You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Richard Corliss Remembered: A Great Critic of the Movies, and of Criticism Itself

We film critics have an often infuriating tendency to write as much about ourselves, and the state of our profession, as we do about the movies. This is hardly a new phenomenon, of course, but it may be more prevalent than ever before: Whether we’re seeking out pockets of online validation or trying to provoke those with whom we violently disagree (or both), the rise of social media has made it all too easy to engage directly with our ideological allies and adversaries alike. At the same time, the continual thinning of our professional ranks has fueled endless arguments and think-pieces about whether the Internet has succeeded in decimating or diversifying the field.

All of which makes it particularly important to remember Richard Corliss — not just because the veteran Time critic hailed from that honorable, not-yet-bygone tradition of wordsmiths who composed sharp, beautifully considered reviews for the printed page, but also because he was a master and a model when it came to civilly, and thoughtfully, taking his colleagues to task. Whether intentionally or not, he set himself up over the years as a sort of conscience to the critical community — a towering, goateed Jiminy Cricket who, every so often, would take time out from reviewing the movies to issue a gently barbed opinion on those aspects of the profession that troubled him most. Whether you agreed with him or not, his gripes, such as they were, conveyed far more humility than superiority, arising as they did from a searching, self-effacing and always generous intelligence.

As the recent documentary “Life Itself” reminded us, it was Corliss who, in 1990, took to the pages of Film Comment (the magazine he edited from 1970 to 1982) to write “All Thumbs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” — in which he held up ABC’s “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies” as an example of the relentless oversimplification of film culture. To read that essay today is to be reminded that Corliss’ beef wasn’t really with his old friend Roger Ebert, a critic who did his own finest work outside the TV studio. Rather, he was taking aim at the sort of thinking that would reduce anyone’s opinions to the sum of their opposable digits.

Written well before the era of Rotten Tomatoes, tweetable audience reactions, and other Web-driven attempts to push movie consumption in the direction of a dubious consensus, Corliss’ piece now reads like a prescient, common-sense warning against received wisdom and lazy thinking in any form. Far from being an elitist or an anti-populist, he proved just as capable of turning his scrutiny on those critics whom he felt went too far in the direction of self-seriousness. “I don’t want junk food to be the only cuisine at the banquet,” he wrote. But then he went on: “I don’t want to think that all the critics who have made me proud to be among their number are now talking to only themselves, or to a coterie no larger than the one (Pauline) Kael and (Andrew) Sarris first addressed 30 years ago.”

It was easy to hear an echo of that warning when Corliss penned a Time magazine column in December 2007 titled “Do Film Critics Know Anything?” In that piece, he questioned the long-standing practice of critics’ group giving out awards — a practice to which he himself subscribed as a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics — especially insofar as they tended to favor films on the lower end of the commercial spectrum. On some level, he noted, this was a way for critics to participate in the Academy Awards’ promotional machinery while feigning superiority to it, perhaps to the satisfaction of little more than their own egos.

“In the old Golden Age days, most contenders for the top Oscars were popular movies that had a little art,” he wrote. “Now they’re art films that have a little, very little, popularity.” It was a curiously conflicted admission from someone willing to ponder what good these rituals and accolades, worthy though they might be, would come to in the end — whether they would accomplish anything beyond affording critics a fleeting moment of self-intoxication, like actually illuminating or edifying the audience. Corliss was toeing a fine line with that piece, and in far less delicate or knowledgeable hands, it might well have read like one of those noxious little “geek alert” screeds that seem to turn up whenever a critics’ group dares to think outside the awards-season box.

Happily, it didn’t, as that wasn’t remotely his sensibility. On the contrary, the body of criticism he leaves behind is notable not only for its elegance and erudition, but above all for its thrilling openness to every kind of cinema. Fittingly enough for someone who didn’t mind scolding the scolds, whatever the default setting of their brows, he drew precious few distinctions between the high and the low — or between, say, the visceral pleasures of a Zhang Yimou wuxia epic and the intellectual rigors of an Ingmar Bergman chamber piece. Here was a movie lover adventurous and engaged enough to name “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” the best film of one year and Werner Herzog’s “The White Diamond” the next. Here, too, was a writer unafraid to hold an unpopular opinion: I still remember a wonderful 2005 critics’ panel on “Charlie Rose,” where Corliss good-naturedly copped to being the only one at the table (which also included A.O. Scott, Lisa Schwarzbaum and David Denby) who had found something nice to say about “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

That episode flashed before my mind a little more than a month ago, when I happened to receive an email from a colleague that opened with this sentence: “Looks like Corliss bitch-slapped you in his Time review.” That struck me as odd, insofar as Corliss had never really struck me as the bitch-slapping type, and indeed, when I read the review in question, I was more honored than affronted to find that he had singled me out (and others) for panning the Will Ferrell-Kevin Hart comedy “Get Hard” — a movie that Corliss, with typically bracing honesty and good humor, was not ashamed to admit he had thoroughly enjoyed.

I have my own older, equally fond memories of Corliss. I first met him and Mary, his wife and equally movie-mad writing partner, at the 2012 Venice Film Festival; there we found ourselves, waiting outside the Sala Zorzi, in line for a super-early glimpse of Brian De Palma’s “Passion.” (Meeting them turned out to be the highlight of the morning.) And I confess that my heart leapt in my chest when Sight & Sound published the results of its 2012 international film poll, and I saw that Corliss was one of a handful of critics who shared my conviction that Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express” was one of the greatest movies of all time. Richard Corliss may not have been right about everything, as he himself would have been the first to admit, but that was hardly the first or last time he managed to show us all how it’s done.

More Film

  • WGA West Logo

    WGA Plans March 25 Member Vote on Talent Agency Rules

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America plan a March 25 vote for members to decide whether to implement tough new restrictions on how Hollywood talent agencies as operate as agents for writer clients. The vote comes as the guild is in the midst of pitched negotiations with the Association of Talent Agents to renew [...]

  • Netflix Buys Chinese Sci-fi Hit 'Wandering

    Netflix Buys Chinese Sci-fi Hit 'Wandering Earth'

    Global streaming giant, Netflix has bought rights to “The Wandering Earth,“ the smash hit film which is pitched as China’s first mainstream sci-fi movie. The film was the sleeper hit of Chinese New Year — it opened in fourth position on Feb. 5 — but climbed to the top spot and has not yet relinquished [...]

  • Michael B. JordanAFI Awards Luncheon, Los

    Film News Roundup: Michael B. Jordan's Hitman Drama 'Silver Bear' Gets Director

    In today’s film news roundup, Michael B. Jordan’s “The Silver Bear” finds a director, biopic “Running for My Life” is in the works, Fox is using new trailer compliance software and the 14-hour “La Flor” gets distribution. DIRECTOR ATTACHMENT Related How Alfonso Cuaron Came to the Contemporary Black-and-White Look of 'Roma' WGA Plans March 25 [...]

  • Kevin Costner Diane Lane

    Kevin Costner, Diane Lane to Reunite in Suspense Thriller 'Let Him Go'

    Focus Features has tapped Kevin Costner and Diane Lane to star as a husband and wife in the suspense thriller “Let Him Go.” The two also collaborated on “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Thomas Bezucha (“The Family Stone”) is set to direct his own screenplay, based on Larry Watson’s novel [...]

  • Chris Hemsworth Hulk Hogan

    Chris Hemsworth to Play Hulk Hogan in Biopic for Netflix

    Netflix is in the early stages of developing a Hulk Hogan biopic with Chris Hemsworth attached to star as the wrestling legend and produce. Netflix has obtained the exclusive life rights and consulting services from Terry Gene Bollea AKA Hulk Hogan. Todd Phillips, whose credits include “War Dogs” and “The Hangover” trilogy, is attached to [...]

  • Rooftop Films Announces Filmmakers Fund Grant

    Rooftop Films Announces Filmmakers Fund Grant Winners

    Swedish documentary filmmaker Anastasia Kirillova and “Negative Space” co-directors Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter are among the filmmakers who will receive grants from Rooftop Films to help complete their upcoming projects. Kirilova will be awarded $20,000 to finish her film, “In the Shadows of Love,” while collaborators Kuwahata and Porter will receive $10,000 for “Dandelion [...]

  • Jim Gianopulos

    Paramount Chief Jim Gianopulos Unveils Diversity Initiative

    Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos has announced that all studio productions will be required to complete a plan to enhance diversity. Wednesday’s reveal follows Paramount’s commitment to participating in Time’s Up and Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 4% Challenge. The name is derived from women having directed only 4% of the country’s top grossing movies [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content