Monday, March 21, 2005

Let me get back to you on that

Arts criticism makes up a big chunk of my working life these days, and I couldn't be happier. It's very satisfying work.

Except that I keep stumbling over one aspect of the job: sometimes when people learn that film is among the topics I cover, they ask something like, "So what are your top five movies?" Inevitably I space out at first, particularly if they mean recent movies. Once I recover, I list films that have affected me powerfully, with the caveat that the effect a film has on me at a particular moment may not have a lot to do with how great the film is, and then I add another caveat about how greatness is difficult to recognize, much less define, and then I change my list, and then I say how excited I was about something I saw on cable the week before last. I occasionally mention that my all-time favorite film is Nashville, but this has, heartbreakingly, drawn so many blank looks in response that I just as often keep this information to myself. At any rate, these replies usually baffle inquirers, who probably were just seeking ideas for their next trip to the video store.

But I do take comfort in knowing that I'm not the only critic who wrestles with this question. When New Yorker film writer David Denby spoke at the University of Wisconsin the other day, someone asked it. After a long pause he answered, essentially: See me after class.

One reason I struggle is that the films I see professionally are a bizarre mix. The newspaper for which I do most of my writing, Isthmus, already has a film critic who reviews the bulk of new releases. So although I reviewed about 70 films over the last two years, not many were star vehicles. (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was one exception, and The Village was another.) Instead I usually see horror films, children's films, foreign films, ultra-indy films, documentaries and various flicks you may never have heard of. When someone asks me for a ranking, they're probably not looking for a list made up of releases like Piglet's Big Movie and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. But these are indeed the kinds of movies I mostly see for work.

As for what I pay to see, I'm much more discriminating than I was during my 18th summer, when I saw virtually every film that appeared in Nashville movie theaters. This means that out of apathy and penury, I miss many films that lots and lots of moviegoers (and most full-time reviewers) see: I skipped The Passion of the Christ, for example, and waited until the last possible minute to see Fahrenheit 9/11 on the big screen. So if someone wants me to cite the best films of the last few months, I could mention that I sought out Spanglish and The Incredibles and enjoyed them very much, and that I have opinions about not much else. This is, of course, how most people talk about movies; but I find myself apologizing, just because my byline sometimes appears over movie reviews.

In short, it's a surprisingly tough question. Of course, critics have only themselves to blame for it: they're the ones who compile those best-of lists every December.

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