Friday, February 5, 2010

A year out of synch

We critics like having an iconoclastic streak. Most of us would never be satisfied producing a year-end top ten that aligned with, say, the ten best picture nominees -- even if that seems, on some level, like the ultimate endorsement of your critical faculties. See, the Oscars are way too mainstream, and we like to snub our noses by championing small/ overlooked films. Not only does it make us feel smarter, but it's more interesting -- more of a conversation starter than just parroting the status quo.

But don't think we also don't like it when one of "our" films gets nominated. We like Oscar's endorsement just as much as we like to proclaim, at other times, that Oscar's endorsement has no value. We're complicated people that way. Less charitably, we're hypocrites.

And never forget that nugget of uncertainty I've discussed before, nestled in the back of our minds: We always want to be reminded that our judgments are sound, that we really are qualified for this job. Falling in line with Oscar, or perhaps more importantly, falling in line with other critics -- at least somewhat -- is essential to that sense of reassuring comfort.

So years like 2009 can be tough on a critic. And when I say "a critic" I'm talking about me.

As a reminder from Tuesday, here are the top ten movies I saw in 2009, according to me:

1. Moon
2. Where the Wild Things Are
3. Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
4. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
5. Away We Go
6. Sin Nombre
7. Inglourious Basterds
8. Watchmen
9. The Education of Charlie Banks
10. Fantastic Mr. Fox

And here is what thinks are the ten best movies I saw in 2009:

1. The Hurt Locker
2. Up
3. An Education
4. The Cove
4. Avatar
6. Fantastic Mr. Fox
6. Star Trek
6. Drag Me to Hell
6. Up in the Air
6. Tyson
6. In the Loop
6. Crazy Heart

Only one title in common. And that's even listing 12 titles from Metacritic, since the final six were tied with the same Metacritic score (called a Metascore) of 83.

For those unacquainted, Metacritic is a website that compiles dozens of reviews from major outlets around the country, assigning a number from 1 to 100 based on the level of enthusiasm of the review. (It's possible that the critic him or herself assigns this number -- I'm not sure). The movie then gets stamped with an average critical grade, called a Metascore, which provides a quick and easy way to compare it to other films.

So I used this resource in the following way: I copied into an Excel spreadsheet the Metascore for all 113 films I saw this year, then sorted them, to find how my impression of those films compared to the average critical impression. Apparently, my appetite for film-related "projects" has no end.

To give you some idea of the range we're dealing with, the movie I saw this year that was ranked most favorably by other critics was The Hurt Locker with a Metascore of 94. The lowest was Miss March with a Metascore of 7, which may be the lowest score I have ever seen on Metacritic.

My take on these films was much different. Whereas they ranked The Hurt Locker #1, I ranked it #68. What can I say, I like it less than anyone I know. Perhaps I was making more of a statement with my ranking than I really intended, or maybe it's how I really feel. Who knows? I'm more in line with them on Miss March, which is, indeed, quite bad. But there were 19 films on my list that I considered worse.

Now, number systems are not infallible, as much as people like me like to put a huge amount of weight in them. Nor should we expect all critics to say the same things about all movies. Disagreements are the lifeblood of discussing film.

But the more I look at that list, the more I worry. Let's take some other prominent examples:

Up. Metacritic ranking: #2. My ranking: #62. Is my frustration that they didn't spend enough time in the air, that there were too many talking dogs, and that this guy shouldn't be all obsessed with a rare bird if he invented a way for dogs to talk, really worth 60 points in the rankings?

Up in the Air. Metacritic ranking: #6. My ranking: #35. I know it's a story for our times, but I also know that it felt too familiar to me, structurally and otherwise. That flew in the face of the freshness I was supposed to feel from something as current as this claims to be.

Avatar. Metacritic ranking: #4. My ranking: #37. This film has plenty of detractors, so we can probably skip over it. In fact, this ranking might actually gain me some credibility.

Crazy Heart. Metacritic ranking: #6. My ranking: #88. Largest discrepancy between us on the whole list. Yes, Jeff Bridges is good, but he's always good, and the story around him in this case is punchless. If he wins an Oscar, I'll celebrate it as a career achievement, not as an endorsement of this particular movie.

District 9. Metacritic ranking: #16. My ranking: #65. Jeez, District 9, pick a narrative style (mock documentary or fiction film) and stick to it. And pick a tone and stick to it. And make your main character more likeable.

(500) Days of Summer. Metacritic ranking: #23. My ranking: #70. Was I the only one who wondered why we were watching these two characters that I didn't care about?

Adventureland. Metacritic ranking: #24. My ranking: #91. Was I the only one who wondered why were were watching these two characters that I didn't care about, part II?

As hard as it is to understand why people liked a movie a lot more than you did, it can be even harder when they liked it a lot less. At least when you're hard on a movie other people like, you have a certain stodgy credibility. In critical circles, we're more likely to respect a person who hates everything than a person who loves everything. Hating everything, you see, is a sign of discerning standards and an implicit yearning for the good old days when everything was better, while loving everything means you might just be a simpleton, unworthy of anyone's time. Never mind the fact that we're all supposed to love watching movies, which is what we're even doing in this job in the first place.

Naturally, then, I feel even more self-conscious about movies I loved that other people didn't. Such as:

Away We Go. Metacritic ranking: #56. My ranking: #5. I thought my friend Don was the only one who hated this movie, but apparently, others were on board. But I can't deny that I walked out of that theater in a dreamy fugue of satisfaction. Hence my ranking.

Watchmen. Metacritic ranking: #59. My ranking: #8. At the very least I have heard that this is an exceptionally accurate adaptation of the comic book. I guess that doesn't win points with many people. I thought it was excellent execution of an epic story, one that spans the decades, and really admired Zack Snyder's ambition.

The Education of Charlie Banks. Metacritic ranking: #72. My ranking: #9. I like this movie more than almost anybody. Then again, I've talked to only two other people who've actually seen it, one who hates it, one (my wife) who seems to like it almost as much as I do. I love surprises from people I would tend to underestimate, and the light touch I thought Fred Durst showed as director was a great surprise for me.

Where the Wild Things Are. Metacritic ranking: #30. My ranking: #2. This is probably a silly one to include here, for two reasons: 1) This was a classic love it-or-hate it movie, which means there were a lot of "hate its" out there in the critical community; 2) 30 out of 113 is really not that low of a ranking.

2012. Metacritic ranking: #75. My ranking: #26. I am coming to grips with the fact that I liked this movie more than anyone else on the planet, except maybe Roland Emmerich.

Moon. Metacritic ranking: #40. My ranking: #1. What are you gonna do. If some people can't recognize brilliance, that's their problem.

One last interesting Metascore: Couples Retreat received only a 23, good for 112th out of 113 on Metacritic's list. My ranking of 74 doesn't mean I was a huge fan of it, but come on, it was better than this.

Interesting exercise. At least, that's what I think. I don't know what you think, but comment if you like.

So what does it say about me that I like Away We Go, Watchmen and 2012 better than Up in the Air, Up and The Hurt Locker? Would I substitute my three for those three among the best picture nominees? Would I really?

Best not to think about it too much; just keep on watching and ranking.

But to return for a moment to the topic of the Oscars, which ended up being kind of a red herring for what I really wanted to talk about today (comparing my views to my peers, rather than to industry professionals as I implied I would): I'm actually rooting for The Hurt Locker to win best picture. After an initial swell of enthusiasm for Up in the Air that I feel has died down, I now think The Hurt Locker is the only film that has a chance to beat Avatar. What's unusual about rooting for The Hurt Locker is that I am violating my own rankings in order to do it. According to those rankings, Avatar (#37) is 31 movies better than The Hurt Locker (#68). Maybe I just like Kathryn Bigelow better than James Cameron, even if I think her movie isn't as good as his on most of the levels on which I judge these things.

Like I said earlier: We film critics are a complicated people.

Or, less charitably, hypocrites.


Don Handsome said...

The thing I don’t like about Metacritic is that the scores don’t give you an indication of that singular championing voice for any particular film. Whether it be Michael Phillips adding Me and Orson Welles to his top 10 for 2009, Roger Ebert’s similarly outlandish endorsement of Knowing (showing a Chicago bias here, sorry), or your love of Away We Go and Education of Charlie Banks, a good critic putting him or herself on the line to recommend an under-seen or under-appreciated flick is what makes criticism so engaging. When you smooth it out to a single score (and I know you can dig and read the different individual scores, but I don’t always do that on Metacritic) you lose the purpose of reading and following reviews. There are countless critics out there, and most of them have their own opinions and tastes (unless they are Ben Lyons) – why else would we want to read them? It’s important, therefore, to know who you trust and who’s opinion you respect the most. Its OK to disagree with them, film is art afterall, but the point is that you like HOW they see the art form and trust them to formulate solid opinions about the art form. I have about six critics nationwide right now who’s opinions I respect. Six out of thousands (granted, there are probably more than six viable critics out there, I just haven’t and don’t care to seek them out). But Metacritic surveys hundreds of critics and therefore, its only natural then that the score produced by Metacritic is going to give you a bland / middle of the road / uninformed / mainstream opinion…just like the Oscars. The Mainstream doesn’t care about one odd film that one nerdy guy in Chicago swears is 50+ places better Avatar…it just cares about Avatar, and unfortunately there are many critics who write to their audience, and want to tell their audience that what they want to hear. So films like Avatar get a 84 on Metacritic and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans gets a 69.

Anyway, it’s a worthwhile exercise to see how your favorite films of last or of any year stack up against the Metacritic scores, but its also important not to let those compromised scores ever cause you pause. And so even though you’re completely wrong about at least two of your top 10, its good and important that you stick to your guns and champion them anyway. I may hate Charlie Banks, but I sure am glad that I read someone who likes it.

Derek Armstrong said...

True on Metactric. I was actually going to mention Rotten Tomatoes in yesterday's post, and why I had chosen Metacritic over Rotten Tomatoes. They measure slightly different things yet, remarkably, come up with very similar scores. RT is simply the number of "fresh" scores relative to the number of "rotten" scores -- in other words, how many thumbs up/thumbs down a film gets. I guess it's probably a little more subtle than that -- a critic may give a film a "rotten" and not actually consider it a bad film, they may just think it's not a "fresh" film. In any case, the result we always reach is that it's flawed to try to find an objective system for which films are good and which are bad -- and so we come back to the strange reality that a good film critic is pretty much just someone who writes well and happens to like movies.