How to Watch a Movie Like a Film Critic

Advice from the pros on what to look for

Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash

Awards season can feel like showing up for the first day of school without doing the summer reading: Your friends are talking character development, plot, conflict — and you’re left in the dark, suddenly wishing you’d put in a little more effort.

But you’re hardly alone if you haven’t seen (or even heard of) some of this year’s Oscar-nominated movies. The divide between mass and critical appeal has fast expanded over the past few decades, according to a New York Times analysis, with the year’s biggest box office hits now rarely receiving a nomination for best picture. Titanic was the highest-grossing film of all time when it won best picture in 1998. At last year’s awards, by comparison, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water, which grossed $195.2 million worldwide, took home the top honor, while the year’s top-earning flick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, raked in a cool $1.3 billion and wasn’t nominated.

“You don’t really need to know anything about cinematography to recognize when something makes you laugh or makes you think.”

Award voters and critics value elements like plot intricacies and dynamic camerawork, but those things can seem inaccessible to the average viewer. Still, even if your genre of choice is the Fast and Furious franchise, it’s not too late to approach movie watching with a more critical eye. Below, the pros explain how to take in a film — any film — the way they do.

Take cues from the first 10 minutes

You’ll know pretty quickly what kind of movie experience you’re in for, says Vulture film critic Emily Yoshida. Are you seeing something that’s heavy on dialogue and story, like Spotlight, where you’ll need to hold onto what the characters are saying? Or is it a film like Roma, where much of the story is told through visual subtleties? “You figure out where the action is in terms of what the filmmaker is trying to do,” Yoshida says. “That determines how you actually watch it.”

Put your phone away

This one’s obvious, but it’s important enough to say here. Suppose you’ve paid $11 to see royal period piece The Favourite (plus another $8 on snacks), and you’re really getting into it. Then, the glow from a fellow audience member’s phone catches your eye. “There are some movies that have their spell broken by the presence of a phone,” Yoshida says. Keep your phone out of sight. You’ll pay greater attention to the story, and you won’t ruin the experience for other theatergoers.

Pay attention to the whole frame

One of freelance critic Candice Frederick’s favorite scenes in the heist thriller Widows features a long, unbroken shot where Colin Farrell’s politician character and his campaign manager, played by Molly Kunz, are in a heated discussion in a car. The viewer doesn’t see their faces but instead watches as the camera captures the changing landscape around the car. “We don’t see them because the director wants us to look around,” Frederick says. “These moments when you’re not focused on the characters’ faces and you think it’s downtime — in that scene, there’s so much being said. It really implores you to watch the screen, because, in addition to that, there’s a whole bunch of things happening on the street that we’re supposed to be looking at.” Don’t miss an opportunity to take in some plot development just because the camera isn’t focused on the stars.

Go in with an open mind

Frederick and Yoshida agree that knowing as little about the film as possible allows for a more enjoyable viewing experience. This means staying away from spoilers, obviously, but it also means avoiding reviews or cast interviews.

“It might taint [your experience], meaning it’ll influence it in any way,” Frederick says of reading reviews beforehand. “You don’t want to go in with the notion of what the film’s trying to tell you.”

But you can — and should — use recognizable names as reference points to new films. If you’ve enjoyed prior work by Bradley Cooper or Alfonso Cuarón, for example, this familiarity might be enough to sway you to see A Star Is Born or Roma without any knowledge of what the films are actually about.

Once the credits roll, you can do some Wikipedia digging to make discoveries like, “Oh, interesting: This shot was borrowed from that movie,” says Alonso Duralde, film critic at TheWrap. Also, if you were enthralled by a particular actor’s performance, you can scour their IMDb page and check out more of their work.

Find engrossing elements

“You don’t really need to know anything about film theory or cinematography to recognize when something makes you laugh or makes you think,” Yoshida says. Pay attention to your emotions throughout the movie, and determine what prompted those reactions: Was it the script that made you laugh? Was it the way the actor physically embodied the character? Was it the camera movement itself, sweeping from one point to another? These are all elements you can point to later when detailing why you liked the film.

Embrace a critic you love

Though Duralde avoids reading reviews both before he sees a movie and prior to writing his own review, he likes to check in with what his peers have written afterward. Find a cinematic tastemaker whose preferences closely align with or are the polar opposite of yours. “Read a sampling of critics and get an idea of what they’re about,” he says. “Find people who your tastes mesh with, and if they encourage something, you’ll believe them.”

Question everything

Take a curious approach to all aspects of the story, from characters to setting. Frederick likes to begin with believability, even in fantastical settings. “Thinking from your own experience, would someone react like that? Is that real?” she says. “Ask questions about what you’re being presented, and ask whether you can see humans talking to other humans in that way.”

Consider alternative scenarios, and question whether the story could’ve ended a different way. This forces you to think critically and confront the things you thought were weak or unrealistic. “Say, why did such-and-such happen? Or why did this happen instead of that?” Frederick says. “Ask questions. Talk about it afterward.” You don’t necessarily need to arrive at the answers — just asking is enough to get you into a more critical frame of mind. And the more you do it, the easier it will be at the next movie you see, and the next one after that.

Writes about lifestyle, trends, and pop psychology for The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Washington Post, and more.

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