“One of the defining aspects of criticism is that the critic approaches the work with a set of standards, or even biases, to judge it by.” This observation, from literary critic and author Cynthia Ozick, is so obvious that it might seem pointless to articulate—but as the democratization of criticism morphs into something that more closely resembles digital garbage collection than a democratic nation-state, the role of a critic has become lost. A critic unaware of these biases is dishonest at best, or disinterested and a poor critic at worst. In an era in which CinemaSins commands an audience comparable to Roger Ebert and Moviebob’s YouTube followers would be impressive numbers for a local paper subscription, it’s genuinely difficult to find a good film critic. Too many have become too disinterested in criticism to actually be aware of their own biases—or worse yet, they deny the mere possibility that they too may be tainted with them. And any person unaware of their own assumptions about art is what I think Ozick would call a mere “reviewer.” Even if she’s a bit snotty, she’s right about something: there is something different between the work of a good critic and the Moviebobs of the world.
And the Boston Hassle’s lead critic and film editor Oscar Goff is one of these critics. There are very few film writers I read regularly more aware of their own tastes, assumptions, and limitations than Oscar. Any longtime reader of the Hassle already knows this. From identifying obscure album covers hidden in the production design to navigating the ethics of a performance and what makes it work or not, he understands what he loves (and not) about the movies—which makes the Hassle’s readers, in turn, better watchers of film. His The Bob’s Burgers Movie review might be the best case in point.
I want to make it clear: all of this is as it should be. Bob’s Burgers is not a show which lends itself to big narrative swings; there’s no “lore,” and, apart from a handful of runners and call-backs, it is blessedly non-serialized. Instead, The Bob’s Burgers Movie wisely focuses on what has made the show such an enduring success: the interplay between, and surprising warmth of, its core characters. As in Bouchard’s previous shows Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist and Home Movies (which also featured the voice of Benjamin, as well as several of Bob’s key supporting players), Bob’s Burgers is built on tight, occasionally improvised comic interplay between its voice actors, recorded in the same room whenever possible. What makes The Bob’s Burgers Movie isn’t the plot (though that is appropriately offbeat and lightly morbid) or the extended cinematic scenes; it’s the scenes of the Belcher children riffing off each other as they walk from one location to the next, or Bob’s groans of annoyance at Linda’s more overbearing moments. Even at its most extravagant, Bob’s Burgers isn’t about spectacle; it’s about the cheerful weirdos at the center of it all.
Without ever having seen a single frame of Bob’s Burgers (despite being told several times that I look like “Tina”), I know whether or not the movie is up my alley. More importantly, I understand why someone would like the movie even if I wouldn’t.
Of course, it would be a mistake to confuse awareness with predictability. In fact, with Oscar’s tastes, I’m not sure predictability is a possibility. One of the reviews on this list interprets a film through the viral “Milkshake Duck” tweet—something I’m not sure another critic in this timezone would have the nerdy pluckiness to pull off…but it works. And that’s what’s most admirable about Oscar’s reviews.
In no order, here are my five favorite reviews (and more) written by the Hassle’s film editor, Oscar Goff.
REVIEW: NOPE (2022) DIR. JORDAN PEELE
Jordan Peele’s first two movies, Get Out and especially Us, ensured his place alongside my other “can’t miss out” filmmakers. These are the sorts of working directors too interesting to miss in theaters. Even if I don’t always like their work, they are doing something strange enough that demands attention from cinephiles.
But I didn’t particularly enjoy Nope, one of Oscar’s favorites of the year. And I realized, when reading Oscar’s review of Peele’s third film, that I was so caught up in the biblical mythmaking and sci-fi of it all that I just didn’t properly sit with a few of the key performances—which are sort of a fundamental aspect of moviemaking. That’s something the best of critics do: draw attention to the parts of a movie that affected them and explain why, perhaps helping the same part in turn work better for their audience. I appreciated Nope more after this review.
INTERVIEW: DANIELS SCHEINERT AND KWAN ON ‘EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE’
I mean, this one needs no explanation. Just read it.
REVIEW: THE GOOD NURSE (2022) DIR. TOBIAS LINDHOLM
Personally, I think writing about extremely mediocre films is the most difficult thing a critic can do. Functioning as little more than a watchlist filler, these sorts of films don’t generate strong reactions in any way—and the critic’s job becomes obscured through the film’s banality.
And in Oscar’s review of The Good Nurse, a film I’d never heard of until reading the review, I was struck by his ability to categorize and place the film in the larger Netflix filmography. It’s such a brief review of such an insignificant film, but it reads like a roadmap to the meta-categories of Netflix’s original programming—a body of work whose very nature of being insignificant has minimized critical reflection on them collectively.
But while the story of The Good Nurse is intrinsically engrossing, visually it’s about as exciting as a hospital waiting room. Like many of Netflix’s non-auteur-driven productions, there is a curious flatness to the lighting, as if it was shot in an office meeting room with the overhead lights shut off to save money (it is established early on that Amy’s hospital has a lean operating budget, but surely times can’t be that tight). While I’m neither an insider nor an expert, my understanding is that Netflix imposes strict regulations upon its filmmakers regarding lighting, lenses, and shooting stock, resulting in the peculiar flat-brightness that makes so many direct-to-streaming releases look so distinctively indistinct (this sort of algorithmically dictated creative decision is becoming increasingly common as tech companies further control the gates of arts and culture). The Good Nurse is clearly aimed at the true-crime-addict set; one would wish it could be more visually engaging than a podcast.
GO TO: LOST HIGHWAY (1997) DIR. DAVID LYNCH
I don’t feel compelled to hear what others are thinking after a new Marvel release, for the most part. They are so cookie-cutter sculpted that one knows the general response—or generally, lack thereof. Lost Highway is the sort of movie that is so weird or unconventional that it almost requires a critic’s assistance for most readers. David Lynch is one of those directors that, as soon as you finish one of his movies, you are uncontrollably curious to see what others are saying, to see what theories make sense, to test your own thoughts about the movie on others. It’s not that you’re Googling “Lost Highway explained” expecting a neat and tidy answer, or anything like that. A critic can’t provide such an answer, nor am I even sure that would be criticism—and Oscar knows this best.
Though David Lynch has attracted his share of skeptics over the years, there is by this point little disagreement that he is one of the living masters of American cinema; that his films sometimes take years or decades to be fully appreciated simply speaks to their complexity and timeless appeal. Freed from its original context of the Sundance-addled ‘90s, we can now appreciate Lost Highway for what it is: an eerie, eye-popping meditation on guilt, subjectivity, and the dangers of tailgating. God willing, most of us will never be imprisoned for murder or stalked by a possibly supernatural home video enthusiast, but we can likely all relate to remembering certain events contrary to available evidence. Do what you can to catch it on the big screen– and maybe dust off your VCR in case there’s a package waiting for you when you get home.
A weird, disturbing, performance-driven film with music by Angelo Badalamenti, Trent Reznor (of “the” Nine Inch Nails), Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins, and Rammstein, Lost Highway is the perfect “Oscar” movie from the perspective of an outsider observer.
REVIEW: A HERO (2021) DIR. ASGHAR FARHADI
High art and low art seem to be utterly pointless distinctions for Oscar. A great movie is a great movie, a shitty movie is a shitty movie, and most movies are just okay. And this is exactly how one gets a review of A Hero, a serious drama by the world’s most famous Iranian filmmaker, that initiates with a brief musing on the social function of a viral tweet. The lesson: any tool that helps us better understand the movies we watch is a tool that should be at a critic’s disposal.
Fingers are crossed that Oscar follows A Hero with a Bean Dad-inspired movie review someday.
Watch this space in the coming days for Oscar’s favorite pieces from the rest of the Hassle‘s talented film writers!