You Must Choose, But Choose Wisely: the Art of Film Selection



It is an incredible time to be a fan of cinema. There are more ways to access films than at any other point in history.  Anything you could ever want to watch is right at your fingertips. But with great power comes great responsibility. Having such a large amount of films to choose from and a finite amount of time to watch them has turned us into the kid whose eyes are bigger than his belly. It’s forcing us to choose… wisely. Many factors come into play for me when I choose to watch the films I choose to watch.

Critical Response
It goes without saying that the critics aren’t always right. But there is something to be said for the “wisdom of the herd“. One or two film critics might have an outlier opinion about a film. But the beauty of a place like Rotten Tomatoes is that it includes opinions from all critics. The outliers and anomalies get scrubbed out amid the wave of opinion, which seems to find a proper middle ground and whose % score grows more accurate with more and more reviews. This is especially helpful after a film’s opening weekend. The same herd that helps us can also hurt when they rush to judgment. Opening weekends can be especially difficult for certain films because there seems to be a herd mentality among large-scale critics, who may ultimately trample some decent films. But given time, more critics see the film free and clear from the herd mentality and more favorable reviews balance out the negative early reviews. Before you know it, the 40% Rotten Tomatoes score after a film’s opening weekend has become a 65%- a far more respectable score.

Specific Critics
If you don’t trust the wisdom of the herd, you’re always free to find specific critics whose opinions seem to match your own. To go back to Rotten Tomatoes (RT) again, each critic has a full library of reviews that you can access. This is how it works: you go see XYZ film. You have a strong reaction to it. You go to the film’s RT page and see that Mr. or Mrs. ABC has given this film a review that echoes many of your own feelings. You then click on the critic’s name, which takes you to the full list of reviews that they have on RT. You see by perusing their reviews that you agree with Mr. or Mrs. ABC a lot. And, voila! You have a new trusted source. For me, that person is Peter Hall.

Fan Ratings

Your movie-going peers know things. Trust them, even when they're wearing evil bunny rabbit costumes in the theater.

This is one way that IMDb is such a wonderful resouce. Each film’s page has the average rating that IMDb community members have given each film. Clearly, there’s some sample bias here- I’d be curious to know how many people who have rated, say, The Dark Knight with such high regard have also seen The Seventh Seal. But none of that devalues the resource. It’s the “wisdom of the herd” mentality taken to a much grander scale, and applied to people who probably view films the same way that you do. In other words, they aren’t film critics. They’re the popcorn-spilling, soda-guzzling movie novice, not some critic whose opinion may be tainted by a desire to sell newspapers or drive traffic. The same applies to Netflix. Each film’s page on Netflix gives an average score (out of 5 stars) by all Netflix viewers who have rated that particular film. Once you start combining the IMDb rating with the RT score and Netflix viewer rating, you start to get a pretty good idea of where a film stands in terms of overall quality. And it’ll help you avoid the stinkers.

Word of Mouth/Friends

Without word of mouth, I never would've found out about the serial killing tire movie.

 

 

Nobody knows your movie tastes like your friends. Nobody understands what will make you say “yes” or “no” to a film like your inner circle. And if I’m being completely honest here, because of their familiarity with my taste in films, I trust friends more than any other resource. Film, like music, is a medium meant to be shared. Ask any person on the street and they’re going to have a favorite movie (or movies) and they’ll be glad to talk about them. And so your acquaintances make up a very personalized taste test of how much you can anticipate quality from a movie. Because you know these people, you know what their own motivations are in choosing certain films, and what would make them enjoy them (or dislike them). This information is easily factored into your final decision. This is also where social networking sites and guerilla marketing campaigns on places like Youtube come into play. If you keep your ear to the ground and follow the right people on Twitter, you can get some really fantastic movie recommendations. At some point, one of your friends (and members of your social network) will unearth a gem of a trailer that’s gone unnoticed. Before you know it, your interest is piqued in a movie about a serial killing tire.

Genre/Director/Actor
Certain actors, and especially certain directors, have enough street cred with me that I’ll watch anything that they make. For instance, I don’t care what the Coen brothers are making. I don’t care what Martin Scorsese is making. If either of them have a film in theaters, I’m going to go watch it, guaranteed. From the time I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film, it took no time at all for me to realize I wanted to watch as much of his work as I possibly could. You can do similar exercises with a lot of actors. If you’re unfamiliar with, say, films starring Jack Nicholson, you can find a wealth of incredible cinema by tackling the majority of his films from the late 60’s until at least the early 80’s, if not beyond. You’d be hard pressed to find a lot of bad Tom Hanks films. These are just examples. Then, there are genres. Choosing film by genre is the real rabbit hole that can lead you to some magical places. Samurai films, cop movies, mafia films, vampire movies, werewolf movies, exploitation genres, film noir… the list goes on seemingly forever. Find a director or actor or genre that you enjoy and dedicate yourself to seeing as much of their films as you can, and you’ve tapped into extraordinarily fertile territory.


18 Comments

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18 responses to “You Must Choose, But Choose Wisely: the Art of Film Selection

  1. I have a list of about 5 or 6 directors I’ll watch anything by. Second thing I look for is the possibility of a hook ending. After that, it’s all how I’m feeling at the moment. Mostly, I just watch the same David Mamet films again and again.

  2. Phil

    The Filmspotting podcast has introduced to more good films than anything else. I have a Netflix queue with new releases and recent films I’ve missed, and another which is a list of classic films I need to catch up on.

  3. If this entire post was an elaborate ruse just to get me to watch Rubber, you have succeeded. Well played sir, well played…

  4. I’m definitely a ‘choose a director’ sort of person…but there are too many classic films I haven’t seen, so I’m working through those. My director of choice: Alfred Hitchcock. My goal is to see as many of his films as I possibly can.

    • You have some great watching ahead of you. I’ve done about 20 Hitchcock films and he made something like 50 or 55, I think. There’s still a LOT in your future (and mine). And they’re never ever bad. The guy was amazing.

  5. hmmm interesting post.

    I probably go with director/actor/producer then a bit of IMDb rating, trying to steer away from anything sub 6/10 if possible. But I also hold in very high regard my peers.

    You are totally right about not finding out about great (if slightly odd) films without them (peers I mean). I too found the Tyre movie from a blog. And although I was scratching my head the whole way through I did enjoy the show, which would have totally passed me by without my fellow bloggers.

    You have got me thinking thanks.

    C

    • I’m glad to hear it!

      I tend to have Director projects. Right now, it’s Billy Wilder. I’ll snag one of their films, and if I like it a lot, it’ll launch me into a full-blown obsession. So while there are really notable directors out there who I’ve barely seen (Ozu comes to mind), I’ve also wiped out most of the available Bunuel, Scorsese, Bergman, Louis Malle…

  6. I have directors I like whose work I follow. I couldn’t count how many though! A director whose work I’ve enjoyed once is worthy enough for a second chance. I also have a few trust-worthy sources who are in sync with my tastes. And sometimes I just go on a country tangent. I’ll watch one Japanese film that blows my mind and then I must have more. And sometimes I just go on an entire decade tangent and only want to see films from the 70’s. I’m farely random with the selection process. But I know what I don’t like and there are certain actors, directors and genres I just steer clear of. There is always the odd exception to the rule but romantic-comedies and family films are generally avoided in my house and any film by Bay, Emmerich or starring Julia Roberts are absolutely forbidden.

    • If I’m being completely honest, I’d count you as one of my trusted horror resources. And while this isn’t the specific “why” for what I just said about you being a trusted horror resource, your comment about Julia Roberts films being “absolutely forbidden” is a great side effect of why you’re a trusted resource.*

      *that is, other than the HUUUUUGE disagreement about “Alucarda”, which I have yet to bring up

      • I’ve been doing this blog thing for a couple of years now, and I still can’t get accustom to the idea that someone might consider me a trusted resource. Good of ya to say sir. But Oh-Oh! HUGE disagreement about Alucarda?! You will not be pleased then to see Alucarda on my top 10 of 1978 (coming soon!)!

  7. rtm

    Nolan is the kind of director whose movies I’d watch in a heartbeat, but w/ actors, no matter how I like ’em, I’d still have to gauge the quality first before I’d waste my time watching ’em. Some I won’t watch at all no matter how much I adore him/her because of the subject matter or genre.

    I agree about what you said about ‘wisdom of the herd’ sentiment about critics, I don’t always agree with them but combining that and ratings from places like IMDb and word of mouth, it gives me a pretty good idea whether a movie is worth watching or not. I do notice that RT scores might change drastically after the first week as more reviews pour in, so might be a good idea in the future to wait at least a week before seeing a movie on opening night if we’re unsure about it. Great post John, as always.

    • I love how Nolan has become the official trusted Blockbuster Director Guy. And deservedly so. If there’s a lot of money involved and Nolan is too, you can bet it’ll be an entertaining movie.

  8. Great post. I have friends who say “I never read movie reviews,” and I try to explain how it can be one of many factors in selecting a movie, as you explain so well. So I will have to recommend your post. When I’m on the fence about movies, the reviews are very helpful, but as you explain, there are certain genres, etc. where what others say matters much less. I agree with you about the Coens. If there is a new Western, I’ll probably go to the theater. If TCM is showing a film noir, I’ll watch it. etc.

    By the way, speaking of critics, I watched the latest episode of “Ebert Presents At the Movies” this morning, and one of the critics recommended the killer tire movie, Rubber. Now that I’ve seen a reference to the movie twice in a few hours, I may have to see it.

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