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The 20 best movie remakes of all time (and the 10 worst)

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The Departed

People often point to the omnipresence of sequels as proof that Hollywood has run all out of ideas. And indeed, there are a lot of sequels, and those sequels almost always perform better at the box office than their more original competition. 

But as forms of forever-plundered intellectual property go, the remake is underrated. This year will see 15 remakes on the big screen, as well as five reboots and five adaptations of a TV series.

You don’t always realize that remakes are remakes.

Kevin Hart’s recent sleeper hit “The Upside,” for instance, is a remake of the popular 2011 French dramedy “The Intouchables.” Next week’s Liam Neeson action comedy “Cold Pursuit” is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film “In Order of Disappearance.” And “Miss Bala,” the drug cartel thriller in theaters Thursday, is a remake of an acclaimed 2011 Mexican film of the same name.

Later in the year, we’ll see big-budget “live-action” remakes of Disney's “Dumbo,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” along with horror remakes (“Pet Sematary,” “Child’s Play”), comedy remakes (“What Women Want”), musical remakes (“West Side Story”) and at least one remake of a remake: The Anne Hathaway/Rebel Wilson comedy "The Hustle" is based on 1988's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," which was itself a remake of a bad Marlon Brando farce called "Bedtime Story."

It’s like the old saying goes: “If it ain’t broke ... do it over and over again until you've squeezed every last dime out of the nostalgic and complacent moviegoing public.”

But are remakes so bad? Not always, no. Many good movies are remakes that have surpassed the original films on which they’re based (examples ahead).

But generally, sure, remakes aren’t great. There's data to prove it. Rotten Tomatoes recently looked at 400 remakes/reboots released between 1978 and 2018. They found that, on average, remakes had a Rotten Tomatoes score of 47 percent. The films those films were remaking, meanwhile, have an 81 percent average. The survey also found that for every good remake, there are two bad ones.

Still, even with those poor odds, there are plenty of remakes worth praising. What follows are the 20 best, as well as the 10 worst, along with a breakdown of the many different kinds of movies that are remade.

The best remakes

1. “The Thing” (1982)

Remake of: “The Thing From Another World” (1951). Both films are based on the novella “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell Jr.

A classic black-and-white sci-fi thriller gets remade as John Carpenter’s best film. His magnum opus, his gooey and nihilistic prequel to the apocalypse, complete with peak Kurt Russell, an all-pervading sense of paranoia and severed heads that sprout spider legs.

2. “Sorcerer” (1977)

Remake of: “Wages of Fear” (1953)

It’s usually a bad idea to remake a masterpiece. But in at least one case it resulted in a second (and very different) masterpiece. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s white-knuckler “Wages of Fear” has a group of desperate men transporting two trucks full of volatile explosives across hundreds of miles of bumpy roads and rickety bridges. For the remake, William Friedkin (fresh off his success with “The Exorcist”) made a crueler and more complex version of the story. The characters were richer, the set pieces more nightmarish. The film, which came out just a few weeks after “Star Wars,” was a box office bomb. 

3. “Ben-Hur” (1959)

Remake of: “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” (1925). Adapted from Lew Wallace's 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”

The monolith of old Hollywood epics. Each new iteration of "Ben-Hur" is a testament to how far chariot-race effects have come or (in the case of the 2016 remake) regressed.

4. “Heat” (1995)

Remake of: “L.A. Takedown” (1989)

Michael Mann’s heist thriller was originally intended as a TV series. NBC passed on the show, but Mann cut the pilot into a now-long-forgotten TV movie called “L.A. Takedown.” Unhappy with the outcome, he remade the movie with Pacino and De Niro, and we got the epic crime saga we now all know and love.

5. “The Age of Innocence” (1993)

Remake of: various versions, all based on Edith Wharton’s novel.

Some of Martin Scorsese’s best films are detours from the gangster genre he’s most associated with. The social mores of high society can be just as rigid and ruthless as those of mobsters, bank robbers and thieves.

6. “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001)

Remake of: “Ocean’s 11” (1960)

Steven Soderbergh remakes a so-so star-studded crime comedy into a tremendous star-studded crime comedy.

7. “Casino Royale” (2006)

Remake of: “Casino Royale” (1967)

To be fair, the first version was a spoof of the Bond movies that took the title and basic outline of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel. Nearly 40 years later, Bond got a reboot under the same title. “Casino Royale” ranks as one of the best-ever reboots of a foundering movie brand, second only to "Mad Max: Fury Road."

8. “The Fly” (1986)

Remake of: “The Fly” (1958)

David Cronenberg mutates an atomic-age B-movie into an existential nightmare of extreme Goldblum body horror. Like “The Thing,” it set new standards for visual effects that make you want to throw up everywhere.

9. “Imitation of Life” (1959)

Remake of: “Imitation of Life” (1934)

Douglas Sirk’s romantic melodrama about race and class and straddling the line between multiple identities.

10. “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964)

Remake of: “Yojimbo” (1961)

A man with no name rides into town, inserting himself into a conflict for fun and profit. The clearest connection between the tropes of the Western and the samurai film. Akira Kurosawa's “Yojimbo” would prove to be one of the most influential action movies ever. Shortly after “Fistful,” "Yojimbo" inspired another spaghetti Western, 1966’s “Django.”

11. “Pride and Prejudice” (2005)

Remake of: various versions

With apologies to devotees of the Colin Firth miniseries, the Keira Knightley film is the definitive version of Austen’s story.

12. “A Star Is Born” (1954)

Remake of: “A Star Is Born” (1937)

With apologies to devotees of the Lady Gaga movie, the Judy Garland film is the definitive version of this story.

13. “The Departed” (2006)

Remake of: “Infernal Affairs” (2002)

Scorsese’s second remake, in which he took a well-regarded Hong Kong actioner and turned it into a Boston-set best-picture winner.

14. “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004)

Remake of: “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

Cold War paranoia is opted out for the terror of the War on Terror. Jonathan Demme’s reimagining carries the rough outline of the John Frankenheimer classic, but they soaked the film in the acerbic broth of post-9/11 satire. A deeply underrated film, featuring one of Denzel Washington’s best performances.

15. “A Little Princess” (1995)

Remake of: “The Little Princess” (1939)

Forget about the Shirley Temple movie. The best “Little Princess” is the 1995 visual marvel directed by Alfonso Cuarón (long before he made “Children of Men,” “Gravity” and “Roma”).

16. “His Girl Friday” (1940)

Remake of: “The Front Page” (1931)

The Howard Hawks classic takes us back to the halcyon days when journalism movies had laughs.

17. “True Grit” (2010)

Remake of: “True Grit” (1969)

Says in a nervous whisper: "Jeff Bridges is a better Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne.”

18. “13 Assassins” (2010)

Remake of: “13 Assassins” (1963)

If you judge the quality of a film based on the amount of blood it spills — and this is the correct way to judge a film — then Takashi Miike’s samurai epic is among the greatest of all time.

19. “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986)

Remake of: “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960)

The chintzy Roger Corman comedy that became an off-Broadway musical comedy that grew into the Frank Oz rock musical starring Rick Moranis.

20. “Pete’s Dragon” (2016)

Remake of: “Pete’s Dragon” (1977)

Disney’s live-action remakes of its proper animated classics (“Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Jungle Book”) get all the attention at the box office, but the sole great remake the studio has done of late is David Lowery’s rustic reimagining of a simple story about a boy and his dragon.

Note: If I were taking a more expansive view of what constitutes a remake, I would have included Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13,” his modernized update of Hawks’ “Rio Bravo.” Also, several great movies started out as short films that directors later turned into features: “Boogie Nights,” “Whiplash,” “Office Space.” But it felt wrong to include them.

* * *

The worst remakes

1. “The Wicker Man” (2006)

Remake of: “The Wicker Man” (1973)

“Oh no, not the bees! Not the bees!” is what we talk about when we talk about late-period Nicolas Cage.

2. “Psycho” (1998)

Remake of: “Psycho” (1960)

Gus Van Sant’s near-shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s film (with one notable addition). Arguably the most useless film ever made.

3. “The Invasion” (2007)

Remake of: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956 and 1978)

There have been so many superb takes on Jack Finney’s novel (including Abel Ferrara’s “Body Snatchers” and the better-than-its-reputation “The Faculty”), but “The Invasion” is a dead-eyed bore, as stripped of personality as one of the alien-infected humans.

4. “The Haunting” (1999)

Remake of: “The Haunting” (1963)

Shirley Jackson’s classic novel re-imagined as a turgid CGI-fest starring Owen Wilson

5. “Godzilla” (1998)

Remake of: “Godzilla” (1954)

The Guinness World Record-holder for longest-running film franchise has had its ups and downs over the past 65 years, but the giant lizard’s lowest point had to be Roland Emmerich’s 1998 fiasco. Fortunately, the series rebounded with the 2014 reboot.

6. “The Mummy” (2017)

Remake of: various films

It’s worth noting just how fun (in an “Indiana Jones” sort of way) the 1999 “Mummy” movie was. (Remember when we thought Brendan Fraser was the next Harrison Ford? What a time to be alive!)

But it was followed by a few dreadful sequels and spinoffs and prequels to spinoffs, and many years later Universal’s monster movie series rebooted the dusty old mummy yarn as a superhero star-vehicle for Tom Cruise. A bad idea executed poorly.

7. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (2010)

Remake of: “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)

The gruesome wit, humor and playfulness, all gone in the favor of the slick, lifeless horror aesthetic that marked the ’00s and early ’10s.

8. “Swept Away” (2002)

Remake of: “Swept Away” (1974)

Guy Ritchie (director of the upcoming “Aladdin” movie) took his then-wife Madonna to the Mediterranean to make a deserted island romcom. If nothing else, the film accurately conveyed the sensation of dying of thirst and starvation while hoping to be rescued by someone, anyone.

9. “Get Carter” (2000)

Remake of: “Get Carter” (1971)

The Michael Caine version of “Get Carter” is an amoral and wryly funny crime thriller, one of the crown jewels of British gangster movies. The Sylvester Stallone version of “Get Carter” (which co-stars Michael Caine) is not that.

10. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (2008)

Remake of: “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951)

While it was an admittedly inspired choice to cast Keanu Reeves as an alien, this retooling of the Cold War classic was, like so many other remakes, a tedious, pointless misfire that misunderstood everything that made its predecessor a classic to begin with.

* * *

The different types of remakes

Remake of an acclaimed foreign-language film

When a foreign-language movie does well, Hollywood will usually remake it for audiences who don’t like to read subtitles. Sometimes these remakes are high-profile — like Scorsese’s “The Departed” (a remake of Hong Kong’s “Infernal Affairs”) or David Fincher’s “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (a remake of the Swedish-language film of the same name).

But typically these remakes are smaller and more forgettable: Like this week’s “Miss Bala,” a Mexican thriller translated into an English-language action movie starring Gina Rodriguez.

Good remakes: “The Birdcage,” “A Fistful of Dollars,” “Insomnia.”

Bad remakes: “Old Boy,” “The Vanishing,” “Secret in Their Eyes.”

Remake of a classic

The trickiest proposition. It takes a lot of hubris to think you can remake a masterpiece and not embarrass yourself. (Steven Spielberg is now attempting to do this with his “West Side Story” re-do.) But it does work on occasion, especially when a filmmaker gives the remake a different vibe, aesthetic or thematic concern than its inspiration.

Good remakes: “Suspiria,” “Sorcerer,” “Solaris.”

Bad remakes: “Ben-Hur” (2016), “Psycho,” “Straw Dogs”

Live-action remake of a Disney classic

The most popular and profitable kind of remake. The live-action “Cinderella” made half a billion dollars. “The Jungle Book” made nearly a billion. “Beauty and the Beast” made more than a billion, and the upcoming “Dumbo,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” are each going to make an unseemly amount of money. But Disney’s best efforts in this department to date are their “Pete’s Dragon” and “Christopher Robin” reboots.

A director remaking his or her own work.

Hitchcock remade a better version of his “Man Who Knew Too Much” with Jimmy Stewart. What is Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead 2” if not a better, funnier and more expensive version of “The Evil Dead”? Michael Mann’s “Heat” is the best heist movie ever, but who remembers the NBC TV movie on which it’s based?

Sometimes you’ll get something utterly pointless, of course, like Michael Haneke re-making “Funny Games.”

One of the best kinds of remakes are when a director adapts his or her own short film into a feature-length movie. Examples include “Boogie Nights,” “Whiplash,” “District 9,” “Short Term 12,” “Sling Blade,” “The Babadook,” “Half Nelson,” “Office Space” and “Bottle Rocket.”

Remake of a horror movie

If a horror movie makes money, it will almost invariably get many sequels and, eventually, a remake. Most of these remakes are awful, but there are a few exceptions.

Good remakes: “The Thing,” “The Ring,” “The Fly,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “The Last House on the Left,” “The Blob,” “Let Me In,” “Cape Fear,” “Fright Night,” “Piranha 3D”

Bad remakes: Just about every other horror remake.

Remake of a literary classic

Films like “Jane Eyre,” “The Age of Innocence” and “Pride and Prejudice” get remade over and over again, sometimes as movies, often as BBC miniseries. Several years later, the process will be repeated, and so on and so forth until the end of time.

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