Memo to critics: Thou shalt not groupthink
"One Film Is Making History," trumpets an advertisement for the movie "Sideways." The basis for the claim is the fact that "Sideways" has been named best picture of the year by more reviewer groups than you probably knew existed - from the New York Film Critics Circle, of which I'm a member, to the Southeastern Film Critics, the Toronto Film Critics, and similar outfits from Boston to San Francisco.Skip to next paragraph
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Looking at the best-of-year choices compiled by individual critics, "Sideways" also rides high. It's listed as No. 1 by reviewers for publications as different as Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and New York magazine.
Other movies such as "Million Dollar Baby" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" also pop up on list after list.
Such sameness doesn't happen every year. The most honored 2002 movie was "Far From Heaven" with nine awards, and in 2001 it was "Mulholland Drive" with 11. Last year it was "The Return of the King," though, with a whopping 22 wins - the same number "Sideways" has gotten so far. Uniformity could be a growing trend.
I'm not complaining about critical kudos for the 2004 movies I've mentioned. "Sideways" was on my own 10-best list, with "Million Dollar Baby" and "Eternal Sunshine" right beside it. I am complaining about something else - namely, the near-unanimity of opinion that surges through the great majority of 10-best rosters and awards.
In elevator conversations after press screenings, my colleagues and I often find ourselves on very different wavelengths. Sometimes a dozen of us have a dozen different points of view on the movie we've just watched.
Yet look at a year-end compilation of year-end compilations - such as Moviecrazed.com, the website headed by Guy Flatley, a longtime reviewer himself - and the same titles keep leaping out, as if some secret signal had been transmitted to our movie-critic brains. Besides those I've already named, favorites include "Kinsey," "The Aviator," "House of Flying Daggers," "Before Sunset," the Spanish-language dramas "Bad Education" and "Maria Full of Grace," and the documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11."
Good movies all, in my opinion. But why do so many agree with me? Could it be that my opinions are all "correct" in some objective way? As someone who believes all opinions are subjective, I simply can't buy that, much as I'd like to.
Then too, if pictures like "Kinsey" and "Eternal Sunshine" are great by common agreement, shouldn't audiences share the consensus, placing those releases among the year's biggest box-office hits?
It hasn't happened. According to Boxofficemojo.com, "Eternal Sunshine" ranks No. 72 for the year - behind "Catwoman" and "The Ladykillers," among other box-office disappointments - and "Kinsey" bottoms out the list at No. 150, although it's still playing and Oscar nominations could give its profile a needed boost.
So what's going on here? If pictures like "Sideways" and "Before Sunset" are so widely praised, why do their box-office earnings currently rank 99 and below the chart, respectively? Conversely, why aren't some of 2004's most popular pictures - "The Day After Tomorrow," "The Bourne Supremacy," "Shark Tale" - virtually unmentioned as critics dish out their year-end honors?
Don't get me wrong. The last thing we critics should do is try to echo the taste of some hypothetical "average moviegoer" or twist our 10-best lists to mirror the box office. What concerns me is that there's so much agreement among reviewers, whose goals ought to include challenging one another's tastes, habits, and assumptions.
We often challenge our readers, suggesting that low-grossing movies like "Before Sunset" and "Maria Full of Grace" are more worthwhile than lowbrow moneymakers like "National Treasure" and its ilk.
I think we should do the same with our colleagues - following our own lights, disagreeing more often than agreeing, and remembering there's no scientific test to determine "good" or "bad" at the movies.
Implicit here is a question about the role of movie reviewing. Is it useful for so many critics - and, presumably, the outlets we work for - to have such similar outlooks? And what accounts for that similarity? Age and socioeconomic status could have something to do with it, since baby-boomers are as numerous in criticism as in other middle-class professions.
That line of thinking opens up interesting questions. To focus on "Sideways" again, it might be receiving so many plaudits because so many reviewers are similar to the movie's main characters - as New York Times critic A.O. Scott puts it, "white, middle-aged men" with touches of "self-pity and solipsism [that] represent the underside of the critical temperament," revealing a "morbid sensitivity" that may be an occupational hazard in the reviewing trade.
If there's any truth to this - and I suspect there is - then younger, more culturally diverse readers and moviegoers are being served by reviewers less robustly than they ought to be.
My new year's resolution is to think long and hard about whether my critical colleagues and I should be one big, happy family - or whether we should work harder to challenge one another, our readers, and ourselves.