From blockbuster sequels to bold arthouse fare, plenty of recent films have provoked strong responses from their proponents and detractors. Sometimes a film boasts objectively great craftsmanship but divisive ideas, other times something is beloved by casual fans despite not being critics’ cup of tea. Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is but one example of a movie drawing a line between critics and audiences, as the reviews remain wildly mixed but the $30-million-plus box office and A- CinemaScore suggests a life ahead at the movie theaters — and a resurgence of interest in the King of Rock ‘n Roll.
Keep reading for 25 of the most divisive films in recent memory, and watch them all so you can form your own opinions.
Baz Luhrmann’s maximalism-with-a-capital-M approach to filmmaking mean either loving or hating his work. And when the Australian filmmaker deals with increasingly iconic source material—like Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald—those opinions only get stronger. To some, he’s a visionary who uses excess to bring old text into the modern world. To others, his films are nothing short of blasphemy. So it was inevitable that “Elvis,” which sees Luhrmann tackling the essence of American culture through one of its biggest stars, would provoke a similar response. Critics slammed the film’s excesses and lack of interest in its own subject matter, with IndieWire’s David Ehrlich calling it “a sadistically monotonous super-montage in which a weird Flemish guy manipulates some naïve young greaser over and over and over again until they both get sad and die.” Yet it received the longest standing ovation of any movie at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, and audience anticipation is high. The film grossed more than $30 million domestically in its opening weekend, and received an A- Cinemascore a very solid start for an adult-oriented drama in today’s franchise-driven market.
The most experimental entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (not exactly a high bar) is also the most divisive MCU film to date. Chloe Zhao’s philosophical take on superheroes earned points for its ambition, but critics questioned its pacing and bloated run time. It is currently the only film in Disney’s MCU to receive a negative Rotten Tomatoes score, with only 47% of critics approving of the film. But, as we’ve learned time and time again, moviegoers are willing to forgive a lot if the Marvel logo rolls before a film. Audiences still gave “Eternals” a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, and its $400 million box office haul would be quite respectable by any other franchise’s standards.
“Justice League” (2017)
Perhaps the divisive film to end all divisive films, Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” managed to polarize audiences in three entirely separate news cycles. When the film was first released in 2017, it generated mediocre reviews but built a small and extremely passionate fanbase who insisted that studio interference had ruined a brilliant movie. That led to multiple years of discourse about a mythical “Snyder Cut” that they claimed would restore the film’s reputation. When Snyder’s version of the film was finally released on HBO Max in 2021, it divided cinephiles once again, with some viewing it as a masterpiece and others dismissing it as an overly dark and self-important repackaging of a mediocre blockbuster.
“Jurassic World: Dominion” (2022)
In the eyes of critics, the rebooted “Jurassic World” franchise seems to decline with each subsequent film. Stooping lower than 2018’s much-maligned “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” was no small feat, but Colin Trevorrow’s “Jurassic World: Dominion” managed to do just that. The threequel has a Rotten Tomatoes Critics Score of 30%, and IndieWire’s Kate Erbland wrote that the film is stuffed to the brim with all the worst tendencies of blockbuster filmmaking.” Yet it boosts a 78% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes and an A- Cinemascore. It’s a sign that audience members who paid to see the film were not suspecting high art. They came to see large dinosaurs, and that’s exactly what the film delivered. –CZ
With “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation,” Alex Garland established himself as one of the indie film world’s top purveyors of prestige sci-fi, earning critical accolades while doing big business at the box office. But his highly anticipated third feature, “Men,” was Garland’s most polarizing work to date. Despite relatively strong reviews (69% Rotten Tomatoes Critics Score and a B from IndieWire’s David Ehrlich), audiences gave the film an abysmal D- Cinemascore grade. The film was difficult to unpack, even by Garland’s esoteric standards, lacking the clear takeaways of a film like “Ex Machina.” While critics may have relished the chance to analyze such a complex work by one of today’s most exciting filmmakers, audiences were clearly left unsatisfied. –CZ
M. Night Shyamalan continued his streak as one of the most divisive filmmakers working today with his latest release, “Old.” No film has so strongly divided critics in 2021 as “Old,” starring Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Alex Wolff, and Thomasin McKenzie. The story centers on a family whose vacation is upended after they get stuck on a beach that rapidly ages its visitors. Critics just could not agree on whether Shyamalan delivered his best or worst movie with here. The Guradian film critic Peter Bradshaw awarded “Old” a perfect five-star review, calling it a “top-notch” effort from the director and a film that is “brilliantly poised between serious and silly.” But other critics such as Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times lambasted the film for its “flat performances” and “awful” dialogue.
IndieWire senior critic David Ehrlich was not positive on the film and criticized the director for “never finding a way to follow through on his skin-crawling premise.” Ehrlich called “Old” a “very silly new movie” and “a pale imitation of the slow-burn psychological thriller” that Shyamalan once perfected in the likes of “Signs” and “The Sixth Sense.”
It seemed like no one could agree on Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” when the film launched at the 2017 Venice Film Festival and opened in theaters a few weeks later in September. Supporters of the film called it one of the director’s most daring cinematic accomplishments (both for its close-up heavy cinematography and for its ambitious allegorical storytelling) while detractors found it to be borderline ludicrous. The film bombed at the box office and earned a notorious “F” CinemaScore, and it earned backlash upon release for featuring extended scenes of graphic violence against Jennifer Lawrence’s character. IndieWire awarded “mother!” an A- review out of Venice, calling it a “rich cinematic allegory” with a “nightmarish dreamscape” and several of Aronofsky’s most daring cinematic sequences.
“The Fountain” (2006)
Darren Aronofsky doesn’t make it easy for studios. After Warner Bros. shut down his original $75 million “The Fountain,” the director redrafted his script and scaled the narrative back significantly so the film could be made with a cheaper $35 million. Reducing the budget for an epic of this scale was always going to have polarizing results. “Ambitious? You bet, but also a towering, tumultuous folly,” The Independent wrote. Sight & Sound added, “It’s difficult to recall another American film that, in pursuing a passionate and personal vision, goes so maddeningly, uproariously wrong.” The Guardian was even more hostile: “There is a strange deadness in the film, together with a callow self-importance and self-pity which becomes more stultifying with every minute that passes.”
And yet, supporters of “The Fountain” really supported it. Glenn Kenny of Premiere Magazine raved in a four star review, “If you’re a movie lover who despairs that big-scale filmmaking today consists of little more than a self-cannibalizing system of clichés, then you need, badly, to see The Fountain, soon.” Empire Magazine also awarded the movie four stars, calling it “a complex and gorgeous mini-epic with sterling performances from its two stars.”
Sacha Baron Cohen delivered an iconic comedy with “Borat,” so perhaps anticipation was too high for follow-up “Brüno.” For every review calling it “undeniably funny” (The Chicago Sun Times), there were about two more saying Baron Cohen’s “shtick was growing thin” and predicting “the guerrilla shock tactics of Borat and Brüno can’t go any further” (Newsweek). Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “The bad outweighs the good and the cringes outnumber the laughs in ‘Brüno,’ a disappointment from Sacha Baron Cohen.” But the New York Post had a rave (“More gut-bustingly funny than anything else out there right now”), as did the Detroit News (“Outrageous, unnerving, brave, topical, revealing, appalling and consistently hilarious, Brüno manages to be both cutting-edge cultural commentary and post-modern comic genius”).
Zack Snyder scored with critics thanks to “300” and then whiffed out hard with “Sucker Punch,” but the critical results for “Watchmen” came right down the middle. Roger Ebert awarded Snyder’s graphic novel adaptation four stars, calling it “a bold exercise in the liberation of the superhero movie. It’s a compelling visceral film — sound, images and characters combined into a decidedly odd visual experience that evokes the feel of a graphic novel. It seems charged from within by its power as a fable; we sense it’s not interested in a plot so much as with the dilemma of functioning in a world losing hope.”
But a lot of critics found Snyder’s vision too overbearing to sit through. The Wall Street Journal panned the film: “The reverence is inert, the violence noxious, the mythology murky, the tone grandiose, the texture glutinous. It’s an alternate version of ‘The Incredibles’ minus the delight.” As did The Washington Post: “Sad to say, the much-anticipated adaptation of the world’s most celebrated graphic novel is long, dull and sinks under the weight of its reverence for the original.”
“The Counselor” (2013)
With an October release, a star-studded ensemble cast (Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz), and a script from acclaimed novelist Cormac McCarthy, many in the industry thought Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” would be a major Oscar contender. That didn’t exactly pan out. The movie bombed in theaters and turned into one of the season’s most adore-it-or-despise-it titles. Pulitzer Prize winning critic Wesley Morris was a fan (“It’s filthy, nasty, sexy, absurd, appalling, and exhilarating, and it succeeds as a musky union of novelist Cormac McCarthy’s bleakness and Ridley Scott’s sense of chic”), but many film critics panned it. “It’s just a very bad idea for a film,” wrote The Daily Telegraph. Added Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star-Ledger: “The film seems an hour longer than it is, with too many scenes that go nowhere.”
”Only God Forgives” (2013)
Before “The Neon Demon,” Nicolas Winding Refn experienced a wave of divisive reactions to “Only God Forgives.” The Danish filmmaker was coming off raves for “Drive,” which had won him the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Anticipation was sky high for “Only God Forgives,” mainly because it reunited Refn with his “Drive” star Ryan Gosling. Their second pairing was booed at Cannes and lambasted by many critics who thought it was all style over substance. Refn’s ratcheting up of the movie’s graphic violence also proved sickening for many moviegoers. Wesley Morris called “Only God Forgives” a “one-dimensional video game of death” in a D+ review, while IndieWire’s Eric Kohn said the film proved Ryan Gosling’s shtick was getting old. And yet, Little White Lies awarded “Only God Forgives” a perfect five-star review, calling it “a psychoanalyst’s wet dream,” while The Chicago Sun Times named it “one of the most shocking and one of the best movies of the year.” Empire Magazine also fell for Refn’s “experimental and uncompromising” vision in a five-star review.
“To The Wonder” (2012)
Terrence Malick won the 2011 Palme d’Or with “The Tree of Life,” which accelerated anticipation for his quick return just a year later in “To The Wonder.” Casting Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams also got fans intrigued in Malick’s romance, but the movie proved far more divisive than “Tree of Life.” Many critics felt it was a step backward for Malick, while others praised it for committing even more to the loose and improvisational feel of “The Tree of Life.” As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune wrote in a three star review: “’To the Wonder’ finds Malick pursuing a form of visual storytelling that is closer to chamber music, or symphonic rapture, than conventional film narrative.” But that style also had its detractors, as Newsday’s John Anderson wrote in a pan, “’To the Wonder’ is a trailer for itself, although it could be mistaken for a high-end perfume commercial.”
”Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017)
Perhaps the most divisive movie of the 21st century is “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Rian Johnson’s sequel that rubbed many franchise fans the wrong way by taking the story threads set up in J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” and contorting them in unexpected directions. Many critics were thrilled by these bold choices, but a certain sector of “Star Wars” fandom could not have been more livid with Johnson. IndieWire chief critic Eric Kohn gave “The Last Jedi” an A- review, calling it the most satisfying “Star Wars” movie in decades. Kohn added, “Under the fastidious guidance of writer-director Johnson, ‘The Last Jedi’ turns the commercial restrictions of this behemoth into a Trojan horse for rapid-fire filmmaking trickery and narrative finesse.”
“The Hateful Eight” (2015)
“The Hateful Eight” always had an uphill battle as Quentin Tarantino was coming off his biggest hit at the time in “Django Unchained,” which earned $426 million worldwide and nabbed Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Could “The Hateful Eight” keep Tarantino’s hit streak alive? The answer was not quite. The talky Western drama is easily the most critically divisive movie of his career so far. Donald Clarke of The Irish Times was not a fan, writing, “What a shame the piece is so lacking in character and narrative coherence. What a shame so much of it is so gosh-darn boring.” But the film’s extra-slow burn nature had its fans. As The Financial Times review wrote: “Tarantino has returned to his first film’s template — colourful characters, a single room, blood and betrayal — but this time in a framework that is deliberately designed for repeat viewing.”
“A disappointing dip in the shallow end. Forgettable,” reads the Little White Lies review for Oliver Stone’s crime movie “Savages.” Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave it a one-star review, writing in a pan: “It plays up to Stone’s worst tendencies: machismo, bombast and self-indulgence, and the factor that could have made this movie tolerable — humor — is off the menu.” Another one-star review came in from the Daily Telegraph: “If Stone wanted to make even Tony Scott’s lousiest movies look like masterworks, he’s gone about it brilliantly.” Leave it to Film Comment Magazine to deliver one of the film’s raves: “An unabashedly lurid sun-and-surf ménage-à-trois cum drug-running caper, with touches of Jacobean tragedy for good measure.”
Christopher Nolan makes divisive movies, but “Interstellar” split critics in a way the director’s movies had not done before. There’s no denying the filmmaker was at the top of his technical prowess in this science-fiction epic, but Nolan’s decision to lead with his heart for once and embrace sentimentality during the film’s climax proved far more divisive among critics and moviegoers than the infamous spinning-top ending of “Inception.” IndieWire chief critic Eric Kohn was a fan of this unexpected Nolan move, calling the movie “smart sentimentality as we’ve never seen it before.”
Kohn writes: “Christopher Nolan’s movies are usually cold and clever in equal doses, but ‘Interstellar’ shakes up that pattern: A genuinely moving spectacle about the perils of discovery and survival, Nolan’s science fiction odyssey applies the same degree of intellect to its borderline corny plot as it does to the physics-heavy backdrop. The result is a two-pronged blockbuster comprised of smarts and sentimentalism like nothing else out there — not perfect, but expertly crafted and wholly satisfying unlike so many movies made on a similar scale today.”
”The House That Jack Built”
Reports out of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival that over 100 people walked out of the world premiere of Lars von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built” were overblown, but reviews remained as divisive as one would expect from a Lars von Trier movie about a serial killer. Von Trier’s graphic violence is not for the faint of heart, and it’s turned up to wicked extremes in “The House That Jack Built” as the director finds a way to channel serious musings about the artistic process through the deadly acts of his eponymous murderer. IndieWire chief critic Eric Kohn was high on the film out of Cannes, awarding “Jack” an A- review and calling it the director’s most “horrifying, sadistic, and possibly brilliant” movie yet.
Kohn writes, “’The House That Jack Built’ is an often-horrifying, sadistic dive into a psychotic internal monologue, with intellectual detours about the nature of art in the world today, and puts considerable effort into stimulating discomfort at key moments. If you meet the work on those terms, or at least accept the challenge of wrestling with impeccable filmmaking that dances across moral barriers, it’s also possibly brilliant.”
”The Neon Demon” (2016)
Nicolas Winding Refn divided critics with his Elle Fanning-starring fashion world horror movie “The Neon Demon,” which debuted to cheers and walkouts at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. IndieWire’s own Eric Kohn gave the movie a B- review, saying that the film is “not the deepest form of exploitation cinema, but it’s reaching for something.” One critic held nothing back after the film’s Cannes premiere, calling Refn’s movie an “absurd jerk-off lolita fantasy in a slow-motion sparkly neon dress with a side order of 90s music video aesthetics.” And yet, Little White Lies gave the film five stars, calling it “an intoxicating fever dream anchored by a transformative lead turn from Elle Fanning.” The review added that “Neon Demon” was “the culmination of Refn’s decades-long fascination with human nature in its darkest, most destructive form. It is — predictably, reliably — a gorgeous, grisly work which holds a (vanity) mirror up to modern society’s corroded moral core.”
”Spring Breakers” (2012)
Harmony Korine knows how to provoke, so it’s not surprising “Spring Breakers” divided critics when it was released in March 2013. The Guardian published a takedown of the film titled “Spring Breakers isn’t just a terrible movie, it reinforces rape culture,” while additional pans came in from The New York Post, USA Today (“exploitative”), and the Associated Press (“numbingly repetitive”). But Korine had his supporters, most notable Manohla Dargis of The New York Times and IndieWire, which named “Spring Breakers” one of the top 50 movies of the 2010s.
IndieWire’s Eric Kohn writes: “’Spring Breakers’ manages to do that with a unique blend of cartoonish energy and jittery naturalism, blending his Disneyfied cast (Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens have never done anything this risky, before or since) with real actors and hangout scenes that may as well be mini-documentaries. It’s one of the greatest party movies of all time, in part because it manages to empathize with the culture at its center, rather than depicting it as a distended punchline.”
”Cloud Atlas” (2012)
The Wachowski siblings release films that are instantly beloved (“The Matrix,” “Bound”), instantly loathed (“Jupiter Ascending”), or instantly disliked but later reevaluated (“The Matrix” sequels and “Speed Racer”), which makes “Cloud Atlas” something of an outlier. The most divisive film of the Wachowskis’ career, this ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel passionately divided critics who either thought it was an ambitious masterpiece or a laughable disaster. The reception to “Cloud Atlas” was so all-over-the-place it led The Playlist to declare it the most polarizing movie of the year. IndieWire’s Eric Kohn called “Cloud Atlas” a “stunning feat for the sheer technical audacity” of turning Mitchell’s book into a three-hour, non-chronological montage. Kohn added, “’Cloud Atlas’ is a quintessential Wachowski production…Despite the issues plaguing the movie, there’s no doubting the sense of ambition that pushes it forward.”
“Personal Shopper” (2016)
Anyone who saw Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” ahead of release knew it was bound to polarize audiences. What was marketed as a mystery-driven ghost story (and potential horror film) starring Kristen Stewart was actually a slow burn meditation on grief, not exactly the most accessible fare despite starring one of the most tabloid-friendly actresses on the planet. The film world premiered at Cannes to a standing ovation, hours after news leaked that it was booed during its press screening. IndieWire chief critic Eric Kohn called Assayas and Stewart “the perfect match” in his B+ review, adding, “’Personal Shopper’ creates a fully realized universe that merges visceral dread with deeper observations about its causes. Audiences unwilling to wrestle with this fascinating gamble demonstrate the worst fear plaguing moviegoing culture: Something different.”
”The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” proved to be such a zeitgeist-breaking phenomenon and a genre-redefining superhero movie that it was only inevitable the sequel would be extremely divisive. And indeed “The Dark Knight Rises” debuted four years after “The Dark Knight” to a more divided reaction among critics and moviegoers. Nolan’s vision and IMAX-shot action sequences remained undeniable, but an overstuffed story found many fans a bit disappointed with the conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s journey. Not that Nolan’s most ardent fans wanted to hear criticisms. A negative review of “The Dark Knight Rises” published by AP critic Christy Lemire resulted in death threats against her. IndieWire chief critic Eric Kohn was more positive on the movie, saying Nolan brought his trilogy to a “mostly satisfying conclusion.”
“The new movie falls into the same rhythm and remains viscerally satisfying even when the story falters,” Kohn wrote at the time. “Once again, Nolan’s monolithic take on Batman is a jarring, fractured experience fraught with tension right through its daringly open-ended conclusion.”
Did Ridley Scott revive or ruin his “Alien” franchise with 2012 franchise-restarter “Prometheus”? It’s a question fans still debate nearly a decade later. Scott’s return to the “Alien” universe was acclaimed for its filmmaking and crafts, but the story sharply divided critics and fans. For every five-star review (The Chicago Sun Times called it “Brilliant. Epic. Haunting. Grotesque. Great.”) there was a negative take bemoaning Scott for reassembling classic science-fiction tropes into an unoriginal whole. “This anticlimactic exercise too often plays as though it has been cobbled together from archetypes, imagery and tropes from countless other movies,” wrote Ann Hornaday for the Washington Post. The Altantic added, “’Prometheus’–like, in its telling, the human race itself–is a creation spliced from the DNA of superior forebears.” Scott’s sequel, “Alien: Covenant,” also proved divisive.
Paul Feig’s 2016 “Ghostbusters” reboot became a poster child for internet toxic fandom as the mere existence of a female-fronted “Ghostbusters” movie rubbed a certain section of the fandom the wrong way. The decision to cast Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones in the lead roles generated sexist backlash against the movie and turned “Ghostbusters” into the most polarizing movie of the summer season. The movie was review bombed by fans on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, and the critical reaction ended up too mixed to save its divisive reputation from the trolls. Katie Dippold, who co-wrote the film, pointed out the absurdity of the film’s divisive nature by noting a lot of the criticism from audiences came in before its theatrical release. “There were nasty comments and before there was even a movie,” Dippold said. “At that time, there was literally no movie written, you know?” she continues. “There’s nothing for you to watch, nothing is written and you’re already saying it’s the worst movie in the world!”
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