Are Critics Getting Less Critical?



Halfway through director Sally Potter’s critically-feted ‘The Party’, the feeling came over me that I was watching a terrible film.

Six guests gather for a dinner party to celebrate Kristen Scott-Thomas becoming the Shadow Health Minister, but secrets tumble out within seconds of their arrival. The guests are archetypes; Cillian Murphy tips up with a gun and cocaine because he’s a city trader, there’s a health guru who sits cross-legged on the floor, a bitchy wife who drinks, a right-on feminist professor, a spring/autumn lesbian couple and Timothy Spall, doing the starey face he does when he’s being contemplative. Spall has cancer, Scott-Thomas has an affair and the lesbians are having triplets. Either the film has exceeded its dramatic baggage weight or it’s being satirical.

The brief run time of  71 minutes seems like 300 because it’s am-dram and the writing is awful – one character only seems to exist in order to explain what everyone does for a living. I love Sally Potter’s films. I’ve met her and she’s delightful. During an interview in a restaurant she whipped out a screwdriver and mended my tape recorder. But she can’t fix this. And according to the critical establishment she doesn’t need to. Their reviews are distinctly uncritical 5-star raves.

What did the critics spot that I missed?

Lately this has been happening more and more. The new ‘Star Wars’ film, surely a very minor event in anyone’s book, caused miles of print to be expended in a war between critics and audiences. The critics loved it, the punters were far more doubtful, and the gap between viewpoints was so wide that one started wondering how deeply the studios were colluding with the press.

‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ was for me the dreariest film of the year, a proto-western with allegorical pretensions featuring mo-capped monkeys on horses. ‘Wonder Woman’ was less boring but bad, with its tasteless plot involving a superhero fighting the WWI inventor of mustard gas and dialogue so cliched that it felt as if someone had entered random words into Google Translate.

Both of these films garnered amazing reviews. This doesn’t happen with more erudite theatre and literary critics, so why just cinema? I think it’s partly because the film industry and the press have a symbiotic relationship, still exerts pressure by threatening to withdraw screenings, and partly because film critics can be sycophantic and uncritical in their worship of film. The genuinely passionate ones, David Thompson, Mark Kermode, Kim Newman, Anne Billson and many at Sight & Sound, are stringent and unsentimental, and know their film studies inside out. Other critics are just passing through on the way from beauty features to the travel section.


So how do we choose films without critics? By the trailers, or recommendations from friends? Recently I watched ‘Loving Vincent’, which takes a police procedural approach to uncovering the truth about the tragedy of Van Gogh. It was created over seven years, using 100 artists to hand-paint the story with oils on canvas. The rotoscoped cast includes Chris O’Dowd and Saoirse Ronan, and finds time to include 300 of the paintings Van Gogh produced (in his working life of just nine years he finished, by my reckoning, a painting every three days). Critics were generally approving but flummoxed by the whole idea of such an enterprise. Incredibly, the film was criticised for having too much artistic style. I thought it was a joyful and innovative enterprise.

Perhaps the critics are writing to please the middle-of-the-road viewer, the kind who won’t see world cinema because they don’t want to read at the cinema. Or perhaps it’s simply that opinion about films is subjective, papers have to be sold, and critics’ columns fill a hole in the page.

I’ll have to write the Book of Forgotten Films one day, but I don’t imagine there’ll be many critical darlings in it.

10 comments on “Are Critics Getting Less Critical?”

  1. Denise Treadwell says:

    I want to see Loving Vincent! I can’t go to theatres at the moment. I went to see Dunkirk in August. Before that, it was Tinker, Tailor . I
    seldom go to the cinema. No one calls that here. I saw the trailer and I think It looked beautiful . I think a person can be an artist and a writer.

  2. Denise Treadwell says:

    I don’t care about critics , they are superfluous to me.

  3. Brooke says:

    Not just the cinema–in the US, at least. Painting, drama, music and other art forms have fallen into the same trap. At least in Europe you have alternatives to boring film fare offered here.

  4. Roger says:

    ‘Loving Vincent’ was an exercise in virtuosity, which I think is why critics weren’t as enthusiastic as they should have been. Critics don’t like showing-off. The same thing happened with ‘Ma Vie de Courgette’ and ‘Holy Motors’. Critics wanted to pretend they were ordinary films with something odd about them or wrong with them, not what they were.
    I haven’t seen ‘The Party’ – or even part of it – it sounded too worthy and tedious to bother with, .but I think people were reviewing what they wanted it to be, not what it was. The guests are stereotypes rather than archetypes by the sound of them and one thing Potter doesn’t do is virtuoso camera work or wit which might make it forgivable.

  5. Wild Edric says:

    It was the opposite with the reviews of Blade Runner 2049 I found. Critics panned it but I personally really enjoyed it. Yes it was long and slow but I felt that gave me more time to let the stunning visuals and soundtrack sink in. Granted, from time to time Mr Gosling had the faraway look of a chap trying to remember if he’d left the oven on but that’s pretty standard for him.

    Much like Denise, I don’t find myself going by what critics say anyway – more the views of friends and family whose tastes I’m familiar with. I’ve one colleague (wouldn’t go as far as to call them a friend) that whenever he pans something I know I’ll love it and vice-versa.

  6. Richard Burton says:

    Film critics are a bit like food critics, they’re part of the industry and just don’t have the same viewpoint as consumers. It’s more worthwhile to just take pot luck based on your interest in genre. Finding things that you love by accident always seems better than taking advice from someone, no matter how knowledgeable. I used to see Mark Kermode on the school run, but never thought if asking him what I should watch. His hair is always that organised by the way.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    Star Wars I enjoyed but it did feel like it was treading water at times (the battle fleets seemed a bit small, definitely felt like a small scale for a Star Wars film.), the force went a bit Harry Potter, but it’s not the worst Star Wars film, some of the fans went too far the other way. It does feel like a middle film, not as good as the previous but OK. Oddly enough I did enjoy Paddington 2, took my 6 year old to see it so that was my excuse. Hugh Grant was good fun.

    As always you have to know your critics, Paul Ross was notorious for loving everything.

    With the good critics they are prepared to put caveats into review. With some critics I’ve read you end up screaming but what is it about give me a clue what to expect not just your opinion, or worse they give you the whole plot with ending.

    A film about art being too artistic, perhaps next they can criticise an art house film for not having enough houses in it.


  8. Ian Luck says:

    Mark Kermode’s band (of course he’d have a band) once put out a song with the brilliant title: ‘You Can’t Walk Like A Man, If You’re Too Drunk To Stand’. What sort of music is it? Rock and Roll, of course.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    The theatres advertise in the papers. Period.

  10. John Griffin says:

    I am blessed with a step-son (33) who is gung-ho for any Star Wars, Jurassic spin-off etc etc. and avidly abides by Den of Geek. When I told him that Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was way inferior to the first, he had a freak-out (that dates me). I used to use the tactic of suggesting he watched a boring film with me – I once used ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, which mesmerised him – but my coup was Delicatessen. His face was a picture.

Comments are closed.