In 1984, Mike D’Angelo wrote his first review which was Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense for his school newspaper. Over the years, his more than 3,000 reviews have become infamous for their hyper attention to detail and 100 point scale. He has contributed essays and reviews to popular blogs such as The A.V. Club, Las Vegas Weekly, Nerve, and Entertainment Weekly. He was one of the first film critics to migrate to the internet with his website, The Man Who Viewed Too Much. In 2013, the pop culture blog known as Complex listed the 25 best film critics of all time, ranked by their accomplishment and/or influence. Mike was ranked 22nd. During his career, Mike D’Angelo has cemented himself as one of the most influential and accomplished film critics around.
After having read many of his reviews and opinions on the film-focused social media website/app Letterboxd (link contains my own account) and learning that he went to my high school, Bellarmine, I contacted Mike D’Angelo about the possibility of conducting an interview with him. He graciously accepted and you can read my interview with him below. I admire Mike’s skill in analyzing a film and dissecting its script and/or direction. In particular, his review of Buster Keaton’s 1924 masterpiece Sherlock Jr. (my second favorite film, behind Carol Reed’s The Third Man), in which he gave the film a rare 96/100 score impressed me. He ranks among some of the very best film critics of all time like Dave Kehr, André Bazin, and Vincent Canby.
Here you go—
Q: First, could you tell us a little bit about your career path and background?
A: I’ve been a professional film critic since 1997, having studied Dramatic Writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. My reviews and articles have been published in Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York, Esquire, the Village Voice, the L.A. Weekly, and numerous other publications. At present I write primarily for the online culture site The A.V. Club.
Questions relating to Bellarmine
Q: What is the fondest memory of your time at Bellarmine?
A: Probably winning the Berkeley Invitational (Original Oratory) my junior year. At the time, that tournament was arguably more prestigious than the CA State Finals (at which I finished 4th that same year). There was also a local tournament — Gilroy High as I recall — at which I competed in two events, Original Advocacy and Humourous Interpretation, and won both of them. Lots of great speech/debate memories. Rest in peace, Mr. Harville.
Q: What Bellarmine class did you find the most interesting?
A: Definitely Tom Alessandri’s Honors English. Whatever his personal failings, Mr. Alessandri was a truly great teacher, capable of making even the driest subject seem fascinating. You could not be a passive, bored spectator in his classroom.
Q: How has your time at Bellarmine positively impacted your life?
A: The friendships I made there are still going strong nearly 40 years later. There are guys I met in the fall of 1982 with whom I’ve never not been in regular contact (long before the advent of social media made that much easier).
Q: Did you ever participate in anything film-related while at Bellarmine?
A: Not film per se, but I was involved in video projects for various classes, shot on primitive camcorders. I remember one of them, for a religion class, being a parody of a Duran Duran video that was constantly airing on MTV at the time. Learned a little about editing and composition.
Questions relating to film
Q: What inspires you to write about film?
A: I started writing brief reviews in the mid-’90s, strictly for friends, without any notion of it turning into a career. Just felt the need to grapple with what makes a movie great, or not so great. And I enjoyed friendly arguments about differences of opinion. Over time, I became more skilled at articulating my views, and folks started paying me to do so. But the truth is that I’d still feel compelled to keep at it even if the money disappeared, if only because I often don’t quite know what I think myself until/unless I write it down.
Q: What film(s) are the most personal to you; and why?
A: The Breakfast Club means a lot to me, mostly because I happened to be the same age as its characters when it was released. (I was at Bellarmine, in fact!) Saw that five or six times when it was originally in theaters, and heavily identified with Brian, the “geek” character. My favorite film of all time is Only Angels Have Wings (1939), which speaks very directly to me with its portrait of stoicism that masks deep emotion. And there’s Mark Ruffalo’s character in You Can Count on Me (2000), which is as close as I’ve ever come to seeing myself onscreen. It’s uncanny.
Q: Who do you prefer: Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut; and why?
A: Tough call, because (a) Truffaut died young and (b) I kinda hate every film Godard has made since about 1967. But Godard’s initial run, from Breathless through Weekend, is among the greatest in cinema history, with at least seven films that I’d call great (in as many years!). So push comes to shove I’d probably go with Godard. But I’m due to revisit a lot of Truffaut’s films that I saw once around 25 years ago.
Q: If you had to pick one director, who would be your favorite?
A: Billy Wilder.
Q: What film critic inspired you the most when you were first starting out?
A: Matt Zoller Seitz, who used to write for New York Press (back when I lived in New York) and now runs Roger Ebert’s website.
Q: Looking back on your career, what review are you the proudest of; and why?
A: I look back very fondly on my open letter to Lars von Trier from Cannes 2009, in response to Antichrist. I absolutely despised the film but chose to write about how much I admired him for having made something ambitious enough to be a disaster, rather than playing it safe. You don’t often see the equivalent of a one-star rave. (Though I often write what can look like five-star pans, if I’m not careful.)
Q: Do you believe in the Auteur theory; and do you think it still applies to modern day filmmakers?
A: Answering that question would take hours, if not weeks and months and the eventual publication of an entire book on the subject. It really depends upon what one means by auteurism. I’m definitely more interested in the director’s contribution to a film than I am in any other individual’s, and wouldn’t deny that interpreting movies via that lens is often fruitful. But I also consider cinema a collaborative medium, and get exasperated with auteurists whose regard for certain filmmakers crosses the line into hero worship. Also, it’s definitely less applicable today than it used to be, though there are still analogues to the old studio system. (Marvel, for example. I know one auteurist who only cares about the two MCU films directed by Joss Whedon.)
Q: What film do you consistently find overrated?
A: Rather than name one film, I’ll cite a kind of film others revere that I generally do not: Stories about characters who are passive victims of needless cruelty. Basically anything that I perceive as asking solely for my pity. That includes everything from the recent Oscar-winner Moonlight to Robert Bresson’s Au hasard, Balthazar, about a donkey that’s passed from one abusive owner to another. I’m drawn instead to portraits of extremely flawed people whose problems are at least to some degree self-inflicted.
Q: Which do you prefer: Physical Media or Streaming; and why?
A: I will hang onto my physical media until someone confiscates it or the devices that play it can no longer be repaired. Why? Because a movie that’s streaming today may no longer be streaming tomorrow, that’s why. I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, the Criterion Channel, and others…but I also own hundreds of DVDs and Blu-rays, and some of those films are almost impossible to find in any other form.
Q: Are you currently working on any projects?
A: I’ve been kicking two ideas for novels around for a while, but have been lazy about actually getting started. You’d think a pandemic would have been the ideal motivator…