The Year in Film Criticism

Taking stock of the year in film criticism has to begin with honoring the memory of two of the greats of the profession. I wrote extensively about him when he passed away in April, but is worth reminding people of the monumental legacy of Roger Ebert. A beloved TV personality and film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, his reach and influence extended all the way to Norway, where his reputation alone inspired people like my pre-teen self to thinking more, and more critically, about movies. Late in the year, the American critical community saw the passing of an even more senior figure, Stanley Kaufmann of the left-leaning ideas magazine The New Republic. Kaufmann wrote thoughtful and probing essays on movies beyond the multiplex until the end. With the deaths of Kaufmann, Ebert and Andrew Sarris in just the last two years, an era in American film criticism is drawing to an evitable but melancholic close.

Kaufmann’s TNR colleague David Thomson, himself a true veteran of the trade and a writer of film books, had his pessimism about current Hollywood movies backed up this year by producer Linda Obst and director Steven Soderbergh. Over the course of an extended summer of blockbuster spectacle, it became clear that many were fed up with overlong, bombastic tentpole movies whose only discernible reason for existing was commercial. But even completely inexcusable movies can sometimes inspire interesting discussions, and two of the year’s worst by my count, The Lone Ranger and Man of Steel, birthed conversations that were much more rewarding than the movies themselves. In the case of The Lone Ranger, leads Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer blamed biased critics for the movie’s disastrous box-office haul, while Matt Singer among others debated the casualness of the mass destruction in Man of Steel.

And speaking of Matt Singer, he got a new job. His position as editor of Indiewire’s Criticwire blog was taken over by Sam Adams when Singer teamed up with Scott Tobias, Tasha Robinson and Nathan Rabin, all formerly of The A.V. Club, to launch The Dissolve. A spin-off of the music site The Pitchfork, it features regular columns on acting (“Performance Review”) and blockbusters of yesteryear, and a Movie of the Week, which is given Criterion-like special attention. A rotating cast also make the site’s bi-weekly podcast.

Elsewhere in movie podcasts, Peter Labuza’s The Cinephiliacs continued to stimulate the meta-muscles of a hopeless romantic/aspiring film critic such as myself, with in-depth conversations about film criticism and loving movies, with critics, scholars, programmers and filmmakers. My award for greatest discovery of 2013 nonetheless goes to the crew behind Operation Kino. For more than two years, Katey Rich, Dave Gonzalez, Matt Patches and David Ehrlich made a podcast for the film industry news site Cinemablend, where they reviewed current releases, and discussed topics related to the world of the moving image, from comics and music videos to film festivals and video games. When Katey Rich was hired as Hollywood editor for the Vanity Fair website, the OpKino had to leave Cinemablend, and it was not a happy divorce, as chronichled by Dave Gonzalez on his tumblr. The podcast recently reemerged as Fighting in the War Room, and you should immediately add it to your rotation.

Among more established critics, readers of the British Observer newspaper bid farewell to Philip French, a 50-year veteran of British film criticism. Matt Zoller Seitz, the chief TV critic for New York, was named as the new editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, and he released a well-received book about Wes Anderson. The influential feminist film scholar and culture critic B. Ruby Rich updated her assessment of “New Queer Cinema”, a movement she put on the map back in the early nineties. In that vein, the most interesting piece of metacriticism I read this year was this John Oursler piece for Sound on Sight, with suggestions to improve queer cinema criticism. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who came in at number six when Complex made its decidedly imperfect ranking of the best movie critics of all time, went a way toward calling bullshit on the never-ending “criticism in crisis” narrative.

And finally, Danish film critics made a wonderful parody of the marketing material for Lars von Trier’s new film, Nymphomaniac.

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