The movie critic's measuring stick

Richard Brody's top 10 list is not the same as mine, which is fine, but also interesting.

To the Wonder
  • To the Wonder

I overheard a fellow critic at a screening recently saying what a terrible year it had been for movies. His conversational fellows seemed to agree.

I haven't been playing the critical game long enough to argue the point, but I did chuckle when I saw The New Yorker's Richard Brody open his essay on the best movies of 2013 with the sentence, "The year 2013 has been an amazing one for movies, though maybe every year is an amazing year for movies if one is ready to be amazed by movies." He went on to conclude that "The top ten is unusually tops," while "the second ten could easily be another year's top ten."

Brody is delighted because, you see, "the best movies this year are films of combative cinema, audacious inventions in vision. The specificity and originality of their moment-to-moment creation of images offers new ways for viewers to confront the notion of what 'narrative' might be. Their revitalization of storytelling as experience restores the cinema to its primordial mode of redefining consciousness." [Emphasis mine.]

Here's the thing about critics: it's not that we have different tastes, though of course we do. It's that we have different metrics. I suppose that when a film stays with me for days, when this or that scene demands that I mull and brood until I've made sense of it, then my consciousness has been redefined in some way. But not, I think, in the way Brody means.

Brody writes that 2013's best films comprise a "collective declaration of the essence of cinema." Whoa. And what is the essence of cinema, Mr. Brody? "An art of images and sounds that, at their best, don't exist to tell a story or to tantalize the audience (though they may well do so) but, rather, to reflect a crisis in the life of the filmmaker and the state of the artist's mind or, even, soul."

Richard Brody

Richard Brody

There you have it: art is a window (or maybe a mirror) to the soul of the artist. That is its essence. That is Brody's metric. It helps to explain some of the more interesting selections on his list: The Canyons, say. Or Inside Llewyn Davis. Or The Bling Ring. (It does nothing that I can see to explain why The Wolf of Wall Street shares top billing with To the Wonder, but he and I are both under embargo on Wolf, so I'll say no more.)

I disagree. I think art is supposed to show us the world through the artist's eyes. Not for the sake of understanding the artist, but for the sake of understanding the world in a way we otherwise would not. I want the artist's stamp on the work; I really do. But I also want him to point beyond himself.

I'm sure there are all sort of arguments against my view of art, but I'm not interested in proving myself right. I'm just interested in pointing out the vast difference in metric between Brody and me. We come out with different measurements for the year's best films because we're using different yardsticks. Or rather, he's using a yardstick and I'm using a scale.

All this is my way of sidling up to the fact that the San Diego Film Critic's Society has released their list of nominations for the best of 2013. I'm a first-year member of the Society (thanks, good people!), and so I kept my suggestions for this list relatively few. But looking at it, it seems clear that there are different metrics among San Diego's critics as well. I think this is something Scott and I will dig into in 2014.

(But holy cow, how cool is it that Brody had the gumption to put Computer Chess and Upstream Color in his top 10? I thought they were both very good, and seeing them there makes me wonder if he isn't on to something when he talks about "audacious inventions in vision" being part of what makes a film "best.")

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Brody says: "...the state of the artist's mind or, even, soul." Oh hogwash! Since movies are mostly a highly collaborative medium, rather than an agonizing auteur toiling away on his masterpiece, Brody is being a bit pompous in tone.

Hee hee! I hear you, dwbat. But when he cites films like Computer Chess and Upstream Color - well, it's a little easier to see them as auteurist creations.

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