A critical take: Film reviewer talks Oscars, underrepresentation of women and people of color

Allison Shoemaker
Film and television critic Allison Shoemaker says the movie she’s most excited to see in 2020 is the adaption of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical “In the Heights.” “I'm going to get that screener email,” says Shoemaker, “and I'm just going to start dancing.” (Photographer: Lucas Gerard)

By Gurjit Kaur
Medill Reports

Allison Shoemaker will be live tweeting her Oscar reactions from her home this Sunday with two close friends. The 35-year-old film and television critic, who studied theater arts and English at Western Michigan University, writes for The A.V. Club, Consequence of Sound and RogerEbert.com. A lifelong fan of stories, Shoemaker first fell in love with books and then with movies like “Funny Girl,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Mary Poppins.”

“I was interested in boundary-pushing and escaping realism,” she says.

Recently, she shared her thoughts on the Oscars, the need for more diversity in films and the ingredients of a good review.

After the Oscar nomination announcement on Jan. 13, the Academy — which as of last December said 84% of its members were white and 68% were male — received criticism for the lack of diversity in the nominees. What needs to change?

They need to start thinking of themselves as recording great cinema for posterity. There are masterpieces that we don’t talk about because they weren’t in the Oscar conversation. There is no world in which “Us” shouldn’t be at the top when it comes to movies that we’re talking about in 2019. But because of the genre, because [of] a black writer, director, cast, it was just undervalued.

What snubs upset you the most?

God bless [“Insecure” creator] Issa Rae for saying, “Congratulations to those men,” because it’s exhausting seeing only male directors nominated. It goes well beyond Greta Gerwig. If anybody had a shot this year it was her, given the number of nominations for “Little Women.” But there are a number of well-directed, female-directed movies. “The Souvenir” is magnificent. It’s an intensely affecting story of addiction and does a good job of showing why it is that a person could stay with and love a toxic personality. “The Farewell” [being] shut out is baffling. It’s heartbreaking and funny, with incredible performances.

Who do you think will and should win best actress and best actor?  

When we’re talking about award prognostications, it often comes with statistics. Renée Zellweger is winning every trophy. She’s really good, so it’s hard to be down on this career resurgence. But we are undervaluing Saoirse Ronan’s work in “Little Women.” The film doesn’t work without her at the center of it, anchoring these two separate timelines. Joaquin Phoenix is similar to Renée Zellweger in that he’s just winning a lot. He is an incredible actor, but it’s not close to my favorite performance of the year. Antonio Banderas is definitely one of the best. “Pain and Glory” is a really intimate performance. It’s a thoughtful, surprising, empathetic turn from [him].

What about best director and best picture?  

For director, Sam Mendes would be my prediction. As for who should win from that group, I would say Bong Joon Ho. “1917” is the kind of film that requires a lot of technical prowess. To call it “showboaty” probably has a negative connotation that I don’t totally intend. “1917” is an impressive technical feat in the way “Saving Private Ryan” was. However, “Parasite” is the film of the year. I honestly do think [Bong Joon Ho] has got a shot with all of the love “Parasite” is getting in these other categories. Best picture, I really think “Parasite.” If my wishful thinking can tip it over the edge somehow, I would love that. It’s wildly entertaining, and it pulls you in immediately. It’s a consensus favorite. People who loved “Little Women” and people who loved “Joker” can all agree that “Parasite” is excellent.

Is there someone whose speech you just can’t wait to hear? 

My favorite Oscar speeches are always the costume design winners and those little categories. I’m excited about somebody running from the very back of the auditorium to get 15 seconds to say, “Kids, go to bed.”

A 2019 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film shows that women give an average rating of 78% and men an average rating of 68% to movies with female protagonists. Only 34% of all film reviewers are women. If more women were reviewing movies, would certain films be rated higher?

I would love for an average movie starring a woman, especially if it’s even slightly feminist, to come out, and have it just be an average movie. The “Ghostbusters” revival was like a month-long ulcer, which is a perfectly average studio comedy, and it was this huge “feminists are ruining culture.” It’s the same movie but with women. The ultimate goal is for somebody like me to be able to give a C+ review to “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” without having to worry about whether or not other people are going to tank it. I would never overvalue a movie with a female protagonist just because that’s what it is. But there are critics who are, intentionally or unintentionally, going to be extra hard on it because of what it stands for.

Do you think women are more likely to be hired as film and television critics?

Yes and no. [There are] a lot of positive strides from publications that are putting in the work to change things. I write for RogerEbert.com. [They] do a lot of work to find new voices and to champion those voices. One week a year, they put only writing by women up on the site. That’s amazing. But at the same time media jobs are dying. There are a lot of good people out there, but it’s much easier to get a job when you’re a white guy because a lot of people doing the hiring are white guys. They convinced themselves that the most qualified people are also white guys.

How have the sexual assault and harassment accusations changed the way you interact with movies?

It has shifted my perspective on films that were made by people who we now know to be incredibly dangerous. I really loved “Baby Driver,” a movie that’s not going to be high on my re-watch list because it prominently features Kevin Spacey. And the first movie that I remember wanting to engage with in a critical fashion was [Woody Allen’s] “Annie Hall” — a movie I’ll never watch again, which is sad because it’s brilliant. But it’s not so brilliant that it’s worth celebrating an incredibly damaging toxic serial abuser.

What makes someone good at reviewing films? 

A technical dissection of what makes a movie great isn’t enough. A lot of the best critics found a way to write about the art in a formal sense, while also talking about their emotional reaction to the story, and why it affected them the way that it did.

Then, I guess an awareness. “Jennifer’s Body” is becoming this cult classic. It was dismissed as being a big piece of fluff at the time, but now it’s a feminist, satirical horror comedy. So I always try to make sure that I’m thinking about whether or not, I’m considering that perspective, and if it’s possible I’m just entering it from the wrong point of view.

Did you admire critics growing up?

I don’t remember when I read my first Roger Ebert review. I was really young. That was the big one. He was the master of not dismissing things because they’re populist, but also not fawning over things that seem auteurist. Have you read his “E.T.” review?

I did. 

There might be two. The one I’m referring to takes the form of a letter to his grandchildren. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing. The two things that mattered to him were an honest evocative assessment and great writing. His “E.T.” review is the epitome of both. It captures what was so impactful for him about “E.T.” by marrying the form of the review to his experience watching it.

What are your thoughts on people using Rotten Tomatoes to determine if they watch a movie or not? 

You shouldn’t decide to see a movie based on a percentage of how many critics think it’s good or bad, because critics have wildly varying tastes. On the other hand, Rotten Tomatoes is doing a great job of folding in critics who might otherwise not be getting a ton of page views. They’re bringing in more people of color, more women of color, more LGBTQ voices, trans critics, and that’s really important. Rotten Tomatoes is best used as a tool to direct you to a wide variety of viewpoints as opposed to direct you to the score, which is basically useless.

What was your favorite film of 2019? 

A “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” It’s a real shame that it wasn’t France’s [Oscar] submission because it’s incredible. The writing is magnetic, and it’s got maybe the best ending outside of “Parasite”of any film that I saw this year. The final shot is a real stunner.  Also, people hear it’s a French love story about two women and get a certain idea of what that might be, like a “Blue is the Warmest Colour,” and it’s not that. It’s very sexy, but not salacious. It’s a reverent story about impossible love and what these people choose to do with the time they have together.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

Photo at top: Film and television critic Allison Shoemaker says the movie she’s most excited to see in 2020 is the adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical “In the Heights.” “I’m going to get that screener email,” Shoemaker says, “and I’m just going to start dancing.” (Courtesy of Lucas Gerard)