How to choose and assess the movies you are watching

by on November 4, 2016 at 12:09 am in Education, Film | Permalink

Greg Adamo, a loyal MR reader, writes me with a query:

I have two related questions sparked by your review of American Honey.

First, do you have any tips on judging movies? I make a lot of mistakes. I dismiss a number of very good movies after seeing them the first time. If I happen to watch them a second time – or even a third – I come to see a lot of virtues that I missed originally. I thought Pulp Fiction and the Big Lebowski were quite overrated the first time I saw them. 20 years later, having seen them both several times, my view has changed greatly.  These are only two examples – there are dozens more. How can I avoid this problem?

Second, what is the correct time period for appreciating a movie? We have an annual award system (the Oscars). Like me, it also makes a lot of mistakes. Misfires like Crash or Shakespeare in Love – the don’t hold up to other winners. How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane. Hitchcock never won an Oscar. It’s not just me that goofs up – it’s everyone.

I can’t help but think time is a factor. Suppose the Oscars were like the Baseball hall-of-fame and had a five-year waiting period.  Would that improve the selection? Is there a market-failure in the movie-critic journalism business that pushes reviews out so near to the release date?

This is an area in which overconfidence and bias abound. I wonder if I’m better off disregarding individual movie reviews in favor of aggregated data – i.e. rotten tomatoes.

Those are some very good questions, I will offer some general observations in response:

1. If the movie was shot for the big screen, you must see it on the big screen.  Otherwise your response is not to be trusted.

2. Try not to discriminate by genre or topic, for instance “I don’t like war movies,” “I don’t like romantic comedies,” and so on.  You’ll miss out on the very best of that genre or topic this way, and those are very likely very good indeed.  (NB: In your spare time, you can debate whether there is a horror movies exception to the principle.)

3. In my view, the bad Oscar picks were evident right away.  A five year wait will only elevate some other set of mediocre movies instead.  Movie awards are designed to generate publicity for the industry, not to reward merit.  Ignore them.

4. I use movie criticism in the following way: I read just enough to decide if I want to see the movie, and then no more.  I also try to forget what I have read.  But before a second viewing of a film, I try to read as much as possible about it.

5. On net, I find the best reviews are in Variety magazine, as they are written for movie professionals.  And the market for reviews is largely efficient.  That is, if you read six smart critics on a movie — usually just two or three in fact — you will have a good idea of the quality of the movie.  But you must put aside movies that are politically correct or culturally iconic, as they tend to be overrated.  Brokeback Mountain and The Graduate will make plenty of “best of” lists, and they are both interesting and extremely important for both cinematic and cultural reasons.  Still, I would not say either is a great movie, though they have some wonderful scenes and themes.

6. Hardly anyone watches enough foreign movies, that means you too.  Or you might not watch enough outside your favored cinematic area, such as French, Bollywood, etc.  There is a switching cost due to different cinematic “languages,” but most of your additional rewards at the margin probably lie in this direction.  Furthermore, the very best foreign movies are so excellent it is easy to find out which they are.

7. I still think Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski, while good, are overrated.  Don’t always assume your second reaction is the correct one.  In addition, a lot of movies are made to be seen only once, so don’t hold that against them.  For instance, I am not sure I need to see the opening sequence of Private Ryan again, but I am very glad I saw it once.  It made seeing the whole movie worthwhile, but since most of the rest is ordinary, albeit serviceable, seeing it again would be excruciating.

8. It is a mistake to smugly assume that television has surpassed movies.  The best movies (mostly foreign) are better than the best TV, even today.

What tips can you all offer?

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1 gbz November 4, 2016 at 12:16 am

Your judgment of translated movies is usually off. Much more is lost in translation than you think.

2 prior_test2 November 4, 2016 at 12:58 am

Though if the movie is subtitled, and not dubbed, one can still be exposed to something that exists in the original – including the actual original soundtrack (in this case, not the music but the sounds that are an integral part of the movie). Generally, dubbing destroys that.

3 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 1:07 am

This entire post was written precisely so he could include those two words in brackets in point eight. You are objecting to the set up.

That said you are absolutely correct in your point. my French is likely better than Cowen’s ability in any foreign language and I have never enjoyed a French movie as much as the French movie goers around me. Truly cosmopolitan people tend to understand this because they don’t get a frisson simply from experiencing something foreign.

4 Urso November 5, 2016 at 8:22 am

I agree with the first paragraph – this entire post is a coded pro-TPP anti-Brexit piece.

5 Slocum November 4, 2016 at 10:12 am

I’m interested in my own enjoyment and interest, not that of countless millions of people I don’t know. So I don’t feel a need to try to bring my judgement and theirs into alignment. Part of the reason I enjoy foreign films is as a window into a foreign world & culture. Native speakers and those who know the country and its history and films better would naturally react quite differently. But so what?

6 mulp November 4, 2016 at 6:41 pm

I find it odd that Tyler so heavily recommends government mandated film production. These are films made for local production using local production companies and local actors to feed the local demand for theater and TV where quotas ration the spending on US global corporate film production.

Clearly, Tyler believes socialism and big government control of the arts is required to produce good art.

7 Urso November 5, 2016 at 8:24 am

Yes, he has an entire book on this. For years there has been a link to buy it on the left of the website.

8 Govco November 4, 2016 at 12:29 am

My mood when walking into a movie is important to my estimation (and I basically rate movies for myself, not for others).

Also, horror movies and romantic comedies are two genres I avoid without regret.

9 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 12:36 am

“Citizen Kane’s” reputation is a lot like “The Great Gatsby’s:” it’s a product of WWII.

Fitzgerald was a big celebrity in the 1920s, but “The Great Gatsby” didn’t make much of a splash in 1925. Then the military reissued it in paperback during WWII and soldiers fell in love with it.

“Citizen Kane” emerged as the retrospective heavyweight champ of golden age movies during WWII in long conversations among Hollywood guys serving in documentary units. The more they talked about what they were going to do when the war was over, that was the film they kept coming back to as their model.

10 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 12:47 am

I think this is being overly contrarian. I have no doubt the anecdotes you describe have truth in them, but Citizen Kane is still an extraordinarily good movie and Gatsby is a phenomenal book.

11 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 12:56 am

Citizen Kane is a better movie than Gatsby is a book. There are a lot of passages that are cringingly purple. Steve is 100 percent right about its rehabilitation and most scholars would agree.

12 Thor November 4, 2016 at 1:36 am

If you think scholars are discussing either of these, as opposed to exposing the binary privileges of the hetero-normative white viewer, you are mistaken.

13 Wonks Anonymous November 4, 2016 at 10:01 am

Thor, Cowen’s Law is that there’s literature on everything, not just critical theory.

14 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 2:04 am

I didn’t dispute Sailer’s anecdote, it wasn’t a popular book on release. That doesn’t matter one whit to its quality. And there’s no absolute aesthetic taste that can arbitrated by ‘most scholars’ (cite needed). I and many others love the prose of that book. There’s a reason one of the greatest English-language writers’ best book is considered to be that one. There’s a reason it’s on ‘most scholars’ best books of the 20th century list. Contrarianism sounds smart and all but sometimes obvious truth is obvious, as the kids say.

15 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 3:59 am

My post pertain only to the reason for Gatsby popularity. its an established fact.

16 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 11:37 am

No your post was very much about the book’s quality: “Citizen Kane is a better movie than Gatsby is a book. There are a lot of passages that are cringingly purple”.

It’s all opinion so you’re not “wrong”, but really, you’re wrong. 🙂

17 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 2:11 am

The contention that top directors, cinematographers, screenwriters etc. sitting around in military documentary units in 1943-45 arguing over what is the best movie kept coming around to “Citizen Kane” would seem like high praise.

“The Great Gatsby” was more of a mass phenomenon: your high school English teacher in 1965 or 1980 might have been one of those guys who first read “The Great Gatsby” while bobbing off Okinawa. I think a good sentimental movie or novel could be written about the appeal of “Gatsby” to young men under very different circumstances a generation later.

18 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 2:52 am

More empty contrarianism. Gatsby is too romantic for some tastes, not modernist enough.

19 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 4:36 am

A lot of Gatsby return to relevance had to do with Fitzgerald’s buddy Edmund Wilson, who never really made peace for modernism because of his leftist poltics, promoting Gatsby as a corrective to Joyce and others (who Wilson enjoyed but never quite embraced).

20 A Black Man November 4, 2016 at 8:55 am

How is stating facts contrarian? Gatsby is entertaining fiction and when made available to bored soldiers, it became widely popular. There’s a reason it is assigned in middle school and not college. It’s not in the same league with Native Son or Invisible Man, which explore topics challenging to adults.

21 Urso November 5, 2016 at 8:26 am

Bizarrely I was required to read Native Son and Invisible Man in 9th grade (two years before Gatsby). I hated both those books, and it’s probably because I was too young to really understand them.

22 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 3:36 am

Yeah, Citizen Kane was only fully appreciated in retrospect.

I would also like to add that How Green Was My Valley is a truly great movie. It deserves to remembered as more than a trivia answer for undeserving Oscar winner. Welles himself, when asked to name his three favorite directors, replied “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford”.

23 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 5:35 am

I haven’t seen How Green Was My Valley since I was 13, but it seemed awfully good then.

Also, note another movie that also lost the Best Picture race to How Green Was My Valley: The Maltese Falcon.

From the standpoint of broader cultural influence, The Maltese Falcon might be even more influential than Citizen Kane. While Citizen Kane had tremendous impact on directing, The Maltese Falcon may be more important in terms of general American cultural impact on the world.

It was the first major film noir; it defined the hard-boiled private detective archetype; it made Humphrey Bogart, the defining movie star of the WWII era, a superstar; and it launched the extremely long and productive directing career of John Huston.

Film noir is peculiarly important in movie history, perhaps because it’s native to California and it’s pretty cheap. It’s been the single best genre for a young talent to try his hand at, according to a recent quantitative study of spec screenplays. The worst is sci-fi epic.

Everybody in Hollywood understands film noir. They probably won’t greenlight your neo-neo-noir pitch, but it probably won’t confuse them too much.

Not surprisingly, Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed the astonishing high school film noir “Brick,” has been handed the reins of the next Star Wars movie.

24 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 5:55 am

That’s a good point. Maltese Falcon, like Citizen Kane, was barely on the public radar on release. Neither cracked the top 20 grossing films.

25 Chris November 4, 2016 at 3:42 pm

I don’t think it’s correct that the Maltese Falcon was barely noticed by the public upon release in 1941. It was the picture that made Humphrey Bogart a star as opposed to a supporting actor (although the earlier High Sierra finally made him a leading man). It launched John Huston’s film career. It made Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre popular supporting actors who would headline their own B pictures as a team. All accounts I’ve read report it as a massive financial hit although perhaps that is partly because of its relatively small cost. It was not expected to be a hit and it greatly beat any expectations that it had. It was released in October 1941, and I don’t know if that affects the numbers at all since some of its box office probably occurred in 1942.

Top 20 lists may not be as important in the pre-TV era than now because everyone went to the movies way more often and their tickets allowed them to see more than one show.

26 Steve Sailer November 5, 2016 at 4:28 am

The Maltese Falcon was highly profitable on first release and launched a custom of casting together the odd trio of Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet, most notably in Casablanca. (The Fat Man atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki 4 years later was named after Greenstreet’s character in The Maltese Falcon.) It received 3 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but didn’t win any.

Citizen Kane did moderately well at the box office, although its budget was large. It received 9 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but only won for Original Screenplay. It was mostly well received by critics, other than those in the employ of WR Hearst.

There was more arguing over Citizen Kane, whereas there wasn’t much controversy over The Maltese Falcon, which was one of those pictures like Raiders of the Lost Ark that nobody can think of anything to argue over it about. People like to vindicate Citizen Kane, whereas Maltese Falcon suffers from a lack of persecution.

Interestingly, what elevated Bogart’s next top movie, Casablanca, from big hit to legend was the practice of a Cambridge movie theater playing Casablanca nonstop during finals week at Harvard in the 1950s.

27 Thiago Ribeiro November 4, 2016 at 6:19 am

“it’s pretty cheap. It’s been the single best genre for a young talent to try his hand at, according to a recent quantitative study of spec screenplays. The worst is sci-fi epic.”
It seems an interesting study.

28 Some Guy November 4, 2016 at 7:24 am

This seems to be common. One of the great novels of American literature is The Sound and the Fury. It sold a handful of copies when it was published. After Faulkner started to gain an audience, primarily due to writing Sanctuary, his prior work got some critical attention. After the war he became much more famous. Interestingly, Sanctuary is probably the template for all SJW fantasy novels, as well as their rape hoaxes.

29 Wonks Anonymous November 4, 2016 at 10:04 am

I couldn’t stand Brick. Why set a noir in a highschool, and why have modern highschool students talking like it’s the 1940s? It’s been a while, but I don’t recall there ever being an explanation as to why they didn’t just let the police handle things.

30 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 11:45 am

Almost every movie, outside of super-realistic mumblecore, biopics, or quasi-documentary type films, can be undermined by noting that in real life it would never happen that way. Romcoms, scifi, action movies, comedies, horror movies, literally every other genre is about entertainment not equaling dull reality. For fun try to name a movie you do like that wouldn’t be undone by some simple note like that.

31 Thiago Ribeiro November 4, 2016 at 1:05 pm

City of God, which is overated, I think. There are hundreds better Brazilian films.

32 Rob42 November 4, 2016 at 2:38 pm

In a conversation with Brain, he expressly says why he didn’t go to the police – essentially he was afraid that even though the “bulls” might be likely to find the person who actually killed her, they would scare off whoever had put her in a bad spot to begin with and he’d never uncover the full story.

33 Hadur November 4, 2016 at 12:38 am

The hardest movies for me to appreciate are the ones that were really groundbreaking: because I cannot imagine a world without whatever now-commonplace innovations they introduced. If those movies are not otherwise great because of plot, acting, etc., they almost always disappoint me.

34 Scott H. November 4, 2016 at 3:51 am

You mean like Airplane?

35 Alan November 4, 2016 at 6:17 am

Automatic Stewardess?

36 mavery November 4, 2016 at 10:25 am

You spelled it wrong.

37 [insert here] delenda est November 4, 2016 at 7:45 am

Breathless / à bout de souffle works both for ground-breaking and for story. As does star wars.

38 prognostication November 4, 2016 at 9:56 am

This is especially true of comedy.

39 Doug November 4, 2016 at 12:40 am

A gude to selecting quality movies to watch in 2016… and not even one mention of review aggregators like Metacritic?

40 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 12:49 am

Review aggregators are quite useful for the general purpose of separating the hundreds of movies released each year into a few quality tiers. Making movies is difficult and even among those that get released, most don’t wholly succeed at whatever the filmmaker intended.

41 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 12:53 am

Shakespeare in love is a very good movie it just so happens to be precisely the kind of film film snobs (who dominate the retrospective estimation of movies as opposed to the actual practitioners of film who decide the oscars) hate: earnest and clever. Film snobs hate that combination if you are going to make a clever movie it better be sardonic or dark or ironic and fey (think wes Anderson).

It is also better written than acted. Which tends to make film snobs jealous since most are writers. I’d wager the angst generated by that film is really a function of Paltrow’s Oscar win, but there wasn’t an obvious alternative to Paltrow like Private Ryan so instead film snobs complain about Saving Private Ryan getting snubbed.

42 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 1:13 am

Didn’t mean for this to be a response to you Doug.

43 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 2:05 am

+1, Shakespeare in Love is underrated. Very entertaining movie.

44 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 6:06 am

Film critics tend to be highly biased against movies where the script would make a good stage play.

Nobody would go to see “Saving Private Ryan” at the Goodman Theater, but they might go to see “Shakespeare in Love” on stage.

Sure, “Shakespeare in Love” is dumbed down mass audience Stoppard compared to “Arcadia,” but even popcorn Stoppard is pretty good.

On the other hand, “Saving Private Ryan” is pretty awesome purely as a movie. My best friend and his brothers had always wanted their dad to talk about his 11 months of combat in 1944-45. But he didn’t want to talk about it. They finally dragged him to “Saving Private Ryan.” When they came out, the old man, “Yeah, that’s what it was like.”

45 MMK November 4, 2016 at 12:37 pm

Agree that SiL is a fun, entertaining movie but The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan are a tier above it.

46 Maz November 4, 2016 at 7:49 am

I prefer IMDb ratings. Usually, if the average vote is >6 and I like the genre and some of the people involved, I know I’ll like the movie.

47 Steve Sailer November 5, 2016 at 4:33 am

IMDB ratings are quite good:

5 – avoid
6 – nothing special
7 – good
8 – very good
9 – great

Of course, the ratings are according to guys who like rating stuff, so adjust accordingly.

48 Doug November 4, 2016 at 12:54 am

> The best movies (mostly foreign) are better than the best TV, even today.

This statement can only be true if you’re comparing single movies to entire television franchises. Which of course is unfair, because of course the best 2 hours of film is going to surpass the sustained average over dozens of hours constituting a successful TV series. If you compare the best single episodes of television then they easily rank among the best movies. Ozymandias, The Rains of Castemere, wh1ter0se, Middle Ground or Pine Barrens could all easily stand in a list of top ten films of the 21st century.

Even series that as a whole are considered to be mediocre or inconsistent have individual episodes that would be considered Oscar-worthy. Just consider Dexter, Hannibal, Person of Interest, Battlestar Galactica or Lost. Taken as a whole series they definitely each contain weak points, but they all have easily 120-minute subsets that constitute some of the greatest film ever produced.

49 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 12:59 am

But they can’t stand alone that’s the point. Perhaps a sitcom or a police procedural episode could, but a stand alone dramatic episode is by definition inchoate.

50 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 6:12 am

One of the hard things about making a movie is you don’t get to get better, whereas TV shows often improve from the pilot to the first season to the second season.

51 Hoosier November 4, 2016 at 8:08 am

I’ve found that most tv series then go downhill after the 3rd or 4th season. At that point we already know everything about the characters and the show now has to throw in crazy plot twists or massive changes in the characters (which are usually unbelievable) to keep us interested.

Very similar to movie sequels.

Watched a few episodes of Girls on the plane from a later season and hated it. It wasn’t funny and the characters were miserable and unrelatable.

Then just recently watched some a few more from seasons 1 and 2 by chance and it got me laughing pretty hard. Just so hard to keep that pace up past 3 seasons coming up with creative storylines for the same characters.

52 David November 4, 2016 at 10:46 am

“I’ve found that most tv series then go downhill after the 3rd or 4th season.”

I concur. Indeed I often think that cancelling Star Trek (the original series) after only three years of its five-year mission may paradoxically have saved it as an icon for the age.

But I think that relates to an observation a colleague of mine once made, that you should change jobs (not necessarily employers or where you are in the organization) about every three years: the first year, you’re learning and making mistakes, the second, you’ve got your groove and are running well, and the third…well, by now you may be getting bored, but you need to pay back for the mistakes you made in year one and also train your successor.

TV series are a bit like that: the first season is about introducing the characters and establishing their relationships, the second season is when they’ve got it together, and in the third, the signs of “series fatigue” are starting to set in.

It’s also interesting to see how some long-running series avoid this: my favorite examples are NCIS and (especially obvious) House MD, where after the first three seasons House loses or gets rid of his entire team and essentially reboots the franchise with his long drawn-out selection process for the replacements.

53 Strick November 4, 2016 at 7:39 am

It is like comparing War and Peace to The Snows of Kilimanjaro and complaining there lots of dull bits in the former compared to Hemingway spare style in the later. Different forms, different opportunities, different problems (and admittedly, different times, different fashions).

54 prior_test2 November 4, 2016 at 1:01 am

‘Battlestar Galactica’

I have as much respect for Lorne Greene as anyone, but really, this is just pushing things too far.

55 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 2:09 am

Gotta give props, that was an outstanding post from our man in Germany. LOL for real.

56 Shane M November 4, 2016 at 2:32 am

I took it to mean the 2004-2009 Battlestar Galactica
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0407362/

57 Wonks Anonymous November 4, 2016 at 10:08 am

Even the 21st century Galactica wasn’t that great, although the first regular episode (after the miniseries) was quite good.

58 Thor November 4, 2016 at 4:52 pm

Ever? Top 10-20%, perhaps…

59 chuck martel November 4, 2016 at 12:59 am

More money, labor and intellectual activity are lavished on American movies than any other art form in world history. So how do bad movies ever hit the screen? Ask a person who attended a movie last night what they thought of it and the answer is usually, “It was pretty good” or “I didn’t like it”. That’s as far as the analysis goes. If it featured an actor with whom they have some empathy, they might mention that. Don’t expect to hear about plot lines, character development, cinematography, etc. Fart jokes and car crashes will be the significant memories. Producers know this. They know there’s more profit in bad movies than in good ones. That’s why there’s bad movies.

60 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 1:01 am

Maybe but good fart jokes and well executed car crashes will do better than a movie containing badly executed ones. And shooting a good car crash is part of cinematography.

61 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 2:12 am

And well done lowbrow humor is funner than hell. If you don’t like Blazing Saddles there’s something wrong with you.

62 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 8:56 am

+1 the campfire scene was groundbreaking. Or at least something-breaking.

63 TMC November 4, 2016 at 9:04 am

+1

64 Thor November 4, 2016 at 4:54 pm

I agree. But that is an archaic movie now. What are the canonical good “bad” movies lying between that movie and 2016? Many truly awful movies, in the genre of funny lowbrow.

65 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 5:11 pm

Sure, lots of movies that try to be good lowbrow comedies are just awful. But there have been plenty since Blazing Saddles (1974): Caddyshack, Vacation, Animal House, The Naked Gun, Dumb and Dumber, Anchorman, etc.

And like most of those on my list, Blazing Saddles is still hilarious today, I wouldn’t call it archaic. The smart/dumb comedy probably started with the Marx Brothers. Duck Soup (1932 I think) is still funny too.

66 kevin November 4, 2016 at 7:54 am

“Bad” is a relative term. Unless everything is equal there will always be bad movies. If you took one of todays bad movies and put it in front of an audience from the 1920’s that never saw color or had audio, they would rave that is was the best thing they’d ever witnessed in their lives.

67 Rafael R November 4, 2016 at 11:30 am

No remotely true. Hollywood spends ca. 8-9 billion dollars a year producing movies and employs effectively only a few thousand brains in directing and writing. That’s not much for example, the Japanese comic book industry employs more brains in art and writing than Hollywood does.

And just in the US the brainpower making novels is dozens of times larger than Hollywood’s and novel sales over the world are much larger than Hollywood revenues. The global TV industry is also 3-4 times larger than the global film industry (ca. 100 – 130 billion dollars to 35 billion dollars of global box office revenues).

68 Thiago Ribeiro November 4, 2016 at 12:24 pm

For some values of “brain”.

69 Stormy Dragon November 4, 2016 at 12:59 am

The written review is more important for evaluating whether you will like a movie than the numeric summary is. Biggest example I can think of this was the Three Stooges movie that came out several years ago, which I thoroughly enjoyed despite generally negative reviews. What keyed me in was that nearly all of those negative reviews were along the lines of “This movie was bad because it was just like the original Three Stooges shorts, which I never liked either”.

70 Thiago Ribeiro November 4, 2016 at 7:06 am

“This movie was bad because it was just like the original Three Stooges shorts, which I never liked either.”
Hahaha

71 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 11:50 am

Good point, if you hated the Three Stooges why did you go to the movie, just to say how bad it was?

72 Thiago Ribeiro November 4, 2016 at 1:08 pm

As we say in Brazil, “falta de uma boa trouxa de roupas para passar” (lacking a big pile of clothes to be ironed). In other words, terminal idleness.

73 Ryan Murphy November 4, 2016 at 1:24 am

This is one area where I will sharply disagree. I believe there is very little to be gained by overcoming the barriers to entry for appreciating foreign or non-mainstream films. “Markets are efficient” is not always and everywhere true, but it is very much an underrated mental model as applied to the arts.

74 Thiago Ribeiro November 4, 2016 at 1:10 pm
75 Paul Simons November 4, 2016 at 1:58 am

1. The best TV episodes are very good. I’d suggest using graphtv to pick the best episodes of a series: http://graphtv.kevinformatics.com/tt0096697 (echoing Doug)

2. Foreign films are generally appropriately rated by the general population and overrated by Tyler. Much is lost in translation.

3. Cultural significance can elevate movies beyond their artistic merit. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see them or shouldn’t enjoy them. E.G: Star Wars, Princess Bride.

76 Alan November 4, 2016 at 6:28 am

My sons are studying WWI and will do WWII. They impress their non-movie watching friends with “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”. They love that movie almost as much as I.

Quotes from Pulp Fiction are good too.

Others with quotes that have cultural staying power?
Dirty Harry
Terminator
Ferris Bueller
Indiana Jones

A pattern?

77 Tarrou November 4, 2016 at 8:15 am

I found “Anchorman” to be a terrible film, and not that funny, but it was very quotable. I have friends that still ramble on in anchor-speak from time to time. Strange phenomenon.

78 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 11:53 am

As I said upthread, it’s all opinion so no one is ‘wrong’ in what they like, but how anyone under the age of around 60 can say they didn’t like Anchorman is literally inexplicable to me.

79 Thiago Ribeiro November 4, 2016 at 1:22 pm

So the third season of The Animals of Farthing Woods is better than the classic second season? OK, then. It is beyond stupid and those folks should be ashamed of themselves.

80 Thomas D W November 4, 2016 at 1:59 am

You clearly haven’t seen The Night Manager if you think TV isn’t equal to movies.

81 anonymous November 4, 2016 at 2:44 am

Deadwood instantly comes to mind for me. Precious few movies have been made in the 21st century that meet or exceed the first two seasons.

82 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 5:31 am

The Main in the High Castle.

Also, Agents of Shield is far better than any recent movie in its genre. Which is a real achievement given that even a few years ago TV couldn’t come close due to big-budget movie special effects.

83 Ted Craig November 4, 2016 at 7:14 am

“Precious few movies have been made in the 21st century that meet or exceed the first two seasons.”

And right there you get to the problem with TV. There was that third season. TV is usually at its best for two or three years, but few American shows are that short. Imagine how terrible a sixth act of King Lear might have been.

84 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 7:21 am

“Imagine how terrible a sixth act of King Lear might have been.”

Haha, good point. It does raise the question of how you evaluate the quality of a TV show, relative to a movie.

85 Steve Sailer November 5, 2016 at 4:36 am

There are only 12 half-hour episodes of Fawlty Towers.

86 Maz November 4, 2016 at 7:44 am

Exactly. American tv shows are always milked to death. British shows are better in this respect.

87 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

Yeah, American shows all seem to run about 43 years and replace the main character a dozen or so times. The Brits would never do something like that.

88 Jeff R. November 4, 2016 at 10:08 am

Ya burnt!

89 Wonks Anonymous November 4, 2016 at 10:48 am

dan1111 there are very long-lived British series which have replaced the casts, like Coronation Street or Doctor Who (although the latter was restarted years after initial cancellation and with I believe a shorter length of season & higher budget).

90 Thiago Ribeiro November 4, 2016 at 1:42 pm

“And right there you get to the problem with TV. There was that third season. TV is usually at its best for two or three years, but few American shows are that short.”
But not always they are the first wo or three seasons. Case in point: Star Trek TNG.

91 greg November 4, 2016 at 2:02 am

Like anything, watching, discussing, interpreting, reading about movies will give one experience and with more experience, one will make less “mistakes.” And I wouldn’t beat myself up for making “mistakes.” I used to use vodka to make maritinis. This was a mistake, but it got me drinking martinis and now I’ve discovered a love for gin, the greatest alcohol on the planet. So in some respects, it’s the making of mistakes that will lead to your discovery (or continually act of discovery) of your taste.

For reading about movies, I’d pick up a copy of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film. It won’t help you with new stuff to watch, but it’s a terrific recommendation service for old movies and better, a movie lover’s way to think about movies.

I cannot decide whether to agree or disagree with Tyler’s suggestion to be open to all genres, but in an effort to agree and disagree, I have some horror movie suggestions: John Carpenter’s The Thing, Ridley Scott’s Alien, Ti West’s House of the Devil, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

92 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 2:39 am

Thomson’s “Dictionary” is a good resource, especially if you are coming from a fairly similar place: male, straight, older, Anglo-American, politically centrist, pro-quality (as opposed to Tarantino so-bad-it’s-good orientation) but not academically snobbish, etc.

Thomson’s favorite director is Howard Hawks and favorite movie star is Cary Grant.

93 UncleMartyPants November 4, 2016 at 2:02 am

The two best things I’ve watched in the past year were foreign: Andrei Rublev (10/10) & the War and Peace TV series from the BBC (9/10)

94 Wonks Anonymous November 4, 2016 at 10:50 am

Was that the version of War & Peace from the 1970s? That’s the only one I’ve seen, although I know there was a recent one.

95 UncleMartyPants November 6, 2016 at 2:35 am

I was referring to the new series released earlier this year.

96 Corey November 4, 2016 at 2:10 am

“Don’t always assume your second reaction is the correct one.” What does this even mean? Can you have a correct reaction to a movie?

97 Unanimous November 4, 2016 at 3:36 am

The question assumed so. In light of the question, the answer is good.

There are correct reactions to some movies, and some parts of movies, others not.

98 Patrick November 4, 2016 at 2:11 am

1. Aim to know the history and breadth of the art form and relations; i.e. have in your head a film version of The Story Of Art

2. Pay attention to everything

3. Acknowledge that different people see different films when watching the same film

4. Just as it’s hard to make a flawless film, it’s hard to make a completely flawed film.

99 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 2:17 am

Last I checked, Hulu was still featuring the Criterion Collection of prestigious films. You can try out 15 minutes of films by directors you’ve vaguely heard are good and if the first one doesn’t grab you, try something else by somebody else.

100 Ted Craig November 4, 2016 at 7:16 am

“Last I checked, Hulu was still featuring the Criterion Collection of prestigious films.”

Not anymore:
http://www.ibtimes.com/turner-takes-criterion-collection-hulu-filmstruck-streaming-service-aimed-film-buffs-2359906

101 Jonathan November 4, 2016 at 8:23 am

But Time Warner is launching a new service that includes the Criterion library: Filmstruck

102 Donald Pretari November 4, 2016 at 12:59 pm

I have to disagree with you about not watching a film until the end. Many films redeem themselves towards the end. I remember one of the first films that did so for me was The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. In college and graduate school, I worked as a volunteer librarian for the Pacific Film Archive. My pay was being able to watch any film they screened including private showings. I always remained until the end, and was surprised how many films get better as they go along. The only film I couldn’t finish was Salo. Criterion now has its own channel.

103 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 2:26 am

We may have kicked this around before, but here is a recent top 100 list of critics’ choices of the best 100 movies of this century:

http://www.unz.com/isteve/the-100-best-movies-of-this-century/

These tend to be good movies to argue over (the top 10 in particular, are movies with both major strengths and major weaknesses) rather than (necessarily) good all-around movies. Not surprisingly, that’s what you tend to get if you ask 160 critics to submit their top ten lists and then rank movies based on how many times they made the top ten. E.g., a couple of dozen put Malick’s “Tree of Life” in their top 10. Others no doubt hated “Tree of Life” but their negative views of it aren’t counted under this methodology.

104 The Original Other Jim November 4, 2016 at 8:48 am

Three reasons you should never claim a movie is good, even though these are three of the main reasons movie critics will tell you that a movie is good:

(1) Long tracking shots (and the like). These add nothing to the viewing experience of the film; it’s just a director showing off. Most people do not even notice them. But critics do, and they can’t wait to tell you that they noticed them. It’s akin to listening to a song and being told you should like it more because all the musicians were recording it blindfolded, and they couldn’t hear the other players. Uh huh.

(2) “Star Power.” You are supposed to like the movie more because many of the actors were good in OTHER movies. Or perhaps they would go on to be good in LATER movies. Right. Seriously, go hang.

(3) “This movie affirms my worldview, or at least the tiny sliver of the world I can see from deep, deep inside my bubble.” Did you know that the psycho from There Will Be Blood was an oil man? And that the other psycho he was at war with was an evangelical? I think it may have been mentioned once or twice. How many top 10 lists would it be on if the guy was buying land for windmill farms, and the other guy was a hippie leading a commune? Exactly.

105 Rock Lobster November 4, 2016 at 10:46 am

Re: your #3: something I’ve learned in evaluating narrative works of art in all mediums (media?) is to just do yourself a favor and ignore any political or philosophical messages in the work. I can only speak for myself, but I almost always find the politics and/or philosophy to be some combination of shallow, juvenile, or wrong-headed.

If you strip those away, and there aren’t any narrative or aesthetic qualities making things worthwhile, then I find the work to be bad.

Unfortunately nowadays there is a tremendous amount of film, tv, and literature criticism that boils down to, “The message of this work is that X is bad. I agree that X is bad. Therefore I approve of this work.” X is more likely to be a left-wing hobbyhorse like “racism” or “US foreign policy,” but it doesn’t have to be.

106 Thiago Ribeiro November 4, 2016 at 12:22 pm

Those eggheads don’t get real people.

107 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 2:33 am

Some movies you sort of need to watch because there are so many references to them in our culture: e.g., Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski are in that class. You may not like them or admire them as much as, say, Jackie Brown or O Brother Where Art Thou, but you need to watch Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski for educational baseline purposes more than you need to watch their follow-ups.

108 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 4:18 am

Steve how many times have you watched O Brother Where Art Thou? For me that is the classic example of a movie that doesn’t hold up well to multiple viewings.

109 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 5:37 am

I liked it in multiple viewings. It’s not among my favorite Coen brothers movies though. “No Country for Old Men” tops my list, and I would rate “Fargo” and “True Grit” more highly, too.

I really disliked The Big Lebowski the first time around. I found it a lot funnier on re-watching it, though I still agree with Tyler that it is overrated.

110 David November 4, 2016 at 10:36 am

“I really disliked The Big Lebowski the first time around. I found it a lot funnier on re-watching it, though I still agree with Tyler that it is overrated.”

For my money, a lot of the like/dislike of The Big Lebowski has to do with the fact that it’s a classic film noir masquerading as a somewhat surreal comedy. Once you realize that the eponymous character is a hippie / slacker version of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, it reframes the film completely.

111 cthulhu November 4, 2016 at 1:02 pm

It goes much deeper than that. The Coens are unabashed admirers of the source material of the great film noir masterpieces. So “Blood Simple”, their first movie (and one of their five best), is an homage to James M. Cain, specifically “Double Imdemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. “Miller’s Crossing” (another of their five best) is an homage to Dashiell Hammett, specifically “The Glass Key” with some of “Red Harvest” thrown in. Both of these are pretty straightforward, and it’s easy to see the source material. But “The Big Lebowski” is a very affectionate and twisted homage to Raymond Chandler and “The Big Sleep”, and it’s a lot harder to see the source material if you aren’t an aficionado of both Chandler and the Coens. The Dude is a slacker version of Philip Marlowe, the “big” Lebowski based on General Sternwood, Bunny and Maude are the Sternwood daughters, Jackie Treehorn is Eddie Mars, etc. I confess I don’t have a clue where bowling and the Cowboy come from though.

112 Chris November 4, 2016 at 3:48 pm

One of the reasons I didn’t like the Big Lebowski the first I saw it is that it was not what I expected. However, I was a big reader of Chandler at the time and understood this was a version of his Marlowe. The second time I saw it, I could just enjoy the movie because I accepted it for what it was.

113 ganderson November 6, 2016 at 5:07 pm

Shut the fuck up, Donnie!

114 Steve Sailer November 4, 2016 at 6:24 am

A couple of times and enjoyed it both times. But I could very much imagine “O Brother” wearing out its welcome.

For example, I hugely enjoyed “The Big Lebowski” the first three times I saw it, but the fourth time I was kind of bored. In the last dozen years I’ve mostly watched three minute scenes of it on Youtube. Some movies are boosted in reputation by watching on Youtube clips: I suspect “The Wolf of Wall Street,” for example, is best consumed three minutes at a time.

In general, expectations and familiarity play a big role in how movies are viewed. For example, like a lot of people I was dissuaded by the puzzled reviews from paying money to see The Big Lebowski in a theater. But seeing for free on cable in the middle of the night a year or two laters was hilarious. But after I got it on DVD, well, maybe it wasn’t _that_ hilarious.

115 cthulhu November 4, 2016 at 1:05 pm

I saw TBL when it was released in theaters, and loved it; it was instantly one of my favorite Coen brothers movies, partly because Iran homage to Chandler (one of my favorite authors). But I didn see it again until recently, when a local theater showed it as part of their “Classics” series. I liked it even better this time.

116 chuck martel November 4, 2016 at 9:18 am

The Coen Brothers hit a home run in their first at bat with “Blood Simple”, an innovative, engrossing and unique picture. It’s been downhill for them since although “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was an uptick. “No Country For Old Men” is a silly movie adapted from a ridiculous book.

117 cthulhu November 4, 2016 at 1:13 pm

Tend to agree on NCFOM. “Blood Simple” was really good (saw it in initial theatrical release), but I think they’ve had many movies that equaled it, and not too many clunkers. But then again, I’m one of the weirdos who like “Barton Fink” 🙂

118 Mike Farnan November 5, 2016 at 12:14 am

Blood Simple is fantastic. But I would say “Miller’s Crossing” is the Coen brother’s best film. And I’ll always love “Barton Fink”, particularly for it’s thinly veiled depiction of 1940’s Hollywood filmmakers.

119 Patrick Laske November 4, 2016 at 2:50 am

With the exception of a very tiny number of theaters, the best theaters are not in the big urban centers. Instead they’re in places like Tulsa, OK; Wichita, KS, Branson, MO and many parts of Texas, all have the best movie theaters in the country, often with large variety of films and showtimes, excellent seating, good food, and fantastic prices. If you live in Boston, you’re paying twice as much as you should to see the same movie. I don’t have a good answer for why that would be.

If you are ever out of town, or have a long layover, you should take the opportunity to see a movie. Your local cinema choice could just be bad and overpriced.

Go see more movies alone, especially comedies. The fewer people in the theater for a comedy the better the movie, because you’ll laugh at what’s funny *for you*. Strategically this is a weekday, and either the first or last showing of a movie in that day. We’ve been in a drought lately, most comedies have been bad these past few years, so it’s still not clicking, that is why.

See more films the last week they are in theatres, and less the opening week. Watching a film the Thursday before it finishes its run adds a sense of urgency that will enhance the experience, and is something you can think about throughout the week. “I want to see ___ before it ends Thursday.” Only watch blockbusters and seasonal films their opening weekend.

A problem of modern cinema is that it’s compressed, and relies upon shared narrative tropes to hijack into faster told and more complex stories. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll likely miss something important. Don’t watch the films tired, instead, drink some strong coffee or eat a meal before the film. You can skip this rule for documentaries and “adult” films, but don’t watch a modern plot driven film less than an hour before bed. Do not watch blockbusters tired, unless you’re doing it for an event (like a marathon or a midnight release). Almost no movie is worth seeing at 10 PM or Midnight the night it comes out; it’s usually better to see a matinee the next day if you can.

When thinking of films, instead of a grade, think of a price. What is the correct price you would have paid to see this film? Was it a ‘must see opening night in 3d’, or a ‘.99 cent rental’? Date night at the theater can easily be a $50 or $75 proposition, and there’s been maybe two films in the past decade that are worth paying that much to see.

The worse the film, the larger your drink. Avoid food and drink for films you think will be good. Movie popcorn tastes good because it is cooked in coconut oil, which is basically pure saturated fat. Nachos are the better option anyways, especially since they’re easier to stop eating when you’re full.

While Drive-Ins are still as bad as ever (with a few boutique exceptions) the last-run theatres are much better. Ten years ago, there was a big difference between digital sound and projection and the older stuff. These days even these cheap theatres can afford decent projection and sound setups. These theaters are often great for seeing independent movies, documentaries, adult dramas or comedies. Also, sometimes these places play classic films at cheap prices. Your milage will vary, but if you haven’t been in a last-run theater go check one out.

120 mkt42 November 5, 2016 at 8:48 am

One of the things that I noticed upon moving from Los Angeles to Portland OR is that the independent theaters in Portland (and there are a lot of them) put a lot more emphasis on concessions. They usually sell beer and wine and some of the seats will have counters in front of them that you can set your food on instead of trying to hold everything in your hands or balance it on your lap. When I moved from LA there were a few theaters that did this, but they were “super-premium” ones with prices that were much higher than LA’s already high prices. The independent theaters in Portland typically charge only $4.

I rarely see movies in cities that I don’t live in, are theaters in other cities also doing what the ones in Portland are doing?

P.S. I agree with Tyler about Pulp Fiction. Although Tarantino has terrific movie-making skills, his movies are empty; he has nothing interesting to say. Just sound and fury, highly watchable but signifying nothing. The reviews of The Hateful Eight enticed me to see one more Tarantino film, but it was more of the same. I won’t see any more of his movies.

Which isn’t to say that I was sorry that I saw Pulp Fiction. Stylistically it was ground-breaking. And Reservoir Dogs was pretty good. But even by the time that I saw Pulp Fiction I was starting to weary of his schtick.

121 Axa November 4, 2016 at 3:52 am

Yes, reading subtitles in foreign films it’s not that hard and the original voice conveys the emotion. Funny fact: this is just how opera works for me. Read the meaning, listen to the emotion.

Animation is generally underrated. Animation forces the creator to create, from the plot to backgrounds everything is done.

122 Pearl Yonick November 4, 2016 at 4:12 am

I don’t watch movies or watch TV, but I listen to a lot of pop/rock music. I choose my top 10 albums for the year in December of the *following* year. I simply can’t judge them faster than that. The songs need to spend time playing in my mind before I can figure out what they’re worth.

123 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 4:26 am

Except that by that point you aren’t responding to the songs themselves but all the accreted associations your brain has created with the songs. Music is especislly susceptible to this because it only effects one sense so natural the experience is going to be more informed by mental add-ones rather than the song itself.

It’s not an accident that boomers think all the best rock songs were recorded back when they still had hair and didn’t need to scarf down viagra.

124 Wonks Anonymous November 4, 2016 at 10:59 am

I’m not a boomer, and I think the boomers are right.

125 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 12:00 pm

It’s a somewhat known truth that the music you listen to when you are a teenager, say age 12-20, is going to always be the music you love most, and that you respond to most deeply. It doesn’t have to be music made when you are that age, if you get into 1960s rock in high school decades later, that will always be the kind of music that is most deeply imprinted on you. Anecdotally this seems right, I was obsessed with music then, and still love all the stuff I got into then, but today when I hear new music, ever when I know it’s really good, I just kind of say ‘oh this is a good song’.

126 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 4:21 am

It seems noteworthy to me that for a supposedly superior medium television hasnt generated any genre of its own except reality tv. I guess you could ad the game show and variety show to that but it’s not like tv has created any artistically significant genres.

127 Miguel Madeira November 4, 2016 at 7:28 am

Soap opera / telenovela?

128 Wonks Anonymous November 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

Season-length anthologies are somewhat new, but that’s a format rather than a genre.

129 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 12:03 pm

What about talk shows, police procedurals, lawyer shows, doctor shows, music video shows/channels, etc etc.? Not sure your thesis holds here.

130 yangfan November 4, 2016 at 5:01 am

I studied under Judith Crist at Columbia and a few things she said altered the way I saw films (after having been a slightly snobby film student and working in film production, which is also what I now do). The two that stand out are:

1. “Never compare The Incredible Hulk to Antonioni. It’s not fair. You must ask yourself ‘Is this the best Incredible Hulk the Incredible Hulk CAN be?’ You have to see a movie on its own terms.”

2. “You know it’s a good movie when you go in and nothing really stands out. You’re just IN the movie.”

These two pearls of wisdom apply to any taste level, any genre, for any movie watcher.

Personally, as an industry worker bee with a serious movie-watching habit and very broad tastes (from action to obscure Scottish cinema), I always look at the collaborators involved in the production when choosing a film (which can get kind of geeky, but I think is a better gauge for more accurately estimating the “quality” of the final product). If it’s a director I like, I’ll see it. If it’s a director and frequent collaborator I like, I’ll see it in the cinema. If it’s Vincent Cassel or Cate Blanchette, I’ll see it. If it’s a first-time writer/director, I’ll wait until the second film (most first-time directors cannot handle their own scripts–I suspect because they lack the distance to sufficiently see the flaws in their own work). If the movie is all CG, I’ll pass (because I know myself and just don’t like looking at it) until a person I trust says I should watch it. I don’t usually trust the Oscars (those movies tend to come in one flavor: expensive vanilla), but I generally trust Cannes (a flavor I generally like).

If you want to pick good movies, you have to know quite a lot about your own tastes (and be confident in them!) and a bit about the process. This requires watching a ton of movies (on whatever screen) and hitting up IMDB every now and then. It also helps to have friends with taste you trust because they will tip you off to things you have not heard of and things you might need to give a second look. It’s probably that simple.

Also, I must strongly disagree that foreign films are somehow better than American ones. I used to think that until I lived in France (I’m a French speaker, so I’m not losing that much in translation). The French make piles of movies, most of which are not worth seeing. HOWEVER, the ones that make it to the US do tend to be good BECAUSE they’ve been vetted already. Making movies is a very expensive and difficult process which relies on a mountain of unreliable variables to get it done; it’s a miracle every time a good one comes out. Every production struggles with this and no one industry is particularly better-skilled. Hollywood produces a lot of rubbish, but our good movies are just as good as anyone else’s good movies, and we are better than anyone else at handling very big productions. [Side note: It does seem that there are aspects of film-making that somehow are better cultivated by certain industries–no one does action editing and choreography better than the Chinese, but the English just write better dialogue–but as a holistic process, no one has the magic formula.] I will say though that older films are neglected by contemporary audiences, and there’s a lot of retro-mining one can do.

PS – Seriously? Pulp Fiction is overrated? How many times have you seen it? It tore open non-narrative storytelling for the mainstream and still holds up today, and after several viewings. It brought back John Travolta (for better or worse) and gave Samuel L. Jackson a huge push. Film school enrollment soared after that film came out, which means young people cared about it. (Say that about a single movie today.) Reassess, please.

131 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 5:40 am

I think #1 might be better distilled simply as “don’t be elitist”. It’s ok to like The Incredible Hulk even if Important People think you should not. But it’s ok to dislike it, even if it’s the best possible Incredible Hulk.

132 Sam The Sham November 4, 2016 at 6:40 am

Pulp Fiction is a lot like the Canterbury Tales, a series of morality tales that cycle back to the beginning. You have with The Date Vincent Vega overcome his appetite and learn courtly love for his boss’s wife, the Watch has whatsisface and the boss man drop their arms and forgive each other, brotherly love. And the final act has Jules discover love of God and the long road to redemption. It is a masterfully done Christian story, almost certainly by accident.

Also no mention of The Room by Tommy Wiseau, Troll 2, Trail of the Screaming Forehead? Y’all are uncultured philistines!

133 Melmoth November 4, 2016 at 9:04 am

+ 1. Nice.

134 Joël November 4, 2016 at 8:44 am

As a French “cinephile”, raised in Paris, and who went to see almost one old movie a day in the theaters in my prime time (when I was supposed to write my PhD) , I must say I agree with everything you say in this message. There are some very good French movies, but very rarely indeed, probably not even once a year on average. On Cannes and Oscars, I said the same things below. And on Pulp Fiction, I totally agree: it is an absolutely great film. Do you write movie criticism?

135 David November 4, 2016 at 10:32 am

I think that fits with one observation I was going to make about the relative goodness of foreign films, of which I’ve certainly seen more than my fair share (it was kinda the done thing when I was growing up in New York in the 1960s-1970s), which is that selection bias plays a huge role.

What we see in this country is the very best of foreign films: with rare exceptions, we don’t get to see anything that’s just OK.

136 yangfan November 10, 2016 at 4:17 am

No, I work on the sets of action movies. 😉

137 Ted Craig November 4, 2016 at 9:12 am

I agree with Tyler. Here are what I see as Pulp Fiction’s flaws:

1. It tore open non-narrative storytelling for no good reason, It’s just Tarantino saying “Look what I can do.” But cinephiles, film critics and students loved it because they could say “He’s referencing ‘Intolerance!’ I get that referrence! That makes me brilliant, so this film is brilliant!'”
2. The dialog is fake. All movie dialog is fake, of course, but I noticed on second viewings (and listenings) that Tarantino’s dialog is especially ridiculous. The same holds true for another mid-’90s darling, Kevin Smith.

Also, those films school students who followed Tarantino made a lot of crap attempting to copy their hero. This isn’t his fault, but it happened.

138 baconbacon November 4, 2016 at 10:06 am

“Never compare The Incredible Hulk to Antonioni. It’s not fair. You must ask yourself ‘Is this the best Incredible Hulk the Incredible Hulk CAN be?’ You have to see a movie on its own terms.”

This sounds like an enormous cop out to me, The Princess Bride could just as easily have been remade as “The Dread Pirate Roberts” with a dozen sword fights, a 45 min trek through the fire swamp and a final battle royal with Humperdinck and the Count having their own Giant to fight against Fezzik.

I think this quote simply gives far to much credit to Hulk like movies, what it is essentially saying is “given that this movie is going to follow a formula of introduction, origin story, love interest and then final massive battle scene with evil doer, let me lower my expectations to the point where a predictable movie can be enjoyable”.

139 Herb November 4, 2016 at 6:03 am

When it comes to films, pay attention to directors. A good director will not only have style and craft, they’ll attract the best talent on both sides of the camera.

140 Joël November 4, 2016 at 8:33 am

+1

141 rayward November 4, 2016 at 6:29 am

From the big screen to the small screen, the constant demand for our attentions is both exhausting and numbing, not to mention costly. Tim Wu has written a must read book about the “attention merchants”. Here is is review of Wu’s book and a book about the “chaos monkeys” written by Antonio Garcia Martinez. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/facebook-advertising-wherever-you-are/ Obsessing about movies is but one symptom of the malady. When I was a child, people worried that the small screen (the television) would ruin people’s eyes. Today, the small screen (the “smart” phone) is ruining people’s brains. Rod Serling was brilliant in turning our fear of the future into a nightmare, but he didn’t foresee how something as harmless looking as a small screen could turn our brains into mush. Turn off your screen, turn on your brain.

142 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 7:25 am

“the small screen (the “smart” phone) is ruining people’s brains.”

Citation please.

People’s brains seem to be doing just fine, despite a never-ending succession of innovations that will supposedly ruin them. I’m sure some Mesopotamian cranks were warning that young people these days do nothing but read cuneiform.

143 Sam Haysom November 4, 2016 at 9:24 am

Well writing almost certainly killed off the ability to compose verbal epic poetry in the vein of Homer so I would tone the smugness down. We have no idea what the effect of smart phones will be on the human mind. Certainly it has killed attention spans.

144 Steve Sailer November 5, 2016 at 4:44 am

Twitter has been bad for my attention span.

145 chuck martel November 4, 2016 at 9:30 am

What’s the significance of responding to a statement with “Citation please” or “Cite”? Would leaving a URL for a complementary opinion somehow strengthen the argument? “Citation please” is an irritating and unintelligent comment on virtually any statement.

146 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 10:22 am

You know what? You are right. I’m not gonna use that in the future.

147 Ted Craig November 4, 2016 at 7:29 am

1 and 3 are related. since many Oscar voters don’t watch the nominees in the theaters.

I would add that instead of depending on a review aggregator, find a critic whose tastes match up with yours. I usually agree with A.O. Scott and Joe Morgenstern, for example. If their review disagrees with the aggregate, I go with their opinion. Even they let me down on occasion (e.g. “Young Adult”).

It also helps to understand the prejudices of the critics’ community.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re going to depend on critics, you have to put some time into studying them, rather than just going by their reputation or the reputation of their outlet.

148 David November 4, 2016 at 10:28 am

“find a critic whose tastes match up with yours” Or the opposite: when Rita Kempley was the film critic at the WaPo, the more she hated a new movie, the more I was likely to enjoy it.

This was back in the 1980s and 1990s, before the Internet. But a weathervane that consistently points in the wrong direction has its uses.

149 WC Varones November 4, 2016 at 7:50 am

#4 is great advice and how I like to see movies

150 Todd K November 4, 2016 at 8:10 am

That one jumped out since I do the same thing, but I’m probably more extreme since I know it is hard to forget what you’ve read. I wonder how common this is.

151 Daniel November 4, 2016 at 7:51 am

I wrote this article on how to select which movies to watch: http://danfrank.ca/four-rules-for-getting-the-most-out-of-your-media/

152 Randall Moeller November 4, 2016 at 7:59 am

Regarding observation #2, there is no exception for horror movies. The original Korean version of “A Tale of Two Sisters” is outstanding. If you haven’t seen it, well, that’s more evidence in support of observation #6.

153 pyroseed13 November 4, 2016 at 9:44 am

Let the Right One In, the Swedish romantic vampire horror movie, is also outstanding. The American remake was terrible. Foreign horror movies tend to be quite good overall. I can only think of a handful of American horror movies over the past few years that have really captured my interest.

154 ad November 5, 2016 at 3:37 pm

I think it only fair to point out that I preferred Let Me In to Let The Right One In. Different people are interested in different themes, and some people care far too much about preferring the original over the remake.

155 David November 4, 2016 at 10:26 am

I’d also argue that Hollywood does best with genre films when they’re not explicitly genre. As examples, I consider both the first Alien movie and the first Terminator movie to be horror flicks, but of course they’re not marketed as such. To pick my favorite example (non-horror), Groundhog Day might be the best science-fiction film Hollywood’s made in my lifetime, but it’s marketed as a rom-com.

156 Wonks Anonymous November 4, 2016 at 11:06 am

I think the original Alien was marketed as horror. “In space, no one can hear you scream”? The weird alien egg by itself cracking open and who knows what inside it?

157 Half Man-Half Amazing November 4, 2016 at 7:59 am

Caddyshack

158 dan1111 November 4, 2016 at 9:03 am

Overrated. Bill Murray has gotten way funnier since then.

159 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 12:08 pm

Properly rated. It’s an ensemble movie of many different comedy styles bouncing off each other, not just Bill Murray.

160 Steve Sailer November 5, 2016 at 4:48 am

Caddyshack is one of those movies you need to see to understand all the references to it. It’s not a particularly well-made movie (influential comedies often aren’t), but for whatever reason, it sticks in the collective brain.

161 msgkings November 5, 2016 at 12:14 pm

Sort of agree. Yes obviously on the references, and yes it’s not particularly well-directed (was it Ramis’ first time?), but it was laugh out loud funny as hell. It’s only not now because I’ve seen it so many times I have it memorized and that’s not good for comedy.

162 lemmy caution November 7, 2016 at 2:27 pm

Comedies show your age. They are like music.

I wouldn’t recommend peter bogdonavich’s “whats up doc” to my kids, but I find it hilarious.

163 The Original Other Jim November 4, 2016 at 8:20 am

Call it the Ebert Phenomenon — and not because he himself was wildly overrated.

There are many instances of him seeing a very mediocre (or bad) film and giving it, say, 2 stars. But then it does great at the box office, and then some non-film people decide that it’s “culturally significant,” and then years later it is still talked about in some circles… and he has to write a follow-up saying “actually I meant to give it 3.5 stars, my bad.”

Like Greg, he is afraid of looking like an idiot for being an outlier, even though he was “right” all along. He was judging on a different scale than many others, came to a perfectly valid decision about it, and then got shamed into discarding it.

Rating a movie is not a chance to prove that you fit in. Stand up for yourselves, people.

164 Scott Sumner November 4, 2016 at 8:29 am

Great list, and good choice of a picture. Stalker’s a perfect example of a film that must be seen on the big screen. If most people have a blind spot, it’s that they listen to films more than they watch them. That’s why they tend to overlook the great foreign films, and also the great silent films. It’s also why many people prefer (and I’d say overrate) great TV relative to great film. Comedy is the only area where I see great TV equalling great film.

165 Joël November 4, 2016 at 8:32 am

Not a tip, but a nuance on Tyler’s tip “you can ignore Movie Awards”.

I agree for most of the movie awards. You can safely ignore the Oscars, that have a very mediocre historical record and seem now worse than ever. Even more so from other countries’ national movies awards, like the “Cesars” in France (if you know what that is. If you don’t, keep it this way). But this is also true for most international festivals, even if they draw their selected movie from a larger pool. The one exception I make is the Cannes festival’s main price, the palme d’or (golden palm). It is not always a very good choice, but it is more often than not, and the price is likely to select movies that endure and will get most appreciated over the years. You can forget about the other prices of the festival, especially the unofficial second one, the “prix special du jury”.

166 buddyglass November 4, 2016 at 8:33 am

My one contribution: Pay attention to the “audience score” at RT as well as the “critics score”. High audience score doesn’t guarantee a movie is good, but a film with a high critics score but disproportionately bad audience score (relative to its critics score) is one I’m more-likely-than-usual to not enjoy.

Also: grade a film’s “audience score” against other similar films. So compare a Marvel movie against other Marvel movies. Etc.

167 Grant V November 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

In terms of review aggregators, I believe Metacritic is superior to IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t even bother using IMDB for ratings and rarely us RT. Unless something has changed, RT’s process is flawed in that reviews are labeled only with “rotten” or “ripe,” leaving no leeway for if the reviewer was lukewarm in his/her liking of the film, but liked it just enough for the review to be labeled as “ripe.” Essentially, if 10 reviewers all liked a film just enough to give it a “ripe” rating, the film receives a 100% rating, deceiving some to think of the film as critically acclaimed. If you do use RT, I’d pay attention to the number of reviews as well. Metacritic, on the other hand, is much more specific when labelling a review with a score of 1 to 100. With this system, scores more accurately reflect their quality. The score of 99 that the film Moonlight is currently boasting on Metacritic is a more astounding feat compared to a film on RT that has a 99%.

168 TerriW November 4, 2016 at 9:17 am

Back when I was a teenager in the 80s, I and others from my French class spent a month in France one summer, each staying with a family.

The family my friend stayed with took her to see Pink Floyd in Paris.
The family I stayed with took me to see Police Academy 5, dubbed into French.

Caesar was right: the Gauls are barbarians.

169 Todd November 4, 2016 at 9:34 am

Start with the lists (easily found online) of the best films of the year, often compiled by Godard and Truffaut, that appeared in the Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s-1960s.

170 AK November 4, 2016 at 10:24 am

I’d love to see what Tyler’s principles are re:theatre criticism, as opposed to film.

171 GoneWithTheWind November 4, 2016 at 10:46 am

I use two simply methods to pick a movie to watch.
1. Did the movie get thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert? If it did it’s probably not worth watching.
2. Did the movie or the star get nominated for an Oscar? If so it’s probably not worth watching.

172 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 12:10 pm

So edgy!

173 pablo November 4, 2016 at 11:07 am

Try this simple search, and you’ll have viewing material for a long time.
Google: top 10 [hong kong, korea, iran, israel, etc.] movies of the last [10, 20, 30, etc.] years.
You’ll get a surprising mix of genres.

174 Rafael R November 4, 2016 at 11:12 am

On TV and movies: well, TV usually emphasizes the writing while movies emphasize direction. Now, if you like one more than the other that means you care more over direction than writing or vice versa.

IMO, Breaking Bad was way better than any American movie made in the past 15 years or so. But it’s true a 2 hour slice of Breaking Bad is inferior to a lot of movies, it’s greatness comes from the unfolding of the plot.

175 George Carr November 4, 2016 at 11:44 am

One can’t deny, from reading this comment thread if nothing else, that “quality” is strongly subjective, and is strongly influenced by the expectations one brings to the viewing experience, especially how it arises. Sitting down with a cup of coffee to one’s first viewing of a highly recommended ‘classic’ is a very different mindset than picking something “that doesn’t look too bad” from a menu, and “satisfaction of expectations” is more strongly correlated with post-viewing recollection of “quality” than anything else. Also, one’s own criteria for “quality” change over the years between viewings of a film, especially as cumulative preferences accrete and one builds “taste” within the constraints of the medium. So believing that one “made a mistake” because one’s opinion later changed is, I think, short-sighted.

I’m now old enough, in my mid-40s, to have changed my opinion (sometimes more than once!) on any number of films, and for me, one of the virtues of “re-watching” a film is discovering how *I* have changed in the interim. (I’ve been going to see Monet’s “Water Lilies” at my local art museum for about 25 years now; it hasn’t changed at all, but I come away from the experience differently every time.) Obviously, the “surprise” factor is far lower on repeat viewing — many flaws in plot-driven films come to light when one knows the plot — but some “twist” endings still pack great satisfaction on repeat viewings (Fight Club comes to mind, or Lone Star). What’s become interesting for me is separating the “educational” aspects of films, especially those based on historical events or the “otherness” of their protagonist, from their more aesthetic aspects. Once you are learning less from the “content” of a film (e.g. about early Welsh mining conditions in a film like How Green Was My Valley), you can focus more on the craft and beauty of the film, things usually associated more strongly with “quality.”

176 msgkings November 4, 2016 at 12:16 pm

Good post. Plenty of movies you have to be a certain age to enjoy or understand, so if you rewatch them as you age they can go from terrific to terrible (when I was 11 I loved the Bill Murray comedy Meatballs, I watched it at 20 and it’s one of the worst movies ever made) or terrible to terrific (Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil I found kind of boring as a teenager, I think it’s great now).

177 cthulhu November 4, 2016 at 1:21 pm

Fight Club the book was so astonishingly bad (I had the twist figured out 10 pages in) that I can’t ever imagine seeing the movie.

Lone Star was great, and John Sayles is pretty reliable. Also really liked Matewan.

178 Todd K November 4, 2016 at 11:23 pm

Here is the truth about Fight Club: great for the first 20 minutes, then turn it off. I hope I saved you 90 minutes.
By the way, what in the world are you doing reading a book called Fight Club? Ever heard of literature? No offense, I once read The Firm when bored in my office in Japan in 1993. I then wondered “Why did I just read an NBC three part series?”

179 cthulhu November 6, 2016 at 1:02 am

+1 for getting the prose “style” (I’m tempted to say “tic”) correct.

In all seriousness, I read “Fight Club” because of all the pop-culture references to it (“the first rule of Fight Club…” etc.) and some articles I found that made it sound interesting. But then it turned out to be the bastard child of Bret Easton Ellis and Joe Eszterhas, with Jacqueline Susann as the midwife. Never again.

180 Oxy November 4, 2016 at 12:29 pm

Best way to choose movies is find a few friends/reviewers that you have similar tastes with and use that to make judgements. I also know some friends/reviewerI know why they like stuff I don’t like so use that as jumping off point. Take TC his taste in movies and how he Talks about them I know we don’t watch and appreciate movies the same way, like his saying Big Lebowski and Pulp are overrated if you say that you and me don’t agree on what is good about movies.

His point about go with first impressions is pure rubbish, please justify that in any philosophical sense. Coen movies always get better on 2nd viewing because there are many layers involved and when you watch initially there is always little things you don’t pick up on or miss that on second viewing your focus can then broaden and pay attention to other things you might not have seen which then changes the viewing experience. Try reading Ruth Wisse review of A Serious Man and then rewatch and you’ll start appreciating the Jewish context more. Some of their movies are more layered than others but all have it, when you peel back the obvious slapstick humor you can appreciate some real depth, like Oh Brother and Hudsucker can be dismissed but there is some brilliant commentary there that seems like most miss.

181 Plucky November 4, 2016 at 12:32 pm

The one suggestion I would make is to have a familiarity with the director’s past work.

As a pre-filter, it works in several ways. Do I like the directors previous movies? If I read a review, does the reviewer’s opinion of the director (and almost all reviewers will be familiar with the director’s previous work) differ from mine in ways that would affect my decision to see the movie? If a director is new or the movie is a notable artistic departure from previous work, reviews will usually note this as well, and it provides useful information

As a viewing aide, it helps in appreciating what the director is “doing”, and reduces a lot of the meta-uncertainty involved in watching a movie. To use the examples of The Big Lebowski and Pulp Fiction: if you were familiar with Raising Arizona or Fargo, you would come into The Big Lebowski expecting that a lot of the value would be in paying attention to the details, irony, and delivery of the dialogue and that kooky characters are intentionally portrayed that way and that audience is expected to recognized as them such. If you’ve seen Reservoir Dogs, then “getting” what’s going on in Pulp Fiction is much easier.

182 Li Zhi November 4, 2016 at 2:28 pm

Once you’ve settled this, perhaps you can tell me whether red wine should ever be served with lobster. My god, I bet most commenters think this has objective importance! When I was first exposed to path-integrals, I found them of little interest or use. Now, I can’t imagine how I’d understand the problems I’ve encountered without them. Can you tell me how to avoid making such serious mistakes in the future? Oh, also: should I buckle my belt left to right or vice versa? And can I wear yellow with brown? Finally, since you obviously believe that anything can be ranked on an absolute scale: what it the greatest book of all time?

183 reply to Li Zhi 2017 November 4, 2016 at 11:10 pm

Li Zhi my friend, i admire your support and empathy for us artists, who do not want to be ranked! No civilized person over the age of 20 eats lobster – it is barbarous to eat an animal who could have sung the night away with one’s parents as they sat side by side near the ocean shore – so no lobster with red wine or any other wine. Path integrals are interesting to you – to avoid making your formerly serious mistakes, try this: contemplate whether you imagined Lie algebra techniques as showing what was there or as, equally importantly, implying a showing of what was not there at the moment – do this for every new concept you are trying to master – or better yet, try not to master a concept, try to practice it with empathy and understanding (as Goethe would have said to Gauss, and vice versa). Yellow can go with brown as long as there is no obvious chemical trickery – think of a field of young blades of rye grass over a middle spring brown field in a blessed rural sun-drenched shire far in the future. Pastel yellow might go with worn leather brown, but, again, civilized people prefer not to wear colors too reminiscent of exploitation of large animals. The greatest painting exploiting mellow brown with subtle yellow is Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer – allegedly by Rembrandt, but I think that Rembrandt had a little help from an unknown artist with more talent than himself (maybe a stray character from the Rosalindiade) on that one. Among the beautiful women of the world, sandy brown hair and yellow silk clothing have often worked. Greatest book of all time – there is none: while the Bible is considered a book, it is so much more than that – and in heaven, when those of you who get there have memorized it with love, remembering each moment from the times when your beloved friends wrote down each and every Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin word (start with poor Moses, alone among the Hebrews so many of whom mistrusted him and refused to speak about his tall quiet wife, deciding in a single moment in an ancient Hebrew semi-arid desert night that yes, no matter what, it would be written, as it should be – and this actually happened), people will laugh to think that it was once thought of as a ‘book’: not that words as such will be important but that we will experience a near infinite empathy for the infinitely precious people who first said or later repeated any one of the finite (there is an actual number, disputed but actual, as to the number of words in the Bible – the number of nouns is slightly less disputed, and it is less than 10 thousand – who of us do not have, even in these hard times, ten thousand or more specific good memories) number of individual words in that good given book. (God loves us the way we are but loves us too much to let us stay that way).

184 Rahul November 4, 2016 at 11:11 pm

1. Choose the director, not the film. The best directors always have the best collaborators, and this matters in many obvious and subtle ways. Corollary: there are very few directors with exactly one excellent film.

2. If you have a film or director you love, learn about the influences on that film or director. This is an excellent way to discover new loves. For example, if you enjoyed Tarantino and studied his influences, you’d have sooner or later stumbled on to the great Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, in many ways superior to QT.

The Criterion Collection Top 10 lists chosen by various filmmakers is a good place to start, https://www.criterion.com/explore/top10

3. If the IMDB rating of a film is low (sub 7) and the Rotten Tomatoes rating is high (85+), the likelihood that the film is very good and that it serves as a further gateway to other excellent films is very high. Remember that critics like to be entertained too.

4. If both the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes ratings are high, you are likely to be entertained by the film though (with rare exceptions) it may not stick with you. Think of it maybe as the difference between Pynchon and Stephen King.

5. If you think “foreign language films are overrated because much is lost in translation”, this suggests that you overrate the act of listening to a film and underrate the act of watching. This is a mistake. Also, if you must pay attention to the Oscars, pay attention to the Best Foreign Language Film category — the odds that the winner here stands the test of time are much better compared to the Best Film winner.

185 Hideo_Yamashita November 4, 2016 at 11:38 pm

My rule is never watch a Hollywood movie dubbed in Japanese. Or maybe just one movie, one time only. They all sound like the same 時代劇 (samurai period) movie with Japanese dubbing.

186 Mike Farnan November 5, 2016 at 12:29 am

Here’s one tip I find that works quite well for finding good films, though it only works for watching films at home, and not at the theater: fast forward the film to some random point in the middle of it and watch a few minutes of it. If you find yourself interested in the film without any context or understanding of the plot or characters, it will, in my experience, almost always be a good film. I find I respond quite quickly to all of the qualities that make good films good fairly quickly, and if I find myself compelled by a random scene, I will almost certainly enjoy the film as a whole. This method also helps to address Tyler’s (very true) point about watching film genres or subject matter which one would normally avoid.

187 Tagore Smith November 5, 2016 at 7:34 am

The answer here is pretty clear- you should just take my advice, as I have impeccable taste.

Pulp fiction is both great and overrated. The Big Lebowski is not quite great, and overrated because it is so quotable, but worth watching. Jackie Brown is better than Pulp Fiction, and Miller’s Crossing is far better than The Big Lebowski.

The best movie made in the last twenty years is City of God- it’s generally hard to name “best” things, but I don’t think there can really be a serious argument about this. If you haven’t seen it, see it. If you haven’t seen it recently, see it again. If you’ve seen it recently… well, lucky you.

The best television show of all time is The Wire- again, there aren’t any serious arguments to be made here. Some people might say Breaking Bad, but they’ll be the first against the wall if I have anything to do with selecting who is first against the wall.

If you like trashy but engaging TV I’d recommend at least the first season of Peaky Blinders. It’s pretty trashy, but it’s very British, so you can pretend it’s edifying. And, tbh, post-WWI Birmingham is a really under-explored milieu (see- not trashy at all.) The second season is worth watching just to see Tom Hardy being very Tom Hardy (but that’s not exactly acting, is it?) It trails off a bit from there though.

Also, and I hate to admit it, 30 Rock is actually the funniest long-running TV show. First against the wall if it were in my hands? Probably Alec Baldwin. 30 Rock is still pretty damned funny. That Kimmy Schmidt thing is a bit of a disappointment though.

188 msgkings November 5, 2016 at 12:21 pm

+1 to 30 Rock. Most JPM (jokes per minute) in TV history.

189 Philosophisticat November 6, 2016 at 8:54 am

I think although imperfect, the best guide for most people is critical consensus. In particular, end of year compiled critics lists on metacritic are a good place to look.

Two tips:

First, retrospective critical consensus after time has passed is a significantly better guide, since it tends to filter out shallower critic-bait or culturally ephemeral value, and because when critics are looking back, movies that are formulaic, and therefore often similar, compete for space and attention (the Xth musical biopic or inspirational tearjerker) and end up washing out.

Second, and this is maybe my favorite trick: on a list like metacritic’s compilations, you can see how many critics ranked a movie their favorite, second favorite, etc. Pay special attention to movies that received a high proportion of #1 mentions relative to other places. Oscar-bait movies that will soon be forgotten get a lot of mentions, but typically all over different critics’ top 10 lists. Movies that are difficult to appreciate but masterpieces are overlooked by many critics (at least at first), but the few that do appreciate them will recognize their superiority over the usual suspects. This method will tell you, for instance, to check out Under the Skin, which was by far the best film of its year and probably of the decade.

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