A critic's job, to boil it down, is to measure the emotional response a movie has on him or her, and then figure out a way to intellectually analyze this emotional response. Sometimes you'll hear critics explain that it's much easier to review a bad movie or a good movie than a "just OK" movie. "Just OK" movies do little to inspire an emotional response, and the critic must go about his or her duty trying to explain whether or not anyone should go see this movie that everyone will most likely forget.
I've become increasingly irritated by "just OK" movies, and it comes down to this: I would rather see a bad movie with personality than a decent movie with no personality at all. It's far worse walking out of something passionless and mechanical than from something that tried and failed.
The best current example of a great, successful film with personality is Pan's Labyrinth (155 screens). This film tells me something about its maker, Guillermo Del Toro. I can line it up alongside Del Toro's other films and find something similar, something that lets me know that the same person is behind it all. I know that he's interested in children and in the concept of family. I know he's fascinated by clocks and timepieces and all the implications thereof. I know that caverns, labyrinths and underground passages equally fascinate him, like the subway tunnels in Mimic (1997). Moreover, he has a gift for darkness and horror, but done with intelligence and patience. Best of all, having seen Pan's Labyrinth I can revisit earlier Del Toro films and find more riches than ever before.
David Lynch's Inland Empire (eight screens) apparently returns to theaters this week. Of all living filmmakers, Lynch probably has the most recognizable physical style; he can work with any actor, any cinematographer, any producer and any budget and the finished result still looks like a David Lynch film, complete with its weird dream logic and brain-bending detours. A few other current films with personality include: George Miller's Happy Feet (294 screens), Bong Joon-ho's The Host (116 screens), Michael Polish's The Astronaut Farmer (71 screens), Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley (38 screens), Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima (23 screens) and Byambasuren Davaa's The Cave of the Yellow Dog (1 screen).
Here's a clearer way to put it. The films on that list tell me about the people that made them. Another type of film explains not who the filmmaker is, but rather what the filmmaker wants, which is an entirely different thing. If someone orders a large coffee with cream and no sugar, it doesn't tell me that they stayed up late the night before pacing with a grumpy baby, or that they already had a blueberry muffin for breakfast and are trying to cut down on sugar. Moreover, if a film demands world peace, it tells me absolutely nothing about the person who made it. Everyone (well, almost everyone) wants world peace. What else is going on?
A perfect example is Rachid Bouchareb's Days of Glory (10 screens), which tells us that war is bad and racism is bad, but does little else to differentiate itself from any other war film ever made. Eastwood's film was filled with little moments of male bravado that reminded us of its maker's personality, but Days of Glory is as boring as its title. Likewise, Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond (128 screens) wishes to be a slam-bang action movie while explaining that conflict diamonds are bad. Unfortunately, its action story is hackneyed, while the explanation comes across as preaching, and each element nullifies the other. Plus we can look back at Zwick's filmography (Glory, The Last Samurai, etc.) and find the same kind of soulless, self-important stuff.
Sometimes a movie wants nothing more than accolades. Todd Field got spoiled when his feature debut In the Bedroom (2001) received praise from just about every critic in America, and so his follow-up Little Children (23 screens) reeks of expectations for more, like a puppy who enjoys his head-skritch and then continues to beg. The film has no idea if it's a satire, an earnest drama or even a comedy. Director Anthony Minghella is in much the same boat. Whereas he started out with the delightful, small-scale film Truly Madly Deeply (1991), he quickly fell into large scale, empty epics. And since The English Patient made some noise in 1996, he has been trying to re-create that success ever since, with no luck. His latest, Breaking and Entering (20 screens), is a head-scratcher that practically no one liked.
There are plenty more examples of films with no personality: The Last King of Scotland (89 screens), Dreamgirls (68 screens), Notes on a Scandal (43 screens), Hannibal Rising (15 screens), etc. But I'd like to close with an example of a not-quite successful film with personality. I've been pondering Chris Noonan's Miss Potter (82 screens) since I saw it last December (probably since my 11-month old son has been enjoying Peter Rabbit). It's a less successful film than Noonan's Babe (1995), but elements of the earlier film's wonderful personality are on display throughout. Regardless of the clunky opening and closing scenes, the film had a good hour in the middle during which I was thoroughly moved and charmed. I couldn't care less if Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) makes another film, but Miss Potter made me pleased to have spent a little time with Mr. Noonan, and made me want to visit him again.