Film criticism in 2020: A sit-down with Chicago’s star critic Brian Tallerico

Tallerico speaks to a group of attendees at Ebertfest, a yearly film festival held in Chicago that celebrates films that didn't receive their deserved praise during their theatrical runs.

By Nate Schwartz
Medill Reports

Brian Tallerico serves as the president of the Chicago Film Critics Association and is the managing editor for the film review website He and I chatted at a coffee shop across the street from Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre before he met up with some friends for a night of poker. We talked about Netflix, his approach to film criticism, the need for Rotten Tomatoes, Ebert’s legacy and more.

Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre at night (Nate Schwartz/MEDILL)

What is the purpose of a film critic?

It’s someone who gives words and vocabulary to what people already know and think about movies. You know if you like a movie. You know if you think a movie is bad; you know if you think it’s good, but you don’t know why. A good film critic can help explain the cinematography choices or the music choices or the lighting choices and make you go: “Oh, that’s why I think The Godfather is good!” When I was growing up I loved movies, but I found that I lacked the vocabulary. People like Roger [Ebert] gave me the vocabulary to discuss them. I’m not a consumer guide; I hate consumer guides.

You never feel like it’s your job to convince people that certain movies are more worth their time than others?

People who know my tastes might find that theirs align and may use me as a consumer guide, but that’s never my goal — it’s almost more of a side effect. I’ve never been about convincing someone to do something. You can’t approach art as a product and convince people to buy.

I feel like some people view movies as products and others see them as more of an art form. Is there a rightness or wrongness to either of those perspectives?

I think the people who view it only as a product should be exposed to other forms of it perhaps, and maybe try to appreciate it as art. I think the people who overly appreciate it as art need to understand that a lot of it is a product and business. People are always asking, “Why didn’t ‘X Movie’ get made?” And the answer is there’s no money to make that movie. There’s always a business angle and aspect to all this. I think both viewpoints have value. You need to understand the business and the product aspect of it, but to say it can never be art is dismissive.

Do you feel like some filmmakers see their work strictly as products?

Like, most  Netflix films? I mean, Netflix admits it; It’s an algorithm. They’re trying to appeal to certain Dows and expand their subscriber base and those are their products. And that’s why most of their products are garbage. I imagine at some point during this interview we’ll discuss the state of film and have the “Is film dead?” conversation because Netflix is producing 800 horrible products.

But don’t they produce some good ones too?

Yeah but, it’s all part of a “shock and awe” system. They’re just trying to do as much as they possibly can. I’m glad they give Marty [Martin Scorsese], Noah [Baumbach] and [Alfonso] Cuarón money, but they also have a business model that is designed to stock the shelves as much as possible. Now, do I think that’s bad? I don’t know yet. We don’t know Netflix’s impact yet. I’m curious to see what’ll happen in the next five years. Everyone thinks, “Oh, Netflix is going to take over the world!” Once Netflix loses all the Disney movies and all the Friends episodes and they start to hemorrhage even more money than they are now, it’s gonna get interesting.

I’m not sure that Netflix is gonna dominate the way everyone thinks they will. They’ve already changed the industry, but I’m not sure they’ll still be the same dominant force in five years. My problem with Netflix, in terms of discussing art, is that I feel like they make stuff that is designed to be watched while you’re playing Candy Crush on your phone. They make stuff that you don’t have to give a lot of attention to. Everyone says Marvel movies sag in the middle, and they do, but they do that on purpose so you can watch and still play Candy Crush. Everything is intentional.

Netflix is looking for something for everybody, and I’m not sure if the mass consumerism approach is good. Will it produce a “Roma” or “The Irishman” every now and again? Sure, but at what cost? I’m not sure if any of us really know the answer to that yet.

Guillermo del Toro (dir. The Shape of Water, 2017) and Tallerico chat outside during Ebertfest, a yearly film festival held in Chicago that celebrates films that didn’t receive their deserved praise during their theatrical runs. (Courtesy of Brian Tallerico)

Do you feel like social media outlets like Twitter and blogging platforms have diluted the film critic arena at all?

I don’t know. Yes and no. But by creating a bigger pool it has given more voices the chance to break through and rise. I mean, I got my voice known through going on the radio and getting Rotten Tomatoes accredited. The idea that there’s a traditional path to becoming Richard Brody at The New Yorker doesn’t exist anymore. However people have to do it, I’m not really going to complain about it. Do I think there are people out there who could use better editors? Yes, but that’s always been true. Now those people have more exposure and louder microphones through the internet.

But without it, several of my favorite writers wouldn’t be where they are. We get young writers, especially minority and female writers who have been greatly assisted by the expansion of the pool. I mean, if we’re gonna long for a day when there was more control over the body of film criticism, we’d be longing for a day that’s white and male. I wrestle a little bit with the idea of ‘dilution’ because the ‘dilution’ has led to an expansion in terms of diversity of who we hear from.

How do you reconcile when a movie is critically revered but commercially panned, or vice versa?

I find that a lot of times that opposition creates the most interesting writing and conversation. I mean, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was my number one this year largely for that reason. Some of the best writing this year came from that movie, and it wasn’t all positive. I’ve read some great pieces on how that movie treated history and Bruce Lee. It got people talking in a way that most movies just don’t anymore. If someone can come at it honestly and tell me why they didn’t like The Irishman while I thought it was great, I love that. I mean, that’s what I’m here for. I edit 500 reviews a year, do you think I agree with all of them? I don’t! But some of the best rambling I read are things that I don’t agree with.

That reinforces what you said earlier about how it isn’t your job to convince people to like something they don’t already like.

When I write about Marriage Story or The Irishman and I’m trying to illuminate why they’re as good as I think that they are, I’m really hoping someone reads it and goes, “Oh, yeah! That’s why I liked that as much as I did!” We’re always trying to get our critics to address form and not content. Most people don’t realize that, and if you as a critic can help them become aware of why Martin Scorsese is putting something in frame or why he chose a certain cut, and help them see the certain choices he makes to elevate the art, then I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.

I hadn’t really thought about it that way before.

Yeah, I mean this is what art is for.  It doesn’t exist in a vacuum or in a binary good-bad system. Art is important because it’s not binary; it’s open to interpretation.

It’s so interesting that you say that because I feel a lot of people’s relationship with film criticism is the binary mentality that “if he says the movie is good, I’m gonna give it my money. If not, I won’t.”

Fresh or rotten, right? That’s become more popular because we’re all so distracted by so many different things and we just want a quick answer if something is good or bad. I understand that. But that’s not discussion or criticism. I mean Rotten Tomatoes is a portal; it’s an aggregate but it’s not film criticism in itself. You need to dig deeper for that if you want it. And if you don’t, I get it. I have a mortgage and three kids; I understand just wanting to know if it’s worth it to spend eighty bucks on Doolittle. I definitely think there’s value to that.

Also, I need to point out that I would not have my job without Rotten Tomatoes. Like I said earlier, at its best Rotten Tomatoes can act as a portal to film criticism. When you go to Rotten Tomatoes, you can click the links of the writers you like and you can find people whose reviews you enjoy reading.

How has been able to maintain its level of prestige since Roger’s passing in 2013?

Quality work. It’s as simple as that. It’s all about consistently delivering quality work and approaching art in the same way Roger did, and hiring the right people to do that. As modestly as I can put it, we have a team that is as good as any team out there. So, naturally we’re going to get a lot of attention when we have writers like Matt Zoller Seitz and Glenn Kenny and people with huge pedigrees like Christy Lemire who wrote for The Associated Press. It’s an All-Star team is what I like to say. So that helps a ton.

My voice had to rise through that and I’d like to think it has, because I wasn’t really known outside of Chicago before I got the job. I’ve always tried to live up to the talent of the people around me.
Now I’m gonna go win some money.

Brian has reviewed over 1,500 films and his work has been featured in various outlets including Rolling Stone, Vulture, A.V. Club and The New York Times. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Photo at top: Tallerico speaks to a group of attendees at Ebertfest.
(Courtesy of Brian Tallerico)