It's the time of year when people start asking us about the big prestige movies that haven't come out yet, and we admit that we've seen them on screener DVDs sent to us by the studios. And then they say, "Wow, tough life, watching movies for your job!"
Yes, it's wonderful to have seen Atonement, a movie genetically engineered to plug into my critical fireworks receptors, before it opens in theaters (and before it was nominated for seven Golden Globes, putting it suddenly on the average Showbiz Tonight-watching American's radar screen. Yes, it's fantastic to get a jump on The Kite Runner, or to be able to talk up The Orphanage before most people even know it exists.
But just as the good is the enemy of the great, seeing a selected portion of the well-regarded, important, or heavily-hyped movies of the year just makes you realize how many you don't have time to see. Critics have a professional and probably also temperamental drive for completism. How can we make our top ten lists, for starters, let alone put the culture of our day in its larger context, without seeing everything? Or at least most things?
Even if the studios and their publicists were in a mood to indulge our compulsive fear of missing out on something -- which they are not unless your last name happens to be Ebert -- there's no time. Noel watches a couple of movies a day, most days including weekends, and he's still not close. I'm down to less than 50 movies a year since the kids were born, barely enough to keep my union card.
However, my selectivity has gone way up. I see movies, for the most part, that I'm pretty sure I'm going to like or love. This year I saw only one movie that I wouldn't recommend -- a movie I thought was bad. Having to sit through stinkers is usually part of the job description, but as a critic only when I choose to be, I get all the benefits with none of the drawbacks.
Well, almost none. I'm still infuriated by all the movies I didn't see. When I learn to let go of my anger at all the books I'll never get to read and all the movies I'll never get to see -- and they keep making more every day, darn them to heck! -- maybe the secret of happiness will be revealed to me. Meanwhile, like King Midas, I find the riches that surround me hard to enjoy because they are not all the riches in the world, and I suspect many critics feel the same.