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Manohla Dargis’s notebooks are full of illegible words and phrases.
The chief film critic for The New York Times, Ms. Dargis takes note of memorable scenes while watching films she intends to review. In the darkness of a movie theater, her notes are rarely coherent, she admits, and distractions are inevitable.
“Every so often when I’m watching a film, my pen drifts onto my shirt and I ruin it,” she said. “This is one of the great tragedies of being a movie critic.”
This week, Ms. Dargis reviewed two much-talked-about movies new to theaters, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” — nicknamed the “Barbenheimer” movie event of the year on the internet.
This highly anticipated film pairing comes at a fractious time for the American film industry, as 160,000 actors represented by SAG-AFTRA went on strike last week. They joined the thousands of television and film screenwriters already on the picket line over issues including pay and the use of artificial intelligence in creative capacities. The strikes have brought Hollywood productions largely to a standstill.
In an interview, Ms. Dargis shared her thoughts on the industry’s recovery from the pandemic and what the strikes may bode for the imminent future of film. This interview has been edited.
How does one begin to cover two of the most highly anticipated movies of the year?
I’ve been at The New York Times for about 20 years, so I’ve experienced similar moments when two huge movies open on top of each other. Around Christmas time, movie studios release their big, so-called prestige movies, for example.
I try to avoid reading about the movies before I write about them, but I do background research. I just want to have my own experience with a movie and know that a review is made up of my thoughts.
How do you decide which films to write about?
I try to find a balance that works for readers and what they expect from a film critic. I also have to be interested in the film. I reviewed an array of movies the other week, like the new “Mission Impossible,” a big studio movie, and “Earth Mama,” a smaller independent film.
That week in some ways represents my ideal mix, where I’m really covering the field. I think if you only cover the spectacle blockbusters, you’re really missing out on the splendor of cinema.
Can you take me through your review process?
I try to see movies about a week in advance of their release date. I go to screenings; some are called all media screenings, where there are several hundred people in a big room at a commercial movie theater or at a movie studio. There are also smaller private screening rooms scattered across Los Angeles, where I live. I like seeing movies with other people. There’s something very special about the kind of energy that you have from being with others, particularly when you’re watching a comedy or horror movie and there’s a crowd dynamic.
I always bring a notepad and a pen and write in the dark. Writing helps me remember things later because I try to absorb as much as possible while watching a film.
You wrote in January about your optimism about women in film amid a range of movies centered on female characters. Are there other trends you are seeing in film right now?
I mentioned that I reviewed a film called “Earth Mama” by a woman named Savanah Leaf; it’s her first feature film. It’s exciting to me that she’s one of a number of Black women filmmakers. We’re nowhere near where it needs to be, but there is a diversity of women who are making movies.
Has there ever been moment like this in the movie industry?
One of the funny things about the American movie industry is that it has lurched from crisis to crisis over time. Part of my optimism and hope is hanging onto the idea that the industry has managed to survive its transition to movies with sound, for example. Then TV came along and everyone thought it was the end. And then the internet happened.
The American movie industry is built on crises. Right now, the streaming bubble has passed. We don’t know what happens next. That’s my greatest concern.
Which film did you screen first, “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer?’
I saw “Barbie” first; I saw them a few days apart, so I could be in the right head space. “Barbie” is enjoyable, but it didn’t linger with me. It wasn’t something where I came back home and said to my husband, “I just need to talk about ‘Barbie’ and its deep impression on me,” because it didn’t have one. I enjoyed it and then I had to figure out how to write about it.
After a heavy film like “Oppenheimer,” do you need a film palate cleanser? How do you come down?
Right after a movie, I often don’t want to talk to anyone about it. Except maybe my husband. When you leave a movie that really affects you, you’re still in the bubble of the movie for a while. That can be a joyous experience sometimes. I remember seeing a “Fast and Furious” movie and really enjoying it. But I also remember driving home a little too fast that night.
A film like “Oppenheimer” — a smart, thoughtful movie talking about profound issues of great philosophical meaning — is pretty damn special. Even though I was shocked by the movie, I was happy to say that the film made me think about life. I am grateful for that experience.