Let’s Talk Film Criticism


Art — or any creation — invites criticism. That’s just part of the deal. It’s true of painting, music, theatre, film, and it’s true of a few tiresome commenters on this site, too. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. Yet, despite this obvious truth, it still seems that a good many people look upon film criticism as an annoyance, or in more extreme cases an industry leeching any of its respectability off the filmmakers themselves.

On the other hand, it seems that the critics themselves often lose sight of where they are most needed. And I would contend that in the long run, they absolutely are needed in some capacity.

So let’s talk film criticism.

I said above that any artistic creation invites criticism. One reason is that art mostly exists to inspire a reaction, whether that be laughter, tears, outrage, or “other.” Criticism is a natural outgrowth of this intent. A critic will articulate the particulars of his own response, or explain why the movie succeeds/fails at causing its intended reaction.

My obligatory mention of a Cronenberg film.

Another reason is that artists don’t create art in a vacuum; they work in a particular context. Specifically, most filmmakers are film buffs in a way you and I can only imagine. They know the industry backwards and forwards, they converse freely with its history, and their own imaginations are limited or inspired by what others have done before them.

This is where a good film critic comes in handy. Not because they’re “smarter” or “better” than the unwashed masses packing out theaters, but because they have typically seen more movies. That’s really a lot of what it comes down to, since the more movies you see the better equipped you are to judge the particulars of a film’s execution. It’s the same reason you and I know that Madagascar 3 is a load of balls, but a six-year-old doesn’t. We’ve seen more movies.*

But let’s be real: Critics aren’t just historians. They evaluate the filmmaking itself, typically going into detail about why artistic decisions work or don’t work. Their writing is most often aimed squarely at convincing the public whether or not a movie has value. Often, when someone attempts to defend the art of film criticism, a reaction comes along that goes something like, “Hey! Nobody knows what I like better than me. Why should I care what someone else thinks is a good or bad movie?”

Let me watch in peace!

Well, firstly there are the obvious times when reviews steer us towards movies we otherwise wouldn’t have bothered seeing (most recently for me, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).

But more importantly, that kind of combative response speaks to the most off-target part of this entire conversation. The bulk of the discourse — professional and amateur alike — taking place out there is simply about the wrong thing. What wrong thing? The thumbs up-or-down worth of a movie.

(from screeninvasion.com, who apparently like Super 8 despite having seen Attack the Block)

We’ve gotten so focused on star ratings, top tens, awards and… that we’ve almost completely forgotten to say anything that, you know, matters. Because really, rankings don’t matter. A four-star rating doesn’t matter. What matters is our reaction. How do we react? How do we feel about the characters? What works? Why? What doesn’t? Why not? In the age of the internet, these questions can and should lead to an open dialogue.

And as far as I’m concerned, THAT’S what film critics should concern themselves with: fostering the dialogue. Enlightenment. Instead what happens so often is the film critic states his/her opinion, and the reader states what they think of that opinion, and nobody learns a gosh-darn thing.

I think we’re destined to do this forever.

We’ve developed this tendency to guard our viewpoints and opinions against anything that might resemble a challenge to them. If someone cites Godard or Kubrick in a film review, they’re elitist. If someone takes The Dark Knight to task, they’re contrarian. If someone likes the latest animated turd, they’re a shill or a hack.

In other words, it seems like it’s awfully easy to get bent out of shape by simply hearing a different opinion than our own. About a movie. Now, certainly, movies matter a great deal in one sense, but not in the sense that it’s, you know, dangerous for people to disagree on them.

And personally, I often DON’T get it right** the first time. I can think of a whole host of movies I’ve changed my mind on (good or bad) after hearing a compelling opinion. Super 8, Inglourious Basterds, the Star Wars Prequels, The Amazing Spider-man

It was fun while it lasted…

Sure, I had an “original” opinion on these movies at one time or another — often a pretty fully formed one — but in each case I wound up encountering other people who simply had a more fully-realized take on them. Often, these people were (semi?) professional film critics.

Now, don’t take this as a glowing endorsement of the STATE of film criticism nowadays. A good many of that community are complicit in taking the film conversation off-track, and the industry as a whole needs to take a good hard look at its goals. There’s a reason so many directors say they don’t read reviews of their movies, and it’s because — broadly speaking — they don’t gain anything by reading film criticism.

That’s a problem.

Film criticism SHOULD mean something. It should be something both filmmakers and audiences alike can use to shade their understanding of the medium. If I’ve put us, the readers under more scrutiny in this article than the actual film critics, that’s for two reasons. One, I think film critics could use an advocate… they get railed on too much these days. But two, if we collectively start to value good criticism, and thus seek criticism that has value… well, only good things can come of that.

Let’s just stop caring about this site, m’kay?

*Of course, it’s important to remember that film critics also aren’t watching passively, either. Being well-read doesn’t mean much if you don’t remember or understand what you’re reading in the first place. Most film critics take the examination of movies very seriously — which can cause its own problems, but it’s another reason why their opinion is in some contexts “worth more” than the average guy’s.

**Yes, I know, you can’t be definitively “right” about a movie. I simply mean I don’t always see all the factors that ultimately wind up defining my opinion of a given piece on the first viewing.

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  1. I totally get your point … but sometimes we need critics or people who come across as critics for lack of a better word to describe them. The reason I say that is for this guy:


    (as posted by Paul a while back)

    His explanation of that particular film put it in an all together different light for me, and when I went back and watched it that weekend – I actually liked it a lot better thanks to his review or criticism of the film itself.

    That’s my 2 cents at least.

  2. @Lucas

    I actually did mean this to come off pro-critic, though I was more focused on just trying to break into what can be a pretty thorny issue, so that might not have come out as clearly as I would like.

    And yeah, that youtube link is exactly the kind of thing I like. It doesn’t matter whether you buy the guy’s take or not; what matters is that he’s actually digging into the why and the how of the movie. I actually do need to go watch that now; thanks for reminding me…

  3. I was once heard a simplified but elegantly put take on a critics job. It’s to ask and answer three questions:

    –What was the artist trying to accomplish?
    –Did the artist accomplish it?
    –Was it worth doing?

    I like these questions because they help separate a good discussion of the worth and meaning of a film without tying it in to simply “I enjoyed it/I didn’t enjoy it”.

    I can think of a lot of films I don’t personally enjoy, but am able to recognize as quality films because I can consider what they were trying to say and see that they achieved it.

    These questions also let me consider films based on their intent. What I expect to get out of the latest Die Hard film is not what I tend to expect from Spielberg. A movie can have very low goals (entering action) and achieve them and so be successful from that point, even though it isn’t going to be a award winning or culture changing film.

  4. The biggest problem with film “critics” is that they are typically paid to do so. Thus, they can be influenced by things like money, gifts from studios, webpage hits, upvotes, and so on and can easily alter their supposedly objective viewpoint to better increase their cashflow, ad rates, or industry connections. Also, there is the fact that they aren’t really allowed to specialize. That is to say, nobody knows more about a given topic than a rapid fan of that topic. A critic who is forced to go see every mainstream film because of his job may have an eye for overall tropes, cliches, and storytelling techniques, but throw them into the grindhouse and the experience will most assuredly be lost on them since they no longer know or even understand the experience of hunting down bizarre films for pure pleasure. There is great value in understanding subcultures rather than seeing the world in terms of either mass appeal or artistic value.

    tl;dr- If you ain’t doing it for fun and for free, your opinion is likely invalid.

  5. @trashcanman
    I know your MO on here is to be kind of inflammatory, but it’s bizarre to me that you’d call any professional’s opinion invalid on principle. I’ve read plenty of unpaid critics who flat-out sucked. No perspective, no context. Just crap writing.

    Your assertion about grindhouse cinema is flawed because you’re claiming that expertise in avante-garde filmmaking is inherently better than a expertise of film history as a whole. They are simply different animals, and both of them contribute to the even larger conversation on “film, period.” What makes “grindhouse” better than “mainstream?” Nothing, because it isn’t better any more than horror is better than comedy or foreign is better than domestic.

    As for the problems of cash flow, that’s a business conversation and not necessarily relevant to the point I’m making. Most movies are made for revenue, too, but a) we don’t discount the medium and b) we don’t even necessarily discount the movies.

    Besides, a lot of critics DO specialize (so, it’s not a “fact” in the way you claim). Frankly, one could argue that newspaper film critics are specialists in mainstream filmmaking. Which, it’s important to remember, is the most WIDELY recognized type.

  6. I really liked this article a lot, and I feel it said a lot about criticism in film that I have tumbled in my head from time to time. Keep it up!

  7. There’s probably as much wrong with the field of legitimate Film Criticism as there is right with it. I’ve tinkered off and on with this subject as well — I’d been putting down some thoughts for a piece, too, but you beat me to it. I’ll share this one little anecdote and maybe you can appreciate it …

    Many moons ago I presented a scholarly paper I had written about CITIZEN KANE (I love mostly classic films, personally). Anyway, the paper had already kinda/sorta won a lot of kudos from professors and some small film circles, and, as a collegiate project, my faculty advisor wanted me to present it at this national college writing conference, so I did. Part of the responsibilities of all presenters is that you also have to read and critique what other students have written. I had the good luck of drawing the long straw, meaning that my paper went first in this one particular focus group discussion, and, as expected, the academics who were there loved it (not bragging, just saying that this was the end result of, like, three years of work on my part, and it showed). Going first is good and it’s bad … because almost anything you say about others’ works is going to get massive scrutiny on the part of the other participants, so I tend to be very low-brow, basic observations, etc.

    Anyway, this one young guy had written a very nice research paper, but it’s basic flaw was that he had absolutely nothing to SAY about this work of art he was analyzing. Everyone pretty much pointed that out, so, when it got to me, all I did was agree with what everyone else had already said but I added that I’d really like to ‘know’ what he thought about the art if he wanted to tell the group. Well, this (for some reason) just enraged the guy, and he started calling me all kinds of names. He took the position of demanding how I knew what I knew about my own paper — how did I think anything I had to say was even relevant to CITIZEN KANE — and I said, “Well, that’s what I wrote … I WROTE what I thought about CITIZEN KANE, which is essentially what a critic does in analysis and that, by its very nature, it doesn’t HAVE to be right, it’s only one interpretation, but I was very clear what the film meant to me; so I was just curious what this work of art that you studied meant to you.”

    Needless to say, the guy didn’t do well the rest of the conference. Methinks he may not have even written his own paper, but you get the gist of it.

  8. Not to say this is all I took from the article, but what site would you recommend in lieu of Rotten Tomatoes? I’ve found that that site is a good indicator of whether or not a movie will be entertaining or whether it will be unwatchable. Do you know of a better site, in your opinion, that can give me a quick consensus on the movie quality without me having to read through an entire review on the film. What is it that you dislike about RT?

  9. @Roderick

    The problem with RT is the pass/fail system… though really, the problem is that people us it to signify anything other than a movie’s wide-ranging likeability. So I guess my problem is really that the site’s format encourages looking at movies as good or bad, without any real reason for further discussion.

    Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has a 35% Fresh rating. Wreck-It Ralph has an 82%. Without writing another article here in the comments, let’s just say that I feel Abe does about a bajillion times better job of executing its concept than Ralph. But Ralph isn’t as difficult a sell or ambitious a movie, so it gets rated like it’s over twice as good. We could discuss the merits of my take, which would be GREAT, but RT does not encourage that sort of discussion within the confines of its own self.

    Metacritic at least operates on something other than a pass/fail.

    Personally I have a small group of people (friends and critics) whose opinions matter to me, plus my own feelings about a movie’s potential, its subject matter, and/or the people involved in making it. That usually covers it.

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