In 2018, I wrote 105 movie reviews. I expect to write about the same amount in 2019. I’ve been a professional film critic for the past 12 years, and I’ve been writing movie reviews for the past 20 years. And yet I’m still a little surprised when people assume that the purpose of a film review is a recommendation. The purpose of film criticism is not like Consumer Reports where an object is worth purchasing or not. The purpose of film criticism to participate in a discussion about film. I would suggest that a positive review should not steer you to see a movie or a negative review should steer you away from a movie. If you’re passionate about movies, you should be eager to see them and see reviews as a way to be part of the conversation.
People assume that my job as a critic is to recommend movies, and it’s not. Yes, I think there are films people should see because I liked those movies, but it’s not my job to make sure people see the movies I like. By the same token, it’s not my job to make sure people avoid the movies I dislike. My job is to see as many movies as possible and write about them. Usually, I’m writing about newer movies because those articles will garner more traffic than a piece about Once Upon a Time in the West, but I still have a bit of leeway to write about the films I’m interested in. I write about movies because I like to write about movies, not because I’m hoping to sway opinions. What I want is for people to see as many movies as possible so they can join in the conversation. I don’t need to agree with everything that’s said in that conversation.
I understand why people have this misconception. Ticket prices are only going up, and there’s a wide variety of options not just at the multiplex but on various streaming services as well. I also understand why people feel like, with time and money on the line, they need some sort of guidance so that this time and money doesn’t go to waste. You’re looking for a high probability of success that you’ll like a particular movie. But film criticism doesn’t really work that way because art is subjective and tastes differ.
If you’re in the market for a new dishwasher, I completely understand looking at reviews. I had to do that earlier this year when our old dishwasher broke and so I looked at Consumer Reports and the Wirecutter as well as customer reviews on Amazon and Best Buy. I did my research, and at the end of the day, the dishwasher either cleans the dishes or it doesn’t. There’s an objective truth at the end of this journey in terms of whether or not a dishwasher works. But because art is subjective, my opinion or any other opinion can’t really tell you what you’re going to get.
For example, I enjoyed both The Old Man & the Gun and Suspiria, but I’d only recommend the first one to my 92-year-old grandmother. When I write a review, it can’t really be for everyone. Even movies that are crowdpleasers are going to have their detractors, and some people don’t want to see populist entertainment. They want something stranger and weirder and more obscure. So would I recommend people see Suspiria? Some people, sure. But at the end of the day, the best thing I can recommend is that everyone see as much as they can if they’re serious about movies.
There’s no big secret to being a serious film fan. If you want to work on a film set to increase your knowledge of how filmmaking works, go for it. If you want to read books on film theory or collected works of film criticism, go for it. But at the end of the day, I would argue that what it means to be a movie fan is to watch movies. And that means watching movies you might hate, and that’s good!
Watching bad movies has value! You can learn as much from watching a bad movie as you can from watching a good one. And sometimes those fiascos can be downright fascinating. There are a bunch of movies from 2017 I don’t remember, but I sure as hell remember The Book of Henry, and I’m glad I saw it even though it is an absolute disaster. I can say with all honesty I am richer for the experience of having watched The Book of Henry. Does that mean I think people should stop what they’re doing right now and go watch it? I honestly don’t care.
I do not care which movies people end up seeing. It would make me happier if they saw movies I liked because it increases the chances that more movies like those get made, or at the very least, the people involved in the films I like have more opportunities to make other films. But I really don’t need people to agree with me, and I don’t know any good critics who have that desire or need for affirmation. You don’t win a prize for having the most popular opinion. You don’t get an award for convincing the most people. You share your opinion on movies because you love movies and you love talking about them. It’s as simple as that.
As we head into 2019, I hope one of your resolutions is to watch more movies. If you’re a loyal reader of this site, that’s what we support. It’s not one genre over another, or one director over another. It’s simply trying to watch as many films as possible so you can be a better informed, well-rounded supporter of the medium. And thanks to a multitude of streaming services with even more on the way this year, the ball is really in your court. Watch more movies, and join the conversation.