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”
1976 smash hit Rocky made an overnight superstar of leading man and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone. 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 also had some unkind words for Rocky, calling director John G. Avildsen’s work a “sentimental little slum movie,” and likening Stallone’s “unconvincing” performance to “Rodney Dangerfield doing a nightclub monologue.”
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. 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.” 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. 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.”
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, but 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 [George] Lucas’s personal affection (the actors) seem stiffer, more clenched.”
16. The Shawshank Redemption: “seems to last about half a life sentence”
Director Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption frequently sits right at the top of audience lists of the best movies ever made, but the 1994 Stephen King adaptation didn’t get this reputation overnight. 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 “they should have called this ‘Forrest Gump Goes to Jail.'”
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. Richard Jameson of The Weekly was one such naysayer, writing in his review that Francis Ford Coppola’s nightmarish Vietnam epic 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 Stanley Kubrick’s take on his 1977 novel; Variety’s critic shared King’s view, writing, “Kubrick has teamed with jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King’s bestseller.”
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. Of course, there will always be dissenting voices – and in this case it was Vincent Canby of The New York Times, who wrote, “Everything of any interest was thoroughly covered in the original film, 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,” whilst Jonathan Rosenbaum declared it to be “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 1973’s The Exorcist. But once again, Vincent Canby of The New York Times was quick to criticise a movie now deemed a classic. “A chunk of elegant occultist claptrap… 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. 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,” and making 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”
1976’s Taxi Driver is widely accepted as a masterpiece today, widely praised for Martin Scorsese’s direction and Robert De Niro’s powerful performance. However, Taxi Driver’s dark and violent content was too much for some critics. This included the esteemed Leonard Maltin, who blasted the film 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 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 very best film. However, the 1958 film 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. 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.”
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.”
Gary Arnold of The Washington Post felt 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 – but of course, not all the critics were taken with the intense and disturbing serial killer story. 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. Even so, 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”
Film fans everywhere agree that Die Hard is one of the greatest action movies ever. However, the noted critic Roger Ebert felt director John McTiernan’s film left a lot to be desired. Ebert argued, “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.”
Bizarrely, Ebert also felt that Paul Gleason’s minor supporting role, Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson, was a significant flaw. The critic declared this character to be “so willfully useless… that all by himself he successfully undermines the last half of the movie.”