Overrated Standouts

May 23, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

As there are "guilty pleasures," so too are there "overrated standouts." (I was going to refer to these as "overrated masterpieces" but that description narrowed the field too much.) These are movies that, despite being generally recognized as great pieces of cinema, simply don't work for you. A lot of the classics tend to fall into this category. Personally, I love Citizen Kane. I think it's a tremendous work of cinema in terms of narrative thrust and innovation, but I have known more than a few intelligent film-lovers who believe it to be hugely overrated. After seeing the film theatrically projected during the mid-90s, I can recall a friend who accompanied me saying, "That's supposed to be the best film of all-time? What were 'they' smoking when 'they' decided that?"

The first of my so-called "overrated standouts" is Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. You know, the one with the often-parodied image of the Grim Reaper playing chess. I'll be the first one to admit that the movie is visually striking, but it's also as boring a production as I have ever endured. The first two times I tried to watch it, I fell asleep before the half-way point. The third time, I drank two cups of coffee beforehand. Thus fortified with enough caffeine to keep me from dozing off, I viewed all of The Seventh Seal. When it was over, I wished I had fallen asleep.

After a few years, I yeilded to the pressure of fellow critics who couldn't understand why I wasn't raving about the film. I decided to watch it again. Convinced that I had previously missed something, I gave it another try. And I fell asleep. Again. Eventually, I saw the whole movie a second time, and my opinion didn't appreciably change.

I don't know if this is the most overrated film of all time. For me, it's up there. I don't hate The Seventh Seal, but it's work to sit through it, and I can't recommend it except to film students. I'm reminded of an interview I did with Icelandic filmmaker Fridrik Thor Fridriksson back in 1993 or 1994 when he was in Philadelphia for the local film festival. When I asked him what he thought of Bergman, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Bergman is boring." He didn't need an interpreter for that, and he meant it.

I am a huge fan of some of Bergman's films: Cries and Whispers made my Top 100, with both Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander just missing. Those three movies are equally as difficult as The Seventh Seal, but they are far more rewarding.

Just as everyone else has their own list of guilty pleasures, so everyone has their own list of overrated standouts. No two of us view film in exactly the same way. Many overrated lists will include titles such as The Blair Witch Project and Pulp Fiction. I think those movies are as good as advertised, but I could name a bunch of people who would disagree.

More guilty pleasures and overrated standouts to come in future installments...