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‘Masterpiece’ Theater: Grade Inflation Corrupts Movie Reviews

What is the criteria for holding such an honorific?

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2017 was a genius year in filmmaking – 1939 all over again – at least if one logs every time a critic or journalist pronounced a movie a masterpiece.

Or, given how often the honorific gets tossed around, maybe it’s lost its currency, the cinematic equivalent to grade inflation. Not every great movie is Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Welles’ Citizen Kane. Some are just pretty good or better than the average spread. But will they stand the test of time?

Oscar frontrunner Dunkirk made the cut according to my colleague Christopher Orr at The Atlantic. Under the unequivocal headline “Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ is a Masterpiece,” Orr stepped boldly into paragraph one, writing: “It is a $150 million epic, yet also as lean and spare as a haiku, three brief, almost wordless strands of narrative woven together in a mere 106 minutes of running time. It is classic in its themes—honor, duty, the horror of war—yet simultaneously Nolan’s most radical experiment since Memento. And for all these reasons, it is a masterpiece.”

It’s hard to argue with Orr’s impassioned defense although I’m not seeing “as lean and spare as a haiku.” Nice image, though. To me, the war saga is a bit like the Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan, only for the entire movie, another epic of heroic English-speaking white men on that safe space of WWII where the good guys and bad – all men by the way – are so neatly delineated. And, tell me, why cast Tom Hardy and cover his face with a mask (see my critique of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight Rises)?

Over at Time, Dunkirk gets the star treatment with a rave by critic Stephanie Zacharek. But while the headline screams like a circus barker trying to generate excitement from a distracted crowd: “Ambitious and Harrowing, Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ is a Masterpiece,” that honorific never appears in the review below. Zacharek does extol the movie’s virtue’s, despite confessing her disregard for Nolan in general, offering heartfelt praise: “Most days we appear to live in a world gone mad, a time and place in which ignorance of history is treated as a kind of virtuous purity. But sometimes, cosmically, the right movie arrives at just the right time: right now Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk feels like a salve. Its visual and sound effects are elaborate and impressive. This is a grand spectacle, not an empty one, a rare example of the Hollywood blockbuster dollar well spent.” Perhaps Zacharek simply surrendered to Nolan’s onslaught while the headline writer delivered the M-word honorific.

Vulture‘s David Edelstein pulls no punches in his adoration of Call Me by Your Name, his second favorite film of the year behind The Florida Project, which by extension must be a super-masterpiece-plus-plus. Edelstein, employing his trademark wordplay, offers this kicker: “By any name, this is a masterpiece.” I pity the fool that thinks otherwise!

Boston Globe critic Ty Burr hails Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro who Burr describes as “absurdly talented.”

After referencing the director’s 2006 “masterpiece” Pan’s Labyrinth, separating it from apparently lesser works, Burr digs in to praise this year’s contender: “Make that his previous masterpiece. The Shape of Water is a love story like no other, and it features one of the year’s most heart-wrenching performances nestled in a supreme confabulation of cinematic craft.” And, look, no fish out of water jokes.

Click-bait contrarian Rex Reed called Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! the worst movie of the year, if not the century, while disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein took to Deadline to proclaim the movie that “really, deeply scared me,” a masterpiece he compares to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Whether Jordan Peele’s debut feature Get Out is a comedy or drama, David Sims took a deep dive into the critical hypnosis scene under the sub-head: “The Atlantic looks back on the key film moments of 2017, starting with Jordan Peele’s subversive horror masterpiece.”  Sims likely didn’t write the dek, which is an example of a qualified masterpiece, a work of art ascending within a genre, in this case horror. Peele, refusing to submit to genre segregation, wryly told Vanity Fair: “For me, it’s more of a historical biopic. The original title was Get Out: The Kanye West Story.

According to Sims, “Get Out will probably stand both as the definitive film of 2017 and as the one with the longest cultural shelf life, in part because of moments like the hypnosis scene.” He gives himself an out with the modifier “probably” but that time factor is critical in judging masterworks.  The term is rooted in medieval craft guilds in which there were three ranks: apprentice, journeyman and, when a craftsman believed he was ready to move up to established painter or carpenter or shit kicker, the applicant went before his guild and presented his “masterpiece” to prove he’d earned the right to become a master – like completing a film school MFA thesis project. In contemporary parlance, in the absence of guilds, the definition is less rigorous: “a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship.”

Recently, Rocker Patti Smith laid down her opinion of what defines a masterpiece in discussing her book M Train, “There are two kinds of masterpieces. There are the classic works monstrous and divine like Moby-Dick or Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books. Like 2666 or The Master and Margarita. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is such a book.”

In other words, one type is canonical, the other blows the reader/viewer sideways so in tune is the artwork with the time and place that it shatters and reforms the audience’s worldview. Both relate to the issue of time –art that distills humanity timelessly and works that capture the current moment with insight and intensity. Which leads me back to a statement made by masterpiece-spinner Quentin Tarantino that resonates, even if I find that so much that exits his mouth is huckster spin: “If you go out and see a lot of movies in a given year, it’s really hard to come up with a top ten, because you saw a lot of stuff that you liked. A top 20 is easier. You probably get one masterpiece a year, and I don’t think you should expect more than one masterpiece a year, except in a really great year.”