Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
While this survey typically asks smart critics to direct readers toward good movies, we hope that the reverse is also true, and that these posts help movies (good or bad) direct readers towards smart critics.
In that spirit, we asked our panel of critics to reflect on their favorite piece of film criticism that they’ve ever written (and we encouraged them to put aside any sort of modesty when doing so).
Their responses provide rich and far-reaching insight into contemporary film criticism, and what those who practice it are hoping to achieve with their work.
Let’s cut right to the chase. Christopher Nolan is probably my favourite working director, and going five thousand words deep on his career after “Dunkirk” was an itch I’d been waiting to scratch for nearly a decade. “The Dark Knight” was my dorm-room poster movie — I’m part of the generation that explored films through the IMDb Top 250 growing up — though as my cinematic horizons expanded and my understanding of storytelling grew, I didn’t leave Nolan’s work behind as I did the likes of “Scarface” and “The Boondock Saints.” What’s more, each new film by Nolan hits me like a tonne of bricks. I’m waiting, almost eagerly, for him to disappoint me. It hasn’t happened yet, and I needed to finally sit down and figure out why.
In “Convergence At ‘Dunkirk,’” by far the longest piece I’ve ever written, I’d like to think I unpacked a decade worth of my awe and admiration, for a filmmaker who uses the studio canvas to explore human beings through our relationship to time. Tarkovsky referred to cinema as “sculpting in time.” Time disorients. Time connects us. Time travels, at different speeds, depending on one’s relationship to it, whether in dreams or in war or in outer space, and time can be captured, explored and dissected on screen.
What’s more, Nolan’s films manipulate truth as much as time, as another force relative to human perception, determining our trajectories and interpersonal dynamics in fundamental ways. All this is something I think I knew, instinctively, as a teenage viewer, but putting words to these explorations, each from a different time yet connected intrinsically, is the written criticism that I most stand by. It felt like something that I was meant to write, as I interrogated my own evolving emotional responses to art as time went on.
At the 2017 Sundance premiere of Miguel Arteta’s “Beatriz at Dinner,” starring Salma Hayek, I found myself in shock at the reactions I heard from the mostly-white audience at the Eccles Theatre. I was watching a different movie, one that spoke to me as an immigrant, a Latino, and someone who’s felt out of place in spaces dominated by people who’ve never been asked, “Where are you really from?” That night I went back to the condo and wrote a mountain of thoughts and personal anecdotes that mirrored what I saw on screen.
This was a much different piece from what I had usually written up to that point: coverage on the Best Foreign Language Oscar race, pieces on animation, interviews with internationally acclaimed directors, and reviews out of festivals. Those are my intellectual passions, this; however, was an examination on the identity that I had to built as an outsider to navigate a society were people like me rarely get the jobs I want.
My editor at Remezcla, Vanessa Erazo, was aware of the piece from the onset and was immediately supportive, but it would take months for me to mull it over and rework it through multiple drafts until it was ready for publication in time for the film’s theatrical release. In the text, I compared my own encounters with casual racism and ignorance with those Hayek’s character faces throughout the fateful gathering at the center of the film. The reception surpassed all my expectations. The article was shared thousands of times, it was praised, it was criticized, and it truly confronted me with the power that my writing could have.
A few months later in September, when Trump rescinded DACA, I wrote a social media post on my experience as an undocumented person working in the film industry, and how difficult it is to share that struggle in a world were most people don’t understand what it means to live a life in the shadows. The post was picked up by The Wrap and republished in the form of an op-ed, which I hope put a new face on the issue for those who didn’t directly knew anyone affected by it before. Once again that piece on “Beatriz at Dinner” regained meaning as I found myself filled with uncertainty.
Like many writers, I tend to subconsciously disown anything I’ve written more than a few months ago, so I read this question, in practice, as what’s my favorite thing I’ve written recently. On that front, I’d say that the review of “Phantom Thread” that I wrote over at my blog comes the closest to what I most desire to do as a critic. I try to think about a movie from every front: how the experience is the result of each aspect, in unique quantities and qualities, working together. It’s not just that the acting is compelling or the score is enveloping, it’s that each aspect is so tightly wound that it’s almost indistinguishable from within itself. A movie is not an algebra problem. You can’t just plug in a single value and have everything fall into place.
“Phantom Thread” is Paul Thomas Anderson’s dreamy cinematography. It is Jonny Greenwood’s impeccably seductive, baroque music. It is Vicky Krieps’s ability to perfectly shatter our preconceptions at every single turn as we realize that Alma is the movie’s actual main character. We often talk about how good films would be worse-off if some part of it were in any way different. In the case of “Phantom Thread,” you flat-out can’t imagine how it would even exist if these things were changed. When so many hot take thinkpieces try to explain away every ending or take a hammer to delicate illusions, it was a pleasure to try and understand how a movie like this one operates on all fronts to maintain an ongoing sense of mystique.
I don’t know if it’s my best work, but a landmark in my life as a critic was surely a review of Chaplin’s “The Circus,” in time for the release of its restoration in 2010. I cherish this piece, written for Slant Magazine, for a number of reasons. For one, I felt deeply honored to shed more light on probably the least known and least respected of Chaplin’s major features, because it’s a film that demonstrates such technical virtuosity it dispels once and for all any notion that his work is uncinematic. (Yes, but what about the rest of his filmography you ask? My response is that any quibbles about the immobility of Chaplin’s camera suggest an ardent belief that the best directing equals the most directing.) For another, I was happy this review appeared in Slant Magazine, a publication that helped me cut my critical teeth and has done the same for a number of other critics who’ve gone on to write or edit elsewhere. That Slant is now struggling to endure in this financially ferocious landscape for criticism is a shame – the reviews I wrote for them around 2009-10 helped me refine my voice even that much more than my concurrent experience at Entertainment Weekly, where I had my day job. And finally, this particular review will always mean a lot to me because it’s the first one I wrote that I saw posted in its entirety on the bulletin board at Film Forum. For me, there was no surer sign that “I’d made it”.
No way would I dare to recommend any pieces of my own, but I don’t mind mentioning a part of my work that I do with special enthusiasm. Criticism, I think, is more than the three A’s (advocacy, analysis, assessment); it’s prophetic, seeing the future of the art from the movies that are on hand. Yet many of the most forward-looking, possibility-expanding new films are in danger of passing unnoticed (or even being largely dismissed) due to their departure from familiar modes or norms, and it’s one of my gravest (though also most joyful) responsibilities to pay attention to movies that may be generally overlooked despite (or because of) their exceptional qualities. (For that matter, I live in fear of missing a movie that needs such attention.)
But another aspect of that same enthusiasm is the discovery of the unrealized future of the past—of great movies made and seen (or hardly seen) in recent decades that weren’t properly discussed and justly acclaimed in their time.”. Since one of the critical weapons used against the best of the new is an ossified and nostalgic classicism, the reëvaluation of what’s canonical, the acknowledgment of unheralded masterworks—and of filmmakers whose careers have been cavalierly truncated by industry indifference—is indispensable to and inseparable from the thrilling recognition of the authentically new.
It’s a piece on two of my favorite films of 2017, “Lady Bird” and “Call Me By Your Name”, and about how their very different modes of storytelling speak to the different sorts of stories we tell ourselves. Objectively, I don’t know if this is my best work in terms of pure style and craft, but I do think it’s the most emblematic in terms of what I value in cinema. I think every film is, in some way, a treatise on how certain memories are remembered, and I think cinema matters partly because the best examples of it are prisms through which the human experience is refracted.
Above everything else, every movie has to begin with a good story, and the greatest stories are the ones that mirror not just life, but the ways in which life is distorted and restructured through the process of remembering. Every aspect of a film, from its screenplay on down, must add something to the film’s portrayal of remembering, and “Lady Bird” and “Call Me By Your Name” accomplish this organic unity of theme with such charm yet in such distinct ways, that they were the perfect counterpoints to each other, as well as the perfect stand-ins for cinema as a whole, for me.
My favorite piece of my own work is definitely “The Shape of Water’s” Strickland as the “Ur-American.” I’m proud of it because it required me to really take stock of all the things that Americans are taught from birth to take as given. That meant looking at our history of colonialism, imperialism, racism, anticommunism and really diving into how all Americans, whether they’re liberal or conservative, can internalize these things unless they take the time to self-examine. Just as “Pan’s Labyrinth’s” despotic Captain Vidal was a masterful representation of Francisco Franco’s fascism, Richard Strickland represents a distinctly American kind of fascism. Writers Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor took great care in Strickland’s creation, and my piece was my own way of self-examining to make sure I never become or abide by a person like Strickland ever again.
This is tricky, but “Annihilation” is definitely my favorite piece of film criticism that I’ve written. My writing style is a combination of criticism and gifs, and sometimes the words are better than the gifs, and the gifs are better than the words. With “Annihilation,” I thought the balance was perfect. My favorite portion: “Lena is just an idea, part of an equation that’s been erased from a chalkboard and rewritten with a different solution. The shimmer is part of her, even down to the DNA” is up there as one of my best. It was also a struggle to write because that film had more wild theories than the Aliens in Roswell. Also, the amount of research I had to do, combining Plato’s Ideal Forms, Darwin, the Bible, and Nietzsche, was absurd. However, it did make it easier to find matching gifs. The result made for my most studious, yet lighthearted read.
I’m the worst judge of my own material; there’s almost nothing I’ve ever written that I don’t want to pick at and re-edit, no matter how much time has passed. But since, for me, the hardest part of film criticism is adequately praising a movie you truly love, then by default my best review would probably be of one of my favorite films of all time, Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.”
I can’t summon the strength to re-read it, but I remember thinking that my piece on grief and “Personal Shopper” was emblematic of how I hope to thread individual perspective into arts criticism.
My favorite piece is a very recent one: For this year’s Women Writers Week on Roger Ebert, I wrote about “Phantom Thread”, “Jane Eyre,” and twisted power dynamics in hetero romance. I loved that it allowed me to dig deep into my personal fixations (19th century literature, gender, romance as power struggle), but – more importantly – it was exciting to be part of a series that highlighted the breadth of criticism by women writers.
My answer to this would be kind of a cheat, as my favorite work that I do is my weekly column about movie music called Soundtracking that I write over at The Film Experience. Soundtracks and needle drops have been a personal fascination, so the opportunity to explore the deeper meaning and context of a film’s song choices have been a real labor of love. Because of the demands and time constraints of what we do, it can be easy to spend our all of our energy on assignments and chasing freelance opportunities rather than devoting time to a pet project – but I’ve found indulging my own uncommon fascination to be invaluable in developing my point of view. And serve as a constant check-in with my passion. Pushed for a single entry that I would choose as the best, I would choose the piece I wrote on “Young Adult”‘s use of “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub for how it posits a single song as the key to unlocking both character and narrative.
“Mother” written for Vice. It’s one of my favorites because it conveys how visceral my experience was watching the movie. It’s truly stifling, uncomfortable, and frantic–and that’s what my review explains in detail. I wanted to have a conversation with the reader about specific aspects of the film that support the thesis, so I did.
Well, I recently wrote a piece for Gazeta do Povo, a major outlet at Paraná state in Brazil, about Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” (it is not on their site, but they were kind enough to let me replicate on my own website). I don’t know the extent of the powers of Google Translator from Portugese to english, so you have to rely on my own account: is a text in which I was able to articulate de cinematographic references in the work of Mr. Del Toro, as well his thematic obsessions, the genre bending and social critique. All of this topics were analyzed in a fluid prose. On top of that, it was really fun to write!
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