What makes a good movie?

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I’m not sure we talk enough about what it really means for a movie to be good.

Sure, generally we can feel it when a movie IS good; whether movies are your favorite form of entertainment or not, most of us are familiar enough with what makes a good story to naturally sense if a movie is satisfying or not, and good filmmakers know how to use the language of cinema effectively without showing how they’re doing it every step of the way (this is, in my view, one of the ways you separate good filmmakers from bad: how well they can hide the seams of telling a story without calling attention to it).

But I think it’s helpful to have some basic criteria for evaluating a movie. Sure, some things will matter more to some viewers than others, and everyone has different tastes and experiences, but I believe there are some reasonably objective guidelines for determining, if not a movie’s overall quality, than at least if it works as a self-contained piece of storytelling. Here’s how I assess movies on the most basic level:

  • Technical acumen- This is really fundamental stuff concerning basic presentation on-screen. Are all of the scenes lit properly so that the audience can clearly see what they’re meant to see? What about camera focus? If the camera moves, do those movements enhance the action or detract from it? Does the editing maintain continuity of space and time as the action unfolds within a scene? (Editing from scene to scene is a different matter, especially if we’re dealing with non-linear story structure.) Is the sound mixed properly so viewers have all of the information they need?

The answer to all of these questions needs to be “yes” if we’re going to end up anywhere in the ballpark of good when it comes to a movie. If the audience can’t even figure out what’s happening in the moment because of a failure in any of these areas — overly choppy editing that makes it impossible to follow the action, a sound mix that overemphasizes the score at the expense of diegetic sound (meaning that comes from a source on screen), scenes that are too brightly lit or use too much shadow, etc. — then I’m definitely going to mark it down.

  • Acting- Next up, the cast. Are the actors comfortable in front of the camera (can they act as if the camera isn’t there, essentially)? Do their emotions match up with how their characters should be feeling within the story at any particular moment? Do those emotions appear, for lack of a better term, real? Can they convey those emotions without going over the top (unless the moment calls for it)?

Good acting is hard to judge, and it depends a great deal on good writing and having a director who knows how to draw out a good performance. But there’s little that’s more distracting in a movie than an out-of-place actor; we depend on them to sell the emotion and the weight of the stories we see.

  • Narrative- This is basically looking at the screenplay, as well as things like editing and other choices by the director and crew that guide how the story plays out. Does the story largely make sense? (I’ll have a longer post on plot holes later, but for now: If I don’t notice them in the moment and the movie has enough narrative momentum to cover up the occasional gap in logic, I don’t care.) Do scenes and sequences follow one another in a logical manner, both in terms of plot and any underlying themes? Is there an underlying theme, and do the character’s actions and the plot reflect that theme? Is exposition handled smoothly, or do we get gigantic word dumps? Is there interesting dialogue, or are we stuck with cliches and characters explaining how they feel?

This, to me, gets at the heart of what separates good movies from bad; generally if you get this part right, you’ve covered the rest of your bases. When dealing with narrative feature films (which is the majority of movies out there; we may deal with nonnarrative movies later), you need to understand how to tell a story through structure, theme and conflict, not just expensive cameras, special effects and acting. Without a good screenplay as a foundation, the best actors and directors in the world will come up short most of the time, and even a great story with an airtight script requires a lot of work to be told properly.

  • Miscellaneous– We’ve hit the big points, but there are a few other things that I look at when I’m evaluating a movie. I tend to reward ambition over playing it safe, so I’ll usually give a movie point for trying something different even if they don’t fully succeed (The Wachowski sisters’ “Jupiter Ascending” comes to mind). At the same time, I admire good execution in a movie even if the plot isn’t terribly original (“The Raid” has a totally generic plot, but it’s so well executed as an action movie that it doesn’t really matter). Things that really bother me: A script that feels the need to overexplain everything because the writer assumes the audience is stupid, overly showy cinematography that adds nothing functionally (looking at you, “Birdman” and “The Revenant”), adaptations that get the source material wrong (like “The Hobbit”).

That’s all I have for now. Anything I missed? Anything that bugs you or you really look for when you watch a movie? Let me know what you think.

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The saga begins (again) …

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(Optional musical accompaniment.)

Hello there!

My name is Rob, and I love movies. This is my latest attempt to create a space where I can write about movies, movie culture, the movie industry and more. If you’re reading this, then hopefully you love movies, too, or are at least interested in my thoughts on the subject.

If you want the super-short version of my bio, you can find it here and skip to the paragraph starting with “So, here we are.” For the rest, here are the basics:

I’ve loved movies for almost as long as I can remember; I have distinct memories of staying up until the early morning hours watching the “Star Wars” movies over and over in grade school, and my parents can tell you all about how I manically danced to the tunes of “Mary Poppins” as it played on TV when I was a toddler. As I got older, that enthusiasm never waned, and I expanded my range from Disney, action and sci-fi flicks to classics like “The Godfather,” “Casablanca” and more. In college I took as many film studies as I could while still pursuing my journalism degree and political-science minor, and if I could do it all over again I’d probably just go ahead and get my film degree.

Things took a turn when I moved away from my home state after college to get my first real job; after a final internship, I became a copy editor for The Gainesville Sun and the Ocala Star-Banner in central Florida. You might even be able to find my old reviews and blog posts there, if you look hard enough. After about a year and a half there I tried something new: I told the features editor about my background and my love of movies, and I asked him if he’d give me a chance to write one, assuming I could find a way to get it to him in time for the movie’s release. To my joy and surprise, he gave me a shot.

With a little help from some of the other movie critics in Florida (who knew getting on the movie studios’ invite list was so complicated?), I wrangled my way into a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” and a new career was born. (I gave the movie four stars out of five; in hindsight, I overrated it by a little bit).

I continued writing for The Sun and Star-Banner as often as I could, expanding beyond reviews to previews and other features, a staff blog and a short-lived podcast with a fellow movie geek (shout-out to the very talented Ryan Gimarc). But last summer I was laid off from The Sun, and although I’ve moved again to stay in the journalism business, I haven’t been able to find another outlet for which to write professional reviews.

So, here we are: I’ve decided to commit to a blog again, because I’ve got the writing itch and I’m still trying to get to the movies as often as I can. I have no grand mission for this blog, other than to create a space where I and other movie lovers can talk about what’s currently playing and other movie-related topics. I want to have a dialogue, but I don’t want it to get ugly; there’s plenty of that online already, and I don’t have the time or patience to deal with it here.

If this piques your interest, I’m glad to hear it and encourage you to spread the word in whatever manner you choose. I don’t know where this is headed, but I’m anxious to find out. To start with, in the next few days I’ll attempt to answer a deceptively simple question: What makes a good movie, anyway?