“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” – Shakespeare and Willy Wonka
I have been online for twenty years. I didn’t start this website, then Oscarwatch, until 1999. I’d spent most of my time chattering with people from all over the world about movies on a usenet listserv. Back then there really wasn’t a web to speak but once the internet turned into the “World Wide Web” suddenly a whole new dimension opened up. Anyone could start a site as long as they had a modem, a computer and the willingness to learn HTML. You could compete with the established magazines because they were slow getting online and as long as your site looked professional and kind of, sort of, sounded professional you could be taken as a legitimate “source.” That aspect of online “journalism” has not changed. Anyone with a site, anyone who calls themselves a film critic can be one. They can get themselves on Rotten Tomatoes. They can join the Broadcast Film Critics (or they used to be able to). They can define themselves as professionals and no one really cares whether they are legit or not, ethical or not. They have no editors who do the hiring and require credentials. That has been great and it has been devastating.
Since I came in through the backdoor, I have never seen myself as a journalist or a film critic. Sure, I write reviews but I’m not a critic. I am what Harry Knowles would call a “film advocate.” I don’t tend to write negative reviews (I don’t feel qualified to speak with authority in that regard) and I believe film criticism, like art and architecture criticism should be limited to those who really have the insight, the talent and the experience to be qualified to judge people who actually have their boots on the ground and are putting their careers on the line to make movies.
I also have never thought of myself as a journalist. The closest I’ve come to that is being part of the Women Journalists Online. That’s because journalism is, as George Orwell would say, writing what no one wants you to write. The rest is just public relations. Journalists have to care about the story over all things. I do not. I cannot.
This year, Anne Thompson — who really is a journalist — and one of the best in the Oscar blogging world (what she does can’t be confined to simply Oscar blogging) decided to buck the current trend of predicting films no one has seen. Thompson is on the Gurus of Gold and Movie City News but she is the only one swimming against the tide, refusing to predict films she hasn’t seen. You might look at her list and think, huh? Where is Unbroken? Where is Interstellar? But you see, they have not yet been seen and she is refusing to play that game anymore. I think it’s quite remarkable.
My contender tracker to the right side of my page has always only tracked films that have been seen. When I first started there was only my site and Tom O’Neil’s Gold Derby. The idea of predicting films that hadn’t been seen was simply not done. That was because, firstly there were hardly any “Oscar bloggers.” Blogging, as such, barely existed. Film critics would put out their Oscar predictions towards the end of the year but there was no industry for that as there is now. As new sites began to launch, a new movement was afoot to predict films that hadn’t opened and in some cases that hadn’t even been filmed. Oscar watchers in forums and on some websites liked projecting way into the future, gambling on the future success of some films. It mostly, I have to say, didn’t pay off. Every so often the “on the page” Oscar contender would live up to expectations and actually get nominated. Those who predicted them “sight unseen,” as we called it, would then have bragging rights, even though it was just a guess based on “pedigree,” subject matter and the people involved.
Well that whole practice has turned the industry completely around. Now, sight unseen predictions are used by publicists to drum up Oscar buzz for films no one has any idea whether they will fly or not. Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention can tell you what might win based on subject matter and filmmakers. It’s much harder to predict once people have seen the films. Only then can you tell the pros from the amateurs. Anne Thompson, this year, is playing the game the way it should be played, the only way you can really be A) fair to the productions by keeping the door open to other possibilities than “the list,” and B) really know what the fuck you’re doing when you say this film might get nominated for Best Picture but it depends on what’s coming next.
I refused for many years to participate in “sight unseen” predictions but I had to if I wanted to be included on Gold Derby and Gurus of Gold. That’s how the game was played. It never occurred to me to do it the way Anne Thompson is doing it. She is just that ballsy. And frankly has earned that right.
Now, it must be said that there is no indication whether sight unseen is better or worse than what’s been seen. In fact, in some cases, it can be blinding. Scott Feinberg has seen David Fincher’s Gone Girl and as a result has decided not to predict it for a nomination for Best Picture or Best Director. Anne Thompson did just the opposite. She saw the film and is now predicting it for a nomination for Best Picture and Best Director. But, she says, it could be knocked out by what’s coming next. Feinberg, by contrast, is betting already that whatever unknown thing coming next is going to be more beloved than what has already been seen.
It is much harder to predict the Oscars after having seen the films because then you have to factor in your own opinion and like it or not it does always come back to what “they” will think, not what YOU think. And what they think doesn’t always have to do with how good a film is. I know that my own opinion would have had so many films up for Best Picture that never got near the Kodak (Dolby). But I also have seen the opposite. I’ve heard people — very good Oscar predictors — say things like “No Country for Old Men will never win Best Picture” or “The Departed will never win Best Picture.” We make these grand proclamations based on our own opinion because we second guess what “they” will do, what “they” can handle and by the looks of it, this is what most people think about the Academy:
They are pansy-ass wimps who can’t tolerate 1) a tragic, dark ending, 2) a movie not about a good person. And they only like 1) movies about redemptive (usually male these days) hero and 2) preferably set in a time not our own, preferably WW2 but the 1930s will suffice, or even the 1970s, 1980s. They are old and so they like nostalgia, representations of what life used to be like. These voters, though, picked No Country for Old Men, The Departed and the Hurt Locker — a phase in their recent history I myself cannot get over because it was so unexpected, so startlingly refreshing and really seemed to knock down those preconceived notions of what and who “they” were. But enter The King’s Speech, The Artist and Argo and things rubber-banded back to the old way. Thus, when Scott Feinberg predicts a Gone Girl shut-out he is doing so based on that recent history.
The other reason for doing that is that voters only have five slots for Best Picture now. When they had ten slots (2009, 2010) they had the freedom to pick animated films, genre films, films directed by women. With five they are more inclined towards the sappy, the feel good, the films about heroic people. With five, can you imagine any grown man (and they’re all basically men) choosing an animated film as one of their top five of the year? Or even a genre film? Or any film with unlikable characters? This is how one of the best films last year, Inside Llewyn Davis, was shut out. With five, the heart gets involved. Thus, Feinberg’s forecast about Gone Girl could prove true.
The Producers Guild has ten slots, not five, and thus their list often throws people off a bit. They have a preferential ballot with ten slots. The Academy has a preferential ballot with five slots and then they also include the extra movies that were close to getting in. But we’re still basically talking about five choices.
On the other hand, a good movie is a good movie is a good movie and Gone Girl is a great fucking movie, whether the 6,000 voters in the Academy realize that or not. Sometimes they do recognize it. Anne Thompson, at this point, is betting they do, and so am I.
I will be watching Anne Thompson’s predictions (but no pressure!) throughout the season and compare them to other predictions to see whether it really does many you a better predictor or not. But one thing I know for sure: whether it makes her a better predictor or not it makes the world safer for movies overall. It expands rather than limits the list of possibilities. It returns the Oscar race back to its former state when every film had a chance, when these films weren’t dependent upon the lowered expectations of film bloggers who, like film critics, are really only as good as their imagination allows. Anne Thompson has always taken bold chances as a predictor — she was among the first to predict Ang Lee to win Best Director in 2012 and this year among the first to mention Whiplash’s possibilities. The more people who play it safe, prejudging what “they” will do, the more the field gets limited to the few sheep remaining in the pen once the bloggers decide what “they” will and what “they” won’t go for.
Here’s to hoping she starts a trend.
When Kenneth Turan recently decided not to include his negative review of Boyhood, allowing the film to enjoy the rare 100% on Metacritic it stopped me in my tracks. I thought, wow, really? Turan knew that Boyhood was a great film that a lot of people were enjoying. He didn’t count his ego and his reputation and his opinion as being greater than the ultimate success of this film that so many put their blood, sweat and tears into. What a classy move.
When I started my website the first thing I did when a movie came out what check to see what Todd McCarthy at Variety (then) and Kirk Honeycutt at the Hollywood Reporter (then) thought. Theirs were always the first reviews to be released. They would sometimes come out on a Friday. We would all work together to gather the reviews — there was no Rotten Tomatoes then, nor Metacritic. Kenneth Turan would be next over at the LA Times. But remember, these reviews would just start to show up online the day before, or sometimes the week before, the film opened. It was unheard of to have critics ringing in a couple of weeks before a film opened.
The next important voice to ring in were the New York Times critics — I believe A.O. Scott was at the Times, though I think Manohla Dargis was still at the LA Weekly. Elvis Mitchell and, I think, Janet Maslin were at the New York Times. Glenn Kenny was at Premiere, I do believe, or Anne Thompson. We would then hear from Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly. And of course, there was Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in Chicago. Of all of these critics the only one who really engaged with the online world was Ebert, who was an early adopter. Such made up the sum total of the majority of important film critics back in 1999. The only thing that mattered was what they thought of the films.
If McCarthy and Honeycutt had negative things to say it didn’t matter that much because further down the road were the bigger outlets that could easily undo those reviews. People often remembered the reviews that came after — they didn’t collect them on a chart and measure a film’s worth against that score. There was no Twitter where a mob can form and the cool kids decide what people should like, what’s uncool to like, and how you will be ridiculed for liking a film — or even disliking a film because you go against the tide. Film critics are under assault, especially women, if they go against a fanboy pic — god help any of them who write a negative review of Interstellar.
On the other hand, on a much smaller scale, there is a deforestation happening in American film. It isn’t such a big problem internationally, as we can see from the diverse offerings at the Cannes film festival. But here in America, the indie scene might be thriving but the movies in theaters that are about anything other than a remake or a sequel? They’re migrating to television. The international filmmakers are taking over because in those countries they do not have the fluffer machine in place here, they don’t have opening box office obsession and they do not raise branded generations.
Perhaps that explains why there hasn’t been an American film director to win Best Director at the Oscars since Kathryn Bigelow did it in 2009. Five years ago. Of course, Ben Affleck might have broken that trend had he been nominated. At any rate, if you don’t see the deforestation here you’re not paying attention. Sure, the indie scene will always thrive, and thus, the Independent Spirit awards is really where American film finds its support net.
Films are nearly impossible to get made, especially expensive films. They always have been, they always will be. In my world, however, critic reviews can often make the difference between a film being rewarded both at the box office and in the awards race. So, who cares, right? The average e-pinion of someone is deemed more important than anything else in a time frame of the five minutes it takes to read a review. It is that fast, the dismissal. If you have universal acclaim for a film that still doesn’t mean audiences will agree with the critics. In fact, these days, it usually means the opposite — they can’t believe why the critics were so over the moon for such a terrible film.
The opposite is proving even more true — the correlation between box office sales and film reviews tells you that the majority of people out there don’t even bother with film reviews anymore. Any good the film critics might have on impacting the future of film has long since vanished. But they do have an impact in the awards race, and the small segment of the public that does still care about original and vital film, both American and international, not just the branded fast food $200 million hits. There is still a community of people out there in the dark who care about film, the future of film, the freedom for great artists to flourish in such a despairing, depressing market where opening box office counts.
There is room for all kinds of art in film. There is room for entertainment on a massive scale, for comedies and romance. There is room for happy endings and period pieces that win Oscars. There is room for biopics and sci-fi. I wish there were more original works than sequels but hey, you can’t have everything.
What Kenneth Turan saw when he took a look around at the praise for Boyhood was a community supporting the efforts of a dedicated, grass roots filmmaker who took 12 years to make a film. He didn’t step into the room and act like Ned in Shakespeare in Love – like HIS OPINION was the ONLY THING THAT MATTERED and that the bigger picture did not. He recognized that maybe it was just him. Maybe his own peculiarities did not allow him in to a film that so many people loved. And so he wrote about that. He didn’t put his review into the score machine that can sink movies now. He didn’t play the gotcha game and didn’t open himself up to all of the anger from Boyhood fans. He had done it back in 1997 by being one of the few dissenters of Titanic but again, look at that how that one turned out: it became the highest grossing film of all time (until Avatar knocked it out) and won Best Picture. Turan’s review would have had no impact on that film. But it would have significant impact on Boyhood and he knew that.
That, to me, is balls. What I see from other critics is that their opinion seems to matter above all other things and the last thing they’re going to do is take a look at themselves and think, you know, maybe it’s just me.
Even Bosley Crowther, who famously wrote that negative review of Psycho added a caveat — the royal “we.” He made his point by saying — here is the film. This is what we thought of the film.
That’s the way it is with Mr. Hitchcock’s picture — slow buildups to sudden shocks that are old-fashioned melodramatics, however effective and sure, until a couple of people have been gruesomely punctured and the mystery of the haunted house has been revealed. Then it may be a matter of question whether Mr. Hitchcock’s points of psychology, the sort highly favored by Krafft-Ebing, are as reliable as his melodramatic stunts.
Frankly, we feel his explanations are a bit of leg-pulling by a man who has been known to resort to such tactics in his former films.
The consequence in his denouement falls quite flat for us. But the acting is fair. Mr. Perkins and Miss Leigh perform with verve, and Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam do well enough in other roles.
The one thing we would note with disappointment is that, among the stuffed birds that adorn the motel office of Mr. Perkins, there are no significant bats.
He did no so such thing, however, for Bonnie and Clyde, where he (again famously) wrote:
It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie. And it puts forth Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the leading roles, and Michael J. Pollard as their sidekick, a simpering, nose-picking rube, as though they were striving mightily to be the Beverly Hillbillies of next year.
It has Mr. Beatty clowning broadly as the killer who fondles various types of guns with as much nonchalance and dispassion as he airily twirls a big cigar, and it has Miss Dunaway squirming grossly as his thrill-seeking, sex-starved moll. It is loaded with farcical holdups, screaming chases in stolen getaway cars that have the antique appearance and speeded-up movement of the clumsy vehicles of the Keystone Kops, and indications of the impotence of Barrow, until Bonnie writes a poem about him to extol his prowess, that are as ludicrous as they are crude.
Such ridiculous, camp-tinctured travesties of the kind of people these desperados were and of the way people lived in the dusty Southwest back in those barren years might be passed off as candidly commercial movie comedy, nothing more, if the film weren’t reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort.
Arthur Penn, the aggressive director, has evidently gone out of his way to splash the comedy holdups with smears of vivid blood as astonished people are machine-gunned. And he has staged the terminal scene of the ambuscading and killing of Barrow and Bonnie by a posse of policemen with as much noise and gore as is in the climax of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap, which opened yesterday at the Forum and the Murray Hill.
He ended his career after that review but he might have saved it, or softened the blow somewhat by admitting — just maybe — it was him? I mean, just maybe? Critics today write with such authority because they think that’s how you’re supposed to write a review. But the truth is, the good ones write subjectively so that you know full well that it is their opinion. The bad ones write as though they’re speaking for everyone when they casually dismiss a movie.
This way of writing film reviews has become so irritating to me that I have limited the amount of reviews I read — if it isn’t a subjective take, I do not give a damn. I’m not reading a review as though it’s on Yelp or Amazon. I want to know who you are and why you thought this. I know a lot of these critics personally and knowing them helps me understand why they evaluate films the way they do. There isn’t a single one of them whose opinion I would value over my own. Not anymore. Perhaps as a young woman of 34, which is how old I was when I started, but not now, as a woman almost 50 years old. Now I know what makes a movie good and I can plainly see when the riches of a film, even with so many bad reviews, far outweighs the massive amounts of e-pinions ringing in on that movie.
In the end, one has to come back to trust. Know the critic before you trust the critic. Do not take their advice until you’ve measured it against what you know to be true. Their opinion comes from a combination of life experience, education, expectations, a little narcissism and whatever mood they carry in with them the day they see the film. Just because someone is published on a website does not make their opinion necessarily more valuable than yours. Trust me, getting published on a website now is a lot easier than it used to be.
Michael Page ruminated on this topic, built a spreadsheet and came out deciding that audiences, not film critics, are better at predicting what he would like. I myself have never found the be all, end all of what I would like. I find we are all so peculiar and our moods are so easily influenced, there isn’t a single person I could look to for helping me decide. But over time, audiences do tend to unearth the best films. From Vertigo to Shawshank Redemption, somehow time sorts it all out.
I have always admired Kenneth Turan. I count him as among the few critics whose opinion I have always trusted but after he bucked the system, bucked the trend, by refusing to play the game as it’s defined now — he measured his opinion against the success of a fledgling. That showed me that he really does get the bigger picture of what is happening to film right now.
Thus, Anne Thompson and Kenneth Turan are changing the game, bit by bit, tiny move by tiny move. There were here when I started and they’re still here. My hat goes off to the two of them — if no one else noticed what they’ve done, I most certainly have.