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Vocativ Hands out Awards for Film Critics, Uses Faulty System

Someone was bound to, sooner or later, come down on the critics for one thing or another. So these two writers, Adam K Raymond and Matan Gilat, decided to gather up all of the Metacritic scores and rank the critics from most agreeable to least.

I wouldn’t ordinarily mind this particular method of ranking critics if it weren’t based on the premise: who most agrees or disagrees with the fully branded, targeted demographic of 13 year-old boys. They used the top 200 highest grossing films of the past decade. That is like ranking food critics using their reviews of the five fast food chains that dominate every corner of every street on America (as I wrote in the comments). That doesn’t tell you anything about the taste of film critics. It doesn’t illuminate anything about anything. All it does is help advertisers and studios figure out which critics most agree with their pointed and successful strategy. They write:

To ensure a statistically significant sample (and our sanity), we started with a list of the 200 highest-grossing movies of the last decade and concentrated on only those critics who had reviewed at least 40 of them, though for many, the sample was closer to 100 films. To narrow it down to the most influential critics, we considered factors like reach and reputation, the frequency of their reviews, and whether or not they’re still in the game, with a focus on those who write for newspapers, magazines and websites people actually read. We (reluctantly) left out certain notorious self-promoters like Fox 4 Kansas City’s Shawn Edwards, four-time winner of eFilmCritic’s annual quote whore award, who isn’t even in Metacritic’s database—likely because he’s more PR shill than critic.

They are selective when it comes to the critics but not selective when it comes to the movies. Do you think it’s fair to judge the worth of a critic on Dead Man’s Chest, for instance, which topped the box office in 2006? I don’t. I don’t need a critic for that reason. We value our critics because they are great writers, many of them, though that breed of critic is disappearing. Replacing them are the kinds of critics the writers of this piece would value – not critics at all, really, but consumer reporters. They will tell you whether the film is worth your money depending on what exactly you’re looking for. Okay, fine. But there is a dimension to cinema and film that most of the great critics got into the business for. The fanboys and bloggers who have replaced them did not. They got into it because they loved movies. Fandom=fanboys. Coming from that place, one is an advocate – and we need those too. But film critics do have their place not to judge the branded sequels, tent poles and remakes that dominate the box office but to illuminate the magic, the complexities of the art of cinema.

To be fair, their metric does try to select out the fanboys – or the critics who are way too easy on movies. But you just can’t paint them all with the same brush, I do not believe. One might make the mistake of looking at their infographic and writing off the critics who are at the top or at the bottom and I can tell you, as a person who has been reading many of them for years, that would be a mistake.

Yes, to a degree one is always going to have the experience of film critics getting it wrong – the Bosley Crowther problem of films out of time not getting recognized. Nobody’s perfect. And, true, we often feel this way about film critics:

But that scene in Ratatouille illustrates both the good, the bad and the ugly of film criticism – good film criticism, useful film criticism by someone who has the tools to examine himself as he examines the review. What a beautiful way to express that conflict of subjectivism. And bias. And prejudice.

And, true, what could be worse for cinema than the insta-tweet reviewing process, the killing of movies that goes on now where too many critics delight in punching down a film that has high expectations just for the hell of it, or to have someone recognize their voice, even if it’s a negative. They like the attention and what better way to get attention? Moreover, our aggregates for movie reviews, reducing them to a grade or a score, is flat out wrong. That is the system and there is no getting around it. That is what great film criticism itself battles, if people take time to read them and to not look at the scores. I only read a handful of them that are left. Most have been replaced by people I will never read.

So let’s look at the movies they picked for their metric. Here are the number one films of the last decade, which tell you a lot:

2004-Shrek 2
2005-Revenge of the Sith
2006-Dead Man’s Chest
2007-Spider-Man 3
2008-The Dark Knight
2009-Avatar
2010-Toy Story 3
2011-Harry Potter/Deathly Hallows
2012-The Avengers
2013-Catching Fire
2014-The Lego Movie (so far)

Two of those are not sequels or remakes. Only one, Avatar, is based wholly on original material. If I had to judge film critics on how they reviewed those movies? I would shoot myself. Or never read another review. Yes, within the context of the branded/sequeled/fewer choices we audiences now fully and completely accept there are good films in there, like Toy Story 3. I get that. But. But.

Many of the best films that come out in a given year can’t crack the top ten, even if they make $100 mil because the top ten is jammed with sequels and remakes that rely on successful branding to bring in the big bucks and they hit $150, $200, $300 million. If you like McDonald’s and Burger King being your only choice for dinner options? You’re going to be very happy with how Hollywood is evolving. But if you are someone who prefers to support local economy, to support independent and original storytelling? You’re going to have to soon exile yourself to television if this keeps up.

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You might say, because most of you readers of mine tend to be young, what’s the problem? But that’s because you didn’t live through the decades when films WERE original. Those were good times. Now, the only industry that offers a place for movies that aren’t these kinds of films is the film awards industry – the Oscars, film festivals, the Independent Spirit awards, the Golden Globes, etc. Be careful what you wish for when you say those voters are old and out of touch, as I often do, because taking their place will be generations who are raised on fewer choices, where almost everything offered up for their partaking is sampled from something else. Movies cost too much so they can’t take chances anymore.

You might also say, if we enjoy these films why does it matter if they are original or not? If you think of film as only entertainment then all of this will sit well with you. If you are happy living out the eternal sunshine of an adult-free existence, where you are comforted by films made out of toys you played with as a kid you will be happy about this. When I look at these films I see brands. When I think of brands I think of audiences as way too easily bought out. When I think of audiences being bought out it makes me think cinema as art is dead.

There are always exceptions. The lament against the sad trend away from originality in Hollywood is really a different topic. I bring it up here to protest this kind of categorizing of critics. As I always say about them, the good ones, we want them on that wall. We need them on that wall. Moreover, they are a vanishing breed. I believe in keeping their voices as vital as possible, even in an era when everyone pretends to be one. Opinions are everywhere – you can spit and find someone’s opinion. But if you’ve never known the joy of great film writing you are missing an essential dimension to the film experience.

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5 Comments

  1. Kane
    April 30, 2014

    I get what you’re saying and it is a very flawed system, however if you look at the “top” movies from 2008 and on they’ve all been at least well received by critics. Toy Story 3, the last Harry Potter, Avatar (I forget that was loved by critics), The Dark Knight especially. But yes, the system is ridiculous.

  2. jamesintoronto
    May 1, 2014

    The only thing remotely interesting about this list is how many western critics are more agreeable than their eastern counterparts. The top of the chart has the LA Times, The Hollywood Reporter, The Arizona Republic and two critics from The Oregonian. The bottom of the chart has New York Magazine, New York Post, New York Daily News, and 2 critics from both The New Yorker and the New York Times (not to mention the biggest curmudgeon being Joe Morgenstern from the Wall Street Journal). Maybe they are nicer (and less discerning) out west.

  3. moviewatcher
    May 1, 2014

    Thank you so much Sasha. Ugh, I was about to take this “study” seriously before I read your article. The methadology is totally wrong. Judging critics on their reviews of the top 20 box office films from the past 10 years? Who wants to know that!?!

  4. May 1, 2014

    I don’t want agreeable critics. I want independent-minded critics. I want people who write with honesty and integrity. This is even more nonsensical than Metacritic, and almost as awful as Rotten Tomatoes.

    The only review aggregator I visit any more is Critics Roundup, and even that’s not to see their scores but to actually peruse their review database, which may be the smallest out of the major aggregation sites, but which is also the most reliable.

  5. Kane
    May 2, 2014

    Thanks for the info, Paddy. I was unaware of Critics Roundup until just now. I’ll have to check it out.

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