Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My life as a movie critic

with 9 comments

Critics, like the rich, aren’t like you and me. You can’t be a professional film critic, which generally means seeing something like two hundred movies a year, without undergoing a transformation into a different state of being. The job changes you. I should know, because I used to be one. I didn’t quite experience the full metamorphosis—I reviewed maybe eighty movies for a college website in the years 1999 and 2000, followed by two dozen more the following summer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian—but it gave me a fair amount of insight into the curious life of a film critic. Once or twice a week, I’d take the train out to the Copley Place movie theater in Boston, sit in a darkened room with a handful of strangers, mostly men, and scribble illegible notes about movies like Autumn in New York or Mission to Mars—both of which, incidentally, I liked. And in the end, I emerged with the sense that while it wasn’t a bad way to make a living, I was also lucky to get out of there alive.

The first thing I discovered was that there are a lot of bad movies out there. When you’re an ordinary moviegoer, you have the luxury of seeing only what you think you might like, and over time, you develop a decent sense of what you’re going to enjoy—I’ve very rarely paid to see a movie that I absolutely hated. A working critic, on the other hand, is obliged to see everything: action, mumblecore, erotic thrillers, and dramas with Madonna and Rupert Everett. Seeing a large random sample of a given year’s movies inevitably alters your perspective on the culture: there’s just so much out there, unseen by even the most diligent amateur moviegoer, that you start questioning whether anybody besides you can really understand it. Among other things, it occurs to you that many of your friends have never really seen a bad movie. Hearing from people who complain about having been bored by the likes of Haywire, you shake your head and think, “If they only knew…”

Another thing I learned is that mediocrity is often more unbearable than awfulness. I gave a negative review to Fight Club, for instance, and yet I still remember it years later, and there’s no denying that it had some kind of vision, as misguided as it might be. Yet I can’t remember a thing about, say, the Heather Graham comedy Committed, despite having met the director in person and interviewed the cast over the phone. Looking at the list of movies released over the years I was working as a critic, I’m amazed at how many I saw, wrote up, and then promptly forgot: Instinct, Gossip, Crazy in Alabama.  Faced with such a schedule, you find yourself hoping for a monstrosity like The Beach, so that at least you won’t be faced with two hours devoid of any interest whatsoever. (One of my first investments as a critic was a watch with a luminous dial, so I could see how much longer I had to sit through Anywhere But Here Where the Heart Is.)

This, I imagine, is why some critics end up becoming caricatures of themselves. Faced with the prospect of cranking out five hundred words on Big Momma’s House, it isn’t surprising that many critics spend so much ammunition attacking otherwise unobjectionable movies, to the point where that’s the only mode of criticism they understand. It’s also easy to see why a critic can fall all over himself praising a movie that didn’t bore him for two hours, or takes a contrarian position to maintain his own interest, or sanity. It may not be fair, but it’s understandable. Which is why I’m so impressed by critics who manage to remain generous and empathetic year after year, and who can stay open to the possibility of being surprised by greatness. Because that’s the thing: every once in a while, you’re blindsided by something you love, as I was that year with Three Kings or All About My Mother. And sometimes that’s all you need.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2012 at 10:46 am

Posted in Movies

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9 Responses

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  1. Very interesting insight! I always think being a film critic is one of the best jobs in the world. Making a living in doing something you enjoy; voicing your opinion to a wider audience than your spouse and dog; helping the movie industry in creating a better product; and lastly (and the most important aspect), is that there is little accountability: people still go to watch a movie despite of bad critic review.


    January 26, 2012 at 2:32 pm

  2. It’s definitely a good job! Although I’m not sure how many critics really think they’re “helping the movie industry.” :)


    January 26, 2012 at 4:49 pm

  3. I am a bit surprised that there were no references to Ravenous or Pokemon.


    January 26, 2012 at 6:12 pm

  4. Oh God, Pokemon! I can’t believe I forgot about that. I’ll need to dig up that review…


    January 26, 2012 at 6:46 pm

  5. ‘Mediocrity is often more unbearable than awfulness’. How true.


    January 27, 2012 at 4:49 am

  6. love three kings. i saw that by myself in the little theater in glen ellyn, i think. my mom had to run errands and dropped me off there for a while.

    have you seen the extras on the dvd? there’s an awesome short done by spike jonze called “a look into the acting process with ice cube”, or some similar nonesense.


    January 29, 2012 at 8:49 pm

  7. I can’t remember if I ever watched that extra or not—my copy of Three Kings disappeared years ago from my apartment in New York. I’m surprised somebody hasn’t put it online.


    January 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm

  8. did we have this conversation already?


    February 2, 2012 at 6:02 am

  9. I don’t know. Have we?


    February 2, 2012 at 10:48 pm

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