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I Watched Every Film on Roger Ebert’s Most Hated List – Here’s What I Learned



Feature By: Calum Cooper

If one were to ask who the greatest film critic of all-time was, Roger Ebert is the name that would likely be voiced the most. While strong cases could be made for critics like Pauline Kael and Leonard Maltin, Ebert, alongside fellow critic Gene Siskel, bridged the divide between critics and the general populace through his TV show, which broadcasted his infectious admiration and vast knowledge of movies for all to see. His Great Movies collection, which can be found on his website, contains extraordinary reviews of over 350 titles, each one an ode to the magic that movies at their best can bring. Over a decade after his passing, his legacy of championing both movies and their makers has continued to inspire cinephiles everywhere.

Yet Ebert was arguably at his most entertaining when he loathed a movie. His most iconic review? Perhaps that of Rob Reiner’s misguided comedy, North, where Ebert coined the infamous sentence: “[I] hated hated hated hated hated this movie”. Where positive reviews from Ebert would offer compelling insights into a film’s emotional impact, thematic depth, or mastery of craft, the most negative of his reviews took no prisoners, something that was especially brutal when one considers how Ebert was generally kinder to films than the average critic of his time. Take Speed 2 or Cop and a Half, two movies largely maligned, yet Ebert found a soft spot for them.

In 2005, Ebert released a list of 56 films that he considered his most hated of all-time. Among these films were choices that would’ve been obvious to anyone who’s followed his career – North, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, Caligula – as well as more niche pictures like The First Time and The Devil’s Rain, and even contrarian choices in The Usual Suspects and Taste of Cherry. One glance through these reviews show how little he minced his words in regards to them, be it through droll sarcasm or vicious scrutiny. Some omissions that I was surprised to see were absent included comedies he despised like Frozen Assets and Little Indian, Big City, as well as the exploitation film I Spit On Your Grave, which Ebert had, on at least one occasion, called the worst film he’d ever seen. But I suppose this list had to be capped somewhere.

Something often forgotten when judging media reviews is that, for better or worse, they reveal at least a little something about the critic, whether it’s an attitude, a characteristic or a belief. Part of the joy of reading other people’s reviews is seeing a piece of media or art through the prism of that individual critic’s values, experiences, and emotional responses. There are times when this can become grating – look no further than the endless stream of performative, hyperbolic reviews on YouTube and TikTok that, whether delivered through short clips or 2+ hour long video essays, demonstrate entitlement, media illiteracy, and, usually, an inability to properly engage with media outside of their own self-aggrandizing beliefs. But when reviews, even negative ones, are written with intelligence and earnestness, we can find ourselves getting an acute understanding of the critic as a person for the better, an effect that is best achieved if we ourselves are familiar with the media being discussed.

To test this theory, I watched every single film on Ebert’s Most Hated List, comparing my own opinions on them with that of Ebert’s to see what I could learn about him, both as a critic and a person. Ebert always encouraged budding critics to see every film they could, and not just the ones they knew they’d like; so one could consider this article a practice of his philosophy as much as it is masochistic curiosity on my part. Going through all of these films, plus I Spit On Your Grave for good measure, ended up being an informative, if not always fun, experience.

A key obstacle I was faced with was not just finding the time for all these films in between my work and social life, but also finding some of these films in the first place. While titles like Battlefield Earth and The Waterboy were easy to come by due to their infamy and/or star power, other entries included the French screwball comedy One Woman or Two, and the 70s exploitation flick The Deathmaster. Due to their fading into relative obscurity, some films, such as these two, proved notoriously difficult to track down without spending absurd amounts of money. Quite the indictment on contemporary accessibility issues with media, but that’s another article for another time.

The other prominent obstacle was that a lot of these films, as Ebert warned, ended up being terrible. Truly, utterly terrible. Whether it was the despicable manipulations of The Green Berets, the physically painful craftsmanship of Armageddon, or the visual creepiness of Baby Geniuses, most of these films tested my endurance through boredom, anger, depression, or a mix of them all. They were exactly as poor or, in the case of I Spit On Your Grave and Caligula, as reprehensible as Ebert described. Entries like Friends, She’s Out of Control, and An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn, would likely feature on my own list of least favourite movies. They made me question why I was doing this to myself.

However, where much of the intrigue came from was in the films that I partially, or even fully, disagreed with Ebert on. The aforementioned Taste of Cherry and The Usual Suspects were my biggest dissents, as I found both to be terrific films that were smarter and more engaging than Ebert’s reviews made them out to be. However, there were others that I still found bad or underwhelming, just not to the same extent as Ebert. Take for example B.A.P.S. (Black American Princesses), a film that Ebert gave zero stars, but I would personally be more inclined to give two stars. I wouldn’t call it a good film, as its overreliance on slapstick and garish performances are hard to tolerate, but its promotion on the importance of kindness, while cloying at times, was something that resonated with me. Other examples included Swing Kids, a movie about young men protesting the Nazis by celebrating swing music, which I found to be narratively hollow but thematically well intentioned. There was also Tommy Boy, which was rarely funny, but Chris Farley and David Spade’s chemistry had its moments, and the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Cyborg, an incredibly slapdash film that I still got enjoyment from. There was even the shocking Freddy Got Fingered, a film I hated as much as Ebert, but I still weirdly respected its commitment to grotesque surrealism.

Despite these differences in opinion, Ebert’s reviews on these pictures always made it clear where he was coming from. As much as I consider his review of Taste of Cherry to be unfairly dismissive, those long stagnant sequences that the film employs are a choice that I can see becoming tedious to certain viewers, as it evidently did to Ebert. I may not have found The Village as banal as he did, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t burst out laughing when I read his takedown of the climactic twist, both from how witty it is, and from how astutely Ebert is able to convey his experiences. The best critics can make the reader understand their arguments and perspectives, even if the reader’s opinion doesn’t align with that of the critic’s. Ebert was a master of this, and his reviews for his Most Hated films are some of the most eloquent and visceral pieces of writing he ever produced, occasionally even topping the poetry of the words he wrote when discussing his most beloved films.

Going through his Most Hated list has shown me that Ebert craved authenticity in his movies. In fact, it might even be the thing he respected the most out of cinema. Even if a film wasn’t necessarily good, if there was an honest effort or passion behind its craft or ambitions then Ebert would at least try to meet the picture halfway and promote what worked about it. This is what made his writing so alluring, even to those who don’t consider themselves cinephiles. His mantra is one that I’ve held close to my heart ever since I began reviewing media professionally: “cinema is a machine for generating empathy”. In my experience, the most authentic media – the ones willing to be vulnerable, personal, or even experimental – produce the biggest, most resonant amounts of empathy.

Many of the films on this list – or all of them if Ebert is to be believed – lack this sense of authenticity, existing to either solely generate a profit, or to cheaply pander to certain audiences’ worst impulses. This ranged from voyeuristic prurience with The Blue Lagoon to tasteless, even xenophobic, senses of humour with Sour Grapes and The Hot Chick. Watching all these films, and then bringing those experiences to Ebert’s written reviews, reveals a man who not only loved cinema, but constantly wanted it and its contributors to be at their best. He loved the artistic process and was sympathetic to the difficulties that came with making movies. But he had no time for cynicism, disingenuousness or pretentiousness, symptoms that the worst of the films on his Most Hated list egregiously suffered from. If any film he saw seemed to possess those qualities, he wasted no time in berating them for it. Whether you agree with his words or not, his steadfast belief in cinema being a machine for empathy always came through.

What this showcases is someone who was not only knowledgeable about cinema, and had a superhuman knack for literary expression, but a man who was fundamentally sensitive, perceptive, and ultimately believed in the best of people and movies. He championed creativity and honesty while decrying laziness, cynicism, or senseless vulgarity. Even his most vicious attacks on a film he hated rarely got sanctimonious or mean-spirited, a mistake that far too many contemporary internet critics make all the time. If Ebert ever got personal in his negativity, it was almost always in how the film’s methodology was a personal affront to him, which was regularly tinged with humour over self-righteousness. While he could arguably be a bit full of himself at times, as the brilliant documentary on him, Life Itself, demonstrated, Ebert was such a great critic because he wanted the same thing that the best filmmakers want – for cinema to thrive. His positive reviews convey this desire in spades, but even the most scathing of his negative reviews, as depicted on this list, reveal how much he cherished technical skill, and especially emotional honesty, primarily due to the lack of them in his most despised movies. This was someone who truly and completely loved cinema.

Roger Ebert’s Most Hated List has a plethora of awful movies, yet his reviews on them demonstrate exactly why he was such a great critic. His enthusiasm, whether positive or negative, was shaped by his empathy, and his empathy was informed by the vast knowledge he possessed in cinema. This made both his writing, and his personality, easily accessible, even if we didn’t always agree with his opinion. His Great Movies collection arguably still houses his best writing due to their celebratory nature of movies, but his negative reviews are just as passionate. While there will sadly always be bad faith critiques out there – a practice that is becoming even more prominent in the age of social media and influencer culture – Ebert’s writings are a reminder of what negative reviews can and should be: constructive, intelligent, engaging, composed, and, where necessary, compassionate. Although, for the sake of my sanity, I think I’ll stick to his Great Movies List next time.

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