Sometimes the most informative film reviews are also the most negative, especially negative reviews of “universally acclaimed” movies. No work of art can be truly acclaimed by everyone, but you know you’ve found a valuable film when you can read a critical review, consider its points, and still say, “I appreciate this film despite the flaws someone else perceived.” To that end, here are some critically acclaimed films I personally had issue with. I acknowledge that many will disagree, and my opinion is reflective of my experience only, but I also hope that this column might inspire some healthy discussion on what films we cherish most.
“A Clockwork Orange” — Stanley Kubrick is an undeniable genius, a cinematic god worthy to stand amongst the likes of Kurosawa and Hitchcock. Stylistically and technically, his unique voice drives “A Clockwork Orange,” and I always felt while watching the film that something significant was trying to be said. But that’s all it amounts to: “trying to.” Kubrick’s decision to turn Burgess’s cautionary, language-bending tale of violent youth into a nihilistic exercise in excess makes the film’s barrage of nudity, blood, and amorality … well, pointless. Malcolm McDowell’s disturbing performance gets lost in the whiz-pow cinematography and sea of caricatures, and the film’s final message, “You can’t reform an inherent sadist,” never resonates like the more nuanced subjects in “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“The Usual Suspects” — I enjoyed the first fourth of “The Usual Suspects,” when the characters and narrative seemed most reliable and coherent. The final twist gives a nice jolt on first viewing, thanks to Kevin Spacey’s acting chops, but it also demeans the most important part of the film: the middle section, where everything is designed simply to lead to that final magic trick. The characters become pawn pieces, going through rote, boring plot points (the criminal protecting his innocent wife; the last job that turns out to be not-so-last; the near supernatural villain) to justify the convoluted outcome ¬— the clever, soulless twist that also proved M. Nigh Shyamalan’s downfall.
“(500) Days of Summer” – I’ve ragged on this movie before and given my reasons for hating it. I’ll only add this: in the pantheon of quirky, subdued rom-coms, alongside “Annie Hall,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “Amelie,” you can do much, much better than the pedestrian, self-important “(500) Days of Summer.”
“Moulin Rouge” – Baz Luhrmann (“Romeo + Juliet,” “Strictly Ballroom,” “Australia”) has never made a movie I liked, and that includes his supposed magnum opus “Moulin Rouge.” I will give it credit for reviving the musical genre in the new century and including a fresh interpretation of The Police’s “Roxanne,” but the rest of the film is an unholy acid trip mess. The bombastic song-and-dance numbers get lost in the rapid-fire editing and confused design scheme. Even more confusing: the film’s thematic tone. It preaches the value of love without understanding what love is. Nicole Kidman’s sickly, big-dreaming burlesque dancer seems to represent the importance of individualism but the moment Ewan McGregor appears her personality flies out the window. I could spend a whole column on the film’s subtle sexism and treatment of Kidman, but that’ll wait for another day.
“Requiem for a Dream” – Like “A Clockwork Orange,” “Requiem for a Dream” is a simple story told by a visionary director, one of the best working today. Darren Aronofsky can make anything terrifying through his manipulative use of film medium to convey crumbling sanity and dehumanizing conditions, from ballet (“Black Swan”) to advanced calculus (“Pi”), but in “Requiem for a Dream” he repeats what other films — “Trainspotting,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Man with the Golden Arm” — have argued more substantively: drugs can be really, really bad. Messy dialogue and tepid acting from everyone but Ellyn Burstyn sours the package further, which still remains creepy and powerful — just in brief, spread-out fragments.