At least once a month, anybody who reviews movies for a living hears this: ''What qualifies you to be a critic?'' It's a fair question, and my reply is that I've studied and written about movies for years, having been passionate about them since I stumbled onto a late-night airing of Duck Soup when I was 12. The question behind the question, though, is often ''What makes your opinions any more valid than mine?'' The only honest answer is ''Nothing.'' I'm just lucky enough to have a forum where other people don't.
That's changing fast, though, with the revolution in self-publishing known as the World Wide Web. Now anyone with a modem and the urge to play Gene Siskel (or, as seems more often the case, Beavis and Butt-head) can flex his or her critical chops on the Internet. Folks are jumping at the chance, too: Yahoo!'s ''Movies and Films: Reviews'' subcategory links to around 100 amateur pundits and their virtual soapboxes. It's the democratization of criticism, and -- unlike some of my colleagues -- I think it's a healthy development.
Ironically, the Net has already been around long enough to develop an ivory-tower cadre of amateur pros. They're the regulars on the moderated rec.arts.movies.reviews newsgroup, and many of them also post their reviews on personal websites. James Berardinelli, a 29-year-old electrical engineer from New Jersey, is perhaps the best known of the bunch: He's been publicly given the thumbs-up by Roger Ebert, and his scrupulous site, REELVIEWS (www.cybernex.net/~berardin/), features lengthy, cogent discourses on just about every movie currently in theaters. While Berardinelli is clearly a man of taste and intelligence, his writing style isn't the breeziest; a typical sentence from his review of The Crucible reads, ''A parallel-yet-integral theme relates to the thrill of power inherent in being the manipulator.''
Mike D'Angelo is my personal favorite of the newsgroup mafia, and his THE MAN WHO VIEWED TOO MUCH (pages.nyu.edu/~mqd8478/) is a savvy, dead-on hoot. D'Angelo's a screenwriting student at NYU, but for once here's a New Yorker who doesn't automatically assume that the new Woody Allen is a gift from God or Zabar's. He's smart enough, too, to see through the hype surrounding the sentimental art-house hit Shine. Plus, D'Angelo's Frequently Asked Questions page is laugh-out-loud funny (''Q: Are you really so insecure and pathetic that you need to put others down to feel good about yourself? A: Yes'') -- and he likes Joe Versus the Volcano, so he's aces in my book.
Beyond these gifted laymen (and women) are a mob of unwashed, enthusiastic amateurs, most of whom wear their lack of credentials as a badge of honor. The TEEN MOVIE CRITIC (www. dreamagic.com/roger/teencritic.html) site is as self-obsessed as its title implies; once you get past the list of Net awards that 17-year-old Minneapolis native Roger Davidson has won, you'll find solid but ordinary reviews of random theatrical releases and movies on video. DOUG Y'S MOVIE REVIEWS (www.bway. net/~dougy/movies.html), on the other hand, offers Doug Y's nicely balanced views on new movies like Jerry Maguire, and cute categories such as ''If I Were Rex Reed I Would Say:'' (''Tom makes this film Cruise! A must-see!''), proving that not all home-brewed websites have to be raging ego trips.
UNCLE BILL'S SHACK O' MOVIES (www.tmsonline.com/movies/) features snappy takes on such recent films as Bound, as well as animated Java buttons to guide you around. Not all Web-smart reviewers are plain old smart-smart, though: THE TRIPPER'S MULTIMEDIA MOVIE REVIEWS (www.execpc.com/~tripper/movies.html) offers music samples, audio clips -- and, in the space for a Mission: Impossible review, the words REVIEW GOES HERE.
If there's one website to which I'll be returning regularly, though, it's REVIEWS IN RHYME (www.datasync.com/~booda/ rir/movies.html), a marvelous, anyone-can-contribute deal hosted by one Martin Booda. Several entries written by ''Ms. Dana's 7th Grade English Class'' are not only charming beyond words; they briskly cut through the bloated cant of far too much movie criticism. Speed? ''Don't go below fifty/The flying bus looks nifty.'' Toy Story? ''I really liked Toy Story/It wasn't too bloody or gory.'' The Craft? ''The witches have a plot/It's like they're in a zoo/They're totally distraught/They like black too.''
I don't know about my fellow critics, but I'm watching my back. ReelViews: B The Man Who Viewed Too Much: A Teen Movie Critic: C Doug Y's Movie Reviews: B+ Uncle Bill's Shack O' Movies: B The Tripper's Multimedia Movie Reviews: D- Reviews in Rhyme: A+