In all worthwhile criticism, two inclinations are always at war, and they are humility and vigilance. Too much humility precludes the ability to say anything at all, while excessive vigilance almost always reads as petty after the blood has cooled. Being discerning but fair and above all curious demands a balance, which seems feasible until you’re faced with the question: Do you judge a movie on your terms or its own?
In other words: Do you evaluate a movie for what it does do or for what, in your lowly opinion, it should do? Do you place it against the exemplary works of its own genre and judge accordingly, or do you have the right to rebuke a whole genre, a whole mode of filmmaking, for violating principles you yourself set? These are questions with answers that vary on a case-by-case basis, but like Ready to Die versus Illmatic and sexual preference, you tend to lean one way or the other.
I’ve gotten to the point where I embrace my power to set the terms of engagement. By that, I mean I don’t watch a movie now and give it a thumbs-up or down depending on how successfully and seamlessly it “does its job.” Instead, I see my job, when writing a review, to track down missed opportunities in a movie, moments of shallowness or cheapness that are often reinforced by the codes of genre and narrative. And when a movie connects, the priority is not to judge it against its generic peers but rather for the revelations it touches upon by breaking expectations, by doing what it should not do.
Let me clarify with an example. Over the weekend, I saw that other Brad Pitt World War II movie, Fury. It’s brutal, draining and unequivocally “well-done,” my friend and fellow Sun columnist, Julia Moser ’15, and I agreed. About halfway through, the battlefield carnage halts for a 20-minute interlude in an apartment that two soldiers, played by Pitt and Logan Lerman, have entered with the intent of raping the female occupants. Things complicate from there, and through facial expressions, pregnant pauses and the use of space, the scene vivisects a much less gory, but more entrenched form of male violence.
The movie surprised me there, for its commitment to exploring sexual violence at the expense of on-screen action or spectacle. That’s something not many war movies dare to do, and I give Fury credit for trying. It’s too bad the movie ends with one of those airheaded stand-offs that glorifies the valor in mowing down as many Nazis as possible. It shoots itself in the foot by obeying and so ferociously embracing the “last stand” scene intrinsic to so many war movies instead of subverting that trope in some way. The ending was “well-done,” no doubt, but far and away the stupidest part of the film.
So I reject Fury’s reality and substitute it with my own — or something like that. I don’t care for the “the acting was good, that plot twist was dumb” kind of pseudo-criticism that stays within a movie’s world and makes no effort to bridge it with our own. That line of thinking, or lack thereof, assumes that no film exploits, cash-grabs or, worst of all, panders. Lord, to think of all the pandering we’ll soon slog through with Oscar season now upon us. Time to flex that vigilance I mentioned before, for no matter how polished every Blackfish or Philomena may be, we all have the right, and distinct pleasure, to call bullshit.
This disparity between what is “well-done” and what is actually interesting to each of us, on a personal level, has been reinforced by the illusion that there is any difference between “favorite” and “best.” We lie when we say, “That is the best movie of the year,” yet we feel no personal connection to it, no urge to think it over or watch it again. “Best” most often esteems the “white elephants” in the room, Manny Farber’s term for those lumbering films with loud artistic or thematic aspirations, which are often unpleasing, unimaginative and overlong. The idea that we can objectively judge works of art, as so many gamers insist when a critic entertains a feminist reading instead of just sticking to the “gameplay,” perpetuates a borderline fascistic, anti-intellectual and above all boring culture.
Let your taste carry you, through all the cultures and all the genres. It’s really the only way to open yourself up to surprise after watching hundreds and thousands of movies. I’m guilty of not rushing to see Frances Ha last year because I anticipated just another ditzy indie comedy. When I finally saw it at Cornell Cinema, I couldn’t shake it, and my instincts urged me to keep that opinion to myself because this was, after all, just another ditzy indie comedy and not worth serious attention.
But no, Frances Ha is a masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it because it is a judgment forged in my soul. It is in turns the funniest and saddest movie of last year, for its depiction of melancholia is all but unspoken, maybe even unrecognized by Greta Gerwig’s protagonist. I ranked it alongside heavyweights like The Act of Killing and 12 Years a Slave in my “Best of 2013” list, and if I could do it again I’d rank it higher. Frances Ha obliterates any expectations of its genre through its command of cinema and its intimate understanding of what it is to be human, and for doing all that in a way that speaks to me, it’s simply my job to meet it with awe.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.