Deacon Steven D. Greydanus, the Register’s award-winning film critic, has received yet another accolade: Last month, he was welcomed as a member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC).
Founded in 1935, the NYFCC has become one of the most prestigious, and exclusive, institutions in the world of film criticism. Each December, the NYFCC meets to decide upon the winners of its coveted “New York Film Critics Circle Awards.”
The Register caught up with Deacon Greydanus at his home in New Jersey.
Congratulations on being made a member of the New York Film Critics Circle — when and where did you first hear of the honor?
Thank you! I admit it’s still a little unreal to me — I’ve wanted this for a long time! Word came to me the way it often does nowadays, in a humble email, in this case from the current NYFCC chair, Eric Kohn of Indiewire.
It really is a huge honor. The NYFCC is the oldest film-critic association in the country and one of the most respected. The NYFCC Awards are the first critical awards announced each year, and possibly the most prestigious. I expect I’m the only member of the Catholic clergy they’ve ever accepted!
Does it come with an official ceremony of some sort?
Not exactly, although I’m looking forward to my first NYFCC Awards dinner in early January. First, though, comes what I imagine is a trial by fire: the awards voting meeting at the end of November.
How does it work? Does the NYFCC actually meet together in a smoke-filled room in New York, where its members sit around determining the future of filmmakers with a dilatory thumbs-up or a thumbs-down?
Absolutely, with chiaroscuro lighting and shadows, lots of bourbon and the chair offering hard-boiled voice-over. The men all wear fedoras and the women wear black or red. It’s very noir. No, I have no idea.
How many years have you been reviewing films?
I created DecentFilms.com in 2000, so over 17 years. I’ve been with the Register since 2003.
I wrote my first review in 1990 as a student at the School of Visual Arts, where I took some film and animation-history classes, but it wasn’t published anywhere and is now hopefully lost.
You could say what I do today is basically an extension of a running argument with my father over Return of the Jedi that started in 1983.
Do you still enjoy it?
After writing homilies, nothing I do gives me more joy.
What do you not like about being a film critic?
Every once in a while, I find myself in a theater seat questioning my life choices — Warcraft comes to mind — but those moments are few and far between.
I love the late, great Richard Corliss’ stock answer to the question: “What’s worth watching?” He would say, “Everything is worth watching.” The process of thinking about and taking apart a terrible film is often almost as satisfying as writing about a great film.
One of the more deflating realities of writing film criticism is how many readers want “reviews” rather than film criticism. That is, they want a Consumer Reports lowdown on a movie, with a quantified rating — a letter grade, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down — but not necessarily thoughtful insight, analysis and perspective, which is what criticism is really all about.
I couldn’t agree more. Is there a difference between a “Catholic film critic” and a non-Catholic one?
I think you have to begin with the commonalities.
We all come to the movies wanting and hoping to be moved, entertained, enlightened, awed, delighted, challenged, amused, or whatever it is the film and the filmmakers have to offer us. We’re all looking for truth, goodness and beauty, even if not everyone would explicitly think of it in those terms.
On another level, what you get out of a movie depends in some measure on what you bring to it. Faith in God and belief in Catholic teaching gives me a firm place to stand and a way of seeing. We’re all looking for truth, goodness and beauty, but for me, those transcendental qualities are “rays of God,” as Pope Pius XII put it in a pair of 1955 exhortations on cinema. That makes a difference.
That said, I write as a Catholic with the hope of addressing interested readers of my own faith, of other faiths and of none. I’ve learned and benefitted a great deal from critics and other writers with outlooks different from my own, and my work is offered in that spirit. I’m delighted that the NYFCC has welcomed me into their own conversation about movies.
Do you have a favorite film critic?
Like so many critics of my generation, I owe more to Roger Ebert than anyone else. But I’ve also learned a lot from Graham Greene, who worked as a film critic in the 1930s, and from André Bazin, the great Catholic film critic and theorist.
From my Charlotte days, I have a long-standing appreciation for Lawrence Toppman, a critic for almost 30 years for the Charlotte Observer and an observant writer with a gift for metaphor. They’ve got him writing arts stories now, alas.
I benefit most from film writers with engaging voices who challenge me to expand my thinking, whether or not my take converges with theirs. Stephanie Zacharek, Matt Zoller Seitz, Tasha Robinson and Walter Chaw are among those who have helped me to become a better critic.
What was the harshest review you ever wrote?
Heh. Well, movies that are truly worthless seldom make for very interesting reviews. It’s hard to really loathe sheer garbage. A movie has to have at least some potential to be worth caring about, even to hate. Really odious kids’ movies also get my dander up.
And what have been the most glowing?
I’ve written many more raves than I have pans, since I let a lot of bad movies pass without comment. I’m proud of my writing on great films like Bicycle Thieves, Brooklyn, Grand Illusion, Make Way for Tomorrow and Witness.
Do you have a favorite actor? Maybe a favorite director? Or even a favorite film?
I have a hard time picking a single favorite of almost anything! That’s especially true of actors and actresses.
One of my favorite performances in film history is from an actress known for a single role, Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. I could start naming names almost at random — Juliette Binoche, Daniel Day-Lewis, Angela Bassett, Jimmy Stewart, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman — but I don’t know where I could reasonably stop!
It’s a little easier with directors. My favorite filmmakers working today are the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the makers of Two Days, One Night and The Kid With a Bike. I’m also in awe of Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian writer-director of A Separation and The Salesman.
For films — I’ve been noodling an all-time top-25 list for years. If I ever finish it, expect it to include Into Great Silence, The Kid Brother, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spirited Away and The Tree of Wooden Clogs.
Hopefully, one day we’ll get to see that list. For now, Deacon Steven, thanks for your time, and enjoy the bourbon!
K.V. Turley writes from London.