We have a well-used, well-loved copy of Pauline Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies, which is her capsule reviews of thousands of films, dating up to the point, pretty much, where she stopped reviewing films. I remember when I started my own subscription to The New Yorker, mainly for the movie reviews. There was a time when Pauline had a review pretty much every other week. The weeks with no movie reviews were listless, useless affairs. Who cared about the long, elegantly written articles? Who cared about the cartoons? Where were the movie reviews?
These days we almost always check to see what Pauline had to say about all the old movies we watch bits and pieces of on television. A surprising amount of the time, she doesn't much like them. She had big passions and a lot of passionate dislikes. For instance, Pauline hated Doris Day, with a big and, I would say, sort of vicious hatred. I remember being bewildered at the number of times she said nasty things about Meryl Streep, the most memorable of which was something like, "Meryl Streep acts from the neck up." (I wonder what she would think about Streep these days, who is increasingly more and more interesting to me as an actress--less actress-y, more fluent and fluid--but I digress.)
The other day, as yet again I was perusing 5001 Nights, struck yet again by how much she disliked, I announced to the historian, "Pauline was a snob." And she was, I don't think there could be any arguing about it. I've been told by a friend that I should develop some good strong movie hates (he hates Hugh Grant on principle, for instance, and, in a related stance, refused to listen to U2 after their arty grimness on the cover of The Joshua Tree). I think the idea was that a certain amount of principled movie hate helps keep you from gushing all the time about what there is to like. But I find a movie reviewer most useful when he or she seems to be responding to what's there onscreen, rather than to an already hardened set of pre-decided opinions.
Here are the reviewers, aside from Pauline Kael, who have been essential to me in forming my tastes, and to whom I routinely return for commentary:
Stuart Klawans, of The Nation
Anthony Lane (The New Yorker, although I must add that I think Lane often chooses to write reviews of films he knows he can make fun of, and especially if he's got several juicy puns in mind. I remember a ridiculous review of the second Charlie's Angels movie. Of course it's a stupid product of a movie. Who needs Anthony Lane to make fun of it to know this? Why waste all that wit on something so trivial? It's a pet peeve of mine.)
Manohla Dargis, of The New York Times, even though I often think she gets it wrong.
Those super snotty reviewers at The Village Voice
David Edelstein (used to be on Slate, now at New York Magazine)
Readers of this blog know how strongly I feel that David Denby should have his movie reviewing license revoked. Also, in a related note, I realized awhile ago that all of my favorite serial publications have movie reviews. This explains why my subscription to The Atlantic Monthly, estimable publication that it is, and which I have had a long history of reading, has fallen mostly unread lately. I will not be renewing it. Not unless they engage the services of a really good film reviewer.