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Best Indecision Ever! Movie Reviewers & Fear of Absolutes…

I had the pleasure of catching Midnight in Paris at the weekend, and I liked it. I really liked it. I confessed in my review that I thought it was Woody Allen’s best film of the past decade, and – as I left the cinema – I found myself wondering if perhaps it was the best of Allen’s films that I’ve seen. I’ll freely concede that I have yet to work my way through the director’s extensive filmography, but I have been a lot of his more famous and celebrated films like Annie Hall or Manhattan. Still, I feel reluctant to say that, which is admittedly quite strange. I am a movie reviewer (or, if you’ll allow me a hint of pretension, a “critic”) why am I so scared of superlatives?

Simply the best?

At least a bit of it boils down to the fact that I don’t really think I’m qualified. After all, I haven’t seen all of Woody Allen’s films, so I’m hardly in the best place to judge. Even if I qualify the comment so it’s “the best Woody Allen film I’ve seen”, it still seems just a bit too definite and assertive. In fact, a reader browsing the review probably won’t be too enlightened by that bit of praise, since they don’t know exactly which films of Woody Allen I have and haven’t seen – so the platitude sounds impressive, but ends up being ultimately a little bit pointless.

Part of me thinks it’s the fact that films are so highly subjective. Okay, with the exception of countless director’s cuts and “unrated” editions, the films themselves are pretty static, but I think that our perceptions of them can change dramatically over extended periods of time. Even in the two years that I’ve run this blog, I’d argue that my tastes in film have subtly shifted. I think if you asked me to pick my favourite film of all time, you’d get a different answer each time – it could be anything from The Godfather to The Good, The Bad & The Ugly to Brazil, none of which are new releases (and none of which I’ve seen for the first time recently).

Is my baby-faced optimism showing?

Sure, Midnight in Paris might seem like the best Woody Allen film I’ve seen at the moment, but who is to say that my opinion won’t change in a few months or even a year or so? After all, “best” is a personal ranking – it isn’t something I can come close to objectively rationalising. While I stand by my reviews, in that I rarely change an opinion about a script or a performance or any number of tiny individual elements, the whole film itself is a mass made up of an infinite number of variables, some that can be expressed in purely rational terms, and quite a few that can’t. I can objectively compare the cast or the lighting or the music of any Woody Allen film, but there are too many moving parts for me to feel comfortable making these sorts of judgments about the collective whole.

More than that, though, you could make the case that my own subjective opinion as to the relative quality of any given film is especially pointless to anybody who might be reading the review. As mentioned above, I can state a good argument about the individual components, but things get a lot more elastic when taking the film as a whole – especially when the director has produced so many truly great films, so the difference in quality between them is not really one that can be measure in reasonably objective or easily defined terms, but rather something left to each individual to decide for themselves. It feels somehow “safer” to simply classify a film as “good” or “bad”, and to make arguments on terms that can be judged by each individual viewer.

This could get real ugly real fast...

After all, “best” and “favourite” are very personal things, and they do transcend the individual elements. It’s quite possible for me to concede that a flawed film is still one I hold in a curiously high regard. I, for example, love Demolition Man. I’ll try to rationalise it by exploring why I think better of it than perhaps I should, often coming down to matters such as ambition or creativity mitigating other serious flaws. I think we all have films we like more than others do, and most of us can make a decent case for why we are so fond of these misfires, but stating simply that we consider them “great” or “brilliant” or “underrated” tells the reader nothing of why we like them.

While there may be people out there who would trust me to simply endorse a film as “good” or “bad” or “great”, I don’t feel comfortable with that. Tastes obviously differ from person to person, and I’m more likely to be able to give you an idea of whether a given film is of interest to you by breaking it down and explaining why it did or didn’t appeal to me. I might have problems with some troubling thematic points, while you might consider me to be a little “oversensitive.”I might praise the subtle and nuanced performances, but you’d take those words as a warning of an incoming pretentious film. I told my brother that a big summer blockbuster was just a collection of disjointed action scenes that move too fast for there to be any emotional engagement, and he took that as a recommendation for his personal taste. He’d argue there’s a minimum of exposition and some superb stunt and effects work, without any pretentious attempts at depth.

Trying to rank the best films? Absurd!

“Best” is a label that really applies to my own opinion, and I’m still a little nervous about throwing it around casually, because it might overshadow a lot of the relevent points I’m making. I do, of course, take a great deal of personal pleasure in throwing together an annual “top 10” and I’m not shy about dropping hints as to whether a newly released movie is circling a spot about it, but I try not to dwell on it too much. I’ll be the first to admit that things like the IMDb Top 250 Films of All-Time are great fun, and I ultimately write the blog for fun, but sometimes it just feels a bit like it’s too easy to get lost in empty platitudes and hyperbole.

4 Responses

  1. At the end of the day everything is subjective. I think it’s why people seek out critical analysis of film less and less.

  2. I personally think you can rate a movie whichever way you like. What I always do is read several reviews to get an idea of the taste a specific blogger/critic and if that’s about the same as mine. It’s never bad to be critical about something.

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