The ten greatest film critics of all time


Here is our own personal list of the ten greatest film critics of all time. These writers, from all different backgrounds, have all made a significant difference in their own unique way to the world's appreciation of Film as an art form. Like Cinema itself, serious film criticism was born in France but became the cultural preserve of America. In these people's hands, the word "criticism" loses its negative connotations and becomes a byword for appreciation and love of Film. Numerous luminaries are missing from the list, for the most part because the ten writers below have the edge in producing work which is pleasurable to read.

Naturally, anyone working in their profession is no stranger to controversy and if you think your list is better, please email julien@orsonwelles.co.uk. Any contributions to the debate are most welcome.


 

10  jonathan rosenbaum US, 1948- (Chicago Reader)

A true film historian and one of the foremost living authorities on Orson Welles, Rosenbaum is America's most prominent working film critic and carries the torch of European sensibility in American film writing. Rosenbaum's anti-establishment piece How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love American Movies is a brutal rebuttal of the American Film Institute's lazy and predictable list: "AFI's 100 Years....100 Movies". Rosenbaum's influence resides in his combination of clear writing and reverence as well as his appreciation of "foreign films". As a youth he worked with Jacques Tati and Robert Bresson. His most important work to date is perhaps in editing Orson Welles' autobiography This is Orson Welles.

 

9 serge daney Fra, 1944-1992 (Positif)

Inspirational French left-wing critic who accompanied the transition of the Cahiers du Cinema from its intellectualist beginnings into a radical political organ in the late 1960s, Daney's theories on Film were so novel and his writing style so mesmeric that he had a profound effect on numerous film-makers and critics all over the world. Apart from his political engagement, Daney's writing thrust Film firmly into a modern context, exploring its relationship with television and pop culture and that of film with video. His collection of writings La Rampe is an essential component of any French cinephile's bookshelf.

 

8 james agee US, 1909-1955 (The Nation)

A veritable renaissance man, Agee became, after his death, one of America's foremost literary figures and was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, but it is as a film critic from the Cinema's golden age (the 1930s and 40s) for which he will be most strongly remembered. A particular authority on, and champion of, silent films, his prose was characterised as much by his trenchant wit as his strict high standards - it took a lot to get the Agee seal of approval. Agee did more than anyone to elevate serious film criticism to the American consciousness. W. H. Auden called Agee's film reviews for The Nation "the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today".

 

7 philip french UK, 1933- (The Observer)

More authoritative than Derek Malcolm of The Guardian, more accessible than Geoff Brown of The Times and outlasting them both, French is the strongest of the male vanguard of British critics who spent many years vainly attempting to foist a culture of film appreciation on reluctant British audiences. A pure product (and now a doyen) of the European film establishment, French is possibly as knowledgeable as any critic working today. Lovers of Westerns will find no more complete an account than in French's book.  At 74, his writing is as relaxed and pointed as ever and his deep love of the medium shines through every essential weekly piece.

 

6 manny farber US, 1917- (The Nation)

On the face of it, a member (along with Kael, Sarris and Agee) of the US critical establishment, Farber's background was as a painter and his sensibilities were quite different from those of his peers. His writing was characterised by an almost misanthropic dismissal of numerous leading figures (Spencer Tracy, Alec Guinness) and occasional rhapsodic praise (such as for the works of Howard Hawks) which ran counter to his usual style and served to sharpen the reader's awareness of phenomenal qualities in Film that ordinary criticism habitually plays down. Farber was a champion of "termite art" (B films and underappreciated auteurs such as Hawks, Laurel and Hardy and John Wayne who aimed low and burrowed into their subject) above "white elephant art" (what he felt were pointless, bloated and pretentious offerings such as Truffaut's Jules et Jim or Antonioni's l'Avventura). Those who disagreed with him still learnt from him. Negative Space is essential reading.

 

5 pauline kael US, 1919-2001 (The New Yorker)

Kael did as much as the New Wave movement, if not more, to awaken audiences to the valuable artistry of low budget, countercultural and anti-establishment films (often "B" pictures) which had hitherto been ignored by serious critics. A particular supporter of Altman, Walter Hill, Peckinpah and Brian Da Palma, she was able to look beyond sexual politics to what she considered to be the true values of film-making. Her curious ambivalence towards movie violence (decrying Kubrick and Eastwood yet supporting Hill and Peckinpah) was typical of her unique and uncompromising attitude. Like Farber, she had little time for Orson Welles and only her attempted massacre of Welles' reputation in her book Raising Kane forbids her a place in the top three most important critics of all time.

 

4  francois truffaut Fra, 1932-1984 (Cahiers du Cinema)

Truffaut's article Une certaine tendance du cinéma français published in 1954, was like a gale force through French cinema and heralded a revolution in film-making whose influence subsists to this day: the Nouvelle Vague. The piece was specifically targeting a "certain tendancy" towards "quality and tradition" in French cinema that was strangling invention, originality and freedom of thought. The first ever serious champion of Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Nicholas Ray (not to mention Arthur Penn and Don Siegel) as artists, Truffaut also invented and expounded the idea of the "auteur" (that whilst Cinema is a collaborative medium, the true voice and soul of a film is that of its director) which underpins the majority of critical thinking today. His stint as a critic was heavily curtailed by his career as one of the world's most loved and influential directors.

 

3  andrew sarris US, 1935- (The Village Voice)

A veritable "sacred monster" of film criticism and a byword for strong opinionated writing with an emphasis on avant-garde and cultist work, Sarris was the leading proponent of Truffaut's "auteur theory" in the United States and was hugely responsible for the elevation of the role of the director through his 1968 publication: The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. It is said that Sarris introduced two French words into America: "auteur" and "mise-en-scene". A professorial figure and perhaps the most revered of living critics, Sarris has nevertheless mellowed in recent years and has been accused of being content to cover the latest commercial releases.

 

2  dilys powell UK, 1901-1995 (The Sunday Times)

Uniquely effortless in her prose and radical in her tastes, Powell operated in almost a complete vacuum and appeared detached in style and purpose from any other film writer of her time. With a background in straight journalism but an incisive eye and impeccable breeding, the resultant body of work is both fiercely personal and highly perspicacious. Her self-effacing writing style speaks more eloquently than any other critic, to filmgoers of all persuasions. A champion of Laurence Olivier and Clint Eastwood when both were considered of limited significance as directors, she was, as her BFI tribute put it, 'not constrained by the middle-class shibboleths of 'good taste''. Her famous U-turn over Michael Powell's Peeping Tom was typical of this most humble yet courageous of critics. No film lover should be without The Golden Screen: 50 Years at the Movies.

 

1  andre bazin Fra, 1918-1958 (Cahiers du Cinema)

The single most influential film critic of all time, Andre Bazin revitalised and ennobled the medium of Film with his essays on all aspects, aesthetic, technical and political, of the film-making process. His book of essays Qu'est ce que le Cinema? (What is Cinema?) is the bible of film writing and is as authoritative as it is poetic. Even without his influence on other critics (much of what passes for acknowledged belief in film writing came straight out of Bazin's head) film-makers such as Godard, Renoir, Resnais and Truffaut were inspired by Bazin's work into attempting the impossible. That tradition remains alive today in the minds of Lynch, Almodovar and Tarantino amongst many others. Jean Renoir, the man whom Orson Welles considered to be the greatest of all directors, said of Bazin: "Long ago when kings were kings, there were poets to confirm their belief in their greatness. Not infrequently the singer was greater than the object of his singing. This is where Bazin stands vis-a-vis the Cinema. His writings will survive even if the Cinema does not."