When I visited the theater to see Unbroken last December, my teenage ticket salesman complimented me on my choice. “It’s a great movie,” he gushed. Two hours later, I felt sorely tempted to go back and ask him why he thought the movie was so wonderful. Certainly, Unbroken tells a remarkable true story. But compared to other POW or World War II films, it did not convey outstanding nuance or characterization.
Whether filmmakers like it or not, most people watch films with one purpose: They want to be entertained. Entertainment certainly is a worthwhile goal. Marvel superhero films attract moviegoers in droves because they offer visual bombast and playful one-liners. On the other hand, critical darlings with experimental acting and avant-garde plots draw few. These films are not necessarily “entertaining,” nor should they be—they are meant to provoke and challenge. However, some art films can confound greatness with the bizarre. To understand film as an art form, to fully engage the culture, we must analyze film on a deeper level. We need to learn how to watch movies like a film critic.
Watching films like a critic does not mean that you can’t enjoy them. You may find yourself appreciating powerful movies at a more profound level, but you may also discover some old favorites losing their initial luster.
Film critics do not simply bash movies with clever turns of phrase. In a sense, they work in a paradox. They open themselves to the power of a story but don’t let their emotions overpower their common sense. They analyze a film according to objective truth and beauty, but they recognize that the best films show us, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, that the dragon can be conquered.
I guarantee that once you start to think about the films you watch, you will never watch any movie the same way again. Here are a few ways to begin the adventure:
1. Seek visual, verbal, and literary motifs.
It’s hard to imagine Star Wars without light sabers or It’s a Wonderful Life without ringing bells. More than any other form of storytelling, film relies on images to convey ideas. While a film is much more than a few key shots, motifs can provide keys to understanding a film’s unspoken language. For instance, the Adventure Book in Up provides Carl with a visual reminder of a lifetime friendship. Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud” reproves Kane for abandoning contentment and seeking greed.
The best screenwriters and directors will also reward repeat viewers with verbal and literary hints. When I first watched The Dark Knight Rises, I always appreciated how it underplayed superhero movie tropes in favor of a literary plot. However, it was not until my second viewing that I noticed an allusion that opened up Nolan’s entire trilogy.
At the end of the third film, police commissioner Jim Gordon memorializes Batman with a passage from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I always loved that particular passage of the novel, so I finally decided to reread the quote in the context. In Dickens’ book, anti-hero Sydney Carton entrusts the woman he loves to the man he rescues. Gordon—and the Nolan brothers—must have picked this particular quote for a reason. In light of the passage, who does Batman love? What is Gotham’s relationship to Batman and the city police?
However, it is better to approach film as a student rather than a teacher. Don’t write your film review while you’re in the theater. Instead, ask questions of the film. Consider why the director made a specific choice, why a scene made you cry or gave you pause. You will learn more from a film by questioning the story than by conducting literary analysis.
2. Understand the conventions of genre.
Movies tend to copy time-tested genres. For instance, a mythic adventure usually features an underdog hero who overcomes overwhelming obstacles to return home. Think The Odyssey for literature, or O Brother Where Art Thou? and Jurassic Park for film. Genre provides more than a storyline. Each genre tends to support certain philosophies—like the price of technology in science fiction.
Where a film departs from genre reveals a lot about its particular worldview. A romantic comedy that promotes promiscuity devalues the standard of traditional marriage. When a Western like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance features a newspaper office, critics know the story prizes freedom of the press.
In addition to genre, the historical and geographic context of a film also gives away certain conventions. Films from the 1940s tend to be dialog-heavy because many were adapted from plays. Before the 1960s, the Hays Code forced filmmakers to adhere to certain moral restrictions. Pieces like A Streetcar Named Desire accordingly suggest sexual tension through dialog and music. International films require the viewer to devote more concentration simply because they come from a different culture.
3. Read about filmmaking.
If you want to understand film as an art form, go to the experts. Check out filmmaking books by successful screenwriters and directors. Most are accessible and enjoyable to read. Story by Robert McKee explains the classic elements of screenplay structure and genre. David Mamet’s On Directing describes how shots tell a story. Around awards season, Oscar contenders post their screenplays online. Read a few to see how a movie transitions from the page to the screen. Also, look at reviews by thoughtful film critics.
4. Watch excellent films.
The best way to watch films like a critic is to engage every film you watch. Don’t forget a film as soon as the theater lights come up—think about how it portrays its worldview. Talk about the story with friends and family, and ask deep questions. Great films deserve extensive thought. However, don’t confuse a complicated plot for depth. The most enduring stories are often the simplest, those that portray the truth in a winsome way.
If you have not seen them yet, watch the classic films that you always hear people talking about: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind, for instance. The first time or two that you watch them, don’t critique them. Roll them around in your mind for a few days, rewatch them, enjoy them for the sheer pleasure of it. There is something magical about losing yourself in an excellent film—or for that matter, any great book or piece of music or painting. Lasting art empathizes with the human condition and provokes us to seek truth. Like bank tellers who learn the feel of fake money by handling only the real, critics will better discern weak films by exposing themselves to the best.
While most go to the movies for entertainment, they also go because they seek stories—or, as a history professor once told me, “The best story wins the day.” By touching our emotions, movies can change our hearts.
Rather than enjoying a film for the adventure or the actors alone, film critics appreciate a film for the storyteller’s skill or how the piece comments on objective truth and beauty. The best critics analyze the times, finding the genuine and lovely in the midst of the ugly and trivial.