Column: 10 years as a movie critic on WTOP

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley reflects on 10 years on the air (Part 1)

NOTE: Thank you for a decade of reading my reviews, starting 10 years ago today.

Everyone always asks, “How do you become a movie critic?” The answer is: I have no idea. You don’t really apply because there aren’t job postings for the gig, especially in D.C. You just have to get your foot in the door, while devouring movies in your spare time.

I wish my “big break” came differently. WTOP Movie Critic Joe Barber died in September 2011 at age 53. He was a fixture of the community, seen regularly on WETA’s “Around Town” and heard every weekend on WTOP. I’ll never forget Joe spinning a “Best Bets” segment into a riff on Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in “The Gunfight at the OK Corral.”

“That’s my kind of guy,” I thought, churning out copy on the WTOP news desk.

When Joe passed, I was stunned. I drove to the DeVol Funeral Home in Glover Park to hear David Burd’s eulogy, giving a ride to WTOP Political Analyst Mark Plotkin, who was standing in the rain under the awning of CVS. When Plotkin died in 2019, the first thing I thought of was him in the rain. For years, I kept Joe’s funeral program in my desk drawer.

That same drawer was filled with copious handwritten notes on the greatest movies, countless best lists crossed off with a highlighter, and a copy of “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age” by George Stevens Jr., son of director George Stevens and founder of the American Film Institute and Kennedy Center Honors.

My father had always preached about preparation meeting opportunity. I had logged my “10,000 hours” watching Marx Brothers reel-to-reels, Coen Brothers laserdiscs, Max Ophuls VHS tapes and Spike Lee DVDs at the University of Maryland library in College Park. After a term paper on “Rear Window,” my theory professor, Joseph Miller, suggested film school.

Thus, I got my masters at American University in D.C. while building a website, The Film Spectrum, analyzing classic movies across the spectrum of art and entertainment. My premise: Directors are equally lazy if they make a film just for cinephiles (it should be a rollercoaster ride first) or just for popcorn moviegoers (it should have symbolic layers).

Hitchcock had the spectrum figured out. So did Wilder, Ford and Spielberg. Did audiences understand why they react a certain way to a movie? Did critics understand why the great movies are indeed great? And how could we bridge the gap between Rotten Tomatoes critics ratings and audience scores? What we had here was a failure to communicate.

That became my mission. There was just one problem: I wasn’t a movie critic. I was still on the WTOP news desk, a 20-something explaining how America was climbing out of the Great Recession, how then-President Barack Obama had just taken out Osama Bin Laden and how our football team needed a quarterback (RG3 and the team name are now gone).

In between, I’d brainstorm movie references for the airwaves, helping Editor Mike Jakaitis play clips from “Groundhog Day,” harmonizing with Sports Director Dave Johnson to “Key Largo” and — the crowning achievement — convincing then-Assistant News Director Mitchell Miller to play the “American Beauty” theme over a story about a plastic bag tax.

Along the way, my colleagues would quiz me on Best Picture winners. Mike McMearty: “1972?” “The Godfather.” Mike Gartell: “1978?” “The Deer Hunter.” Adam Tuss: “1984?” “Amadeus.” Little did I know that a Washington Post reporter was there taking notes.

The next day, WTOP News Director Jim Farley slapped down a newspaper hot off the presses: “Fraley, a film buff, is known for his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history.” You’re damn right I plastered that on my journalist bio, along with a follow-up feature in The Post: “Spirited reviews with the ethos of a true film aficionado.”

Eventually, WTOP decided to give the kid a shot.

My first official review was on Jan. 19, 2012, with “The Artist.” I must have been crazy to choose a French silent flick for the radio, but I gave it 4 out of 4 stars and it went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. On the radio, Mike Moss and Bruce Alan proclaimed, “Well done!” I can’t even listen back to it, sounding like a movie trailer voice booming, “In a world …”

Hey, I was doing my best for a print journalism major whose only radio training came on the job. Jim Farley said, “Keep doing you,” but a now-deceased local media critic slammed my delivery: “It’s not WHAT he says but HOW he says it.” You know what? He was right. Since then, I have consistently tried to sound more conversational. I hope it comes across.

My favorite on-the-job screenings remain “A Quiet Place,” holding my popcorn between the bag and my mouth, afraid a monster might snatch me if I made a sound, and “Get Out,” watching with buddy Thomas Warren in L.A. the day after covering the “La La Land” vs. “Moonlight” Oscar gaffe, realizing in real time that filmmaker Jordan Peele was a genius.

A rollercoaster ride with symbolism on repeat watch? He just nailed the film spectrum!

Regrets? I’ve had a few, like giving 2 1/2 stars to “The Avengers.” I guess I forgot my own balanced philosophy after binging Fellini in film school without recalibrating. It didn’t help that the 3D goggles malfunctioned in one eye, leaving us to watch through Nick Fury’s eyepatch. If I had only known that it would become a decade-plus, billion-dollar franchise.

As the Russo Brothers told me after the shocking Thanos snap, “Two-dimensional, two-hour, close-ended stories had an incredible run for about 100 years. I think audiences are interested now in storytelling that takes place over several years and films. … You can sit around decrying the demise of the daguerreotype or you can look toward the future.”

I still miss the old form of a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end that gave us actual closure, rather than post-credit teasers that set up the next sequel with the prerequisite to read every comic and watch every previous installment in order to “get it.”

Either way, I was just a dumb kid in 2012 who thought he had it all figured out, only to learn otherwise. I sought penance by naming the Avengers franchise No. 1 on my list of Best Action Movies when I ranked the Best Movies of All Time in Every Genre. Is any one Marvel chapter better than “Die Hard?” Nah, but I’m not making the same mistake twice.

What are the best movies from each year of my decade on the job?

  • 2011: “Moneyball” (Check the scoreboard; no one talks about “The Artist” anymore)
  • 2012: “Zero Dark Thirty” (Who says women can’t direct the most badass war flicks?)
  • 2013: “Prisoners” (Villeneuve has outlasted “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle”)
  • 2014: “Boyhood” (Linklater’s time-capsule reigns; respect to “Birdman” & “Selma”)
  • 2015: “Spotlight” (This modern “All the President’s Men” narrowly edges out “Room”)
  • 2016: “Moonlight” (Jenkins’ artistry is more important than the lavish “La La Land”)
  • 2017: “Get Out” (I wrongly predicted it to win Best Picture on “Tony Kornheiser Show”)
  • 2018: “Black Panther” (King Boseman’s death cements its legacy over “Green Book”)
  • 2019: “Parasite” (Bong Joon-ho’s thriller is my favorite international film of the decade)
  • 2020: “First Cow” (Family roasted me for this indie, but Kelly Reichardt is a visionary)
  • 2021: “CODA” (After two years of pandemic strife, I’m ready for uplifting storytelling)

Which brings me to our present state. The pandemic has been my toughest time as a movie critic, watching movie theaters shut down and major releases get delayed. Joe Barber would have been heartbroken. Thankfully, the studios send screener links, and there’s plenty to review on streaming, which is how most folks watch their movies now.

I’m grateful for my mentor Arch Campbell, whose “At the Movies” podcast I join every couple of weeks. After you listen to Arch, check out my new podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.” My favorite interviews remain an hour-long chat with “The Exorcist” director William Friedkin and my sit-down with the aforementioned George Stevens Jr.

I’m also grateful to all of you for reading and listening over the past 10 years. Thanks for your feedback, emails, tweets and phone calls — superfan David Ratner for the win!

Most of all, I’m grateful for my wife, Ashley Marie, who borrowed an old cassette tape from my grandparents so I could lip sync to my very first movie review — of Disney’s “The Jungle Book” on Feb. 13, 1991, at age 6. Give it a listen as you close this long-winded column. To quote 6-year-old me, “I’m gonna hang up the microphone! Goodbye.”

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley reflects on 10 years on the air (Part 2)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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