It’s true, Steve– these are multiple and sometimes conflicting characteristics of a rather broad and heterogenous class of writing we call the “review.” And we do, I think, tend to see film reviews that are less about context and more about the reviewer’s (relatively unexamined) sense of satisfaction — or in the worst cases, the reviewer’s rather programmatic estimation of what an average reader would like. Two reviewers I think are really different are J. Hoberman in the Voice, who, love him or hate him, writes about the film and filmmaker, and context, and says little in the way of thumbs up or thumbs down. This isn’t to say he’s wishy washy — it’s just that his version of analysis isn’t much concerned with giving the film a grade.

The other reviewer (who now does mostly TV for Esquire) is Tom Carson, who does do yea-or-nay style opinions, but always so carefully embeds them in an essay that explores what’s interesting (good or bad) about the movie and its context that I almost don’t care about the recommendation at the end. Plus, he’s really, really funny.