Welcome to day 4 of the Screening Room, Las Vegas Weekly’s critical look back at the year in movies (with a tip of the hat to Slate’s Movie Club for inspiration). All this week, film critics Josh Bell, Mark Holcomb, Jeffrey M. Anderson and Tony Macklin will be discussing the best and worst films of the year, and the trends that defined 2007. Check back each day this week for a new installment, and catch up with Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.
Josh Bell: Hasn’t every year for the last five years or so been “the year of the musical”? Or, for that matter, “the year of the Western”? These are two genres that seem perpetually on the verge of making a comeback, and any time there are more than two halfway decent examples to point to, someone declares that the return has been accomplished. The truth is that these genres will probably never be at the strength they were at the heights of their popularity decades ago, and I doubt we’ll ever get many more per year than we did in 2007. In a way, though, that’s a good thing—it means that anyone making a musical or a Western probably really wants to make a musical or a Western, and thus approaches their genre with respect. To briefly get back to the horror discussion, maybe if the genre really is on the wane as Mark claims (and I’m not sure I buy into this idea), then it will eventually turn into a niche industry like musicals and Westerns, and a small core of dedicated filmmakers will keep it alive while paying it the respect it deserves. As a long-time horror fan, I don’t see this as a negative development.
Anyway, back to musicals. I think one of the cool byproducts of the genre becoming so marginalized is that it’s caused us to expand our definition of what constitutes a musical, and allow filmmakers to stretch the genre in interesting ways. Hairspray and Sweeney Todd are fairly conventional in their structure and adherence to musical traditions, not surprising since both are adapted from the stage. But Once and Across the Universe both take approaches that probably wouldn’t have ever occurred to makers of classic musicals, and in doing so move the genre forward (or at least in some new direction, depending on your opinion of Across the Universe; I kind of liked it). Already we’ve got another jukebox musical in Mamma Mia! coming up next year, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a few other indie rockers are pondering how they might make a lateral move into film. And while I liked both Hairspray and Sweeney Todd just fine, I’d rather see the future of musicals in something like Once, or better yet, to go back a few years, Dancer in the Dark.
Jeff, didn’t you find the endless slo-mo in 300 maddening? To me it was just as annoying, if nor more so, as choppy editing in action sequences. The whole thing could have been half as long if they’d just run all the scenes at normal speed. That to me was another thing that was so infuriating about the movie—not only did I find it morally repugnant, but I also thought it was pretty weak filmmaking. Then again, I seem to be the only one with an unhealthy obsession with this movie, so I’ll use it as a jumping-off point to something else: Is the debate about whether critics “matter” anymore even worth having? 300 was only one of the examples used this year as evidence that the divide between critics and audiences is wider than ever, and thus that affording critics a position of value in publications and the popular discourse is a waste of time. Obviously none of us would be here if we thought that way, but I wonder if the relentless harping on it from some sources (Peter Bart, say) affects how we view what we do and why we do it? Even Time’s Richard Corliss recently questioned the relevance of critics. I think that the gulf between what’s popular and what’s acclaimed only makes critics more valuable, since otherwise no one is going to make a case for films that do anything other than pander to the lowest common denominator. But maybe we should adjust our expectations for what people get out of the reviews we write?
Or maybe we should just make an effort to steer our discussion toward a few things that are slightly more mainstream. We’ve talked about all the year’s critical favorites, but other than 300 we haven’t really addressed any blockbusters. Do we have anything to say about the year’s most popular films? The Top 5 includes three three-quels (Spider-Man, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean), one five-quel (Harry Potter) and Transformers. I mildly enjoyed the Spider-Man and Harry Potter installments, although both were let-downs from previous series high points (especially Spider-Man 2, which I loved). But none of these films really entered into my mind when thinking about my movie year. Did they for anyone else?
P.S. Mark, I think I’d kind of like to see Rob Zombie remake Mothra, actually. It’d at least be better than his Halloween.
Tony Macklin: “Do critics ‘matter’?”
That’s like asking—does enlightenment matter?
I guess it depends whom you’re asking. Our culture certainly doesn’t demand enlightenment; it often rejects it. In the world of home schooling, we know what we know. New insights need not apply.
We live at a time of “faith,” but faith and ignorance can be twins, and often are misidentified. Faith sometimes is ignorance in Elephant’s clothing.
Enlightenment and critics do matter.
I always distinguish between critics and reviewers. The late critic Dwight Macdonald made the telling distinction when he said, “A reviewer tells what the audience thinks; a critic tells what he thinks.”
Reviewers matter as much as cheerleaders; critics matter as much as coaches.
Readers often blur the difference between reviewing and criticism, and don’t know who is saying what. They often say, “I heard this is a good movie.” Who said it? “I don’t know. I read it in the paper.”
People don’t know whether they’re believing Mickey Mouse or Mickey Moron.
Maybe that’s why I still get upset about propaganda. Reviewers such as Pete Hammond are pimples on the ass of movie reviewing. When Hammond gushes about everything, he cheapens the medium and all it could aspire to; he’s a lousy version of Dana Perino. Hammond is quoted in the ads for The Golden Compass, saying it’s “beyond spectacular.” That’s beyond stupid. About Charlie Wilson’s War, Hammond prattles, “You’ll definitely want to stand up and cheer.” Pete, lie down, and shut the f--k up.
But the industry loves their lapdog reviewers, because they do the promotion department’s job for them. No matter how shabby the movie, they help put folks in the seats. A flight, some meals and the dishonor of being quoted in the ads is all.
Film criticism is an entirely different endeavor. A critic may give a point of view that is totally at odds with the mass audience. Most critics have a spine of skepticism.
The audience loved Billy Jack. I didn’t.
The audience loved About Schmidt. I didn’t.
Often critics disagree. I know I disagree strongly with some of you guys about Atonement and There Must Be Nonsense—I mean, Blood. But that may lead to fruitful discussions.
I don’t know about you guys, but I always try to find the best valid review that takes the opposite view from mine. I want the steel of my critical point of view tempered on the anvil of another’s credible opinion.
The critic with whom I have the most affinity is David Elliott of The San Diego Union Tribune. We go way back, and I trust him. Sometimes I strongly disagree with him, but I trust him to be thoughtful and perceptive. And to have integrity.
The Golden Age of American Film Criticism is long gone. People used to regularly be able to read Pauline Kael, who drove me nuts, but made me think. Critic John Simon was nasty, but he was the best interpretive critic. Stanley Kauffmann was the best critic on actors. Reading Manny Farber taught me about the concept of termite art. Andrew Sarris was the guru of auteurism. I once went drinking with Andy and then sent him a 79-page copy of the interview I had with him in his cups. I cut it to 13 pages when he was aghast at what he had said under the influence. Those were different days. Today that would be a gotcha interview, but I still probably wouldn’t publish it.
The film critic I most admire is James Agee, who died more than 50 years ago. He’s still influencing me today.
We critics seek knowledge, don’t we? And knowledge affects our awareness. We have context. If you’ve only seen one movie, it’s both the best and worst. Collectively we’ve seen thousands. Forgive us, Father ...
We get knowledge when and where we can. Director Sidney Lumet, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke recently were on the Charlie Rose TV show to discuss their latest film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. There’s always a Rose to stink up the place. Charlie went to the Chris Matthews School of Preening Interruption. But fortunately the director and two actors talked around their intrusive host and educated me about their movie. As a critic, I want to get around the Roses and Hammonds that get in the way of the truth.
People—viewers, students—don’t like what they don’t understand. It’s up to critics to help people understand so that they can make an informed judgment. People tend to say that something is no good, because they don’t like it. That’s a flimsy criterion.
I hope to understand movies the way their makers understood them. And I want to translate that for readers.
Perhaps the great value we have as critics is when we love a film and can write about it with care, understanding and passion.
I want to enable people to understand the style and ending that the Coen brothers brought to No Country for Old Men. Then they can judge—pro or con.
I want to help people relate to the visions of Into the Wild and Zodiac—both movies that have put off some viewers. Again, I have no guarantee that viewers will like them, but that’s not my purpose. Comprehension is.
Do critics matter? Damn right!
Jeez. You pushed the buttons, Josh.
Now I need a drink.
Mark Holcomb: I’m reluctant to get into the “do critics matter?” wrangle, because when I start wondering whether what I do matters it doesn’t take long to convince myself that I should be teaching literacy in some neglected Bronx public school. I do believe that film criticism is beneficial, and serves as a necessary bulwark against pocket-picking PR flacks (official and otherwise) and a means of alerting inquisitive types to movie art that’s worth seeking out. That puts the burden on us to be informed, engaging and independent, which doesn’t seem to be a problem for anybody participating in this discussion. But it’s about making contact, pure and simple—or, these days, not so simple.
Anyway, even though I loved Once, I generally feel about musicals the way Tony feels about horror. Given that, the most memorable musical moment in a movie for me this year was Justin Timberlake lip-synching to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in Southland Tales, which I imagine is nobody’s idea of a musical. It was barely anybody’s idea of a movie; it’s on my Top 10 list, partly because of that scene.
Before we let go of the horror discussion, if we ever do—isn’t it a niche genre now, just a really big one? Stuff like Saw and Hostel do decent box office because young males go to the movies (hence 300’s success), not because homemakers in Des Moines and Baptist ministers in Plano are queuing up for the latest gob of gore porn. So maybe all it lacks is that small core of dedicated filmmakers to start making thoughtful, inventive scary movies, but that seems more and more unlikely when Fox is assured of making a haul on The Hills Have Eyes VI or whatever, which only further entrenches moviegoers’ low expectations of horror films. If that means mainstream filmmakers like Fincher and the Coens become the stewards of real horror and leave the robotic, xenophobic stalk-and-slash to the kids, so be it.
Jeffrey M. Anderson: It’s funny ... the “do critics matter” question always seems to go away at the end of the year when studios need our help to get their films nominated for Oscars. It’s a dumb question, frankly. There has always been a gap between what audiences like most and what critics like. And ... you know what? Critics always win. If you look at the list of box-office winners from 50 years ago, and then a list of the 10 best films of the year, the “best” films are classics that are still watched today, while the box-office films have disappeared. I did a column on this a few weeks back, and I chose 1948 as an example. The top box office 20 from 1948 has about 17 pathetic, forgotten films on it.
However, I agree with Tony in that James Agee was a genius. He’s a hero of mine, and every critic working today should read him to get a sense of how it’s really supposed to be done. I also agree with Tony that Pete Hammond is a clown and a lapdog. I’d like to call him something worse, but this is for print ...
The thing that bugs me the most about the whole debate is the growing number of films that are not screened for the press. To me, that’s just callous behavior from the studios, and it has nothing to do with a gulf between critics and audiences. And it usually cheats me out of a source of income once every couple of weeks (because I can’t see certain movies before deadline). This practice of withholding films seems to be continuing and growing, and it shows just as much disrespect for the filmmakers as it does for the critics. (The latest is the Aliens vs. Predator sequel.)
Josh, interesting take on the “year of the” question, although I did find that 2007 had the highest number of quality Westerns than any year since the 1960s. The last time we had more than one Western, it was 2001 and the movies were American Outlaws and Texas Rangers. (Yawn.)
As for 300, I far preferred the slo-mo to the shaky cam. It seems like nine out of 10 films that have any kind of action go with the shaky cam, and I can’t tell you how much I loathe and detest it. I complained about it 10 years ago when all the Hong Kong stars were coming to the U.S. and working with half-wit directors, and I hate it even more now. Which brings me to the Top 5 blockbusters. Transformers was the worst example of pure filmmaking I saw all year. When the machines change form, Michael Bay smashes his camera right up against them so that we can’t see the details of the change.
As for the other box office hits, I agree with you that all the sequels are a step down from the previous entry, except Pirates 3, which was only slightly better than the awful second one. I hope that Shrek the Third kills that stupid series for good. I even hated the first one. My favorites on the Top 10 are Bourne Ultimatum, which I thought was pretty solid, though not “the best action film in decades.” And I loved The Simpsons Movie, which I thought was better than Ratatouille, but not as good as Persepolis. To me, Ratatouille looked great, and had an amazing use of space and action, but had an insipid story, based around lies and chases. Incidentally, Bourne, Ratatouille and The Simpsons all got great reviews and each made a lot of money. Where’s the gap there?