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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2 thoughts on “What makes a good movie?”

  1. I would add to evaluating the narrative: does the story add something to my life? Does it show me a new view point, touch my emotions, inform me, add meaning to a topic, or even just provide great entertainment?

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