Rescuing movie viewers from endless browsing — and introducing them to hidden gems — is satisfying to a Times critic.
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The phrase “service journalism” is a loaded one, particularly among arts critics, who are constantly worrying that their thoughtful and nuanced criticism is being reduced to a yes or no binary — fresh or rotten fruit, if you will. Am I contributing to the cultural conversation, we worry, or merely serving as a consumer guide? But as the writer who curates the New York Times lists of the best movies to watch on Netflix and on Amazon Prime Video, and the best movies and TV shows to see on Hulu, I’ve come not only to accept the label of service journalism, but to embrace it.
These lists of recommendations, which The Times has published for several years, are the very definition of service journalism — an attempt to weed through a seemingly limitless library of content and direct readers to movies and TV shows that are worthy of their precious time and attention. I’ve written deeply researched books, assembled narrative storytelling podcasts, gathered oral histories and labored over think pieces. None of that will prompt as many old friends and new introductions to exclaim, “Oh, I use that all the time!” And it’s satisfying, thrilling even, to me as both a journalist and a movie lover to hear that I’ve shined a light on a film that might not have caught their attention otherwise.
It wasn’t always like this. In 2012, when I started working as a professional film critic — that is, paid in American currency, rather than in free DVDs or movie tickets — the theatrical release was still considered the be-all and end-all of cinematic consumption. Amazon had only made its Instant Video service available to Prime members the previous year. Netflix’s streaming platform was five years old and not exactly bursting with options. “Straight-to-video” was still bandied about as a pejorative, indicating that if a movie didn’t play in theaters, it must be suspect.
That has, to put it mildly, changed considerably over the past decade. The theatrical release is often just a stop on the marketing campaign behind the film en route to its final home: video on demand or a streaming service, where most of its audience will see it. Oscar winners, including “Nomadland” and “CODA,” were released immediately to streaming platforms. Audiences increasingly prefer watching films, even for the first time, at home. Today’s film critic needs a keen understanding of how the streaming landscape affects viewership habits and exposure to films new and old — and the role we play as streaming libraries grow larger and more difficult to navigate.
With that in mind, The Times launched a guide to the 50 best movies on Netflix in the United States in 2017; its quick success prompted our Amazon Prime Video guide the next year, and they were joined by a Hulu guide in 2020. These lists are updated about once a week. (The interest in streaming coverage was, as you might expect, greatly escalated by the coronavirus pandemic — particularly during the early days of stay-at-home orders, when readers were hungry for bingeing suggestions.)
Curating and maintaining the lists, which can include 300 recommendations all together, is a big job. Keeping the lists accurate as various titles come and go from the streaming services (sometimes with warning, sometimes without) requires the upkeep of multiple spreadsheets, subscriptions and browser plug-ins, as well as copious use of the Just Watch aggregator, which tracks where movies are streaming and renting, as well as new arrivals and popular titles on each platform.
I never recommend a movie I haven’t seen. That’s where the traditional film critic model comes back into play. My regular assignments — which include reviewing new theatrical releases, covering film festivals, rounding up new Blu-ray titles and seeking out less-celebrated streaming gems — often provide a first look at movies that eventually make their way onto these lists. And since any movie may eventually land on a streaming platform, every one I see, for work or for pleasure, may be included in one of these guides, I’m always taking notes or even writing advance capsule reviews.
It amounts to a lot of work, yes. But I’m not exactly spending my days in the coal mines; I get to make a living watching movies and writing about them in a way that piques the curiosity of readers and hopefully prompts further investigation. It’s a delightful duty to perform, and a service that I count myself lucky to provide.