Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
The most common misconception when it comes to film critics is that we approach each movie we see with a scalpel in hand. In a recent column, Variety's Peter Bart, a habitual stoker of the flames against film critics, tries to make the case that this year's Oscar race is wide open due to there being no passionate consensus amongst Academy voters about what is the most "entertaining" film of the year. Bart sets up Academy voters in opposition to film critics, who, he says, don't look for entertaining films. Bart's equalizing of Academy members and the regular Joe in opposition to critics is just one of the many flaws in his antiquated theory.
"A good friend of mine who was a film critic once confided that critics see filmgoing as work, not entertainment. Their reviews (and nominations) seem to support that hypothesis," Bart says in his January 23 column. It is true that critics often gravitate towards films of social importance with auteur filmmakers at the helm, but how are their choices any different from the so-called "entertainment" seekers of the Academy?
In fact, the ten best reviewed films of the year according to aggregate Rotten Tomatoes ("Mud", "Before Midnight", "Gravity", "12 Years a Slave", "Enough Said", "Fruitvale Station", "Inside Llewyn Davis", "Her", "American Hustle" and "Captain Phillips") earned 43 Oscar nominations including five of the nine Best Picture nominees. By contrast, the ten biggest box office successes can only muster 18 Oscar nominations.
The common assertion that the films which made the most money are the most beloved films among "average moviegoers" is a falsehood. Their success is a combination of anticipation, marketing and, indeed, word of mouth. Just as the critics list is measured by a strict "fresh" or "rotten" approach that has become the new "thumbs up" and "thumbs down." A 3-star review carries the same weight as a 4-star review in the final percentage. Neither the best-reviewed nor the film with the best box office receipts can be reduced to the simple equivalent of "most entertaining".
"It's safe to say the films that critics respond to each year consistently rank higher on technique than on entertainment value," Bart continues. Bart noticed critics not using the words "entertaining" or "fun" to describe "Inside Llewyn Davis" "in the film's fusillade of ads." A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it "the best picture of the year" and had one of his tweets infamously appear in a full-page ad that said "I'm gonna listen to the Llewyn Davis album again. Fare thee well, my honeys." Sure sounds like someone found some modicum of entertainment value in it.
Suggesting, as Bart does, that a lack of entertainment value and an absence of passion for one film is what makes this year's Oscar race so wide open seems like muddled thinking at best. Couldn't it be that the variety of choices that has pundits flip-flopping between "12 Years a Slave", "Gravity", "American Hustle" and even "Captain Phillips" suggest an over-abundance of passion? Why does there have to be a clear front-runner like "Titanic" or "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"? Doesn't the very spirited debate over which film is better add to the joy of the world of cinema? Even the frequent outbursts of sudden hatred and schadenfreude directed at the Oscars bring many pleasures and further clarifies each person's defense of their favorites.
"Gravity", a film that was both a top-reviewed and a top box office winner, is likely to go home March 2 with no fewer than six golden statuettes (and maybe more.) Unless chewing off all of your nails and fighting the knots in one's stomach is not your idea of entertainment then what do you call the fast-paced 83-minute space adventure with groundbreaking advancements in special effects and two of the biggest movie stars in the world?
If Academy voters are looking for the kind of escapist fare that somehow eludes the pleasure buttons of film critics, then why were eight of the nine Best Picture nominees in alignment with what the consensus of critical organizations honored throughout December and January? Thirty-five of the top 44 nominations (including Directing, Acting and Writing) were in sync with what critics already voted on. The Academy is actually far more in touch with the critics' mindset than the top dollar favorites that Bart automatically assumes the public would choose given their own ballot.
Ask any film critic what they would rather cozy up with on a Sunday afternoon—"Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "Schindler's List"? The answer should not surprise you as every film lover, critic or not, has their favorites versus what they may describe as the "best." Look at the recent reaction of critics to "The Lego Movie", currently 95% "fresh", which would have been good enough to be the 6th best-reviewed film of last year. After a month of "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones", "The Legend of Hercules", "Devil's Due" and "I, Frankenstein" (all films withheld from press prior to release), critics cannot be the only ones waiting for a slice of unbridled joy.
Of course, there are curmudgeons out there along with those who maintain an inflated sense of purpose but we can find those in every profession. "Ever try to get a critic to smile," Bart asks in his most ludicrous and condescending of questions. I would say that one doesn't have to try as long as they get to keep doing the job that they love and getting the opportunity to talk film with anyone who adores it as much.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...