This article was originally written for Taste of Cinema – http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2020/10-movies-that-are-better-than-their-reputations/
If there is one lesson that film fans should become aware of as quickly as possible, it is the simple lesson that the reputation of a film doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it might. There are innumerable great films out there, and given just how subjective film is, there are bound to be some truly shunted and disliked films out there that you, and others, can side with much more than you’d ever anticipated… and it has to be said, discovering them does make you feel like some great cinematic crusader stumbling across their first buried treasure. Anyway, before this tangent becomes an article by itself, today we’re going to go over ten films with reputations harsher than they really deserve!
1. The Toxic Avenger (Lloyd Kaufman, 1984)
Let’s get the absolute silliness out of the way first and talk about Troma’s infamous The Toxic Avenger. A notoriously silly low budget affair, Lloyd Kaufman’s 1984 cult classic has gradually gathered something of a reputation as a good example of the so-bad-it’s-good trend that seems to have been the reason Troma was ever successful in the first place… however, this also suggests that none of the brilliant moments in The Toxic Avenger are intentional, and it has to be said that the accusation is painful considering just how loopy and aggressively over the top this film is. It is funny to the point of stomach pain, but also shockingly violent with… maybe not good, but impressive special effects to say the least. They’re totally cartoonish, but they sure make you squirm.
It just seems a shame that a movie that goes as all-out as this one does should be shoved into the restrictive box of so-bad-it’s-good, when it’s clear from the offset that there has been a hell of a lot of effort put into making this film as lovably silly and hypnotically goofy as the final product is. It’s an odd kind of wonderful, and the only films quite like it are some of Troma’s other output, like Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986), so to diminish the quality of such a unique and genuinely fun film feels quite mean – it’s time we got to spreading the love of this one a little more!
2. Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, 2014)
With a filmography as sprawling as Eastwood’s, there are bound to be at least a few films that fall into the never-ending abyss of films that no one really knows about. Thankfully, in Clint’s case, most of those films are his minor works that are mostly just entertaining and… sometimes fun. In the case of Jersey Boys however (along with a couple of other more buried greats), it feels like a truly brilliant film has been forgotten about and left in the dust of more expansive films by Eastwood.
Overshadowed by the other film Eastwood directed in 2014, American Sniper, Jersey Boys is actually an incredibly slick biopic mainly following the private lives of the Four Seasons. Whilst Eastwood’s film does admittedly follow many of the tried and tested tropes of the musical biopic genre, it does enough new and exciting things formally to still make this an incredibly impressive film and one that deserves to be recognised as more than just another Eastwood film.
3. Allied (Robert Zemeckis, 2016)
It has to be said, we’d never have expected to be praising this film in particular, but Zemeckis’ Allied is an absolute showstopper and it simply cannot be ignored here. Even I have to agree – Allied looks really quite bland – but on the fateful day that it found itself in the DVD player, it clicked entirely. It is impossibly slick, with both Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard giving excellent performances in this merging of family melodrama and espionage thriller that looks at the theme of trust within the smaller-scale settings of a family and how this can have effects on much larger, more generally important exterior issues, too.
With Kiyoshi Kurosawa calling it his favourite film of the 2010s, clearly something great is going on here, and the form makes it clear, being so brilliantly controlled that it’s often a little hard to believe, with the use of Sirk-style mirror shots and the excellent shot blocking mixed with the use of hyper-actively modern CGI and digital cameras in a classical Hollywood film setting… it’s just incredible, and seriously some of the most exciting filmmaking of recent memory.
There is something to be said for any film that grabs ahold of a classical plot and drags it forward, but to do it in the way that Zemeckis does here with an entirely modern and futurist approach really makes Allied stand out beautifully among a slew of mediocre spy films. This is one of those wonderful exceptions, another Skyfall or Man From UNCLE that just gets it right in the most satisfying of ways. Hell, I’d even say that it is better than both of Skyfall and the Man From UNCLE!
4. Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)
Gus Van Sant has had one of the more mixed careers in mainstream Hollywood, making some huge hits both critically and commercially and some films that are almost completely dead in the water. Similar to Eastwood, this may be because of just how large Van Sant’s cinematic output is, but it’s still a shame to see a film like Last Days slide under the radar. The film is vaguely based upon the last days of the life of Kurt Cobain, looking at the poignant loneliness of a musician who spends most of his time really quite isolated and in his own head with people who don’t seem to care much about him at all.
The film uses the slow pacing to really draw out the emotions, with the lack of expression becoming surprisingly haunting rather than uninteresting and Van Sant relying more on the subtleties of the performances and the smaller moments within the script to sell the melancholic feel. The use of long takes and almost solely diegetic sound also add a great deal to this feeling of simply living in the moment, creating a film that is both overwhelming beautiful and starkly lonely in the process. It’s a stunner, a sad stunner but a stunner nonetheless, and it remains one of Gus Van Sant’s most overlooked films to date.
5. Domino (Tony Scott, 2005)
Tony Scott’s work seems to have largely been dismissed simply the premise that they were bigger budget blockbusters, and in the case of Domino in particular some shunning was bound to come from the fact that this film is absolutely balls to the wall levels of hyperactive and experimental in its extremely aggressive editing, but even then much of the criticism received by the film is exaggerated and really quite harsh.
Many read into the film as a misogynistic fantasy, which also feels a little unfair considering that Scott’s camera in Domino is so aggressive that it leers over just about everything, far more intent on capturing the violence of the lives of the protagonists than anybody’s body, but I digress. It’s just a surprise to see a big budget mainstream film go to such extremes visually, creating something absolutely distinct and unlike anything else out there entirely. Tony Scott’s work of the 2000s as a whole is baffling, but this one might just take the prize of being the greatest – it is on another plain.
6. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)
David Cronenberg is one of cinema’s most wonderfully mad geniuses. Starting his career with some of the best body horror films that the genre has ever seen, and even some of the best horror films overall with The Fly and Videodrome especially before falling into some much more abstract and experimental films in his late career, Cosmopolis feels like the perfect film to speak about as an example of what Cronenberg makes now. Based upon Don DeLillo’s book of the same name, the film follows a young billionaire as he navigates his way through an almost dystopian New York City and focuses on his reactions to the world around him.
Of course, being adapted from DeLillo and adapted by Cronenberg, it’s pretty damn bizarre, and the film seems to enjoy contorting what people are expecting for the sake of both shock value and clever social commentary (sometimes the line between the two is quite blurry). Robert Pattinson also gives what may be his career best performance (though Good Time sees him giving himself a run for his money!) in one of Cronenberg’s most sharply divisive films but one that many call his crowning achievement. It’s most definitely a unique film, and one so fascinating that it’s hard to take your eyes off of.
7. War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
Here’s a case where, honestly, the bashing is a little confusing. Maybe it’s all down to the ending, that’s forgivable as it is a little out of left field and unsatisfying, but surely that is the intention? Of course, the ties of this film to post-9/11 America have to be mentioned – a film that investigates the complete panic and hysteria following a tragic event and the loss of many lives paired with the uncertainty of the threat’s motives (from their perspective, at least) is one bound to stir up some controversy, even if it waited four years for the wounds to start to heal. It seems to be a general rule that quite a few of the post-9/11 disaster films have been shot down for their extreme violence/sustained threat, but Spielberg’s H.G. Wells adaptation was especially picked apart.
The film remains truly unsettling and thrilling, however, and Tom Cruise gives a surprisingly great performance. Spielberg’s visuals also take on a new style that he hadn’t really dabbled with before and creates this very murky and uncomfortable dark look that he hasn’t really matched (Minority Report looks similar at a few points, but never quite matches the same eerie visual tone that this has), and this film specifically really draws attention to Spielberg’s versatility and control over form (and by extension, control over his audience). If ever there was a film that really demanded to be re-evaluated, it may just be this one!
8. Glass (M. Night Shyamalan, 2019)
The finale to M Night Shyamalan’s Eastrail 177 trilogy seemed to split audiences down the middle, which isn’t entirely surprising given the focus on plot twists and the way that the film ends, however, neither of those things make Glass anything close to a bad film. Shyamalan’s work in general since The Village seems to have fallen into some minefield of criticism, some admittedly deserved (The Happening is… quite puzzling to say the least, and Lady In The Water is one film I have tried to but just can’t get on side with) but much of it seeming like a unfair and frankly quite biased shooting down of a director who is much more consistent than he’s given credit for.
It’s mainly pleasant to see someone toying with genre films with such a mix of influences with seemingly little thought put into the accessibility of each project, but also to see someone giving them such positive messages when most blockbusters seem determined to hack away at leaving the audience in a good mood.
9. Tommaso (Abel Ferrara, 2019)
Abel Ferrara’s latest, after a five year absence from making fictional films, caught a rather lacking fanfare from both critics and Ferrara’s cult following, which is a real shame considering the time and honesty that went into portraying Ferrara himself (played by Willem Dafoe in one of his best performances) in this semi-autobiographical film about a director and his personal/family life struggles. Going into the life of a troubled artist in extreme detail, looking at struggles with infidelity, family life and trying to gather ideas together in particular, the film feels so much more vulnerable than Ferrara’s usually do, really getting into the mind of a man trying his best to express who he is to an audience who have known of his struggles for years.
The film is by far his most tender work, with the focus being on Dafoe’s titular Tommaso as he tries to put a new film together and work through family issues, with the improvisational dialogue about sobriety also being especially relevant to Ferrara’s own struggles with drugs in the 1990s, with Vincent Gallo saying that Ferrara was ‘unable to direct’ The Funeral in 1996. The film is quite barebones, but it’s really quite beautiful in terms of the context of Ferrara’s career, seeing him come to terms with many of his inner demons in front of the world for the first time.
10. Liar Liar (Tom Shadyac, 1997)
Let’s be honest for a second – Jim Carrey generally gets an unfair rap. Sure, he mostly stars in films that are low-brow, but when did the line between low-brow and outright bad disappear? Liar Liar is a prime example Hollywood comedy done perfectly.
It takes the formula of a deadbeat dad and an asshole lawyer and manages to tune them to absolute perfection, utilising Carrey’s gentle mix of insanity and sincerity to make him one of cinema’s most loveable and hateful characters. It is one of the rare examples of a film that is heavy on concept but also manages to execute it wonderfully, and yet it seems to be treat about the same level as some of the bottom of the barrel 90s comedies. Another one keenly awaiting re-evaluation!