Nix to the crix

A look at the critics’ top 10 lists makes one wonder who’s drinking the Kook-Aid.

This is the time of year when many of us survey the maze of critics’ “top 10” lists and respond, in the mode of John McEnroe, “You can’t be serious.” How could anyone conjure up such a mixed bag of cinematic effluvia?

I’ve discussed these lists with various filmmaker friends, who have come to believe that film critics fall into three different schools:

There is, first, the “pop culture is yucky” school.

Elitist by nature, critics find it positively unbearable to endorse any movie that has found acceptance from the mass audience. If the great unwashed liked it, could it be any goddam good? This would explain the zero overlap between the box office top 10 and any of the critics’ top 10.

Then there is the obscurantist school.

Since every filmgoer is convinced he’s an expert on cinema, the best defense for the critic is to summon up a list of movies that no “civilian” has ever seen or, indeed, ever heard of. There’s no way to contradict a critic if his favorites were shown only at the Ouagadougou Film Festival.

This would explain why the three critics for The New York Times include on their top 10 lists such pop favorites as “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge” and “Morvern Callar.”

Finally, there’s the “I-admit-to-brain-damage” school.

While movie reviewing may seem like a lark, the challenge of sitting through every Hollywood release is, at best, punishing. Hence some critics, if you catch them in a vulnerable moment, will admit to serious (if not habitual) lapses in judgment, which would explain why Brian De Palma’s movies continue to adorn so many critics’ lists.

Surveying the ritualistic end-of-the-year hand-wringing, some might ask, “What purpose do critics serve?”

Well, for one thing, they supply blurbs for all those giant ads that are emblazoned across the pages of the newspapers. By this time of year, virtually every film except “Jackass: The Movie” claims to be “best movie of the year” to some critic.

Do these blurbs really impress filmgoers?

I solicited opinions from three top studio ad execs on this issue, and they all basically said “no.” The quote ads have become a sort of felicitous decoration, it would seem.

The traditional defense of film critics focuses on their role in helping us “discover” movies that would otherwise be overlooked.

Writing in Newsday, however, John Anderson, a fine critic, acknowledged that the clout of critics’ awards and lists has been diluted by the bewildering diversity of choices. The Los Angeles critics voted “About Schmidt” as their favorite, while “Far From Heaven” won accolades in New York, “The Hours” from the National Board of Review and “Chicago” from the New York Film Critics Online (i.e. anyone who has a Web site).

There’s no chance that the critics’ blizzard of favorites would affect the Oscar race, Anderson suggests, adding pointedly, “The West Coast-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be loath to select a commercially modest masterpiece like “Far From Heaven” as its best picture, as the New York Critics Circle did.”

A year ago, “In the Bedroom,” hardly a commercial blockbuster, was right in the middle of the Oscar race — a fact Anderson traces to the “massive support” it received from critics groups.

But that’s what I like about critics — they don’t mind taking two sides of an argument at the same time.

All this may help explain why Variety doesn’t do its own “top 10” list. If I personally had to put one together I would have a tough time this year. Sure, “Jackass” would have a place on it, and maybe “Four Feathers” and “Swept Away.”

But then, as you can see, I’m not a film critic. And I intend to keep it that way.

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