Meet Nell Minow, the Matron Saint of Film Reviewers
By Marcus Julianus, Associate Critic
EX: Tell us about where you grew up and what kind of childhood you had.
NM: I grew up mostly in the Chicago suburbs, the oldest of three girls. My dad, Newton Minow, was the FCC Chairman under JFK, so I lived in DC for two years when I was 9-10. His work in supporting the development of what became PBS, helping to launch the first telecommunications satellite, and being willing to criticize broadcast television has been a great influence and inspiration, as has my mother’s great work in many civic improvement and cultural organizations. When I was 16, I had a bad case of mononucleosis and was confined to bed for about three months. My parents wheeled a small, black-and-white portable television into my bedroom and in those days before cable TV, videos, and the internet I had just five channels to choose from. I watched every movie that was on instead of just movies I thought I would like and it turned out to be an outstanding education.
EX: What course of study did you pursue?
NM: I studied film at Northwestern University for a year, but my degree in Liberal Arts is from Sarah Lawrence. I also have a law degree from the University of Chicago.
EX: What were your professional ambitions when you were younger?
NM: In my college application essay, I listed five careers I was thinking about. I’ve been lucky enough to do four: writer, lawyer, teacher, and “something to do with movies.” That fifth one may still happen!
EX: How did you first get into reviewing films? Did you think at the time that you could make a career out of it?
NM: I was the movie critic for my high school and college papers and then went to law school and did other things for many years, though I still wrote about film from time to time. When the internet first became available, I was enthralled by it and participated in bulletin boards and early services like The Source before the World Wide Web. Once it was possible for me to create my own website, I did in 1995, just to teach myself how to do it. Impulsively, I decided to post some movie reviews. At the time, there was not one business or publication online. By the time there were, I had an archive of reviews online and Yahoo! asked me to be its movie critic. I did that for several years and then switched to Beliefnet. I had also by that time written my first movie book, The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies, and that led to my being a critic on radio stations across the country.
EX: What was the first movie that you ever reviewed? Do you still have the copy of that review? Do you ever look back on it and if so, is it with pride or embarrassment?
NM: I think it was “The Subject was Roses” for my high school paper. I haven’t seen it in a while, but last time I looked at it, I thought it was not bad for a teenager!
The Movie Mom
EX: You seem to have a unique mission as a film critic, being the “Movie Mom.” Tell us how that came about and how it has evolved.
NM: When I started my website, I wanted to create a distinctive persona to establish my point of view and set me apart from the other critics. I had young children at the time and knew how hard it was to get good guidance on the kinds of issues parents want to know about in deciding whether a movie was appropriate for their families. And I wanted to be able to write about how families could share movies that would bring them together and lead to important conversations. I could not try to be another Kael or Ebert. I had to be myself, and that’s who I was.
EX: What do you find most rewarding about being a film critic?
NM: I love to watch movies and talk about them with other critics and fans. And I love to write and to be on the radio. It is also a great joy to be able to interview actors and filmmakers. So, pretty much the whole thing!
EX: What is the biggest challenge of being a film critic?
NM: Maintaining a freshness of perspective and an openness to each film, despite the overwhelming number of mediocre and formulaic movies we have to watch.
EX: You have quite a body of work, RottenTomatoes lists you as having 4176 reviews to your name, and the true total is surely higher. What tactics do you use to keep the experience of writing a review fresh and relevant after having done it so many times?
NM: I try to put myself in the place of someone who sees only a few films a month—or a year—and has bought a ticket because there is something about this movie that is appealing. But I am very lucky that I never seem to burn out on seeing movies. I still get a thrill every time the lights go down and the projector beam hits the screen.
EX: There are a lot of sites out there that approach movie reviews from a standards-based viewpoint, many religious. Do you find yourself getting pigeonholed into that world? Do you make an effort to distinguish yourself from these other sites?
NM: I don’t think anyone who reads my reviews pigeonholes me. The complaints I get are from people who want me to stick to their own narrow and rigid notions of what the “right” message should be in a film. The only effort I make is to bring my best self to each review and treat each film within the context of its own aspirations for its intended audience. If people want something else, there are many places they can go.
Career Highlights and Inspirations
EX: What has been the biggest moment of your career?
NM: There have been so many wonderful moments, it is hard to say. I loved writing my books. And I was honored to receive Roger Ebert’s “Thumbs Up” award and being one of the “Ebert Voices” on rogerebert.com.
EX: What goals have you set for yourself going forward, after already accomplishing so much?
NM: I want to keep writing reviews and books and helping people find movies that will thrill and inspire them.
EX: Who are your favorite critics to read? Do you draw inspiration from other critics?
NM: I love reading reviews and am always inspired by other critics. Roger Ebert was the all-time best. The critics he selected from all over the world who now write for rogerebert.com are some of my favorites. I browse rottentomatoes every week and read as many as I can.
EX: What is, in your opinion, the best review that you have ever written? Why?
NM: I think the reviews and articles in my books are the best writing I’ve done about movies because unlike a review, which must be written a day or two after seeing the movie, I have more chance to think about the films and I get a chance to talk about my all-time favorites, not just current releases. For my best, well, my favorite would be “Freddy vs. Jason,” for reasons that will be obvious if you look at it. But maybe “National Velvet” is one I am proud of. It would be great if you could link to my books, too.
EX: What is, in your opinion, the worst review that you have ever written? If you could go back and change it, would you? What would you change?
NM: If I change my mind, I go back and change the review. That’s the great thing about being online! For my worst, let’s say “The Cat in the Hat.” I should have been harder on it.
EX: You work a lot in radio. How does that differ from print reviews? Which do you prefer?
NM: I enjoy both very much. No one is easier to talk to than radio people. They are a lot of fun and I love hearing from the listeners.
EX: What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
NM: See as many movies as possible, especially those on the AFI and Sight and Sound lists. Write as many reviews as possible. It isn’t enough to know movies and have opinions. You have to be able to write better than at least 75 percent of the other people writing about movies if you want anyone to read what you write, and better than 90 percent if you ever want to get paid for it.
EX: It seems like your most common grade for a movie is a B+. You don’t give out a lot of A’s or F’s, but you tend to be more forgiving than many critics toward “bad” movies. As a critic, are you tough to please? Do you think you’re simultaneously more forgiving than most?
NM: I don’t think of it as being “forgiving” or “not tough.” As I said, I grade each movie within the context of its own aspirations for its audience. Otherwise every review is just a way of saying, “It’s not ‘Citizen Kane.’” I’m not measuring “Twilight” against “Argo.” I’m measuring it against the expectations of its intended audience. Generally, in order to get an F from me, the movie has to show real contempt for its audience. And the highest grade I give a current film is an A-. A year later, if I still think it is outstanding, I will raise it to an A or an A+.
EX: Your career has spanned more than three decades. How has film criticism evolved since you started working in it, and where do you see it going in the future?
NM: It’s more than four decades! I wrote my first movie reviews in 1969, when I was in high school. Certainly, the biggest change in film criticism has come from the democratization of the internet and the related collapse of print media. The good news is that anyone can be a movie critic; just start a website or blog or self-publish a book. The other good news is that the reader is not limited to local critics; anyone can read any critic from any location. Those trends will continue into the future. The bad news is that the number of professional critics is a fraction of what it once was.
EX: Your reviews include both a recommended minimum age as well as family discussion questions. You include the family discussion questions even in movies whose minimum age recommendation excludes all children. Does this dichotomy ever pose a philosophical problem for you? Are you rewarding parents who ignore your counsel?
NM: Hey, families come in all ages! And those questions are good for any age. I discuss movies with my parents, who are in their 80’s, and my children, who are 27 and 30.
EX: What is your opinion of Existimatum.com?
NM: It’s a great idea! I look forward to seeing how it develops.
EX: What’s your favorite film review that was not written by you?
NM: Listening to Roger Ebert’s shot-by-shot commentary on “Citizen Kane” was one of the most mind-expanding and inspirational film experiences I have ever had. Highly recommended.
Existimatum would like to thank Nell Minow for her time and her amazing, career-spanning experience.
For further reading check out the reviews mentioned in this interview here:
Or pick up one of Minow’s movie-related books here:
101 Must-See Movie Moments
50 Must-See Movies: Mothers
50 Must-See Movies: Weddings
Bonus points for anyone who really wants the complete Nell Minow Experience here: