Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Critics and the Money

How to rate art? It is not only subjective among appreciators, it's variable across time. We relate to movies differently in the moment than we do after months or years of reflection. (Subtle movies fare better in my memory, once the evanescence of emotion has evaporated.) As a crude example, witness how the critics responded to movies at the time.

Below are aggregate scores of a selection of critics from around the country assigned by Metacritic. The scale they use rates movies from 1 to 100. No movie in its initial release has ever scored above a 98, and only one movie did that; the next-highest is 94. The movie receiving the 98 was this year's Pan's Layrinth, full of emotionan and imagination. But when it came time to rank their best movies of the year, only seven cited Pan's. By contrast, ten cited United 93, which only received a 90 at the time it was released. The Departed, which got an 85 by the critics at the time of release, was remembered retrospectively by eight as the best of the year. Go figure. Below are the Metacritic rankings and critics' best-of movies:
Metacritic aggregate
Pan's Labyrinth - 98
The Queen - 91
United 93 - 90
Borat - 89
Letters from Iwo Jima - 89

Cited by critics as best of the year
United 93 (10)
The Departed (8)
Pan's Labyrinth (7)
Letters from Iwo Jima (6.5)
Children of Men (5)
Babel (4)
The Queen (4)
Flags of our Fathers (3.5)
Another way of looking at movies is how they fared in the various awards ceremonies:
Best Picture
Babel (Golden Globes), The Queen (British Academy), Departed (Boston and Chicago Critics, Critics Choice), Letters from Iwo Jima (LA Critics, National Board of Review), Pan's Labyrinth (National Society Of Film Critics), United 93 (NY Critics)

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (Golden Globes, Directors Guild, Boston, Chicago and NY Critics, Critics Choice, National Board of Review), Paul Greengrass (British Academy, LA Critics, National Society Of Film Critics)
Of course, the least accurate, but most heavily-weighted metric in Hollywood (and one that comes into play at awards time), is money. It is axiomatic in the modern era that the best movies are never the most successful, and so it was in 2006:
1. Pirates of the Caribbean $423 million
2. Cars $244 m
3. Night at the Museum $239 m
4. X-Men: The Last Stand $234 m
5. The Da Vinci Code $218 m
What's more interesting is how good movies do at the box office. Many believe that Scorsese continues to lose out at the Oscars because his films just don't do that well. Until this year, he'd never had a $100-million-dollar movie. Could it be that Little Miss Sunshine is being taken seriously this year because it's made respectable money for an indie? And could it be that Clint, respected as much for his art as his commerce, has no real chance at this year's Academy Awards?

To turn the axiom on its side, you might also say that a movie, no matter how fantastic it is, can never achieve the level of cultural transcendence without making some money. Probably this has more to do with the communal aspect of movies--we like to share the experience, talk about it, and reflect on the meaning with others. If a movie is too obscure, it withers in obscurity. Witness the IMDb top movies--nary an obscure pic among 'em. (It's based on averages, so there's no reason an obscure movie couldn't be there.)

So, whether crass or credible, money matters. Below is a list of the major Oscar contenders and their grosses through 2/23 (best picture candidates starred):
15. The Departed $132 m*
17. The Devil Wears Prada $125 m
19. Dreamgirls $100 m
52. Little Miss Sunshine $55 m*
62. The Queen $52 m*
92. Flags of Our Fathers $34 m
93. Babel $33 m*
94. United 93 $31 m
95. Pan's Labyrinth $31 m
145. Letters from Iwo Jima $12 m*
Bode well for the Departed? Badly for Babel? Time will tell.

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