Film Critic A.O. Scott Conducts His Own Exit Interview

From a New York Times story by A.O. Scott headlined “And Now Let’s Review…”

Who the heck are you, anyway?

That was the first question I heard after The New York Times hired me as a film critic in the final weeks of 1999. A reporter from Variety found my home phone number and gave me a call — the late-20th-century equivalent of sliding into my DMs.

It was a reasonable thing to ask, and the simple answer was that I was a freelance book critic and youngish father of two small children. I had seen a lot of movies — plenty of people in those days had seen a lot of movies — and reviewed none of them for any publication. I was almost as puzzled as the guy on the phone about my sudden career swerve, and immeasurably more frightened. How could I be vain, dumb or deluded enough to believe that this was a job I could actually do?

And now — more than 23 years later, the middle-aged father of two grown children and the author of 2,293 published film reviews — I’m done.

Though I continued to dabble in literary criticism during my tenure on the movie beat, I’m ready to return to it full-time, as a critic at large for The New York Times Book Review, starting as soon as I find my reading glasses and rebuild my attention span. On my way out the door, as the final credits metaphorically roll, I thought I might try at long last to answer some of the questions I’ve heard most frequently over the years since that phone call.

Did you always love movies?

Yes and no. I’ve often been infatuated by movies, but I’ve also frequently been frustrated, confused and enraged by them. Ambivalence isn’t neutrality; it’s the simultaneity of strong, opposed emotions, and I think it defines my experience as a critic. Sometimes I’ve hated movies; I’ve never been indifferent.

Movies have been part of my dream life and my worldly education since my first traumatic encounter with the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” I’m still in awe of their power (the movies, not the monkeys) — to conjure up intense emotions, to invent new worlds and to disclose unsuspected truths about the one we inhabit.

The thing I love most about the movies is their ability to obliterate reason and abolish taste. You know the jump scare is coming, but you jump anyway. You suspect you should be offended by the joke, but you laugh helplessly in spite of yourself. Why are you crying? You don’t really know, but you can’t argue with tears.

It’s inevitable that movies sometimes abuse their power and mistreat the people who love them most. When my kids were little — they were my regular companions at Saturday-morning preview screenings — I often objected to the pandering cynicism of “family-friendly” films like “The Lorax” and “Despicable Me.” I also marveled at the artistry of Studio Ghibli and the sublime ingenuity of Pixar in its glory years.

Similarly, I was pleased with the first couple of “Spider-Man” pictures, impressed by “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” (which my brilliant colleague and fellow chief critic Manohla Dargis reviewed) and admiring of the way George Lucas connected the mythic dots in “Revenge of the Sith.” But I’m not a fan of modern fandom. This isn’t only because I’ve been swarmed on Twitter by angry devotees of Marvel and DC and (more recently) “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It’s more that the behavior of these social media hordes represents an anti-democratic, anti-intellectual mind-set that is harmful to the cause of art and antithetical to the spirit of movies. Fan culture is rooted in conformity, obedience, group identity and mob behavior, and its rise mirrors and models the spread of intolerant, authoritarian, aggressive tendencies in our politics and our communal life.

But I will always love being at the movies: the tense anticipation in a darkening theater, the rapt attention and gasping surprise as a the story unfolds, and the tingly silence that follows the final shot, right before the cheers — and the arguments — start. I wouldn’t miss any of the movies I’ve seen, even the bad ones.

How many movies do you watch in a typical week?

Looking at the review numbers, I see that they average out to around 100 movies a year, which is to say roughly two per week. That’s a lot more than most people with normal jobs manage to see, but it also seems much too low.

When I started, something like 400 films a year opened in Manhattan theaters, which was the criterion for a review in The New York Times then. By the mid-2010s, that number was closer to 1,000, and with the expansion of streaming and on-demand platforms since, it has become almost impossible to calculate how many new features debut in a year. That’s not even factoring in revivals and rereleases, festival films that never receive distribution, and movies from beyond the United States that never make it to our shores.

Maybe because I see so many movies, I’m morbidly aware of how many I haven’t seen. Since my first day on the job I have been frantically trying to manage that deficit. Two a week? During festivals I go to four or five screenings a day. In the fall, as awards season looms, I’ll start the day at 10 a.m. with an art-house treasure in a small private screening room and stagger home late from a sneak preview at a multiplex, sometimes with a morsel of Oscar bait sandwiched in at lunchtime. In the days before my Top 10 list is due, I cycle through links (or disks) in a mad scramble not to miss a masterpiece. It’s impossible to see everything, and irresponsible not to try.

So let’s say, conservatively, 300 a year. Slightly less than a movie a day. Seven thousand, give or take, since “My Dog Skip,” which started this whole thing. Is that a lot?

How do you decide who reviews what?

Manohla and I talk on the phone every week and sort out our assignments. Sometimes it’s a game of hot potato — please don’t make me review another “Ant-Man” — but generally we follow the time-tested preschool principles of taking turns and playing fair. I’d often rather read her review than write my own; I’ve learned more about film and criticism from Manohla than from anyone else. And we have a squad of talented and resilient freelance reviewers to help us make sure new releases get the attention they deserve.

What is your favorite movie of all time?

The answer varies according to my mood and circumstances — how can I pick just one? — but most consistently it’s “La Dolce Vita.” I wouldn’t necessarily call it the greatest movie ever. It might not even be Fellini’s best movie. But I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it — for pleasure, for work, as an assignment in classes I’ve taught — and there is always something I’ve forgotten, never noticed or remembered wrong. I still hope Marcello gets his act together, and I still don’t understand why he can’t.

Are there reviews you wish you could take back?

At least 2,290 of them could have been better: longer, shorter, funnier, kinder. A big part of any critic’s job is to be wrong, to make an early call that is subject to correction by time, taste and public whim. But it’s also the critic’s duty to give an honest account of what they think in the moment.

For that reason, I hesitate to second-guess myself. I can’t really take any of it back. The damage is done. My errors of fact are all there on the record, with corrections appended for everyone to see. Lapses in taste or judgment are better corrected by other people. I’ve kept an archive of letters, emails and tweets pointing out, not always politely, that I was off-base in my diagnosis of the overacted muddle that was “August: Osage County,” in my distaste for the intellectual posturing of “Triangle of Sadness,” my tepid endorsement of “Top Gun: Maverick,” my hot-and-cold takes on Wes Anderson and Lars von Trier, my regard for Sofia Coppola, my affinity for the Romanian new wave and my loyalty to Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. Let’s not even mention Woody Allen.

There are times I should have been gentler — to “Wonder Boys” and “Erin Brockovich” early on, for sure — and occasions when my enthusiasm got the better of me. (“Match Point”? “War Horse”?) But I’d rather dodge the question and savor my occasional vindication.

In 2001 I reviewed “Freddy Got Fingered,” a comedy directed by and starring the Canadian comedian Tom Green that tested nearly every imaginable boundary of decency and good taste. I thought it was great, not just because I have the sense of humor of an obnoxious adolescent — see also “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and “Sausage Party” — but also because it struck me as conceptually daring and aesthetically serious. I felt the same way about the first “Jackass” movies.

I got a lot of flak at the time, mostly from other critics, but both “Freddy” and “Jackass” have held up pretty well, and are regarded not only as crude, nasty fun, but also as interesting movies, which was the point I was trying to make all along.

On the flip side, every few years someone publishes the bold, contrarian discovery that Richard Curtis’s “Love Actually” is, actually, bad. I’m just petty enough to point out that I said as much back in 2003. I didn’t love “The Hangover” either.

To set the record straight: I didn’t hate “The Avengers”! I wrote a mixed review that noted the imperial ambitions and creative compromises of the emerging Marvel Cinematic Universe. Samuel L. Jackson, a stalwart of that universe, tweeted that it was time for Avengers fans “to find A.O. Scott a new job. One he can ACTUALLY do.” That was a dozen years ago. Better late than never.

How have the movies changed?

Gather ’round, children. When I first came to this newspaper — when it was still, mostly, a newspaper — the phrases “streaming platform,” “cinematic universe” and “social media” were not part of the general lexicon. Films were still mostly shot and projected on film. You could still rent VHS tapes at the video store, and Netflix would send you DVDs in the mail. The American independent cinema of the previous decade was reaching a new stage of maturity, and international auteur cinema was thriving in the work of Abbas Kiarostami, the Dardenne brothers, Pedro Almodóvar, Olivier Assayas and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

It was the worst of times! In the fall of 1999, a few months before I was hired, the critic Godfrey Cheshire of The New York Press published a long, agonized, in many ways prescient essay titled “The Death of Film, the Decay of Cinema.” A few years earlier, in The New York Times Magazine, Susan Sontag had proclaimed the end of cinephilia and the “decay” of the art form that sustained it. Jean-Luc Godard, finishing his decade-long video project “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” in 1998, struck a similarly elegiac tone.

And now? I’m tempted to say that the sky is still falling, or falling again, and that it’s the same old sky. The death of cinema is almost as old as cinema itself. In 1935, the German critic Rudolf Arnheim declared that film as an art form had died with the coming of sound, and that what followed the silence was mere commercial propaganda, a bastardized form he prophetically called “television.” After the war, television killed movies all over again, and even when a technological villain wasn’t apparent — the VCR, the internet — things were always bad. Frank O’Hara’s poem “To the Film Industry in Crisis” appeared in 1957. Two decades later Pauline Kael asked “Why Are the Movies So Bad?” The End Times have a way of turning out to have been golden ages all along.

The current apocalypse is that streaming and Covid anxiety are conspiring to kill off moviegoing as we have known it, leaving a handful of I.P.-driven blockbusters and horror movies to keep theaters in business while we mostly sit at home bingeing docuseries, dystopias and the occasional art-film guilt trip. Am I worried? Of course I’m worried. The cultural space in which the movies I care most about have flourished seems to be shrinking. The audience necessary to sustain original and ambitious work is narcotized by algorithms or distracted by doomscrolling. The state of the movies is very bad.

But the movies themselves — enough of them, as always — are pretty good. It’s been a pleasure to see them in your company.

A Life at the Movies, in Five Reviews

Of those 2,293 reviews I have published, here are five — positive, negative and ambivalent, in chronological order — that together capture something about the movies and my relationship to them over the past 23 years.

“The Gleaners and I” (Agnès Varda, 2000). From my first New York Film Festival, this was the first chance I had to write about one of the all-time greats, whose mischievous, humane spirit seems undimmed even after her death in 2019.

“Seven Pounds” (Gabriele Muccino, 2008). If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes and reviewed it with my own hands, I would have trouble believing that this midcareer Will Smith messiah movie actually exists.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” (Martin Scorsese, 2013). There may be no filmmaker who piques my ambivalence as regularly as Scorsese, and this review crystallizes both my admiration of and frustration with his work.

“Moonlight” (Barry Jenkins, 2016). One of my indelible memories is of the silence that descended on the room after the final shot of this movie — only Jenkins’s second feature! — at the Telluride Film Festival screening. It was as if we had simultaneously discovered a new planet and found our way back home.

“Joker” (Todd Phillips, 2019). Come at me, bro.

A.O. Scott is a co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.”

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