Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Future Classics" That Turn Out To Be Classics



Just to do a less negative follow-up to my previous post: Because I can't predict what movies will become classics -- though it's easy enough to predict that certain kinds of movies will not (mostly inspirational historical movies or anything that has a family sitting around a dining-room table and shouting at each other a lot) -- I rarely have the experience of thinking that I've just seen a classic, and finding out that I agree with that evaluation a decade later.

Sometimes I'll think I've seen a masterpiece, and then decide, on revisiting it, that I was wrong. When I saw The Player in theatres, I thought I'd seen one of the best satires ever; now I don't think it holds up very well.

There is one movie that I thought of at the time, and still think of now, as a classic: Groundhog Day. I remember thinking the first time I saw it that this was going to be one of the all-time comedy classics. (I'm not claiming special powers of perception here, of course: it was widely considered a future classic from the moment it opened.) One other movie that I considered a classic then and there, and still consider one of the greatest light comedies, is Clueless -- but you could argue over whether that movie really has been canonized the way Groundhog Day has been.

The point is, and this is why watching old movies is no substitute for keeping up with current ones (I say this as someone who doesn't do enough to keep up with current movies, but should), is that sometimes you catch a movie that you think is great, and ten years later you see it again and find out you were right. That's a real thrill, finding out that something is as good as or better than you remembered it. And finding out that a movie is not as good as it seemed at the time -- well, that's interesting too.

What are some movies that you had pegged as "classics" when they were new, and that either did or didn't live up to that judgment over the years?

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't believe the English Patient has aged very well, though at the time I thought it might last long enough to become a classic.

Whit said...

I still can't believe "Ghandi" beat "Raging Bull" all those years ago. The mainstream Academy Award jury seemed to be out on Scorcese for far too long.

Anthony Strand said...

Ghandi didn't beat Raging Bull at the Oscars. Ordinary People did (in 1980). Ghandi came out two years later.

Here's an example of how fast these things happen - I kind of feel like Lord of the Rings isn't all it was cracked up to be, and I was crazy about all three of them when they came out theatrically.

Nick said...

A huge "future classic" for me, you mentioned in the previous thread: The Big Lebowski. I first saw it at the second-run theatre, and, even though it probably only played there a week, I must have gone back at least five times (ah, to be a fourteen-year-old latchkey kid again...). It was love at first sight, and it's still my favourite movie, holding up after ten years and I-don't-know-how-many dozen viewings, not to mention discovering and devouring all those great noir movies and hard-boiled novels that I had no idea the Coens were riffing on.

The big surprise for me was that other people loved it just as much; at the time the general, bemused reaction seemed to be, "Well, it's no Raising Arizona." At best.

I suppose that I should feel some resentment that it's now the favourite movie of approximately 100% of people my age, sex, and body mass index, but I'm mostly just relieved that I no longer need to tell my snooty peers that Wild Strawberries is my favourite movie and my bar buddies that it's Die Hard; Lebowski doesn't get me in trouble with either group.

On the other hand, I fell hard for the hype surrounding American Beauty, and never would have thought that, by now, I would not only fail to consider it a masterpiece, but would find the whole thing pretty embarrassing. In my defense, the movie hit me right in the prime of the sensitive artiste phase of my distressingly archetypal white, middle-class adolescence, when, like, I was just, you know, more connected to the world around me and stuff, and people JUST COULDN'T UNDERSTAND THAT! After all, if a repressed, unfeeling fascist like my dad didn't like American Beauty, it's obviously because that endless scene of a plastic bag swirling in the wind, while the troubled teen drones on about exactly what it symbolises, was just too damn deep for his income-earning, food-and-shelter-providing mind to grasp.

Assuming that the Academy and the critical establishment were not, for some reason, made up principally of surly teens in 1999, I can't quite figure out what their excuse for anointing that handsome, pretentious, and transparently awful movie as a future classic was. Perhaps, by this point, they were deliberately hyping shit, just to see what kind of an effect they could have on the public's perception of it.

Actually, that would go a long way towards explaining a LOT of Best Pictures.

Anonymous said...

"American Beauty" was mightily hyped for Oscars by DreamWorks. Could be the Academy feared the principals of that company, all heavyweights.

Chris L. said...

I was only 5 years old when I first saw Airplane!, but even then I could sense that it was something special. I first saw A Christmas Story on cable after our local paper's film critic (who generally had poor taste but correctly pegged some future classics) raved about it, and I knew it was classic right away. On the other hand, I was blown away by Dances With Wolves, which is mostly considered a footnote these days (although the decline of its reputation was more the fault of Costner's later failures and Scorsese losing to him than to the film itself). And, sadly, Schindler's List probably hasn't aged as well as everyone expected it would at the time. It definitely fits the "dream project" you talked about in the earlier post, and sure enough, the first hour or so drags because Spielberg clearly overthought the movie. But once the story gets going it overcomes that.

Kate said...

I think The Wedding Singer still holds up pretty well, possibly because it was set in an era outside of its production timebut more likely due to the simplicity of the love story.

Barry said...

I thought that "Little Shop of Horrors" would become the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, destined to be the next staple of midnight audience-participation shows around the country. Didn't happen though..

Nick said...

Anonymous,

While American Beauty did, indeed, benefit from a massive Putsch from its studio (as has every movie to win a major Oscar, at least in the last twenty years or so), that still doesn't quite account for the enormous critical kudos it received; studios are quite capable of lining up scores of nominations and awards in the face of middling reviews, as they did for The Cider House Rules then and for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button now.

It's not that I don't understand why American Beauty, specifically, received so much praise and so many awards. The critics always go moony-eyed over these kinds of movies, where 'respectable' actors emote and make brave choices, delivering pseudo-profound statements about how dead inside we all are from a script that thinks that Eugene O'Neill was pretty good, except that his messages weren't hammered into the audience's skulls quite enough and his characters' motivations were a bit too obscure. In other words, what Jaime much more eloquently described as, "a family sitting around a dining-room table and shouting at each other a lot." Throw in a first-time director (from the THEE-yuh-tah, no less), a skilled cinematographer, and a former sitcom writer escaping the shackles of that well-paying job that I would very much like to have to finally express his grand artistic vision, that just happens to take the form of a mainstream Hollywood drama, and you can safely put the Peter Travers quote on the poster before he's even seen the movie.

My question is, well, why are critics, who, last I checked, are usually grownups, so vulnerable to this particular brand of adolescent trash? Does the application form for major movie reviewers include a compulsory 500-word essay about how your comfortable upbringing stifled and continues to stifle you? Do you have to include a copy of some kind of proof of having resided in an American suburb between the ages of 12 and 17 and/or a prescription for anti-depressants? If this is the case, I'm probably overqualified for Ebert's job.

But, when a movie, in its tagline, of all places, implores its audience to "look closer", shouldn't the people whose job it is to think about movies be the ones who point out that what we all thought was a sumptuous filet mignon was actually a Big Mac slathered in Bearnaise?

Nick said...

Jeez, those are two enormous wastes of text from me, someone who's never even commented here before. Sorry, everyone; I promise to be pithier.

Rick Roberts said...

Whit: I couldn't agree more. Also Taxi Driver should have got the oscar in 1976 instead of Rocky. Rocky was a well done film but it had nothing truely groundbraking at all, so it was perfect for the Academy's tunnel vision.

Anthony S:

I always found all Peter Jackon's Lord of The Rings films to be bloated tedious wanna-be epics. Unfortunately history will probably be way to kind to those films.

My personal future classics are IMO:

- Grand Torino
- Road To Perdition
- Casino Royale
- The Dark Knight
- The Last King of Scotland
- The Prestige

Rick Roberts said...

Oh and OT but The Dark Knight being snubbed best Director and Film at the Oscars is a shame.

wcdixon said...

Films I thought were future classics way back when and still hold up today in my opinion:

Annie Hall
Animal House
All The Presidents Men
Chinatown
The Road Warrior
The Terminator
Diner
JFK
LA Confidential
The Limey
The Matrix

Films I thought were future classics way back when but haven't seemed to stand test of time:

The Shining
Afterhours
King of Comedy
Sex Lies & Videotape
Pulp Fiction
Waterworld (I really did like it!)

Jorge Garrido said...

I'm too young to have seen a movie I thought was a classic and then waited for 10 or 20 years.

However, I think both Superbad and Napoleon Dynamite are future classics. In the case of Napoleon Dynamite, I knew about that movie before it was popular or before it became a huge hit, so in a way, it is like I was ahead of the curve with that movie.

Thad said...

"One other movie that I considered a classic then and there, and still consider one of the greatest light comedies, is Clueless -- but you could argue over whether that movie really has been canonized the way Groundhog Day has been."

Yes. Please elaborate on this. I was under the impression that this was the kind of film that's enjoyed by women who have pictures of Audrey Hepburn hanging on their walls in spite of never having seen any of her movies. You know, idiots.

If I didn't think you were insane for writing about Animaniacs in a scholarly manner, this would also confirm it.

policomic said...

I've never understood the vitriolic backlash against "American Beauty." I think a lot of it is driven by a desire to jump on the "if it was popular and got an Oscar, it must be bad," hipper-than-thou bandwagon. I think the same is true of "Crash," by the way. While I'd certainly concede both of them are flawed (the latter, especially), they were interesting efforts to deal with serious subjects, and amidst the mountains of fluff and overblown "spectacle" Hollywood puts out, that alone is worth something.

I take Jaime's point about the Academy's embrace of "serious message" films, but I'd rather have overthinking than no thinking.

I also think an additional bias comes into play in these "the Academy's choices are wimpy" discussions. I'll call it the "Siskel Bias," for Gene S., whose favorite complaint was that he wanted whatever movie he was reviewing to be "tougher." To me, no Oscars in the last few years have seemed less deserved than those won by "Mystic River"--but because that was a "tough," macho film about manly gangsters (as opposed to a touchy-feely one featuring sensitive, artsy teens, like AB), there's no backlash.

We're all entitled to our opinions, of course, but to get back to the main point of this thread: to truly evaluate the "classic" potential of a given movie, it may be necessary not only to wait for the INITIAL reactions to fade, but for the backlash reactions to fade, too.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Policomic: I think the backlash against "American Beauty" and "Crash" is based on the feeling that they preen about dealing with serious subjects but deal with them in the most superficial, self-congratulatory way possible. It's similar to the (well-deserved) backlash against Stanley Kramer's movies: he may have thought Judgment at Nuremberg was a serious movie because it dealt with a serious subject.

It's certainly understandable to get annoyed at all the crap Hollywood turns out, and I think that's a partial answer to one of the earlier questions, about why critics go wild over these aspirational movies: they have to see so many movies that don't even try to be interesting or new that it's hard to resist a movie that (even superficially) tries something serious. But that causes them to underrate the "Ants in Your Plants of '39" type of movies where Hollywood's most enduring art is to be found. That's why a bunch of Randolph Scott B-Westerns and crude Robert Mitchum shoot 'em ups hold up better, or why Die Hard is a more important movie than any of the Oscar nominees of 1988.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Re: Clueless: I was under the impression that this was the kind of film that's enjoyed by women who have pictures of Audrey Hepburn hanging on their walls in spite of never having seen any of her movies. You know, idiots.

Well, there's a simple point to be made: your impression is wrong. Clueless may look like a corny teen-girl flick (Cher even points out how corny it looks in the very first line of her narration), but it's actually a very smart comedy about someone learning that she can't control everything in her life, and as an adaptation of Emma it's the only Jane Austen movie that actually has an interesting, relevant take on its subject matter. It has a great cast and some of the best dialogue of the era. It is, in other words, a better movie than any comedy Audrey Hepburn ever made.

Rick Roberts said...

However, I think both Superbad and Napoleon Dynamite are future classics"

I agree on Superbad but Napoleon Dynamite was obnoxious and unfunny. The name sake character feels little more then a stupid, unfunny, sterotype. A nerd trying to a nerd. Superbad's characters feel far more fleshed out and ergo, much more sympathetic and funny.

Rick Roberts said...

"The Shining"

Horror films usually do not stand the test of time, they look like camp because we've seen it all every since.

"King of Comedy"

Now that should be classic IMO. The most bold comedy to come out in decades.

Rick Roberts said...

Sorry for the triple post Jamie but I also feel Clint Eastwood's Sudden Impact should have gotten at least an oscar nom.

Thad said...

"Well, there's a simple point to be made: your impression is wrong."

After watching the thing, at least three occasions, and at least one of those being in an attempt to get laid, no.

"Clueless may look like a corny teen-girl flick (Cher even points out how corny it looks in the very first line of her narration),"

Because it is.

"and some of the best dialogue of the era."

Huge jump over a low hurdle.

"It is, in other words, a better movie than any comedy Audrey Hepburn ever made."

Irrelevant.

Thad said...

Sorry, that should have read "on at least three occasions." And Ricardo, totally agree with you on The King of Comedy.

Jorge Garrido said...

My media studies teacher in high school made us watch Clueless and write an essay about this retarded review Roger Ebert wrote about of it in which he described it as an intelligent film. What a dumb movie. Mean Girls is the best teen movie ever made. It's way better than Clueless. I'd say that's a future classic.

Also, Napoleon Dynamite was a dork, not a nerd. Nerds are smart.

Another movie I remember being talked about as a boy alot, and being somewhat canonized by my schoolmates was the South Park movie.

Stephen Rowley said...

Interesting topic. I've made my main comments in the form of a post at my blog.

For what it's worth, I still like American Beauty and don't quite get the backlash; still less in this context, since I think it's an example of a film that took quite a light tone about its subject matter (the ads even made a point of this, albeit in a somewhat self-congratulatory manner). It doesn't strike me as "self-important" or "messagy" in the way that people here are talking about. (I haven't yet seen Revolutionary Road, but from the trailers that seems to see Mendes going further in that direction).

I assume it's mentioned in the current context ahead of, say, Braveheart, Forrest Gump or A Beautiful Mind because everyone always assumed they'd be instantly forgotten?

FWIW, I'd put Raging Bull in much the same category as the films cited either correctly or incorrectly as beating it for Best Picture: many of Scorsese's films from this period have held up but I don't particularly think Raging Bull has. Early 90s it used to get cited as the best film of the 80s, but I don't think many would say that now.

Nick said...

policomic,

Speaking as somebody who has enjoyed all of Wes Anderson's movies (yes, even that one), I think it's safe to say that wimpiness in a movie is not enough to start my spleen churning. Besides, insufferable as they are, the artsy teens are far from American Beauty's most hackneyed characters. Between the mid-life-crisis-having office worker who is martyred for bucking the suburban regime, his repressed Realtor wife who seeks excitement in increasingly dangerous ways, and the secret-gay-Nazi neighbour, there isn't even room on the podium for the cheerleader who acts worldly, but turns out to be just a vulnerable little girl.

Also, I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've come across the assertion that American Beauty and Crash are guilty of overthinking anything.

Jaime,

While I probably don't like it as much as you do, I agree with you that Clueless is a very good movie, for all the reasons you've already. In addition to being smart enough to recognise the parallels between the vastly different cultures of 19th-century England and 1990s California, Amy Heckerling really deserves a lot of credit for her approach to LA teenagers. Though she clearly finds them amusing, she studies their behaviour, speech patterns, and fashion sense with the disinterest of an anthropologist; this lack of judgment is what yields a rare movie that has incisive satire, but is also genuinely sympathetic to its characters. I think it's this quality that puts Fast Times at Ridgemont High head and shoulders above the average early-'80s teen sex romp.

To change gears to something resembling the topic, here's a bold statement about a movie that people are trying to declare a future classic right now:

History will regard WALL-E as the most expensive episode of The Smoggies ever produced.

Rick Roberts said...

Nick: I secound your opinion on Wall-E. Here is my review on the film.

Nick said...

Stephen Rowley,

I brought up American Beauty because I had the personal experience of thinking it would be a classic, and then turning on it. Sure, there have been others, and as I become even more old and crotchety I'm sure there will be more still, but I don't think there's been another movie that I was more confident was great that just didn't hold up for me. Well, maybe American Beauty's tough-guy doppelganger, Fight Club, but it's always more fun to take shots at dubious Oscar winners.

As for the other movies you mentioned, they are all certainly bad (or bland, at least), but I never thought they were good, let alone future classics; Gump and Braveheart came out when I was too young to form a coherent opinion about a movie, and A Beautiful Mind was textbook biopic-flavoured Oscar bait, designed with laser-like accuracy to appeal to Academy voters and only Academy voters. Consequently, they wouldn't be appropriate for me to bring up for this topic. Honestly, though, while at least Braveheart is almost certainly worse than Beauty, I could never raise the same level of venom for any of them; it'd be like trying to hate a stranger who dinged my car door as much as the ex-lover who broke my heart.

While I respect your decision to continue liking American Beauty, no matter how much blood knowing that people do that kind of thing makes me cough up, I must nitpick one thing: a light tone and a Thomas Newman score are mutually incompatible elements.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I should probably add that it's also possible to watch an old movie that you think is a classic and then, on seeing it again, decide that you were wrong. I've had that experience with Some Like It Hot, which I loved on first viewing and now consider kind of weak and pointless, with too much filler and too few really good comedy scenes (and therefore yet another comedy that's not as good as Clueless).

Of course that's a little different because whether or not I think a movie is a classic, time has made that decision for us (so Some Like It Hot is a "classic" whether or not I think it's a great film).

Thad said...

Sorry Jaime, "Clueless" won't achieve classic status. It's only on TBS every week. There's your answer. :)

"American Beauty" is good. Not great, and I don't have the desire to watch it any time soon, but not strong enough to hate.

"Some Like It Hot" is a great film, but it does get a little weary to the point where I can only watch it all the way through maybe once a year (I have a very nice 16mm original of it.) I think its status as "The Greatest Comedy Ever Made" rubs off on us the wrong way. It still would be in the top five or six comedies ever made for me though.

I hope that "Slumdog Millionaire" holds up well the next time I see it, because that had the makings of a classic film. I liked how it used illusion so well, an art that died off (like pantomime) sometime in the 1960s.

A film that's been branded as a "future classic" that I don't agree with: "Memento". A movie so self-indulgent that it manages to suck it self off to completion.

I agree on "Wall-E" too. Pure. Solid. Shit.

Rick Roberts said...

Clueless isn't what I would call a dumb film either but classic ? Hardly.

policomic said...

But that causes them to underrate the "Ants in Your Plants of '39" type of movies where Hollywood's most enduring art is to be found.

I agree with this basic assertion (the thesis of your original post). Two things, though: notions about what constitutes "Hollywood's most enduring art" are far from timeless. "B" noirs, westerns, and light entertainments (e.g. "Ants in Your Plants") that came out of the studio era were not only relatively unburdened by the ambitions of award-chasing seriousness, but also less burdened by the make-or-break economic pressures that affect even "unserious" contemporary movie-making. I don't think contemporary "Hollywood" has anything to compare to the kind of system that produced a lot of well-crafted but not great stuff, a mountain of mediocrity from which the occasional "classic" stands out like a bit of gold ore amidst a heap of slag. There were a lot of genre gangster pictures in the 30s, very few of which were "Public Enemy" or "Scarface." But without all those other, forgettable pics, we wouldn't recognize the good ones as examples of what Hollywood "did best." I don't think there's any such baseline now. What kinds of movies does Hollywood do best now, that are overlooked by critics and the academy?

Second: any judgment about the "classic" status of a film reflects not just whether it has withstood the test of time, but the critical prejudices that prevail at the moment we turn to look back at it. If bleak, "tough," quasi-existential noirs and westerns look better to contemporary viewers than Stanley Kramer earnestness, it's at least partly because our present critical climate celebrates bleak existentialism, and poo-poos earnestness. Personally, I get more out of "Judgment at Nuremberg" (heavy-handed though it is) than "Kiss Me Deadly," which I find kind of silly. To some extent, these are subjective preferences; but I think there's also a current critical prejudice at work here--against the earnest "relevance" of Haggis, Ball, Mendes, whoever, and in favor of the "tough" cynicism of Tarantino, Scorsese/Schrader, Christopher Nolan even--that is the equal and opposite equivalent of the Academy's "let's reward seriousness" one.

This is leaving comedy aside--which, in agreement with you and Preston Sturges, I think gets far less than its fair share of respect.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I think there's also a current critical prejudice at work here--against the earnest "relevance" of Haggis, Ball, Mendes, whoever, and in favor of the "tough" cynicism of Tarantino, Scorsese/Schrader, Christopher Nolan even--that is the equal and opposite equivalent of the Academy's "let's reward seriousness" one.

I think that could be; certainly The Dark Knight has as much self-congratulatory, superficial skimming of hot-button issues and fake-profound, on-the-nose dialogue as anything that Alan Ball has ever written, but because it's a kick-ass comic-book movie instead of a suburban drama, all that is more easily overlooked. You could say that a pretentious filmmaker like Nolan has figured out that he can get the best of both worlds by mixing his pretensions with a bit of genre toughness.

As you say, a lot of this is about personal taste and personal reaction, and it may be that my particular aversion to the Haggis/Ball kind of movie is inseparable from my problem with the aesthetic it represents -- the idea these guys seem to project that they're showing great courage and artistic ambition by writing these things, and seem to equate the worth of a movie with the amount of respect it has for their words.

Rick Roberts said...

"You could say that a pretentious filmmaker like Nolan has figured out that he can get the best of both worlds by mixing his pretensions with a bit of genre toughness."

I agree to that but he can get away with it. He did such a great job with both Batman films. He heavily drew from the best Bat graphic novels, THE LONG HOLLOWEEN and DARK VICTORY, and added his own vision as well. Yes he can very pretentious but dosen't forget that Batman is entertainment.

Thad said...

Well, being of the opinion that 95% of all the comic books ever made are aimed at retards and small children, I'm going to dislike just about every superhero film. (Only liked the first one because I love Jack Nicholson.)

So the "Dark Knight"s of the film world can be as pretentious and self-sucking-offing as they like... they're still just dumb movies of even dumber comics to me. :-)

Rick Roberts said...

Thad:

I think you should give super hero comic books alot more credit at least. I mean sure they aren't as engaging as "funny animal" comics but they are still fun and yes, even complex. The Joker is the besst fictional villians ever made and his portrayal in THE DARK KNIGHT was terrific. Hell his name is hardly a representation of his character, it's just his face paint. He is a man who got the shit end of the stick in life and he no longer saw the sense of it all. He simply just wants to see the world burn. Nolan also did a great job with Two-Face as well. He was essentially the Joker's proof that even the man with the strongest moral convictions can be brought down. That also led to Batman's supreme sacrifice as the protector of Gotham. THE DARK KNIGHT, though can be very ham fisted at times with it's messages, was a brilliantly crafted film. I can't wait for the third entry and I think The Riddler might be next.

Rick Roberts said...

Correction: The "title" of Gotham's protector.