Though it's hard now to reconstruct the tangled, tortured logic that originally led me to launch The Unaffiliated Critic in 2011, one of the inspirations was surely Kermode and Mayo's Film Review, which I had only recently discovered.
In that long-running BBC radio show/podcast, film critic Mark Kermode and his broadcasting partner Simon Mayo discuss the new films that open in the UK every week, with intelligence and wit and a delightful amount of banter. The show would be entertaining even for someone who doesn't care about movies at all, I think, but one of the things that impresses me about it is how Kermode sees just about every single movie that opens, without prejudice: he reviews serious dramas and raunchy comedies, brutal horror films and cheesy romances, obscure art-house documentaries and animated kiddie-fare. If he can get to a screening of it, he reviews it. Most admirably, he makes every effort to review each film in good faith, on its merits, regardless of whether he is the intended audience. As he has said many times, he tries to go into every movie assuming—even hoping—that it might turn out to be the greatest movie ever made.
Spending your days seeing every movie that opened sounded like a pretty good life to me. So in 2011 I decided—on something on a whim—to become a critic. (To borrow one of Kermode and Mayo's many running gags: "How do you become a film critic? You just become a film critic.")
But then doubt set it. Really, would it be a good life? I quickly realized that being a real, full-time, professional film critic would mean paying attention to a tremendous amount of crap that I would otherwise not have chosen to sit through at all. (Frankly, I doubted I had the temperament to be as genuinely open-minded and optimistic as Mark Kermode—especially since no one was actually paying me to do this.) So, for my very first movie review, back in April 2011, I chose the animated Easter film Hop. As I explained at the time:
For my inaugural review, I decided to test my resolve. Being a film critic sounds like the perfect life, after all, if you imagine seeing only movies you would want to see anyway. So I asked myself, "If you were contractually obligated to review all the current movies, which one would be most likely to make you want to slit your wrists?" [Hop] was the clear choice. (That being said, I was prepared to like it. Honest.)
Hop was not a good movie. (It was not a good review, either: the entire tone is sarcastic, and I was trying way too hard to be funny. I was, alas, still finding my voice.) But it was a good experience: I had fun doing it, and that first year of reviewing subsequently taught me that there is tremendous value in seeing and thinking about films I might have otherwise skipped. Sometimes they turned out to be better than expected. (I had very low expectations for the first Hunger Games movie, and almost certainly saw it solely out of a sense of obligation.) Sometimes, looking for something to review led me to discover excellent films I might have missed. (I suspect I'd have overlooked Of Gods and Men or Attack the Block if I hadn't been in "reviewer" mode.) Often, a movie I expected to be bad turned out to be even worse than I'd predicted—say, for example, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides—but, even then, I found it useful to be forced to articulate why it sucked so much.
Seeing everything was always a pipe-dream: I had a real job, after all, and this was just a sideline. But I wrote about a lot of movies in that inaugural year—more, in fact, than I have in any year since. As time passed—and as I focused more on television shows and other projects—my commitment to new movies wavered. I mostly ended up seeing things I wanted to see anyway, and I saw way more movies than I made time to review. In 2014, I announced that I was giving up on reviewing movies altogether, and I did, for a while. But then, a year later, I somehow kept finding myself skulking back into theaters anyway, with my notebook clutched firmly in hand.
This year, one of my modest New Year's Resolutions was to review, on average, one new movie per week. But that hasn't happened either. Every weekend, I would dutifully try to decide on a movie to see and review, and—more often than not—I'd balk.
(Take last weekend for example: my choices for new movies basically came down to Baywatch or Pirates of the Caribbean XXIII: Dead Men Beat Dead Horses. I just really didn't want to see either of those movies—let alone write about them—and, since no one was really forcing me to, I didn't. Can you blame me?)
But now I find myself in an unusual situation: this month, my full-time employer did me the courtesy of going suddenly and disastrously out of business, leaving me with an unexpected windfall of free-time. I should be spending the next few months figuring out how to continue paying for luxury items like food, shelter, and health insurance, of course—but no one ever accused me of being sensible or practical. What I've decided to do, instead, is to take a few months, and live the pipe-dream, and embrace the rare opportunity this provides me to be an actual, full-time critic.
This blissful freeing-up of my days should allow me to catch up on some delayed and neglected projects here at The Unaffiliated Critic. I plan to resume my Independent Study in World Cinema, and further the reluctant movie-viewing adventures of my wife, The Unenthusiastic Critic, for example.
But I also have decided upon this foolish and ill-advised plan: I'm going to attempt to see and review every new movie that opens between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Every. Single. One. Clearly, history has demonstrated that I can't be trusted to pick and choose which movies I'm going to review, so—with time on my hands—why not commit to reviewing them all? (I've done the math. Apart from tentpole movies, it's hard to be certain which films will open when in Chicago, but it looks to be roughly three to five new movies per week, or somewhere between 40–60 movies over the course of the summer.)
Some of these will be films I was planning to see and write about anyway. (I'm genuinely excited about Wonder Woman, which is first-up on the schedule.) One or two of them, on the other hand, may turn out to be the very textbook definition of a contractual obligation. (Dear God, there's an Emoji movie?) A few may present logistical and ethical challenges. (Can one possibly understand—let alone responsibly review—Transformers: The Last Knight, having religiously avoided every other film in the franchise?) With others, I expect to discover treasures I might have completely missed if I weren't being so thorough. (Chicago's Music Box Theater is a reliable haven of quality indy and foreign films that the multiplexes diligently ignore. I always intend to see everything that comes through the Music Box, and—this summer—I will.)
Basically, if it opens in Chicago between now and Labor Day—and I can get to a screening—I'm going to review it. (At least until my meager saving account runs empty.) I was going to call this series of reviews "My Summer of Hell," but that would be going into this experiment in precisely the wrong spirit. Let's simply call it "My Summer of Summer Movies," and let's just assume that every film—or, at least, any film—might just turn out to be the best movie ever made.