Metro Weekly

Critical Acclaim: An Interview with NPR’s Bob Mondello

Bob Mondello talks about his life as a critic, the love of his life, and the one thing he doesn't own -- and why.

Bob Mondello - Photo: Todd Franson

Bob Mondello – Photo: Todd Franson

Bob Mondello does not own a cell phone.

“It’s not a bad thing to not have a cell phone,” he says, gleefully pointing out that his monthly phone bill for a hard line is a mere $26 a month. “When you don’t have a cell phone, people can’t be late to dinner because they can call you on the way. They arrive at restaurants on time. People are more considerate if they know you are helpless in the world.”

The longtime arts and movie critic for National Public Radio is anything but helpless. He’s more a force of nature, a critic’s critic. Nationally beloved by his NPR listeners, Mondello has been a Washington institution for years, having served as the principal theater critic at the Washington City Paper for more than 20 years (he left the publication a few years ago). “I love Bob Mondello!” is a refrain repeated often at the casual mention of his name.

Mondello is not one of those critics who makes it his mission to scorch the earth with vitriol. Rather, he’s selective, hopeful, optimistic. He wants to be entertained, challenged, provoked, intellectually stimulated. And he’s genuinely disappointed when not. It really is that simple.

“A reviewer is consumer advice,” he says. “A reviewer is saying, ‘This is good, this is bad, you should see, you should skip.’ A critic is placing things in a context, be it philosophical or literary. The idea is that a critic gives you a framework for viewing something.” Mondello is a blend of the two.

“You have to be if you’re writing for a general audience,” says the 66-year-old native Washingtonian. “You have to be a reviewer. But I try to be a critic to the extent that I can in three and a half minutes. The thumbs thing is the least interesting thing a critic does. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Who cares? The descriptive thing is what I go for.”

Mondello splits his time between his home in Mount Pleasant and in Argentina, where he and his husband, poet and professor Carlos Schroeder, whom he extols as “the love of his life,” have a second home. He is, at 6’4″, an instantly recognizable figure at the various critic’s screenings and theatrical press nights. But it’s on NPR’s airwaves where he’s become legend for his probing, witty, thoughtful pieces on arts and culture. He knew he had finally made it when, early in its run, the hit show The Good Wife referenced him on air. “I was used as an aphrodisiac,” he laughs, referring to a scene in which the show’s leads make love to the sound of his voice broadcast on a nearby radio.

Most people think of critics as steeled against the arts, but Mondello is anything but. His work possesses a warmth and compassion, a genuinely felt emotive quality. That’s not to say he can’t slice and dice with the best of them, but he remains one of the nation’s few critics who aims to find a bright spot in everything he reviews. It comes from an innate love of the arts, a love stoked at an early age by an encouraging mother and by weekly trips to a nearby library.

“Until recently, I saw about 100 plays a year, and for years and years, saw about 300 movies a year,” he says over the course of a 90-minute interview at NPR’s gorgeous new broadcast center in NOMA. “You can’t do it unless you get a kick out of it, right? It would get interminable.”

He smiles warmly.

“I’ve got the best job in the world. I go and see things that people have spend a lot of time putting together, and then I get to talk about them. Which is kind of great.”

Bob Mondello - Photo: Todd Franson

Bob Mondello – Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with the first play you ever saw. Do you remember what it was?

BOB MONDELLO: My mom started taking me to theater when I was twelve — I went to see Oliver! at the National Theatre and just fell in love. It was heaven, this theater thing. On top of everything else it was a Wednesday matinee — so you could get out of school, and that was fantastic. Within a couple of years, I was allowed to take the bus down to the National on my own.

MW: So you got into going to theater at a fairly young age.

MONDELLO: Well, going to it and reading about it. We lived in Fort Sumner Hills and our local library, the Little Falls Library on Massachusetts Avenue, specialized in performing arts. They had all these books about theater, a subscription to Variety magazine, and a whole bunch of original cast albums of Broadway shows — all these resources. Every Wednesday, I went to the library — because that’s when Variety got there — and read about the previous weekend’s grosses on Broadway. I could have told you on any given week how much Carol Channing had made in Hello Dolly! I was so excited about that stuff. It was amazing.

MW: I wonder what it was that drew you to it so strongly?

MONDELLO: To theater? Escape. My folks were not particularly happily married. I could go to the library and didn’t have to hear the fights. And also because the world of theater seemed so magical — it was so much more interesting than movies — he says as a movie critic. [Laughs.]

The other thing I discovered there was Walter Kerr — he wrote for the New York Times and I would read his reviews. They had these bound volumes — they collected all the reviews of every production from all the newspapers in New York. I have no idea why anybody would do this. It was just this thing they did. I was reading reviews all the time. After I went away to college, my mom wrote to me. “You’ve always been so interested in reviews, why don’t you try writing one?” I thought, yeah, sure? And that’s how I got into this.

MW: Did you ever consider the performing arts as a career?

MONDELLO: Are you kidding? You’ve been a critic. You know that doesn’t work.

MW: I mean before you decided to become a critic.

MONDELLO: In Junior High School I was on stage very briefly, and I got applause for my one big line in Meet Me in St. Louis. I thought, “This is cool!” But I was not an actor and I will never be an actor. That wasn’t gonna happen. I tried out for Guys and Dolls in high school and I didn’t get it.

MW: So you had the love of the arts but —

MONDELLO: — the total inability to do anything with it. [Laughs.]

MW: Instead, you became someone who observes, analyses, critiques.

MONDELLO: Right. Which I think you do out of a great love for the subject. Nobody could sit through as many plays as I’ve sat through without liking it. Critics get this bad rap that they’re looking to disapprove. It couldn’t be further from the truth. When you’re sitting there, you’re always hopeful. The overture starts and you’re thinking, “Oh, my God, this is going to be fantastic.” And then it isn’t. [Laughs.] But you always go into it hoping it’s going to be great.

MW: Do you remember your first review?

MONDELLO: It was, in fact, Guys and Dolls. I was in Worcester, Massachusetts, at Clark University, and another college was doing the show, so I reviewed it. It was not my best effort, but it was perfectly acceptable. After I started at the University of Maryland, there was an ad in the Diamondback. They were looking for somebody not associated with university theater to review university theater productions. So I went in to apply. And I had a clip. Nobody else who came in had a clip, so I got the gig. Within a year or so, I was entertainment editor. It all sprang from that. What I discovered was you’d get free tickets to things — which was heaven. Even Arena Stage would give you free tickets to things. All of a sudden I’m seeing all this stuff in college for free — a great deal.

MW: Inevitably you pursued being a critic full-time. Who did you start out writing for?

MONDELLO: The Washington Tribune. The Washington Weekly. My joke is that I wrote for every small paper that ever folded in Washington. If it was going to die, I was there for the last six months.

MW: I remember the Washington Weekly. I started reading you in that. You went to City Paper after that shuttered.

MONDELLO: City Paper was the first paper I didn’t manage to destroy.[Laughs.]

MW: How did you get into radio?

MONDELLO: I went to WAMU and the guy there — Craig Oliver — had seen my writing in print. I said, “I bet I can convert one of my short reviews from the paper as a tryout,” and he said, “Sure.” I did it, and the rest just happened.

Bob Mondello - Photo: Todd Franson

Bob Mondello – Photo: Todd Franson

MW: So everything just sort of fell into place.

MONDELLO: People ask me how to get into the business, but my way is not duplicable. What didn’t occur to me was that all the people working on All Things Considered at NPR were listening to WAMU on their way to work. They were hearing my voice mixed in with NPR voices in the local bits. So when I made a phone call to NPR to pitch a piece, they said, “Hell, yeah.” That’s how hard it was for me. I mean, Susan Stamberg said, “Why aren’t you working for us?”

Because I had been working in a studio at a member station, I knew how the microphones worked. So it wasn’t intimidating. That made a big difference. Remember I used to be on TV? On WJLA? Part of the reason I didn’t have any problem doing WJLA was that I had no idea what people looked like on television, because I didn’t own a TV. So I just sat there and I talked.

MW: Yes, but there’s still writing involved in radio and television.

MONDELLO: The simpler, the more natural I sounded on the radio, the longer it took to write. It’s hard to sound like you’re just being conversational. But television is just stupid. You’re on camera and the thing is you’ve got to not care what you look like or what your smile is like and all that kind of thing. You just have to do it. It’s a real boring medium to work in.

MW: Why do you call it stupid?

MONDELLO: Because the images trump the content. I did a piece one time about an action picture, and I was just slamming it, talking about how terrible it was. But the images the viewers were seeing were of cars crashing and things blowing up. And we came out [of the clips], and Paul Berry, the anchor at the time, said “That looked pretty good!” And I said, “No, it’s really not!” That taught me that you don’t offer opinion when you’ve got other images on the screen. You wait until it’s just your face.

MW: The TV critic I loved from the old days was Davey Marlin Jones.

MONDELLO: He was fun. But he was full of kitsch. For On Golden Pond, he would sit in a rowboat to do his review, remember?

MW: Yeah, he was eccentric, but his reviews were unusually substantive for television.

MONDELLO: He knew a lot. He was really sharp. What I think is impressive is that Washington has always had a bunch of really sharp critics. [The Washington Post‘s] Joe Brown was amazing. I mean, he was just a fantastic, wonderful, caring writer. And a really fast writer. [The Post‘s] Dave Richards — no slouch. He was a beautifully evocative writer. And Trey — oh my God, Trey Graham [formerly of the City Paper and NPR] is one of the most beautiful writers I’ve ever read. He’s amazing.

MW: I miss Joe and the old Post Weekend section. It used to be so incredible. Now, it’s just….

MONDELLO: Well, the priorities have changed. The amount of space they devote to things has changed. It’s a different world. NPR is an oasis in all of this. There is no one else in broadcasting that would give me the kind of time I have for a think piece about a specific film. It just doesn’t happen.

MW: Coming back to City Paper. You were its theater critic for at least twenty years.

MONDELLO: It was a long time. The first thing I reviewed there, I think, was Les Miz at the Kennedy Center in 1986. And I certainly reviewed there well into the 2000s. I couldn’t have stopped more than three or four years ago.

MW: Why did you stop?

MONDELLO: They had a change of heart. The minute that we weren’t trying to cover everything, I started cutting back on what I was going to see. I became less effective as a critic — and that’s a problem.

MW: I enjoyed how in-depth the City Paper reviews were. It was unusual.

MONDELLO: That’s why I liked working there. It was a good fit, because it allowed you to stretch in a way that most publications don’t let you stretch. The same thing is true at NPR. It’s not that I have so much time on the air. It’s that I have so much more time than anybody else. When I was doing it for WJLA, 75-to-90 seconds was how much time I had. Here, I have three and a half to four minutes on any picture. And if I need more, they’ll give me five or six. It’s an incredibly luxurious situation to be in. Of course, we’ve got a huge audience that actually seems to care and that responds to the reviews. Do you remember Joel Siegel?

MW: Sure.

MONDELLO: Joel wrote a review in the City Paper — more than four thousand words on the movie, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I didn’t really know who Peter Greenaway was when I started reading that review, but by the end, I really did. I learned more about direction and the use of music and color in films from that review than I learned in years of going to see films. Nobody would print that today. I can’t imagine it. It was an exquisite piece of writing. That was a different era, and it was glorious one. But in fairness, today blogs can do that kind of thing. You can find blogs that will spend four or five-thousand words on a new film, and if they’re well-written, those can be marvelous, too. You just have to know where to look.

Bob Mondello - Photo: Todd Franson

Bob Mondello – Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Do you prefer seeing films with a full audience over a more private critic’s screening experience?

MONDELLO: I like the crowd. I’m a theater nut, right? I like being in an audience. I like having everybody around and being part of an experience where we’re all sharing something. That’s what makes theater magic and film — to some extent — magic. The thing is, for a stage show, your reaction to it changes the show. I’ve seen shows where I’ve gone back that were not as funny the second time because the audience didn’t laugh at the first joke the same way and it didn’t propel itself. So the actors started forcing. A film is going to be the same the next time you see it, so you might as well see it with an audience. It makes it a little more alive.

MW: Do you miss print?

MONDELLO: Sometimes. It’s a different discipline to write for print. To make something evocative requires different skills. If you looked at one of my print pieces next to the radio script that would come from it, they are completely different. They start in different places. They operate differently.

MW: Do you have a preference?

MONDELLO: I’m out of practice with print. I could probably still do it but I haven’t really done very much of it for the last three or four years, so it’s much harder to get back into. Audio is the form I’ve gotten good at. It’s what I love doing. I really get a charge out of being able to make something sing. It feels good.

There was a thing I used to do — I can’t believe I’m telling this story. Trey walked by [my desk] one day and said, “Oh, Mondello is choking himself up again.” I was reading my review to an editor on the phone, and I was having trouble getting through my last line, which was a very evocative line, and I thought, “Oh, God, this is going to choke everybody up.” When you actually read it on the radio, you make sure you don’t do that. You don’t choke up but as I was practicing it, I was [sobbing]. As a result of that, I knew that that was going to work. If I could choke myself up, I figure I could choke up an audience. I’m sort of known for doing it. It’s a little embarrassing.

MW: It’s not embarrassing at all. It’s very humanizing. People often look at critics as having no emotions toward the things they’re analyzing.

MONDELLO: Criticism is analysis, but it’s also evocation. The guy I learned from is Walter Kerr, from reading him in the New York Times. He was a descriptive critic as opposed to a prescriptive one, and what he was good at doing was painting a picture that made you feel like you were there. And when you are finished reading one of his reviews, you’d just go, “Ahhhh.” That’s what I’m trying to do — I’m trying to evoke something, not tell you you should go or you should not go. And in fact, most of the pieces I choose to review are things I like, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend three minutes of the audience’s time on something that is worthless unless they were likely to go to it. If the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie is advertised to a fare thee well and is terrible, that’s worth telling people about. But a small foreign film that they weren’t going to go to anyway? It doesn’t make any sense for me to do a negative review. So mostly what you hear me doing on the radio are things I’m interested in, things that I liked, that I think have some merit. I have to get somebody to listen to me for three minutes and if I start with “This is crap,” they’re going to be unlikely to listen.

When you come out of something that you’re excited about, the first thing you want to do is call somebody and tell them how great this thing is. When you come out of something that you really hated, the first thing you want to do is have a drink. You feel the same way when you’re writing a review. It’s not that it’s unpleasant to write a negative review. It’s that you’d much rather be talking about the thing you loved, the thing that set off rockets in your brain.

MW: You have a great voice for radio.

MONDELLO: I guess. I’ve always hated my voice. I always wanted Robert Aubrey Davis’s voice — this big, booming voice that just shouts “authoritative.” I don’t sound authoritative. I squeak.

MW: I wouldn’t say you squeak.

MONDELLO: I just did, twice.

MW: Because you meant to squeak.

MONDELLO: To some extent, but I squeak. I squeak on the air. I do. My voice is animated. The first time I realized that that could work was a long, long time ago. I had been on the air for a few years. My cousin’s wife got HIV from a blood transfusion and died from it. And I spent about a month with my cousin in New York trying to take care of them as much as I could. She was in the hospital. And I realized that I had a forum and could talk about this disease. At the time it was a gay plague and this was a straight woman who had died from a blood transfusion in New York. I wanted to tell the story that this was not like everyone’s assumptions about this disease. So I wrote a piece and we edited it and I started to read it.

They assigned me a producer. His name was Ira Glass, and he was a kid, just starting NPR. He went into the studio with me and I’m reading this very emotional piece and am choking myself up. And he kept making me stop. He’d say, “No, read that again. Take the emotion out of your voice.” And I took the emotion out of my voice. It must have been a dozen takes. At the end of it I went home in tears. I knew at the time this would be the most important piece I would ever write in my life, that it had the capacity to change peoples’ minds all over the country, that I had a national audience and that this was important, and that I had blown it because I had taken all the emotion out of my voice. And then I heard it on the air.

It was weird because the way I had written it, you don’t find out that anything is wrong until about a minute into the piece. But as soon as you heard my voice you knew something was wrong because my voice is uusually animated — an-i-mated, right? And it wasn’t. It was flat. And people who had been listening to me for years at this point heard my voice and it was distressing. Ira knew something I didn’t. Which was that you don’t act this kind of thing, you keep it sober. It was a real lesson.

That remains the most important piece I will ever do. And, in an age when you couldn’t respond by email or something like that because it hadn’t been invented yet, it got dozens and dozens of letters. Just the most amazing things. Somebody wrote to me last year when he saw The Normal Heart on TV and just said, “When I was watching, I was thinking back to how your piece had changed my mind about all of this and I just wanted to write to tell you.” To have that come back at you after 20 years is amazing.

MW: Let’s talk a bit about your life as a gay man. When did you come out?

MONDELLO: I was about 25.

MW: What was it like coming out in the ’70s?

MONDELLO: Quiet. I wasn’t out to everybody — I was out to friends. Boy, here’s something I haven’t thought about forever. I guess I was afraid of it. I remember shaking the first time I told somebody I was gay. And their reaction was so casual that I learned not to get worried about it. I worried about it when I was younger. I worried about whether I was really okay, and it took a long time to realize that was not a problem. I was a product of that era. In the 1950s and the ’60s people were still being rounded up at gay bars and taken off to the police.

But I’ve been very fortunate. The places I’ve worked have never had a problem with it. The people I care about have never had a problem about it. People have been so accepting of it in my life. The first piece I advocated to do at National Public Radio was that Annie is actually Oliver! in drag. I took it song by song by song by song and said, “Look, this is the same, this is the same, and the way the plot arcs work and everything.” And they let me do it because NPR is NPR. That’s 1984, right? And I don’t know why I thought people didn’t know I was gay. [Laughs.]

MW: You’ve been with your partner, Carlos, for as long as I can remember. In fact, you’re still together.

MONDELLO: It’ll be 30 years next year. We’ve been married just the last four years. We met on September 11th so I will never forget my anniversary. September 11, 1987.

I remember when we first got together we said we’re going to give it a 6-month trial when he came [from Argentina] to live with me in Washington. Then if we liked it, we’d renew. So that’s kind of what we did.

MW: Wait. You renew every 6 months?

MONDELLO: Well, we did for awhile. I used to celebrate monthaverseries for the first four years. He made me stop after that.

MW: I never knew you were such the romantic.

MONDELLO: Carlos is my first love. He’s the first person I’ve ever been in love with. I remember taking him to the airport to see him off, realizing that I had fallen in love. I had a screening after that. The Princess Bride. And I dissolved in tears. I was like, “Oh, my God, this is what everybody has been talking about all these years!” I was a complete sap. Total truth. There’s no question, I’m a romantic. You hear it in my voice when I’m on the air. I am a romantic. And so is he.

MW: Given the eventual context, September 11 is quite an anniversary to end up with.

MONDELLO: Yeah. It’s also the day Carlos became a citizen. September 11, 2001. We were in the court room when the towers came down.

You gotta picture this. They do seventy people at a time at the District Court Building. And everybody went in to sign the papers, and do all the things that you have to do prior to seeing the judge. He had to do that on his own, I couldn’t go with him. By the time I came back two hours later — because we first went in at about 8 in the morning — the world had changed. And the judge said something to them like, “Your nation is under attack. You can join your fellow citizens in mourning.” It was just mind-blowing. And then we walked out and there were soldiers outside the courthouse with what looked to me like sub-machine guns. We made our way over to NPR. It was quite a day.

MW: After all those years, to finally officially be married, what did that feel like to you?

MONDELLO: Carlos always said he didn’t want to get married until it meant something in the place we lived. I’d been saying “Do you want to get married?” And he’d say, “You got the ring?” And I didn’t have a ring. And then they made in legal in the District and about three months after that, Argentina made it legal. So now it was legal in both of the places we lived, and he didn’t have any more excuses, so we got married. It felt wonderful. It feels validating. I love saying in front of a crowd, “Well, when my husband and I talk about this….” It’s wonderful.

MW: Speaking as a critic, does being gay color your perception of a specific film? Carol, for instance. For instance, as a gay man I think I responded to Carol on a level that I don’t necessarily feel when I see a similar heterosexual love story. It connected with me on an emotional level I’m not sure a straight romance does.

MONDELLO: No, it does not affect me. When I was talking about Carol on the air, I was talking about the way that it was “shot through glass.” I thought that that was the director saying “Look at how the ’50s kept homosexuals at a distance.” Now, am I seeing it that way because I’m gay and I lived through the ’50s and my perception is that gays were held to a slight remove during that era? Possibly. But I think I’m really looking at it as a film critic at that point. I’m talking to an audience not knowing what their sexuality is, so I don’t think mine is terribly relevant to things.

MW: Do you remember the first film you ever saw?

MONDELLO: I did a piece about it, recently — my entire life is on NPR. [Laughs.] It was Sleeping Beauty, the Disney version. I must have been 8 or 9, something like that, my mother had taken the kids, all three of us, to the picture, and at the end, she was crying. And I said, “Mom, it’s not sad,” and she said, “I’m crying because I’m so happy.” To a 9-year-old, this is insane, right? I remember being surprised at that reaction. Thinking about it later, I realized mom and dad fought all the time and she was looking at this romance where the princess marries the prince and it all ends up happily and in bliss — that’s what she was crying about. She was crying because outside the theater wasn’t always so happy. That escape thing that I talked about it at the very beginning? It’s about the escape.

MW: Is there a specific genre of film you prefer over another?

MONDELLO: No. I would just as soon not see slasher films and that kind of stuff. I used to be much more entertained by horror movies than I am now, but I like serious pictures. I like pictures that make me think and make me puzzle things out and work.

MW: Have your tastes changed over the years?

MONDELLO: If they hadn’t, there’s something wrong. I hope they’ve matured, but I can still get very excited. I was thrilled watching Deadpool. It’s a silly movie but it’s great fun.

MW: I find I’ve gravitated more to television these days.

MONDELLO: That’s a different form, though. You’re talking long form. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think they do some things very interestingly. I get frustrated by television because there’s never an ending. You’re always left hanging so that you’ll come back next week, and I’m used to the three act structure of theater. I want there to be a conclusion at the end. I want it to have a finale and we’re all applauding. It’s frustrating to me to watch television in its episodic form because I always know there’s going to be another week.

But television is very impressive today. And television was very impressive way back in the very beginning. There was a reason there was a Golden Age of TV. Some of it is still see-able. The other day I was looking for something about New Hampshire and I decided to see if there was a musical version of Our Town anywhere — and I found it! It starred Frank Sinatra as the stage manager, Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint as George and whatever her name is, and it’s terrible. But they were doing Our Town! On TV! As a musical! I mean can you imagine that today? It was Thornton Wilder for the most part with these musical numbers interspersed. Oh, and by the way, the song “Love and Marriage” comes from that.

MW: We’re coming out with this just before the Oscars. How seriously do you take the Oscars?

MONDELLO: I don’t take them very seriously. It’s 7,000 people who are involved in promoting their industry. It’s an effective tool for promoting motion pictures. I guess that’s good.

MW: Obviously there’s a lot of controversy that it’s a white Oscars yet again. Where does the blame lie in your opinion, with Hollywood or the Academy?

MONDELLO: Well, movie makers aren’t giving African-American, Asian and Hispanic actors the same opportunities they’re giving white actors. There is no reason The Martian couldn’t have been made with Don Cheadle in the lead. I think Matt Damon is marvelous in it. I think Don Cheadle would have been marvelous in it. I think it would be just as good a picture. Call it whatever you want — a failure of imagination? — but there isn’t a rationale for not casting an African-American and Asian and Hispanic actors in major parts. And when you see something like the new Star Wars movie, it’s a diverse case and it certainly didn’t affect the box office negatively. It’s not a bad thing. Eventually Hollywood will get the message.

MW: Hollywood only looks at things in terms of box office.

MONDELLO: Well, as long as they continue to do that with all the big money pictures, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you only cast white actors in pictures that you think have a chance at the box office, then you don’t get African-American or Asian or Hispanic actors in those pictures.

MW: Do you think they’re going to learn from this moment of outrage?

MONDELLO: I don’t think the moment of outrage is going to do anything much. Listen, the Academy is sort of the backwards way of doing it, but if they actually succeed in doubling the number of persons of color who are voting members, yes, it’s going to have an effect. I think it’s taking too long — it’s crazy how it’s taking too long. There are plenty of stars — Don Cheadle is one of them — who could handle a big box office picture.

MW: Are awards important?

MONDELLO: No.

MW: Why are we so fascinated with them?

MONDELLO: Because somebody wins. Because we are a society that values winning. If you make it a contest, then people care. You announce that you’ve got finalists in your contest for Oscars six weeks before [they’re presented], and people will go and watch those pictures — in theory. It’s a marketing device. And it’s no less true in the other industries. Tony awards are there so that national audiences are sees the musical numbers from the big shows. The Grammys are there to anoint some new star every year. They are merchandising tools, and audiences seem to like them.

MW: If you could pick any film at all that you saw over the last year, and hand it a Best Picture Oscar, what would it be?

MONDELLO: I didn’t see a film last year that I thought was an A-plus. And it’s been frustrating. A film that wowed me this year, I don’t know if I would anoint it as Best Picture of the Year, but a film that really wowed me was Son of Saul, the Holocaust drama from Hungary. Incredibly powerful picture and powerful partly because it’s a point of view filmmaking that they stayed so close on the main character that you can’t quite see what’s going on elsewhere, which I thought was a really interesting way to tell a story. I left that film shattered, just destroyed. So that really worked.

MW: Do you have a favorite film of all time?

MONDELLO: The General.

MW: The silent film with Buster Keaton? Wow. Why?

MONDELLO: Because a movie critic has to have an answer to that question.

Bob Mondello’s commentaries are broadcast nationally on NPR’s All Things Considered, and can be found online at npr.org.

Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at rshulman@metroweekly.com.

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