Do film critics still matter? Of course they do

It has been a case of Batman v Superman v Audience v Critics over the last few weeks...

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Roger Ebert on the poster for the 'Life Itself' documentary. Image: Chris Pizzello / AP/Press Association Images

First there were the reviews. Then there was the box office numbers. And then there were the ‘think pieces’.

The superhero showdown that lends Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice its name was merely a precursor to an altogether livelier brawl. The sharp discrepancy between the mostly negative critical response to the film and the huge box office numbers provoked plenty of commentary on that hoary old debate: do critics actually matter?

“The [box office] results are a devastating rebuke to the power of mainstream American critics at a time when many newspapers have already outsourced their reviews to wire services and the rise of bloggers has de-professionalized the practice of assessing a film’s attributes and demerits”, wrote Brent Lang in Variety.

“The critics are pros and I respect their opinions, but the fans and moviegoers have opinions too, and they delivered them with their feet,” Jeff Goldstein of Warner Bros told The Wrap.

“They have finally managed to make a film that is of itself perfectly irrelevant to the discussion that surrounds it, and whose actual merit, audience reaction and inherent qualities have absolutely no bearing on its ‘success'," argued Jessica Kiang over at Indiewire.

Let’s get this out of the way: of course critics still matter. More specifically: of course professional critics still matter in the social media age. But Batman v Superman is a really bad example of why that’s actually the case - and not just because blockbusters like it have effectively grown ‘too big to fail’, no matter how negative the critical buzz (Exhibit A: the continued success of the Transformers franchise).

Here’s one pretty much indisputable fact about film and the film industry in 2016, true in Ireland and elsewhere: there has never been a wider choice of films available to audiences. Unfortunately, that theoretically positive fact comes with significant caveats. With more films available, more films also run the risk of slipping through the cracks and not receiving the attention they deserve.

Not only that, but multiplex line-ups remain dominated by blockbusters and big name studio productions - despite many cinemas boasting plenty of screens, there’s surprisingly little space given to independent titles, documentary, Irish cinema or (heaven forbid) foreign films. Meanwhile, more people are hoping to have their voices heard - whether that’s on Twitter, YouTube or *shudder* IMDB comment sections.

Here is where the critics come in. With so much noise, it’s absolutely essential critics are there to help guide eager viewers through the chaos. There are so many weird, fascinating, accomplished, intelligent, charming, action-packed, provocative and brilliant films out there that would get even less attention if critics didn’t bang the drum.

Critical darlings

Sure, many ‘critical darlings’ may only play for some festival screenings, a week in the IFI in Dublin - if even - and be of niche appeal in the first place. But it’s vitally important they’re talked about and celebrated (if they deserve it). No eager viewer should have to live without these films for long anymore either, given the prevalence of video-on-demand and cheap online DVD/Blu-Ray - living in Dublin or a city is no longer a prerequisite for discovering those films (although this author does sympathise with the more limited selection available outside the capital).

Here are just a few of the films that have been playing in cinemas in the last week or two: Court, Sing Street, Victoria, Anomalisa, Mammal, High-Rise, Disorder, The Witch, The Club, Dheepan… These films are of varying budgets and scales, but none of them had anywhere near the visibility or marketing budget Batman v Superman enjoyed. After all, it’s nearly a rule now that many modern blockbusters boast marketing budgets that are roughly the same size as the already massive production budgets. For smaller films, it's a challenge for distributors to even get their films into any cinemas in the first place.

However, those examples above - a taster of the sort of interesting films released pretty much every single week - were all positively received by critics, ensuring that they at least got some attention. Even a small enthusiastic review placed beside a Batman v Superman one could ensure a potential audience member decides to take a risk. 

But ‘recommending’ films is only one part of a critic’s job - more important is, naturally, the criticism itself. Given that many audience members treat movies as quite disposable objects, it’s essential that passionate, knowledgeable critics are there to properly analyse and explore the films: what makes them work (or not, as the case could well be), their themes, their visual language, their place in a filmmaker’s wider filmography & broader cinema history…

There’s nothing like reading a review or feature after a film and receiving a really fresh or intelligent insight into what makes the work in question tick. Some of the most illuminating reviews can be the ones you don’t even agree with, especially if the writer has a particularly novel or passionate take on the work in question. Roger Ebert - widely regarded as one of the great film critics - was particularly well known for his reviews. They sometimes departed from consensus, but were always argued with honesty and conviction.

The language of cinema is rich and complex, and it’s a delight when somebody can articulate that in an engaging and original way. Some of the best film criticism happens when a film divides critics - a diversity of opinion is only to be encouraged.

When blogging, vlogging and social media have led to more casual approaches to film discussion, there’s an essential place for the robust writing and strong analysis you get from great critics, or in serious-minded film publications such as Sight & Sound. Although one must stress that new technologies have in many cases led to exciting new possibilities at the same time - take the superb ‘Every Frame a Painting’ YouTube series, in which Tony Zhou offers fascinating, accessible and intelligent breakdowns of cinematic language.

None of this is to say the current critical landscape is ‘ideal’. There are a lot of people writing about film professionally, and thus the quality levels can fluctuate wildly - this is especially true of blockbusters, when more publications cover the films. It’s also fair to say critical consensus can sometimes be a bit baffling or hyperbolic - although I’d suggest that the critical hivemind has a tendency to give many films, especially ‘prestige’ fare, too easy a time.

And no point denying it: worse films than Batman v Superman are going to survive even more vitriolic reviews and enjoy dizzying box office results. Some films will just remain 'critic proof', and for better and worse there'll always be a divide between critics and mainstream audiences.

Ultimately, though, critics are just viewers too, offering their own subjective opinions but having the luxury of a more visible platform for their views. But the really great critics are incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about cinema - perhaps not above the occasional giddy hatchet job, but mostly eager to celebrate and analyse the seemingly endless supply of great cinema. That enthusiasm can be infectious, and we’d all be worse off without it.