Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What do you look for in a movie?

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.


Amy said...

An IDEA plus Honesty and conviction from the filmmaker that he/she believes in what is being shown/said in the movie. It doesn't matter if the movie doesn't work or fails in presenting its idea, just let your belief in it show. Not wilting @ the end to PLEASE an audience.

On another note, Birth will be showing @ NYFF. I thought I should mention it because of the discussion on it recently. I guess the movie was worth something for a film fest like NYFF to be screening it.

Jason H. said...

What I look for is, does the movie accomplish its storytelling goals? If its supposed to be fun, then I consider it a failure if it isn't, etc. I also look for originality: a new spin on an old tale, or at least a new characterization.

Also, are the Emmys this weekend? I thought they were later than that...

Janice said...

That question sounds so simple - but clearly isn't - that I'm going to have to give it some thought. It does "depend". If I'm going to a drama starring Nicole Kidman, for instance, I pretty much expect - and want - to be shaken up, challenged and, if I'm lucky, have my heart torn in two. (I love how you have a still from MR - or rather a promo photo - in this post btw.) I want to walk away from it - or Sophie's Choice - or the Piano - with a sense that I'm not quite the same person at the end that I was at the beginning, and that the film's messages and images will continue to deepen and work on my pysche long after I've seen it.

I also look for an identifiable truth - as with MR, The Way We Were, Eyes Wide Shut, Eternal Sunshine, The War of the Roses, etc - recognition of the way live really is. That "falling in love", for instance, is not the end (and not the end-all and be-all) but merely the beginning of an often painful struggle, in which there are no easily identifiable "good guys and bad guys", and a "happy ending" is not a sure thing.

"Courage of it's convictions" - I was watching "Kate and Leopold" recently, with director's commentary, in the "directors cut" version (like the world really needs a directors cut of Kate and Leopold?), and from the directors comments, it was clear that while he valued "pushing the edge", the end product did not demonstrate that. It was a film that wanted to be "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" but in reality was just another Hollywood rom-com. I'll take Eternal Sunshine instead, thank you.

Dean said...

It is a ridiculously hard question to answer for sure. I guess for me it can be boiled down to making me think and feel. The movies that I would consider the worst and probably say at the time that I hated, I don't really hate at all; I feel totally indifferent to them because they didn't make me feel anything or think about anything and were a waste of time.

Volvagia said...

What I look for in a movie is, more often than not, a POV about it's characters. This is why a lot of cinema is annoying. So many artists don't understand that how you visually frame a character, in conjunction with the tone of your movie, suggests how you feel about the character. Sometimes great scripts and great performances are hampered by apathetic character framing (The Sweet Hereafter, Breaking the Waves, Michael Clayton and numerous others.) For example: Very wide short shots imply calm, full body framing indicates minor tension, but quick to relieve, while closeups and sometimes shaky shots (especially Evil Dead 2's 3.5 minute shot) imply extreme tension. But with overuse, the purpose of a framing becomes misinterpreted. Our TVs are getting bigger, so why aren't filmmakers re-expanding their approach? (You're pitching for 30, 40 and 50 inch screens. Show some confidence in your framing.)

Anonymous said...

I gravitate towards films whose qualities you just KNOW you wouldn't find anywhere else lest their successors be labeled Copycats "with a capital C."

Films like Moulin Rouge, Suspiria, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are prime examples.

James T said...

I think that what I want from a movie is for it to know its limits and reach them. Plus, I want it to give me something no other movie ever did.


Volvagia -- exactly that whole "film the whole thing in close up" is a modern problem. but as home theaters have gotten bigger the problem has seemingly only gotten worse. i don't really understand this other than to maybe blame people watching movies on ipods or something? because then only a closeup would really do. but a movie full of only closeups is shit. (for the most part)

amy -- ooh, i didn't know thanks.

jason -- yeah. i wanted to talk a bit about genre demands but i was already so longwinded ;)

dean -- yeah indifference is the Fs maybe (the true Fs) -- have you seen Nick's new rating system VOR. it kind of addresses this problem.

Craig Bloomfield said...

1. Mood mood mood
2. The thrill of images
3. A team of talented, exploratory folk who know their way around a camera
4. the given film's ability to grab the heart first, then the brain.
3. Zombies. Lots of them. (Grabbing at my heart and my brain!)

Dominik said...

I love it when a movie gets to me emotionally. That can be a love story, that can be something really devastating. E.g. "Bastard out of Carolina" made me sick to my bowels, but I loved it for that. I love weird original ideas. I know no-one who likes "Being John Malkovich" as much as I do. I love it if it a movie doesn't take itself to seriously. The best at that for me is the "Scream"-Triology. I also like totally non-sensical movies, like the "Scary Movie" movies, or the "Naked Gun" triology. For some reason, I like movies with kids, especially girls - if they are not too cheesy. I like great performances. I like combinations of all the before mentioned.

OtherRobert said...

I need the film to commit to the story its telling with the actors it cast and the style it has. If it shifts for no reason, I don't like it. If the actors are inconsistent (unless the inconsistencies are clearly intended), I don't like it. And if the story doesn't fulfill its promise, I don't like it.

Don't even get me started on the other things that turn me off. Number one is abuse of blue lighting. Number two is horrid music cues. There are many more.


craig -- yes on 1,2,3... Re: 4) who cares about the order but can we add loins in there? and 5) uh. ok, that one you can keep to yoself :)

Formerly known as said...


No matter the way we analyse what we look for in a movie: the plot, the cinematography, the performances, its achievements, they're all our endless ways to find a logical explanation to what happened to us one day.

The day we found movies could blow our minds, the day we discovered we could enter other unimaginable worlds for the price of a movie ticket, they day our jaws dropped in awe for the first time at that image that we'll remember for the rest of our lives, the day we found out other people we didn't know could enter our lives and live for ever with us and, most shockingly, that we wanted them to stay. That day.

In short, trying to find to what we look for in the movies is rationalizing why we fell in love with movies one fine day. Kind of like when physicians put symptoms together so they can diagnose the disease. Not to cure it, because this disease has no cure, but to try to repeat that feeling of walking back home still floating, remembering, reliving every scene, reenacting the lines in our mind, idiotically smiling at the idea that we were the first ones to discover that feeling, at the idea thatthat movie was meant specifically and only for our enjoyment.

Sigh. If only this was a way to repeat that day, I'd be around here 24/7 a day reading every single comment looking for the definitive clue. So long, it has taken my mind back to that moment. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Matty D. said...

The fourth paragraph--after the one about reality TV--is incredibly beautiful and so well articulated! I know that we're all unique snowflakes, but thank you Nat for basically summing up my expectations for the medium of film. I wish everyone could feel similarly. I particularly liked the part where you mention you could care less about plot as long as there are full-bodied and interesting characters/visual panache/provocation (of the intelligent sort). I recently watched Mike Nichol's "Closer" again and found that for a film largely consisting of conversations between two people about their relationships (some may say "nothing much happens"), it was an incredibly electric and satisfying experience. And there was no superhero to save Natalie Portman from having her heart-broken, no Angelina Jolie to curve bullets and kick Jude Law's smarmy ass. I enjoyed it all, plot or no plot.

Juno101 said...

I'm looking for something transcendant. Usually my favorite movies make me feel another world, like another person. Some of my favorite movies are Pan's labyrinth, Juno, Ghost world, Amélie, Spirited away, Do the right thing, Dancer in the Dark, The Triplets of Belleville, Happy-Go-lucky, all about my mother. They all introduce characters that I love or relate to immensely. That also says my taste is slightly feminine lol....but that also another thing. If I relate to a film on a personal level then that bangin' for me too. Like the movies The breakfast club, Dazed and Confused, Almost famous, The class, Precious (lol), and others. Then there's guilty pleasures and whatnot. I guess its cause of my personality of whether I like the world that's been offered.

Joe said...

Like you said, good actressing (and I'd say acting in general) is a MUST to keep me interested. Even if a movie is falling down, I'll still watch with interest if the gal at the center is great.

In terms of what I love, I think originality is obvious. I don't need a whole new idea, but I love when directors and writers bring something fresh to stale materiel. In fact, I'd probably say that I enjoy films that have been done 1000 times before but feel new because of the spin or what is emphasized even more sometimes.

I also agree that the major thing that's important is: is the film itself. I respect films the most that recognize what they are, and just go for. I believe you have to look at the films' goals overall (if you can say they exist) and judge it that way. When a film understands its goals that's beauty to see.

Great editing is a must. And I'll admit that I love flashy editing too. I'm also a fan of interesting visuals. When directors turn the camera an odd way, shock me with the use of focus (deep or shallow) and give us new ways of seeing things, I get excited. However, this can't be done for the sake of doing it, there has to be a reason.

But really, I look for a story that I can connect to. One that moves me and that I can feel in my veins. This can mean hating a character, loving one, or having dirty thoughts about characters - but as long as they feel "real" and that I have a reaction to them - that's probably the most important thing.

And if you throw in Nicole Kidman, even in a cameo, you got me.

brandz said...

for me, characters drive a movie. i always look for and at the performances. storyline is usually secondary. and i usually like intense things, like mood, feelings, particular shots, cinematography. i know it when i see it. Angels In America, Dog Day Afternoon, Babel, Sophie's Choice, The Remains of the Day, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, Nashville come to mind.

Hayden said...

What do I look for in a movie? Cheekbones. That's about it.


cheekbones are happily often found!

movie news said...

I look for movie which send us some good message in complete story. I look for movie based on practical life..

Henry said...

Started loving movies in 1992. But back then, since I was less than ten years old, I wanted to see big special effects and explosions and fireworks and just stuff I thought LOOKED cool. Movies, to me, were a purely visual medium. I remember loving Terminator 2 (despite its violent content) because I thought the T-1000 transformations were cool!

As the years have gone by and I actually got educated by some teachers on how to look at movies, what I looked for changed. Still love the visual fireworks, but I always -- first and foremost -- look for a story that's well-told and presented and what I think is entertaining. What I always look for now is almost entirely plot-oriented. I've learned to look at films with a more critical eye.

Glenn said...

I look for almost the exact same thing as you, Nathaniel. Plot shmot, as long as a movie captures me in some way (whether it be visually or structurally) and does so in a way that is true to itself and not like it wants to be something else.

It's why I preferred The Expendables or Scott Pilgrim vs The World. The latter was unashamed to be a bloody action flick with a sly wink whereas the other, I felt, was confused by its desires to be so many different things at once.

It's why I think, much like pop music, making a mainstream popcorn movie look effortless is harder than making a serious arthouse movie about socio-politics filled with atmosphere and all the wacky filmmaking tricks. It's why The Devil Wears Prada is a better movie than almost every so-called "masterpiece" that's come out this decade.

seasondays said...

i look for movies that challenge me and challenge themselves

films that balance bold sights and sounds with subtle storylines

adam k. said...

Good descriptions, Nat. I (almost) always tend to have very similar taste to yours, so these things are probably a lot of what I love about movies, too.

I'm not really a plot person either. Come to think of it, I'm not even particularly good at following plot (I got made fun of in film classes at times when I could wax philosophical about the films all day long but I couldn't remember simple things about the plots). It just doesn't interest me that much most of the time. And I don't think conveying plot is cinema's first or best function. It's a visual and aural medium and it should touch the senses and the spirit above all else. This, I think, is why I was not thrilled with, say, Inception and consider something like I Am Love to be far superior. It's far more poetic, more emotional, more moving, more thrilling. I found Inception to be an entirely intellectual (at times boring and cumbersome) exercise and was not truly moved by it at all. I get much more of a thrill from feeling things in cinema than I do from solving puzzles or riddles, or from following complex plots. And that says a lot, cause I generally love problem-solving and analytical thinking, but that's NOT why I watch movies (why I follow oscars, on the other hand...).

There's also a sense of wonder and possibility in all my very favorite movies, even the dark ones. That sense of wonder and transcendence is what I most love, why musicals and sci-fi/fantasy and stuff like Thelma & Louise will always be nearer to my heart than heist or gangster films. And it's why as much as a admire something like Winter's Bone as a brutally accurate slice of life in a particular place and time, I can't consider it a truly superior work because the feelings it stirred in me just weren't that special or profound, when all is said and done.

That "meta" quality of referencing other movies or a film referencing itself as a movie is also a plus. That scene in The Hurt Locker when they talked about how shaky the cam was on the kid's DVD (or whatever it was) was what lifted it into greatness for me. Bigelow and Boal had the good sense to take a momentary break from the verité bleakness and ground the audience in the sense that this was still a movie they were watching, and that the makers had a little bit of a sense of humor about what a miserable experience it sometimes was. I love that sh*t.

Anyway, those were the thoughts I most wanted to share about what makes me love movies.

adam k. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adam k. said...

Also, now that I think about it, a film's score is incredibly important to me. I think, for me to really love it, a film has to be grand and emotional and transporting enough to necessitate a beautiful, stirring score. This is another reason why musicals and sci-fi/fantasy are my favorite genres; they're both incredibly dependent on great music. I will always love the Star Trek and Star Wars films for the way that music lifts me into the heavens.

Craig Bloomfield said...

Nat, we can most definitely add loins in there. Was going to slip that in, but it would've meant saying, 'Zombies grabbing my heart and brains and loins!' I love me some zombies - but, erm, perhaps not that much...

I'd then be very much alone on #5!

Robert said...

I recently read a quote, though I can't remember who from sadly. It goes (paraphrased) "Most people claim they go to the movies to escape reality. But I go to the movies to return to reality."

I love that quote an I think that's what I go to the movies for... to experience come intellectual and emotional honesty. Yes even in a silly comedy, since all the best comedy is based in truth of some sort.

This is why I seem to have least tolerance for movies that try to get by entirely on some definition of "cool." And why I'm lenient on films like mumblecore that are nothing if not frustratingly realistic.

Paul Outlaw said...

An experience I could not have had watching television or attending any kind of live theatrical performance.

Even Precious and Sophie's Choice are funny.

Think of the things that could be purchased/accomplished with the budget of the lowest budget movie (then multiply that by Avatar). If you're going to spend even $10,000 to make a movie, it better damn well be flawless. As in fierce, necessary, personal and unforgettable.

If a movie can't fulfill the above, it's not going to be worth two hours (give or take) of my time...

Pete S. said...

Two words
"Moulin Rouge!"
that would sum up what I look for in the movie
It's not easy to find a movie that make you laugh out loud and make you cry at the same time and everything was what the word?

poopface said...

"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."

I don't understand why you insist on generalizing reality tv like this. Not all of them are competition-based. And those that are are obviously need a winner, since that's the nature of competition. Why do you feel every show is the same? Shows of the same genre are going to be similar in many respects, but not any more so than movies of the same genre. Why do reality shows as much diversity as any other genre in tv and film so It makes no sense to pick on it. Musicals and historical dramas are completely different genres. Football and tennis are completely different sports. Why lump something as specific as reality-tv with something as general as movies or sports? It doesn't make any sense. If anything, your comment makes it seem like you have bizarrely high expectations for the genre.


poopface -- or that you have bizarrely low expectations. ;) i mean COMPETITION. think of the word. it doesn't mean anything specific. so why do they all use the same format for their "competitions"? it's lack of creativity is what it is.

one day someone creative will make a reality show competition and everyone will be shocked by how much they love it and then everyone will copy it and soon no one will be able to imagine doing them any differently which is why we got in this boring rut as is where they all look the same and use the same templates for everything.