Criticwire Survey: Off-Limits Language

Criticwire Survey: Off-Limits Language

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: As evidenced by Erik
survey of blurbmeisters
there’s nothing studios love more than a good readymade phrase: your
“laugh riot”s and “the best yet”s and so on. So let’s role-play. In
2014, you’re allowed to remove one hollow, overused turn of phrase from
the critical lexicon: Which would you axe, and why?

A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club

I would give away my entire DVD and Blu-ray collection if it meant I’d never have to read the phrase “Oscar-worthy performance” — or some permutation of same — in a film review again. First off, it’s an impossibly generic and nondescript compliment. What does the reader learn about the performance in question, other than the fact that the critic thinks it’s in some way “good”? Secondly, it simply contributes to the widely held misconception that the Academy Awards are a reliable barometer of cinematic achievement — that winning one says something really significant. I enjoy the annual award-season circus as much as the next guy; I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I get caught in the excitement of rooting for a favorite or against a least favorite. But none of that nonsense belongs in a film review. Even those critics hoping to boost an actor’s awards chances could certainly find a less lazy, more eloquent way to stump.

Danny Bowes, By Bowes

I’m excising any phrases having to do with a movie’s chances of winning Oscars from reviews printed on the movie’s release date. First of all, no, you don’t know that Robert Redford or whoever is a shoo-in for an Oscar. That kind of thing isn’t even determinable until the nominations come out, and even then there are huge numbers of moving parts and variables like voter irrationality (or just plain, “This is the only movie I saw so I’m going to vote it straight up and down in every category”) factor in, so even if someone is clearly the best a given year, they might not win. Second of all, the awards bloggers spend six months out of the year ripping each other’s throats out anyway, so critics talking about Oscars just makes their constant state of total war even more messy. Third, why not talk about the movie itself, not what a bunch of other people are going to say about it? It’s crazy, I know, but it’s worth a shot.

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly 

After a year of fighting against lazy critical writing in HackStamp columns, I’m still far less interested in the use of blurb-y terminology favored by obviously incompetent quote-whores than I am in the shortcuts taken based on a movie’s subject matter by lots of film journalists who should know better. So come on, everyone: Never again with a “it soars” for anything having to do with flying, or any sports metaphor in reviews of baseball movies, or “doesn’t cast a spell” when the Now You See Me sequel turns up. Just consider a fundamental rule of any kind of writing: If you’re pretty sure a dozen different writers could have used the identical turn of phrase, start over.

Cameron Williams, Popcorn Junkie 

“Instant classic” deserves to be banished. Instant coffee? Yes. Instant classic. No. I’ve been guilty of using it in the past but trust me, I have given myself a double uppercut to make sure it never happens again. People forget that it takes time for a film to earn cult status or be considered a classic which is why the line deserves to be sent to the outlands!

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

I always cringe when I even think the term “instant classic.” I actually looked it up and, no, that isn’t a contradiction in terms, but it sure feels that way to me.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

Hands down, I’d lose the phrase “instant classic.” The term is an oxymoron. A film becomes a classic over time. We’re literally incapable of identifying which movies will become classics now, because we have no idea which ones will maintain their relevance or power decades down the road. Using that term is like trying to write tomorrow’s history book today. It’s foolish to put those words next to each other.

The fact that there’s even a reason to ask this question speaks to the serious negative impact of quote whores. A couple months back, I wrote an expose of Shawn Edwards, who tweeted that The Hangover III was a terrible, zero-star movie that should be “avoided like the plague,” despite the fact that he’d been quoted in TV ads saying “the funniest trilogy ever comes to a glorious end!” As I said in that piece, these blurbsters — with their for-sale opinions and hackneyed turns of phrase — harm the credibility of film critics who try to operate from a place of professionalism and ethics. In 2014, we need to make it our goal to band together and run them out of the business. Okay, I’ll step off my soapbox now.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

“Tour de force” must go. I remember first seeing this phrase on the My Dinner with Andre VHS cover and most recently noticed it during the All Is Lost trailer. These laudatory French words seem intended to get audiences gassed up for some sort of exciting international adventure, but all I see is a writer being lazy.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

This is a terrifying question, because I feel like no matter what I say, someone will go dig up a half dozen instances where I used this in the last, like, month. But here goes nothing: well, obviously, “the indomitable human spirit,” because what on earth does that even mean? And is it really indomitable anyhow? No, just, no. Runner up is — also obviously — “tour de force.” To misquote The Incredibles, if everything is tour de force, then nothing is.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?!

I’m all for retiring “a triumph of the human spirit,” a phrase so hackneyed that it diminishes any movie that might actually be a you-know-what of the you-know-what. The human spirit, and triumphs, deserve better.

Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Happy new year, indiebrothers and sisters, If there were as Strunk & White for critics, it would advise: OMIT SUPERLATIVES. No more “most,” “best,” “funniest,” “fastest.” Here’s to more nuanced writing in 2014.

Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger, Newhouse

We can start by getting rid of “a roller-coaster ride!” or, at least, restricting it to real roller-coaster rides. Also, calling anything “the best/funniest/scariest/whatever of the year” any earlier than December results in the immediate revocation of all blurbing privileges.

William Bibbiani, CraveOnline, The B-Movies Podcast

As far as common sense and I are concerned, no film critic has the information necessary to declare a movie “the best [blank] of the year” or “the [blankest] film of the year” until the year is at least mostly over. Even before I did this professionally, if I saw an advertising blurb declaring a comedy “The Funniest Movie of the Year!” before at least November, I knew that I would never be able to trust that critic’s opinion ever again.

Also, I invite all my fellow critics to get a thesaurus and look up the word “compelling.” A lot of great synonyms are available. I suggest we use them more often.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics,

Rather than a phrase I’d remove a few words from being allowed in any documentary reviews (and I’m not saying I never use them): interesting, fascinating and important.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Your question refers to phrases, but it struck me at the granular level of words. One editor told me that my fall-back word is “sublime”; another, that my go-to term is “apt”; and, though it drives me batty when other writers cite the “moral” as a cinematic virtue (and even more when they refer to the “social” to mean politics rather than to people chatting), I know that I respond with an equally habitual “aesthetic,” usually in conjunction with “experience” and often with regard to the “cinematic” (and, for that matter, “virtue”). There are only two words to avoid; one is swell and the other is lousy. For all the rest–well, we’re condemned to make new ideas with the much-rubbed common coin of language, since, though they’re still making more of it–such as selfie and, God help us, belfie — they’re not doing it fast enough to keep up with the ever-shifting and accelerating flow of, yes, cinematic experience. It’s not phrases or words that are in need of renewals, it’s ideas — and for those, we’re at the mercy of the muse and, aptly, of sublime movies themselves.

Robert Greene, Sight & Sound, Hammer to Nail

Here’s the thing: I should join Adjectives Anonymous and I know it. I’m still warming to the idea that I’m actually doing more with writing than filling time between productions. I admire so many critics that I guess it’s been hard considering myself a “real writer.” But as I do it more, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to stomach how superfluous and hyperbolic some of my language can be. So for 2014 I’d like to try to strike the word “exhilarating” from my vocabulary. According to my wife Deanna, who is always my first editor, I was very rude one time when she tried to cut that word. I am addicted and I need help.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics

I am almost never blurbed by anyone, but three words I have tried to cut down on are “chthonic,” “oneiric,” and “chimerical” — for obvious reasons. Also, if I stop using them I might get blurbed more often.

Peter Howell, The Toronto Star

The whore quote I’d most like to see terminated with extreme prejudice is the one that describes a comedy as being “laugh-out-loud.” It’s the most insincere of qualifiers and I think also physically impossible. Can you laugh without making a sound, anywhere other than in deep space?

Farran Nehme, New York Post, Self-Styled Siren

I try to avoid public pronouncements about this sort of thing. Instead, when I realize some word or phrase is becoming a crutch for me or others, I make a note to avoid it. I have a file I keep for that purpose. It is a long file, and I don’t share it, because perhaps I’ll want to let some of these convicted cliches out of jail one day. But I will disclose that I jettisoned “pitch-perfect” a while back. I am unlikely to need that one in future, unless someone invites me to review a biopic about a piano tuner. 

Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush, NY Daily News

My answer is a pain-in-the-ass dodge, but it’s true. I try to only read the critics that I think are better writers than I am. (To steal from them, mostly.) Having curated a pretty fine list, I don’t come across these hackneyed phrases too often. But one little crutch I’m trying to wean myself from is overuse of the word “may.” Example: this may be the best family drama to come along since blah blah blah. If you catch me using it again, call me out on that shit. It’s cheap.

Glenn Kenny,, Some Came Running

I’ve been through my period(s) of trying to tell people what to write and what not to write, and come out the other end with mostly burned bridges. Of the blurbmeisters and the vendors of other varieties of hokum (e.g., people who claim that David O. Russell is a “virtuosic” filmmaker — see what I did there?), I say go with God, or, on the other hand, “let them lose their souls.” As for my own practice, I hope to like things more, or less. 

Marc V. Ciafardini, GoSeeTalk

Well as much as I am irked by seeing “the best [insert franchise] yet”, I would be happy if every fantasy adventure or anything with a healthy amount of explosions/action wasn’t called an “epic.” I like quotes with some real thought — more tailored, less general — like the ones that show up on For Your Consideration screeners and adverts. Now I know the point of any quote on a trailer/poster is brevity, and in the end it’s the studios’ choice to use the quote so if they wanted something that can quickly grab the general public we could start making up outlandish pull quotes. Imagine seeing billboards with “mind-blastingly insane” and “kick-ass, smashtastic thrill ride” or, bear with me, “Hold on to your socks, they’re about to be knocked off!” That I think might be still be just as generic, exaggerated and/or subjective, but it’d be amusing.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

“A gamechanger,” “the scariest movie since The Silence of The Lambs,” “an important film,” “irresponsible,” or “…for the whole family.” Each annoys because it comes from presupposition rather than from education or theory. Also, Silence of the Lambs is creepy, gross, and unconventionally swoony, but not really scary.

Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting

“Amazing performance.” I’m not without sin here. Sometimes you want to express your fondness for a particular performance but don’t have the time, space or, frankly, eloquence/insight to articulate what it is that truly makes it great. So you take the shortcut and just call it amazing, I get it. But it’s meaningless. Not exactly blurb material, but I would also throw out any variation of “It’s not perfect.” Of course it isn’t perfect. We’re talking about art, not comparing diamond clarity.

Sean Hutchinson, Latino Review, CriterionCast

To be honest I don’t really mind those readymade-quote-heavy reviews because I just fundamentally steer clear of them. They know exactly what they’re doing in terms of making a movie easily digestible via stock phrases, and are generally harmless as a whole because it’s easy to identify the otherwise worthwhile reviews opposed to them. But if I could simply get rid of a figure of speech altogether it would be to describe something as a “crowd-pleaser.” It’s such an empty — and therefore easy — phrase to get away with that ultimately renders any cogent thought behind what somebody says meaningless.

John DeCarli,

The phrase I would most like to remove from the critical lexicon isn’t something any producer would want to put on a poster, but rather something I often hear in spoken criticism and film discussions: “[insert actor] is just being [insert actor].” I never understand what people mean when they say things like “Clooney is just acting like Clooney.” To me, it’s a lazy way to say that you have nothing interesting to say about a particular performance. Sure, some performers fall back on their personality as a celebrity and bring that to their performances, but it’s reductive and certainly imprecise to just say they’re acting like themselves. Let’s all resolve in 2014 to be more specific when analyzing performances.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I’m love to remove the phrase “Movie A is no Movie B”. It just reduces a review or an article/think piece to basically a pitch meeting, and I’d like to think that we’re all a little bit better than that. I’ve been guilty of this one from time to time, and on occasion it can be of some use, but by and large if we took this phrase away, we’d be better writers for it.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

“Gamechanger” gets my nomination for sacrifice. For me it reached its apex in June 2011, when a pal used the term to describe The Amazing Spider-Man. I’ve not been able to take it seriously since. 

Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound and MUBI

This Critic Answered a Weekly Poll. What Happened Next Will Leave You Numbed and Depressed.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

Over the years I’ve developed a blurb-blindness that prevents me from seeing these pithy little phrases that get tacked onto trailers and posters which, I suppose, feed the general interpretation of the movie concerned within the pop-culture unconsciousness. I’d like these impossible to live up to modifiers of “Best” or “Most” removed entirely, but the one that needs to go is “thrill-ride.” This term sounds like the first name given to roller coasters. So the next time you see the term thrill-ride imagine a 1920’s guy in a bowler hat saying, “Better hang onto your britches mister cause this thrill-ride’s leaving the station!” 

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

My favorite hyperbolic quote is also a personal favorite phrase: “I laughed! I cried! I hated to see it end!” I’d retire it only to keep others from using it (so I could claim it for myself). I’ve probably been guilt of overusing the quote “a must-see” myself, so could not have that one removed.

Ali Arikan,,

Until a few years ago, “taut” was the adjective of choice to describe thrillers, and even though its popularity seems to have subsided, it deserves total elimination. 

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pop Matters

Having just had an opportunity to read through a bunch of my old, half-finished reviews from the past few months in order to put together my end-of-year list, I can speak to various weak-ass writerly crutches, but none seemed more glaringly ridiculous than my drastic over-use of the adverb “fairly” in conjunction with the verb “crackles.” Not at all sure why I kept on using it, but there it was, over and over again, in everything from my description of Scorsese’s infectiously fun Wolf of Wall St. to Tobias Lindholm’s steady direction of A Hijacking. As I stand before you, my esteemed jury of peers, I humbly pledge that nothing I see this cinematic year will “crackle,” either “fairly” or “unfairly” as the case may be.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema

There’s one simple, overused word I’d like to see never get used again: “epic.” This word has, in most of its current usage, lost all meaning. Anchorman 2 is “epic”! The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is “epic”! The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is “epic”! This slice of apple pie I had for dessert is “epic”! And so on. The word can be used accurately — recently, I saw Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen, a film we can call that “epic” and feel confident in doing so — but is now frequently used as a, I suppose, fancier way of saying “This looks/looked cool.” If it’s cool, say it’s cool. If it’s funny, say it’s funny. Stop saying “epic.” Please.

Brian Tallerico,, Film Threat

So many choices. There’s a bizarre need by the critical body to proclaim something the best of a small subgenre or of a performer’s career. “The best Marlon Wayans haunted house comedy yet!” “The best film of January 2014!” “The best Croatian vampire western in years!” The desire within the context of examining one film to rank it against others often feels like pull quote-baiting. Let’s cut that shit out. That way when a movie really is the best Marlon Wayans haunted house comedy, saying so will matter.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

Thanks to Kevin Thomas, I never, EVER use the phrase “bravura picture.” I would have encouraged him to retire it too.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

My pet peeve word to read in reviews is “hypnotic.” How many critics — and, more importantly, how few readers — have actually experienced hypnosis and know what that experience feels like? (I know I haven’t.) What separates a “hypnotic” movie from one that is, for example, “riveting”? Worse, the word is often applied lazily to dramas simply because they have scenes of hypnosis in them, such as Donnie Darko and Trance. Critic-dom, listen carefully: on the count of three, you’ll find a better way to describe those “hypnotic” movies. One, two…

Alan Zilberman, The Atlantic, Tiny Mix Tapes

I would axe the phrase, “it sneaks up and floors you.” It’s been well-documented, but Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers says it all the time. Similarly, in his review for The Spectacular Now, Travers says, “the movie hits like you a shot to the heart.” What does that even mean? Come to think of it, let’s go ahead and jettison all praise that implies the movie is so good it causes surprise bodily harm.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

I hope there won’t be any follow-up film in 2014 that triggers critical “fever dreams” to excuse away ham-fisted filmmaking.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: Her

Other films receiving multiple votes: Inside Llewyn DavisThe Wolf of Wall StreetAmerican HustleNebraska.

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I second that critics should never, ever describe a performance as being "Oscar-worthy" as it doesn't tell you anything about the performance. It could mean it's a good performance like Jane Fonda's in "Klute" or Jack Nicholson's in "Cuckoo's Nest", or it could mean an awful, shameless, hammy performance that the Academy often reward (I'm thinking of Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman" or Renee Zellweger in "Cold Mountain".
I wish someone would point out to Stephanie Zacharek the number of times she refers to a film as being "alive" – she really needs to retire that one for good.


This whole article is proof that a lot of criticism is bad writing. Bad writing is often an indicator of insincerity. Insincerity is the enemy of real film criticism.

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