So come to find out, there’s not just a shortage of women acting in movies and making them; we’re also seeing fewer and fewer women writing about them. A new study conducted by San Diego State professor Martha Lauzen of Rotten Tomatoes’ “Top Critics” found women were writing a mere 18% of reviews — down from a still-ugly 30% six years ago. It’s not a new issue, but disturbing nonetheless: yet another area of the film business in which female talent is going severely underused, a self-closing loop where more often than not, men make movies for men that men review. But there are a few voices in the wilderness — a handful of female critics for outlets big and small whose words are worth seeking out and savoring. (Note: these recommendations are limited to those who primarily focus on criticism, as opposed to news and blogging and so on.)
WRITES FOR: The New York Times
FIND HER AT: The Times; she’s not on Twitter and seldom makes public appearances (but when she does, they’re worth paying attention to).
STYLE: She’s not chief critic at the paper of record for nothing; her prose is sharp, confident, and stimulating.
SAMPLE: “‘Stories We Tell’ has a number of transparent virtues, including its humor and formal design, although its most admirable quality is the deep sense of personal ethics that frames Ms. Polley’s filmmaking choices. Although it touches on intimate points, many recounted by Michael Polley in voice-over, the movie is revelatory rather than exploitative. And while the movie finally proves as much an autobiographical tale as a biographical one, Ms. Polley resists turning it into a flattering self-portrait of a young artist in search of her origins. Instead, building on the interest in narrative form that she expressed in earlier movies like ‘Take This Waltz,’ she explores storytelling itself and the space between a life lived and its different, at times conflicting representations.”
WRITES FOR: The Village Voice
FIND HER AT: The Voice; @szacherek on Twitter
STYLE: Zacharek was championed early on by Pauline Kael, and you can see why — her thoughtful style and careful yet vigorous phrasing recall that of the late, great New Yorker icon.
SAMPLE: “Before Midnight — visually stunning, in a late-summer way — is more vital and cutting than another recent marriage picture, Michael Haneke’s old-folks-together death march Amour; it has none of Amour‘s tasteful restraint, and in the end, it says more about the nature of long-term love. The unhappiness Celine and Jesse are working through isn’t what love becomes; it’s part of what it is. For now, in the place where our hopes and dreams for fictional characters nestle uncomfortably next to our own disappointments, they’re still together. That’s more than good enough.”
WRITES FOR: NPR
FIND HER AT: Her “Monkey See” blog; @nprmonkeysee on Twitter
STYLE: Thoughtful, considered, and situated outside the frame — Holmes writes about television and pop culture as well, so her film reviews don’t have the insulated-within-the-bubble quality of many of her peers.
SAMPLE: “It’s clear that everyone involved [in The Great Gatsby] so loves the prose of the book that they felt the film could not exist without it — could not exist without, probably most importantly, Nick solemnly intoning, ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ Apparently convinced that this could only be a voice-over and a voice-over needed to be explained, Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce came up with not one but two framing devices: Nick telling the story of Gatsby to a psychiatrist and Nick tapping out the tale on a typewriter. (The final shots related to Nick’s writing project are, it must be said, embarrassing. There is simply no other description that feels honest.)”
WRITES FOR: The Philadelphia Inquirer
FIND HER AT: Her website; @CarrieRickey on Twitter
STYLE: Snappy, fast, and cracklingly intelligent — Rickey, like Roger Ebert, is one of the last of the great daily newspaper critics.
SAMPLE: “Trance, an art-heist movie from Danny Boyle, is a thriller cloaked in a film noir twisted into a Mobius strip and shoved into a cranny where movie amnesiacs hide repressed memories that audiences try to retrieve.”
WRITES FOR: Freelance
FIND HER AT: Her website; @michelleorange on Twiter
STYLE: Orange hasn’t been doing as much film writing lately; she spent some time writing a book of non-fiction essays (and promoting it). Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait much longer for more of her intellectually challenging and rhetorically rigorous reviews.
SAMPLE: “But even good stories don’t tell themselves, especially not if they aim to be great. Watching her wriggle free from the story of a lifetime’s every formal and narrative constraint confirms Kathryn Bigelow as some kind of escape artist. Leaving Zero Dark Thirty, neither documentary nor pure genre, journalism nor entertainment, real world nor an exercise, and which ends with a whiskery glimpse of our generation’s greatest escape artist, that was all I knew or felt for sure.”
WRITES FOR: Newly freelance
FIND HER AT: @christylemire on Twitter
STYLE: Lemire recently stepped down from the Associated Press after more than 15 years, but should have no trouble finding a home; she’s developed a nearly perfect balance of emotional engagement and filmmaking savvy.
SAMPLE: “On a lark, Frances [in Frances Ha] takes a weekend jaunt she can’t afford to Paris, which Baumbach strips of all its usual romance; she can’t even do something traditional like this correctly, but her trip is appealing in its messiness. But what’s so great about her is that after each setback, she picks herself up again. Call it stubbornness or delusion, she is determined to be her flawed self at all times; Gerwig makes us fall in love with this seemingly mundane figure by revealing all her shades, all her humanity.”
WRITES FOR: Freelance
FIND HER AT: Entertainment Weekly; @lisaschwarzbaum on Twitter
STYLE: Schwarzbaum had been with EW for more than 20 years when she left her post there last spring, but she’s still writing eloquent stage reviews for them on a freelace basis (and penning hilarious “fake Cannes” updates on Twitter: “Ha ha ha ha ha I saw ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ and you didn’t but some day you will, so really, you’re the lucky ones. Le blog!”)
SAMPLE: “Shall I go on about all the ways in which this fake-opulent Les Miz made me long for guillotines while millions of viewers who have softer, more generous hearts than I may swoon with money’s-worth contentment? (At least it doesn’t skimp on length: The movie is approximately as long as the 1832 Paris uprising it depicts.)”
WRITES FOR: Freelance
FIND HER AT: @KarinaLongworth on Twitter; on Tumblr
STYLE: Longworth stepped down at the LA Weekly back in December (sensing a pattern?) to focus on long-form writing (she has a new book out on Al Pacino), and her wickedly sharp and intellectually precise commentary is dearly missed.
SAMPLE: “The film reflects a real, right-now hatred of women that is not retrograde so much as totally delusional, a side effect of a dangerously distorted worldview that itself might be the endgame of the ‘total corporate mentality.’ The biggest disappointment of Killing Them Softly is that such suggestions about said mentality, which add up to more than the sum of their parts, are far outnumbered by airless tabulations of criminal/corporate equivalency.”
WRITES FOR: Film School Rejects, MSN Movies
FIND HER AT: Her website; @katerbland on Twitter
STYLE: Erbland is one of the most entertaining critics on Twitter, so unsurprisingly, her reviews are conversational and (deceptively, considering their intellectual heft) casual.
SAMPLE: “Luhrmann holds back until the former lovers are finally reunited in a sequence that artfully blends the beauty of the film with genuine feeling and even trace amounts of humor and, suddenly, Luhrmann’s film appears to have a beating heart. But The Great Gatsby is never any better than this singular bridging sequence, the only one that manages to join together hollow spectacle and heart-wrenching emotion. Once Daisy and Gatsby launch into their renewed affair, Luhrmann’s Gatsby switches gears into a standard-issue cinematic adaptation, the party over, the style gone, everything plunging headlong into unavoidable and surprisingly banal tragedy.”
Farran Smith Nehme
WRITES FOR: The New York Post
FIND HER AT: Blogging the classics at Self-Styled Siren; @selfstyledsiren on Twitter
STYLE: Nehme’s Post reviews are short, quick, and to the point; she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which gives her work an extra jolt of pleasure.
SAMPLE: “’No One Lives’ is so unspeakably dull that it can’t even offend, save when the filmmakers have the almighty nerve to quote Alfred Hitchcock and Jonathan Demme. It would be far better to rip off a William Castle movie, and aim for a level they have a prayer of actually hitting.”
WRITES FOR: Freelance
FIND HER AT: Her blog; @SunsetGunShot on Twitter
STYLE: Tough, crackling, and steeped in film history. Her cover story on Marilyn Monroe in last December’s Playboy is one of the great pieces of contemporary film writing.
SAMPLE: “Quentin Tarantino knows what I want to see. I want to see girls in short shorts dancing to T. Rex in a run-down Texas bar; I want to see a weird, rough-looking Kurt Russell quoting Robert Frost while asking for a lap dance; and, I want to see a brave woman belted to the hood of a white 1970 Dodge Challenger (the ‘Vanishing Point’ car) while her friend clocks somewhere around 80 mph. Wasn’t this part of the reason cinema was invented?”
WRITES FOR: Film.com
FIND HER AT: Film.com, @msjennimiller on Twitter
STYLE: Loose and chatty, with a welcome feminist slant.
SAMPLE: “There are plenty of worthy works of art that don’t pass the Bechdel Test, or whose creators were particularly monstrous in their private lives. The artist leaks into his or her work, no doubt, but I’m not giving them a free pass on being a piece of crap just because I take pleasure in their art. Poorly written female characters are the work of lazy writers. Actually, that’s giving some of these writers more credit than they’re due; maybe they’re just emotionally stunted or something, but I don’t know because I’m not Todd Phillips’ therapist.” (from the “Filminism” entry on Mud)
WRITES FOR: Cinema Blend
FIND HER AT: @kateyrich on Twitter
STYLE: Heartfelt and evocative, and admirably intent on finding what’s good in even the worst films she reviews.
SAMPLE: “The fulcrum of Place Beyond the Pines is a single, relatively minor act of violence, the kind of thing mentioned in passing on local news and quickly moved past in most films. Cianfrance, who so precisely probed heartbreak in Blue Valentine, takes a similarly unflinching approach to the violence here, watching its waves ripple out and its effects linger as long as they would in real life: forever. Perhaps feeling pressure to escalate things, he goes a bit too far with it in the third act, pushing the story toward unrealistic synchronicity with the past. But the Shakespearean dimensions of the story — sons avenging fathers, fathers damaging sons, man grappling with his own demons — allow for the grandiose high stakes, and Cianfrance’s tenderness toward his characters keeps the heavy story just on the side of bearable.”
WRITES FOR: Freelance
FIND HER AT: Her blog; @sheilakathleen on Twitter.
STYLE: A recent addition to the roster of fine critics at Roger Ebert’s site, O’Malley’s writing is scholarly (yet lively) and filled with writerly flourishes — unsurprising, as she’s also a playwright and monologist.
SAMPLE: “The scenery the killers travel through [in Sightseers] is breathtaking, with the melancholy grandeur of English landscapes: fields and fog, lonely roads winding through green. The past is all around Tina and Chris, the greatness of England’s history shimmers behind every action. They cannot access the power inherent in such a history, it is denied them. Chris begins to seem more and more trapped in the abyss between his ideals and his reality, and Tina starts to seem more and more released from the ties that bind. The ending, when it comes, is perfect. Of course it would end this way.”
WRITES FOR: Freelance
FIND HER AT: @swardplay on Twitter
STYLE: Formalist, yet never dull — Ward examines popular cinema and digs out subtext thoughtfully and articulately.
SAMPLE: “The Paperboy may straddle the line between exploitation and noir in its sometimes playful, sometimes profane subversion of the norm in both obvious and unexpected fashions, yet it does so with determination and daring… Though the surrounding content overflows with symbolism, it is the embodiment of the feature’s themes and approach through performance that not only soars, but affords the demanding but dynamic film with its confronting, compelling core.”
These are just a few of the great female film scribes — feel free to share your favorites in the comments.