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.
9. 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.
7. 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.
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.
2. 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.
We 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.