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The Top 10 Film Critics

By Martin Keady · January 13, 2015

It must be the best job imaginable: being paid to watch movies and write about them. And for most of the entrants on this list, it was the best job imaginable and they excelled at it for decades. For a few of them, however, criticizing other people’s movies was only the prelude to making their own movies, and in some cases theorizing about them, in an attempt to understand why cinema became the great art-form of the 20th century (and beyond). In the process, they literally rewrote cinema history.

Editor’s Note: Being as pictures of film critics aren’t the most engaging (a little dry to say the least!), we decided to insert some always welcomed Terminator animations. Enjoy.  

10. E.A. DAVIES

I will admit right at the outset that this is an utterly personal choice, because few if any film critics have had such an impact on me as E.A. Davies. My two greatest artistic obsessions have always been Shakespeare and Cinema, and Davies’s book, Filming Shakespeare’s Plays, showed how it was perfectly possible to combine the two. He focused on four major filmmakers who made some of the finest Shakespeare films ever: Laurence Olivier (Hamlet and Richard III); Orson Welles (Othello and Chimes at Midnight)); Peter Brook (King Lear); and Akira Kurosawa (Macbeth/Throne of Blood and Ran/Lear). However, he also proclaimed the genius of Grigori Kozintsev, the Soviet director who made seminal screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s two greatest plays, Hamlet and King Lear. It was Kosintsev himself who said that the main advantage of showing Shakespeare on screen was not that you could show men on horseback, but that you could show a close-up of a man’s eyes – even Hamlet and Lear’s eyes as they agonised over their tragic fate.

9. BARRY NORMAN

“Bazzer” Norman was film criticism, at least on television, for much of my life. As the presenter of the BBC’s Film programme from 1972 to 1998, he introduced me (and millions of other cineastes) to decades of great films. I particularly remember his annual “Top 10” lists, celebrating the best films of that particular year, which introduced me to masterpieces such as Gregory’s Girl and Hannah and Her Sisters that remain among my favourite films to this day. He was warm, funny and droll, but most importantly he was always passionate about cinema.  It is the greatest testament to his critical ability and sheer televisual presence that since his departure from the BBC at the end of the last millennium, the Film programme has continually declined in status and popularity, until what was once a staple of the schedule is now often only broadcast (if it is broadcast at all) after midnight. With the departure of Barry Norman from terrestrial TV, film in Britain (and specifically film criticism) lost much of its cachet.

8, 7 and 6: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer

Cahiers du Cinéma (which translates to English simply as “Notebooks on Cinema”) is the most important magazine in movie history, for two main reasons. First, it was founded by, among others, André Bazin (much more of whom later). Secondly, its “second generation” of editors and writers went on to form the bulk of the fabled French nouvelle vague, or new wave, which revolutionised cinema in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Effectively, they put on to celluloid what they had first written about on paper. Famously, they attacked what they considered the traditional French “cinema du papa,” the grand and often theatrical style of much French filmmaking, and instead championed not only the purely cinematic (material that could only be shown on screen and not in other media) but also the “auteur,” the writer-director who was as much the author or creator of a film as a novelist was a novel. It was entirely fitting, therefore, that Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer (who for a number of years was editor of the magazine before fully committing himself to film-making) themselves became arguably the most successful and celebrated auteurs, shooting cheaply and off-set to create a seemingly endless succession of masterpieces including À Bout de Souffle, Jules et Jim and Claire’s Knee. It is incredible to think that other great French directors also worked at Cahiers du Cinéma, including Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol; indeed, it would be possible to compile a “Top 10” list of this kind that consisted solely of Cahiers critics.

5. ROGER EBERT

Few critics can themselves result the impulse to create: after all, they have usually spent a lifetime watching others do something and in the process learned how not to do it. Obviously, the Cahiers critics (particularly Truffaut and Godard) are the most spectacular examples of critics who themselves became filmmakers, but the late, great American critic, Roger Ebert, has himself become the subject (and principal voice, if not the actual director) of a recently released and justifiably celebrated documentary about his life and work, Life Itself. Ebert, of course, was “one of the thumbs,” the other one being Gene Siskel. If the two great Chicago critics gave a film the hugely sought-after “two thumbs up,” it was almost a guarantee of commercial success, so highly regarded was their seal (or rather thumb-print) of approval.

4. DEREK MALCOLM

There were many estimable post-war British (and Irish) film critics, including Philip French for The Observer and Alexander Walker for The Evening Standard, and among the best of the current crop of film critics are Mark Kermode (mouthy, even trenchant, but often with good reason), the more considered Peter Bradshaw and Anthony Lane, of The New Yorker. But many, myself included, reckon that first among all these equals is Derek Malcolm, who for many years was the film critic for The Guardian. Indeed, rather like Barry Norman and the BBC, even though Malcolm stopped writing for The Guardian in 2000, his name still seems synonymous with the paper and his “Top 100 movies (In No Particular Order)” is a list of many of the greatest films made in the first century of cinema (1895 to 1995), from Welles’s Touch of Evil to Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Incidentally, it is interesting that the most recent film on the list is A Short Film About Killing, by Krzysztof Kieslowski, released in 1988. Arguably, Kieslowski was the last truly great director of cinema’s first century and thus the last truly great director of pre-digital cinema. It was fitting that Malcolm should celebrate him.

3. DAVID THOMSON

Thomson is often described as the greatest living film critic, and with good reason. He has written many books on the movies, but it is his seminal Biographical Dictionary of Film, first published in 1975 and reprinted (and updated) numerous times since, upon which his reputation largely rests. Even (or perhaps that should be “especially”) in the age of the internet, it remains perhaps the definitive reference book for film history. Its genius is to have focused not on the theory or ideas of film but on the film-makers themselves, with entries (and sometimes short essays) on every major figure from the silent era to the digital age. The tone is often iconoclastic, and at times is downright argumentative, but it is one of the finest dictionaries on any subject since the original, Dr. Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language.

2. PAULINE KAEL

Kael was the New Yorker film critic from 1968 to 1991, the first half of which coincided with what is usually regarded as the last golden age of American cinema. Kael was the great critic and chronicler of that era, writing in a style that shared many qualities with the period’s greatest films: wit; controversy; and above all energy. She often said that the greatest thing about cinema was its “kinetic” energy: the fact that movies literally move. She argued that there was nothing like seeing a film for the first time (when you were caught up in its sheer rush) and that easily forgotten point is always worth remembering. She certainly covered the waterfront (and the entire American century) in her writing, from Citizen Kane (she consistently “talked up” the importance of its screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz) to The Breakfast Club, which she skewered with perhaps the best one-line criticism of a film ever: “A bunch of stereotypes sit around complaining about being treated like a bunch of stereotypes.” Kael was described by a fellow critic as “the Elvis or the Beatles of film criticism,” but in truth she was both, combining the sheer one-off impact of an Elvis with the endless (and thus career-sustaining) creativity of The Beatles.

1. ANDRÉ BAZIN

I said that there would be more of Bazin, and here it is, because like many lovers of cinema I believe he is the most important film critic ever. His co-founding of Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951, and subsequent championing of the magazine’s contributors who would go on to become directors themselves (notably Truffaut, who was always unstinting in his admiration of Bazin) would have been enough on its own to secure him a place on this list. But it is his major book, Qu’est-ce que le cinema? (What is cinema?), that puts him at the forefront of film writing. It was a collection of his writing for Cahiers, and it was published posthumously, as Bazin died of leukaemia at the ludicrously young age of 40. His early death must have devastated his friends and colleagues, and it is tempting to see the entire nouvelle vague as being, at least in part, their attempt to translate his ideas and theories about film into practice.

Bazin’s central idea was that film (or at least the idea of film) had always existed. Just as man had always dreamed of flying, but did not actually take flight until the early 20th century, so he had always dreamed of an art-form that could somehow capture life itself, thus making it the ultimate art-form. As with air travel, it was only through technological advancement that this long-held dream could finally be realised. And so, with the invention of cinema at the end of the 19th century, the kind of “moving pictures” that had first appeared as shadows on a caveman’s wall nearly a million years before could finally be fully realised and preserved.

It is this understanding of the deep psychological, even anthropological, underpinning of cinema that I believe makes Bazin the greatest film critic, or perhaps more accurately the greatest film theorist. This idea, that mankind had dreamed of cinema for its entire existence and thus delighted in it when it finally came into being, is cinema’s ur or origin story, its founding myth, and the basis of the universal understanding that when we sit together in the cinema, or even sit around the TV (or computer) screen, we are still cavemen gathering around the camp fire, still waiting to be told, and shown, the stories that help us to understand and survive life as nothing else can.

 

A Final Thought

In the age of the internet, we are all film critics now (or at least trying to be), and it is truly wonderful that digital technology has allowed all of us, in a way that was never possible before, the opportunity to express our love for cinema in our own words. Nevertheless, even as we do so, it is still instructive to consider the words of the greatest film critics – Bazin, Kael, Thomson, Truffaut et al – who did so much to popularise and celebrate film. After all, cinematically and critically, we are their children.