August 09, 2006

Good Morning, Chicago: Indy Critic Heads West

Ask The Indy's longtime film critic Ben Kenigsberg what's on his Top Five list of best films, and after a moment of silence, he responds, with a touch of incredulity in his voice, "Of all time?"

And then: "Oh that's a question I can't answer. It constantly shifts. There are some days where I'll throw Citizen Kane in there, and there are some days where I'll want to be the pretentious film snob and say, 'No, Orson Welles surpassed Citizen Kane with The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil and maybe Chimes at Midnight.' No, no not today, he didn't surpass it with Chimes at Midnight. Does Vertigo go on there? Does Rear Window go on there? Does Psycho go on there? You can't include more than one film per director in your top five. It doesn't seem fair."

Kenigsberg can be forgiven for his indecisiveness; he's drawing on a lot of material, having put more time in front of the silver screen than most. He's been writing film reviews for The Independent for seven years, and, while studying Film and English at Columbia University, he interned at The Village Voice for three years. Now fresh off a stint as a freelancer for the magazine Time Out New York, he's been named to a full-time position as one of three film critics at Time Out Chicago. And it is a dream job.

"I always wanted to be a full-time film critic," he said. "It's also something that's nearly impossible to do, because not only are there relatively few positions, but it's also something where the people who are in them keep these positions — and I don't blame them — until they're 80."

Film critics may stay linked to the keyboard longer than most journalists, but Kenigsberg, 23, got a jump on most of them, writing his first reviews for The Independent when he was 16. "It was a way of kind of rationalizing my habit of going to two or three films every weekend and not feeling like it was a complete antisocial thing or a complete waste of time when I should have been doing homework," he explained.

The film that first caught his critical eye was a little more lowbrow than the films he gravitates to now. It "goes back to when I wanted to see The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie when I was seven," he said. "My mother opened Newsday and said, 'Look this movie got one and a half stars; the good movies get four stars.'" A film buff was born.

He became an avid reader of reviews, and from them he shaped his own ideas about how a film critic should wield his pen. "The thing a critic should do is write a review that gives a sense of the film and gives a sense of your opinion of the film, and using that, people can read the review and make a decision for themselves," he said.

Critics of the press, so to speak, have taken notice. From 2000 through 2002 Kenigsberg won third place in the best review/criticism category from the Long Island Press Association. He won second place in Best Arts and Entertainment Criticism/Commentary in 2005, the inaugural year for the category, from the Suburban Newspapers of America.

As for that "Best Of" list, get back to him in 2012. That's when Britain's Sight & Sound magazine publishes its next "Ten Greatest Films of All Time," a poll of the world's top critics, done every 10 years since 1952. If Kenigsberg is asked to weigh in, "then I'll sit down with pen and paper and really think it over," he said.

Kenigsberg's last regular column ran last week. We hope to continue to publish his work from time to time.

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