Welcome to the final installment 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 have been discussing the best and worst films of the year, and the trends that defined 2007. Catch up with Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Day 4.
Josh Bell: I really didn’t mean to open up such a huge can of worms with the whole question of whether critics matter; obviously I completely agree with Tony about the importance of criticism, although I have a harder time drawing a line in the sand between “criticism” and “reviewing.” (Ideally, I think what I do is a little bit of both.) What I meant to ask was not so much whether critics matter—because of course I think that they do—but whether the constant questioning of their worthiness from outside agitators has an effect on how we approach movie-reviewing. Tony, on one hand you are advocating for a very high-minded, pedagogic approach to film criticism, but then on the other hand in your defense of Into the Wild you talk about taking each film on its own terms and evaluating it for what it sets out to do, which is the kind of thinking that has led Roger Ebert to give every movie a three-star review. I’m not saying either approach is wrong; I’m just wondering if they’re consistent with each other.
Jeff also makes a good point that the people who say critics don’t matter always focus on the poorly reviewed popular movies, when many popular movies actually get great reviews. I’ve seen The Bourne Ultimatum on a number of Top 10 lists, and for me it probably would have landed somewhere in the Top 20 (although it does employ plenty of that shaky-cam action that Jeff hates). It’s weird to have to trot out these examples to “prove” that critics can like popular movies; what’s weirder is liking a popular movie and having people not believe that it’s possible for a critic to appreciate mainstream entertainment. Jeff, I too had a lot of fun at Enchanted (though maybe not as much as you did), and I think that having fun at the movies is an unimpeachable virtue. (Then again, I’m the one still taking crap for my four-star review of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.) The thing about terrible blockbusters like Transformers and Shrek the Third is that they aren’t any fun, despite what random online commenters may insist. There’s a peculiar notion that critics are averse to fun, like they’ll go to a movie and have a good time and then pretend that they didn’t, because fun isn’t respectable. If I have a good time at a movie, I generally write a good review. The only difference is that I’m interested in why I had fun; perhaps people’s resistance to criticism is in a way a resistance to self-reflection.
Because we apparently can’t get away from talking about horror, I want to address Mark’s point about horror already being a niche industry akin to musicals and Westerns. While he’s right that the horror audience is somewhat narrowly defined, I think the fact that studios can reasonably expect huge returns from shitty movies like the latest Hills Have Eyes sequel invalidates the comparison to musicals and Westerns. Even though musicals have done very well this year, they’re far from a sure bet, and there are still only a handful being produced every year. If and when making a horror movie turns into a risky proposition, and only a few of them actually get made in a given year, then horror will be in the same place. But I honestly don’t see that happening. If anything, I anticipate more and more horror movies getting made, only with less care, since appealing to that profitable and fairly large niche is apparently all that’s necessary to make money. Even if there’s an immediate dip in quality and mainstream popularity, though, horror as a genre has always faded in and out of the mainstream, and following the heights of torture porn a rest will probably do it some good. I’m pretty confident it’ll come back.
Since we’re nearing the end of our little discussion here, I’m just going to throw out a few 2007 movies that I really liked but that we haven’t talked about—and that haven’t gotten much attention at all from most year-end wrap-ups. Talking about horror movies I liked this year, I left out Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which is a sort of sci-fi/horror mix and which I found really intense and compelling, even if the last 20 minutes or so are a little too silly. Boyle creates the same kind of awe and dread that made Alien so memorable. The film has great practical effects on a relatively low budget, and some really intense performances. It actually just made it onto the Las Vegas Film Critics Society Top 10 list, but otherwise I haven’t seen it recognized anywhere.
I was also a big fan of Craig Brewer’s nutty interpretation of the South in Black Snake Moan (as well as Christina Ricci’s out-there performance), Billy Ray’s latest analysis of passive-aggressive office evil in Breach (and Chris Cooper’s embodiment of same), the moving, serious and well-acted kids’ movie Bridge to Terabithia and the neo-noir/character study The Lookout (which I know Tony really liked as well). These are all early-year releases that seem to have been completely overlooked at awards time, and all but one made my list.
A couple of other things to consider as we head into the home stretch: How do we feel about the commercial failure of Grindhouse? Has Quentin Tarantino officially devolved from a populist artist into his own one-man niche industry? Was it wise to break up the two films on DVD? I realized when I got an awards screener for Grindhouse that at this point that’s the only way anyone can see the film on DVD as it was originally intended. And is Beowulf’s 3D motion-capture the future of movie-making, as Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron and a lot of studio heads would have us believe? If it is, is that a good thing?
Tony Macklin: Josh, maybe I do try to have it both ways, but I’m vitally aware of that.
Nathaniel Hawthorne had one of his characters say, “Evil is the nature of mankind.” No, hypocrisy is the nature of mankind.
I desperately try to limit my hypocrisies. It may be the guiding principle of my life—both critically and personally.
You pointed out a contradiction you saw in my statement. Sometimes it’s simply my inability to be articulate enough. You saw my “high-minded pedagogic approach” and my wanting to take a movie “on its own terms” as contradictory approaches.
I don’t think they are. They are steps in a process.
Yes, I try to evaluate a movie on its own terms—did it accomplish what it set out to do? But that is not enough. I try to evaluate its terms ... e.g., it’s an effective snuff film, but it’s inhuman and exploitative. Then I take further crucial, fundamental steps—was it worth doing? I try to place it in context. How does it stack up with other films that tried to do similar things?
Having fun at the movies is an interesting concept. People used to ask me, “Don’t you ever go to the movies for enjoyment?” My answer was that I enjoyed them more than they did, because I could see more going on. I was aware of themes, style, mise en scene, editing, cinematography (not just pretty scenes), acting, direction, writing.
Movies used to be considered just escapism, and a lot of people still view them that way. Even in the NY Times, the inept reviewer Bosley Crowther never mentioned directors. People knew Hitchcock, but no other director.
Didn’t actors make up their own dialogue? No, they didn’t. And the film didn’t make itself. It often had a vision, but that remained unrecognized. Then along came critics who saw vision and individual style, and they discussed them and argued about them. And we’re still doing it today.
Today a lot of people say that movies aren’t as good as they used to be. Most of the people who say this don’t go to the movies anymore. Of course movies of yesteryear are better than nothing. But movies of today are pretty damned good. 2007 was a good year.
As critics we have to be apologists for movies we admire. Part of the joy of being a critic is being able to applaud a film you love.
Josh, if I’m Roger Ebert, does that make you Richard Roeper?
I had fun at Transformers and Live Free or Die Hard. I especially liked the young actors Shia LaBeouf and Justin Long. And one of the assets of The Lookout—a film we both have on our best 10 lists—is extraordinary young actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
I am one of those who included The Bourne Ultimatum on his best 10 list for 2007. It’s a movie I can recommend to almost everyone. On air on ESPN 920-AM on Tuesday I guaranteed that Dave Cokin would like it. He will.
But probably the most “fun” I had in a theatre this year was at Beowulf. It was the 3D version in DLP at a Rave theater. It’s campy and inventive. No, it’s not the Beowulf I read in college, but it doesn’t pretend to be.
One of the difficulties we have as critics is that we have diverse readers. I wish I could give a custom-made review to each reader. If I meet someone personally I can give him or her a review that fits his or her sensibilities.
I’m an elitist—I respect art—but I try not to be a snob. When I was on the air with Al Bernstein, he always said that he really liked that I could relate to different kinds of movies and different kinds of audiences.
All we can is consistent. If someone hates all our reviews, we probably are consistent. So be it.
When I taught, the authors had priority over the students. As a critic, for me the filmmakers have priority over the audiences. Students and audiences are a multitude; authors and filmmakers are a rarity.
Three anecdotes that speak to my critical priorities: I once met Warren Beatty after seeing his movie Shampoo, and I asked him if he intended his character to be reminiscent of JFK. He paused a long time, and then said, “No.” Later he told people, “That son of a bitch saw something in my film that I didn’t see.”
Stanley Kubrick wrote me that he had appreciated my essay on 2001, because of its interpretation. He invited me to his house if I were ever in England.
John Wayne wrote me, “You caught me in print as no one else has.”
I’m afraid this is egotistical, but this is what criticism has allowed me to do. It’s given me a personal pathway into film.
Josh, Jeff and Mark, this five-day marathon discussion has been a great experience for me, because it has jostled me to remember and reconsider ...
Jeffrey M. Anderson: Of course critics can have fun. We’re only human, unlike those critic characters that appear in movies like Lady in the Water and Ratatouille. I was sitting with a group of critics just before Transformers started, and we were all abuzz. It was only when the movie started to suck (you know, in the first two minutes) that we all felt deflated. I have to admit, Tony, that Beowulf was one of those ever-increasingly rare movies that was so bad it was funny. The audience I was with was in stitches during that scene where the film desperately tries to hide Beowulf’s member. I felt quite refreshed afterward.
Josh, in answer to some of your comments, I liked The Bourne Ultimatum despite its shaky-cam work, and the reason is because Paul Greengrass still understands his action sequences and the space they take place in. It’s still clear what’s going on, even though the camera is shaking. I saw The Bourne Supremacy again on TV this past summer, and it struck me how good and clear that one was, too. Live Free or Die Hard was another one I quite enjoyed. And I also liked Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. To heck with the rest of the world!
As for horror, I totally forgot about The Orphanage, which I saw in the great year-end rush of quality movies for awards consideration. That’s an amazing film.
I missed Black Snake Moan. Shame on me. I think I’ve already mentioned most of my favorite underrated films. Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me was a good one that got away. Claude Chabrol released a new one this year, Comedy of Power, that was awfully good and hardly got reviewed. And maybe I was alone in this, but I got a huge kick out of Nancy Drew.
Grindhouse was a mixed bag for me. Rodriguez’s film was too much of a copy of a real grindhouse film, and it didn’t have any life of its own, while Tarantino’s film felt routine and choppy. The trailers, also, were pretty much one-joke affairs. I have to say, though, that watching the uncut Death Proof on DVD was something of a revelation. If I had seen it in that version to begin with it would have made my 10 best list. With all its proper rhythms restored, it’s a great film, and itself a kind of film criticism. Rodriguez isn’t even capable of anything that intelligent or good. I think I would rather have seen Death Proof paired with some old classic, real grindhouse film, like the stuff Tarantino used to release with his Rolling Thunder label. Remember Detroit 9000 or Switchblade Sisters? How cool would that have been?
Josh Bell: Well, now that I've been compared to Richard Roeper, I think it's time to bring this discussion to a close. Thanks, gentlemen, for an enlightening and entertaining week of chatting about movies. I hope we can do it again next year.