The day I signed up to formspring (as an experiment) someone asked me the following question. Can you articulate what you always search for in movies? I realized I probably couldn't do it in 140 characters on twitter. So I'll try right here.
Saying it depends on the movie is too noncomittal. So let's say instead that a movie should always be striving to be its best self. Flaws are really easy to put it up (and can even be hugely endearing) within a movie that is primarily itself. Same goes for television. I think this is why I have so little patience for knock offs, dully conceived remakes and product that doesn't challenge itself but merely regurgitates better stuff.
[tangent] I hate to pick on reality television (too easy) but it's a helpful example. The other night I walked in and The Boyfriend was watching Top Chef. Only it wasn't Top Chef. It took me a few seconds to calibrate that it was just one of many shows that use the same lighting design, same patterns of judging, same gender / age / race mixture panel of judges, same entrances and exit system for winners and losers and whatnot. This is why I detested that Work of Art reality show that was recently on. I actually felt like vomiting when I saw it (rare feeling for me). You'd think a show about visual artists would, in being its best self, be inherently different than a show about fashion designers or a show about chefs. But it was EXACTLY like the others. It had no connection whatsoever to ART, only to other reality shows. It's such a creatively bankrupt genre and it's really sad because -- this next bit is for Joe who hates that I pick on reality TV -- this genre is not inferior at it's core. It shouldn't really be any different than any other in its capacity for flexibility in form and content. There have got to be about 410,273 ways to make a competitive rulebook (at least) and who says it even has to be a traditional competition with one winner for every show? Why does each show have to be the same? Football doesn't have the same rules as tennis. A musical doesn't need the same scene structure as a historical drama.
editor's note: I got sidetracked. I was thinking about TV because I'll be live-blogging the Emmys AUGUST 29th. (Lots of movie stars are nominated) Heads up! [/tangent]
So what I look for in a movie is that it be true to itself, first. For example, I don't need to be "entertained" if the movie is a contemplative exploration of something solemn. I just need it to be thought provoking. Second, I'll admit that I am very focused on performances because acting and human psychology fascinate me. I'm not really a plot person. I think you can make a good movie from virtually any story or subject matter if you have interesting characters and/or visual finesse. So I'm often happy when I get those things even if the story is a thumbs down. It's a visual medium and I'm a visual person. Therefore, expertly judged and delivered eye candy wins me over more than a well turned plot (generally speaking). And as anyone who has read The Film Experience for more than a week or three probably knows, in no particular order these things are generally pluses for me: interesting themes, shot differentiation (I hate it when a director doesn't understand that a movie needs more than just a series of closeups), visual beauty or at least visible aesthetic style, a sense of humanity, great lines of dialogue, good actressing, an interesting color palette.
My favorite intangible thing about great cinema is harder to explain. The movies that thrill me most tend to be the ones where I can sense other movies -- not actual existant movies but imaginary other movies within the movie I'm watching -- just off to the side should the camera wander. This is probably why I feel absolutely alive when I'm watching Robert Altman's Nashville and it's probably why The Purple Rose of Cairo breaks my heart every time.
Some people like explosions. I like explosive characterizations. We all have our preferences. Speaking of... What do you look for in a movie? I'm assuming no two of us are the same. We're beautiful snowflakes! [*gag*] And since no two of us are the same, it's a great question.