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Film Criticism: It’s Not A Science

ART TIMES July/August 2006

At Oscar time each year Premiere magazine polls the top fifteen film critics on their ratings of one-hundred of the note-worthy American films of that year.  Of course, they say these are the top fifteen although I’m not included nor are the critics for New Yorker or New York magazines or the New York Times, so its pretty clear that something funny goes on, all right.  Maybe Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Pataki might look into this.  Nevertheless, a serious study of the polling results will show you that film criticism isn’t perfect and isn’t as much fun as you’d think.

Now the film ratings in this poll are in the form of little stars and this mainly because, while most of the film critics are more-or-less literate, all can be trusted to quite easily handle the dispensing of stars; four for ‘most highly recommended’; three for ‘highly recommended’; two for ‘recommended’; one for ‘not recommended’.  A special star, white where the others are black, stands for ‘avoid at all costs’.  After the stars have been nicely scattered about, the films are then listed in descending order from number 1 earning the most ‘good’ stars down to number 100, the film shamefully awarded the most ‘bad’ stars or least ‘good’ or whatever – the thing is, fifteen discerning critics thought it stunk.  Right off the bat this gives you something to consider – if the films at the very bottom of the ratings are so obviously bad why did anyone ever figure they were among the noteworthy?  Just take another look at that list of films and you’ll see that if noteworthy meant quality, well, probably you couldn’t scare up much more than a handful of films to poll and you’d be left foolishly holding a bagful of little stars.  Generally speaking then, a noteworthy film, and one worth including in a critic’s poll, is one that didn’t go to cable television within a week of its theater release.

The first thing that you may notice in this poll is that some critics work harder than others.  Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, is the only one of the fifteen that actually saw all one-hundred films.  That was dedication for you, if not recklessness.  Where many of Mr. Ebert’s colleagues did not have the stomach to attend such as “Bewitched” or “Bad News Bear” he soldiered through never even halting at number 58 “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, the point where absenteeism really begins to set in among the others.  And with near-saintly forgiveness Mr. Ebert found favor with eighty-one of the films, rejecting, reluctantly one supposes, just three and going so far as to give two stars to “Domino”, a gift that only he and Leah Rozen of People magazine dared to do.

Mr. Ebert is in decided contrast to Mike Clark of USA Today who simply didn’t show up for thirteen of the one-hundred, disliked forty-five of the eighty-seven he did review and was the sole critic to condemn number 6 “Wallace and Gromet: The Curse of the Were Rabbit”.  That’s meanness for you.  Just as hard-nose was Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal, walking away from nineteen films, despised thirty-four, tolerated thirty-three, and paid faint recommendation to fourteen.  You can certainly imagine that if half your life’s work is engaged in things you don’t like its bound to make you a fairly disagreeable person.  Still, if you work for USA Today or The Wall Street Journal, publications that must report on unpleasant manners, then, I guess, a grumpy film critic makes sense.

It’s a puzzle why some films are looked upon so kindly by a few critics and treated with contempt by others.  How is it that  “Crash” is dismissed by half of the critics, ranked number 58, and winds up with the Oscar for best picture?  “Grizzly” gets a clean sweep of high recommendations, is number 1 in the rankings, and is never an Oscar contender while number 25 “You and Me and Everyone We Know” and three negatives briefly is.  On only twenty-two of the one-hundred are the fifteen critics united in agreement they are worth seeing and but two that everyone should stay clear of.

“Pacifier” at the very bottom number 100 did achieve a record of sorts for the year – ten negative votes, seven of these ‘must be avoided’ and even more humiliating, five critics refused to go to the film even on pain of death.  “Stealth” at number 99 tried hard to at least match the record but could do no better than six “must be avoided’.  You can be sure though, the year 2006 will bring in some winners.