It’s a sure bet that one reviewer’s high praise is another reviewer’s overpraise. So I fully own the subjective nature of this list. Nevertheless, as a film critic who sort of believes in objective reality (it’s a hard job to do if you don’t), I compiled this roster of movies I think got far too much love from my critical colleagues because, I suspect, I may not be alone. The films, by definition of their being here, have their avid fans and defenders. But maybe they’ve got their detractors, too. At any rate, they’ve certainly had their praises sung, so I figured it was time to toss a few rasberries into the bouquet of hosannas.
The 10 Most Overrated Films of the Decade
1. “The Master” (2012)
Movie fanatics, including this one, bow down at the altar of certain directors. But where does reverence leave off and cult worship begin? To say that Paul Thomas Anderson is the most revered filmmaker of his generation would be an understatement — he’s the Gen-X genius who can do no wrong. I myself was once a true believer (I’ve seen “Boogie Nights” 50 times and love “Magnolia”). But as Anderson’s career went on, his free-flowing human touch began to leak away, only to be replaced by a fixation on toxic male monomaniacs that’s a tad unsettling and — mostly — baffling. And “The Master,” without a doubt, is Anderson’s most insanely acclaimed head-scratcher. For a while, there’s undeniable intrigue in its tale of a slippery and tormented World War II veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who becomes the discipline of a cracked religious huckster-guru (Philip Seymour Hoffman) modeled on L. Ron Hubbard. Yet the more the movie goes on, the less it adds up; its enigmas come to seem like tricks that Anderson is playing on you. For members of the Church of PTA, “The Master” has often been cited as his crowning masterpiece. For those of us who escaped the cult, it’s the most potent sign yet of a film artist who lost touch with his greatness.
2. “Paddington 2” (2017)
What is it with high-end film critics and Paddington? If you listen to the ecstatic reviews of this sequel to the equally fawned-over “Paddington,” you might go into the movie thinking you’re about to experience the second coming of E.B. White’s “Stuart Little,” George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” or some other incandescently charming piece of talking-animal artistry. Surprise! “Paddington 2” is a benign entertainment, but I’m sorry, it’s just a friggin’ animatronic slapstick-bear comedy, no more and no less. To freight it with this much refined humanity is really just a passive-aggressive way of taking a swipe at countless more deserving mainstream films.
3. “The Act of Killing” (2012)
Each year, there are dozens of extraordinary documentaries, and critics do a fine job of getting the word out about them. But the praise for this one went off the rails, because it’s a classic case of a movie that sets out to do something it then fails to do. The heart of it consists of interviews with men who participated in the genocidal killings of Communists in Indonesia during the mid-1960s. As they act out the atrocities in often grisly detail, even pantomiming them within film genres, we’re supposed to be looking into the face of the banality of evil — except that there isn’t a moment when any of the men describe what actually went on inside them during these monstrous misdeeds. “The Act of Killing” is horrifying, all right, but not in the way it wants to be. In locking us outside the soul of murder, it’s a movie that makes evil monotonous.
4. “Skyfall” (2012)
What will be the legacy of Daniel Craig as James Bond? “Casino Royale,” the 2006 film that introduced Craig as an 007 with a gruff sandpaper surface and a hidden streak of romance, was the greatest Bond adventure since the early Sean Connery classics. (If you forget the nostalgia factor that’s part of what sustains our affection for those, it might be the greatest, period.) Yet the movies that came after “Casino Royale” haven’t lived up to its promise — and yes, I include Sam Mendes’ competent but conventional seat-filler of a Bond spectacular, which has a villain, played by Javier Bardem, whose ugly bark (and mangled face) proves to be more dramatic than his bite. It also has a Freudian action climax that may be the worst case of giving a mythic badass a “vulnerable” backstory since Thomas Harris sketched in Hannibal Lecter’s childhood escape from the Nazis in Lithuania. Yet critics thought this Bond was the bees’ knees. Here’s hoping that “No Time to Die” is good enough to remind us why they were wrong.
5. “Under the Skin” (2014)
This eerie but aimless poetic parable about a roving sci-fi femme fatale would have been perfect if it had been half an hour long. For a while, it generates creepy suspense to see Scarlett Johansson get her seductive alien freak on as an extraterrestrial in human form who skulks around Scotland, picking up strangers she winds up submerging in some sort of cosmic void. There’s one nightmarishly unsettling sequence (when the audience feels like it’s being submerged), but most of the movie is directed, by Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast”), with a twilight portentousness that’s at once draggy and repetitive. Then again, it’s that very quality that turned “Under the Skin” into catnip for art-heads.
6. “Magic Mike XXL” (2015)
Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” was a perfect movie, one that caught the pleasures and perils of the male-strip-club demimonde with a sleazy yet breezy authenticity, turning Channing Tatum’s sullen beefcake hero into a loser-stud worthy of comparison to Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever.” The sequel is a genial mess — a what-do-we-do-now? ramble that takes the Kings of Tampa on a slow ride to Myrtle Beach yet never figures out how to reset the stakes for its characters. And so it turns them into saintly stud therapists in leather jockstraps. The film’s winking point, made over and over again, is that they’re self-esteem boosters for hire, purveyors of entertainment so wholesomely uplifting that it no longer carries a glint of anything unseemly. Yet critics, astonishingly, fell for this pious, slipshod rehash of “Magic Mike” to the point that they declared it superior to the first film. Sorry, but it was sloppy seconds.
7. “Ad Astra” (2019)
When it comes to sheer shining-eyed fervor, the cult of James Gray may not quite match the cult of Paul Thomas Anderson, but it’s like a kid-brother knockoff. Gray, too, is a director of undeniable talent, yet he works in a way that’s naggingly derivative — of ’70s movies (which he seems to remember as being more sodden than they were), or simply of films by his idols, as in this meandering amalgam of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Apocalypse Now,” with Brad Pitt as a lonely astronaut who voyages across a river of space-time to deal with his daddy issues. The movie, in its watchable way, is so clearly mediocre that I was sure even the Gray cultists who gushed over “The Immigrant” and “The Lost City of Z” would roll their eyes at it. But no! Way too many critics went for it, proving that auteurist absolutism is the new good taste.
8. “Support the Girls” (2018)
If you sought this movie out after learning that Regina Hall was voted best actress by the New York Film Critics Circle for her work in it, you’d see that she delivers a gutsy, lived-in performance as the general manager of a restaurant called Double Whammies — and that Haley Lu Richardson also excels as the most devil-may-care of the waitresses. Yet the movie, directed by Andrew Bujalski, looks like what would have happened if Jonathan Demme had been the showrunner of an ’80s sitcom. The local-tavern-version-of-Hooters setting is never convincing (it’s “Cheers” with a pinch of downscale desperation), and though critics praised the sisterly solidarity of it, the filmmaking is too ramshackle to lend the empowerment much power.
9. “Inception” (2010)
I wouldn’t call it a conspiracy, but if you read the rave reviews of Christopher Nolan’s convoluted head-trip fantasy about dream warriors who enter into and travel around the subconscious the way your average thriller character occupies the site of a heist, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the movie makes sense. It does not. Trying to parse the assorted “levels” of dreaming will tie your brain in knots, because the logic has been worked out only in the most superficial way. Yet “Inception,” for all the confounding holes in the story it’s telling, had enough eye-bending effects, totemic motifs (that spinning top!), and sheer blockbuster momentum to qualify as a major ride. The mistake of the critics was hailing it as a great ride.
10. “Margaret” (2011)
Do you want to hear an amazing story? Then gather around and behold the saga of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret.” No, I don’t mean the story of Lisa (Anna Paquin), a precocious and high-strung 17-year-old from the Upper West Side who witnesses a bus accident caused, in part, by her flirtation with the driver. That story is by turns intriguing, engrossing, discursive, impassioned, indulgent, and rambling. I’m talking about the story of how “Margaret” became the movie that the Man didn’t want you to see — at least not in its original, three-hour form. Lonergan, directing his second feature (which was actually shot in 2005), fell so in love with his extended cut that he refused to, you know, cut it. But those enemies of the people known as Fox Searchlight refused to release his version. Many lawsuits and one fabled behind-the-scenes endorsement by Martin Scorsese later, the film was released, in 2011, in a two-and-a-half-hour version, at which point it became a cause célèbre. It was also hailed as a lost masterpiece, to the point that it practically got turned into the “Greed” of American indie cinema. But if you watch the three-hour version, you’ll see that “Margaret” is a perfectly interesting movie, yet far from a masterpiece. The main problem with it? It’s too damn long. But don’t tell that to the cinema-equals-the-director’s-cut bohemian purity brigade.