Meet the shock jocks of cinema
They love films that have been roundly panned – and give the thumbs down to critically-adored movies like District 9. Tim Walker on the new rebel critics
Wednesday 09 December 2009
When the film writer Richard Brody posted his list of the decade's best movies on The New Yorker's website last week, it received a slightly baffled response from the blogosphere. Filled with obscure titles in languages other than English, Brody's list contained only a few films that the average cinemagoer was likely to have heard of. And what they'd heard might not have been good: Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, for example, garnered some of the Noughties' worst notices, and The Darjeeling Limited is the least-beloved entry in Wes Anderson's oeuvre.
Brody's broad and educational selection demonstrates the limits of any "best-of" list: how can anyone boil down the many thousands of hours of film produced in the last 10 years to 100 top movies, let alone 10? (Brody chose a characteristically contrarian 26.) And it also reminds film fans that taste remains subjective, even – perhaps especially – among the tastemakers. There are some film critics who seem to dislike all movies, having been forced to sit in the dark with so many awful ones over the years. Others don't just dismiss the "good" films; they celebrate the "bad" ones, too. And when you find a critic who consistently rubs against the grain, you have to wonder whether they are deliberately perverse, visually impaired, or just plain wrong.
Two film reviewers who attract gallons of bile from those who consider themselves discerning fans are Fiore Mastracci and Armond White. Mastracci is a film teacher from Pittsburgh with a blog and a cable television show, who writes reviews for (in his own words), "those who remember when films had and expounded on American and family values". Which means that he's ultra-sensitive to "the gay agenda" or to President Obama's "socialist" policies, slipping superfluous mentions of both into reviews of the most unlikely films, from V for Vendetta ("blatant support for the gay agenda") to Fantastic Mr Fox ("makes as much sense as Obama's foreign policy").
Mastracci is especially proud of his signature criticism, "excrement on celluloid", which he frequently applies to films highly praised by his peers – including The Road, John Hillcoat's new adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's magnificent novel. That particular review earned him the ire of thousands of Twitter users. Mastracci hated The Bourne Ultimatum, Volver and TransAmerica. He loved Punisher: War Zone, and considered Mr Bean's Holiday the funniest film he'd ever seen. On the website Rotten Tomatoes, which collects and aggregates film reviews, a forum was founded in his honour: "Fiore Mastracci is an idiot". An idiot he may be, but his reviews still count towards the average grade awarded to each film by the site.
Armond White, meanwhile, is no idiot. He writes for the Manhattan freesheet New York Press, and is currently the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. When he gave a bad review to the otherwise-acclaimed South African sci-fi thriller District 9 this summer, the web erupted in outrage. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, the eminence grise of American film criticism, first defended White in his blog, then retracted his defence after delving deeper into his fellow reviewer's portfolio. White, for example, adored Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Transporter 3, starring Jason Statham. In his opinion, however, the ecstatically received Up was just another example of how "Pixar disgraces and delimits the animated film as a mushy, silly pop form".
Despite their apparent perversity, White and Mastracci both agree with the Rotten Tomatoes "Tomatometer" – a measure of critical consensus – around half the time. A quick survey of other major critics suggests that most only follow the pack for 75 per cent of films. Mastracci's personal "Fist of Fiore" awards for 2008 may have gone to blockbuster thrillers, but at least they were decent blockbuster thrillers – Quantum of Solace and The Dark Knight. White recently joined the majority of his peers in praise of Fantastic Mr Fox, Where the Wild Things Are and the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man.
White's righteous anger, when it flares, seems directed not so much towards filmmakers as towards the consensus views of his fellow film critics, most of whom he sees as liberal, urbane, "elitist film nerds". White (who is black) kicks against Hollywood's cultural conventions and is particularly exercised by its presiding racial attitudes. Last year, he attacked the "blithe condescension" of Slumdog Millionaire, and his views on this year's Oscars dark horse Precious were equally fierce: "The hype for Precious," he wrote, "indicates a culture-wide willingness to accept particular ethnic stereotypes as a way of maintaining status quo film values. Excellent recent films with black themes ... have been ignored by the mainstream media and serious film culture while this carnival of black degradation gets celebrated. It's a strange combination of liberal guilt and condescension."
When it comes to reductive "best ofs", White prefers to offer his more constructive annual "better than" list. In 2008, for instance, he advised his readers to watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull rather than Iron Man; and preferred Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla to Slumdog Millionaire.
Most film fans would disagree with White's conclusions, yet just as watching a "bad" film every now and then reminds us what "good" means, so reading a contrarian critic can teach us to look again – at the films we first considered flawless, and those we thought were excrement on celluloid.
Best of '09: What were your favourite films of the year? We want to hear about your most memorable cultural moments of 2009. In the comments form below or at independent.co.uk/bestof09 or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, nominate your favourite - in film, music, theatre, comedy, dance or visual arts - with a brief explanation as to why it tops your list and we'll print a selection in The Independent Readers' Review of 2009.
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