Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

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

Features
by Sam Adams
February 21, 2014 2:18 PM
13 Comments
  • |
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.

Features
  • |

13 Comments

  • fool me once, shame on you | February 26, 2014 2:32 PMReply

    It used to be that good reviews made you want to see a film; now, good reviews are a reason to suspect it. Movie critics would do well to remember that we the audience are not all idiots, and are keeping score. You can tell me a movie is good and it turn out to be shit only so many times until I learn to ignore what you say; or even use it opposite than what it is intended: to decide what NOT to see.

  • Thomas Prieto | February 23, 2014 3:57 PMReply

    I think the problem is that McNulty is only referencing award winning films. Did he watch Sokurov's FAUST, Resnais' YOU AIN'T SEEN NOTHIN' YET, Castaing-Taylor & Paravel's LEVIATHAN, De Palma's PASSION, Ruiz's NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET, Pineiro's VIOLA, Denis' BASTARDS, Kiarostami's LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, Zhangke's A TOUCH OF SIN? If not, then sure, it wasn't a great year for movies. However, if you watch the right movies, every year is a good year for movies. There's always tons of great stuff - you've just got to know how to find it.

  • Djames | February 23, 2014 11:41 AMReply

    "or that any worthwhile critic is so weak-willed as to fear incurring the wrath of a few angry commenters."

    That's not the issue at all. A critic who declines to grade on the curves will be obliged to pan or dismiss large numbers of very expensive and "important" movies. And that critic will end up with a blog, and nothing else.

    So they all do otherwise, from outright shills like Peter Travers to "serious" literary types like Dave Denby and film historians like J. Hoberman. It's part of the job which, after all, celebrates popular culture and mass market tastes.

    Unfortunately, in the competition to rave the loudest, it's gone to the point of absurdity -- folks raving about movies with all the profundity of a network TV show (Gravity?) and equating 12 Years a Slave with having a social conscience. At some point, one hopes the system consumes itself....

  • Mark W | February 28, 2014 1:08 PM

    Sam Sam Sam... how ironic indeed! The "critic" is not able to swallow criticism! O, the humanity!

    I'm not entirely certain you understand the role of "internet critic".

  • DJAMES | February 23, 2014 11:00 PM

    Sam Adams:

    I don't know how you grade -- do you routinely pan overblown Oscar material, for example "Her", "Gravity", "12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, etc.? -- but no one who does works for any major print media outlet or appears on TV. We're not talking about internet-only publications which don't run movie advertising or free local weeklies.

    If in fact you know of "dozens of careers" of esteemed reviewer careers that prove otherwise -- i.e., critics who routinely pan big-budget movies -- perhaps you'd care to list them? Even one or two would do well. If not, I think you need to reconsider the meaning of "nonsense".

  • Sam Adams | February 23, 2014 10:45 PM

    "A critic who declines to grade on the curves will be obliged to pan or dismiss large numbers of very expensive and "important" movies. And that critic will end up with a blog, and nothing else."
    What exactly do you base this statement on? Because it's nonsense. I have personal experience and dozens of careers I can point to that prove otherwise.

  • Micah | February 23, 2014 3:25 AMReply

    I'm sorry, but saying that regular moviegoers (in contrast to the critics) judge a film solely on its merits is one of the most absurd things I've read in quite a while.

  • Shane | February 21, 2014 10:46 PMReply

    It IS true that critics can be easy to please. For one, a film can be garbage, but if it's innovative, it's suddenly a masterpiece.

  • jason | February 21, 2014 9:03 PMReply

    It was a good year for decent films. But only one of them was truly great and will be talked about for years.

  • Bill Thompson | February 21, 2014 8:58 PMReply

    The thing is that every year of movies is great and bad in its own way. It's all subjective of course, so one's man's great year is another woman's bad year. We all find movies to love and champion, as well as film to lampoon and wonder why they were so hyped. I've long grown tired of the idea of one year being better than any other, or of a year being good or bad for movies. If one takes the time to explore the diverse offerings the world of cinema serves up then every year should be a grand one for every critic, or cinephile.

  • sam adams is an idiot | February 21, 2014 6:21 PMReply

    daily reminder that anything Sam Adams says is inadmissible because he thinks True Detective is overrated. He is the true autist of the millenium. He needs psychiatric help.

  • FP | February 21, 2014 2:48 PMReply

    A year constitutes 12 months and there were not 12 months of "great," stand-the-test-of-time, belongs-in-a-Taschen-retrospective movies. There were, however, 3 months of excellent films at the end of the year. After a desert for 9 months, minus perhaps SPRING BREAKERS (yes, haters) and BEFORE MIDNIGHT, there were worthy films out every weekend. The nine nominees for Best Picture did not include INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS but even so, are a strong collection of films. Are all "great?" No, but more than a few will stand the test of time - HER, 12 YEARS, NEBRASKA, GRAVITY included.

  • shelly | February 21, 2014 9:04 PM

    Nebraska? Girl please. That sucked.

Email Updates