Do Critics Prefer Movies About Movies?

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 2 2011 3:59 PM

Do Hugo and The Artist Have a Movie-About-Movies Advantage?

Stills from Hugo and The Artist
Left: Still from Hugo courtesy of Paramount Pictures. Right: Still from The Artist courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

The National Board of Review named Hugo the best film of 2011 on Thursday. On Tuesday, the New York Film Critics Circle gave The Artist its Best Picture award. Over at Grantland, Oscarmetrics columnist Mark Harris offered three ways of looking at the National Board of Review’s selection. I’d like to offer one more: Do movie critics—along with many diehard movie lovers, not to mention movie makers—have a bias towards movies about movies?

I don’t mean to suggest that these movies are undeserving of awards recognition. I loved Hugo, not just as a film about the transporting power of the movies, but as a transporting movie in itself. Similarly, I have no reason to believe that The Artist, which has won not just critical raves and Best Actor at Cannes but rapturous word-of-mouth from just about everyone on the Internet, isn’t the best movie of the year.

Still, it’s only natural for all varieties of -philes (from cine- to audio- to biblio-) to express extra interest in work about the things we love most. In the past two weeks Slate has run pieces about The Artist and Hugo in addition to reviews of each film (as the author of the piece on Hugo, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this, of course), and it’s not alone.

Meanwhile, one of the buzziest topics of the last few weeks has been the suspension of  meta-sitcom Community, a show that pretty clearly hasn’t played as well with general audiences as with TV junkies on the web. In music, the hipster song about hipster songs “Losing My Edge” was frequently named one of the best songs of the decade, and Slate ran an article about the greatness of Miley Cyrus’s pop song about pop songs “Party In the USA.” In hip-hop, Common’s rap song about rap songs “I Used to Love H.E.R.” is frequently cited as one of the best tracks of all time. In polls of critics late in 2009, Mulholland Drive, another movie about movies, widely won the title of best movie of the 2000s, and Slate similarly selected it as the decade’s New Classic.

Of course, “Party In the USA” was also a monster hit, but so far it’s unclear whether audiences will be as taken with Hugo and The Artist as the critics and other movie pros. Neither has gotten a wide enough release yet to have a CinemaScore, which might give us some sense of how audiences are responding. At the Box Office last weekend, Hugo and The Artist finished at fifth and nineteenth, respectively, but they had strong per-screen averages.

What do you think? Do movies about movies have an advantage with the critics?

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. Email him at Forrest.Wickman@slate.com.