Monday, February 24, 2014

10 Film Review Websites for Christians


If you've read The Mayward Blog before, you know that I love film. I've been the in habit of writing reviews about the movies I see, as well as documenting them in my film journals. But I also love to read film criticism, both before and I after I see a film. Using discernment and wisdom to engage the medium of film requires seeking out good film critics who offer thoughtful reviews and point out beauty and truth.

But what is the purpose of film criticism? How should one view the genre? Critic Alissa Wilkinson writes:
I maintain that well-written, thoughtful criticism serves a culture-making purpose: it helps us understand the world we live in new ways; it teaches us about and records our cultural history; and it helps us keep a pulse on ourselves and our culture. And when it's written well, it brings us both insight and delight.
Good Christian film criticism offers more than a detailed report of the "bad" content in a film--swear words, sex scenes, violent acts, etc. It addresses content, aesthetic, technique, and truth. The critic views films as both entertaining and enlightening, as both amusement and art. This isn't about being a "film snob," but rather about having good taste in films, which requires patience and education and experience to acquire. Film criticism can help us think about films in new ways, noticing details, themes, and truth where we may have missed it.

Here are ten of the Christian film critics and websites that I frequent. They write thoughtful and well-crafted reviews, ones that take both faith and film seriously. In no particular order:

Christianity Today. Alissa Wilkinson, as CT's current chief film critic, has enlisted a cadre of engaging and enlightening Christian writers to review a myriad of films. Frequently criticized for offering high star ratings for R-rated films (You can read Alissa's excellent response and an articulation of CT's philosophy of film criticism here), they nonetheless write some of the best reviews around. The "caveat spectator" section at the end of each review offers a brief list of the questionable content, but the emphasis here is on good writing and reviewing.

Jeffrey Overstreet. The author of my favourite film-watching book, Through a Screen Darkly, Jeffrey invites readers and viewers to look closer, to see the beauty (or ugliness) of a particular form of art. He writes with wit and clarity, and his favourite films range from foreign art-house (Wings of Desire) to spiritual meditation (The New World) to childlike fun (The Muppet Movie). He teaches at Seattle Pacific University, and is the author of a four-novel fantasy series, Auralia's Colors.

Brett McCracken. The author of Hipster Christianity and Gray Matters, Brett is the film critic I typically personally resonate with the most; I find myself quietly nodding as I read his reviews. An avid fan of Terrence Malick, Sofia Coppola, and the Dardenne brothers, Brett is a writer and editor working at Biola University in Los Angeles. (Here's his post on 8 Tips for Watching "Art Films")

Stephen Greydanus. Posting dozens of reviews at Decent Films writing for the National Catholic Register, Stephen often offers reviews that oppose my initial reading of a movie, but always force me to rethink and better articulate--and often change--my fledgling thoughts. Really, Stephen makes me think deeply. A great critic should. (Here's his thoughtful blog post on the upcoming Noah movie)

Peter T. Chattaway. Peter was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011, and has written for Christianity Today and the Vancouver Sun. An avid fan of Lawrence of Arabia, Peter introduced me to a humorous and insightful film on marriage, The Family Way (1966). I briefly met Peter in Vancouver after viewing one of my favourite movies from last year, Upstream Color, and have appreciated the chance to interact with fellow film-lover in BC.

Kenneth Morefield. An associate professor of English at Campbell University in North Carolina and frequent reviewer for Christianity Today, Kenneth writes reviews he deems "inconspicuously Christian," reviewing as a person influenced and informed by the gospel, yet not needing to announce his Christian faith like a clanging cymbal.

Filmwell. Self-described as a blog "interested in cinema off the beaten track, criticism at the margins of the great conversation, and how art points the way to (as Henry Miller says) 'life more abundant,'" Filmwell averages about one or two blog posts a month. I wish there were more reviews here, because it's all quite brilliant and features some great writers and thinkers.

Hollywood Jesus. Started by David Bruce, Hollywood Jesus is a website devoted to engaging with pop culture, with dozens of writers offering a wide range of perspectives. It's not the easiest site to navigate, but it offers a spiritual perspective on most pop culture mediums.

Christ and Pop Culture. Similar to Hollywood Jesus in essence, Christ and Pop Culture is about (you guessed it) the intersection of pop culture and Christian faith. The blog addresses almost anything in pop culture, from movies to TV to music, and plenty in between.

I've discovered and interacted with many of these writers at the Arts and Faith Forum, hosted by Image. I'm just a lurker on the forum--I barely write much of anything--but I read and learn and think and grow nearly every time I click through a film's thread. (I also enjoy The Dissolve and RogerEbert.com, but those sites aren't "Christian" in the least, though they have great writers and reviews)

In the wonderful film, Ratatouille, the food critic, Anton Ego, offers a bit of wisdom into the value of criticism and how it often points us to something better:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the *new*. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.
I hope in my writings and musings I can somehow point to something new, something better, something transcendent and beautiful and true.

What film critics and review websites do you find beneficial? Who have I missed and need to discover for myself? Share in the comments!

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