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Manohla Dargis Proves That Film Criticism Is Still Relevant

If I were to brainstorm a list of the most prominent working film critics, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times would be right at the top. In the male-dominated world of film and criticism, the rare female critic, whose livelihood is defined by sharing honest and sometimes even brutal opinions about other people’s art, is at constant risk of being questioned and invalidated. Manohla has proven time and time again that she is the kind of person who simply doesn’t care. In many ways, this is what makes her such an outstanding critic.

Manohla’s criticisms normally follow a specific structure, one that has become increasingly distinct over the years. She likes to begin by talking about the film’s intentions and providing several paragraphs of context, often discussing the director and how the film compares to their other projects. She keeps the reader in suspense by providing unbiased background infused with sharp wit without revealing the full scope of her personal opinion. Then, after she has conveyed the project as accurately as possible, she flamboyantly reveals her opinion. 

Manohla’s review of Antonio Campos’s The Devil All The Time (2020), a period drama/thriller which received a lukewarm reception last fall, is a perfect example of this characteristic structure. She begins by describing the protagonist in one dramatic sentence: “Pattinson plays one of those bad preachers who ride through certain deep-fried fictions, the smooth-talkers with scripture on their forked tongues and sin in their withered hearts.” She goes on to lay out the plot, commend Campos as an able craftsman, and praise the film’s music, sound, and production design. It isn’t until the last paragraph that she finally divulges her true opinion: “Campos is interested in [the protagonist’s] world or, specifically, its cruelties, but he demonstrates no real curiosity about it or its inhabitants.” She ties the film to real-world concerns and wraps up her review on a damning note, pointing out that “There are no Black characters on screen, though there’s a handful in the novel, mentioned in passing. Whatever the case, as a result, all of the pain and anguish, all the drama and generational trauma, is experienced only by white people, one of the few directorial choices here of actual note.” Manohla’s scrupulousness as a reviewer is evident; she goes as far as to read and compare it to the novel it was based on. She proves to be a pragmatic and unbiased viewer whose main concern is delivering an accurate and thoughtful evaluation of the film. She praises the film’s merits and, in true writerly decorum, builds up a tension which she finally cracks with her shrewd appraisal. 

Although her favored format is one she revisits often, Manohla would never limit herself by adhering to it every time. In fact, if she truly despises a movie, it is likely she will break away from her classic structure and make her distaste abundantly clear in the very first sentence. The woman is savagely funny, and these opening roasts always reflect this, giving her work a distinctly sarcastic and colloquial tone and compelling us to read on. Her humor gives us something to relate to in a world of writing that can veer towards the dryly academic or worse, the noxiously pretentious. I will never forget how she launched into her coruscating review for Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle (2020), “At some point during its troubled gestation, the movie once known as ‘The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle’ was renamed ‘Dolittle.’ Was ‘voyage’ too fusty, ‘doctor’ too fancy? Whatever the case, it’s too bad that the rest of this movie couldn’t have been ditched as well, or at least dramatically shortened.” Armed with scathing comments like this, it is no wonder many have a hard time separating Manohla from her less favorable criticisms. Yet even as I read her most vicious barbs, I can always detect the implied twinkle in her eyes and find myself utterly charmed.

With accessible language, humor, and a gift with out-of-the-box adjectives, Manohla is able to review movies in a way that to me is equally – if not more – evocative than the experience of actually watching them. Of course, her work is widely read, and this exposure seems to have bolstered her development as a writer. Every year, she sharpens her skills and becomes an even better, and more snarky, version of herself. She remains aware of her platform and has a journalistic approach to her work. By tying social causes and current events into her criticisms, she contributes to a larger conversation and gives her readers something to sink their teeth into. In The Devil All The Time review, for example, she chooses to end the piece by slamming the director’s lack of diversity and ignorance about white-washing. By ending on this note, she ensures that her social commentary will linger foremost in the minds of her readers, signifying the value she places on this aspect of her criticism. In this way, I believe Manohla’s writing shows us that entertainment journalism can make a real impact on its audience, shaping our core values and opinions for the better.

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