Everyone loves films. Everyone watches films. Everyone has an opinion about films. Everyone’s a critic, right?
That’s one of the things that makes it tough to do this professionally. To write a good film review, you need to elevate your view above fan level. Your job is to understand more about films than the average fan.
This is not just, like, your opinion, man.
I mean, it is. But it’s not just your opinion. You need wide-shot knowledge across cinema history and genres. You need deep-focus knowledge of the most important films ever made.
To understand the present, you need to have seen the past. You need to be able to join the dots and hear the echoes. You need a sense of where we are, how we got here and maybe even what’s to come.
There are four ways to do this.
1. Watch films
Duh. To know more about films than the average fan, you need to watch a lot of films. But which ones? New ones, old ones, Hollywood ones, ‘foreign ones’, silent ones, musical ones… Too many films. Not enough time.
Back in the mid 20th century, it was kinda possible to have seen all the films. That is, all the films that it was possible to see. Far fewer movies were made per year. And apart from screenings at international festivals, films being made in faraway nations like Japan might as well not exist.
But now you will never see all the films.
You will never even see all the new films. Even if you were to devote every waking hour of your spare time to staring at a screen. And that, as we’ll cover later, will prevent you ever being a good film critic.
One film a week = 52 films a year
Two films a week = 104 films a year
Three films a week = 156 films a year
Four films a week = 208 films a year
Five+ films a week = You are watching too many films.
This will be a lifetime’s work. Every year, you will have seen more films. Every year, you will have seen a smaller percentage of the films that exist.
So the question is, which films should you see?
How do you hit the knowledge sweet-spot between breadth and depth? No one will agree on which films are most worth watching. But this chapter will give you a suggested entry point into the ever-expanding universe of cinema.
Let’s talk about lists.
Lists are probably the way you will try to identify what you need to watch — and how to prioritise your watchlist — in order to gain the knowledge you need. Lists are other people’s way of telling you which films you should have seen.
But, argh, which lists? To make yourself dizzy, head to Filmsite.org. As a list of lists to get lost in, it’s an extraordinary resource. It should help you see why ‘Greatest Ever’ lists are to be taken as seriously as the Oscars. But it’s a very handy way of knowing what was popular in any given decade.
For films of the 21st century, Metacritic can give us a data-driven approach to subjective consensus. At the end of each year, it uses a points system to aggregate every Top 10 list into a single league table. It’s also begun creating ‘Films of the decade’ rankings, too.
But this doesn’t help us know where to begin.
So let’s narrow it down by looking at three interesting lists.
- Empire magazine’s readers’ poll gives you a sense of which movies the fans care about.
- Film journal Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade critics’ poll gives you an idea of what academics and critics care about.
- IMDb’s Top 250 is both curious and helpful because it sits somewhere between the reverent academia of Sight & Sound and the mega-populism of Empire.
You can explore these lists in full here. There are a few things we can notice if we cross-compare the films that do or don’t appear…
- Just 12 films appear on all three lists: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Seven Samurai, Psycho, City Lights, Apocalypse Now, Citizen Kane, Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Taxi Driver, Singin’ In The Rain, Some Like It Hot. All but one are American and three were made by the same filmmaker.
- There are 14 films that appear on both IMDb’s 250 and Sight & Sound’s list: City Lights, Bicycle Thieves, Metropolis, Rashomon, The General, Tokyo Story, Sunrise, Stalker, Persona, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Andrei Rublev, The 400 Blows, In The Mood For Love, 8 ½. All are non-English-language and/or silent.
- Just four films rank in both IMDb and Empire’s top 10: The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather, The Dark Knight and Pulp Fiction.
- Mulholland Drive is the only film that appears on both Empire and Sight & Sound’s lists, but it’s nowhere in IMDb’s 250.
- French satire La Règle du Jeu (1939) is the only film that’s been voted into Sight & Sound’s top 10 in each of the seven decades that the publication has polled critics. But it doesn’t appear at all on IMDb or Empire’s lists.
- Surprisingly, you won’t see E.T. (Empire readers’ number 59) or The Searchers (Sight & Sound’s number 7) anywhere in IMDb’s 250.
So what can we learn? If anything?
Lists are just for fun. You’ll never see all the great films. A lot of the masterpieces you think you need to watch — 8 ½, Le Mepris, don’t get me started — have dated badly. Many of the films that will blow your mind and rock your world — The Holy Mountain, Come and See, don’t get me started — will never appear on any lists. And everyone’s pretending to have seen more films than they have, anyway.
So just start with these 12 films.
If you’re looking for a first base to start building a powerful brain-bank of movies, you could do a lot worse that those dirty dozen that fans and critics seem to universally cherish. They’re all hugely influential, completely accessible and genuinely enjoyable.
- City Lights (dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
- Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)
- Singin’ In The Rain (dir. Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, 1952)
- Seven Samurai (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
- Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
- Some Like It Hot (dir. Billy Wilder, 1959)
- Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
- The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
- The Godfather Part II (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
- Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976)
- Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
It’s just a place to start, nothing more. After that, you could move on to the shortlist of films that IMDb and Sight & Sound agree on. That may be an even better list.
But honestly, if you’ve seen these 12 films and you know why they matter, you’re already ahead of many people who are currently getting paid to write about films.
Where to go from there? Part three of this chapter will provide you with all the inspiration you’ll ever need.
But before that…
Specialisation: for insects or sushi chefs?
Some people decide to devote their film-watching time to hoovering up movies in a certain genre (e.g. horror). This can be useful in terms of becoming known as a specialist. But it will also limit you. Starship Troopers author Robert A Heinlein famously wrote that specialisation is for insects. Then again, he never got to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi. By all means, zero in on a particular genre. But do so only because you genuinely love it, never because you think you need a specialism.
2. Stop watching films
Or rather, don’t watch too many films. In his foreword to The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (more on that later), mega-critic David Thomson laments the amount of his life spent sat in a chair staring at a screen.
Thomson first published this astonishing book when he was 34 years old, then revised and re-examined it with every passing decade. He writes:
“The hardest matter to assess in that passage of time is the passion. This was a book conceived and first written in the early ’70s, when it was easy to be in love with cinema. Time and again, as I wrote, I was lifted by the exhilaration of a new film seen the night before. That soaring is harder to manage now, so I am left wondering whether I am heavier or less ‘passionate’ or are the movies less?”
This is a poignant and important ponderance for anyone who loves films very deeply. We can say that feeding a plant too much water will drown it. We can also say that time spent watching films is time not spent experiencing life.
“It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” — Bruce Lee
Film is not life. Film is about life.
You cannot know about films if you do not know about life. If you’re serious about being a great film writer, be serious about living a richer life.
So slow down on watching so many films. Travel, play a sport, practise a musical instrument, love someone, get your heart broken, learn a language, make new friends, talk to your parents.
If you do this, you may discover surprising benefits in your career as a film critic.
If you practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Guy Richie will want to talk with you more than the next critic on his interview schedule. (He might even want to roll with you.) If you play jazz, Damien Chazelle will show you a side of himself that others can’t see. (He might even want to jam with you.) If you knuckle down with learning Spanish, you might get that gig being sent to Barcelona to interview Javier Bardem. (And hey, who knows?)
If all you know is film, you are less interesting to the world. You are a less-interesting film critic and a less-interesting human. Do not let being a film critic be the sole thing that defines you. Ironically, you’ll probably be worse at it.
What’s more, to paraphrase the famous quote from Peeping Tom, all this film-watching isn’t healthy. People who just watch films and write about them are unhappy and unfit.
Sitting down all day in an office, sitting down in the evening to watch films, sitting down to write about them. Your body will stop working. And you’ll start sinking into an early grave. This is actually linked to a higher risk of death from all causes, including eight of the 10 most common causes of mortality. A dead film critic is not a good film critic. Despite what you may have heard.
Exercise. Go for a walk. Go for a walk right now, in fact — you’ve already been sat down too long.
It’s tempting to see as many films as you can, because you’ll always feel you haven’t seen enough. Imposter syndrome is a real thing for film critics. Try to move past it. And please keep reminding yourself:
- Everyone is pretending they’ve seen more films than they actually have.
- Having seen less films may often be the thing that allows you to better understand the films you do see.
- Many of the films you do see will be really bad and a waste of life-time that you’ll never get back.
3. Read books and (video) essays
But of course… not too many (see above). It’s very common for people to have seen a lot of films and yet understand very little about them. That’s not for us. So learn stuff about films. Especially about films you’ve just seen. Some deep-learning should be the chaser to every single new film you watch.
Obviously, this is another massive rabbit-hole. Yes, you can find essays, analysis and criticism online. But the gold really is mixed with the gravel. So I’m going to highlight the three printed books that every film journalist should have read. You’ll absolutely love them, too.
The Story of Film by Mark Cousins.
“The Story of Film intends to open a door to the world of cinema and describe a path through it,” writes Cousins. “As you read, you will come across works that you may not have seen and may never see.”
Indeed, you will never again be short of inspiration about what to watch next.
Beginning his story with a Frenchman on a bridge in Leeds back in 1888, author/critic/presenter Cousins carries us on a wondrous waltz through the history of the medium, from photographic circus sideshow to bazillion-dollar cultural industry.
The focus is solely on what he considers the game-changers. The movies that shaped the art, science and history of cinema over its century-and-a-bit-long lifetime so far. The most influential films and filmmakers, from any country, from any period.
It just feels so fresh. Which probably owes plenty to the fact that Cousins rewatched almost every film he mentions. Well-known for his cracking TV series Scene by Scene and those enlightening intros to cult movies on Channel 4’s Moviedrome, Cousins gives us the book he wishes he could have read when he was young.
Sure enough, reading it often feels like falling in love with cinema all over again.
Note: Cousins later created a DVD series based on the book, but I haven’t seen it.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind.
Most of the films you watch will be American. Most of the films your audience watches will be blockbusters. So you do kinda need to understand how the Hollywood blockbuster was born — and why nothing would ever be the same again.
It just so happens that this particular story is the most fun you will ever have reading about cinema.
Peter Biskind’s gobsmacking Easy Rider, Raging Bulls chronicles the rise of the New Hollywood, from Bonnie And Clyde to Star Wars. As one of the press quotes says on the back, you can’t believe how they got this past the lawyers.
Spielberg and Lucas being social klutzes, Scorsese disappearing into coked-up paranoia, Altman buying $10 blowjobs on his lunch break to feel like a player. It’s an all-star cast and they’re all complete freaks and geeks.
But beyond the delicious gossip, this is gripping, game-changing stuff. You’ll learn how the French New Wave inspired a fresh generation of American cine-artists, how a film-school brat pack took over, and how they eventually invented a type of mega-movie there would be no going back from.
It’s everything you need to know about the most creatively fertile and transformative period there ever has been and ever will be in American cinema.
Note I: Biskind wrote a follow-up about the ’50s and ’60s, but it’s a real snoozer. It’s like discovering Hunter S Thompson has a brother but he writes tax returns.
Note II: I haven’t read it, but The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies sounds like a great way to begin understanding how new power-players — Netflix, Disney, Marvel, Amazon — are completely rewriting how movies are made, sold and seen. This is the next chapter in the story of film.
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson.
We mentioned this earlier. We’ll be talking about it some more in the next chapter. It is the most amazing reference book in cinema history. An open goldmine of insight and inspiration.
In fact, in a 2002 poll — and you know how much we love lists — the BFI named it the greatest of book about film EVER. It really is very good.
First published in 1975, this “needling, provocative, argumentative companion at the movies” is a near-thousand pages containing 1,300 (in my edition) essays on the who’s who of film history. From sound engineers to studio heads, from Abbott and Costello to Terry Zwigoff.
This is the powerful peak of the Passion-Knowledge-Words triumvirate. The best thing about it? You’ll probably disagree with much of it, yet enjoy all of it.
Note: The canonical reference book about film as art is, er, Film Art by Bordwell and Thompson. It’s what they’ll give to read at university if you study film. It’s terrific. Definitely worth having on your shelf. Everything you need to know about the grammar and vocabulary of cinema is here, illuminated with excellent film stills. You’ll never again be stumped about the difference between a fabula and a syuzhet or how a shot-reverse-shot is meant to work.
….And (video) essays
Of course, we love books. But the truth is, books — where information is trapped on printed pages within silent text and static images — have always been pretty terrible vehicles for analysing an artform that’s all about moving images, editing and sound.
Happily, we live in the age of the video essay. There are many super-smart YouTube channels dedicated to exploring, dissecting and discussing films. Here are just three mind-expanding channels to get you started. You’ll learn a ton from them.
Film theory through the lens of Transformers? Believe it. The gateway into Ellis’ huge collection of screen analysis is ‘The Whole Plate’, a mini-series which uses Michael Bay’s robo-franchise to give you a film studies crash-course, from auteur theory to the male gaze to Marxism. More than meets the eye, indeed. You liked that? Ellis’ funny, smart, self-deprecating video-essays on everything from Disney to Fury Road are all waiting for you.
This is a guy with an angle. On pretty much everything. Whether exploring sound design and superheroes or mis-en-scène and modernity, Evan Puschak has fresh, fascinating reads on movies as varied as Anatomy Of A Murder, Passengers and, er, Mr Bean. But he goes way beyond the big screen to shine a light on all forms of art and ideas, making his channel a wonderful source of insight and inspiration.
Back in 2016, Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou sadly called it quits on this brilliant series of video-essays about film form. But their work remains a best-in-class example of how to tell visual stories that explain visual storytelling. The vids on Drive’s quadrant framing, Satoshi Kon’s control of space-time, F For Fake’s innovative structure and the (mis)use of music in the Marvel Universe are especially great.
4. Study reviews (and beyond)
There are some excellent writers out there and some not so excellent ones. Happily, we don’t have to agree who they are.
Thanks to Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, you now have a free-flowing river of film reviews to dip into, explore and learn from.
Read many different writers from many different titles. Discover how writers with different opinions and different styles tackle the same film. Start to get a sense of who you think is good (and less good).
Now focus in on why you think that is. What are they doing? What are they not doing? Choose a review that wowed you. Break it down, sentence by sentence. You’ll start to see the machinery that created the magic.
These are your teachers and they’re giving out free lessons every single week. By reading and gravitating towards certain writers and writing styles, you’ll start to grow an awareness of your own reviewing style.
Don’t worry about losing your style, whatever that becomes. Hunter S Thompson typed out every page of The Great Gatsby to feel what it was like to write a great novel. He certainly didn’t end up writing like F Scott Fitzgerald. We all absorb things from other writers and thinkers. But you’ll only ever write like you.
Just for starters and at complete random, here are five film reviewers — terrific for very different reasons — who I think you’ll enjoy and learn a lot from:
- Simon Crook (@sicrook)
- Manohla Dargis (@ManohlaDargis)
- J Hoberman
- Justin Chang (@JustinCChang)
- Stephanie Zacharek (@szacharek)
And yes, here comes the flipside…
Don’t read too much film criticism. Often written on a weekly grind to deadline, film criticism rarely represents how good writing can get. Under the thin layer of delicious cream is a bottomless sinkhole of crap.
Read wider and aim higher. Read journalism about other subjects you care about — music, sports, travel — and definitely read fiction. Fiction writers often spend a lot longer than film journalists figuring out how to capture something brilliantly using words.