Everyone is entitled to their opinions, even when they make you want to scream “shut up.” Critics have been the bane and succor to artists since the first caveman pissed on a wall scratching, which, now that I think about it, is an idea from a movie that didn’t get good reviews, Caveman, with Ringo Starr. With the coming of the internet, film and TV reviews from all levels of expertise now have the power to affect box office. Sure, one devastating sentence from Pauline Kael could have banished most films to B-status during her heyday, but today, with Rotten Tomatoes tabulating audience response, other peoples’ opinions have an immediate impact on a movie opening.
The recent Batman v Superman backlash showed how powerful this can be. Movie stars and studios have been taking on critics. Zombieland actor Jesse Eisenberg mused that reliable critics were a fictional figment of creative imagination in his November 2015 The New Yorker piece “An Honest Film Review.”
What do people want from a review? Spoiler alert: they want to know whether a movie or TV show is worth seeing. Moviegoers now have as big a wealth of sources as there are product comments on Amazon.
Earlier this year, High-Rise director Ben Wheatley turned the tables on an interviewer at FlickReel when he asked “why should you really have a voice to complain about things until you’ve walked mile in someone’s shoes? There are a lot of critics that I like, but I don’t get that relationship with art where you can just talk about it but not create it.”
The biggest complaint is that reviewers are failed film students taking out their frustrations on the more successful artists. This isn’t entirely true and it might be better if it were. Film students, or anyone who attempted to make a film, bring a certain love of the art form to their writings.
But this doesn’t turn out to be the case. People don’t move from film to film commentary, unless they are a guest contributor writing as an expert. What usually happens is a film reviewer occasionally thinks he knows enough to make a great film. Because they already owned typewriters, or own some kind of keyboard, critics usually start by writing a screenplay. Sometimes they only get one project made. But they rarely go back to reviewing other artists’ work after they’ve dipped their toes in the creative waters. Maybe it is because they faced the poison pens of their peers and found an antidote.
10. Joe Cornish
Joe Cornish was only a critic for six months and he said the experience made him start to dislike movies, Cornish started out as a comic when he starred in, wrote and directed the British Channel 4 sketch series The Adam and Joe Show. He started chatting about movies on Back Row and the BBC 6 Music podcast Adam & Joe.
Cornish moved to film when directed behind-the-scenes documentaries in the films be appeared in as an actor, such as his work with Simon Pegg in the British cop movie comedy Hot Fuzz and the zombie horror comedy Shaun of the Dead.
He broke out with the John Carpenter-inspired science fiction horror comedy Attack The Block, which he wrote and directed in 2011. It was so popular he was called in to do a rewrite on Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat’s script for The Adventures Of Tintin – The Secret Of The Unicorn. He co-wrote a draft of the screenplay for Ant-Man with Wright, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd. JJ Abrams wanted him to direct Star Trek 3.
It seems as if Cornish truly regained the love of filmmaking and audiences are not anxiously awaiting his next project, the as-yet-unreleased adaptation of Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash, which he wrote and directed.
9. Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert had been the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967. He published Illini Century: One Hundred Years of Campus Life, a book about the history of the University of Illinois and his 1969 review of Night of the Living Dead was published in Reader’s Digest, but his first screenplay got horrible reviews. At the time, that is. Now, of course critics acknowledge that Beyond the Valley of The Dolls has a certain cult genius behind it. It came in at number 87 on the Village Voice 2001 list of the 100 Greatest Films of the Century.
Roger Ebert co-wrote the screenplay for the 1970 Russ Meyer film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The film was an emotional sequel to the 1967 cult classic Valley of the Dolls. It followed an all-girl rock band who get sucked into the decadence of the Hollywood rock scene.
Ebert and the king of cheapie horror worked together on a few projects. They co-wrote the screenplays for the 1976 soft core Nazi sex comedy Up! and the 1979 satirical sexploitation Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, which starred Kitten Natividad and Ann Marie. Ebert also co-wrote the script for the Sex Pistols movie Who Killed Bambi? with Malcolm McLaren. The film was set to be produced by Meyer and directed by Jonathan Kaplan but was scrapped after about a day’s worth of shooting was completed.
Ebert had much more success on the small screen. He co-hosted the weekly film review series Sneak Previews for Chicago’s public broadcasting station WTTW in 1975 and added Gene Siskel in 1978. Siskel and Ebert trademarked the phrase “Two Thumbs Up” before they renamed it At The Movies With Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert for PBS in 1982. In 1986, the show was rechristened Siskel & Ebert & The Movies and moved to Disney’s Buena Vista Television. Ebert Presents: At the Movies premiered on January 21, 2011.
The Directors Guild of America made Ebert an honorary life member on January 31, 2009. Ebert published his last review in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 6, 2013.
8. Paul D. Zimmerman
Martin Scorsese saw the value in hiring writers who knew how to pick apart a film. Paul D. Zimmerman was a movie reviewer for Newsweek and wrote for the educational series Sesame Street. Zimmerman also wrote one of the most fun books on movie comedy when he published The Marx Brothers at the Movies in 1968. The Marx Brothers were kings of comedy and Zimmerman put that knowledge on the screen with the screenplay for King of Comedy.
This film is his best critique. Zimmerman wrote the script a decade before the film was made and preemptively gave a bad review to the decades to come. Zimmerman justifies anything he ever wrote as a critic by so cleverly skewering the rising tide of a celebrity-driven society.
He also wrote the 1979 Italian comedy film Lovers and Liars. Directed by Mario Monicelli, it starred The Seduction of Mimi’s Giancarlo Giannini and was the only foreign film Goldie Hawn starred in. Zimmerman also wrote the unproduced Adolph Hitler mea culpa comedy Back Again.
Besides making his bones in film, Zimmerman walked the walk in life. The life-long political independent got himself elected to Pennsylvania’s Republican Party convention in 1984 just so there would be one vote against Ronald Reagan.
7. Jay Cocks
Jay Cocks was the lead critic for Time magazine in the 1970s. He reviewed movies, music and even the politics of art for Newsweek, The New York Review of Books, and Rolling Stone. Before he moved to screenplay writing he was already friends with director Brian De Palma and future collaborators Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, for whom he did an uncredited rewrite for the biggest commercial film of all time, Titanic. Cocks counseled Stanley Kubrick on both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut.
The critic even reviewed his wife before he married her. Cocks met the actress Verna Bloom, who plays Mrs. Wormer in National Lampoon’s classic college comedy Animal House and Jesus’s mother Mary in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, after she appeared in the 1969 pseudo-documentary about the 1968 Democratic convention, Medium Cool, directed by Haskell Wexler. Bloom’s performance was so real, Cocks thought she wasn’t acting and her character wasn’t fictional but one of the actual protesters that was filmed. He publicly swore that he didn’t give her a good review just to meet her.
Cocks first worked with Scorsese on The Age of Innocence (1993) getting a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination with his take on the classic novel. Cocks began writing the screenplay for the 2002 film Gangs of New York in 1976, which won Best Original Screenplay. Venturing from the century past to the centuries to come, he wrote the screenplay to Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller Strange Days and directed Cole Porter biography, De-Lovely, which starred Kevin Kline.
6. James Agee
James Agee wrote a lot of words about film when he was reviewing for Time and The Nation, but he believed the art reached its highest pinnacle when there was no dialog. Agee loved silent films and wrote movingly on the stories told by the images captured by the camera. His screenplays allowed the camera to breathe, and freed the directors to fill the screens with atmosphere. The string of empty gin bottles floating on the water in The African Queen (1951) communicates forced temperance better than words. Agee didn’t write that cold stare Katherine Hepburn gave Bogie when he wrote the screenplay, but he gave her the room to use it.
Agee wrote The Night of the Hunter (1955), the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. It is very telling how the two artists went against expectations to bring out the murky suspense. Agee, the screenwriter, populated the pages with long spaces of empty canvass. Laughton, a legendary actor who brought out amazing performances in everyone in the film, lets the camera find character where there were no actors present. He played in the shadows with paper outlines.
The most unsettling shot is of Shelly Winters’ mother character lifelessly sitting on the river bottom, her floating hair the only real movement. The actor as prop. No words necessary. Filmmaking distilled to its purest form. Storytelling through image.
Agee posthumously won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his novel A Death in the Family.
5. Frank S. Nugent
Frank S. Nugent reviewed about a thousand movies for The New York Times before John Ford offered him the screenplay gig for the classic western The Searchers. Nugent loved some of those movies, Stage Coach and The Grapes of Wrath. Others, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he ravaged. Nugent had a particular hard-on for Tyrone Power and said the biopic on Alexander Graham Bell would work better without the title character.
But whether he liked a film or not he understood them. His poison-tipped pen could leak better movies. Ford saw this and put 11 of Nugent’s scripts on the big screen, as big a screen as possible. The palettes for Ford’s films were as large as motion pictures allowed.
New York City born Frank Stanley Nugent wrote 21 screenplays. One of then was nominated for an Oscar in 1953 and two bagged the Best Written American Comedy honor at the Writers Guild of America, which ranks The Searchers script from 1956 one of the top 101 screenplays of all time.
Nugent was a news reporter before he started writing reviews in 1934. He kept that up until 1940. Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck hired Nugent to work as a script editor, but studio head was actually saving production time by having reviews written, and kept in-house, before the movies went out.
Nugent wrote the Ford Westerns 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, and The Searchers. He went against the prevailing racism of the Western genre by trying to show Indians as exploited victims, bringing the concept of the wise old native citizen to celluloid. He had the idea to balance this against the hot-blooded, too-cool-for-school younger warrior.
4. Peter Bogdanovich
Peter Bogdanovich went from programming movies at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art to writing movie reviews and interviewing directors for Esquire. Inspired by Cahiers du Cinéma critics like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Éric Rohmer who began French Nouvelle Vague, he accepted an offer from indie filmmaking icon Roger Corman to work on the film Targets, which starred Boris Karloff, and direct Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women under the pseudonym Derek Thomas.
As a long-form critic, Bogdanovich wrote essential books on John Ford and Howard Hawks. Bogdanovich directed the American Film Institute documentary Directed by John Ford (1971), which was narrated by Orson Welles and included chats with Hollywood Icons John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda.
Bogdonavich was a leading authority on Orson Welles before his first feature film The Last Picture Show, which he made in 1971 at age 31, got him dubbed Wellesian. The Last Picture Show, which starred 21-year-old model Cybill Shepherd, was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Director. Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson won supporting actor Oscars. Bogdanovich channeled both Howard Hawks and Bugs Bunny for the screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972), which starred Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal.
Bodgonavich, Francis Ford Coppola and The Exorcist director William Friedkin formed The Directors Company, so they could have creative control for the movies they made for Paramount Pictures. The first movie Bogdanovich delivered was Paper Moon in 1973.
3. François Truffaut
When François Truffaut criticized his country’s staid moviemaking machine in the film magazine Cahiers du cinema, he triggered the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave. His “A Certain Trend in French Cinema” piece from 1954 blasted the “tradition of quality” in cinema and launched the auteur.
Truffaut saw his first movie saw his first movie, Abel Gance’s Paradis perdu, when he was eight years old and traded in the schoolroom for the cinema. By the time he was a teenager, Truffaut had a folder of clipped articles that he brought to the French movie clubs. After analyzing films from Jean Renoir and Sacha Guitry for Henri Langlois’ Cinematheque Francaise, he turned his sights on silent films and American directors like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock.
After working as a journalist at Elle magazine, Truffaut published 170 film articles in Cahiers du cinéma between March 1953 and November 1959. He made his first film, the 8 minute short Une visite, in 1954.
Watching The 400 Blows (1959), you can see Truffaut’s life become art. He formed the Movie Mania club, Cercle Cinemane in 1948, and spent three months at the Paris Observation Centre for Minors in Villejuif, a reform school, for stealing a typewriter from his father’s business to keep it afloat.
He went on to make classics like The Soft Skin in 1964, as well as Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Love on the Run, Day for Night, and The Last Metro before he died at the age of 52.
2. Jean-Luc Godard
Before he rolled American film noir into the French New Wave with the rocking cinema experience Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960), Jean Luc Godard kicked around motion picture commentary. The director was part of Paris’s Latin Quarter film clubs like and Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin and Cinémathèque, along with such movie enthusiasts Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and François Truffaut. Godard founded the film journal Gazette du cinema and then wrote commentary for André Bazin’s magazine Cahiers du cinéma in January 1952. He influenced motion pictures forever with his defense of the shot-reverse shot technique and went on to make jump cuts look professional when he jumped into film.
Godard believed cinema was as important as bread. He preferred the artistry of Otto Preminger and Howard Hawks over Orson Welles or Billy Wilder and used his fan knowledge to help films get made before making his own, Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier), about the Algerian War of Independence. Godard’s Breathless starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg hit young French moviegoers with the force of Jerry Lee Lewis kicking back a piano stool for a solo.
As a critic, Godard saw film as both a microscope and a telescope and remembered those small moments as he moved to a larger canvass. Godard’s biggest film was his most personal as he mocked himself in Le Mépris (Contempt) from 1963, which starred France’s preeminent sex symbol Brigitte Bardot. The movie gave Jack Palance the chance to roll his eyes at venerated Austrian director Fritz Lang. The lovers luxuriously lose their life’s purpose in the confines of their apartment. In 1965, Godard satirized science fiction and film noir when he sent detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) to investigate a computer-controlled city for the film Alphaville.
Godard’s camera caught the generation’s isolation even as his films sought to bring the masses together in a Marxist or Maoist paradise. The couple in the middle of his 2014 3D movie Goodbye to Language is so emotionally distanced they let their dog deliver their messages.
1. Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader didn’t see a movie until he snuck into the Jerry Lewis farce The Absent-Minded Professor when was 17. He didn’t think much of it. Schrader’s parents were strict Calvinists and the man who started his career in film with one of the most subversively violent films, Taxi Driver, approached motion pictures intellectually, rather than emotionally. Schrader always said that he didn’t grow up with film and didn’t have the emotional connection to it that many filmmakers do. His 1988 film Patty Hearst is intimately filmed and yet masterfully detached.
Schrader got his B.A. at Calvin College, where he wrote film reviews for the Calvin College Chimes. He got a Masters in in Film Studies from the UCLA Film School on the recommendation of movie review legend Pauline Kael. Schrader went on to be a critic for the Los Angeles Free Press and Cinema magazine, where he commented on everything from classics to little known filmmakers to the Rolling Stone’s Altamont concert documentary Gimme Shelter. He took on the whole of Film Noir for Filmex magazine before he published his influential film book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, about the similarities between Robert Bresson, Yasujirō Ozu, and Carl Theodor Dreyer, in 1972.
Schrader believed that all of cinema could be found in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. He pointed out chronological impossibilities in novel adaptations like War and Peace and considered the master teachers to be directors John Ford, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah.
Schrader first turned his scholarly cinematic talents to screenplays. In 1974, Schrader co-wrote the Japanese crime film The Yakuza with his brother Leonard. The film was directed by Sydney Pollack and starred Robert Mitchum. Besides Taxi Driver (1976), he wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999). The man who was raised in one of the most prohibitory religions Schrader directed the sensual 1982 remake of the horror classic Cat People and the stylishly sexy crime drama American Gigolo (1980). He also directed the biographical film Auto Focus (2002) and Light Sleeper.
Many filmmakers return to the pages of film commentary magazines as guests to pass on what they’ve learned. The scholarly Schrader tried to formulate standards for judging major film in his essay “Canon Fodder,” which ran in the September–October 2006 issue of Film Comment.
Film reviewers and critics love film. Why else would they spend their lives writing about the art?