While many still produce at a level that would put younger colleagues to shame, an elder generation of film critics that has held a powerful influence in the field is gradually, very gradually, passing from the international film scene.
Certainly, as evidenced by such sturdy and vibrant voices as Shigehiko Hasumi, Joe Morgenstern and Donald Richie, age seems to provide no barrier for critics with intellectual energy to burn. (On the heels of a 2005 Pulitzer Prize, Morgenstern continues his work for the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio unabated, while Hasumi is in the midst of three books, including studies of Gustave Flaubert and John Ford.)
But rather than wait for the last frame of their careers, we salute a sampling of this generation now. By the time retirement comes, these critics will have left it all on the field.
Jose Carlos Avellar
Few can claim to have discovered an artistic movement, but Avellar — the dean of Brazilian film critics — carries that distinction quite firmly.
In the early ’60s, when Brazilian screens were awash in Hollywood exports, Avellar announced the emergence of Cinema Novo (with such films as “Barren Lives”). Its concern for reality and cinema’s radical possibilities set a course for a revived Latin American scene, with Avellar as a key articulator of this alternative to the Americans.
As the key developer of what is now known as “film analysis,” Bellour holds a crucial place in the landscape of seminal critical voices.
With his astoundingly detailed studies of (especially) Hitchcock’s classical Hollywood films — including “North by Northwest” and “The Birds” — as well as Howard Hawks and D.W. Griffith, Bellour’s shot-by-shot breakdowns liberated film study to observe pics visually, as do his recent studies that stress subtleties beyond the shot itself.
At a time when Cahiers du Cinema was seemingly the dominant voice of French criticism, Ciment led the charge in the ’60s and onward with rival film journal Positif.
Although he has tended to avoid the trappings of auteur theory hatched by the gang at Cahiers, Ciment is nevertheless renowned as the author of studies of Stanley Kubrick (still the best in print) and John Boorman and a photo book collaboration with Jerry Schatzberg, and as the master of the longform interview in his book-length conversations with directors Joseph Losey, Elia Kazan and Francesco Rosi.
By far the most popular and widely known American film critic, Ebert is the rare case of a populist film critic who’s also a world-class cinephile.
Noted for writing in an unfussy, direct style that gets right to the point, he has long championed little-seen films (even creating his own annual festival in Champagne, Ill., to highlight them) and was one of the first U.S. critics to make his readers aware of the international film festival scene.
In the 1970s, when the critics circle was predominantly male, Haskell fostered a sophisticated feminist perspective. Few books captured the era’s zeitgeist quite like Haskell’s “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies,” which convincingly argued how women have been frequently stereotyped onscreen.
Ever the independent intellectual, Haskell could also surprise and anger her erstwhile feminist allies with some of her reviews in the Village Voice.
Nearing 50 years at the New Republic, Kauffmann’s position as one of the English language’s most elegant and observant critics (of both film and theater) is undisputed.
He was one of the first American critics to write in depth on the wave of groundbreaking foreign films arriving in the country in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and has remained keenly aware of innovative developments in the world of film. Though overshadowed for a time by other, showier New York critics, Kauffmann’s exquisite prose style and perceptions (collected in several books) have had a long and enduring influence.
Kezich is not only Italy’s leading film critic — an extraordinary feat in a country teeming with them — but still a major voice in European film culture.
As longtime critic for Corriere della Sera, Kezich has used his powerful platform to argue for independent and authentic artistic visions. He has made his case based on a lifetime’s worth of writing and observing Italian neorealism and what came after, and has shrewdly used his close associations with directors and writers to buttress his criticism. Supreme evidence of his work is now on display in the just-published English translation of his critical biography “Federico Fellini: His Life and Work.”
Going against the grain of most conventional American film writing, Rosenbaum has become synonymous with exploratory criticism that focuses on the overlooked. As chief critic at the Chicago Reader, he places a premium on research and investigation — as well as the values of cultural politics and autobiographical insight — making him uniquely useful to both the everyday reader and serious student.
A frequent visitor to international film festivals, Rosenbaum has amassed a library of volumes — from his “Essential Cinema” and polemical “Movie Wars” to his collaboration on “Movie Mutations” — that are required reading for the film-savvy.
The man who imported the auteur theory from France to America, Sarris was instrumental in changing the complexion of domestic film writing by promoting the primacy of the director.
Sarris’ classic “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968” fundamentally affected conventional views. His decades-long run as lead critic at the Village Voice raised the profile of alternative weeklies, with his current work in the New York Observer losing none of that Voice energy.
Often viewed as an academic first and film critic second, Wood has provided a model for film scholars to follow in communicating beyond the groves of academe. He remains Canada’s most respected film critic, famed for his Hitchcock studies as well as how his own coming out as a gay man marked a shift in his critical perspective. This is perhaps best summed up in “Hitchcock’s Films Revisited,” in which he looks at Hitch anew through the prisms of queer, gender and feminist studies.