Sidney Lumet was one of the finest craftsmen and warmest humanitarians among all film directors. He was not only a great artist but a much-loved man. When the news of his death at 86 arrived on Saturday, it came as a shock, because he had continued so long to be so productive.
If critics have become irrelevant, it has little to do with how many people say they pay attention to them or how many movies get press screened before they open. No, I submit it's because so many people don't even know what criticism is. They think it means "saying something bad." Listen to the way they reason argue with one another. Watch the talking heads on TV. Listen to the little kids on the playground, or the couple in the bar having a marital spat. News reporting or blog commenting. It's all the same. Critical thinking is not a value prized by our culture.
"I criticize something!"
"I disagree! So, I criticize you back! You are a criticizer!"
Never mind specifics, subtleties, reasons -- they're superfluous. All that matters is point-of-view, pro- something or anti- something else. A "debate" is merely a series of unrelated expressions of agreement or disagreement -- usually expressed as disparaging characterizations of the other person. Republicans say this, Democrats say that, nothing else exists outside of their opinions. In this climate, that quotation from Daniel Dennett in the upper right column is indecipherable. See Monty Python's "Argument Clinic" sketch, where argument is hopelessly confused with abuse and contradiction.
So, say whatever you want about "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" or President Obama or Michael Jackson or Bill Maher (to cite a few recent topics hereabouts). What matters is only whether the remarks are critical (in which case you will be characterized as a naysayer) or approving (in which case you will be characterized as praisegiver). In either case, what you actually said will be considered trivial by many, if it is considered (or noticed) at all.
A few weeks ago, the Hollywood trades were observing (or complaining) that, because of the 2008 presidential election, all the big studio Oscar-bait films had been pushed back into December. I mean, how are mere movies going to compete with that cast? "Obama. Biden. McCain. And Sarah Palin as Jaws."
Last year's Oscar-winner, "No Country for Old Men," played the Toronto Film Festival in early September, the New York Film Festival in early October, and began opening around the country November 9. The critics groups split between "NCFOM" (NY) and "There Will Be Blood" (LA, National Society), which was a 2008 release in much of the country.
This year, it's anybody's guess. "Slumdog Millionaire"? "Milk"? "WALL-E"? Something that hasn't won a critical consensus honor yet? (Right now my hunch is that the National Society of Film Critics will wind up going for either "The Wrestler" or "Wendy and Lucy." Just a hunch.)
UPDATE: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, bestower of the Golden Globules, has announced its nominations... and even with a total of ten best picture slots (in Drama and Comedy/Musical categories) it overlooked "Milk," "The Wrestler" and "The Dark Knight," all of which seem to me like fairly obvious Globuley-Oscary pictures. Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke and Heath Ledger all got acting nods, though. Go fig.
There will be lots to see between now and New Year's Eve -- and I still haven't caught up with "Milk," "Happy-Go-Lucky," "I Loved You So Long," "Ballast," "Rachel Getting Married," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" -- all of which have already opened theatrically. Still to come: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Nixon/Frost," "Revolutionary Road," "The Reader," "The Wrestler," "Doubt," "Seven Pounds"... none of which, however, have made much of an impact with critics groups.
The East Coast and West Coast critics have agreed on a few things here and there: Sean Penn in "Milk," Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky," Penelope Cruz in "Vicki Cristina Barcelona," "Man on Wire" for documentary, but... well, see for yourself:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association
Picture: "WALL-E" Runner-up: "The Dark Knight"
Foreign language film: "Still Life" Runner-up: "The Class"
Documentary film: "Man on Wire" Runner-up: "Waltz With Bashir"
Animated film: "Waltz With Bashir"