A.O. Scott talks criticism; the NYT’s chief film critic holds forth at Bryant Park

What’s a critic’s job? What kind of mindset is required? Who needs critics, anyway?

A.O. Scott, since 2004 the New York Times’ chief film critic (a title he now shares with L.A.-based Manohla Dargis), held forth on the art of criticism during a lunchtime talk Tuesday.


On a surprisingly un-steamy day, when the midtown park was filled with office workers and tourists enjoying the mild sun and gentle breezes, Scott carried on a lively dialogue with Scott Adlerberg, Brooklyn novelist and resident film expert for the park’s “Reel Talks” series.

Tuesday’s program was titled “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth,” also the title of Scott’s 2016 book.

“You have to leave yourself open to the possibility of being surprised,” Scott said, regarding the frame of mind he tries to adopt when reviewing, regardless of a film’s genre or budget, or his own expectations.

The two covered a lot of ground, including:

  • The omnipresence of superhero movies. “They’re a big part of any film critic’s job now,” Scott said. “They could be better, they could be more ambitious, and they could be more fun.”
  • Related: The strain of authoritarianism that seems to run through the various superhero universes, and how it may (or may not) reflect society at large.
  • The “blockbuster imperative,” which serves to keep superhero movies and other big-budget tentpole productions from taking chances, instead often sticking to tried-and-true Hollywood formulas.
  • The extreme defensiveness some readers express in response to negative reviews of any given movie. Scott recounted a 2012 Twitter war with Samuel L. Jackson, sparked by a review of “The Avengers.” “Why does it make people feel so mad … personally insulted and wounded?”
  • Related: The “Twitter mob” — “fans who see themselves as victims, not bullies.”
  • Critics’ usefulness as scapegoats, for those looking to engage — even if never in real, live conversation — with someone on the opposite side of the fence regarding a movie.
  • The critical gunfight over Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” released in 1969. The Times’ Bosley Crowther, who had reviewed movies for the paper since the 1940’s, served the role of “the designated square” by shooting down the controversial, antiheroic crime film. Pauline Kael, a verbose and later celebrated critic, wrote a 9,000-word response to Crowther’s review. “She kind of made it a cause,” Scott said.
  • Related: The critic’s role, often unwanted, as a defender of “standards,” or accepted conventions of filmmaking.
  • The Times’ Vincent Canby’s dismissive review of George Romero’s now-classic b/w zombie shocker “Night of the Living Dead,” also released in 1969, as “made by some people in Pittsburgh.”
  • The seemingly short leap made by film critics — the New Wave’s Godard, Truffaut, and Rohmer, Americans Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader — from reviewing to making movies.
  • Related: Quentin Tarantino’s similar obsessiveness and analytical bent (although he never worked as a film critic), which served as a springboard for making movies.
  • Scott’s antipathy toward “the rule of the algorithm” — the tendency of apps and other digital tools to keep viewers from straying beyond their genre safe space.
  • The “death of cinema” paranoia, which dates at least as far back as the introduction of sound.
  • Movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. “It can be useful as a snapshot of collective opinion,” Scott said.

The free-admission “Reel Talks” series at Bryant Park continues Monday, Aug. 6 at 12:30 pm, with “Lucy at the Movies: The Complete Films of Lucille Ball,” with Adlerberg interviewing film historian Cindy De La Hoz.

Film Fests x 5: Venice program, TIFF slate, diversity issues, Russian interference, Fall favorites

Movie Love, Italian Style: Films by the Coen Brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, Paul Greengrass, Mike Leigh, and Damien Chazelle are among those slated for the 75th annual Venice Film Festival, opening Aug. 29. (New York Times); related coverage via Deadline, The Guardian, Variety, Hollywood.com, Reuters, and The Jerusalem Post.

venice film

Diversity? What Diversity? Only 1 of 21 entries in competition at Venice Film Fest was directed by a woman (Hollywood Reporter).

TIFF Ahead: The 43rd Toronto International Film Fest program, Sept. 6-16, will include Bradley Cooper‘s directorial debut, “A Star is Born,” Barry Jenkins‘ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Steve McQueen‘s “Widows,” Claire Denis’ “High Life,” Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself,” Damien Chazelle‘s “First Man,” and Jason Reitman‘s “The Front Runner.” (L.A. Times); related coverage via Hollywood Reporter.

Just say Nyet: New Russian regulations may force festival shutdowns in the former Soviet Union (Moscow Times).

Fall Film Fest Circuit: Some highlights (Film School Rejects).







Is Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 Thriller an October Surprise, Hollywood Style?

Navy SEAL Team 6’s successful mission to find and kill Islamic super-terrorist Osama Bin Laden, the architect of 9/11, is the subject of a forthcoming feature film from Kathryn Bigelow (below) and Mark Boal, the same directing-writing team behind brilliant 2008 Oscar winner The Hurt Locker.

So far known as “Untitled International Thriller” on IMDB, the film’s cast includes Australian-born actor Joel Edgerton, who appeared in the much admired Animal Kingdom and will be seen later this year in Warrior and a remake of The Thing.

Here’s the most interesting aspect, so far: The film, which focuses on an American military triumph credited to the Obama Administration, is slated for release on Oct. 12, 2012, just a few weeks before the next U.S. presidential election. Political strategists have already pointed to the Bin Laden killing as an accomplishment likely to receive top billing during Obama’s campaign.

Is the timing a coincidence?

Perhaps even more controversial is the possibility, as suggested in a piece by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, that the filmmakers received classified information about the mission from the administration. Representative Peter King (R-NY) is seeking an investigation into that question, according to a story by Mike Fleming, of Deadline.com.

Bigelow and Boal, in response, released the following statement: ““Our upcoming film project about the decade long pursuit of Bin Laden has been in the works for many years and integrates the collective efforts of three administrations, including those of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, as well as the cooperative strategies and implementation by the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, the dangerous work of finding the world’s most wanted man was carried out by individuals in the military and intelligence communities who put their lives at risk for the greater good without regard for political affiliation. This was an American triumph, both heroic, and non-partisan and there is no basis to suggest that our film will represent this enormous victory otherwise.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed King’s concerns as “ridiculous.”

Of course, there’s one way to ensure that folks don’t view the film as meant to boost the prospects of one presidential candidate: delay the film’s release until after the election.

This Year’s Sundance: More independent, less commercial?

… That’s the word on the street, or at least the buzz that new Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper is trying to create.

He believes the fare at this year’s edition of Sundance to be more indie and innovative, and less overtly commercial.

The 26th annual fest, with 113 features over 10 days, kicks off today, and some observers have pointed to a 2010 fest with markedly darker fare, according to New York Times writer Brooks Barnes.

“Prominent examples include “Blue Valentine,” a bleak portrait of a failing marriage starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and “Sympathy for Delicious,” about a paralyzed disc jockey who seeks faith healing, starring Orlando Bloom and Mark Ruffalo. “The Company Men,” the first feature from John Wells (“ER”), stars Ben Affleck and Kevin Costner and tackles the dreary topic of corporate downsizing. Ryan Reynolds spends the entirety of “Buried” in a coffin.”

Because of the box-office success and critical reception of last year’s big winner, Precious, some filmmakers are encouraged about the prospects for striking deals with distributors.

” “This potentially could be the beginning of the beginning — the renaissance we’ve all been hoping for,” said Kevin Iwashina, a co-founder of Parlay Media, a film sales and production company.”

for the rest of the Times story, click here.

Kenneth Turan (L.A. Times) on Sundance)

John Cooper, Trevor Groth interviewed by Wall Street Journal

Which Movies Deserve Oscar Noms? NY Times Critics Weigh In

If film critics ruled the Oscar world, how would the top nominations play out?

New York Times
critics A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, and Stephen Holden put their choices on the line in a piece published today.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there wasn’t much consensus among the critics in the eight categories they considered, starting with their Best Picture picks (previewed, of course, in their already published Top 10 lists).

The Hurt Locker was the only film given the nod by all three critics, while two out of three critics picked Oscar favorite Up in the Air, A Serious Man, the unevenly received Where the Wild Things Are and dark horse Funny People.

Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), unanimous; 2 out of 3 for critical favorites Joel and Ethan Coen (A Serious Man) and Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours), and surprise pick Steven Soderbergh (The Informant)

Best Actor: George Clooney (Up in the Air) and Colin Firth (A Single Man), unanimous; 2 out of 3 for Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart); and no more than 1 each for the rest of the field.

Best Actress: 2 out of 3 for Oscar favorites Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), and Yolande Moreau (Seraphine)

Best Supporting Actor: 2 out of 3 for Woody Harrelson (The Messenger), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), and odds-on favorite Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

Best Supporting Actress: 2 out of 3 for likely winners Mo’Nique (Precious) or Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), as well as Juliette Binoche (Summer Hours) and Samantha Morton (The Messenger).

Best Original Screenplay: Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), unanimous; and 2 out of 3 for Joel and Ethan Coen (A Serious Man)

Best Adapted Screenplay: 2 out of 3 for Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (Fantastic Mr. Fox), Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious), and Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air).

For the entire slate of NY Times critics picks, click here.

Kent Jones Exits Film Society of Lincoln Center

Was New York’s film culture struck a blow earlier this month with the departure of Kent Jones from the Film Society of Lincoln Center?

kent-jones1Jones, associate director of programming at the Film Society and editor-at-large of durable film magazine Film Comment, resigned after a decade with the organization.

Jones, also a filmmaker (Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows), may or may not have left as a result of the changes and regular staff turnover that have characterized the leadership of Mara Manus, who took over as executive director in September.

More details on Jones’ departure can be found in this story posted at IndieWire.

Manus, oddly enough, most recently worked in the theater world, as the top financial exec for the Public Theater.  Prior to that, she worked as a film studio executive.

Her start at the Film Society coincided with the beginning of the organization’s $38 million expansion, according to a piece in the New York Times.

New Yorker Films: End of the Road


Anyone who has come to know and love arthouse movies — by the likes of Almodovar, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Fellini, Fassbinder, Godard, Herzog, Jarmusch, Resnais, Rohmer, Sayles, Rossellini, Tarkovsky, Truffaut, Wenders and other major filmmakers from around the globe — has to be saddened by this news:

New Yorker Films, a major distributor of foreign and independent films, is going out of business, according to a report published Monday in the New York Times.

The distributor’s library of 400+ titles will be auctioned off, founder Dan Talbot, who started the company in 1965, told Times reporter Ben Sisario.

“New Yorker Films held rights to distribute movies to theaters and to institutions like colleges, and also to release DVDs,” Sisario wrote.

Here’s the email sent by the company to filmmakers: “I have sad news. The parent company of New Yorker Films has defaulted on a loan. The assets of New Yorker were used as security on the loan. The lender has informed us that it intends to foreclose on these assets. New Yorker stopped doing business yesterday…We are in total shock that after forty three years this has happened.”

Said Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman: ”Without a doubt it was the pre-eminent distributor of foreign art films in the United States from the mid-1960s really into the ’80s. And for much of the time he was the only game in town.”

Click here to read the rest of the Times story.

More coverage:

New Yorker Films, 1965-2009 (IFC.com)

New Yorker Films Shuts Its Doors (New Yorker mag – no relation)

New Yorker Films Dies; Will Rebirth Follow? (Salon)

End of the Road for New Yorker Films (indieWIRE.com)

Reid Rosefelt on New Yorker Films (indieWIRE.com)

John Vanco on New Yorker Films (indieWIRE.com)

Remembering New Yorker Films (Parallax View–Sean Axmaker)

Update on Shuttered New Yorker Films (Hot Splice – Northwest Film Forum)

New Yorker Films (Movie City Indie – Ray Pride)

R.I.P. New Yorker Films (Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow – Chris MaGee)

Thinking Like a New Yorker (Hot Docs – Matt Dentler)

Here’s a 1987 profile on the company, published in the New York Times.

(Thanks to IFC.com’s “The Daily” for many of these links)

Oscar Talk: Viewership Jumps

oscars10Blame it on the down economy, and the accompanying desire for escapist entertainment. Or perhaps it’s the fault of the nasty winter weather, which continued to break records nationwide (global warming, or new ice age?). Who wants to go outside?

Or  maybe there simply wasn’t anything else worth watching on Sunday night.

At any rate, the 81st annual Academy Awards telecast drew 36.3 million viewers, an increase of 13 percent over the 32 million who caught the show last year, according to a report in the New York Times. Viewership grew by 22 percent among men ages 18 to 34.

That’s despite the predictable post-show grumbling by television critics and others, some of whom probably wouldn’t be pleased by the Oscars even if the telecast ran no more than two hours and was the funniest thing on TV.

By the way, some of these same critics kill acres of trees in the course of endlessly hyping such awful “reality” programming as “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Bachelor” and “The Biggest Loser.” Like they know from quality.

More factoids: Viewership for the show peaked in 1998, when 55 million watched Titanic win 11 Oscars, including best picture and best director (James Cameron). More than 40 million watched the Oscars show in 2007, when the award for best picture went to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.

So much for those who would want to force the Oscars to honor only the year’s biggest crowd-pleasers.* Isn’t television already overwhelmed with popularity contests?

*(This is NOT a dis on The Dark Knight, which deserved Oscar attention on artistic merit alone. Its exclusion had more to do with a)a general disrespect for comic-book culture, and b)a liberal political agenda that clearly dominates the thinking of Hollywood types).

UPDATE: Mary McNamara, a television critic for the L.A.Times, writes, “If nothing else, the 81st version proved that the Oscars are important after all, that in this digitally splintered world where everyone can find something better to do every single second of the day, there remain media and entertainment experiences we long to share with one another.” The rest of her piece.

Oscar Talk: Awards Bounce? Not so Much

oscars3The Oscar bounce — the uptick in attendance when any particular movie lands Academy Awards nominations — once was the cart placed before the horse of movie productions.

That is, producers and studios routinely attached stars and directors to scripts merely in hopes of assembling a movie that would land awards attention, which in turn would lead to boffo box office, in Variety-speak.

As it turns out, the Oscar bounce is practically as obsolete as the payphone.

So says Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein, in a piece published today.

“The Academy Awards’ best picture nominees were announced Jan. 22, an event quickly commemorated by a blitzkrieg of expensive full-page ads in the trades, the New York Times and my newspaper, designed to use the cachet of a best picture nomination to nudge reluctant moviegoers into the theaters,” Goldstein writes.

“But at the time when the rest of the movie business is booming, the best picture nominees–with the obvious exception of the crowd-pleasing Slumdog Millionaire–are doing a slow fade. Only one of the five best picture nominees, The Reader, has made more of its overall box-office take after it earned a best picture nod.”

Downside for viewers, long term: Some high-quality productions, which might only have been given the green light because of their potential for grabbing Oscar attention, will now stay in development hell.

Upside for viewers, short term (as in this season): Oscar prospects have lengthened the on-screen life of an impressive group of films far more worthwhile than such February releases as the turgid The International and the execrable Friday the 13th.

So … see the good stuff while you still can.

Click here to read the rest of Goldstein’s story.

Cronenberg Lives: Crash Kicks Off IFC Series

It has always been annoying that filmmaker Paul Haggis so cavalierly “borrowed” the title of David Cronenberg’s freaky 1996 car-wrecks-as-sexual-fetish drama Crash, an adaptation of the even more bizarre novel by J.G. Ballard.crash

Haggis’s film of the same name, released in 2004, less than a decade after Cronenberg’s far more intriguing and far more visually accomplished film, is an Altman lite examination of crisscrossing lives in Los Angeles; Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), based on the Raymond Carver short story collection, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) were superior films, also set in SoCal and taking similar approaches.

Adding insult to injury,  in 2006 Haggis’s movie won Oscars for best picture, best original screenplay (Haggis) and best editing.

Haggis followed Crash with the bomb In the Valley of Elah, a heavy-handed anti-Iraq War film, while Cronenberg has fared well in recent years with critical and commercial triumph A History of Violence, a sort-of newfangled Western built on mythic themes,  and the generally well-received drama Eastern Promises.

Cronenberg gets lots of love this month with a series at the IFC Center in Manhattan, showing the next seven Friday and Saturday nights at — appropriately enough — midnight. Scroll down to see the schedule.

Cronenberg’s themes of body horror and man-machine mutations have fascinated film students and scholars, and for good reason — the filmmaker offers plenty to chew on.

But the academics may have overstated the case for Cronenberg’s significance as a film artist, New York Times writer Terrence Rafferty observes in a piece published today (I disagree).

“The mind-body-machine games Mr. Cronenberg plays in movies like ‘Videodrome’ and ‘eXistenz’ are elaborate, suggestive and inventively worked out, but they are games, not deep philosophical statements,” Rafferty writes. “He always wins them, too, in part because he’s a terrific bluffer: he has the knack of convincing academics and other lofty-minded viewers that he’s holding better cards than he is.

“A midnight audience isn’t as easy to fool, and will probably see these films for what they are: funky, macabre science fiction comedies that tease the brain without effecting any significant alternation in its structure, or causing permanent damage.”

Cronenberg at IFC Film Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, New York City:

Feb 20-21: CRASH (1996)

Feb. 27-28: SPIDER (2002)

Mar 6-7: THE FLY (1986)

Mar 13-14: EXISTENZ (1999)

Mar 20-21: THE DEAD ZONE (1983)

Mar 27-28: VIDEODROME (1983)

April 3-4: NAKED LUNCH (1991)