I’ve been crowing a lot in the recent weeks about all the completely unjustified venom being spewed at the Wachowski brothers’ day-glo kids movie “Speed Racer.” There’s a really dangerous thing out there called ‘critical consensus,’ where the buzz surrounding a movie and its critical reception is so bad that everyone just stays away. Like “Speed Racer,” the movie becomes a joke and can never fully recover. Take for example, famous flops like “Heaven’s Gate,” “Ishtar,” and “Gigli.” (“Cleopatra” and “Waterworld,” as terrible as they remain, somehow managed to turn a profit in their theatrical runs.) These ten films prove that both critics and audiences can get it wrong the first time. Fortunately for these films, there is sometimes a long life after theatrical death. I’m crossing my fingers that the manic fun of “Speed Racer” survives as well.
10. Fight Club (1999)
Considering the bullshit political backlash against this David Fincher-directed surreal satire, it’s a wonder “Fight Club” made $37 million at all. Turns out, that was just over half the film’s budget and it contributed to the head of 20th Century Fox resigning later that next year. I remember seeing our very own Kansas senator Sam Brownback on CNN talking out of his ass about how violent the movie was and holding it up as an example of Hollywood brutality for titillation’s sake. The only problem? Sam didn’t stay for the ending, so he had no idea what the hell he was talking about. He wasn’t alone. Critics were polarized, and while most noted its technical innovations, few thought its in-your-face, anti-everything message was anything extraordinary. Since its theatrical run, notices have improved, and society’s increasing cynicism has served it well. “Fight Club” has been instrumental in changing attitudes towards corporate alienation and mass advertising/brainwashing. U.K. film magazine Total Film recently ranked “Fight Club” as ‘The Greatest Film in Our Lifetime.’ The movie also single-handedly propelled Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the novel, to great success. An independent film “Choke,” based on one of his later books, will be released in September.
9. Harold & Maude (1971)
Sometimes movies become cult films after considerable critical and box office success, like “A Clockwork Orange,” “Taxi Driver,” or “Pulp Fiction,” which were all nominated for Best Picture. Other times, however, a film’s path to cult status is so unlikely, one wonders how anybody found out about the movie at all. Such is the case of Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude,” starring Bud Cort as a privileged kid searching for meaning in his life and Ruth Gordon as the elderly Holocaust survivor who gives it to him (pun intended). Scathing reviews and studio that had no idea how to market a movie about a young boy who lusts after a grandmother led to a rapid death in theaters initially. Some theaters, however, held on to their prints for anywhere up to three years, running it late at night for college crowds, and helped the movie become a genuine 1970s cult hit. Two songs from the now-famous Cat Stevens soundtrack weren’t even available for a full decade after the film’s release, but the movie now ranks 45 on AFI’s funniest films of all time.
8. Office Space (1999)
The miserable theatrical failure ($10 million) of this hilarious and telling send-up of office life is still a mystery to me. What happened to word-of-mouth successes like “There’s Something About Mary?” Where was everybody this time? I saw this one in the theater and told all my friends to see it, but it’s hard to sell a movie about a bunch of no-name losers with crappy jobs that features Jennifer Aniston in a supporting role as “the girlfriend.” Like “Fight Club” (which came out later the same year), “Office Space” broke out on DVD. Also like “Fight Club,” it was way ahead of its time, paving the way for shitty-workplace masterpieces like the U.K. and U.S. versions of “The Office.” Tons of “Office Space” phrases have now entered the pop culture lexicon. When was the last time you jokingly referred to some useless piece of paper as a TPS report, or joked that you had a “case of the Mondays,” or pointed out the “pieces of flair” on somebody’s outfit? Anyone who doesn’t recognize the power of this film is a no-talent ass clown. On the other hand, the next person who I see do the “oh face” is dead to me.
7. Peeping Tom (1960)
This highly controversial psychological thriller almost ended the career of esteemed British director Michael Powell. The man responsible (with his co-director Emeric Pressburger) for such noble classics as “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes” was reviled by his countrymen after this movie’s release in England. He was called no less than a pervert for forcing theater audiences to examine their own voyeuristic actions while watching a movie through the actions of a psychosexual killer. “The critics rose up,” wrote Vincent Canby of The New York Times, “to condemn it on moral grounds. ‘It stinks,’ one critic wrote. Another thought it should be flushed down the sewer, and a third dismissed it haughtily as ‘perverted nonsense.’” Canby didn’t think too much of the film upon its 1979 re-release, partially funded by rabid fan Martin Scorsese, but filmmakers constantly reference this movie for being way ahead of its time. In 2004, British magazine Total Film named “Peeping Tom” the 24th greatest British film of all time and, in 2005, the 18th best horror movie of all time.
6. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, this classic screwball farce was a major disaster at the box office, and was met with harsh notices from critics. Director Howard Hawks was fired from directing his next picture for the same studio (“Gunga Din”), and Hepburn, who headed the Independent Theatre Owners Association list of “box-office poison” movie stars, was forced to buy out her contract. Fact is, Grant and Hepburn display impeccable comic timing at a breakneck pace and the “intercostal clavicle” Grant’s paleontologist is searching for in the movie has become something of an iconic reference. Every decade or so somebody tries to recreate its special kind of magic (see “Leatherheads,” “Intolerable Cruelty,” “Who’s That Girl?” and “What’s Up Doc?”), but “Bringing Up Baby” is a true original, justifying its spot at number 14 on AFI’s top comedies list.
5. Donnie Darko (2001)
After five months in U.S. theaters and a release of 58 screens, this cult classic film grossed a grand total of—are you ready for this?— $514,545. One possible reason for its complete and utter box office failure was that it opened just one month after the attacks on 9/11. By March 2002, when the movie was released on DVD, the Pioneer Theatre in New York City began midnight screenings of “Donnie Darko” that continued for 28 consecutive months. The sci-fi-tinged teen angst film amassed a huge following on DVD, allowing writer/director Richard Kelly to release his Director’s Cut and ruin much of the intriguing ambiguity that gave the film its magic in the first place. Ironically, his follow-up feature “Southland Tales,” had a disastrous screening at the 2006 Cannes film festival and met a similar theatrical fate, grossing just $273,420 on 63 screens late last year. The final injustice? A sequel that focuses on Donnie’s sister Samantha and is titled “S. Darko” is in production now. Kelly, who said in his “Darko” commentary that he would never do a sequel “because he wanted to maintain the integrity of the film and just wanted to put the film to rest,” has nothing to do with it.
4. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Given that it is now considered the most inspirational film ever made, it’s hard to believe that Frank Capra’s classic Christmas-set movie received mixed reviews upon its release. Capra, whose populist films were almost always blockbusters, considered the reviews at the time to be either “universally negative or at best dismissive.” The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote that Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey and the rest of the film’s characters “resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.” During the 1980s, it seemed to be on TV every Christmas season, but now, due to recent copyright enforcement, is reduced to about two showings a year. It currently sits at number 20 on the AFI all-time list, having dropped from 11 on 1997’s list.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
Coming off of the sci-fi actioner “The Empire Strikes Back” and throwback actioner “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Harrison Ford was red-freaking-hot. So headlining Ridley Scott’s futuristic thriller was a no-brainer at the box office, right? Wrong. “Blade Runner,” based on the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” was a slow, brooding art film about the nature of what it means to be human—not exactly what western-in-space “Star Wars” fans were expecting. The unique and detailed art direction and neo-noir cinematography that Scott spent so much time perfecting, however, paid off in the long run. Despite its original flop status, “Blade Runner” was released in many different cuts for theaters, cable TV/VHS, and finally DVD. In any version, the film is now regarded one of the original visions ever put on film and one of the most influential visual-effects films of all time. It currently resides at number 97 on AFI’s Top 100 movies of all time.
2. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Starring Judy Garland and featuring “Over the Rainbow”—the most beloved song in musical history—this adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s surreal children’s book was not always considered a success. Considering its reputation these days, you’d never know. MGM was severely disappointed by the reception that their extravagant $2.8 million musical received at the box office upon its initial release. Just barely covering its costs at $3 million, the film now regarded as a hands-down classic, having earned its reputation through a 1949 re-release and TV showings every year around Christmas time. I can’t count the number of times I saw it on TV as a kid, but it was an eye-opening experience to see it in all its restored glory on DVD all those years later. AFI’s 1998 list has “The Wizard of Oz” as the seventh best film of all time, and in the 2007 list, it came in 10th.
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was so offended by Orson Welles’ thinly veiled attack on him that he offered RKO Pictures $800,000 to destroy all copies and the negative of the film. The company refused, and the film now generally regarded as the best movie ever made was eventually released to much hype in 1941. Critical reception was mixed, and the movie flopped at the box office, failing to recoup its budget and crippling the boy wonder’s status as a bulletproof artist. Welles forever struggled to regain the kind of control he once had over “Citizen Kane.” The movie was nominated for several Oscars and won one (for its screenplay), but even at the ceremony, boos were heard almost every time the film was mentioned. The film, now considered groundbreaking for its time-shifting narrative and deep focus cinematography, was virtually forgotten in the U.S. until its critical revival in the late 1950s. It first appeared on Sight and Sound’s Top 10 list in 1962, and has stayed there at number one every year since. AFI had it at number 1 on both of its ‘100 Best’ lists of all time.