2010 began on a sad note for anyone with even a passing interest in Irish film writing: newspaper critic Michael Dwyer, who had been writing for The Irish Times for more than twenty years, passed away on the first of the year at the age of 58.
I've written about Dwyer before: for anyone of my generation growing up in Ireland he was one of the key film reference points, whether you agreed with him or not, as the main film writer in the country's most self-consciously "quality" daily newspaper.
As I wrote previously, one of my first memories of his work was a piece on the film ET: The Extra-Terrestrial which he had seen in Cannes in 1982, when I was eight. He was beating a drum for the film several weeks before it opened to enormous commercial success in the US - and months before Irish viewers were able to see Spielberg's opus. His writing on that occasion exemplified his enthusiasm for film: if Dwyer saw and loved a movie, by an established director or a newcomer, he wasn't about to hide his, or anyone else's, light under a bushel.
Although I found that Dwyer's year-end tastes often tended toward the mainstream, he was also instrumental in supporting more esoteric fare, whether it was through reviews of movies appearing in venues like the old Light House Cinema on Middle Abbey St, or in the Irish Film Centre after it opened in 1992, and indeed his final "top ten" is a showcase for his catholic tastes with Slumdog Millionaire jostling for space with Milk, Three Monkeys or Il Divo.
Dwyer was instrumental in forming my own sense of "worthwhile" cinema as I read his reviews week by week even though I was often only able to see the films several years later on TV or, eventually, on VHS (somewhere there's a folder full of very yellow clippings from The Irish Times, virtually all of them with his byline). As is so often the case, I turned on my (unseen) mentor as I began to establish my own independent cinematic tastes, only to later recognize, a little sheepishly, that even my disagreements with his assessments were productive as they allowed me to better refine my own thoughts.
I haven't lived in Ireland for ten years, but thanks to the online Irish Times and occasional care packages from home, I continued to follow Dwyer's work from afar, often regretting that he wasn't writing the weekly reviews any more - he did more of the feature work and the DVD reviewing - and always making a point of catching his year-end wrapup. 2009's installment was especially poignant as he wrote of a return to a darkened picture house after months of illness, and of the washing away of some of his own cynicism.
As is perhaps true of many small countries, Dwyer had a hand, or a foot, in more than one endeavour. He took the lead role, for instance, in the establishment and later the revival of Dublin's film festival, from which I profited as a student, lining up each year to excitedly purchase a pack of tickets. He was an assiduous promoter, too, of Irish cinematic production - perhaps occasionally too assiduous, but that may have been a tribute to his generosity of spirit and his acute awareness that someone needed to stick up for the little guy, a position generally occupied by the Irish filmmaker.
There are many able writers on film in Ireland these days, and many of them owe Dwyer a debt, for ensuring that people took the profession of critic seriously, and for encouraging and fostering many of those who followed his lead. He'll be missed in many ways, not least by this writer, and particularly when each year comes to a close without the opportunity to read his thoughts on the twelvemonth gone by - whether to nod in agreement, scratch my head in confusion, or splutter in consternation.
Hugh Linehan on Michael Dwyer, and Linehan's obituary.
A series of tributes from Irish film world luminaries in The Irish Times.
Gene Kerrigan's tribute in The Irish Independent.