In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. – Ratatouille
Telluride and Venice have likely launched significant women into the Oscar race, including Best Actress contenders Cate Blanchett for TÁR (critics’ darling) and Olivia Colman for Empire of Light. Both women have delivered top-notch, career-best performances which, when you fold in Michelle Yeoh for Everything Everywhere All At Once you have a competitive Best Actress race already.
Other strong contenders, at least from the reviews by critics, would include Women Talking — with an ensemble cast of bravura performances by women, that might include a lead nomination for Rooney Mara.
As far as best Picture goes, there are several potential titles that have lit up here in Colorado, though you would not know it from the peculiar reaction to Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light by a handful of critics. There does seem to always be a kind of need to disassociate from films that might too Oscar friendly, and a need to always reach for the most challenging material when it comes to film critics.
The first thing people in my business do is look at the scores by the critics to assess a film’s “worth” for Oscar contention. But the newbies who cover the Oscars really do over-value, I think, the opinions of critics this early in the year. At the same time, it is a little surreal that movies have to run such a ferocious gauntlet where they can be killed by critics before they even have a chance to open for audiences.
The Metacritic score and the Rotten Tomatoes score, even anonymous messages left on forums, or tweets are all scoured for clues as to whether we have a “winner,” or films that might enter the film awards race. It is all a little too much, especially now when there are so few movies on offer at all and films in theaters are facing an uphill climb to make money.
Anything can derail a movie. However, audiences are taking the word of critics less and less in the broader scheme of things. Many of them are already hip to the critics ratings vs. audience score ratings and now know if the critics have really sunk a film that might not be the final word on its success.
There has never been a time in film history when it was this hard to deliver films in theaters that made money. Empire of Light was one of the few that was planning to open only in theaters. That makes it all the more frustrating to me that a few high status critics would take such a massive dump on the movie a month before it even has a chance to open to the public.
‘So what?’ you might think. ‘A few critics hated it. Who cares?’ It’s that these particular critics are high status on Film Twitter which means they are influential. They decide “the take” on a movie and thus, those who admire these critics might feel foolish for disagreeing. We are all very influenced by what others think. This can kill the film, which is still planning to open only in theaters to help, perhaps, save theaters.
Now why would film critics want to knock a movie like that out of contention? Well, because they believe that is their job. I get it. I’m the one always talking about honesty. It’s just that I personally don’t think taking a massive dump on a movie like that so far in advance is the right thing to do. That’s because my own motto where film criticism is concerned is to “first, do no harm.”
If the movie is terrible I just don’t write about it. If it is great I love writing about it. That is why I don’t call myself a film critic.
Right now, the films that have 100% are:
As we head into Toronto and New York, these scores will of course change and so will the opinions and the consensus.
In the old days, film critics didn’t matter much because Oscar voters weren’t critics. But in the past few years, critics have begun to matter more when it comes to shaping the Oscar race, to the detriment of the Oscars, in my view. There is a role for film critics when it comes to the analysis of films. They can sometimes illuminate them in ways that expand the mind and educate the reader.
This scene in Ratatouille sums up perfectly what I think about critics — the artist, what they make, even what they TRY to make, IS more important than any film review. It just is. I find the best critics write reviews that are expansive, rather than limiting. The best critics know this. The worst ones don’t.
It recalls something I once read in my 20s from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:
“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”
I’ve thought about this quote many times throughout the years. It always makes me think a little harder sometimes, especially when it comes to films. I always give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to do something, to say something, to move people. They are doing ALL of the giving. The critic is sitting back and doing nothing except evaluating it.
I was also raised on the Woody Allen ethos of “aren’t you embarrassed to pontificate like that?”
It isn’t that everyone has to like every movie. I don’t have a problem with people writing negative reviews or trashing movies. I just have a problem when they do it this early, before the film has a chance to reach audiences. The best thing the awards race can do is simply that: bring audiences to great movies instead of validating critics.
We simply don’t have the luxury of the old way because we don’t have the same kind of abundance we used to have. We are working with a potentially dying industry in movie theaters, especially for films aimed at the Oscar race. When West Side Story and King Richard disappointed at the box office that was a terrifying moment. Don’t these folks give a damn about any of that? Don’t they see they are choking the life out of the very thing that they are supposed to love?
I do understand that critics and Oscar bloggers have two different objectives, and that critics resent the idea that their profession has been infiltrated by people like me. After all, in an ideal world, they would be the ones saying what movies are the best of the year, not people who are judging them based on whether they will win Oscars or not.
I bring this up because 9 times out of 10 if there is a movie in Telluride that has any whiff of Oscar whatsoever, there’s a decent chance critics will puncture it. This has been happening for quite some time. I can even remember way back in 2013 when the critics were “angry” that 12 Years a Slave was coming in as the Oscar frontrunner.
That is, I think, at least some of what is going on with Empire of Light, and maybe even Bardo. The more it looks like an Oscar contender, the harder the critics will beat it down. They would say they don’t even consider the Oscars at all when evaluating movies. But how they can make that argument when they are flush up against it every year and these same critics are often hobnobbing with Academy voters, publicists, and talent, just like an Oscar blogger would?
So you might say, how do you know the movie isn’t just bad? Because I saw the movie. I felt the reaction of the audience. Granted, there’s still time to kill it dead, to stomp every last bit of blood pumping through its veins. That’ll teach ’em, eh? That’ll teach Sam Mendes to spend so much time, expend so much blood, sweat, and tears all for the apparently corrupt desire to tell a good story, one that audiences might respond to. For shame, Sam Mendes, for shame.
It is my hope as we go through this Oscar season, and for all of those who come after me, to remember the big picture. Maybe a lot of critics won’t. But maybe it means we listen a little less to them and more to our own hearts. I don’t know, just a thought.