Critical Analysis Essay Assignment

This is the second high-stakes essay assignment for my class. Update: I’m thinking of opening this up to TV shows and games as well, and I’d be interested in thoughts on that.

English 2100 Fall 2015

Critical Analysis Essay Assignment

In the first part of this course, we explored narrative, personal, and reflective writing. In this second unit, we are exploring critical analysis, argument, and persuasive writing. Over the last few weeks we have examined debates on contemporary social and political topics in the “Room for Debate” section of the New York Times as well as reviews written by professional film critics about “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Wall Street.”

For this assignment, you are to choose a film and two reviews about that film that take opposing viewpoints. Find these two reviews on; you do not need to do any research beyond this website and the reviews to which it links. You should choose one “fresh” review and one “rotten” review. Both of these reviews must be written by critics anointed “Top Critics” on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

In a 6-7 page paper, analyze each critic’s viewpoint, noting the points on which the critics agree and disagree, and take a position as to which argument you prefer. Explain why you agree with one critic over the other, using the film as your “primary source.” You should refer to and discuss particular scenes from the movie to support your claim, just as the critics do. Stylistically, you should think of yourself as a film critic entering into a conversation on equal footing with the two professional critics you use.

How do I choose a film?

You are welcome—and even encouraged—to choose a film you have already seen and already have an opinion about. You should, however, watch the film again at least once over the course of this assignment, even if you’ve already seen it hundreds of times. Be sure to choose a film with sufficient complexity to elicit critical controversy of some sort.

You might choose a film that was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, but didn’t win. Best Picture nominees often prompt extensive critical analysis and a considerable amount of argument between critics. A list of Best Picture nominees and winners is available here: Did you love or hate any of these films? Have a look at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

Or, you might choose a film that won or was nominated for a Golden Raspberry, an award honoring the “worst” films of the year. A list of Golden Raspberry winners and nominees can be found here: Browse this list for a film that you think is good (there are several films on it that I like) and that you feel does not deserve such disparagement. Chances are that at least one top critic agrees with you, and you are well-positioned to write an essay agreeing with that critic and disagreeing with a critic who gives the film a “rotten” review.

Take a chance with your film choice. Choose a film that interests you and that you do not find boring. We’ll be workshopping your choices and you’ll write a mini-prospectus, so if you’ve chosen a film that will make the assignment too difficult, we’ll find that out early on and can discuss whether you should make a change. If you’re undecided between several possibilities, that’s great! We’ll talk about them in our writing groups and as a class, and we’ll work together to make a choice.

How do I choose the two reviews from

Both reviews should come from the “Top Critics” category on the website. I strongly suggest that you use reviews by critics writing for the New Yorker (Anthony Lane, David Denby, Pauline Kael, Richard Brody), and the New York Times (A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, Vincent Canby, Janet Maslin). The New Yorker, in my opinion, is the gold standard for extremely well-written film reviews (even if I don’t always agree with the analysis therein). Peter Travers of Rolling Stone also writes excellent reviews, as does David Edelstein of Slate, and anything written by Roger Ebert for the Chicago-Sun Times is likely a great choice. There are many other good choices to consider: Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, Desson Thompson of the Washington Post, as a few examples. This is by no means an exhaustive list of great film critics or worthwhile publications; it’s just a bunch of suggestions to get you started.

One review should be “fresh,” or positive, and the other should be “rotten,” or negative. Both reviews should be discuss the film in depth, and the reviews should have some points of clash for you to analyze.

What if I’m feeling truly uninspired and don’t want to choose a film?

You may use “The Wolf of Wall Street” if you use the reviews distributed in class by David Denby and Richard Brody. If you want to write about “Wall Street,” let’s talk about it. Do not choose either of these films if you find them “boring” or have no opinions whatsoever about them. If you’re really stuck trying to think of a film, I’m happy to help.


Wednesday, October 28 – Prospectus due – 1 page (bring 4 hard copies to class)

Wednesday, November 4 – Rough draft due – minimum 3 pages (bring 4 hard copies to class)

Tuesday, November 10 – Final draft due – 6-7 pages (post to the Dropbox folder by midnight)