Do film critics know anything?

That’s the question Richard Corliss, Time film critic, asks. He reports on the New York Film Critics Circle’s picks this year, and laments that some of the top grossing films this year did not make the list. He complains that films like No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Away From Her, movies that few actually saw, led the list. That this made him “realize that we critics may give these awards to the winners, but we give them for ourselves. In fact, we’re essentially passing notes to one another, admiring our connoisseurship at the risk of ignoring the vast audience that sees movies and the smaller one that reads us.”

He goes on to ask rhetorically whether The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or The Lives of Others will win out, and then goes on to suggest that these “obscure” films make readers restless. The thing is, these are obscure only because they show up in the art house theaters and not on the main screens. I agree that Ratatouille and Enchanted were very well made, entertaining films. But not everybody gets an Oscar just for making good cinema.

I understand that Time has a particular anti-intellectual stance on some issues, but I am convinced that the main reason No Country doesn’t pull in huge numbers of dollars is that distributors decide in advance how much money it is going to make and where. Critics play an important role in pushing people to see good movies, even when those movies don’t have a huge buy in television commercials and “soft” advertising (making rounds on the Daily Show, Letterman, etc.). The Oscars tend to do this as well; movies that are runaway award winners at the Oscars are now re-released and actually draw audiences. In other words, critics perform a correcting function for the industry.

Instead of complaining that critics like movies that most people have never heard of, perhaps we should be complaining about an industry that relentlessly pushes Transformers, while relatively ignoring a little gem like Juno. In sum, I don’t mind film critics’ connoisseur orientation toward movies. Why should people who love movies dumb down their opinions to match a public that uses movies as distraction? The industry already serves (and serves to inculcate) a movie-going audience that doesn’t want very much from their films; critics form a counterweight to that, even when they can be accused of their own groupthink.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 12/18/2007 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    This is a good point. AO Scott had a similar self-flagellating article in the Times a year or so ago, and it missed precisely teh same point. Transformers and Spider-Man 3 have billion dollar marketing machines behind them. Juno and The Lives of Others have a bunch of film critics (and a small marketing budget, of course).

    It’s not even apples and oranges. More like apples and battleships (which cost about as much as Hollywood blockbusters, btw).

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