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What Will Be This Decade’s Underappreciated Masterpiece?

It seems to happen at least once a decade: the critic consensus emerging immediately after the release of a film turns out to be wrong, swayed by the tides of retrospect and history. Initial reviews of The Shining criticised it for being slow – today we regard its pace as being one of its many virtues. It wasn’t greeted with triumphant applause, but a resounding ‘meh’. Blade Runner was dismissed as a wannabe sci-fi epic, now we consider it to be one of the high watermarks of the genre – a masterpiece. The Wizard of Oz equally divided critics between those who considered the movie to be a game changer, and those who thought it was just light and fluffy entertainment. You could make the case that Fight Club debuted to a hugely divided critical opinion, but that belies that fact that the acknowledgement of the movie as a modern classic is grudging at best. So is there a film from the last ten years that is likely to feature a similar historical revision, considered a retrospective masterpiece?

Harrison Ford knew how to "persuade" critics...

Well, let’s look at the general trends here. The movie is generally one of a fringe genre – certainly at the time. Horror was snobbishly derided by critics at the time of The Shining and arguably still is. Science fiction and fantasy rarely get awards love (a few exceptions not withstanding) and the urban male macho exploration subgenre is a relatively recent invention. So we’re looking for something a tad unconventional. I think that rules of devisive prestige fare like The Reader or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Gran Torino. They are all drama (and two are period dramas), so they aren’t exactly outside looking in. I think it’s fair to say that critics have been as receptive of them as they are likely to be. I think they’ll remain as divisive as ever.

And generally these movies have tended to split critics on the release – gradually convincing the enemy of their worth. I can’t think of a universally reviled movie which has clawed its way back up to being a critical darling. So I don’t think we’re retroactively going to describe Uwe Boll as an unappreciated maestro in years to come. Nor any of the stream of videogame adaptations. Nor the really crap comic book movies – Spider-Man III won’t be looking forward to a rehabilitation, I think.

So, where does that leave us? We need films that have split critical opinion into two camps. The first films that really come to mind are Steven Speilberg’s films of the last decade – excluding Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A review of the Rotten Tomato scores for A.I. (73%), War of the Worlds (73%) and Munich (77%) confirm that he has been fairly divisive these past few years – and I think there’s certainly an argument to be made that some critics are tempering their opinions out of respect for a past (and hopefully future) master. I don’t think it’s fair to discuss my own reaction to them – we are trying to at least appear objective – but we can probably rule out War of the Worlds as an adaptation of a classic (rather than a contemporary) novel. A.I. has the allure of a Stanley Kubrick film, so that makes it the most logical choice – but I don’t know, I don’t get that vibe. Perhaps some distance from the current strife in the Middle East will make Munich easier to digest – though I suspect that that it may make the movie somewhat irrelevent. Though that presupposes that we’ll ever have distance from the troubles in the Middle East.

It goes without saying that I don’t see the Star Wars prequels will get any critical (or even cult) reappraisal.

I do suspect that In Bruges may make the cut – but I imagine that it won’t generate a cult following quite large enough to justify a complete historical revision. And the reviews are 80% positive, which is perhaps too positive to genuinely describe it as being ‘split’.

It’s interesting to look at the work of autuers this decade and wonder if what are frequently regarded as ‘lowlights’ (okay, maybe I’m being harsh) are worth revising. Take Danny Boyle’s Sunshine for example, which is arguably his most divisive work (74%) – and perhaps his most daring. Or Frank Darbonte’s The Mist (72%). Both are members of the types of fringe genres which typically attract retroactive approval – as if critics are afraid to reduce their streetcred by enjoying them the first time around.

I don’t know. I reckon it’s a lot like trying to find an oil well with your map and a finger. You have areas you may suspect that you’ll hit paydirt, but you can never really know until the construction is complete and you’re way down the line. As such, I honestly don’t think that we can predict these things – for all I know these films will be forgotten in a few years time. It’ll be fun to dig this list up in a decade or so and see what happened.

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