This year might just belong to Sandra Bullock. Besides getting some decent award nominations and buzz, her latest film The Blind Side reached the $200 million milestone at the domestic box office on January 1st. That’s an accomplishment for any movie, but in this case it’s particularly important because, according to this Entertainment Weekly posting, it’s also a first for a movie headlined solely by a female performer.
Yet while Bullock is undoubtedly one of the day’s biggest stars, the victory seems odd. The Blind Side was, after all, Bullock’s third movie released in 2009. Her first film last year, The Proposal, was a hit, though it hasn’t made nearly as much domestically and will ultimately be outperformed by The Blind Side. Bullock’s second film, All About Steve, fared even worse — it was only the third most popular film during its opening weekend and has since become a certified critical dud.
Clearly, then, something besides Bullock’s star power is contributing to the success of The Blind Side. Though her name holds an obvious draw, it can’t fully account for the film’s financial success — The Proposal and All About Steve also gave Bullock top billing, but nevertheless failed to remain perched atop the box office charts.
Among the many possible explanations for The Blind Side’s success, the most obvious is the film’s quality. Simply put, The Blind Side is a good movie — or has at least been heralded as such by several critics. All About Steve and The Proposal are not. Though marketing, content and star appeal also contribute to a successful movie, people will obviously like good material more than bad. Thus, it’s only logical that the best movies make the most money, right?
Well, sort of. The answer is complex, but Bullock’s three recent films suggest the best movies are both popular and critically lauded. Currently, for example, The Blind Side holds a 72 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. By contrast, The Proposal has a 43 percent and All About Steve an abysmal 6 percent. Much like audiences, movie critics gravitated toward Bullock’s better work and lambasted her bad stuff.
Similarly, other critically esteemed films have also made loads of money. Titanic, for example, is the highest grossing film of all time and has an 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Likewise, Avatar is already the second-highest grossing film of all time, followed by Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Both of those films were also highly praised by critics.
The conclusion that emerges from these numbers is that movie critics know what they’re talking about. They can tell a good movie when they see it and, naturally, people can only benefit by being familiar with a film’s critical reception.
There are, of course, some problems with this argument. First, while some money-making movies earn critical praise, others don’t. Conversely, many critical darlings bomb at the box office. For example, the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies also appear on the list of all-time highest grossing films, despite earning a lukewarm critical response (at best). At the same time, the list of recent years’ Academy Award nominees includes quite a few financial flops. What can we learn from these instances?
The most important lesson, I think, is that it’s worth seeing movies that earn critical praise. Even if all those “certified fresh” Oscar nominees don’t make any money and the Academy is out of touch for focusing on them, they’re still pretty good movies. Sure, a dud slips by sometimes — but for the most part critics are trained to identify good movies and they do their job well. By the same logic, it follows that it’s worth avoiding movies that aren’t praised. Certainly if you happen to be a huge Johnny Depp fan (or you just really like pirates), then by all means go see the next Pirates movie, no matter what the critics say.
In fact, you should obviously go see whatever movies you want. The point, however, is that if you ever have to choose between two films, the one the critics liked will probably be more enjoyable and offer more bang for your buck. If you ever want to make a list of movies you’d like to see, the critics probably have some good suggestions.
Sometimes people do trust the critics, or at least agree with them. The Blind Side and Sandra Bullock’s other movies from 2009 are proof of it. However, other times people condemn movie critics and the film establishment for being elitist snobs, which they certainly are. Yet, despite that fact, they also know their stuff and trusting them can end up being really rewarding.
Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.
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