Top 10 (Well, 8) Film Critics Working Today
Good criticism is a skill that must be learned, practiced and perfected – but more importantly, it comes with time. Seeing a diverse array of films broadens your views and expands your cinematic vocabulary while aiding in making astute comparisons. The more diverse and numerous the films in your vocabulary, the more insightful, relevant, and intelligent your observations will be. In fact, a greater knowledge of the arts in general helps a great deal. All of the arts resemble one another to some extent, and they all take liberties to plagiarize across the lines. A filmmaker like Peter Greenaway, who relishes in cultivating an appreciation for other art forms like classical music, painting and sculpturing is able to direct a masterpiece like The Cook, The Wife, The Thief and Her Lover thanks to this cross-pollination – the same can be said for a film critic and their reviews.
A good film critic finds their method and their voice through countless hours of practice. A pro can do more than comment on cinematography or the range of actor’s talents. Criticism takes the elements of a film and places them into a larger emotional or intellectual context. They are able to comment on the ability of a film’s power to move us either on an emotional or intellectual level. The best critics know who their readership (or listenership) is and speaks to them in a way they can relate. Criticism is about looking inside oneself and figuring out why things touch us and understanding why it is different for everyone. More importantly, a good critic is able to help his or her audience understand a film as an art and not just an entertainment, and sometimes they may even make their audience doubt their initial reactions of a movie.
My biggest problem with most critics is that they don’t respect the medium they are criticizing. Even worse, some refuse to recognize their prejudices. Some critics take pride in their prejudices, taking cheap shots at a specific director or genre and enjoy every minute of it. It is true that they develop a unique voice out of their subjective views, but most aren’t honest about communicating that prejudice. It is also true that it helps in establishing a consistent readership, but in the long run their subjective views soon become visible and create doubt amongst their followers. Of course, nothing can be worse than critics who compromise their integrity in praise of every piece of dreck that passes before their eyes. Unfortunately, this is seen all too often now with the millions of independent web sites who fear losing ties with distributors and studios.
A good film critic is someone who truly loves films and whose passion rings clear in their authorial voice, someone who is honest, entertaining and informed. Film criticism over the past century has become an art in its own right and many great film critics have come and gone. Below are my top 10 living film critics working today along with links to reviews of some of my recent favorite films.
in no particular order …
1- J. Hoberman (Village Voice)
His first published film review appeared in 1977 for David Lynch’s seminal debut film Eraserhead. Since 2009, Hoberman remains senior film editor at The Village Voice. In addition, he contributes regularly to Film Comment, The New York Times, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Hoberman is an author of several eminent books on cinema, including a collaboration with prominent film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, entitled Midnight Movies, published in 1983. In the 2002 Sight & Sound film poll, Hoberman indicated that Flaming Creatures is his choice for best film ever made. Other films included in his top five, listed by ranking, are The Girl from Chicago, Man with a Movie Camera, Pather Panchali, La Règle du jeu.
The fact that J Hoberman placed Flaming Creatures as his favorite film of all time is enough reason to place him at the top of my list. Hoberman has been one of the most consistently adventurous American critics, always exploring an eclectic range of interests. He’s an expert on ’70 cult films, midnight movies and although he may possibly be the only professional film critic who has never written a screenplay, he did start off as an experimental film maker.
Jean Luc Godard: “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.”
2- Philip French (The Observer)
He has been a film critic at The Observer since 1978 and has also written for Sight and Sound. His books include The Movie Moguls: An Informal History of the Hollywood Tycoons (1969) and Westerns, which reappeared in a revised version in 2005. He also wrote the book Cult Movies and worked as a BBC Radio producer for The Critics and later produced its successor program Critics’ Forum. If there’s a parallel between the new Tarantino and a little-known Italian thriller of the 1930s, French can be relied on to spot it and to explain what it means.
3- Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune)
From 2006 through August 2008, he appeared frequently on At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper, first as one of numerous guest critics filling in for Roger Ebert while he was on medical leave. Recently Phillips was hired along with New York Times critic A.O. Scott to replace hosts Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, in an attempt to return the show to its roots after a year-long ratings drop.
4- Nick Schager (Slant Magazine & Cinematical.com)
To be honest, I don’t know much about Nick Schager. What I do know is that I usually agree with his views on film and he writes for two of my favorite film sites online. Finding a critic who you normally agree with is rare but it sure does make life easier when browsing the internet.
5- A.O. Scott (The New York Times)
A.O. Scott joined The New York Times as a film critic in January 2000 after being a frequent contributor to Slate, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications. In addition to his film-reviewing duties, A.O. Scott often writes for the Times Magazine and has recently been signed on the host At The Movies along side Michael Phillips.
A.O Scott always levels with you, and unlike other writers who seem more interested in impressing you with their witty analogies and sharp humor, he is more than capable of turning an entertaining phrase, but never at the expense of relevant criticism.
6- Al Kratina (The Montreal Gazette Cine Files)
Al Kratina is a freelance writer and award-winning filmmaker based in Montreal. He’s a regular contributor to the Montreal Gazette, rounding up recent underground DVD releases and covers film festivals for the Gazette’s Ciné Files blog.
Al Kratina is the young Canadian version of Anthony Lane, only with a sick and twisted sense of humor. His reviews are always edgy and he’s always unapologetic about it. He asks the questions the directors should have asked themselves, in a deft, clean process that is both funny and incredibly clever. One doesn’t need to even want to watch a movie to read his reviews. His writing is gratifying enough – always incisive, and without a doubt the funniest critic I know. I have listed three links above, one of which leads to him hosting on Sound On Sight Radio. I highly recommend you tune in and listen to his reviews on the Star Trek franchise. Sure, he’s gratuitously vulgar and pretends to be a sociopath but beyond the facade is a passionate filmmaker, film lover and one of the sweetest guys I know with a mind as sharp as any of the top critics.
7- Matty Robinson (Filmspotting)
Matty Robinson is one of the two hosts of Filmspotting, a weekly film podcast and radio program from Chicago. Along with his charming personality which transmits clear through the air waves, his opinons are always strong and he has impeccable taste in the arts. Matty is consistent and he truly wants a film to succeed and rather than relish on a film’s shortcomings he laments in their failure. His knowledge of the arts comes clear with every review and he is always quick to reference other films, filmmakers and quote great literature. It’s above all impressive that he can review a film off-the-cuff on public radio better than most critics after their third or fourth draft.
8- Scott Tobias (A.V. Club)
Scott Tobias is the film editor and critic at The A.V. Club, an entertainment newspaper and website published by The Onion. As bundled with The Onion, it is distributed in print form, free of charge, in Madison, Milwaukee, New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver/Boulder, Austin, and Washington, D.C.
Usually critics do their best work when they are excited by a film, but the rest of the time, their boredom is visible in their writing. On a weekly basis Scott Tobias, no matter what, always seems enthused to be writing about film.