12 Great Movies The Critics Got Dead Wrong


If you’ve paid much attention to film festival coverage over the past few months, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about a film called The Raid (it was later given the rather silly subtitle Redemption, though I’ll be damned if I recall anybody being redeemed in it). It screened at Toronto, Sundance, and SXSW, and it is a knockout — a powder keg of pure action, done with deadpan humor and hyperkinetic style. I saw it at an all-media screening at Sundance, and even among that jaded group, the audience literally gasped at loud at several points, and burst into applause at the end. It’s terrific cinema.

And that’s why so many people who have seen it are losing their shit over Roger Ebert’s inexplicable one-star review of the movie, which went online last night. He complains about the film’s “wall-to-wall violence,” cracks that “if I estimated the film has 10 minutes of dialogue, that would be generous,” and says that the picture is “almost brutally cynical in its approach.” This coming from a guy who gave three stars to Transformers and most of the Fast/Furious franchise.

Then again, as much as we love Mr. Ebert, this isn’t the first time he got a great movie dead wrong. His one-star pan of Blue Velvet is still a head-scratcher; ditto the single star he awarded Wet Hot American Summer. And don’t even get us started on that two-star review of the original Die Hard. The point is, sometimes the critics just plain get it wrong. After the jump, we’ll take a look at a dozen classic movies, and the scribes who blew the call on them.

The General

“This is by no means so good as Mr. Keaton’s previous efforts. Here he is more the acrobat than the clown, and his vehicle might be described as a mixture of cast iron and jelly.” – Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times

“Long and tedious — the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done.” — The New York Herald-Tribune

“[A] pretty trite and stodgy piece of screenfare, a rehash, pretentiously garnered of any old two-reel chase comedy…. The audience received The General with polite attention, occasionally a laugh, and occasionally a yawn. Disappointing.” — The New York Daily Telegraph

“Slow, very slow…. [P]ull yourself together, Buster. That’s all.” – The New York Daily Mirror


“It is a technical marvel with feet of clay, a picture as soulless as the manufactured woman of its story. Its scenes bristle with cinematic imagination, with hordes of men and women and astounding stage settings. It is hardly a film to be judged by its narrative, for despite the fantastic nature of the story, it is, on the whole, unconvincing, lacking in suspense and at times extravagantly theatric.” – Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times

The Wizard of Oz

“I sat cringing before M-G-M’s Technicolor production of The Wizard of Oz, which displays no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity… I don’t like the Singer Midgets under any circumstances, but I found them especially bothersome in Technicolor… I say it’s a stinkeroo.” – Russell Maloney, The New Yorker

Citizen Kane

“I thought the photography quite good, but nothing to write to Moscow about, the acting middling, and the whole thing a little dull…Mr. Welles’s high-brow direction is of that super-clever order which prevents you from seeing what that which is being directed is all about.” – James Agate, The Sunday Times

“The picture is very exciting to anyone who gets excited about how things are done in the movies… and in these things there is no doubt the picture is dramatic. But what goes on between the dramatic high points, the story? No. What goes on is talk and more talk. And while the stage may stand for this, the movies don’t.” – Otis Ferguson, The New Republic

The Third Man

The Third Man‘s murky, familiar mood springs chiefly from Graham Greene’s script, which proves again that he is an uncinematic snob who has robbed the early Hitchcock of everything but his genius. Living off tension maneuvers which Hitchcock wore out, Greene crosses each event with one bothersome nonentity (a Crisco-hipped porter; schmoo-faced child) tossed in without insight, so that the script crawls with annoying bugs.” – Manny Farber, The Nation

All About Eve

“The bitchiest fabrication since Mrs. Luce’s ‘The Women.’ It is not true, as you may have heard, that All About Eve is a great picture and proof that Hollywood has grown up overnight. Its highly polished, often witty surface hides an unenterprising plot and some preposterous human behavior.” – Richard Hatch, The New Republic

Bonnie and Clyde

“It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie… This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap…” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

The Graduate

The Graduate only wants to succeed and that’s fundamentally what’s the matter with it. There is a pause for a laugh after the mention of ‘Berkeley’ that is an unmistakable sign of hunger for success; this kind of movie-making shifts values, shifts focus, shifts emphasis, shifts everything for a sure-fire response. Mike Nichols’ ‘gift’ is that be lets the audience direct him; this is demagoguery in the arts.” – Pauline Kael, Harper’s

The Godfather Part II

“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. Occasionally it repeats a point made in The Godfather (organized crime is just another kind of American business, say) but its insights are fairly lame at this point. The Godfather, Part II, which opened yesterday at five theaters, is not very far along before one realizes that it hasn’t anything more to say. Everything of any interest was thoroughly covered in the original film, but like many people who have nothing to say, Part II won’t shut up… Looking very expensive but spiritually desperate, Part II has the air of a very long, very elaborate revue sketch.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times

Annie Hall

“With Annie Hall, Woody Allen has truly underreached himself… his new film is painful in three separate ways: as unfunny comedy, poor moviemaking, and embarrassing self-revelation… It is a film so shapeless, sprawling, repetitious, and aimless as to seem to beg for oblivion. At this, it is successful.” – John Simon, New York

“If you can forgive the fact that it’s a ragbag of half-digested intellectual ideas dressed up with trendy intellectual references, you should have a good laugh.” — Nigel Floyd, TimeOut Film Guide, Seventh Edition (1999)

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now is a dumb movie that could have been made only by an intelligent and talented man. It pushes its egregiousness with such conviction and technical sophistication that, upon first viewing, I immediately resolved to withhold firm judgment until I’d seen the film again: perhaps I’d missed some crucial irony, some ingenious framework that, properly understood, would convert apparent asininity to audacity. I didn’t find it. It isn’t there.” – Richard T. Jameson, The Weekly (Seattle)

Malcolm X

“[Denzel] Washington comes off petty — lukewarm rather than hot, angry, calculating, intimidating, brilliant, ornery, or, in a word, undeniable. [Spike] Lee has blanded out Malcolm X’s character to make him worthy of a big budget movie that could recoup its cost by attracting (but not offending) millions of viewers… The only way to redeem this scandalous sellout would be to radicalize moviegoing and movie watching… With no formal innovations or controversial content, Lee’s film is a setback to all the artistic advances of the hiphop era. Let the mourning begin.” – Armond White, The City Sun