Warner Bros. / Disney / A24
WARNING: This is probably going to be one of my most cynical Saturday columns yet, but it’s something that’s been floating around inside my head for years, and it’s a situation that’s getting worse rather than better. (And please note that despite the picture above, this column isn’t meant to denigrate any one particular movie even if some of the movies above are used as examples.)
If you regularly watch television and don’t fast forward over the movie commercials, there’s a word you probably see used over and over and over by “the critics,” and that word is “masterpiece.” It’s one thing when the word is being used to describe prestige films that might be up for awards like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk or Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, but now every “Star Wars” movie is a “masterpiece.” Every superhero movie? “Masterpiece!” Heck, even dumb comedies have been called “masterpieces.” What gives?
Not to disparage any of the critics and movie journalists giving quotes to the studios, many of whom are personal friends of mine, but it’s just gotten a little too easy to get one’s name into commercials and print ads by telling a studio flack that their movie is a “masterpiece” even when it really isn’t.
It’s something I’ve talked about with my boss and Tracking Board Editor-in-Chief Jeff Sneider before, and he even just griped about it again in yesterday’s “Meet the Movie Press,” because once again, the word “masterpiece” is being bandied about for Marvel Studios’ latest Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler. Now I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I have to trust critics like the Tracking Board’s Drew McWeeny who gave the movie an “A+” (!), which would indeed make it a perfect movie, and thereby a masterpiece. But a few other people I’ve spoken to (including Jeff) don’t even think it’s Ryan Coogler’s best movie, and that his debut Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spin-off Creed were better movies.
Of course, it’s all subjective and all about opinions, but there’s a good reason why the word “masterpiece” really needs to be used more sparingly, rather than being thrown at every single movie that someone enjoys. (I enjoyed Deadpool. Is that a “masterpiece”? No way! It’s just a fun and entertaining movie.) By calling every movie a “masterpiece,” you lessen the word to being just another useless descriptive term like “great” or “amazing” or “terrific.” If every movie is only either “great” or “terrible,” that means there’s no in-between, and we’re dealing with a binary critical system that’s clearly broken.
Don’t believe me? Think about all the movies recently that are getting 98%, 99% and 100% Fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes these days. It used to be that those numbers would only be for movies like those from Pixar Animation, but now it’s almost every other week where some movie rates that high. Lady Bird… Paddington 2… and now Black Panther. (Mind you, I’ve only seen one of them, but I’d only give Lady Bird and 8 out of 10, and I really liked the movie.)
I’ve said it for years and it’s still true: most movies are merely mediocre, regardless of whether they’re independent or studio films, but going by critics, all movies are either awful (or sometimes even unwatchable) or the best movie they’ve ever seen (at least that weekend). I give very few movies a perfect rating of 10 out of 10 but even the one movie I might give a perfect score in any given year doesn’t necessarily make it a “masterpiece.” For instance, 2016’s La La Land, my favorite movie that year and the second film from Damien Chazelle that I’ve given a perfect score after Whiplash. I love both movies. I’ve seen both three or four times and would see them again if given the option, but it’s hard to think of them as “masterpieces” because I’m still enjoying them in the moment and not without the necessary passage of time to see how they stand up. I probably gave Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby a perfect score, and it went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Does anyone ever watch it regularly enough to be considered Eastwood’s “masterpiece?”
Just by its definition, a “masterpiece” is “a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship” or “an artist’s or craftsman’s best piece of work.” If you call Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread a “masterpiece” you’re basically denigrating all his previous films like There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights and others to say, “No, THIS movie is his masterpiece not those others,” and that’s kind of crazy.
You can argue for hours with people on which film classics should be considered a “masterpiece” but the ones that are still played in theaters decades after their initial release, the ones that are still bringing young people into theaters and finding new audiences, those are the movies that should be deemed “masterpieces”… not every single commercially-minded studio film that’s literally being made solely to make money like many or most studio movies.
So yeah, let’s save the word “masterpiece” for a one-of-a kind movie that might have a deep and significant impact on everyone who watches it. Maybe Black Panther or a Star Wars might do that, but every movie needs to have some sort of passage of time to see how it stands up two, three, five, ten or twenty years later.
A movie you can watch for the tenth or twentieth time years after you first saw it, one that has the exact same effect on you years or decades later… THAT is a “masterpiece.”
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor