You, like most moviegoers, probably go to the theater a handful of times per year. This experience probably consists of some popcorn being consumed, along with the film that you’ve chosen that particular day. You leave the theater after being entertained and then only think about that movie again when a friend mentions it or if you stumble upon a critic’s review. But what about the times you’ve wondered if a film was good or not? We tend to let critics mold our opinions of a film, especially when we feel ambiguous about its worth, but why do we do this? And, more importantly, how should all of us critique the movies that we watch?
“Who wanted a fifth Transformers movie again?”
Ever since I became interested in analyzing film, I’ve wondered if I’m capable of doing this in the “correct” way. If I go into a movie without reading reviews beforehand, can I trust my own intuition even though I don’t have any technical experience with film? After being exposed to video essayists on YouTube like Lindsay Ellis, Nerdwriter, and Lessons from the Screenplay, it seemed as if there were concrete rules for reviewing movies. Of course there’s a basic template that most critics use (overview, positives and negatives, then analysis) but how much do you need to know about filmmaking and the theory involved? I attempted to find out more information so that I could be informed when making my conclusions, yet what I found was frustratingly vague. “How do certain scenes make you feel?” “What about the movie strikes you?” I was sure that feelings could not be involved in a practice that seemed to be rooted in structure, yet after doing more research I found that this isn’t the case.
Although I’ve learned a lot since delving into the world of film, the largest thing that I’ve discovered is that criticism itself is not a fixed form. Effective critics have a way of making opinion seem like fact. This is not to say that their opinions are invalid, just that your opinion holds more weight than it may seem. Many critics are aware that people perceive their estimations to be above others and use this to their advantage. This can be seen both when they exhibit exaggerated disgust over a particular film or go against the crowd for the sake of novelty. An example of the latter can be found in the career of Pauline Kael, who wrote movie reviews for the New Yorker from 1968 to 1991. She would often give popular movies a poor review (The Sound of Music, for example) while praising critical failures. Now, Kael is considered to have made an impact on film criticism as a whole because she showed that an opinion of a film does not have to be objective or conform to the views of others. In some ways this is refreshing, yet it’s also a vague philosophy for the rest of us to follow. Most people like to have some guidelines and knowledge before confidently judging something.
“Those hills aren’t alive with anything, Maria.”
Luckily, film does have certain elements that it must adhere to: plot, characters, setting, etc. Beyond that, how do we know when those elements are used effectively? There are some concrete things we can do: read up on how the technical side of filmmaking functions (editing, camerawork, etc.) and learn the different modes of interpretation (auteur theory, feminist theory, etc.) as well as story structure. There is also something quite easy that most movie reviewers recommend: just watch a bunch of movies, even ones that might not seem like your type. With decent exposure to all of these, as well as a willingness to continue learning, I think it’s safe to say that most would do a decent job at discerning the worth of a movie. In terms of reviewing them, both Ebert and Siskel recommended a more straightforward style, one that started with an overview and ended with the author’s thoughts. Siskel stated, “I start my reviews thinking that I’m a beat reporter covering a fire and that fire is my reaction to the picture.” This metaphor also proves that film criticism does involve more emotion than it may seem.
There is also some debate about form (editing, director’s choices, cinematography, etc.) and how much that should play into a review. In an article for rogerebert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz contends that most critics today don’t even bring up these elements and cover theme instead, “A good many people don’t bother to describe, much less evaluate, filmmaking in film reviews.” I’d agree with his assessment, since most reviews will touch on form, “the cinematography was good” without really specifying how those choices effected the film itself. It shouldn’t take up the entirety of the review (plus there is a risk of alienating those who don’t know all the components that go into making a movie) but it should be addressed. It’s funny how even critics themselves argue about criticism, a good example of this is the reaction of the hosts of the battleship pretension podcast to the aforementioned article. One argues that there should be more discussion on form, while the other is annoyed at the author’s snobbish tone and disagrees.
The lighting, contrast, and camera angle all contribute to the form of this shot in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006)
I do not mean to imply that a film critic’s job could be done by anyone (imagine having to analyze almost every movie you saw) but rather that we all could do with some knowledge of the practice. Everyone loves to have an opinion, especially when it comes to movies, but in a time where we are exposed to an overwhelming amount of media we must have the skills to analyze it. Movies affect us all, therefore we should all be aware of how they’re produced and what messages they send. For more information on the particulars of film theory and structure, I would recommend the YouTube channels I highlighted earlier. I also plan on updating regularly with movie reviews and essays like this one. Thanks for reading and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!