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?