In film-critic circles, Dave Kehr has taken on an almost-mythical sense of being a great critic who’s hard to read. Much of his work predates the Internet, and he’s rarely had his work collected in book form. Yet his reviews and thoughts are much-loved and cited by other writers on the medium, who find his knowledge of the film world impressive, yet not daunting to readers less steeped in cinema.
When Movies Mattered: Reviews From A Transformative Decade—a new collection of some of Kehr’s favorite reviews from his days at the Chicago Reader from 1974 to 1986—first delves into his top films of the year throughout that period, at least for the years in which he chose one. His essays on American classics like Melvin And Howard and Days Of Heaven nestle comfortably next to more esoteric choices, like The Aviator’s Wife or Blake Edwards’ 10, whose review here should prompt some sort of critical reappraisal.
From there, Kehr wanders much further afield, through loosely linked sections that find excuses to place his reviews of, say, Halloween and Reds adjacent to each other, and sections that call up little-seen foreign films like The Memory Of Justice and Perceval. And in the final section, Kehr wanders through film history, revisiting films that received revivals and retrospectives while he was writing for the Reader, and touching on the works of directors as varied as Roberto Rossellini and Alfred Hitchcock. The final appendix collects Kehr’s top-10 lists for his Reader period.
Kehr is a dense, wordy writer, who will go on at length about the connections between John Carpenter’s first three films just as much as he’ll pry apart the elemental symbolism in Days Of Heaven. (His reading of that film as being about a Biblical battle between earth, water, and fire is masterful.) He can be contrarian—his top-10 lists don’t list such mainstays of the era as Raging Bull or Woody Allen—but he’s never at a loss for a way to explain his exact feelings on a piece, or to dig deeper into why a film might work for its intended audience. He’s the kind of critic most critics aspire to be, and anyone wishing to learn more about film writing would do well to start here.
The flaw of When Movies Mattered is that it collects too few of Kehr’s pieces. The book necessarily focuses on the films he loved, which leaves the open question of why he didn’t like some of the era’s more established classics. Contrarianism, perhaps, doesn’t sell as well as enthusiasm, but it might be nice to get takes on the era’s more celebrated films that subvert the conventional wisdom. The ultimate flaw of When Movies Mattered is that it’s so good at arousing passion for the films it does cover that it suggests the flipside, the films that didn’t pass muster with Kehr, would be equally fascinating. But as a celebration of the films of the era, this is as good a book as is likely to be found.