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Was 2013 a Great Movie Year, or Are Critics Too Easy to Please?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire February 21, 2014 at 2:18PM

Movie critics said 2013 was a standout year. The LA Times' theater critic says they're just getting soft.
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Just another one of those fuddy-duddy movies only critics love.
Just another one of those fuddy-duddy movies only critics love.

2013 was an amazing year for movies, right?

Not so fast, says Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty. Having sampled what he refers to as "most of the likely trophy contenders," he finds them distinctly lacking: "What others proclaimed great, I would have begrudgingly called good -- leaving me to wonder whether this might have been a more uplifting year for critics, relieved that the studios were remembering that adults buy tickets too, than for regular moviegoers, who judge a film solely on its merits."

Some of this, to be sure, is simple harrumphing, along with the inevitably warped perspective that comes from encountering a movie only after it's already been proclaimed one of the year's best. But McNulty isn't just quibbling with the judgments of individual films. He's arguing a more profound shift in the culture:

Rather than single out 2013 as an exceptional year for drama on stage and screen, I posit a different reason for its noteworthiness: It marked the period in which grade inflation by critics became a commonly deployed strategy for dealing with the cultural and economic insecurity that shows no signs of abating in post-recessionary America....

One might think that with so many voices competing for attention in the Twitter-sphere that the renegade would be encouraged. But one of the many ironies of the oceanic Web is the way its cherished mode of snark has been used to enforce homogeneity. To take an unpopular stand is to subject oneself to a withering cyber attack, and conversely, to extol what everyone else adores is to be made a 15-minute hero.

Although conventional wisdom once had it that championing a contrary opinion was a good way to stand out from the crowd, McNulty is right that praise travels farther than blame (and I've got the web metrics to prove it). That's why BuzzFeed, whose business model is focused on cracking the code of social-media shareability, hired a book editor who (in)famously promised to avoid negative reviews. People may chuckle at savage pans, but with rare exceptions, they don't get excited about them. And social media does act as an echo chamber, especially when the effect is concentrated by film festival premieres or time-release embargoes.

But I find it hard to credit the notion that social media enforces conformity, or that any worthwhile critic is so weak-willed as to fear incurring the wrath of a few angry commenters. What McNulty's really kicking against is the presence, or illusion, of unanimity. "There are cogent reasons for proclaiming 2013 to be a good year for the movies," he admits. "But paradoxically the case seems rather less convincing when superlatives are being used to reinforce one another."

Dig a little deeper, though, and the facade crumbles. The three critics McNulty cites in his opening paragraph may agree that 2013 was an annus mirabilis -- or at least better-than-okayis --  but Richard Brody's Top 12, Christopher Orr's Top 13 and Ann Hornaday's Top 21 have exactly one movie in common: Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis. That seems less like the product of groupthink than an embarrassment of riches. Perhaps it's not that critics are getting easier to please so much as that there are ever more movies to choose from. Add together the highs and the lows -- there certainly plenty of the latter -- and 2013 might average out like any other year. But skim off the cream, and it starts to look pretty rich.


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