3 Rules to Follow When Judging a Movie

Whenever people ask me what makes a good film, my answer to them usually consists of highlighting which parts of the film I thought they’d enjoy, and which parts they wouldn’t, and then making a recommendation based on their attention span, patience for the material and how much they value their time. It’s an extremely personalized answer, and I’ve rarely been wrong. Flipping things around, however, when asked if I thought a movie was ‘good’, I’ve developed a pretty good method to help answer that question.

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Is Film Art? Does the Pope Shit in a Bear?

I always get caught up in this age-old circular argument about art, critiquing art, and whether my biases render inert any objective decision on whether or not a movie was ‘good’. I mean, all movies are good because a group of people put in hundreds of hours and so much passion and effort into making the film- who am I to judge the film? Inherently, asking anyone to make a judgment on a film is no longer objective. Unless… you put the film through a matrix of guidelines and rules, judging it against a fair and equal ruler that all films, from Citizen Kane to The Green Knight to Finding O’hana are measured against. 

So that’s what I do.

After 25 years of watching films and at least 1231 movies watched, I believe I’ve come to a confident conclusion as to how all films are judged at the root in order to objectively explain if the final film product is a good product.

I present three overarching and broad questions to ask of a film. These three broad questions are questions that everyone answers, even if they don’t know it, when they themselves are asked of their friends, ‘Was this movie good?’ Ironically, and frustratingly, this then becomes a thin line straddling between an objective and subjective answer, and it is more than fair to assume that, despite the fairness of the questions asked, there will always be an element of bias from both individuals, the person who asked the question, and the one answering the question. As I said, circular.

Three Rules to Judge a Movie’s Worth

The three main branches of determining the worth of a film are: 

  1. Is the story being told worth being told?
  2. How is the story being told?
  3. What is the style of how the story is told?

That is, is the content worth the effort, what is the construction of the presentation of the content, and the style of the presentation of the content.

The distinction between the “presentation of the content” and “the style of presentation of content” comes from the distinction between direction and cinematography, respectively. There’s a distinction and a dependence between direction and cinematography. There can always be a movie made that’s directed well but looks bland, though it is rare. 

Direction vs Cinematography

Direction is the collection of narrative motifs hidden or obvious, the elements of the story, body language, framing and blocking that help tell a deeper story within a story. It’s essentially what your teachers meant in English class when they kept annoying you when you read The Great Gatsby. That little flashing light on the horizon represents his distant, unconquerable desires, but to the rest of us he’s just looking at some shit.

Bitch you thought

The cinematography, however, is a collaboration between the director and the many other artists in the film. This is the collection of colors, costumes, objects and other artistic choices that impact the visuals of the film. Choices to have a green color grade when Neo is inside the Matrix, or the world building contained in just the way the vehicles look in Mad Max: Fury Road. Cinematography is an artistic element, and direction is a narrative one.

Rule #3: Cinematography, or, What is the Style of How the Story is Told? 

There’s been plenty of examples of a film that looks nice, but lacks proper narrative balance. A prime example of this would be Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The story and characters lack any emotional yield from the audience (yes, despite its source material), which makes the presentation of content and the style of presentation of content difficult to let the movie succeed. 

The film looks fantastic. There’s a lot of passion and imagination put into the creation of the world and its aesthetic feel. The design of the spaceships, the costumes, the environment and the aliens is colorful, sharp and works very well against each other and against the story, however sparse. 

There’s not much in terms of direction, though, that stands out. The film had a bland, linear, generic storytelling structure. This is not necessarily due to a bad or talentless director. There’s a certain crutch that is forced onto the presentation of the content that stems from an overabundance of CGI, which is necessary when presenting a story like Valerian. The prequel Star Wars films also suffer from this crutch. The overabundance of CGI forces the direction into a linear pattern. The artistic flair of the director is boxed in. This is fairly standard in many movies, and many talented directors have been neutered due to the constricting nature of CGI and its process. Many times, the CGI rendering begins before the story is written. Perhaps it’s cheaper to animate a certain environment, perhaps the producers wanted a certain action scene, perhaps it’s part of the director’s initial vision.

A more recent example is The Batman (2022), a film which contains a story that hasn’t been really told at all. It is also, undeniably, a gorgeous and aesthetic masterpiece. However, and controversially, it is not a great film due to its lack of narrative worth. It’s a collection of Shot-Reverse-Shots and a story who’s emotional weight comes from one character telling a story about two other people to the main character. 

Every Frame a Painting explains why shot-reverse-shot is boring and uninspired

Perhaps now the distinction between presentation of content and style of presentation of content has become apparent. Both of these are not always dependent on the content, though, despite what one may think. 

Rule #2, Direction: How is the story being told? 

Blade Runner 2049 was arguably one of the best films of 2017, filled to the brim with top shelf acting, directing and musical talent. The film looks and sounds amazing, and engrosses the viewer, drawing us into the film, the characters and the story. Oddly enough, the story is the weakest part of the movie. Here, Dennis Villeneuve excels in showing us that it’s possible to tell a tale well, despite there not being much of a tale to tell. The original Blade Runner was a thought provoking, visual thriller, with an active, interesting protagonist, despite being a slower burn than other sci-fi films. 2049 does its best to follow in these footsteps, by challenging our ideas of female empowerment and identity, asking us what it means to be human & asking us what it means to be alive, while slowly probing the mystery of the replicant child. Villeneuve was tasked with telling us a story that did not have much of a bite, and proved to us that such a weak story can be told in a way that interests us, mind and soul.  

Just clips from the film and Hans Zimmer’s excellent soundtrack.

In other words, 2049 had a story worth telling, looked good while telling us, and told it well- despite the simplicity of the story, and the twist that the main character that we’re following along in this film is not the hero of the overall story. That’s the product of a great director, and it lends itself to his success of Dune in 2022. This is another artistic, cerebral sci-fi with unparalleled acting and musical talent, empowered with Villeneuve’s directorial genius. The flaw, again, was that the underlying story was atypical, in that it was the first half of the first book in a series of novels. It sets up for the set up, and the characters have no growth or change to truly adhere to the traditional 3-act narrative most other films need to be successful. Yet… the movie was excellent.

Rule #1, The Story: Is the story being told worth being told?

So we’ve covered the second and third rules very well to help cement our understanding of what purpose they play in our judgment of a film. Does the film look good? Is the story told well?

Now we delve into the far more nuanced and subtle question of ‘Is this story worth telling?’ This particular point is the most important one, and if the answer is no, then you are faced with an incredibly difficult uphill battle to let the film earn a seal of approval. Additionally, this point is also the most contentious and subjective, even more so than asking if something looks good or not. Again, circular.

Rather than giving you an example of a film that answers the question with a ‘yes, this story was worth telling’, I’d like to give you an example of a film that answers the question with ‘no, this story was not worth telling.’ In 2008 the famed Coen brothers released a film called Burn After Reading, a black comedy about spies and money, that literally ends with an unanswered question of, “What did we learn here?”

So on the surface, the film itself tells you that there was no point whatsoever to this film. So was it worth watching? Was it worth making? Was it worth the 20+ awards nominations, an opening at the Venice Film Festival, a mostly positive critical reception and one hundred thirty seven million dollars in the box office? 

Then I present you with my least favorite piece of shit, garbage, nonsense, brain cell annihilating, leach on society, most accurate representation of Los Angeles ever, Knock Knock. I detest the film with a passion, mainly because of its relationship with us, the audience. Despite the fact that there are people who may have enjoyed the film there is no reason for this story to be told because there is no lesson to be learned. No growth, no change, no impactful message or even unimpactful message to be imparted upon the viewers. The film is the absolute definition of torture. Pure, remorseless visual torture. Was this film worth making? Was this worth watching?

This third point is the most important one to delve into because at their core, films are storytelling. Since the dawn of humanity, we’ve learned and grown and exchanged lessons and culture through the stories we tell. Cultures are defined by the way they tell stories. Any film that’s made has, on some level, a lesson or tidbit of culture to be shared. It’s something that the filmmakers wish to share with audiences that they may resonate with in an effort to help connect people. If a film is made without this intention, that is, made for no reason, then why does it exist? Why has it been made? Why was it worth the hour and a half of your time? It’s not so much “Is this story better than the other one”, it’s “Would it have mattered if you had not told this story”.

To Judge Art is to Judge Yourself

Art is a form of expression that allows humans to connect with one another, learn from one another, share emotions with one another. Films are merely a storytelling vessel, which can be allowed to morph and change and adapt to the times, styles and technology available. While not everyone will enjoy the Mona Lisa, not everyone can be fucked to watch A Ghost Story. Enjoyment of any art form is subject to human bias, but this subjectivity is the very beauty of being a living creature with sentience. An ant won’t know it’s crawling on the Venus de Milo, nor can a bird enjoy the façade of the Eiffel Tower they build their nest on. But humans are allowed to make these judgements and decisions. 

From Hollywood to Bollywood, from indie films with a $1 million budget to a TikTok video, films are the world’s most varied, influential form of storytelling. Whether or not you or I will enjoy the media is irrelevant, but whether or not the media itself has any merit, regardless of how we enjoy the media, is worth being discussed.

When I write my reviews, I blur the line between my opinion and these guidelines only to allow myself a comedic discussion of the film’s merits as they may matter to you, my intelligent, socially conscious audience. While I do structure my actual review by these guidelines, I never try to adhere too strictly to them because I know that you won’t care to read my reviews if I talked about every film by answering 3 guiding questions. But, if you’re sharp, you can go back to even my very first reviews and notice that my complaints- or praise- can be traced back to these three questions. Hell, go find any review for any film, and you can encompass the full review under these three guidelines. 

This essay isn’t some massive, earth-shattering revelation, but it’s merely me pulling back the curtain on the way we perceive films, and how we judge our own enjoyment rather than judging the film. There is no wrong way to watch or judge a film, but understanding what you’re doing will allow you a deeper, richer understanding of yourself and the films you’ve seen. So now, when people ask you ‘Was that movie any good’, you’ll never, ever have a wrong answer. 

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