Call it brash independence, a unique way of seeing, or simple cantankerousness, but it's often struck us while reading film reviews that some critics enjoy going against the grain. When you visit Rotten Tomatoes and you see a movie that has received a mere 5 percent good reviews (like last year's comedy unclassic Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son), the critical consensus couldn't be clearer. But in the back of our mind lurks another question: Just who are these critics in the 5 percent who went the other way? (Really? Mike Hale of The New York Times?) Were they in the right theater? And do they make a habit of disagreeing with their peers? With those questions in mind, we crunched some numbers to crown America's most cantankerous film critic.
Rotten Tomatoes has a beautifully simple formula: They judge whether a critic's review is good (or as they call it, "fresh") or bad ("rotten") and assign films a rating based on the percentage of good reviews. The 30 best reviewed movies of each year tend to have 90 percent or higher ratings (that is 90 percent of all reviews were positive). The ratings for the 30 worst reviewed of the year generally have an overall rating lower than 20 percent. So, in other words, these are movies where there was little disagreement among critics.
But we are interested in the outliers -- the ones who disagreed with the overall rating -- for these movies. Who were the critics who found themselves on the losing side, so to speak, the most often? So we went through all 180 movies that got the most extreme ratings over the last three years and then tallied how often the Rotten Tomatoes-designated "Top Critics" found themselves in the minority of these best and worst films. At right is our top 20 (actually, top 29 when you include the ties) most cantankerous critics, and the winner is...
America's Most Cantankerous Critic: Kyle Smith of The New York Post.
Smith blew away the competition. Between 2009 and 2011, he disliked 13 of the 90 best-reviewed movies and liked nine of the 90 worst-reviewed ones. While some critics showed a tendency toward either being overly tough on good movies or overly forgiving of terrible ones, Smith is notable for being both. He's undoubtedly America's most cantankerous (he'd probably prefer "independent") critic.
Notable films: Smith did not like Hugo (which came in at 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), The Fighter (91 percent), and Food, Inc. (96 percent). He did, however, enjoy I Love You Beth Cooper (14 percent), Atlas Shrugged (11 percent) and W.E. (13 percent.)
Representative quote: "Two-thirds of The Fighter is a slog through the bleak and the ugly -- poverty porn meant to reassure us that our social inferiors never say anything witty or achieve a moment of grace. Still, they might provide intermittent entertainment by beating each other up."
(Update: In response to those who wondered where notoriously cantankerous Armond White ranked on the list, we've got an explanation for his conspicuous absence from our little contest.)
... and there were some other patterns emerged in our survey of the ratings. When critics (aside from Smith) diverged from the pack, it was generally in one direction, either giving mostly bad reviews to the best-reviewed films or good reviews to the worst-reviewed. So we decided to look at the critics who were the most heavily weighted one way or the other. Introducing...
The Most Forgiving Critic: Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
While Gleiberman came in second overall, there was a definite pattern for when he disagreed with his colleagues: he gave 12 good reviews to the worst-reviewed movies and only one bad review of the movies on the best-reviewed list. If you're gonna give Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (20 percent) or Zookeeper (14 percent) a good review, as Gleiberman did, you've got to see this coming.
Representative quote: "When he takes the gorilla (Nick Nolte) out for a night at T.G.I. Friday's, the film briefly soars."
Runner Up: Amy Biancolli of the San Francisco Chronicle, with eight good reviews for bad movies and no bad reviews for good movies. She saw something to admire where others didn't in a diverse line up of films including Marmaduke (9 percent), Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (14 percent), and The Tooth Fairy (17 percent), The Back-up Plan (19 percent), Our Family Wedding (14 percent) and The Ugly Truth (13 percent).
Honorable Mention: Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer was just behind Biancolli, with all seven of her aberrant reviews going to otherwise badly rated movies. But we think she deserves special notice for her stalwart defense of little-loved chick flicks. She carried a torch for Sex and the City 2 (15 percent) I Don't Know How She Does It (17 percent), Valentine's Day (18 percent), The Last Song (19 percent), and Dance Flick (18 percent). (OK, that last one is a parody of chick flicks like Save the Last Dance, but we still think we've spotted a pattern for Rickey.)
Any regular reader of Lane shouldn't be surprised that the Brit is often unimpressed with a near-universally loved film. All six times that he broke against his peers, it was to disagree with their nearly universally adoring reviews movies.
Representative quote: "It isn’t often that I wish a high-minded Marxist had been in charge of a motion picture, but who else would you trust with the spectacle of subversive activity being commandeered, and fetishized, by the capitalist machinery that it was meant to undermine?"
Runner Up: Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star-Ledger gave six bad reviews to universally loved movies, like Lane, but he comes in second place by balancing it with one good review to one of the worst reviewed movies, Bride Wars (11 percent). Loved movies that Whitty didn't care for included: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (91 percent), 50/50 (93 percent), and The Fighter (91 percent).
...so there you have it. Newly armed with this knowledge, you can now check out The Atlantic Wire's spring movie preview to see which movies look so good that they're bound to get a bad review from the recipients of our little awards.