20 Hilariously Negative Reviews Of Classic Movies
We usually take for granted which movies are considered classics, because whilst it’s a word that is bandied about willy-nilly when it comes to new cinema releases, there are only a handful of movies from decades gone by that we would give that particular honour to.
But whilst we might expect everyone to know that movies such as The Godfather, Rocky and Jaws are some of the best to ever hit our cinema screens, there were a handful of critics at the time who were not ashamed to admit that they didn’t like these now-classic flicks one bit…
20. Rocky: “a sentimental little slum movie”
This 1976 smash hit made an overnight superstar of leading man and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone, who would reprise the role in seven sequels (to date).
However, despite the massive box office success and Best Picture Oscar win, Rocky didn’t knock out all the critics.
Time Magazine’s Richard Schickel mocked the film’s plot as “achingly familiar,” and implied that Stallone was a poor man’s Marlon Brando.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times – who, as we’ll see, is quite the contrarian – also had some unkind words for Rocky.
Calling director John G. Avildsen’s work a “sentimental little slum movie,” Canby likened Stallone’s performance to “Rodney Dangerfield doing a nightclub monologue.”
Canby concluded, “we are asked to believe that his Rocky is compassionate, interesting, even heroic, though the character we see is simply an unconvincing actor imitating a lug.”
19. Pretty Woman: “assembly-line moviemaking”
It’s one of the most enduring romantic comedies ever and made Julia Roberts a superstar, but Pretty Woman was not loved by everyone on its release in 1990.
While the wider audience embraced director Garry Marshall’s vision of love conquering all for Roberts’ impoverished prostitute and Richard Gere’s wealthy businessman, many critics took issue with the film’s value system.
Richard Corliss of Time magazine declared, “No one has yet made a romantic comedy in which, say, a toxic-waste dumper falls for a terrorist hijacker. But Pretty Woman comes close to finding the least admirable characters to build a feel-good movie around.”
Owen Glelberman of Entertainment Weekly wasn’t impressed either, blasting Pretty Woman for sporting “the kinds of characters who exist nowhere but in the minds of callowly manipulative Hollywood screenwriters.”
Glelberman also had some rather mean-spirited words about leading lady Julia Roberts, declaring “her face has a Vogue-cover-model anonymity. And so does her acting.”
Time magazine were also unimpressed, dismissing Pretty Woman as “old-fashioned, assembly-line moviemaking without the old panache.”
18. Jaws: “awkwardly staged and lumpily written”
It’s one of the greatest cinematic thrill rides ever made, and single-handedly birthed what later became known as the summer blockbuster.
But on release in 1975, Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough movie Jaws was completely panned by The New York Times.
Critic Vincent Canby wrote, “It’s a measure of how the film operates that not once do we feel particular sympathy for any of the shark’s victims.”
“It puts good actors to the test. They have to work very hard just to appear alive,” Canby continued.
Charles Champlin of the LA Times wasn’t impressed either, calling Jaws “a coarse-grained and exploitive (sic) work… awkwardly staged and lumpily written.”
Joe Public did not listen, however, and Jaws became the highest-earning film in cinematic history up to that point.
17. The Empire Strikes Back: “(lacks) Lucas’s personal affection”
It’s now widely considered to be the greatest of the Star Wars movies, and a true sci-fi classic in its own right.
Even so, not all reviews of 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back were positive when the film was first released.
“The more one sees the main characters, the less appealing they become,” said People magazine. “Luke Skywalker is a whiner, Han Solo a sarcastic clod, Princess Leia a nag, and C-3PO just a drone.”
The Wall Street Journal agreed, feeling the sequel had “not only lost much of (the 1977 original’s) humor and charm but more important a good deal of its innocence.”
The Chicago Reader, meanwhile, blasted director Irvin Kershner, stating that “without the benefit of Lucas’s personal affection (the actors) seem stiffer, more clenched.”
This last statement seems particularly ironic now, given how the actors were later treated in the Lucas-directed Star Wars prequels.
16. The Shawshank Redemption: “seems to last about half a life sentence”
Director Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption often features right at the top of audience lists of the best movies ever made.
However, the 1994 Stephen King adaptation didn’t get this reputation overnight, and was only a modest commercial and critical success on release.
Few of The Shawshank Redemption’s reviews were overly negative, but most of them found some significant flaws.
The Hollywood Reporter and The Washington Post both complained that The Shawshank Redemption’s 142-minute running time was excessive, with the Washington Post’s review noting the film “seems to last about half a life sentence.”
The Washington Post also took exception to the film’s sentimentality, noting “(Tim) Robbins’s effect on everyone is so cheesily messianic, they should have called this ‘Forrest Gump Goes to Jail.'”
The Los Angeles Times worried the film trivialised the real traumas of prison life, complaining that most of the convicts are portrayed as “swell and soft-hearted guys” despite the amount of extreme violence some of them dole out.
15. Apocalypse Now: “a dumb movie”
Perhaps the greatest war movie ever made, Apocalypse Now was not, at the time of its release, regarded by everyone to be a masterpiece.
Although director Francis Ford Coppola was awarded the Palmes d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival (sharing the award with The Tin Drum), many audience members are said to have booed at this decision.
Once the film went on general release, there were plenty more who didn’t see the appeal of Apocalypse Now.
Richard Jameson of The Weekly was one such person, writing in his review that the movie was “a dumb movie that could have been made only by an intelligent and talented man.”
Time magazine said, “While much of the footage is breathtaking, Apocalypse Now is emotionally obtuse and intellectually empty.”
The Washington Post seemed to feel Coppola had heavily over-egged the pudding, noting that the film mixes “richly portentous imagery with absurdly portentous prose, starkly portentous sound and flatulently portentous music.”
14. The Shining: “the crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks”
Many now believe it to be the greatest horror movie ever made, but 1980’s The Shining has always been divisive.
Author Stephen King, for one, has always had a very negative view of legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s take on his 1977 novel.
Some critics shared King’s view; Variety, for one, wrote an extremely negative review of The Shining on its release.
“With everything to work with, director Stanley Kubrick has teamed with jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King’s bestseller,” Variety wrote.
Their unkind words for the Oscar-winning leading man didn’t end there: “The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks.”
The New York Daily News took very little from The Shining either, beyond a “sense of pointlessness and even distaste.”
13. The Godfather Part II: “a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from leftover parts”
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 follow-up to his Oscar-winning 1972 smash is widely regarded not only the best sequel ever, but one of the greatest movies ever made, period.
Indeed, The Godfather Part II was the very first sequel to win the Best Picture Oscar, a feat that has only been repeated once in the decades since (by 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).
Of course, there will always be dissenting voices amongst the critical mass – and in this case it was Vincent Canby of The New York Times, once again.
“Everything of any interest was thoroughly covered in the original film,” wrote Canby of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic masterpiece, “but like many people who have nothing to say, Part II won’t shut up.”
Canby complained that the film was “a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from leftover parts (of Mario Puzo’s original novel)… It moves in fits and starts but it has no mind of its own.”
However, Canby was very much in the minority here, and just about every other major review for The Godfather Part II (at the time, and since) has been overwhelmingly positive.
12. The Matrix: “so much money… in the service of something so stupid”
It’s one of the greatest action movies ever made, but not everyone was won over by The Matrix when it first hit cinemas back in 1999.
“If anybody ever wanted to see Keanu Reeves shaved naked and covered with slime, now is the chance,” wrote Bob Graham of The San Francisco Chronicle.
Graham found it “astonishing that so much money, talent, technical expertise and visual imagination can be put in the service of something so stupid.”
The film’s excessive style rubbed many critics the wrong way, Dennis Lim of The Village Voice remarking “I’m not a fan of the Wachowskis’ more-is-more aesthetic.”
Steven Rosen of The Denver Post wrote that “not only is [The Matrix] a failure as a science-fiction movie – long on explanation, short on inspiration – but it doesn’t do anything interesting with the futuristic vision that it takes forever to explain.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader felt similarly, blasting The Matrix as “bloated, mechanical and tiresome.”
11. The Exorcist: “elegant occultist claptrap”
If The Shining isn’t the greatest horror movie ever made, then maybe that title should go to The Exorcist.
But once again, Vincent Canby of The New York Times was quick to criticise a movie that has gone on to be regarded as a true classic.
“A chunk of elegant occultist claptrap,” wrote Canby upon the release of director William Friedkin’s movie in 1973.
“The devil, it seems, for all his supposed powers, can’t break and enter without sounding like Laurel and Hardy trying to move a piano.”
Nor was Canby alone; Time Out’s Chris Peachment complained, “all The Exorcist does is take its audience for a ride, spewing it out the other end, shaken up but none the wiser.”
Meanwhile, Variety’s Tony Mastroianni felt The Exorcist was little more than “the movie to be nauseous by.”
10. Citizen Kane: “holds no great place [in film history]”
The 1941 debut film of director Orson Welles – which the film legend also co-wrote and played the lead in, aged just 25 – has long been held up as one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema.
Citizen Kane’s unorthodox, technically sophisticated style and structure was widely acknowledged at the time as groundbreaking.
However, while most critics recognised this at the time, a few dissenting voices were not convinced that Welles had delivered a masterpiece.
Otis Ferguson of The New Republic didn’t feel that Citizen Kane was as revolutionary as others did, instead calling the film a “retrogression in film technique.”
Ferguson also made the blunt, less-than-prophetic declaration that Kane would hold “no great place” in film history.
James Agate of Tatler was even harsher in his assessment, calling Citizen Kane “muddled” and “amateurish.”
9. Taxi Driver: “ugly and unredeeming”
Though its bleak, pessimistic tone saw it lose out to the more upbeat Rocky at the 1977 Oscars, Taxi Driver is widely accepted as a masterpiece today.
Martin Scorsese’s dark drama drew enthusiastic praise on release as well, thanks in no small part to the astonishing central performance of Robert De Niro.
However, Taxi Driver also shocked many with its harsh violence and disturbing content, and this was too much for some critics.
Leonard Maltin, one of America’s most respected film critics, blasted Taxi Driver as “ugly and unredeeming.”
Ruth Batchelor of Los Angeles Free Press wasn’t impressed either, feeling the film did nothing that Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange hadn’t done four years earlier, “without nearly as much obscenity or gore.”
Richard Schickel of Time, meanwhile, took umbrage with Taxi Driver’s “fundamentally depressed view of life.”
8. Back to the Future: “big, cartoonish and empty”
1985’s sci-fi comedy adventure is almost universally accepted as a classic, and the best film ever made about time travel (sorry, Avengers: Endgame).
However, while director Robert Zemeckis’ film delighted audiences everywhere and attracted some rave reviews, you can’t please everyone.
One critic left singularly underwhelmed by Back to the Future was Sheila Benson of The Los Angeles Times.
Benson said of the film, “It’s big, cartoonish and empty, with an interesting premise that is underdeveloped and overproduced.”
Benson also had an issue with the Oedipal aspect of the mother-son relationship: “it’s an extended joke with a faintly rancid taste.”
Still, many subsequent assessments of Back to the Future would share Benson’s view that the film’s conclusion feels “hollow and materialistic.”
7. Vertigo: “the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares”
Alfred Hitchcock is widely held up as one of the greatest directors ever, and many have called Vertigo his finest work.
A 2012 poll of critics by Sight & Sound magazine saw Hitchcock’s 1958 film declared the greatest film ever made, dethroning Citizen Kane.
However, Vertigo didn’t get this reputation right away, and on release many critics were not so taken with it.
Many reviews, including those from Variety and The Los Angeles Times, complained that Vertigo (which clocks in at 128 minutes) was too long and slow-moving.
Clyde Gilmour of Maclean’s magazine wrote that “even such a master-craftsman as director Alfred Hitchcock sometimes forgets that more than enough is too much.”
Time Magazine went further, declaring Vertigo to be downright boring: “another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares.”
6. Pulp Fiction: “absolutely nothing to say”
After his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs stunned the world, writer-director Quentin Tarantino went stratospheric with his 1994 sophomore effort, Pulp Fiction.
After winning the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and scooping the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Pulp Fiction was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest films of the decade.
However, Tarantino’s dialogue-heavy, non-linear episodic tale of criminals having an unusually eventful few days didn’t win over all the critics.
Derek Malcolm of the Guardian complained that Pulp Fiction has “absolutely nothing to say,” and bemoaned the film’s “inordinate length,” a complaint which many others agreed with.
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times didn’t appreciate the “long patches of dialogue that must have tickled Tarantino but will not necessarily resonate for anyone else.”
Adam Mars-Jones of The Independent felt that “Tarantino’s second film as writer-director shows him already deep in the territory of self-parody.”
5. Blade Runner: “Blade Crawler”
Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi thriller is another movie which took some time before being widely accepted as a classic.
On release, the film was largely overlooked by the wider audience, and received a somewhat mixed critical response.
Many felt that Blade Runner was just too slow-paced and uneventful, for which reason Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times dubbed it “Blade Crawler.”
Many other critics – including one of the biggest names in the field, Pauline Kael – complained that Blade Runner lacked humanity.
Gary Arnold of The Washington Post agreed – he felt that the film’s blend of futurism and 1940s film noir motifs became “grotesque.”
In fairness to the film, one of the Arnold’s largest complaints was about Blade Runner’s “overexplicit” narration, which would be the first thing to go in Ridley Scott’s later director’s cut.
4. The Silence of the Lambs: “morally indefensible”
Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel is one of the most haunting, unforgettable films ever made.
Breaking new ground for horror movies, The Silence of the Lambs is one of only three films to win all five major Academy Awards: Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay.
But of course, not all the critics were taken with the tale of FBI trainee Clarice Starling investigating the horrific Buffalo Bill murders with the help of convicted serial killer Hannibal Lecter.
Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune blasted The Silence of the Lambs as “a gnarled, brutal, highly manipulative film that, at its center, seems morally indefensible.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader agreed, calling it a “grisly and exceptionally sick slasher film that I can’t with any conscience recommend.”
The noted Gene Siskel, also writing in the Chicago Tribune, dismissed The Silence of the Lambs as “nothing more than a grisly version of every mad-slasher picture you’ve ever missed.”
3. Goodfellas: “dramatically unsatisfying”
It’s generally agreed that Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of the last 50 years, and that Goodfellas ranks among his very best work.
Dances with Wolves may have beaten it to the 1991 Best Picture Oscar, but today Goodfellas remains one of the most beloved films of the 90s, and one of the most celebrated gangster movies ever.
And yet there were some reviews at the time which felt that Scorsese hadn’t delivered anything too special with Goodfellas.
Ralph Novak of People argued that the filmmaker had “[already] covered this ground in the superb Mean Streets in 1973.”
Adam Mars-Jones of the Independent felt the film lacked an emotional connection: “Goodfellas fights a losing battle against numbness.”
Joseph McBride of Variety was similarly negative about Scorsese’s classic, dismissing it as “colourful but dramatically unsatisfying.”
2. Gladiator: “pointless”
Ridley Scott’s 2000 historical epic made Russell Crowe a superstar, and wowed audiences all over the world.
Celebrated both for its drama and its action-packed spectacle, Gladiator became a commercial smash and an awards magnet, grabbing the Best Picture Oscar and Best Actor for Crowe.
Yet as we’ve seen time and again, being a crowd-pleaser doesn’t always translate to being a critic-pleaser as well.
Seattle Weekly complained that Gladiator “feels like it was written by committee and template.”
LA Weekly felt the film was “neither profound enough nor pop enough to be great – it’s mournful, serious, beautiful and, finally, pointless.”
Legendary critic Roger Ebert was even less impressed, decrying Gladiator as “muddy, fuzzy and indistinct.”
1. Die Hard: “wrongheaded interruptions reveal the fragile nature of the plot”
Action fans everywhere agree that Die Hard is one of the greatest movies ever, but you don’t have to be a genre devotee to see that it’s a masterpiece.
On release in 1988, director John McTiernan’s film was quickly embraced by audiences, and then-TV star Bruce Willis was immediately reborn as an iconic action hero.
So, was the whole critical community also sold on Die Hard’s status as an all-time classic? Funnily enough, no.
Arguably the world’s most famous critic, Roger Ebert, was underwhelmed, feeling – bizarrely – that the entire film was undone by Paul Gleason’s minor supporting role, Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson.
Ebert complained, “The character is so willfully useless… that all by himself he successfully undermines the last half of the movie.”
The critic explains, “Thrillers like this need to be well-oiled machines, with not a single wasted moment. Inappropriate and wrongheaded interruptions reveal the fragile nature of the plot and prevent it from working.”