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20 Beloved Movies Unfairly Panned by Critics

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Closeup shot of young guy having popcorn basket while watching movie in cinema auditorium together with friends
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Unjust Pans

Film critics serve a vital role in our culture, not only giving thumbs-up, thumbs-down verdicts, but more importantly, setting movies in the context of the medium and our society. And sometimes they are just plain wrong. Here are some movies where most critics missed the mark, passing up either campy entertainment or genuinely interesting art.


Related: The Worst Movies Ever Made, According to Critics

The Wizard Of Oz
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‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)

How is it possible that the international definition of a classic family movie, recipient of a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, makes this list? That 98 percent rating, however, reflects dozens of modern revisits. At the time of its release, Victor Fleming’s technological triumph left several critics wrinkling their noses. Otis Ferguson, writing in The New Republic, called the movie “painfully literal and elaborate about everything,” while Russell Maloney wrote in the New Yorker that the film “displays no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.” Humbug!


Related: 35 Best Movie Musicals of the Past 70 Years

Bonnie and Clyde
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‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967)

The surest way to divide critics? Make a groundbreaking flick with plenty of violence. Predating the similarly controversial “Natural Born Killers” and “Pulp Fiction,” Arthur Penn’s New Wave retelling of the Depression-era bank robbers set up Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as glamorous antiheroes. In 1967, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the film 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.’”


Related: Where America's Most Famous Outlaws Are Buried




Pulp Fiction
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‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

Quentin Tarantino’s second outing — and arguably his best-loved film to date — was an Oscar nominee, but it lost Best Picture to “Forrest Gump,” allowing a generation to instantly screen first dates based on their preference. As with all things Tarantino, there were plenty of detractors. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times was skeptical of “long patches of dialogue that must have tickled Tarantino but will not necessarily resonate for anyone else.” Stanley Kauffman, writing in the New Republic, was even harsher: “The way that this picture has been so widely ravened up and drooled over verges on the disgusting.”

The Graduate
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‘The Graduate’ (1967)

It made Dustin Hoffman a star, and Mike Nichols one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood. Most important, this coming-of-age tale served as a touchstone for white, middle-class Boomers — but not critics. A truly savage review by Manny Farber in ArtForum said, “The most literate sound (Hoffman) makes is a short pup’s whimper which is over-played in the same way as his panicky rabbit’s expression, whenever a demanding or threatening adult hovers in sight.” In the New York Review of Books that year, Edgar Z. Friedenberg called it, “cutely literal and pseudo-documentary.”


It’s a Wonderful Life
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‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946)

The tale of this film mirrors its plot: enthusiasm and optimism, followed by rejection and bankruptcy, ending in a second chance at life. “The weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it,” wrote Bosley Crowther in 1946 in the New York Times. The initial release was unable to recoup its $2.3 million budget and led to the downfall of Liberty Films, created by director Frank Capra and others to avoid studio control. It wasn’t until a clerical era let the movie slip into the public domain that TV stations put it in heavy rotation and it became the Christmas classic it is today.


Related: Classic Holiday Movies That Still Hold Up


Office Space
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‘Office Space’ (1999)

Some critics clearly didn’t have (or remember) the drudgery of office work, judging from their response to “Office Space,” the Mike Judge comedy that spoke for those disaffected by corporate culture. Today, it is synonymous with the phrase “cult classic,” but when it was released, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly called it “cramped and underimagined,” while Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune said it was “drably shot, unimaginatively written and shallowly acted.”


Related: 33 Cult Classics We Can’t Stop Watching

Midnight Cowboy
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‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1969)

The only X-rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, the story of a would-be hustler and the petty chisler played by then-newcomer Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman didn’t get nonstop raves from critics. Variety’s Robert J. Landry dubbed it “sometimes amusing but essentially sordid” while Roger Ebert, despite praising the main performances, panned director John Schlesinger for dumping the strong performances into “an offensively trendy, gimmick-ridden, tarted-up, vulgar exercise in fashionable cinema.”


Related: Small-Budget Films That Went on to Win Oscars


Fight Club
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‘Fight Club’ (1999)

Today, “Fight Club” is seen justly as a satirical skewering of consumerism and toxic masculinity, but when it was released, critics were seriously divided. Brad Pitt plays the charismatic Tyler Burden, reclaiming an authentic manhood through underground fight clubs and pulling Ed Norton’s disaffected office worker along for the ride until the film’s shocking conclusion. At the time, Joe Morgenstern wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “‘Fight Club’ is an arresting, eventually appalling excursion into social satire by way of punishing violence.”


Alien
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‘Alien’ (1979)

For decades, the B-movie genre was dominated by horror and science fiction. Perhaps that’s why critics were so slow to warm to either genre, and why Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” a blend of the two genres, was panned by some of the nation’s leading reviewers. Writing in Time magazine, Frank Rich called it “an expensive, crafty movie that never soars beyond its cold desire to score the big bucks.” Few would dismiss “Alien” today; its script and images have entered the cultural lexicon.


The Mummy
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‘The Mummy’ (1999)

Some critics saw the appeal of this goofy nod to old-school movie serials, but many did not. Even the positive reviews were lukewarm. Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it.” Brendan Fraser was at the top of his form as an inept swashbuckler, and Rachel Weisz brought that rarity in action-adventure: a female lead who doesn’t need rescuing.


Fast Times at Ridgemont High
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‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ (1982)

Established critics failed to see what made Cameron Crowe’s first screenwriting effort – and that rare mainstream film directed by a woman, Amy Heckerling – stand out from the teensploitation pack. For young audiences at the time, it was an honest portrayal of high school social strata, tedious jobs, and teachers who just didn’t understand. But Time’s Richard Corliss said, “Director Amy Heckerling has failed to provide the raunch or poignancy that would interest young moviegoers, all of whom have seen ‘American Graffiti’ and its 467 imitators.” 


National Treasure
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‘National Treasure’ (2004)

Yes, it’s silly, but you knew that from the credits: Jerry Bruckheimer (of massive explosions and big budgets) was the director and Nicolas Cage was the star. As the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell put it, “I half expected him to break into his patented Elvis impersonation.” This is the kind of film where Cage’s mannerisms and off-kilter performance are put to best effect, in a campy cross between conspiracy theory and the history of the Revolutionary War. What other movies combine a loony premise (a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence) with factual tidbits (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere were all Masons) for so much fun?


Apocalypse Now
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‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)

Justly recognized as a masterpiece today, Francis Ford Coppola’s surreal, moody allegory was far from a straight shot to the top. The Oscar that year went to “Kramer vs. Kramer,” a movie that is recalled fondly by some but has fairly disappeared from public consciousness. Washington Post critic Gary Arnold said that “Apocalypse Now” was “a ruinously pretentious and costly allegorical epic about war in Vietnam, [that] recalls nothing so much as the notorious campfire scene in Mel Brooks' ‘Blazing Saddles.’" That’s a lot of words just to call it flatulent. 


Ocean’s Twelve
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‘Ocean’s Twelve’ (2004)

The follow-up to Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded remake of the original 1960 film “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Ocean’s Twelve” was the least loved by critics, perhaps reflecting the high bar the first film had set. “The whole thing is a piffle of fluff or a fluff of piffle. About halfway through you'll get an incredible hunger to see a movie,” said Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post. The critics who panned, though, missed the continuing banter among George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and crew, now joined in beefed-up roles by Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones. European settings and meticulously cool costumes made this a fun romp for those not expecting the film to break new ground.


Blazing Saddles
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‘Blazing Saddles’ (1974)

Mel Brooks’s send-up of the Western and skewering of American racial attitudes is a comedy classic, but not everyone agreed at the time. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby apparently missed the memo on the movie’s satire of bigotry. He compared it to Chinese food, saying, “a couple of hours later you wonder where it went.”  


Vanilla Sky
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‘Vanilla Sky’ (2001)

Cameron Crowe hasn’t always gotten a fair shake from critics, and this sexy, spooky thriller may be the best example. Crowe directed this remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s Spanish sci-fi thriller, with Penelope Cruz reprising her role as the impossibly perfect woman who suggests love is possible. Tom Cruise played off his vain, self-absorbed rep, but critics confused actor and character. The Observer’s Rex Reed called it “a good example of what self-destructive cinematic havoc can be wrought by handing over millions of dollars to movie stars to produce their own ego trips.”


Halloween
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‘Halloween’ (1978)

This franchise just released its twelfth installment, with Jamie Lee Curtis still around in what is now widely acknowledged as a horror classic. At the time, though, Variety called it “just another maniac-on-the-loose suspenser.” Even worse, the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold said, “Since there is precious little character or plot development to pass the time between stalking sequences, one tends to wish the killer would get on with it.”


Related: This Was the Scariest Movie the Year You Were Born


Anaconda
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‘Anaconda’ (1997)

There is far too much hating on this B movie, which grossed $136.8 million, far exceeding its $45 million budget. Documentary filmmakers (Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube) venture with an anthropologist (Eric Stoltz) into the Amazon in search of a lost tribe, only to encounter nefarious intentions and a monstrous reptile. It only received a 37% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and even a positive review from Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said, “Anaconda is such a classic combination of feckless dramaturgy and rampant excess that giving way to giggles is the only sane response.” 


Poetic Justice
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‘Poetic Justice’ (1993)

John Singleton, with his debut film, “Boyz N the Hood,” became both the youngest (age 24) and the first African-American nominated for the Best Director Oscar. This was his second outing, and got far less love. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called it “a disappointment,” and Vincent Canby of the New York Times said, “It has the air of something awkwardly fabricated to reach an inspirational goal.” Today, it has only a 34 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the love story between two young people trying to overcome tragedy, and the chemistry between Janet Jackson and the late Tupac Shakur, still draws devoted fans.


The Last Castle
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‘The Last Castle’ (2001)

Robert Redford heads back to prison, which should be enough of a reason for fans of “Brubaker” to tune in. He plays a three-star general sentenced to maximum-security prison, where he unearths corruption and brutality. A rebellion results, of course, and seeing Redford face off with James Gandolfini’s evil warden can only entertain, even if the Orlando Sentinel’s Roger Moore wrote, “​​Once you strip away the red, white and blue bunting, the film we're left with is one swell action sequence — a prison riot — and every prison movie cliche in the (1940s vintage) book.”