A Day in the Life of a Film Critic

Tara Taghizadeh


This is an interview with longtime film critic Forrest Hartman, who also worked as a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. In an interview with Highbrow Magazine Founding Editor and Publisher Tara Taghizadeh, Hartman discusses his all-time favorite films and directors, how Hollywood has evolved over the decades, and the most important aspect of his role as a film critic.


Highbrow Magazine: What are your all-time top-10 favorite movies?


Hartman: This is a difficult question since I love so many films. It’s really hard to narrow it down to 10. Because of that, I would probably give you a different answer next month, but right now, I’ll say …


1) Casablanca — One of the most-quotable movies of all time.

2) Sunset Boulevard — Dark, brooding and brilliant.

3) Pulp Fiction — Tarantino’s sharp writing and non-linear storytelling influenced countless contemporaries.

4) The Shawshank Redemption — The most successful screen adaptation of a Stephen King story.

5) Brazil — The final sequence is powerful.

6) Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — Still the best Star Wars movie.

7) Life is Beautiful — A Holocaust film that is frequently funny? It’s possible.

8) La La Land — I’m a sucker for musicals, and this one recalls Hollywood’s Golden Age.

9) Lord of the Rings trilogy (am I allowed to do that?) — Peter Jackson accomplished an astonishing feat with these films.

10) Spotlight — Since I also teach journalism, I have to include my favorite films on the subject. This one gets all the details right.


Highbrow Magazine: Who are your all-time favorite directors?


Hartman: Again, there are too many to list, but I sure love Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino.   Looking only at relative newcomers, I’m a big fan of Jordan Peele and Damien Chazelle.


Highbrow Magazine: How/when did you get involved with the Film Critics Awards?


Hartman: I have been a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for such a long time that I had to ask my wife when I joined. She thinks it was 2003, which sounds right.


The organization is open to critics who actively practice broadcast film criticism, and it produces the nationally televised Critics’ Choice Awards. When I joined, I was the film critic for the Reno Gazette-Journal, and — as part of a cross-promotional effort — I reviewed films on local TV stations.


Now, most of my film criticism is for broadcast outlets. I review films weekly for Kissin 92.3 in Boise, Idaho, and KGAB-AM in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I also appear regularly (but not every week) on Action News Now, a TV news provider in Chico, California. The latter airs on my local station in Northern California.


Highbrow Magazine: In what way do you think Hollywood has evolved in the past 40 years – for better and/or for worse?


Hartman: Hollywood has evolved in many ways. The most obvious changes are related to technology. Filmmakers today can — with relative ease — create visual representations of things they could only dream of four decades ago. Also, it is now possible for a young filmmaker to make a movie (of reasonably high quality) on a shoestring budget. Technology has also ramped up concerns about piracy, changed distribution models and — ultimately — influenced everything from salaries to the way we consume our favorite films.


There have been other changes as well, and I ultimately see most as neutral. It’s easy to say, “Films used to be better,” or, “They don’t make ’em like Gone With the Wind anymore.” But it’s important to remember that we tend to view film history with rose-colored glasses. We remember the gems and forget all the trash. Today, we have more content than ever before and — accordingly — more garbage. But we also see a number of really fantastic movies released every year. Forty years in the future, those will be the ones we remember.


Today, there is a lot of noise to sift through (a definite down side), but there are also tools that allow talented filmmakers to bring their visions to screen at relatively low cost.



Highbrow Magazine: Who are some of your favorite actors?


Hartman: There are a lot of actors I love, but I’ll almost always watch a film starring Denzel Washington, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Hanks, Robert Downey Jr., Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Gary Oldman, Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Amy Adams or Helen Mirren.


Highbrow Magazine: What is the best aspect of being a film critic?


Hartman: Staying up to date with the film industry. If I didn’t have the pressure of reviewing something new every week, I would likely skip more of the big releases. Since a lot of films are lousy, that wouldn’t always be a negative, but it would be really easy to lose touch. I don’t think you can be a successful film critic if you don’t love movies … in general. There will always be things that you like and dislike, but I really enjoy the experience of watching a film. It’s something I would do whether I was a critic or not.


Highbrow Magazine: Do you believe that certain voting academies have “favorites” (such as films/actors, etc.) whom they nominate repeatedly, while others (who may be equally deserving) are overlooked?


Hartman: Yes, but I don’t think it is a conspiracy. I think we all have implicit biases (and self-doubts) that influence our assessment of art. For instance, people (and this includes critics) seem much more willing to pounce on a “young” director than one who has established himself/herself as a great. Newcomers are easier targets, I think. I find that critics and industry organizations are also more likely to give established artists a pass … sometimes out of fear that honest criticism will diminish their authority. After all, who wants to be the person who says Scorsese made a mess … only to watch the film get re-evaluated as a classic a decade later?



Highbrow Magazine: What are your thoughts about companies such as Amazon and Netflix becoming active members of the film community? How have they changed the landscape?


Hartman: As a viewer, I think it’s great. Obviously, many within the industry have different feelings. I think these outliers have disrupted traditional financing and distribution patterns, and that will always draw ire.


In the end, I believe these platforms give us more choices as consumers. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are a friend to actors or entertainment professionals. They certainly have the potential to drive wages down and create other problems in an already competitive industry. Look at what has been happening in music. We continue to see seismic shifts in the way musical artists are doing business. That is also true in film, and it will continue. 


Highbrow Magazine: Do you think movie theatres are as relevant as they were in the past or are they becoming extinct? What do you think the future of films and the makeup of the film aficionado/reviewer will look like in the next decade?


Hartman: I don’t know that theaters will go extinct, but I do not think they are as relevant as in the past. Today, a theater needs to market itself as an “experience.” That’s because people have access to a tremendous amount of content that they can watch on everything from their phones to high-end home theaters.


That means people have to be motivated to go to a theater not just by the movie but by the promise of a special experience overall. That might be ever-bigger screens, fancy cocktails or a screening of a sporting event that isn’t televised. Theaters are under more pressure than ever to win audiences.


I believe we’ll see more and more home-viewing because today’s home-theater equipment is astonishingly good. A movie-theater-like experience is already possible at home.


Highbrow Magazine: What expectations do your viewers/readers have of you in your role as a notable film critic?


Hartman: It’s always hard to say what others expect of you, but I believe they should demand honesty. A film critic is only worthy if he/she is honest and forthcoming. When I like something, I tell people. When I don’t, I let them know. I also do my best to explain my feelings, which is the most important part of any review.


A thumbs up or down is just an opinion, and opinions are only valuable if explained. The reason I hate a film could be the same reason another person loves it. I believe my job is to give my readers/viewers information that helps them make educated decisions about whether to spend their time and money on a particular movie. There will always be times when viewers/readers disagree with me. I think that’s fine. The best I can do is explain myself, clearly and honestly.


Author Bio:


Tara Taghizadeh is the founding editor and publisher of Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine

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Forrest Hartman; Google Images (Creative Commons)
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