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The Best Movie Reviews We’ve Ever Written — IndieWire Critics Survey

65 established and emerging film critics reflect on the best things they've written, and on what they hope to accomplish with their work.

“Ratatouille”

Hunter Harris (@hunteryharris), Vulture

Because Beyoncé and Jay-Z released their joint album this weekend, I’ve been thinking about “Lemonade” and the piece I wrote for IndieWire about it. Beyoncé is so important to me, and I remember being in college and turning this in, and it was the first time I felt like a real writer — someone could write their way into an important cultural conversation about Beyoncé and generational inheritance and black womanhood, and how Beyoncé communicated that all visually. One of my co-workers at vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién, calls Bey our greatest living auteur, and I agree. “Everything Is Love” builds upon her visual legacy, but “Lemonade” felt like the fullest expression of how she sees her work and her talent in the context of race and our time.

Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC), Vulture

“Selma”

I don’t do a ton of straight-up criticism, but when I was writing for Grantland (R.I.P.), I wrote this essay about Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and the attacks on it, which gave me the opportunity to do two things I rarely get to do in the same piece–I was able to offer up a scene-by-scene and in a couple of places line-by-line reading of the movie, and at the same time connect it to larger issues of cultural criticism and the way historical fiction and its responsibilities are often misunderstood. I stand by it, which is always a nice thing to be able to say about something one wrote a few years later.

Tina Hassannia (@tinahassannia), Freelance

I’ve always been happy with my 2015 profile of Joel Potrykus’ cinema which is now a little outdated, as he’s released two new films. This was published on the now-barely-functional Fandor, but I got the full piece up on my portfolio.

Jesse Hassenger (@rockmarooned), The A.V. Club/Freelance

Is it cheating to cite an ongoing column? If not, my now-occasional-but-hopefully-not-dead A.V. Club column Together Again is my choice for the best I can offer. Writing about actors and directors who have worked together at least three times keys into what I love about watching movies — specifically, what I love about watching a lot of movies, which is the way certain repetitions and variations (of style, of themes, of actorly tics) become, with the fullness of time, something richer and almost musical.

As much as I enjoy the weekly churn of the new-release beat (and I really do!), there’s something that feels a little more communal about doing retrospective-minded features about movies that are out there in the culture, rather than delivering a simple yay-or-nay verdict about whether an upcoming movie is worth fifteen bucks/two hours/a day’s allotment of MoviePass (though, to be clear, I love that, too). Together Again also hits the sweet spot of my personal sensibility, which I’d charitably describe as one third nitpicky arthouse nerd, one-third shameless poptimist, and one-third scientist studying the alien race known as movie stars.

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Chicago Reader, Indyweek

"A Ghost Story"

“A Ghost Story”

Geeze, this is a tough question. The victor will always be my grad thesis because spending that much time on one piece of work is like raising a child (shout out to novelists and parents). But for the sake of popular interest, I’m going to go with a piece I wrote last summer on the manipulation of time and space in David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story.” I don’t speak lightly when I say that “A Ghost Story” is one of the most simple, yet ambitious works of 21st century cinema–one that I think we will be looking back on indefinitely. It lands as strongly as it sets out, but boy is it a spatio-temporal trip.

In an era overrun by thoughtless blockbusters, I take joy in analyzing and illuminating the nuance of overlooked films full of complexity. For me, weaving in and out of film history as I draw on the philosophy and theory of the field is the journalistic equivalent to riding a rollercoaster or having dinner with Rooney Mara herself. I find myself exhilarated and overwhelmed all at the same time. It took me a while to come out on the other side with a popularly-appealing and self-satisfying result (and I’m still coming down from the high), but as I’ve found, processing our favorite films in any capacity is often the most difficult and fulfilling work we can do.

Fran Hoepfner (@franhoepfner), Freelance for Bright Wall / Dark Room

Though a great many movies were released in 2015––the daring and profound “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the tender and restrained “Carol,” the acerbic “Sleeping With Other People”––I took the opportunity in Bright Wall/Dark Room’s end of year issue to reflect on the biggest surprise of the year, “Magic Mike XXL.” Rather than wax poetic on its cinematography (gorgeous! shot by Soderbergh himself!) or go deep on its gender politics, I instead wrote a list of frequently asked questions I had answered about the movie in the six months since it came out.

The get-the-gang-back-together, “male entertainer” road trip comedy was everything a popcorn movie should be: full of set pieces, not self-serious in the slightest, and yet almost a little radical in its messaging. This is a film I knew people (e.g. straight men, mostly) would love wholeheartedly if they could get over the damn hurdle of it not having been marketed to them. The FAQ doesn’t have my strongest prose or most meaningful analysis, but it captures all the bemused frustration I felt that year (and still feel, often) in explaining my affection for “Magic Mike XXL.” If I had to make any edits to the piece, nearly three years later, I’d answer the other question I find myself fielding: “Is this some kind of bit?” Absolutely not.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages

“The Master”

When freelancers submit drafts to Vague Visages, I often find myself giving the same note: I don’t want to know how “we” feel during the narrative experience, I want to know how you feel. In other words, everyone brings their own baggage to the movies; moments are interpreted differently by people from various parts of the world.

In 2018, many film writers seem to already have an angle established before they see a film. As a result, the “critique” becomes more of a slanted commentary on identity politics. To be fair, many of such essays are exceptionally written. But it’s crucial, as a film critic, to explore the direction, cinematography, narrative structure and historical context —or at least acknowledge the filmmaking itself. I always thought that’s what film criticism entailed, but more and more writers are choosing to stay on brand by focusing primarily on personal topics.

While I’m proud of a Rachel Morrison piece that I wrote for RogerEbert.com last February, I’m especially proud of a Vague Visages essay on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” from a few weeks prior. Over the years, I’ve had different experiences with the film, so I looked deeper into the images, structure and character dialogue. With my essay “Let the Right Light In: On Escapism, Coping Mechanisms and Master Projections in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master,’” I wasn’t try to solveAnderson’s film, but rather trying to communicate my latest viewing experience and interpretation by deconstructing each sequence.

Courtney Howard ( @Lulamaybelle ), Freelance for FreshFiction, SassyMamaInLA

My best writing is always birthed from a passionate reaction to a film. When I write about films on the extreme ends of the spectrum, both positive and negative, I do a more in-depth breakdown. I feel it’s my duty as a critic to draw the reader’s eye to aspects that are either magnificent or malodorous. Though my positive reviews make everyone happy, it’s my negative ones that really draw a crowd. My magnum opus so far has been my review of “Unforgettable.” I dug into its dangerously regressive gender politicking, poor narrative construction, and impact on the female-driven thriller genre. I also made sure to highlight the few good elements that resulted from having a female filmmaker at the helm. Any time I can write about the portrayal of feminism in film is a pleasure.

Ally Johnson (@AllysonAJ), Film Editor for The YoungFolks, Freelance for The Playlist, CambridgeDay.com

“After the Storm”

Being allowed the chance to write about Hirokazu Koreeda’s masterful “After the Storm” was something of a new chapter in how I saw and wrote about films. It was my first time at the Toronto Film Festival and I’d chosen “After the Storm” on a whim, having enjoyed “I Wish” and been emotionally bowled over by “Like Father,Like Son” and walked away easily declaring it my favorite of the 2016 festival. It opened my eyes fully to a director whose work I’d soon fully consumed and allowed me to write about film where basic, decent humanism was the core, where the single, driving action of the film is one dad’s self-sabotaging battle to be seen as something greater in the eyes of his son. “After the Storm” was a film that felt impossible to write about with all of its compassion and intimate introspection about every day people going about their everyday lives in ways that were both singular and universal. “After the Storm” allowed me to see the world once again with new yet familiar eyes and to write a piece as challenging as anything I ever had, because how do you write about something that has already seemingly said so much about the human condition?

Monique Jones (@moniqueblognet), Freelance for SlashFilm, Mediaversity Reviews, Shadow and Act

My favorite piece of mine is my extensive review of “A Wrinkle in Time” for Slashfilm. It’s a film that had too much riding on its shoulders to be perfect, and because of the amount of gender and racial diversity in it, there was almost an unspoken demand upon critics of color to love it and give it an overwhelmingly positive review. I am a black woman who champions when films do make their casts look more like the world, and from that perspective, I did appreciate the amount of diversity onscreen and the untold truths it tried to convey, such as a biracial black girl being loved and appreciated for her smarts and not exoticized. But diversity is only one part of a film, and no matter how diverse a cast can be, the film itself can still be bad. That’s not any fault of diversity; it’s the fault of the script, director, and/or studio machinations behind the scenes.

I felt like I was in between a rock and a hard place when writing that review, but I wanted to be honest and true to myself. The truth was that I didn’t like “A Wrinkle in Time.” But I didn’t want any negative reviews the film might get to ruin Ava DuVernay’s chances of making more films, since there is a real fear of creators of color never getting another chance to prove themselves after one of their films go belly-up. I feel like I addressed all of my issues with the film in a cogent way, as well as expressing my fears and hopes for creators of color in Hollywood. After writing the piece, I got a lot of responses from people saying they, as women of color, also felt like they were forcing themselves to like the film because they also wanted DuVernay to be given more chances. The fact that Hollywood has put fans in this type of bind because there is so little representation is shameful. If anything, I think my review shows how Hollywood still has a lot to atone for when it comes to keeping non-white, non-male narratives largely to the margins.

Daniel Joyaux (@thirdmanmovies), Freelance for Vanity Fair, The Verge, The Independent

The first piece I wrote for Vanity Fair is an analysis of why the Oscar nominees for Best Picture and Best Actress haven’t really had much overlap throughout the years, and certainly a lot less overlap than Best Picture has had with Best Actor. Some of the chief things I’m interested in with film criticism are how and why our thoughts congeal in the way they do. And then in terms of groupthink about films and film history, I’m fascinated by how process affects results. That’s partially why I’ve always been so drawn to the Oscars; not because I think the Academy gets it right (though I certainly think that sometimes), but because the Oscars help determine and clarify both how the public remembers film history, and what the industry thinks of itself.

To that end, I really enjoyed poring through Oscar history for bizarre little stats about the history of the Best Actress field, and then trying to figure out the How and Why associated with them. For example, it turns out that Best Actress nominees come from foreign language films three times as often as Best Actor nominees do. So unless you think Academy voters love nothing more than watching subtitled films to find viable Best Actress options, that probably speaks to how few good leading roles are available for women in Hollywood movies. While I’m sure I didn’t find all there is to find, and I certainly didn’t say all there is to say, I really enjoyed writing this piece and I remain proud of how it turned out.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG), Editor at Wicked Horror, Freelance for Birth.Movies.Death., Vague Visages

Anton Yelchin, "Green Room"

“Green Room”

This is a tough one but I think my review of “Green Room” is one of my all-time favorites. I was so excited to see this movie and it connected with me in the very first frame. I wanted to share that same feeling with readers and I think I did so pretty well here (or, at least, I hope I did). A really big part of film criticism is either selling a movie to patrons or advising them to steer clear. It can be difficult to write about a movie I absolutely hated, because it’s hard to walk that fine line between just dumping all over it and arguing for why somebody shouldn’t spend their hard-earned money on it. But I often find writing about movies that really spoke to me even harder because I don’t want to do the flick a disservice, nor do I want to just gush like a crazy person. Striking a balance between sharing how a movie made me feel and making a coherent argument for why it’s worthy of someone’s time and money can be tough but I achieved that here.

Ella Kemp (@efekemp), Freelance for Little White Lies, Vague Visages

My favourite piece of film criticism is my essay on “Call Me By Your Name”, which is a lengthy love letter to the ideas of primitive romantic obsession and growing up. If we’re thinking of something precise or objective, this might not be my best piece of writing, but it’s definitely my favourite. It’s something that I wrote when I couldn’t get the film out of my head and couldn’t shake the obsession that surrounded it, where writing provided the understanding and cathartic release that I needed. It was written, rewritten, hated, loved and often doubted, but now I’m proud of it.

A wise critic once told me that my best work should always be embarrassingly personal and I think this essay reflects that. I want to write about the sheer weight of what movies make me feel; about things I love and hate and question and understand. I can’t remember when a movie made me feel as much as Call Me By Your Name did. 

Rosalie Kicks (@BonjourOldSport), Moviejawn.com

“Logan”

My favorite piece of film criticism is the review I wrote for “Logan.” I was really proud of how this piece came together and I received a lot of positive feedback about it. Sometimes, when I am struggling to put a review together, I go back and look at this one. It helps me remember that I can do this… I am a film writer.

Rosie Knight (@Rosiemarx), Freelancer for Nerdist, Slashfilm, Ms En Scene

Ever since I was about ten I’d dreamt of being a film critic, I even used to send Empire magazine masses of unsolicited reviews of films I wasn’t legally old enough to watch, and so it took me a while to realize that all the film writing I’d been doing actually meant I had the job that I’d always wanted. I think the piece that really made me realise I was a critic was a review / essay I wrote about Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle”. The piece ran on Ms En Scene and was monumentally important for me, as it was one of the first film pieces that I’d truly shared a part of myself in, as a survivor of rape and a writer. I have always adored Verhoeven’s work and “Elle” was to me a confirmation of the incredible, thoughtful and powerful film maker that he is. This piece was used by an organization as a way of introducing screenings of the film to potential viewers who were concerned about the content, and I’m incredibly proud of that. Plus I just think it’s a great piece!

Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute

My review of Louis C. K.’s “I Love You, Daddy” may not my favorite, or even my best, but it certainly was among the toughest to write. A few of us got to see this film before it was shelved and, had it not been released into the environment it was, I probably would have spent most of my review analyzing the savvy comedy of an artist whose work I admired. Except for that Charlie Day part. But as the sly comedy was about to hit theaters, insistent word of the filmmaker’s abhorrent behavior toward women grew louder. Even Roseanne Barr stood up for her fellow comediennes, spreading the word about Louis; that, in itself, even more interesting now than it was back then. In light of the charges, much of what was on screen carried a more sinister implication than maybe was intended. But does that negate the finer points of the film, an experimental piece that does, at times, deliver? When asked if I “liked” the film, I couldn’t just toss off an easy answer. So, I wrote this.

Manuela Lazic (@manilaz), Freelance for Little White Lies, rogerebert.com, Sight & Sound, The Ringer

“The Work”

It’s always gratifying when a piece of writing seems to have any sort of impact on readers, whether it makes them click the retweet button or check out a movie. But it’s endlessly gratifying when a review encourages someone to take on a new challenge that can make their life better.

I first heard of the documentary “The Work” on Twitter as MOMI programmer and friend Eric Hynes (@eshynes) kept tweeting about this film centred on a group of inmates in Folsom Prison engaging in group therapy sessions together and with visitors. When I finally saw the film, I had to write about it and was lucky to do so for Cinema Scope.

What particularly struck me about “The Work” was how the process employed by the Inside Circle Foundation that it depicted echoed the Meisner technique of acting I was currently being taught here in London, UK. Although my classmates and I do not use physical contact, we too help each other admit to emotional blocks, past traumas and current struggles through honest communication and unconditional support (the aim is to better know the instrument we are working with, a.k.a. our selves). I told my class and teacher to seek out the film, and was delighted to hear, a few weeks later, that many had indeed watched and loved it. My teacher, in particular, was very moved by the film, as I had expected this generous, complex and beautiful woman to be.

What I had not expected was that my teacher would reach out to the Inside Circle Foundation and tell them about her own work with prisoners and aspiring actors. A few months later, she started the class by announcing that she had been invited to San Francisco to take part in the very first therapy session organised by the foundation that would include women. I started crying out of joy and bewilderment, but this was nothing compared to how I felt when she returned from her trip. She was, simply, a different person. With tears in her eyes and the biggest smile, she told us all about her exercises with the men (some of which were the ones featured in the documentary), and how they had affected her like no acting class or therapy sessions ever had. Her shoulders had never been so relaxed, her hopefulness never so bright as she carried on with the class and encouraged us to face our personal issues ‘right here, right now,’ and not wait for tomorrow or the next class. When she hugged me, I felt for the first time that film criticism and cinema at large truly could change lives, or at least help people be happier.

In the weeks since, my teacher hasn’t lost any of her newfound courage. She’s also still in touch with the Inside Circle Foundation, and might even work with them on some new, exciting programs. It can be easy for film critics to stay in their bubble of sarcastic articles (and tweets) about the latest superhero movie, meanwhile forgetting what this job is all about in the first place: sharing our love of cinema and believe in its potential to help people. “The Work reminded me of that twice over, and makes me hope for more such experiences in my still young film writing career.

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