Monday, June 13, 2011

What Makes a Movie “Good”?


Everyone who goes to a movie has an opinion about it. Expressing one’s like or dislike of a movie, talking about a scene we found most funny or disturbing, comparing it to a movie we liked better (or worse), quoting a favorite line of dialogue, or dishing about the appearance of an actor or costume, goes back to our first experiences with moviegoing, and our first taste of what could someday develop into true film criticism.

Most of this post-movie chat is subjective. We don’t really need to explain WHY a movie made us feel a certain way. But woe to anyone who disparages a film in front of a friend who holds it in high esteem! Casual dismissal of a well-loved film, without a reasoned argument or explanation for one’s subjective opinion, will cause at least a few heated discussions, and at worst a certain amount of ostracism.

But sometimes, we lack the language or background to explain why a movie really shakes us, or brings us to a new level of happiness, or moves us, or gives us a spark of creative energy. Or worse yet, why a movie annoys us, makes us suspect we were witness to something dishonest, or even damaging. Those few energetic or sensitive souls who struggle early on with these explanations will someday write film criticism.

And those who seek out and read intelligent film critics who write about difficult movies, in order to test their own theories and give voice to their feelings; those that make exciting connections between the literature they read and the storytelling methods on screen;, those that truly study and understand the unique way cinema can make us see the world differently, will, if they follow the path, become great critics.

Some moviegoers, who have never taken a film class or made a film, or even studied literature, theater, art, history or philosophy, feel qualified to write movie reviews. Most of us would not put much trust in any “experts” who never worked in their stated area of expertise, let alone studied it, or any other subject likely to deepen our understanding of it.

Still, some of us take an inexperienced but zeitgeist-y reviewer to heart, even jump on the bandwagon, without considering the source, or without listening to our own hearts and minds. Some of these critics can be very contentious, and draw a line in the sand rather than invite reasoned discourse. We want so much to be part of a conversation, that we can forget our personal credo, and abandon those hard-won criteria that we learned to evaluate works of art, even in an art form as commercial as popular cinema.

Does anyone else sometimes think that Hollywood is listening to these contentious taste-makers, while ignoring those that want something better? True, it’s harder to live up to that standard, but where are the deep thinkers in Hollywood, the readers of great literature? (There are a lot of books written in the last 50 years that would make excellent, relevant films…books without cartoon illustrations, that is).

No, don’t answer that… I know that the industry has changed, and to lament that fact will only isolate me on my porch-swing of nostalgia. But I suspect I’m not alone…

(More power to the blockbusters and special effects. But why invent the technology to make movies seem more “realistic” when we are only applying that technology to “fantasy” which has no resemblance to the world around us? )

Anyway, I think it’s necessary for me as a film critic to step back and re-evaluate those criteria that I use to judge a film. It won’t do simply to proclaim how “cool” something is, or that it held my interest. I have to move beyond my childhood subjectivity and make a case for my subjective feelings. The more I’m willing to become well-rounded in arts and history and current events, the better my writing becomes, and the more trustworthy and convincing I can be as a critic.

So that even when we strongly disagree, you can look at my dissenting opinion and say, “Yes, I can see perfectly well how this film can be seen in this light, even though I have a perfectly reasoned view to the contrary.”

What makes a film “good”?  I would like to think that there is a universally-agreed upon set of characteristics, but for now, I will stick to my personal manifesto.

No one summarized my own thoughts better than the late Sydney Lumet:

"While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing."--Sidney Lumet
1. A good movie should be competently made. A great film uses cinematic language to tell a story, create meaning, make the heart soar, make it weep, and make me want to create something as soon as it’s done.

2. The subject matter should appeal to me in some way. This is perhaps the most subjective criterion of all. I have seen many films on the recommendation of trusted critics that I would not have seen otherwise. Many times I am glad I left my comfort zone. More lately, however, I have noticed that what you see is what you get. Comic-book movies just don’t do it for me, no matter how they try to pretend they’re something more. I’ll hold out for something original, something that deals with some recognizable human condition, even if it’s comedic, or fantastical. I am also more likely to champion for a film if it appeals to me on a basic level, because I understand it better.

3. A good movie is honest in its intentions and the way it’s done. Maybe I’ve seen so many movies that I can tell pretty quickly when a film is moving in an intriguing way, or if it’s merely a commercial enterprise that will be as forgettable as a happy meal. I trust my instincts, especially when I think I’m being sold something or pandered to….and I work hard to try to describe this in my writing. I don’t use movies like video games. I avoid movies that sell themselves like a drunken party…for cheap laughs and a queasy guilty feeling afterward.

4. Technology can be awesome in the service of telling a story or developing a theme, but tiresome when it’s all that is there. I can appreciate the effects-work to create a tsunami in “Hereafter”; I recognize how amazing it is at the same time it functions as a chilling plot development. Much of the work in “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was truly astounding; but at least an hour’s worth of battle-scene overkill could have been deleted with no harm to the three films.

5. A good movie exists on many levels, and is comfortable with ambiguity if the work demands it. One of the most wonderful multi-layered works that I will never tire of is “Cabaret”.

6. Good movies exist like other great works of art in that there is always something new to see, something to re-consider, or, like time spent with good friends, the promise of a delightful, thought-provoking, or emotional experience. 

7. Good movies can deal with any kind of subject or imagery. As I get older, though, I more seriously question the need for certain depictions of cruelty, expulsions of various bodily fluids, and reliance on pyrotechnics and destruction. Movies that claim to require these, I hold to a higher standard. 
(I dislike censorship; but I appreciate the discipline of a filmmaker who thinks hard before throwing a taboo subject or horrendous image on the screen, and does so with a deeper artistic intent.)

8. Certain elements can elevate a good movie into greatness, like terrific performances, a wonderful music score, the creative use of montage and editing (not always rapid-cutting), movement within a scene, or even complete silence and stillness, beautiful lensing and lighting, and not the least, excellent writing.  When I can identify with well-developed screen characters, directed with wisdom and sensitivity, I can work through my personal psychodramas, even if I have nothing in common with those characters.

9. Good, even great movies, can challenge us, but are never boring. What some see as “boring” can be fascinating to someone who brings more into the experience. One should use the word “boring” sparingly, or never. We all appreciate some great films that would hold no interest for many average moviegoers.

10. A good, even great movie, ultimately gets me in touch with the best part of my humanity, either by eliciting an emotion, inspiring me to creative and practical action, or stimulating thought to effect a more sensitive way of seeing some part of the world around me.

Of course, we all have our guilty pleasures too, which I will discuss in an upcoming post.


  1. Sometimes, you put things so perfectly. Especially your Number 10. It's that criteria that made me love Nashville, Precious...and, yes, Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Subjective, indeed! :)

  2. Thanks Walter...I must say I have never ventured to "Texas Chainsaw" territory...with a title like that I was sure I deserved what I got out of it. Is it really worth seeing?? I would love to read your full analysis of it....
    There were so many films I wanted to showcase here (Precious would be one) but there is not enough room in the blogosphere....

  3. That's a brilliant manifesto for film criticism and for judging the quality of movies that I may just keep to one side and use in the future.

    Mark Kermode, British film critic, recently said in an interview that to be a good film critic you need to have a knowledge of the history of the film (and the medium) and the honesty to admit your subjectivity (but not to avoid it). Lets face it none of us go into a cinema with a blank slate, our personal and movie going experiences will be reflected in what we get out of the experience.