Owen Gleiberman kicked up a ruckus on Twitter over the weekend when Variety unveiled his list of the most overrated movies of the decade. Leaving aside the content of the list — I’m trying to imagine how one can think Inception is too difficult to understand, and coming up empty — there’s something vexing about its existence at all. Something that rubs the wrong way.
First off, the tone of all such things is inherently suspect. For a film to be overrated it must be highly rated by someone. If someone (or some group of people) are highly rating that work, it must mean the people are as wrong as the work. Which inevitably leads to something like Gleiberman comparing fans of The Master to members of a cult. I’m sure he thinks this is clever, given that the film is a thinly veiled critique of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard, but it’s a dodge, an avoidance of the work at hand, a way to dismiss a movie by dismissing the people who like it as hopelessly blinkered.
As Farran Nehme succinctly put it on Twitter, “the problem with such lists is the urge to insult admirers. That's when keyboards are drawn from their holsters.” If your goal is to rile people up and drive people to your listicle, there’s no better way to do so than tell people they’re idiots for liking something that is well-liked, I suppose.
Personally, I hate all such lists for a simpler, deeper reason: They feel like a waste of critical energy.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that no movie is overrated or that no movie should be described as overrated. Indeed, I have a whole theory about film critics tending to like things that regular audiences don’t simply because they’re often wowed by something different, something that disrupts the dreary comic book/romcom/teen horror/period drama cycle that we sit through on a weekly basis. Hell, I’d argue that many, potentially most, of the movies on former President Barack Obama’s annual best-of list are overrated, at least in the sense that I rate virtually all of them lower than he (and the Film Twitter hive mind from which he and his advisers culled this list) does. But who really cares if I, or anyone else, have my quibbles with his choices? In a way, it’s simply good he’s drawing attention to something other than Star Wars.
There’s nothing wrong with a good pan. There’s nothing wrong with a good pan of a generally beloved movie! But you have to have a good reason for that sort of thing, a critical goal in mind. A rejiggering of the pantheon in an effort to clear up space for new works is one such reason, though most canon-friendly folks will tell you that trying to reduce the size of the current canon to let in more entries is silly, as there’s infinite space for all worthy entries in the canon’s virtual halls.
A critic’s energies are better suited to drawing attention to that which is as-yet unloved. What’s the point of being a critic if you can’t find something yet to be lavished with praise and attention and heap both upon it? Why tear down when you can build up instead? Why declare that which has been seen to be bad when you can shine some light on that which is unseen? Why even bother writing about movies if you can't have an irrational exuberance for something outside the canon and drag it kicking and screaming within the hallowed halls of eternity's grace?
Sure, there’s a purely mercenary reason for this destructive tendency: eyeballs. Everyone loves to hate-read that which makes them angry. And then they share the thing they hate, so others will hate along with them. Hate is the path to anger. Anger is the path to clicks. Clicks are the path to paychecks.
Which brings me back to REBELLER. My guiding ethos here is to point people in the direction of things that they’ll love rather than warn them against things I think they’ll hate: from the movies of Fred Williamson to the oeuvre of Bruce Lee to the “anti-tainment” of John McNaughton, I’m hoping our essays will give you something to chew on and help broaden your horizons. And, because we’re supported not by ads but by members like you, we can afford to avoid the hate-bait that so dominates much of film writing.