It was heavy-handed, unrealistic, and people didn’t talk like real human beings. We weren’t supposed to take this film seriously, were we? Still, it was trying to say something about race and culture and how we’re different, but separate, but connected, yet disconnected… and so on. I at least give the filmmakers credit for trying to look at some serious issues. But the movie oozed a sense of importance that it didn’t deliver. Some of the dialogue was unintentionally funny. The plot twists were manipulative and cheap. I was actually surprised that such a mediocre firm was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. I was stunned when it won, convinced it had to be the beneficiary of some odd vote-splitting list of nominees. Not only was it nowhere near the best film of 2005, let alone among the best movies in recent years. If you look at the nominees for Best Picture since 2000, I’m don’t think there’s a worse movie than Crash… maybe Gosford Park, but that’s only because Crash had Thandie Newton in it, and Gosford Park didn’t.

Photo from the movie poster for The Shawshank Redemption9. The Shawshank Redemption. Shawshank is on TNT approximately five million times a year. It is the second-highest rated film on IMDB, and it was nominated for seven Oscars. It is a movie that can make grown men cry. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins deliver great performances. Thomas Newman’s original score is beautiful. It’s an engaging film about perseverance, friendship, will power, and hope.

But then again, does it really belong in the same company as Godfather, Godfather II, Schindler’s List, and other consensus top-ten films? Is it really one of the ten best films of all time? First off, the villain of the film, Warden Norton, is an incredibly cartoonish, two dimensional bad guy. He and Cal from Titanic could have a “pure-evil-for-the-sake-of-being-pure-evil” standoff. Aside from greed, we have no idea what made him who he was. The Warden is pure evil, and is willing to kill the prisoner who can help prove Andy’s innocence in cold blood. And yet, even though Andy is the one man who could expose him and all his criminal dealings, he doesn’t do the simplest thing and just kill Andy. Why not? Because Andy has to wind up hugging Red on the beach years later.

Secondly, think about the scene where Andy locks himself in a room and plays classical music over the loudspeakers to the rest of the prisoners, who stop in the courtyard and stare up in awe and wonder. Are you kidding me? The scene tries to be a powerful, emotional peak in the film, but it comes off as laughably implausible, even in the 1950’s.

Finally, the movie makes it a little too easy on the audience by giving it all the answers. Is Andy guilty? Does he really escape? Will he and Red ever meet up again? Nothing is left for the audience to wonder about, no ambiguity — everything is spoon-fed to the audience in tasty, happy-ending bites, right up to the final “hug on the beach” scene. Wait… this movie ends with happy people hugging on a beach? Yes it does.

8. Chicago. This won Best Picture? Seriously? It must be a musical thing. I don’t get it. How did this movie get an Oscar, but Saving Private Ryan and Letters from Iwo Jima didn’t? I take back what I said about Crash. Compared to Chicago, Crash is Citizen Fucking Kane.

Photo of Humphrey Bogart in the film Casablanca7. Casablanca. Old Hollywood doesn’t get a free pass on this list. And perhaps the most overrated of the classic Hollywood films is Casablanca. AFI calls it the 3rd best film of all time. The IMDB 250 ranks it #8. Almost any list of the top ten films in history includes this Oscar-winning film. When people think of this movie, then tend to think of the famous lines: “Here’s looking at you, kid”… “Play it again, Sam”… “I’m shocked, shocked“… “We’ll always have Paris”… People also remember the look of the film: the glorious, rich black and white, with Humphrey Bogart smoking in the darkness. All of those things make this film a classic, but beyond that, the movie doesn’t quite live up its status as the best of the best. Does it really hold up after almost 70 years later as the highest achievement in filmmaking? I’d have to say no. Ultimately, I think nostalgia makes people give this movie more acclaim and praise than it deserves.

The acting, as was often the case in the 1940’s, is a bit campy and shallow. Bogart’s character is witty, sharp, and cynical, but he doesn’t seem particularly real. There’s a stage-play “acting” style to all the performances. Bogart’s role as Rick is far from his best work. He delivers dozens of quips, but they don’t seem like something a real person would actually say. The characters, aside from Rick and Ilsa, are mostly caricatures. Sam is a piano-playing black sidekick with no other human qualities, despite being one of Rick’s oldest friends. The Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark were more complex. The cynical Captain Renault is little more than a memorable bit of comic relief. And while I understand that some of this acting style was common at the time, but even for that era, the acting in Casablanca feels a bit thin. It’s a great story, but it often has the feel of a larger-than-life Broadway play more than a work of cinema. I respect this film, but if audiences watched it for the first time today, few would think the movie belongs in the top ten, even in the top twenty of all-time films. Just because a film is memorable, that doesn’t mean it is great.

Photo of Kevin Costner in the movie Field of Dreams
6. Field of Dreams. I’ve seen people describe this as the “best baseball movie of all time.” Nonsense. It’s not even the best Kevin Costner baseball movie. It spends entirely too much time prattling on about the “poetry” of baseball and elevating the sport to some kind of mystical, magical form of art. This movie wants desperately to be the ultimate love-of-the-game baseball movie. Baseball is so incredible and magical, it will bring your dead father back to you! So I’m going to call the film’s sugary sentimentalism about baseball strike one. Strike two? This film pumped up Kevin Costner’s ego to dangerous levels and led to the American tragedy known as Waterworld. Finally, it’s obvious to me that this sentimental ode to “America’s pastime” helped inspire the intolerable Ken Burns’ 19-hour Baseball documentary series, which brought over-wrought baseball metaphors and poetry to a new height. That’s strike three. Next!

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey. AFI calls this movie the 15th best film ever made. Science Fiction fans often still speak of this 1968 movie with hushed reverence. The movie was a pioneering film in terms of visual effects that would evolve in the ’70s to make movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters possible. But it lacked the storytelling that made those later films great. In short, 2001 is a three-hour bore. With long, slow shots that go on pointlessly for minutes at a time, a meandering, confusing plot, and the lack of a single interesting human character, this film is a painful cinematic experience. Director Stanley Kubrick seemed more interested in showing what the future might look like in 2001 than in telling a good story. When the two most memorable characters from your movie are a monkey-man who finds a bone and a talking computer, it’s possible that your three-hour science fiction epic needed a lot of help.

4. Gladiator. I like this movie. It’s my favorite DVD for testing out and showing off how cool surround sound can be. It’s an entertaining action movie with a spectacular recreation of ancient Rome. Russell Crowe is memorable as Maximus. But seriously… how the hell did this win Best Picture? For all its entertainment value, it’s a bit like a comic book. The villain, Commodus, is a one-dimensional cartoon. What’s worse, in his famous exchange with Maximus in the middle of the Roman Coliseum (“I will have my vengeance…”), the two speak to each other in normal speaking voices, and yet half the crowd can hear the conversation, including Commodus’ sister, who is about 100 yards away. The movie also has the token black sidekick to the hero, the child actor who really needs a haircut, and a bunch of undeveloped characters that the audience is given little reason to care about. All that said, Gladiator was a fun, summertime, popcorn-crunching movie. I just have no idea how it was deemed the best film in the same year that Memento, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Traffic were released.

3. The Matrix. Matrix was a pretty good film, mixing an intriguing storyline, innovative special effects, and some memorable quotes. Countless movies have tried to imitate its funky style and cool action sequences. It sparked a lot of interesting philosophical conversations about fate, the nature of reality, and choice. It spawned more fan sites, videogames, and pop culture references than almost any film since. Not bad for a sci-fi action summer movie. But for a lot of people, especially younger filmgoers, this movie is their Star Wars. And while I like Matrix, it is a movie with a lot of glaring flaws.

First off, there’s Keanu Reeves, who has the emotional range of a cucumber and brings little to the movie other than a very appropriate look of befuddlement for most of the film. Whoa!

Second, if you think too much about it, the core premise of the movie doesn’t make much sense. If the “machines” are using humans for energy, who bother giving them an imaginary universe in which to live? Why not just treat them like some biological fuel source and let them all rot in a coma-like state, thinking about nothing at all? Wouldn’t that still provide them with the energy they are harvesting? Better yet, couldn’t they just harvest the energy from cows or other big mammals that aren’t so high maintenance?

Third, there’s the ending of this movie, in which Neo is dead until Trinity tells him she loves him, and that makes everything better. Hurray for love! Seriously — the writers seems to have gotten stuck trying to figure out how to revive Neo, and finally gave up. “Screw it,” they must have said, “let’s just say Trinity brings him back with a magic kiss! Genius!”

And finally, Matrix is a bit tainted by the less impressive and more confusing sequel Matrix: Reloaded and the terrible, I-wish-I’d-never-seen-it conclusion to the trilogy, Matrix: Revolutions. The final film was a wholly unsatisfying end to the series and the worst of the trilogy, leaving unresolved a lot of the biggest and most interesting questions raised in the original film. Once you see Revolutions and know that Neo isn’t going to really free his people from the Matrix after all, that Morpheus’ biggest hopes will never be fulfilled, the first movie looks a lot more like a big tease for a payoff that will never come.

Photo from the movie Dirty Dancing2. Dirty Dancing. Since I don’t know many men who like this movie, this one’s for the women of the world to explain. This movie is always on cable. It seemingly has some new commemorative DVD every year. Almost every woman I know adores this film and has probably seen it dozens of times.

I honestly don’t know why this corny ’80s dance movie isn’t largely forgotten along with Grease 2. I just don’t get the appeal of this film on any level. I must be in the minority, but even at the time the movie was released, I thought the music sucked. Moreover, the star of the film is Patrick Swayze. That by itself should have killed this film.

The worst part of it all is the final scene, an excruciating dance sequence where an army of cheesy people dance off the stage and down the aisle of the theater to that unbearable “The Time of my Life” song. One writer described the final dance sequence in this film as “the most goosebump-inducing dance scene in movie history.” I’m not sure how many dance sequences induce goosebumps, but the only thing this one should have induced is laughter.

1. Scarface. This movie is #1 and it’s not even close. Not only is this easily the most overrated film of all time, it’s not even a good movie. It’s badly-acted, badly-written, violent crap. Aside from one early part of the film — the “‘chainsaw” sequence, which is extremely suspenseful and masterfully directed — Scarface is a terrible movie.

There is not a single character in this movie you can really care about. Al Pacino’s performance mostly consists of using a terrible, fake Cuban accent and shouting “fuck” every other word. This movie marks Pacino’s first real foray into loud over-acting. And while Pacino’s performances in the Godfather films, Serpico, and Glengarry Glen Ross are rich and complex, in this film, he deliver little more than a loud, two-hour Cuban caricature.

Photo of Al Pacino in the movie ScarfaceWe also never learn why his wife, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) ever warms up to him. Like many of the characters in the movie, there’s no depth or complexity to her. She’s just another plot device to give Tony Montana reasons to scream and freak out.

Whenever Tony gets really angry, there’s a bizarre sound effect and a close up of his eyes that’s incredibly silly. It’s like something out of a bad kung fu movie.

The music in this movie is horribly dated —a terrible synthesizer-heavy sound that lived and died in the 1980s.

The movie is vulgar, violent, and bloody and almost all of it is gratuitous. Yes, it’s a gangster movie, so it’s going to have lots of violence, but great films about criminals or mob life find ways to make the audience identify with or care about the main characters.

Scarface is a shallow, ugly movie with few redeeming qualities. It doesn’t deserve a fraction of the attention and praise it has received over the years. It would be better if no one remembered it at all. And for that, it’s easily the most overrated movie of all time.

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The Ten Best TV Shows of All Time

With the Sopranos final season winding to a close, a friend recently suggested that it has been the best show in the history of television. That’s a bit of a stretch. Sopranos is a great show, but in my mind, not even top five. The argument did get me thinking about what are best shows I’ve ever watched. Pop culture geek that I am, I started making notes on the subway the other night and ranking shows I’ve watched regularly in my lifetime. Which leads to this, my official list of the ten best TV shows ever to hit the screen:

Titus PulloHonorable Mention: Two recent HBO classics and two, forgotten, overlooked comedy gems: Deadwood, Rome, Get a Life, and TV Funhouse. Deadwood and Rome were both superb historical dramas with complex characters, great writing, brutal realism, and incredible acting. With both, it was easy to lose yourself in semi-historical events and believe you were seeing ancient Rome or South Dakota in the 19th century. Titus Pullo, Lucius Vorenus, and Al Swearengen, all real historical figures, were brought to life as fascinating, complex, and memorable characters. Meanwhile, Chris Elliot’s 1990 sitcom, Get a Life and Comedy Central’s TV Funhouse were short-lived, one-season-and-done shows that were brilliant, tragically overlooked comedies. Both comedies were random, surreal, bizarre, and hilarious. The oddball humor of both shows was way too unconventional to ever sustain a wide enough audience to survive. Sadly, I think I was one of about fifty people who watched either show.

10. South Park.
Comedy often seems to do a much better job tackling the difficult political and cultural issue of our times than the news media or “serious” drama. South Park might be the best example of this, with foul-mouth grade-schoolers taking on everything from consumerism, religion, political correctness, war, homelessness, drugs, and celebrity culture. South Park pushes the edge of what’s tasteful or appropriate week after week. It’s not easy to do that and be funny at the same time, yet South Park is consistently funny, relevant, and amazingly timely. One recent episode parodied the Terry Schaivo controversy and the release of the Sony PSP in the same week that Schaivo died and the PSP hit the market. I’ll never know how they managed to combine these unrelated topics, within days of being in the news, animate the show, and make it one of their best, funniest episodes. And finally, there may be no better animated character ever than Eric Cartman, the most horrible nine-year-old on the planet.

I Want to Believe Poster9. The X-Files. It’s easy to forget that before the show ran out of gas, having gone on for about three too many seasons, X-Files was one of the most original, compelling, and entertaining science fiction shows ever made. Fox and Scully, the believer and the skeptic, made for a fantastic dynamic each week as the two FBI agents explored UFO’s, the paranormal, and supernatural phenomenon. X-Files was well-written, suspenseful, and peppered with enough humor to lighten up the show. For those of us grew up fascinated with UFO’s, the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, and countless other paranormal myths, Fox Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” office poster spoke for us. Mulder stood in for us would-be believers and relentlessly sought “the truth,” week after week, even though it always seems just out of his grasp. After the fifth or sixth season, sadly, the endless mysteries and unresolved plot twists began to get too tangled and complex to keep many of us interested. (Lost producers, please take note…). After half a decade, the never-ending teases and hints at the bigger conspiracy storylines stopped being interesting and just became tiresome. And after David Duchovny (Mulder) left the show following the seventh season, the X-Files lost whatever heart and soul that was left. Still, for the first four or five seasons, X-Files was a hell of a good show. Few shows ever had as many “did you just see that?!?” moments as the X-Files. The best two dozen X-Files episodes are still classics that stand the test of time.

8. The Sopranos. While I don’t agree with those who put Sopranos on the highest pantheon of television shows, it was, and is, a classic show. Sopranos was the first truly great HBO show that showed how much better television could be when unshackled by the limitations of network censorship and commercial breaks. In typical HBO fashion, the show delivered complex, multi-layered characters that straddle the notions of good and evil. Taking some of the best elements of Goodfellas, the Godfather films, and Donnie Brasco, Sopranos mixed themes of family, loyalty, and morality to tell a Mafia story that was simultaneously familiar and shocking. In one scene, Tony Soprano is a likable, flawed father with whom we can identify with, in the next, he’s a cruel, calculating sociopath you’d hope to never meet. And that’s always been the brilliance of the show — on one hand, the Sopranos remind us of every day family life and personal challenges, while on the other hand, we see a world that’s cruel, shockingly violent, and governed by a dark, unfamiliar moral code. The audience wants to root for Tony, but he and his “family” don’t make it easy.

Homer Simpson7. The Simpsons. Eighteen years on the air and still running, the Simpsons has become a fixture of American pop culture. Creator Matt Groening, whose brilliant Life in Hell comics sparked some of the early concepts for the Simpsons, managed to create a show that rivals any “real” sitcom on television. Before South Park came along, the Simpsons paved the way with rich cartoon humor that poked fun at every facet of American life — politics, religion, work, family life, you name it. There’s almost no facet of modern life that the show hasn’t addressed, parodied, or winked at in an episode. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie have become iconic characters to a generation of Americans. Although the show’s writers and producers may struggle with new ideas now and then after nearly 400 shows, the Simpsons has been a clever, funny look at American life for nearly two decades. Homerisms have worked their way into our vocabulary. The countless characters that populate Springfield are as familiar to most Americans as anyone who has lived on Sesame Street or Mayberry.

6. Seinfeld. Very few sitcoms deserve to be considered “great.” Rarely does a studio-filmed comedy with canned laugh-tracks elevate to the level of greatness. Most sitcoms are formulaic, predictable, and filled with cookie-cutter characters, recycled plot elements, cheeseball humor, and bad child actors. Some classic sitcoms, like All in the Family, M*A*S*H*, and Cosby, stand out for their innovation and impact on popular culture in their day. But, honestly, how often do you want to watch an old episode of M*A*S*H* or Cosby these days? My bias may be a generational one, but to me, Seinfeld stands out apart from these highly-regarded sitcoms. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David created a show “about nothing” — a post-modern sitcom that emphasized that its characters would abide by unofficial “no hugging, no learning” rules. There was never “a very special episode” of Seinfeld, where the producers would force some heavy-handed theme or issue on its audience. The show was about four self-absorbed, superficial thirty-somethings who lived in New York. And freed from all the typical expectations of what a sitcom should be about, the show delivered episode after episode of great comedy about little, stupid everyday things like people who talk too softly, long waits at restaurants, parking problems, dry cleaners who shrink clothes, bad dates, pants that make swooshing noises, rude salespeople, annoying relatives, and hundreds of other mundane things. Mix in the comedic talents of Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Julia Louise-Dreyfuss, and Jason Alexander, and Seinfeld delivered nine seasons of original, unconventional, and memorable comedy.

Captain Jean Luc Picard5. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sequels rarely improve upon originals, but when Star Trek: The Next Generation was launched nearly twenty years after the original cult classic Star Trek had been canceled, it was the start of something special. Patrick Stewart, a bald, middle-aged British stage actor, seemed to be an odd choice as the star of a second Trek series, stepping into the shadow of William Shatner’s iconic Captain James T. Kirk. But what made ST:TNG a truly great show is that it took the core ideas and themes of Gene Roddenberry’s original show and made it smarter, better, and much more interesting. The idea to make Patrick’s Captain Jean Luc Picard vastly different than Kirk was a stroke of brilliance. Picard was thoughtful, literate, and disciplined. He could handle himself in a fistfight, but that was rarely his first, second, or third option to solve a problem. And Stewart set the tone for a show that featured vastly superior acting and writing to the original ’60s series. Some of the best episodes were quiet and thoughtful, exploring fascinating ideas of understanding, belief, self-identity, and facing one’s own fears. “Darmok“, “Family,” and “The Inner Light” were all powerful, moving episodes that easily exceeded anything from the original series. At the same time, the show featured some of the most dramatic, exciting sequences in sci-fi history. The final moments of the third season cliff-hanger, “The Best of Both Worlds” remains perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of television I’ve ever seen. The Star Trek franchise tried three more series after ST:TNG came to a close in 1994, but none of them managed to re-create the balance of great acting, writing, and storytelling that made this show truly classic.

4. Twilight Zone. Although this show originally aired before I was born, as a kid, it was constantly on the air in syndication. And no show sparked my sense of imagination and wonder as a child more than Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone. Talking dolls. Aliens. Monsters. Time travel. Alternate dimensions. Angels. Devils. Magic wishes. Evil kids with special powers. It’s probably not fair to describe the show as “science fiction,” since Twilight Zone was more than that. It was a creative, amazingly original series that explored countless “what if” scenarios and possibilities. Twilight Zone used metaphor and symbolism to touch on political and social issues during the 1950’s, when censorship was crushing Hollywood. The show explored ideas of fear, morality, social change, and death though short, gripping 30-minute stories. Rod Serling was also a master of the twist ending. So many episodes led viewers one way for twenty-five minutes, only to shock the audience in the final moments with an unexpected, stunning twist. There’s a reason that more than fifty years after the series was originally aired, marathon showings of the Twilight Zone are still popular on holiday weekends on American television. Serling’s classic show remains timeless, relevant, and thrilling.

The Cast of Monty Python's Flying Circus3. Monty Python’s Flying Circus. No show has forever altered my sense of humor in the way Monty Python has over the years. I still dream of eavesdropping on a session where these guys came up with some of the ideas they created for this show. The All-England Summarize Proust Competition. Self-defense against fresh fruit. Albatross vendors. News for Parrots. Olympic Hide-and-Seek. I honestly view all five of the original Python cast members — John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones — as geniuses. Those five Brits created a silly, absurd, stream-of-consciousness brand of humor that shattered all conventions for how comedy was supposed to work. They did it all — clever wordplay, physical humor, absurd situations — and mixed it all up in unpredictable episodes that had no real beginning, middle, or end. Sketches were tied together through surreal cartoons by Terry Gilliam or random connections that came out of nowhere. Monty Python was to comedy what the Beatles were to pop music. They changed the rules and did things no one had done before.

Scene from The Wire2. The Wire. Each season of this HBO drama feels like a great novel. The show looks at life in Baltimore, from the highest halls of government to the lowest level of the streets — cops, drug dealers, kids, teachers, blue-collar workers, and politicians. It’s one part cop show, one part urban drama, one part Greek tragedy. Brilliantly written and acted, few shows have ever created so many rich, complex characters and woven such engaging storylines as The Wire. The show does everything that the Sopranos does, but better. Almost all of the characters, even the drug dealers, are interesting and, at some level, sympathetic. There are no absolute good guys or bad guys. Episodes rarely wander into random plot holes or side-stories that go nowhere. From the street corners, to the docks, to city hall, to the public schools, The Wire looks at struggles over power, greed, ambition, and pride. It’s a dark show, but not without moments of triumph, humor, and hope. And The Wire has never been more powerful and moving than in Season Four, which focused on four young boys, struggling to survive the streets and public schools, against a system that seems to fail them each step they take. From the first episode to the nail-biting finale each season, producers David Simon and Edward Burns tell a powerful story that is hard to forget. I’d be quick to call The Wire the best TV show I’ve ever seen, if not for the number one show on my list.

Six Feet Under photo1. Six Feet Under. 99% of the time, television is just entertainment. It exists to amuse you, to take your mind off of other concerns and worries, or to make you laugh. It’s hard to imagine a show that can change the way you view life altogether, but that’s exactly how I see HBO’s Six Feet Under. Following the lives of the Fishers, a family that runs a Los Angeles funeral home, the show explored issues of life, death, and the decisions people make in between. What was always brilliant about Six Feet Under is that unlike Sopranos, or The Wire, or Rome, it was never about big things — wars, turf battles, an FBI investigation. Instead, Six Feet Under was about the little things in every day life — decisions about relationships, career dilemmas, tensions with family — that everyone can relate to. It showed how painful those small things could be to individuals, and how they often added up to larger problems.

With death as an over-arching theme in the show, there was always a looming reminder that life is short, often shorter than we expect. While that would seem like a depressing theme, ultimately Six Feet Under felt like an affirmation for living life as best you could. The closing moments of the fourth season embodied this key idea as David, who had recently experienced a horrible trauma, imagines a conversation with his late father:

Nate Sr.: You hang on to your pain like it means something. Like it’s worth something. Well, let me tell you – it’s not worth shit. Let it go! Infinite possibilities, and all he can do is whine.
David: Well, what am I supposed to do?
Nate Sr.: What do you think? You can do anything you lucky bastard – you’re alive! What’s a little pain compared to that?
David: It can’t be that simple.
Nate Sr.: What if it is?

That quiet exchange captured a simple, key message of the show: life it short, so make it count. Yes, maybe it is that simple.

After the five seasons of the series, you watched various characters struggle with big and small life decisions, and the consequences of those choices. And when it was all over, it was hard not to think about your own life  and wonder if it should be something different, something better.

Not bad for a TV show.

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.