“Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.
Bilge Ebiri’s interest and diverse taste in film started early. He grew up watching movies that could easily be classified as “movies aimed at kids” – such as Peter Pan and Pete’s Dragon – but he also saw a number of highly stylized and psychologically weighty movies, too, from Apocalypse Now and Aliens to The Deer Hunter.
“I was watching spaghetti westerns from a very young age, I think from third or fourth grade on,” he told Rotten Tomatoes.
The movie he’s seen more than any other is A Fistful of Dollars, a Sergio Leone spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood: “For a while, every day I would come home and just watch my Betamax of A Fistful of Dollars and eat ice cream,” Ebiri says. “I was a latchkey child, so I was just at home doing this by myself while my parents were at work.”
Now, he is excited by Gina Prince-Bythewood’s films (which he believes deserve greater recognition), and intrigued by the works of Lars von Trier (“He’s certainly made bad movies, but he’s never not made an interesting movie,” he says) and Zhang Yimou, some of which Ebiri considers “eternal masterpieces” while others are “middling.”
“The legacy of auteurism is that even filmmakers who don’t necessarily always make a great film, if they’re a great filmmaker, they’ll always make an interesting film,” Ebiri says.
Bilge Ebiri is a movie critic at Vulture and former lead critic at Village Voice. His reviews have been published in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, among others.
What do you think makes a good movie?
Oh, I can’t answer that. It’s all sorts of things. Anything I say would be wrong.
There’s not a one-size-fits-all model.
There are certain things that make one movie good, and then those same things can make another movie bad. There’s no way to answer that question without talking about a specific movie.
An example, I was just talking about this with somebody the other day, the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. I love the Lord of the Rings movies. I despise The Hobbit movies. A lot of the things that make the Lord of the Rings movies so special are the things that make The Hobbit movies, for me, unbearable.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about critics?
There are two misconceptions about critics and they’re slightly at odds with each other. One of them is, “Well, all you have to do is watch movies, what a cushy job you have.” And the other one is, “Do you even like movies?” Both of these misconceptions are wrong, and they’re wrong in different ways.
I think critics would love to spend all their time watching movies, but the truth is, you don’t. Often, you’re usually writing or you’re researching or dealing with publicists or dealing with all sorts of other things. And only a very small part of your day, if you’re lucky, is spent watching movies…
And as far as not enjoying movies – different critics are different obviously, but I think most critics, when they go into a film, are looking forward to it. Sometimes you can enjoy the time you have at a movie without necessarily enjoying the movie or without necessarily thinking the movie is all that great. That’s why so many of us love the theatrical experience, even after all that – because in the end, we love the experience of seeing the movie, even if the movie itself isn’t great.
Who is an up-and-coming critic that you want people to check out? “Up-and-coming” is also obviously up for interpretation.
That’s the thing that I’m struggling with because I’m 47 years old. A lot of people are up and coming to me even though they’ve been doing this for a long time…
Monica Castillo is a critic I really like and she’s a friend. And she’s been around for a while. I don’t think of her as a newbie or anything like that, but she’s younger and she’s somebody who I feel deserves to write more and be better known.
What’s a Rotten movie that you love?
I find myself often in circumstances where I will love movies that get trashed. The Vacation remake from a few years ago with Ed Helms I thought was just one of the funniest films I’d ever seen, and that was just widely loathed by people. Freddy Got Fingered – everyone hated it at the time, although it has since become a classic. And now all you hear about is all the people who love it, but they were nowhere to be found back then, except I think A.O. Scott liked it.
Is there an actor or a director or a screenwriter that no matter what they make, you’re excited to see it and you tend to like their work?
What is your favorite childhood film?
I had different movies that I loved growing up. I was a big fan of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan. But I was a big fan of that movie before I actually got to see it because it was impossible to see in Turkey when I was growing up and I saw it later. When I was 13 years old, Aliens was my favorite movie for about a year. The Star Wars movies certainly had quite an effect on me.
My parents took me to see all sorts of totally grown-up movies when I was a kid. So I was a big fan of Apocalypse Now – saw it when I was seven, twice. I was a big fan of The Deer Hunter, which scarred me when I was nine. But I could watch those, but I could also watch children’s films.
What is your preferred seat in a movie theater?
I actually love to sit in the front row in part because I can stretch out my legs – I’m a sloucher. And if it’s one of those theaters where the front row is way too close to the screen, then I try to sit a couple of rows back. … I hate sitting in the back. I hate sitting in the balcony. I have not gone to movies simply to avoid sitting in the balcony. I hate sitting really anywhere in the rear half of the theater.
Is that because you like to have the screen take up your entire field of vision? What do you like about sitting up close?
I like having the screens take up my field of vision. I know people who go to the movies and are really devoted to going to the movies that they love to sit in the back. This seems to be completely anathema to going to the movies. My TV occupies more of my field of vision if I do that… I like to be overwhelmed by the image. I do want to be able to see it clearly. Again, that speaks to how close the screen is to the front row…
But as a critic, I will say, sitting up close, especially if you’re close enough to the screen, has another side advantage, which is you can use the light from the screen to see what’s on your notepad. I found that that’s actually very helpful.
So you take notes when you’re watching movies?
I hate taking notes, but I feel like sometimes I have to.
Do you have a record for the most movies that you’ve watched in a day?
I don’t keep score. I know I have watched more than six movies in a day at some point.
What do you consider required viewing?
You know what movie I’m going to say? It’s not even my favorite movie. It’s not even my favorite movie by this director. It’s not even my second favorite movie by this director, probably. But I feel like All the President’s Men is a movie that everyone should see.
It’s one of those films that is a very interestingly made movie. It’s also about an important period in American history. And it’s the kind of thing that when you watch it, you realize how much we lose by the slow death of journalism and the death of a particular kind of accountability in politics. But it’s also just a really well-made film. It’s a film where, if you watch it, you’ll walk away from it, I think, with all sorts of fascinating questions, not just about the subject matter, but also about how that film does what it does. And it’s a great time capsule.
What’s the hardest review you’ve ever written?
I don’t even know if it was ultimately a review, but writing about Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book at Cannes. Actually, it was funny because I had just seen the movie, and Godard is one of my favorite filmmakers. I’ve written about him plenty of times, so it wasn’t like I was intimidated by Godard. But I remember there was a certain point, it was early at Cannes, and I remember I emailed my editor and I just said, “I can’t do this. I should just leave the festival. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this.” And he was like, “What the f–k are you talking about?”
I hadn’t been assigned anything. It wasn’t like I had to review this movie. But I felt obligated to review it. And I just couldn’t. And I thought about it and then I actually met with another critic with whom I had an interesting conversation about the film. And I did wind up writing about it and I thought the piece turned out okay. Honestly, you shouldn’t have to ever write about a film like that after just one viewing.