Did you hear the joke about the critic and the director? It looks like this:
“Do you want my opinion on your latest film?” Asks the critic.
“Of course,” says the director.
“I know,” said the director, “but tell me anyway. “
Rightly or wrongly, movie critics can be seen as killjoys, gleefully tearing films to shreds with their cynicism, showing their obtuse opinions don’t constitute a bean hill in this crazy world. The problem, however, isn’t that critics have opinions—everyone has opinions. The problem arises when critics overestimate (or their critics underestimate) the role of film criticism.
If there are individuals who give the profession a bad name, there are many others whose contributions are rightly noteworthy. Movie reviews can even prove to be a great asset in helping moviegoers decide which movies to watch and how to rate those movies after watching them.
As such, it can be beneficial to have a short list of reliable resources to consider for your own informed engagement with popular culture. Fortunately, there are some good options to choose from. Below is my own league of amazing experts. Most of them claim to be Christians, but I have also benefited from the advice of some non-believing critics.
1. Christ, Culture & Creativity / Joseph W. Smith III
We have all said it at one time or another: “There is nothing to look at. Sometimes this can be true, but often this statement just reveals that we are looking in the wrong places. Throughout its history, Hollywood has produced countless gems in a plethora of genres; we just need to know where to look.
This is where film critic Joseph W. Smith III comes in. He has a knack for finding films that have been overlooked, ignored, or unfairly trashed. Not to say that he only criticizes obscure titles (he also comments on new versions); only that it demonstrates a particular set of movie-discovery skills that many of us may have missed, for one reason or another. Whether by On the pulse news Where his personal website, Smith has plenty of cinematic options for you to explore.
If you’re disappointed with Hollywood’s current production, you’ll want to check out Smith’s reviews. It can direct you to dozens and dozens of great movies, both from the past and from the more recent past. In fact, he cataloged 300 of these films in his book The best movies you’ve never seen.
2. Decent movies / Steven D. Greydanus
As the name of its website suggests—Decent moviesMuch of Steven D. Greydanus’ reviews focus on films that are of interest to families (and that are “decent”, to one degree or another, for family viewing). However, Greydanus’s MO varies considerably from that of sites like PluggedIn, which rate movies primarily on objectionable content. He recognizes that the themes of a film and the underlying assumptions are not always obvious, and not always so easily and simply categorized.
A typical film review will have an overall rating (from A to F), an artistic / entertainment merit rating (from four to zero stars) and a numerical moral / spiritual value (which may involve positive and / or negative numbers, depending on the nature of the film). As Greydanus explains on his site, “Film ratings are reductive.” Neither a simple positive nor a negative score can tell you what a movie looks like. “That’s what Tongue is for, ”he said.
Greydanus writes what he preaches: His film review is cautious and nuanced, characterized by keen insight and a solidly informed Christian faith. The depth of his analysis sets him apart from his peers.
3. Movie Cat / Peter T. Chattaway
Originally from Canada, Pierre Chattaway is such a prolific writer that his short stories, interviews, and commentary far exceed his actual movie reviews. The amount of her output – on her blog, on social media, and on various other media – is impressive.
Equally impressive is Chattaway’s incredible attention to detail. After watching just about anything, he is able to make connections, contrasts, and patterns between many other media. This tendency is even more prominent when Chattaway is reviewing a movie series, TV show, or other stories in a shared universe.
On a related note, Chattaway is a demon of continuity: he is able to catch the slightest hint of deviation from established canon. To see how his mind works with such complexity is amazing.
4. I can’t not see this movie / Jeff Huston
As mentioned earlier, movie critics can have a reputation for being cynical killjoys. Jeff huston is the opposite of this caricature.
Huston shows a childlike and infectious wonder at the gift of God – and yes, it is a gift – of cinema. He doesn’t hesitate to criticize a movie for its flaws, but he’s inclined to find and appreciate the good in them. His writing exudes pure and unadulterated joy in the world of cinema.
This arrangement also leads Huston to find gold nuggets where others have only dug up rocks. For example, while many critics consider Episodes 8 and 9 of the Star Wars sequels to be 1) worthless garbage and 2) in total contradiction to each other, Huston argues that 1) The Last Jedi is the Protestant Reformation of the Star Wars saga, and 2) The Rise of Skywalker Don “t come back The Last Jedi, he actually fills it. These are just two examples of Huston’s fascinating cinematic analysis.
5. Reelviews / James Berardinelli
The site now known as Reelviews was one of the first movie review sites that I started to follow, mainly because of the regular production of James Berardinelli. He started online movie criticism in 1992, near the very beginning of the Internet itself. Roger Ebert himself Called him “The best of reviews on the web”. As you might expect, he has an impressive catalog of works to his credit.
Berardinelli consistently reviews more movies than any other reviewer I’ve known. As such, he’s intimately familiar with nearly every tropes of every genre, and he routinely predicts a movie’s end – and / or the turn that leads to it – long before it comes. As such, he can often discern how and why a given film meets (or fails to meet) its narrative intentions.
Because it’s hard for a film to impress or surprise Berardinelli, I always look forward to seeing his Top Ten at the end of each year. Being an agnostic, Berardinelli’s cultural mores can differ a bit from mine at times, but it’s always nice to learn from an established veteran in the world of film criticism.
6. Scott Renshaw
It may not have an official website, but the author Scott Renshaw is far from being a featherweight. He has spent over 20 years as a professional writer and critic. And since he’s obviously having fun watching and re-watching movies, it’s fun to read his work. The dedication he shows to his craft is manifested even in the clever way he titles his reviews, such as Spirit gifts (In regards to Creation), Electrical failure (In regards to The assistant), and Preach across the aisle (In regards to Raya and the last dragon).
Another reason I love Renshaw is that he has no qualms about deviate from cultural or critical consensus. For example, when the Internet made the laughing stock of a blogger mom who warned her readers against Disney’s “gay agenda” Frozen, Renshaw came to his defense– not because he shared his point of view (he actually didn’t), but because he saw the hypocrisy of those on his side of the political aisle.
Some critics don’t care what people think because of their pride; others just don’t care as a matter of principle. Even though Renshaw and I have differing worldviews, I place him in the latter category.
Everyone is critical
In various areas of life, we draw on the experiences and perspectives of others, whether it’s a restaurant rating on Google, an appliance rating on Consumer Reports, or a rating from a book on GoodReads. The point is not that we need other people to tell us how to think, but rather that others can help us develop our own informed opinions.
The same is true for us as moviegoers. And the six movie reviews above have personally benefited me in various ways. I hope that at least one of these can also prove to be of benefit to you as you seek to grow in wisdom, discernment and enjoyment of the complex world of cinema.
Photo credit: © GettyImages / batuhan toker
Recognized by Zondervan Academic as one of the best Christian thinkers on sexualized entertainment, Cap Stewart is a contributor to the anthology Cultural engagement: a crash course on contemporary issues, published in 2019. His cultural commentary has appeared in several print and online publications. Cap wrote on theology and the arts at capstewart.com since 2006.