Split Decision: Our Favorite Film Critics

Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!

This week’s question:

Who is your favorite film critic?

Pauline Kael. It was reading her work as a teen that made me better understand how to look at films, as well as how to write about them. While I sometimes disagreed with her, (about The King of Comedy, especially), I never thought she was “wrong.” I admired not just her style, but her candor. I still remember these lines from her reviews I first read 35 years ago:”Betrayal, a pretentious and excruciating adaptation of a Harold Pinter drama, told backwards, starring Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley, “To the letter writers who have asked why I haven’t reviewed Betrayal, the answer is: Because I couldn’t sit through it.”

And Still of the Night, a lame Roy Scheider/Meryl Streep thriller “The most dramatic thing about the movie happens offscreen: Meryl Streep switches the part in her hair from one side to the other.” —Gary Kramer

I second Gary’s enthusiasm for Pauline Kael. A formative figure whose importance achieved a degree some might reserve for a parent or guardian, she remains an essential voice to me even as her reputation continues to wane in film culture at large. Her wit, verve, and mastery of prose further proves that criticism – the crafting of arguments, ideas, and interpretations, while placing the subject of study within a larger context – can, itself, be an art form. Moreover, her innovative, colloquial style, now taken for granted if only because its influence (direct or otherwise) can be sensed in the rhythm of everyday film discourse, provided me with a vocabulary to talk about movies and how they worked, long before discovering the equally influential writings of Bazin and Bordwell. You can nitpick certain opinions – and, to be fair, I agree with her overall judgements between sixty and seventy percent of the time – but, like any truly great critic, her infectious personality keeps you reading and thinking even as she drives you mad. The following is a list of favorite Kael reviews:

Underground Man [on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver]

Another writer I’d like to put a spotlight on is the aforementioned French film critic André Bazin, a significant figure in film culture/history whose achievements include co-founding Cahiers du Cinéma and serving as a father-figure for several of the young critics who would go on to become integral directors of the French New Wave. He passed away at 40 in 1958, but left behind a vast array of film writing (much of it still untranslated into English) that continues to inform and vitalize many writers and cinephiles. Discovering Bazin at 17 shook up the way I watched movies, inevitably opening my eyes (and flexing my brain) with new ways of thinking about the medium and its techniques. Most impactful was his seminal essay, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” (a staple of introductory cinema courses), which argues for realism in cinema by making a case for deep focus and long-takes/sequence shots, contending that montage/cutting diminishes active viewership due to the director’s analytical “interpretation” of the mise-en-scène. (Imagine how less subtle the Boarding House scene in Citizen Kane would be if Welles cut to a close-up of Agnes Moorehead’s face for emphasis as she signs her child’s life away. Instead, Welles holds on the master, with the father lurking in mid-ground while young Charles, framed within a window, plays in the snow with his “Rosebud”, ultimately forcing the viewer to survey the frame and interpret the drama for themselves.) While all this may sound jargon-heavy and academic, Bazin’s erudition never forsakes accessibility – although it might be best to brush up on your pre-1950s film history prior to diving in. Portions of his canonical Qu’est-ce que le cinémahave been translated and published in English as What is Cinema Vol. 1 and 2, and his monographs on Jean Renoir and Orson Welles have received English-language publication as well. I’d recommend starting with the following pieces:

Dan Santelli

II am going to have to go with Matt Singer for this one. He is passionate about movies and you can tell he approaches them with the gleefulness of a fan boy- but a fan boy who has also grown up and is deeply intelligent. He is really funny too, and I am sad enough that his podcast with Allison Willmore, Filmspotting SVU, is over that I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to the last episode. Special shout out as well to Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen of the original Filmspotting podcast, without which I probably wouldn’t have rediscovered my love of movies as an adult.–Andy Elijah

joe-bob-604x270

I don’t read as much film criticism as I should, and often don’t re-read even the best stuff I’ve found, but I’ve had Joe Bob Briggs’ book Profoundly Disturbing with me since 2003. Joe Bob is writer John Bloom’s grindhouse and drive-in-enthusiast character, proudly redneck and sincerely in love with trash. Honestly, a lot of that work comes off as tired “Git-er-Done!” schtick in the present. Maybe a guy complaining about the “Meskins” (Mexicans, get it? haha!) worked in the mid-80s, but it’s tired now.

But when he eases up on the character and writes more as a film lover than a hick, everything is great. In Profoundly DIstrubing, credited to Joe Bob but written without the dumb uncle jokes obscuring everything, Briggs writes about movies that shocked the world, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Crash (the Cronenberg one). Briggs understands how people watch movies better than anybody, wringing brilliant new observations out of Triumph of the Will and The Creature of the Black Lagoon by looking at the theater’s other patrons as much as he does the screen. As a film, I don’t have much use for Deepthroat, but when Joe Bob re-contextualizes as a turning point for the way American audiences dealt with pornography, I’m enthralled. His hosting work on TNT’s “MonsterVision,” much of which has been archived on YouTube, is also more than worth it.

One on hand, it’s too bad he hasn’t released another book of essays since 2005’s Profoundly Erotic, on the other, I have a hard time with the fact that he’s spent the past few years writing for openly racist, anti-Semitic Taki Theodoracopulos (if that name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe it would help to know Briggs’ bylines now appear next to similarly pathetic, “Please, I’m trying so hard to offend you and be shocking, I’ll just keep screaming the ‘n’ word until you say stop, and then I’ll have owned you’ Gavin McInnes). He isn’t alt-right, but he’s been rubbing shoulders with those guys (they’re all guys), and you wish he’d be more Bloom than Briggs sometimes.Alex Rudolph

My favorite film critic, hands down, is Dan Scully. In a world filled with self-importance, Mr. Scully brings a humility to his craft, steadfastly refusing to offer a review of a movie he hasn’t seen, oftentimes coming to the defense of even the most terrible movies in the face of unearned scorn. He frequently weaves humor into his pieces as well, which, as a reader, is something I appreciate deeply. Because really, I’ve made up my mind as to whether or not I plan to see a movie, so reviews only function to deepen my understanding of a film, and when I read the masterful words of Dan Scully, I know that not only am I gaining cinematic knowledge, I’m becoming a better person. Perhaps my favorite aspect of Dan Scully’s writing is how damn good he looks while he’s doing it. Make no mistake, he is a stud muffin — a beefcake, if you will. It’s no wonder that men and women alike swoon at the mere suggestion of his presence. I think we can all count on our fingers and toes the amount of times a Dan Scully film review left us hot, bothered, and clamoring for just a few more words to help us get through the night.

After him I’d say Roger Ebert, because he, like Dan Scully, writes experiential reviews more so than studies of craft. After him I’d say Matt Singer, because he, like Dan Scully, is brilliantly funny and clearly adores movies in a big way.–Dan Scully

I’ll pick the populist choice and go with Roger Ebert. primarily because I always respected his unpretentious method of criticism, and desire to make film analysis accessible to mass audiences. It’s a little cynical, but I have a hard time listening to/reading most contemporary film critics, because they can’t help but be the exact opposite of everything he stood for.

From my review of Life Itself:

My history with Roger Ebert begins as a loyal reader of his weekly reviews, and ends with a better knowledge about what it means to be a viewer and lover of movies. As a teen I didn’t fully grasp the behemoth personality and legacy that is Roger Ebert, and it really wasn’t until recently that I discovered the immense impact that he had on the world of cinema. In 2011, Ebert published his memoir Life Itself, and it’s with this film of the same name that director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) seeks to use Ebert’s most beloved medium to document Ebert’s final battle.

Jill Malcolm

My favorite film critic is David Chen, from the slashfilmcast. When I was 18 I was a huge Kevin Smith fan and began listening to his podcast (Smodcast) which had just started over on Ken Plume’s website. I became enamored with the concept of podcasts and wanted more, but wasn’t sure where to look. So I started following Kevin to the shows he made guest appearances on, one of the first of which was the slashfilmcast. There I was introduced to David and Devindra Hardawar, college buddies who loved movies and started their own movie review show. This was well before the deluge of film podcasts which I am now happily drowning in with my own podcast, I Like To Movie Movie. David is a really smart writer and critic who brings his personal perspective to every review, always reminding his audience of where his bias lies as well as the greater cultural conversation that movies are being released in. That approach has stuck with me and I’ve carried it into my own endeavors. He inspired me to start my own podcast and begin writing about movies, regardless of whether I had a “legitimate” outlet for any of it. I might never have started down this rewarding path I’m on were it not for discovering the slashfilmcast, and I have Kevin Smith, Devindra Hardawar, and most especially David Chen to thank for that.—Garrett Smith

I don’t primarily read critics because I think.I will agree or disagree with their opinions. Not that it isn’t helpful, but as a filmgoer and even more so as a film writer, I almost always read reviews after I see.a film, or after I have written my own review. Rather I read in order to have a wholly different perspective presented to me. And that’s why Amy Nicholson is my favorite film critic.

Her take on La La Land’s opening musical number: “Nothing in this sequence belongs to [Chazelle]: the throwback number, the retro-styled dresses, the musty cracks about L.A. traffic and weather. Even the deco font is an homage. But his remix is so confident that for a second you believe you’re seeing something new.” I don’t disagree with the critique itself, even if the charm of La La Land might work more for me. Nicholson’s point of view as a Los Angeles resident adds much to her reaction to the film, as does her impeccable ability to turn a phrase. She’s also open-minded enough to give Warcraft a chance.

And in her podcasting, both on The Canon and Unspooled, she has become a personal idol in how she approaches older films. Nicholson is always über-prepared with anecdotes, contemporary reviews, and production facts relating to the film being discussed, but does not treat them like mere trivia. Each of these provides additional context with which to discuss the film at hand. It is a great reminder that films don’t exist in a vacuum, and there is as much value in understanding a film within its own cultural context as there is reacting to it from our point of view in the present.

And Nicholson does it all with an unending sense of joy and fun, as evidenced by a line in her Bad Moms review that got me to watch the film, calling it “the kind of flick that lives — or dies — by how much you dig watching Bell wear a pink hoodie and pretend to be an uncircumcised penis. (Answer: a lot.)” —Ryan Silberstein

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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