Backlash is a funny thing. It’s always been present in popular culture, but it feels as though it’s become particularly prominent over the past few years, an unavoidable step in any celebrated film, band, book, or television show’s penetration into the cultural landscape: first comes critical acclaim, then financial success, then ubiquity, and then the inevitable backlash from those who object (or who have turned, perhaps because of said popularity and/or ubiquity). Sometimes, the pendulum swings back and the backlash fades — but often, the negative connotation is what sticks, and that’s what becomes the lasting perception.
This week’s 3D rerelease of Titanic got us thinking about backlash, and how often we find ourselves defending movies that were, at least in the beginning, critical and popular hits, but have since fallen out of public favor. Thus, we’ve collected ten movies that the worm turned on — but that we’re standing by, damnit, and we’ll tell you why. Check them out after the jump, and add your own in the comments.
There may be no single film in cinematic history that made as much money as this one, yet became so widely and loudly reviled after the fact. Critics and general public were gunning for Titanic when it hit theaters in December of 1997, after months of breathless (and negative) coverage of writer/director James Cameron’s ballooning budgets and extended scheduling overruns. Yet it struck a chord among both critics and audiences, racking up fantastic reviews, eleven Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), and over $1.8 billion in worldwide box office.
The backlash is explainable and, honestly, understandable; we wanted to punch “King of the world” Cameron as much as anybody else during that Oscar acceptance speech, and good Lord, if we never hear that fucking Celine Dion song again, it’ll be too soon. And yes, the movie has its flaws (Cameron’s no great shakes as a screenwriter, and the Billy Zane character is comically thin), while the idea of it beating L.A. Confidential for Best Picture still burns. But all of those things duly noted, it must be said: the movie works. DiCaprio and Winslet’s chemistry is off the charts, and the effortlessness with which they capture the first flush of love is remarkable. And the extended (almost real time) sinking of the vessel remains an astonishing stretch of pure cinema, skillfully intermingling state-of-the-art effects and honest-to-god suspense — no easy feat, considering that we know how the damn thing’s going to turn out. It’s an imperfect film, and we’re certainly not rushing out to see it again in 3D or anything. But what it does, it does very, very well.
It feels like Juno had a window of maybe a week — maybe — before the backlash started, and it was multi-pronged. People complained about Diablo Cody’s dialogue, complaining that all of her characters talked in the same, overly-stylized manner (a jab that seems to mostly evade male counterparts like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, David Mamet, and Aaron Sorkin). People made its teen-pregnancy storyline into some kind of a political hot potato, trying to transform the gentle comedy into an anti-abortion polemic (news flash: if Juno had an abortion, the movie would be forty minutes long). And it was accused of being some sort of faux-hipster twee poseur thing, which is a bag not even worth unpacking. Here’s what I know: this is a warm and likable picture, the characters are relatable but subtly complicated, the dialogue is funny and rarely forced, and the parent/child dynamics are rendered with a nuance seldom seen in mainstream cinema. And Ellen Page is fantastic. And so is Allison Janney. And so is J.K. Simmons. And so is Jennifer Garner. And so is Jason Bateman. And so is Michael Cera. And so on and so on.
1999 was an incredibly good year for cinema — it gave us Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Fight Club, The Matrix, Eyes Wide Shut, Run Lola Run, Boys Don’t Cry, The Sixth Sense, Election, Ghost Dog, Go, The Limey, Man on the Moon, Office Space, The Virgin Suicides, Sweet and Lowdown, etc. We knew it was a good year then, but much of that year’s movie output has only increased in reputation as we’ve realized how influential those films were, and that may be why people get worked up over the fact that Sam Mendes’ American Beauty won that year’s Oscar for Best Picture. The general consensus these days seems that have congealed into the notion that Beauty is a shallow and obvious satire on suburban life, which is, we suppose, one way you could read it. But there’s a lot going on under the surfaces of Alan Ball’s screenplay. Its simple yet wrenching depiction of a man coming to terms with his life, his failures, and his shortcomings, of feeling nothing but gratitude “for every single moment of my stupid little life” — well, y’know, maybe it’s not Nietzche, but it hit this viewer in the gut, and has continued to do so on repeat viewings. Conrad Hall won a deserved Oscar for the film’s rich and luminous photography, and the performances by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening are among their finest.
The Matt-and-Ben backlash was pretty much a given — you can’t win an Oscar when you’re that young and handsome without people starting to grumble, and their post-Hunting career choices and public romances (particularly in the case of Mr. Affleck) didn’t help matters any. And the snark eventually extended to their breakthrough hit, which either a) wasn’t all that good anyway, or b) they didn’t even write. The latter charge has been thoroughly debunked, and Affleck’s recent success as a filmmaker has seemed to put the notion to bed. But what about the former? Most of the current criticism seems directed at the somewhat formulaic construction of Affleck and Damon’s screenplay, which had certainly been done before, at least in its broad strokes. But it is the telling of the story, the intricacies and local color, that bring it to such vivid life. The emotional content could easily have been overdone, but director Gus Van Sant wisely pushes his cast to underplay. He doesn’t let them fear doing too little, and the reality of their interactions fully undercut the script’s more conventional elements. And the emotional climax between Matt Damon’s Will and Robin Williams’ Sean is certainly conventional, but that doesn’t undercut the power of the scene. It consists of short, simple lines, which the actors deliver simply, flatly, directly; there’s enough happening underneath them that they don’t have to push for emotional effect. The day may come when your editor becomes so cynical that this scene doesn’t get me anymore, that its raw power doesn’t give me the heavy heart and misty eyes that it always has. But I sure hope not.
Okay, we don’t mean to contradict ourselves here — we stand by our contention, earlier this spring, that the Academy’s decision to give Gump the 1994 Best Picture Oscar over Pulp Fiction (and Shawshank, and probably Quiz Show) is utterly inexcusable. But it’s not a zero sum game; though flawed, Gump is also a better film than its current reputation, which has been torpedoed by retroactive second-guessing of its Oscar sweep, by director Robert Zemeckis’ subsequent efforts, and by careful consideration of its frankly bothersome political subtext. But there’s still much to appreciate in the film: the likability of Tom Hanks’ work, the skill of the Zelig-style effects, the complexity of Gary Sinise and Robin Wright’s performances, the warmth of Mykelti Williamson, and the raw, unabashed emotion of its closing passages (if you can watch Forrest ask Jenny “Is he smart, or is he…” and not get a lump in your throat, well, I don’t want to know you).
Sometimes the backlash towards a particular film becomes so vast and vicious that it extends to a filmmaker’s other works, deserving or not. And don’t get us wrong, Crash deserves every bit of bile that’s been heaped upon it — it’s a simple-minded, moronically schematic bucket of swill. But writer/director Paul Haggis’ previous screenplay, for Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, has subsequently and unfairly been infected by the Crash-hate. I’m not buying it; Baby is a quiet, simple, elegantly constructed film about three interesting people (who they are, how they interact, and the choices they make), brought to life by three fine actors in top form. It’s easy to forget how shattering and unexpected its third act was upon its original release, but this writer remembers being overcome during that initial viewing, unprepared for the directness of the emotion in those final scenes. Baby got a bum rap in the Crash afterburn; so did Haggis’ subsequent directorial efforts, In the Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days, both fine films in their own right. I’m not wavering on Crash, though. That movie can go to hell.
Remember that thing about a filmmaker’s subsequent stumbles causing reappraisals of their earlier work? That goes double for M. Night Shyamalan, whose bad movie streak of the past eight or so years (The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender) has been so astonishing that it’s caused viewers to wonder if maybe they were wrong about this guy all along. The question marks seem to have passed The Sixth Sense (which holds up) and Unbreakable (which was perceived as a disappointment at the time, and has since attained something of a cult audience) and settled on his 2002 hit Signs, seen by some as Shyamalan’s last “good movie,” by others as the breaking point, and a sign (ha ha) of troubles to come. Yes, there is the first of Shyamalan’s regrettable supporting roles (shades of Lady in the Water); there is a big explanation that doesn’t, ahem, hold water (see The Happening). And it’s got Mel Gibson in it, so that’s reason enough for retroactive dislike. But the interesting thing about Signs is how few of its flaws are noticeable upon initial viewing, since the director’s craftsmanship is so smooth and involving that he sweeps us along; his Hitchcock-meets-Spielberg aesthetic was at its peak in this effort, which plays like gangbusters if you simply give yourself over to it.
“You complete me.” “You had me at hello.” “Show me the money.” None of us ever need to hear any of these phrases again, and their cultural ubiquity is a huge part of why Cameron Crowe’s 1996 romantic comedy has fallen so far out of public favor. But let’s be fair: it’s not the movie’s fault that they got so overworked (Crowe wasn’t the one making “Secret Garden” remixes with dialogue drops. Was he?). The happily-ever-after ending — and attached catch phrases — make it easy to forget that Crowe’s screenplay created an admirably complicated romantic entanglement, and dealt with it in a markedly less-than-sunny manner that echoes the influence of Crowe’s favorite filmmaker, Billy Wilder. And let’s also remember that the Cruise/Zellweger dynamic was but one element of Crowe’s rich mediation on sports, commitment, parenthood, friendship, and media.
Tom Cruise again, turning in a skillful performance in a movie that became so overexposed, overplayed (yes, TNT, please run it again), and over-imitated (the Raymond impression was in every hack ’80s comic’s toolbox) that it ultimately came to be seen as overrated — as well as a symptom of what went wrong with movie acting in the years to follow, as seemingly every “serious actor” tried to get a show-off role like Dustin Hoffman’s. But the movie worked (and still does, and well) not because it is about Hoffman’s Raymond, but about Cruise’s Charlie; the very nature of the Raymond character is that he cannot, in any significant way, change. But Charlie can, and does. Cruise plays the character as a small-time hustler, pushing the smug cockiness of his earlier roles into the realm of the frankly unlikable, and then allowing his interactions with an immovable force to pivot his entire sense of humanity. He’s the one who finds the emotional truth between them at the story’s end, and that truth is more memorable than either the film’s parodies, or Cruise’s subsequent fumbles.
Al Pacino was simply due for his Oscar in 1992, they all said, so it was okay that he was getting one over Denzel Washington (doing what remains the best work of his career in Malcolm X); after all, he’d been passed up for all three Godfathers, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon. Was his performance here better than those? No. Was it better than Washington’s? Of course not. But Scent of a Woman has gotten a pretty bum rap in the years since its release, due both to the descent of director Martin Brest (he followed it with the less-than-loved Meet Joe Black and openly reviled Gigli — but don’t get me started on that one) and the way the cadences and intensity of this role seemed to keep showing up in the Pacino performances that followed. But make no mistake: the “shouty Al” interpretation was the right one for crusty, blind, retired Lt. Col. Frank Slade, and Pacino infested the character with memorable snap and unexpected pathos. (And his big scene at the prep school remains an entertaining barnburner.) Bonus: young and smug Philip Seymour Hoffman!
Those are a few of the favorites that we’re clinging to, backlash be damned — what are yours?