5 ways to tell if the movie you're watching is good
My mother was against buying movies. She’d tell me: “you watched it once. Why would you watch it again?” To her, movies were either good or bad. They couldn’t ever be anything else. When she finished watching one, it would forever fall into the ether and if we’d start discussing it again, she would always say the same thing: “it’s just a movie. Don’t get carried away with it, it’s just a movie.” It took me 17 years to buy a beat up VHS copy of Fight Club, the first movie I’d watch more than twenty times.
Obviously, I don’t think movies are just movies. That’s why Dead End Follies exists. I believe movies are a byproduct of the times we live in. But I do believe movies can be objectively ranked as good or bad. That it isn’t all in the eye of the beholder. Sure, tastes vary and not everyone’s into the same things. For example, Victorian courtesans having tea is a pretty niche interest in 2018. But a good movie about Victorian courtesans having tea will appeal to every viewing, Tno matter how deep they are into Sylvester Stallone movies.
So, what makes a movie good ? I laid out 5 non-petulant criteria here that hopefully you can you in any film discussion in the future, because I believe everyone should be able to discuss movies even if they haven’t read seen any French New Wave films or extensively read boring critics like André Bazin. So next time you don’t know how to feel about something you’ve just watched, put it through this gauntlet and if it checks four or five boxes, it was good. Three boxes is almost good. Two or less is bad *. Let’s start.
The movie speaks to you
This is the only non-objective criteria on the list, but it’s the most important. The difference between a movies that’s merely pleasant and a movie that sticks with you is that it’ll speak to you on a personal level. They may feature characters you look up to (Fight Club), who are eerily like you (Mallrats) or that you’re afraid to become like (Suburbicon), but what they have in common is that they’ll reflect a part of your psyche.
If it speaks to people, it means the movie aims to do more than simply entertain you. Therefore, it’s doing something right.
The movie doesn’t resemble another movie too closely
I challenge you to tell me what movie this gif is from. It is washed with green like Jason Bourne movies. It stars Mark Wahlberg, who hasn’t starred in anything of importance for close to a decade. Is it a war movie? Is it a crime movie? Only thing you’d know from this gif (or from the trailer, really) is that it has guns and fight scenes in it. You know what else has guns and fight scenes in it? Just about every goddamn movie.
Whether a movie is flamboyantly original like Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals or only driven by a powerful character like Die Hard or The Dark Night, a good movie offers at least one variable that’s proper to it. If you don’t find that variable or struggle to find it, you’re most likely watching generic bullshit.
The movie doesn’t progress the way you thought it would
Expectations is the Minotaur of every great storyteller. A movie with a clear path from beginning to end is boring. Good guys behaving like good guys and bad guys behaving like bad guys is comforting, but it’s not special. It’s also not how human beings work. During the first hour of Cold in July, protagonist Richard Dane thinks he’s threatened by the father of a burglar he shot in his house. But it turns out the burglar is not Sam Shepard’s son and the movie goes into a whole other direction. Dane wrongly perceived a situation and changed his mind. It was both relatable and unexpected.
A movie that goes from point A to point B is merely competent. A movie that doesn’t follow a straight line will give you an experience you’ll want to repeat.
The movie has rhythm
A movie can be slow, but it can never stop. It can never contemplate its own themes without at least advancing the story a little. Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name is guilty of that. It checks every other box on that list, but not this one. Sure, there’s sexual tension between Timothé Chalamet and Armie Hammer. I got that at the first glance to Hammer’s greased up chest. But what else is there to it? You can’t stop telling your story ever. It’s a cardinal sin. It’ll always be a cardinal sin unless you’re not trying to tell a story at all.
Slow isn’t a naughty word in movie. Fast usually means action and slow means atmosphere. A movie remains good for as long as it keeps moving. If you keep looking at your phone because it wallows in masturbatory action scenes or repetitive tension builders, it fails at keeping you engaged.
The movie takes for granted that you’re smart
Connecting the dots is legitimately the most rewarding thing for an audience. Character need motivations to act the way they do, but I don’t need them explained. I want to understand them from the way (s)he acts because no explanation can be as scary/thrilling/intense as the explanation I come up with in my own head. Rough upbringings, daddy issues and insecurities aren’t interesting, but bridging the gaps and becoming an active participant in a narrative is.
One could argue that is criteria isn’t what separates bad from good, but good from great and it wouldn’t be wrong. But I’d counter that good movies do it a little and great movies to it masterfully.
* That said, there’s nothing wrong with watching bad movies. I love many, many movies that fit none of my criteria for good. But it’s important to understand when you’re watching art and when you’re watching disposable entertainment, because it’ll keep the boundaries clear for what’s good and what isn’t. It’s our duty as viewers to do that, so that Zack Snyder never goes does in history as a genius.