Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail / Film Festival Today
We at “Hammer to Nail” write almost exclusively supportive coverage of the ultra-indie films–starving for attention–that are our frames and splices (i.e., cinematic bread and butter). Ergo, the best part about this film-critic life of mine (layered on top of my main job as an academic) is that I get to review movies that directly benefit from the pieces I write. Though I may have enjoyed “Incredibles 2,” Brad Bird and Pixar would be fine without me. So, as long as I admire most of what a film accomplishes, I’ll write a positive critique (if not, then I write nothing), though I will always point out the parts I wish could be better (if they exist). But if there’s a film–usually, but not exclusively, a big-budget studio production–that I find terrible, or even just mediocre, I do not hesitate to pan it; such reviews go up at “Film Festival Today,” however. I did once write a take-down of Jim Hosking’s extraordinarily irritating 2016 “The Greasy Strangler” at Hammer to Nail, but we ran the review, anyway, because we felt that Hosking might actually enjoy the negative press. If we were wrong, then here is a belated apology.
I am also really proud of the time and effort I spend interviewing filmmakers, and then transcribing those interviews, as I feel this is a wonderful way to spread my love of their movies. What I wish I had more time for is the long-form essay, on a topic beyond a single film, that would allow me to explore a theme of cultural significance that transcends the merely cinematic (though movies are my lifeblood). I did once write such an article for “Hammer to Nail” about my less-than-enthusiastic response to “The Book of Mormon,” where I revisited Justin Simien’s fine 2014 “Dear White People” as a point of comparison, and given how infrequently I manage to pull off this kind of criticism, I hold that up, for now, as one of my favorite pieces.
Katie Rife (@FutureSchlock), The A.V. Club
Whenever there’s a twitter dust-up about diversity in film criticism, I find myself going back to a piece I wrote last summer trying to articulate my thoughts on the critical reaction to “Wonder Woman” and how it exposed what I posited was a generational shift in perspective on the role of the critic.
Tasha Robinson (@tasharobinson), The Verge
I’m best known by far for a piece I wrote for The Dissolve back in 2014: “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters To Trinity Syndrome,” about the new ways women were being developed into cinematic badasses that then had no actual story purpose besides cheerleading or failing. I’m pretty proud of how far that piece traveled, of the way it inspired actual accomplished screenwriters and industry folks to consider it and debate it on podcasts, and (I’m told) take it into story meetings as an encouragement for writers to think through the issues and do better.
But honestly, I’m prouder of a less-read piece I wrote for the same publication a year later: “There’s No Universal ‘Right Age’ For Aliens, Or Any Other Movie.” That one was written in response to the raging controversy over a perfectly charming piece RogerEbert.com Editor-in-Chief Matt Zoller Seitz wrote about showing Aliens to a group of kids at his son’s slumber party. It blew up into one of those one-day Internet wars, as one side accused him of being the worst parent / slumber-party host ever, and the other side responded with “I sawCannibal Holocaust when I was 5 years old and it didn’t do me any harm!” I’m mostly pleased with the piece because it’s something I think we all need all the time — a measured response to Internet name-calling and hysteria, an attempt to logically deal with some of the big emotions surging around and consider what’s driving the response, and an attempt to find the common ground where both sides are right, and call out the places where they’re wrong.
The headline could just as well be “Geez, people, take a chill pill,” but I think the piece makes a meaningful argument for empathy, for rational response, and for people maybe minding their own damn business once in a while instead of assuming they know what’s best for people they’ve never met.
Emily Sears (@emily_dawn), Freelance for Birth.Movies.Death., Fandor
In January 2017, everyone at Sundance was raving about Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name.” Knowing it wouldn’t be released until much later, I immediately purchased André Aciman’s novel and fell head over heels for his beautiful tale about Elio Perlman’s summer of love. The film became my most anticipated of the year, requiring a lot of patience on my part since I didn’t get to see it until October. After watching it there was no question in my mind that I had to write something about my different experiences with the novel and the film.
What was most important to me was to express how, even with its omissions, the film captures the essence of the novel in a way that elevates it to one of cinema’s most memorable and captivating love stories. While most bibliophiles are quick to claim the book is always better – and in all honestly this is often true – I believe film adaptations have the power to amplify a novel with their visual representation. In the case of this beautiful film, I’ve only grown to love it more and I’m happy I had a chance after that first viewing to discuss not only what I felt was missing from the book, but also how it captured that summer “somewhere in Northern Italy” in a way that will resonate with audiences for many years to come.
I recall this being one of the most difficult pieces I wrote last year, precisely because I had spent so long with the novel and my own anticipation surrounding the film. In an era where our own hype can kill the experience before you reach your seat in the theater, it’s important to me to approach writing about film with a balance of my own perspective and empathy for the perspective of others. In the case of “Call Me by Your Name” I had the opportunity to write about the book and film from a place of great love and admiration and I only hope that comes across in the piece.
Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz), RogerEbert.com
I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and particular pieces seem to have longer legs than others. By far the one people mention most often is this piece, “All The Things that Remind Me of Her.” I don’t know if it counts as criticism, exactly, but it’s about the relationship between life and art, and specifically how my late first wife Jennifer Dawson and I bonded over movies, TV series, pop music, Broadway musicals and the like. I guess if we restrict it to straight criticism, I’m proud of this piece about “Life Itself,” which was written under duress.
Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson
Wearing my hat as an elementary educator on Every Movie Has a Lesson, I cite life lessons, from the serious to the farcical, that viewers can absorb from the subject film and include/weave them each piece of criticism. I enjoy adding these extra morsels as creative flourishes and my own way of standing out from a rote or typical review filled with hyperbole and the same tropes.
With that in mind, my teacher’s heart was endlessly impressed the artistry and care Todd Haynes and his collaborators gave to “Wonderstruck” last year. I was proud to champion that film and the effort to extend a different sort of sensibilities to the family film marketplace under-nourished with headier material than animated messes.
Allison Shoemaker (@allisonshoe), Freelance for Consequence of Sound, RogerEbert.com
Answering a question like this one is a tiny nightmare for a person with my particular brain chemistry. The midwestern, aw-shucks thing that swirls around in there is rubbing elbows with anxious indecision and impostor syndrome as I write this, and they’re so busy roughhousing that no one’s left to fight recency bias. So I’m left with “The Tale,” Jennifer Fox’s piece of cinematic memoir, which bowed on HBO last month. It’s a review that didn’t come easy, both because of the subject matter, which demands a careful touch, and the place in which the film left me. Writing criticism is always at least a little bit personal; art is personal, and our experiences are personal, so of course our responses also come from somewhere that’s uniquely ours, even as we strive for a critical distance and somewhat objective eye. But to approach “The Tale” from a place of remove felt wrong. After quite a few false starts (and a gentle shove from a great editor) I landed in the place in which the review lives, which may not read as personal to anyone but me. But to me, it’s as though my experience of watching (and trying to write about) “The Tale” is pressed between the pages of a dictionary. It was hard fought, so recency bias be damned, it’s the one of which I’m proudest.
Of course, it’s not the review that includes the phrase “rococo fuck palaces,” so maybe I’ve got it wrong.
Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM), Solzy at the Movies
When Anything premiered during the 2017 LA Film Festival, it sucked up all the air out of the room. It featured cisgender actor Matt Bomer as a trans woman. During the same festival, transgender actress Rachel Crowl was starring in And Then There Was Eve as a trans woman. It upset me greatly that this film didn’t get close to the amount of press that Anything did. Anything was getting a lot of press because of the controversial casting. The latter film? Hardly anything. As a result, I reached out to a number of transgender actors and filmmakers, including Rachel, in hopes for comment on what needs to be done to improve transgender representation in the media. I could have broken it down into a series of feature interviews but decided to have it all in one place.
Next to this piece though, I couldn’t be prouder of my op-ed that called out Ready Player One for keeping a certain actor in the cast. While I wrote a review of the film, I didn’t touch on the issues with regards to the lack of recasting. Other critics did so in their support of my having gone public on the awful transphobic abuse and I greatly appreciate it. After consulting with some other film critics, I decided to write a second, harsher article that called out the film for the lack of re-casting especially Spielberg himself saying that he’s supporter of the Time’s Up movement.
Emma Stefansky (@stefabsky), Vanity Fair, Uproxx, Thrillist, Bustle, Slate
I didn’t get started as a bona fide film critic until pretty recently, though I’ve been writing about film and pop culture for a while. Like a lot of people, I find it difficult to write about things I really love, but when former Uproxx editor Keith Phipps asked me for a last-minute review of “The Greatest Showman” last year—as my first ever paid piece of film criticism—I could hardly say no. It’s one of a few of my pieces I genuinely enjoy re-reading, and one of the best and weirdest times I’ve ever had at a screening (there was a juggler!). I like to find things to praise about anything I’m criticizing, and though this isn’t necessarily a positive review, I enjoyed getting a chance to pick apart why a movie that’s not exactly a masterpiece gave me so much genuine joy.
Pedro Strazza (@pedrosazevedo), B9
As probably every film critic ever, I end up judging my reviews way too hard right after finishing it, a position that helps to create this self-imposed paranoia that every text I write has a bad take or development. I eventually return to my pieces, though, to remember some specifics notions about my opinions towards the movie in the months that follow its release (even if it takes years to make this happen), and sometimes one or two reviews shine before my eyes and make me think that I am on the right path for once.
The most recent of these cases that became one of my favorites is the piece I wrote for “Paddington 2” (English translation here), a movie that came to Brazil on a very discreet release and unfortunately didn’t had what it takes to go well in Brazilian box offices. In the review, I wrote about how Paul King’s movie was one of the most interesting British productions in recent times because of its unusual and inevitable connection to Brexit, an event so huge to country’s History that contaminates every single trace of its film industry, from Oscar highlights to genre movies as those made for children – and what I enjoy about my text is that I was able to identify and write about this with clarity, even if the train of thought sounds a little too insane for some people.
Millicent Thomas (@MillicentOnFilm), Freelance for Screen Queens, Heroes Direct
As much as I adore a film that can move me to tears, or force me to shrink into my seat with sheer discomfort, something that leaves me on a high of pure and plain fun really reminds me why I love cinema. For Screen Queens, I wrote a review of the recent “Tomb Raider,” directed by Roar Uthaug and starring the perfectly-cast Alicia Vikander. As a big fan of the game reboots sparked in 2013, I couldn’t have been happier with Uthaug’s rendition. In my review, I state that “Tomb Raider” is the female-led adventure we’ve been waiting for, and I stand by it. It hits every typical mark laid out by its inspirations, such as ‘Indiana Jones’ or ‘The Mummy’; but is just filled with so much fun and wonderment that you don’t notice it whilst you’re whisked up in the adventure. I’m not always confident in my writing, but when I love what I’m writing about I can feel it when I read it back. I was proud of my review, and in particular, I noticed I was balanced and aware. See, “Tomb Raider” is not a perfect film by any means, it’s a cut-out template adventure we’ve seen countless times, but I loved every second and I owned it.
Andrea Thompson (@areelofonesown), The Young Folks
I think it was my “City of Ghosts” review for The Young Folks at Sundance.
This was not only the first time I had attended Sundance, it was a very intense reminder of why film itself is still so relevant in the Peak TV Era. This documentary was a plea for a saner response to the very real threats we face today, and it had the potential to have a real impact on the lives of its subjects. The men it followed were in constant danger from ISIS, not due to any act of violence they had committed, but for documenting the atrocities ISIS committed. While incredibly emotional and graphic about what we’re up against, it also calmly laid out its argument for how even some of the worst, most violent people will require an approach that doesn’t always involve weapons. “City of Ghosts” was also an indignant rebuke to the fear-mongering involving Muslims, and a reminder that many of them are already speaking up against those who are using Islam to justify their brutal ends.
Oralia Torres (@oraleia), Freelance for Cinescopia, Malvestida
I think my favorite piece of film criticism I’ve made was the one I made for “Lady Bird,” featured in Malvestida. I talked about being a weird teenager and how big it was, for me, seeing my experiences reflected on screen and being able to get a bittersweet closure with that stage of my life.
Caroline Tsai (@carolinetsai3), The Harvard Crimson
I wrote this review of David Robert Mitchell’s “Under the Silver Lake” at 4 am in my hotel room at Cannes. It was approaching the end of the festival, and my brain had all but fritzed, fueled only by croissants and free espresso—after 10 days of marathoning films by day, churning out content by night. (I know—a very hard knock life.) Given the circumstances, I’m retroactively impressed with my own ability to string together coherent thoughts. It was especially surprising, because at the press screening of “Under the Silver Lake,” I remember feeling like my poor, nutrient-starved brain couldn’t keep up and dreading the review. But the actual act of writing it came easily. I often think that writing film criticism is like mining gold—you have to slog through your own muddy, scrambled thoughts to look for nuggets of gold. Sometimes, the mud is everywhere and the gold nuggets are depressingly absent. This was one of those rare times, when the gold seems to fall into your lap, as if you’re not really looking for it, but someone is gently handing it to you one at a time.
I still like this review for several different reasons. Middle-of-the-road reviews are the hardest—it’s easy to articulate how much you love or hate a movie, but how do you articulate feeling blasé? Or conflicted? I felt like I was able to straddle the line well, giving credit where it was due, but also freely criticizing where I saw fit. It was also just a fun review to write, since a lot of the themes—pop culture, female sexuality, unconventional imagery, allusion—resonate personally, themes that I enjoy writing about.
This review is also important to me on a symbolic level, in terms of my ethics as a reviewer, since I used a paragraph to talk about the depiction of women in the film. As a woman of color, I’m especially attuned to the representation of women and of minorities in a way that other critics might not be. I used to be, and in some ways still am, self-conscious about my own taste in movies, whether it was legitimate or cultured or intellectual enough (whatever that means). But I realized that my input is also valuable—especially when statistics show that women of color are grossly underrepresented in the world of film criticism. If we’re going to campaign for a more equal film industry, then we also need to diversify the loudest voices when it comes to evaluating the films we watch. Otherwise, nothing will ever change.
Ethan Warren (@ethanrawarren), Bright Wall / Dark Room
I have never had as much fun writing anything as I did with this look at acid westerns for the “Head Trips” issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room in November, 2017. This essay started with a small idea (writing about “El Topo”), quickly expanded into a broader one (writing about four acid westerns—“El Topo,” “Zachariah,” “Greaser’s Palace,” and “Dead Man”—that explicitly riff on religion and spirituality), and finally sprawled into a freewheeling consideration of so many things that fascinate me, including the shifting significance of cowboy iconography across the 20th century, how and why drugs came to be seen as a gateway to religious epiphany, and the way some people feel compelled to say of pretty much any movie, “If you think about it, it’s really a Western.” And if nothing else, I at least did my part to remind people that Don Johnson was ridiculously gorgeous in the early 70s.
Sarah Welch (@dodgyboffin), Freelance for ThinkChristian, Bright Wall / Dark Room
My favorite piece of film criticism I’ve ever written is my deep dive into Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and the nature of trips movies for Bright Wall/Dark Room. It’s an examination of one of my all time favorite movies, an articulation of why I enjoy watching movies that are not necessarily “fun” to watch, and a microcosm of my own writing process. I tend to write best by recapping the work I’m writing about for myself, then weaving in my own thoughts and criticisms about it into the summary, until eventually the criticism takes over and makes up the bulk of my writing. The “Stalker” essay is actually more recap than I usually allow in my writing, but it felt necessary to this piece because it’s such a challenging film that not very many people have seen, and because it forces the piece to slow down to Tarkovsky’s pace.
Oliver Whitney (@cinemabite), Screencrush
I’ll go with a piece that’s the most personal and vulnerable thing I’ve ever written. As a part of a larger series about trans identity in film, I wrote about growing up with a lack of trans and/or gender non-conforming representation on screen. Essentially, I wrote why I identified with a ghost, a talking cat and a Disney princess as a little trans kid! To me, some of the most insightful criticism, and the kind I love to read, gets into the critic’s personal experience with whatever they’re watching. Here’s me doing that and also telling you why “Mulan” is one big trans metaphor.
Stephen Whitty (@StephenWhitty), Freelance
I’m particularly looking forward to reading this week’s roundup of great writing from great writers. Although I think the piece I’m proudest of is always going to be the next one, like every critic, I love having the chance to dig deep into a topic. Recent pieces I remain slightly pleased with are ones which focused on the pagan joys of “Call Me By Your Name,” and the way “Psycho” changed moviemaking. And if you’re interested, you can find both over at my website along with some other reviews, essays and interviews.
But writing about films is also, simply writing, and one of the things that gives me the most joy is being a little silly. I don’t think it’s something you can get away with too often – my self-imposed limit is twice a year – but I’m very fond of parody and satire, and have occasionally ignored the usual review format to do critiques as poems, as plays, as text messages. Here’s one I did of a film biography of Max Perkins. Of all the reviews here, it’s probably the one least likely to make you think. But I hope it makes you smile. I know when I got a note from a Thomas Wolfe relative telling me it would have made him smile, I couldn’t stop grinning.
Hannah Woodhead (@goodjobliz), Little White Lies
For me, the best writing around film involves taking stock of what it means to engage with movies – how they move us, how they change us as people. When I was first starting out as a critic, an editor at Little White Lies took a chance on my idea and let me write about my childhood in relation to the work of Wes Anderson. I’m proud of this piece because it’s honest, because it deals with how films help us process emotions and what they mean when we’re growing up. If film criticism doesn’t wrestle in some way with the art of being alive, what’s the point?
Lara Zarum (@larazarum), The Village Voice
This review of the “Entourage” movie is the first movie review I had published outside of a college newspaper, and the first for which my editor and I had to work out the most accurate adjective to describe how might one receive a face full of pre-cum. I like it!
Briana Zigler (@BriannaZigs), Freelance
As someone who is not yet an established critic, and only just now a recent college graduate, I’ve found it tough over the years to pinpoint where exactly I want my degree in film to take me, as many people my age feel about their own degrees. After taking a journalism class my senior year of high school and working through a bunch “film review” assignments, I felt confident and emboldened enough to start a WordPress blog a year or so afterward, in an attempt to teach myself to write real reviews. At 18, it felt like this was it, this was what I was good at, and that I’d discovered what I wanted to do with the degree I would be obtaining in a few years’ time.
But I flip-flopped a lot in the five years I was in undergrad, and I stopped working on the blog when it became a struggle for me to discipline myself to write concise critiques. I also went through a brief but difficult period of seeking clarity in my intentions to study film, unsure if I really had a place there. It felt like the goals I’d had in mind for my time during and after college were a lot different than those of my peers, and I had trouble with feeling like I belonged amongst them. In the end, however, I was able to see through the haze of my own uncertainties and appreciate why I chose what I chose and what made it important to me, and that the intentions and paths of others did not need to make me feel insecure about my own. I then rediscovered my interest in film review through YouTube channels like Red Letter Media. I realized I didn’t need to write myself to death when detailing a simple review of like, “Boondock Saints.” I could just talk and be weird and be myself, and that would be ok. It was comforting to understand that there was not one perfect way to follow my passions, and it gave me some semblance of direction.
This is a very long-winded and perhaps unnecessary way of getting to the point that I wrote a research analysis expanding on the genre of body horror, but I’m explaining all this to articulate why this essay ended up being very important to me as a writer and as a confused young person still figuring things out, and why I’ve chosen it for this survey (even if it maybe doesn’t count as true criticism). It further reinvigorated the confidence I once had in myself to write reviews, and helped re-forge the path I’d once laid out for myself when I first felt driven towards film critique. What started as a simple assignment for a class on writing theory, my final class as an undergrad, ended in something I felt very proud of. It combined my voice as a writer, my passion for film, and for horror, specifically, and my ability to produce thoughtful analysis when I’d once believed it was useless for me to continue trying.