NYRM2008
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headWhether they admit it or not, people rely on film critics to tell them which movies are best. Maybe not for big summer blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, but for the artsier stuff, like No Country for Old Men, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture.

But there are a zillion critics out there in newspapers, blogs and magazines, so how do you find the one whose opinions match your tastes week after week after week? What’s the best litmus test?

Simple: the Academy Awards. From September to March each year, film reviews in newspapers, blogs and magazines are full of Oscar talk. The Oscars are a mini-industry, with advertisements touting the year’s best films, and books and TV specials devoted to the event. Magazines and blogs cover every Oscar party and dish on what people wear to the ceremony—and with good reason (I’m talking to you, Bjork). The critics get in on it, too, with countless Oscar articles and “Best of” lists.

As an experiment, I studied six prominent magazine critics and their reviews of the five most recent Best Picture winners (from 2003 to the present: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed and No Country for Old Men) to see whether or not their views of those films jibed with the views of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the body that nominates and awards the Best Picture Oscar each year.

The pundits I chose come from newsmagazines (Newsweek’s David Ansen and Time’s Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, who spend a fair amount of time talking Oscar), opinion magazines (Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic and Stuart Klawans of The Nation) and a snooty magazine (The New Yorker’s David Denby and Anthony Lane).

Each of these critics has an impressive resume. Corliss started reviewing films in 1970 for Film Comment. Schickel began writing for Time in 1972 and has authored 30 books. Ansen, who just resigned from Newsweek, has written documentaries on such legendary film figures as Groucho Marx and Bette Davis. Klawans, Lane and Denby have all won National Magazine Awards.

Kauffmann is in a separate category. To use a cliché, he’s forgotten more about film than the other reviewers know. The 92-year-old critic has memories of seeing the acclaimed movie director Sidney Lumet acting on Broadway in 1940. He has written for The New Republic since 1958, has taught at the Yale School of Drama and has won countless awards.

So when you’re reading the gripes, groans and giggles of this lot, what will you find?

 

Winner 2003: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Most of the critics paid this film little attention in the form of a full-length review at the time of its release in December 2003. Time included it in a piece on holiday films and Klawans lumped it in with three other releases.

Perhaps that’s because—as the concluding chapter of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, following The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers—there wasn’t much left to say about it; critics had written ad nauseum about Peter Jackson’s ambitious trilogy, and as good as Return of the King is, who really cares? It’s essentially the same film as the two preceding chapters.

Only Lane, in a 2,000-words-plus review, burrows into the Lord of the Rings phenomenon, poking fun at Jackson, the films’ fans and finally himself for reaping so much enjoyment from a movie that is, more or less, a fairly tale. And despite some minor quibbles with the film’s three-hours-plus length, Lane proclaims that he became “an eager victim of its boundless will to astound.” Sounds like a Best Picture nod to me.

 

Winner 2004: Million Dollar Baby

Reading the reviews of this film, one can feel the collective malaise of nearly all the critics as they describe their displeasure with having to sit through—gasp!—a boxing movie. In fact, Kauffmann never gets past the fact that Million Dollar Baby is, indeed, a boxing movie, writing, “[I]t fairly fills the theater with the odor of mothballs in which the script has been stored.” (Remember, though, that Kauffmann is old enough to have seen Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul when it was released in 1947.)

Ansen writes that Million Dollar Baby “blindsides you with a devastating hook,” and Corliss says that “the story has a sucker punch.” Hackneyed boxing prose aside, they gave the film high marks. Denby from The New Yorker said it “joins the honor list of great fight films.”

Klawans didn’t review Million Dollar Baby, and though Richard Schickel wrote a thoughtful essay about Hilary Swank’s performance in the film, he’s Clint Eastwood’s friend and biographer. That renders all praise of Eastwood in Time moot, even by Corliss, who considered Million Dollar Baby one of the best films of the year.

 

Winner 2005: Crash

Budget and box office are two of Richard Corliss’ favorite subjects. He notes in separate articles about Crash that it cost the least of the five nominated films that year but had grossed more than all the other films at the time the nominations were announced. If that’s the case (and it is), Crash puts the kibosh on two more Corliss gripes: that the Academy Awards would be better served if the Best Picture award went to popular movies (Crash, as a big box office draw, satisfies that) and that the Academy never takes chances (with its racial disharmony theme, Crash is an issues movie, for sure; consider that a chance taken).

So quit bellyaching, Rich. Really. Anyway, Corliss seemed to champion Crash, writing several articles about whether it would win its director, Paul Haggis, an Oscar, with the tacit implication that he wanted it to.

Ansen praises it and notes that Haggis, who graduated to film from television, needs to avoid wrapping up things too neatly as in TV (“[The characters are] forced to jump through Haggis’ pre-ordained thematic hoops”).

Denby calls it “the strongest American film since Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River.” And Kauffmann cites actor Matt Dillon for playing an L.A. cop as no one before him has, and Sandra Bullock for concentrating on her character—a district attorney’s racist wife—and not herself. Then he calls it “a safe picture.” Klawans apparently took a coffee break and skipped it altogether.

 

Winner 2006: The Departed

By now you may have noticed that some of the critics, especially Kauffmann and Klawans, pass on some of the more mainstream films, but no one misses a Scorsese picture. Each magazine seems to devote extra critical space to Martin Scorsese, no matter what the movie (Kauffman especially; finding a Scorsese review by this guy is as easy as finding a cow painting in my grandmother’s house).

And who could resist an opportunity to wax philosophic on possibly the most overrated film director in history? (There, I said it.) Does no one remember the wooden dialogue of The Last Temptation of Christ? (The fault of the screenwriter, Paul Schrader, perhaps, but Scorsese could have tinkered with the words.) Or the silly remake of Cape Fear? Or the yawn-inducing Kundun? Or the unwatchable After Hours?

I digress. Corliss guessed that Alejandro González Ińárritu’s Babel would win best picture that year but writes that The Departed is one of the year’s best and declares that it should win best picture. When The Departed did win, he must have jumped up and down and clapped his hands like a kid.

Say, while we’re talking shoulds, what should win Best Picture? Ansen writes that The Departed “is Scorsese’s most purely enjoyable movie in years.” Klawans says that he “felt adrenaline pumping through me and yet could neither fight nor flee” while watching. Though that sounds like high praise, it’s not a suggestion that The Departed is Oscar-worthy.

Denby describes the film as “murderous fun, but it’s too shallow to be the kind of movie that haunts you in your sleep,” and Kauffmann dismisses it as a lesser gangster movie than Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which came out in 1973.

In other words, Corliss thought The Departed a good candidate for Best Picture and Denby and Kauffmann didn’t. And Ansen sounds like a man who’s on the rebound from a broken relationship. (Sure, Jenny-Come-Lately’s a lot of fun, but she’s no Goodfellas.)

 

Winner 2007: No Country for Old Men

While most of the critics acknowledge that this film is, as my Boston brethren would say, wicked violent, that observation is sort of an aside. They generally praise it as if no one had made a Western before. (Or a decent Cormac McCarthy movie before. Remember All the Pretty Horses? No? Didn’t think so.)

Lane and Denby had opposing reactions to the film. Denby enjoyed it enough to write a career retrospective of the film’s directors, Joel and Ethan Coen. Lane was less charitable, remarking that “it crawls past the two-hour mark.”

Corliss, for all his whining that the Oscars ignore the most popular pictures (this film, at the time of its Oscar nod, was not considered a hit), writes that viewers of No Country for Old Men will be “hypnotized by the damn thing” and he included it on his top 10 list. Newsweek featured a review of the movie by Larry McMurtry, who forgoes Oscar talk and focuses on the film’s place in the Western genre—and what all the violence in it means.

Kauffmann didn’t review the film at all, and Klawans spends the bulk of a double review praising the jarringly one-note (if well done) Paul Thomas Anderson picture There Will Be Blood while devoting a single paragraph to No Country.

 

And there you have it. Five years of Oscar reviews. Reader, if you agree with the Academy, Richard Corliss is your man. For the past five years, he has been a big fan of the Best Picture winners. If this were baseball, he’d be batting 1.000.

Ansen could work for you, too. Though he was not a big fan of Crash, he likes his Oscar talk. Each year, he writes an “Oscar Roundtable,” which features interviews with many players in Oscardom, from Best Actor and Actress nominees to Best Directors.

If you hate or are indifferent to the Oscars and just want to know which film to see, hype be damned, go with Klawans. In a March 1999 article in The Nation (I cheated and went back further than 2003—sorry) titled “Oscar Who?” he writes: “Although the producers of the Academy Awards like to boast that a billion people watch their broadcast, I take comfort in knowing that another five billion do not.” The Oscars are a corporate shill, man! (Returning to the baseball metaphor for a moment, Klawans is like Manny Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox—he just doesn’t care what you think.)

Kauffmann is the sage. He didn’t seem to find any of the eventual winners Oscar-worthy, passing on reviewing Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and No Country for Old Men. But in two separate essays he states that he watches the Academy Awards telecast each year, despite characterizing the Oscars as a “bejeweled trade show” and a “promotional gimmick.”

He has also pointed to other films he thinks will linger in viewers’ minds as long as any Academy Award winner, giving special mention to Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, Phil Morrison’s Junebug, and Rodrigo Garcia’s Nine Lives in 2006.

And Lane and Denby like to use the Oscars as a springboard. Generally, they forego talk of the Awards and instead write essays about some of the films being nominated, whether it’s Lane’s piece about Lord of the Rings: Return of the King or Denby’s on the Coens.

For the grouchiest critical eye, turn to me. I’d say that, given the choices, 2006 was a bad year. The Departed, best picture? No (other nominees: Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Queen, Little Miss Sunshine). If you’re not going to give Scorsese an Oscar for Goodfellas, arguably his best film, how can you give him an award for the watchable but derivative The Departed?

The other best pictures, in my opinion, were: Lost in Translation in 2003, Million Dollar Baby in 2004, Good Night, and Good Luck in 2005 and No Country for Old Men in 2007.

It’s a good thing I’m not a critic at any of these publications—those guys are Scorsese fans. My personal taste being considerably less refined (I’m a fan of No Country for Old Men, but mostly because of the killin’), I’d have to write for publications other than the ones I referenced for this article, say The New York Review of Magazines. Good thing there’s enough popcorn at the multiplex for all of us.

 



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