Film criticism has been taking a hit for the past ten years since the internet exploded. We’ve been writing about this subject for years because we’ve been here from the beginning of the sweeping change. Filmmakers have noticed because the old guard film critics were careful about creating and maintaining the legacies of the best ones. Not all of them, of course, but you could always count on a handful of film critics to preserve and encourage filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, like Jane Campion, like David Cronenberg.
When AwardsDaily began in 1999 (as Oscarwatch) one of the reasons I started was to look at the vast disconnect between what the critics said was great and what the Oscar voters said was great. The industry was never going to impact the critics but the critics could and did impact the Oscars, going all the way back to the 1930s. Still, when looking at Oscar history there were these major upsets that drove the frustration critics had with the Oscars, some of whom just wrote them off outright. Raging Bull versus Ordinary People, Goodfellas versus Dances with Wolves, Apocalypse Now versus Kramer vs. Kramer. My aim was to track the Oscar race from the beginning of the year through to the end to see what influenced them and why their choices differed radically from the critics.
I built charts, I looked at reviews. For the first five years of my site (readers can attest to this) I never even wrote my own reviews or film analysis much at all. I copied and pasted quotes from critics, emphasizing the films the critics said were good, mostly. I did not spend much time reporting on what they thought was bad unless those films made it into the race.
I have always had a high respect for film critics, so much so that I don’t even call myself one. And I could. Easily. I wrote film reviews for a paycheck for the Santa Monica Mirror for years. I write reviews for my site now. I belong to the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (though I do not vote on their awards) and I’m blurbed on film posters and advertising by studios. In all ways I could do what so many I’ve watched do over the past 16 years – call myself a critic, or even a hybrid critic. I could belong to the Broadcast Film Critics and get free screeners, invites to fancy parties and a ticket to the show. I don’t because I personally draw that line out of respect for the people whose reviews have shaped the way I look at film.
I spent the first five years online, from 1994 to 1998, just writing about movies on a listserv called Cinema-l where we would all pretend to be film critics, day in and day out. I call it my blogging school. From there, I launched the website Cinescene.com, which was just a place to discuss movies and feature film reviews by those of us on Cinema-l. But it wasn’t going to pay the bills so instead I launched a site I hoped would, Oscarwatch.com. From then on, my business was writing about the Oscar race.
The old timers, mostly, were the ones I paid attention to early on, like Todd McCarthy and Kirk Honeycutt but of course, Kenneth Turan, Roger Ebert, Janet Maslin (back then), Manohla Dargis (who worked at LA Weekly), Owen Gleibermann and Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly, David Thomson, David Edelstein, Joe Morgenstern, Jonathan Rosenbaum – I read their reviews and considered their opinions. Sometimes I agreed, sometimes I didn’t but there was no doubt that they mattered back then. They mattered and I made sure they mattered to the awards race. It was the one thing I tried to do from day one.
But things started to change and change dramatically. David Cronenberg noticed:
“I think the role of the critic has been very diminished, because you get a lot of people who set themselves up as critics by having a website where it says that they’re a critic.”
“There are legitimate critics who have actually paid their dues and worked hard and are in a legitimate website connected perhaps with a newspaper or perhaps not … Then there are all these other people who just say they’re critics and you read their writing and they can’t write, or they can write and their writing reveals that they’re quite stupid and ignorant.”
No movie is a more stark reminder of how much things changed than the way the critics responded to Maps to the Stars, a film that would have needed the careful observations of a small group of astute critics to notice just how great it is. If you count on audience testing, which is essentially what modern day film criticism has become, you’re likely to get an opinion that is somewhere along the lines of a Cinemascore rating.
When I first began I had the freedom of quoting from the major critics because they were the only ones who were putting out reviews. But as things began to change and their jobs began to vanish I had to dig out those reviews where I could find them. Metacritic used to be a place that selected the real critics from the noobs. And Rotten Tomatoes a more generalized summation of what modern film criticism is. My longtime readers know I’ve been on this topic for years now. But as the major film critics began losing their jobs Metacritic kept the name-brand venues but not the critics. Since those veteran critics were gradually replaced by noobs, things eventually collapsed all around so that there was no distinction anymore between Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. I still use both sites for different reasons but I no longer see one as being all that different from the other.
I use Rotten Tomatoes primarily to look at the negative scores and Metacritic to find the best written reviews.
When the National Society of Film Critics announced Goodbye to Language their top pick, edging out Boyhood by one vote, I didn’t think much of it except to note that in the years I’ve been doing my site, the National Society was one of the major groups that’s always been around. One thing you could count on with them was that they were going to pick a film that was highly praised by film critics. The part of it that I paid attention to was the low score of Godard’s film, at 72, which is on par with The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything.
I said nothing more beyond that. I made no judgments on them. I just thought, huh. That’s interesting. I was not caught up in this entanglement on Twitter. I did not say anything disparaging about them at all. Yet somehow I got called out on Twitter by Glenn Kenny who eventually stated I was anti-art, combining my observations with the two other people who really did outwardly criticize the National Society of Film Critics, David Poland and Scott Feinberg, the whole ugly mess reported on Kris Tapley’s site – Tapley taking the side of Kenny and the many who stood up with their flag of freedom for the right of the NSFC to pick something “outside the box.”
I didn’t mind the selection of Goodbye to Language. I sat next to David Poland in Cannes and I know he thought it was weird. I thought it was a hilarious, absurdist experimental film. I had no problem with it – I didn’t walk outside raving about it because I will be the first to admit I didn’t fully understand it. This is why I respect film critics. In the old days I might dig out a wonderful review by someone smart and read about why they found Goodbye to Language so great. The last thing I did was shit on their choice and yet I find myself being called anti-art.
The only thing that makes me WANT to criticize their choice is the way the critics are once again rallying together like an oppressed group under siege by the awards bloggers. I remember Sam Adams puffing up and freaking out over Ryan’s joke about the Utah film critics coming from the Land of White people. Their reaction reminded me of the kid at school who does nothing but terrorize his classmates and when you say a single negative thing about him he starts to cry. Film critics are CRITICS. They don’t hold back when it suits them. They shred movies when it suits them. And they can’t handle a little criticism? RULLY?
But this wasn’t my fight. I would never fight them because I didn’t think it was a bad choice, not like the New York Film Critics terrible choice of American Hustle last year. If I thought it was a bad or “colorful” or even pretentious vote I would have said so. But I didn’t. Yet I got roped into the whole thing as though I did. Glenn Kenny said it wasn’t my “finest hour.” Again, I didn’t sling shit in this particular monkey cage. I have way too much respect for Jean-Luc Godard to ever criticize his getting any award. Ever.
So let me talk about what I do think about it – it marked, for me, the end of film criticism as mattering to me in terms of the awards race, which is what I do for a living. I write about the Oscars and the things that impact them. I get money to write about the Oscars and I do it to support my daughter as a single parent for her entire life – she’s now 16 years old. Noting that a film that scored 72 on Metacritic was named best film of the year stopped me. It seemed out of step with the National Society’s OWN history. As follows:
1990 Goodfellas – 89
1991 Life Is Sweet – 88
1992 Unforgiven – 82
1993 Schindler’s List – 93
1994 Pulp Fiction – 94
1995 Babe – 83
1996 Breaking the Waves – 76
1997 L.A. Confidential — 90
1998 Out of Sight – 85
1999 Being John Malkovich – 90
2000 Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Yi yi) – 92
2001 Mulholland Drive – 81
2002 The Pianist – 85
2003 American Splendor – 90
2004 Million Dollar Baby – 86
2005 Capote – 88
2006 Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) – 98
2007 There Will Be Blood – 92
2008 Waltz with Bashir (Vals im Bashir) – 91
2009 The Hurt Locker – 94
2010 The Social Network – 95
2011 Melancholia – 80
2012 Amour – 94
2013 Inside Llewyn Davis – 92
2014 Goodbye to Language – 72
We in the Oscar business follow what the critics say, or I have anyway, for years now. My only point that could have been read as a negative was that I said it makes it harder for film reviews to matter — IN THE OSCAR RACE. So if Goodbye to Language can win top honors with a score of 72 on Metacritic, why can’t Unbroken then also be considered with a score of 59 on Metacritic? This is essentially what the studios would prefer, by the way, for the critics (old school film critics) to have no say in how things in the Oscar race go.
It is, perhaps, the height of irony that after 16 years of being the only one in my industry to praise the critics, to quote them, to value the good ones – and yes, to sometimes battle with their choices – that I would be called out as someone who doesn’t respect their choice this time around.
I look TO THEM for guidance as to what films are the best. I use their reviews as a guideline for that. The face of film criticism has changed so dramatically you can see the last bastion of what it used to be in the National Society of Film Critics. They represent the old world.
For my purposes, their choice kind of eliminated the argument I make every year that their critical consensus ought to matter. I didn’t invent their awards. They’ve been giving them out on their own for years. If a competition for best of the year is anti-art then you could say these critics groups are anti-art. I didn’t force the New York Film Critics to push their announcement date back so that they could be FIRST in the awards race. They did that. I didn’t inject any sort of judgment on the Los Angeles Film Critics when they decided to purposely go against the awards consensus and NOT choose Zero Dark Thirty in 2012.
The awards race is shaped BY THEM – or it used to be. When they reject that consensus, when they reject their anointed darling in a given year JUST BECAUSE it’s headed for Best Picture they are only rebelling against themselves. We in the Oscar field didn’t tell them Boyhood should get 100% on Metacritic. It just did. They did it. They’re the ones that, in unison, declared that film best. We in the awards race then take their lead and say, okay, this is the one the critics have declared — unanimously — the best of the year.
But it is the height of presumptuousness to think I give two shits or a single fuck what they pick in a given year. I follow them. I don’t expect them to follow me. And they wouldn’t even if I did.
That choice by the NSFC tells me that critics scores don’t matter. Unanimous votes don’t matter. When the AFI put out their list of the Best Films of 2014 they included three films that the critics didn’t even like. I criticized THAT choice because it WENT AGAINST what I value in the race, that the opinion of critics matter.
I’m guessing by their revolutionary war battle cry that they don’t want their opinions to matter to me, to the awards race. Okay? It’s not like anyone thought the NSFC was the Critics Choice or anything. We’ve always regarded them as a mostly eclectic, outside the box group. They got far more shit for picking Yi Yi – a choice that resonated (not with me, mind you) for years after that. They were criticized by film critics loudly and vocally for that obscure choice. Goodbye to Language is child’s play compared to Yi Yi.
David Cronenberg is right. The modern version of film criticism is pooled over at sites like The Dissolve and RogerEbert.com where a reasonably sized community of like-minded individuals spend their days talking about movies. It’s probably a refreshing place to be. But film criticism, the way I used to know it, does not exist anymore. Stick a fork in it.
Will I still take film criticism seriously? Sure. Do I think it has the power it once had over the Oscar race? If anything, the new breed of film critics represent audiences, probably, more than critics particularly — so yeah, that won’t change. Just the particular kinds of tastes and agendas will change. Marketing will have more control. The studios will gain power over critics because to a certain extent they can control them. I’m lucky that I won’t be in this job much longer so very little of it matters to me anymore at all. We’re still talking about a mostly male, mostly white group of people voting on awards that revolve around the mostly male, mostly white protagonists.
Here are the members of the NSFC. I would say to them, if you can’t handle a little criticism about your choices perhaps you are in the wrong profession.
SAM ADAMS – Criticwire, The Dissolve
JOHN ANDERSON – Newsday, Variety, Wall Street Journal
MELISSA ANDERSON – Artforum
DAVID ANSEN – freelance
GARY ARNOLD – freelance
SHEILA BENSON – Critic Quality Feed, Seattle Weekly
JAMI BERNARD – Movie City News
RICHARD BRODY – The New Yorker
TY BURR – Boston Globe
JUSTIN CHANG – Variety
GODFREY CHESHIRE – RogerEbert.com
MIKE CLARK – Home Media Magazine
RICHARD CORLISS – Time
DAVID DENBY – The New Yorker
MORRIS DICKSTEIN – Dissent
DAVID EDELSTEIN – New York Magazine, CBS Sunday Morning, NPR
STEVE ERICKSON – L.A. Magazine
SCOTT FOUNDAS – Variety
OWEN GLEIBERMAN – bbc.com/culture
MOLLY HASKELL – Town & Country
J. HOBERMAN – freelance
RICHARD T. JAMESON – Straight Shooting, Queen Anne News
DAVE KEHR – davekehr.com
BEN KENIGSBERG – freelance
LISA KENNEDY – Denver Post
PETER KEOUGH – Boston Globe
STUART KLAWANS – The Nation
ANDY KLEIN – L.A. Times Community Papers, KPCC-FM
NATHAN LEE – Film Comment
EMANUEL LEVY – Financial Times, EmanuelLevy.com
DENNIS LIM – freelance
TODD McCARTHY – Hollywood Reporter
JOE MORGENSTERN – Wall Street Journal
WESLEY MORRIS – Grantland
ROB NELSON – Minneapolis Star-Tribune
GERALD PEARY – The Arts Fuse
MARY POLS – freelance
JOHN POWERS – Vogue, NPR
PETER RAINER – Christian Science Monitor, NPR, KCET-TV
NICOLAS RAPOLD – L Magazine
STEVEN REA – Philadelphia Inquirer
ELEANOR RINGEL – Atlanta Business Chronicle
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM – jonathanrosenbaum.com
RICHARD SCHICKEL – Truthdig
LISA SCHWARZBAUM – TV Guide
HENRY SHEEHAN – KPCC-FM, CriticsAGoGo.com
MICHAEL SICINSKI – Nashville Scene
MICHAEL SRAGOW – Film Comment
CHUCK STEPHENS – Film Comment
DAVID STERRITT – Tikkun
AMY TAUBIN – Film Comment
CHARLES TAYLOR – The Yale Review
ELLA TAYLOR – NPR.org
PETER TRAVERS – Rolling Stone
KENNETH TURAN – Los Angeles Times
JAMES VERNIERE – Boston Herald
MICHAEL WILMINGTON – Movie City News
WILLIAM WOLF – wolfentertainmentguide.com
STEPHANIE ZACHAREK – The Village Voice