'That's a wrap!' Our film critic's farewell

It's been a long and enjoyable run. But after more than 35 years of writing on movies for the Monitor, it's time for me to draw the curtain and leave the screening room.

In plainer words, I'm retiring - which gives me a good reason to look back on what being a film critic has been like, how the reviewing field has changed, and whether today's movies are in a tailspin, as some claim, or as exciting as they've ever been, if you just know where to look.

I discussed some of these things in the Monitor a few years ago, and in that article I started with the question I'm asked most often about my work: How many movies do I see every week? I can't accurately answer that, since I've never dared calculate the number. I've thought of myself as averaging a movie a day, and a little more if you count old pictures I've revisited for background, research, or (yes) pleasure.

So naturally I tremble at the notion of adding this up. It probably comes to some preposterously high number that would prompt some questions of my own: Has this been a good life? Has it been a life at all? Have we reviewers pulled the ultimate scam - getting paid for going to the movies - or have we hoodwinked ourselves by turning a pleasurable pastime into a tiring, time-consuming chore?

Different critics have different views about this, but anyone who sees the profession in mainly cynical terms is probably not a very reliable reviewer. And something everyone can agree on is the flood of new talent flowing into the field. While newspapers are on the wane in many areas, the dwindling number of first-rate print critics is more than compensated for by the growth in Internet reviewers writing for established websites or their own blogs.

Some are thoughtful commentators with good eyes for social and cultural context; others are just consumer guides using "thumbs up or down" and "one to four stars" rating systems, which ignore the artistic and moral complexities of individual movies. Whatever the merits of each reviewer, their sheer numbers could make the cliché come true: Everybody's a critic!

People who query me about reviewing usually focus on the movie-watching angle, overlooking another part of the critic's job: actually writing reviews. That's when our other activities - watching films, talking with filmmakers, networking with colleagues - must jell into articles that convey not only our opinions of a movie but also the competence of its craftsmanship, its relevance to our lives, the soundness of its ethics, and whether it'll appeal to the reader of today's paper.

You can squeeze only so much into a single article, of course, but an ideal review aims at all those goals - which brings to mind another question I'm occasionally asked. Are critics real professionals with a useful trade? Or are they wannabe filmmakers, banging out reviews because they lack the smarts to make it in Tinseltown themselves?

The answer is that competent reviewers aren't failed filmmakers, but successful writers. Of course I have colleagues who've penned a screenplay or even made a no-budget movie. But they generally see this as a hobby, not a steppingstone to a new career. It's gratifying to share your tastes and ideas with readers. And much of the time it's fun.

What isn't fun is sitting through the trash, claptrap, and gibberish that fills so many movie screens today. For every "Cinderella Man" or "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" that boosts my morale, there's a "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" or "Monster-in-Law" that shoots it down again. At times I'm tempted to join the critical corps that suspects the cinema as we've known it is mostly dead.

I'll keep going to movies, though, as long as I can track down films worth watching. This means seeking out the small theaters (and DVD outlets) offering excellent pictures that don't happen to star Vince Vaughn or be directed by Michael Bay.

These pickings aren't necessarily slim, and as a parting gesture I'll list no fewer than six excellent non-Hollywood pictures opening next week alone: "Broken Flowers," "Junebug," "Grizzly Man," "The Chumscrubber," "2046," and "Saint Ralph." With gems like these, who needs "The Island"?

Which brings me to one more question I've been asked: What's kept me going for so long?

It's been partly the pleasure of writing, and partly the pleasure of keeping tabs on a mass medium with a deeply rooted place in our society. But mostly it's a deep affection for movies, coupled with an optimism that keeps me hoping against the odds for good cinema. Every time the lights go down there's a part of me that whispers, "Maybe it'll be good."

So happy viewing! And keep in touch if you see something I should be sure not to miss!

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