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My 5 most overrated/underrated films

November 24, 2014

It’s hard enough passing definitive judgement on a film as it is. Cinema is after all an inherently subjective experience – a convergence of different art forms and sensory elements that get magically processed in that murky little space, somewhere between your eyes and ears. So to talk of films as “overrated” and “underrated” is extremely slippery territory to get into: just who exactly decides that a film is “rated” or not anyway, and by what rationale?

Still, it’s an interesting conversation starter for sure, and in today’s age of instant opinion, social networking and the ever-growing bourgeois consensus, it’s interesting to take a step-back and to try and call out the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, or equally, dust down an unheralded gem….

Here’s my top 5 in each category (please note – I’ve generally only looked at the last decade or so of releases for my lists)


The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)

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I think we can safely say this film was ‘rated’. Critics were falling over themselves to fawn at this piece of performance art-cum-academic thesis, and Sight & Sound contributors even voted it the best film of last year. My review linked below articulates my misgivings over the film more substantially than I’m going to here, but in short, I feel it was a one-dimensionally conceited and cinematically inert work that comes dangerously close to exploiting a horrendous story of national genocide (the Indonesian ‘reign of terror’ of 1965-66) for a first-world, falsely moralistic, intellectual parlour game.

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013)

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Don’t get me wrong Blue Jasmine wasn’t bad per se, but in relation to the effusive reviews it received and Cate Blanchett’s bizarre, unquestioned coronation as Best Actress at all the awards ceremonies, it was substantially over-estimated. I think it’s part of the phenomenon of Woody Allen’s now annual release, where reviewers go looking for things that aren’t there – for signs that it might contain some of the magic of early/middle-phase Allen, when in reality, the guy has produced work of staggering mediocrity over the last decade or so, which very few other directors would be permitted. Blue Jasmine was visually undistinguished, borderline badly acted, and nowhere near the classic American tragedy lineage that people tried to ascribe to it.

Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

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Pardon my derisory tone but this film was utter tosh! An object lesson in how not to tell a story on screen: it was poorly plotted, desperately unfelt (ironic considering it was a film about an abducted child and a serial killer – two huge genre plot hooks), and it was just terribly diluted and neutered beneath its bland period production design.

The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2009)

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My least favourite type of genre – middle-class holocaust porn, usually based on a bestseller, and directed in a stodgy, literary way by a theatre luvvy who possesses little understanding of, or interest in, the cinematic medium. Peter Bradshaw famously dismissed the film in The Guardian some years back, and he speaks more articulately on its specific flaws than I possibly can:

Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2003)

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Probably the hardest one to sell as overrated – mainly because I appreciated little bits of its craft in parts. It’s a combination of the fact that the film was so well received and is generally still reckoned to be Mike Leigh’s best film. And my problem is due to Leigh’s style being so purely theatrical – the obsession with the minutiae of performance/characterisation and the overcommunication of theme and subtext (this film’s abortion politicking) – it gives the work a pleading, didactic, smothering feel – wanting you to ‘get it’ at every single stage of its discourse.


The Believer (Henry Bean, 2001)

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Before Ryan Gosling became colonised by the mainstream for his role in syrupy romantic drama The Notebook and the fanboys for his collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn in the overrated Drive and Only God Forgives, he gave the performance of his life in this utterly brilliant, micro-budgeted, highly-intelligent and perceptive film about religion, rage and terrorism that has an ever-growing relevance and prescience today.

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2011)

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OK, I know Terence Davies has always had an illustrious reputation anyway, and this film certainly wasn’t poorly received (it was well complimented in most quarters), but having rewatched it recently, I’m adamant it’s one of the best British films of the last decade or so. It’s a near-perfect, gorgeous, literate, sensuous exposition of thwarted desire – featuring perhaps career-best work from Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston.

Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011)

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J.C. Chandor received deserved praise for his Robert Redford-seafaring number, All is Lost, but not many people remember his utterly brilliant and intuitive take on the 2008 Banking Crisis that was Margin Call. The film was exactly the right way of dramatising the sheer vulgarity of what happened – it’s set over one long night at a fictional investment bank HQ in Manhattan, and how one innocent piece of numerical research from a lowly trader leads to the end-game finally being called on the mathematical bullsh*t of a charade they call ‘securities trading’, and how the sheer stunned apocalypse of that recognition plays out on the different levels of command in the bank (it’s a great ensemble of character-turns from the likes of Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Jeremy Irons to name but a few).

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)

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Unfairly derided as workmanlike and overly consumed in the technicalities of its cop/criminal world on its release, in my humble opinion Miami Vice stands as one of the greatest action movies ever made – and if anything, its unusual sensuousness and artfulness may have blindsided viewers more schooled in the hackneyed grammar of this type of film. It’s seriously atmospheric filmmaking, featuring some of the best cinematography and sound design going in ‘mainstream’ cinema, and the film uncannily honours Miami’s position as gateway to the steamy, tumultuous, neon-inflected climes of the Caribbean and the Americas.

Time to Leave, Le temps qui reste (François Ozon, 2005)

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François Ozon’s sheer prolificness (he makes a film almost every year) and his predilection for frothy pastiche often sees him overlooked as a filmmaker of real note. The Charlotte Rampling collaborations (Under the Sand and Swimming Pool) not withstanding, Ozon’s best work is this remarkably poignant story of a healthy man in his twenties suddenly coming struck down with a terminal illness, and how he processes that in the increasingly short-time he has left on the planet. The premise plays into all of Ozon’s best tendencies – he’s a good director of actors, and he likes to keep a little mystery in not overdetermining the psychology of his protagonists, according them some elegiac space to fade out on….

(November 2014)

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