L13FC: The Criteria of the Film Critic

Welcome back to the Lucky 13 Film Club. I am happy to introduce this month’s co-host, Australian film critic, Richard. He writes high-quality reviews, so check out his blog at Cinemusefilms.  It’s great to hear from one and all, so add to the conversation. This month’s topic is the criteria we consider when we review a film. How do you rate a film?

Richard’s thoughts: 

Criticism here does not mean being critical. It means applying critical faculties in evaluating something. Most bloggers offer critical commentary of some sort and everyone is influenced by gender, age, ethnicity, class, politics and cultural taste. In other words, we all have biases.

There are millions of film critics chatting away in one endless conversation about what they like or don’t like about films. Most are describing film plots and their subjective responses. None are right or wrong, but if you want some degree of arms-length objectivity, having transparent and self-aware criteria is helpful. Mine are contestable but they are flexible and make sense to me. They are:

Narrative: the way story elements are connected

Cinematography: how/what the camera shows

Emotion: how we feel about what we see

Overall significance

The only film I’ve rated 5 out of 5 is Son of Saul, but I don’t want to see it again. Here’s my review:

Son of Saul (2015)

I gave La La Land (2016) four out of five stars and will happily see it again.

La La Land (2016)

One is a harrowing masterpiece, the other pure entertainment. Where criteria meets biases, you get opinions. How do you evaluate a film?

‘Nope…1443 bloggers have already panned it.’

Cindy’s ideas: 

Highly rated films for me are beautiful. I lean toward aesthetics and connect it to cinematography. If you hold the camera straight at a breathtaking location, are you really a good cinematographer? Or, take a cinematographer into the ghetto; can he or she flush out the beauty by using symmetry and sound and colors such as West Side Story?

Emotion is a fine qualifier, and what do I throw into that box? A great score, the chemistry between the characters, and the emotions felt by me.  The dialogue. If the dialogue is weak, the film never rises high in my estimation. And yet, there are fine films with little dialogue. (Castaway comes to mind.) Because I’m a writer, the narration is paramount to my subconscious criteria.  A great narrative has all the parts –a strong beginning, conflict, complex characters, a climax. I find films that have a slow beginning or middle or end will take a dip in my evaluation. Or, a film seems to have forgotten the story and included too many scenes or not enough. So balance is important to me. I believe a bad film should not be rated highly. Objective, unbiased eyes should watch a film. That’s tough. I agree with Richard that our biases and prejudices shape our responses to a film. Criteria become important. What are yours?

A 5/5 film for me? Here’s one:

Thank you, Richard! Would you like to lead a discussion you are passionate about? Let’s figure out a topic together and select a month that works for you. It’s easy and fun. Email me with your idea:  cbruchman@yahoo.com. 

76 thoughts on “L13FC: The Criteria of the Film Critic

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      1. Its interesting to hear your criteria Cindy, particularly as you are a writer. Your comment about “Objective, unbiased eyes should watch a film” grabbed me. Tell me, who has such eyes?.

        1. Ha! No one. I remember reading somewhere about a film critic school and there lesson to those who wanted to write reviews. The phrase unbiased eyes stuck with me. I thought the same thing. I wonder about Siskell and Ebert, for instance, how they would look at a film. Did they have objective, unbiased eyes?

          1. I think Roger always viewed it in the sense does the film succeed at what it is supposed to be. Its an irony that he hated using the star rating system became known for the thumbs up/thumbs down prognosis. I try to copy that way of thinking but anybody who’s read a handful of my reviews will notice certain weak points. I don’t see many horror films these days so I would like to judge a horror film on whether it is good at being a horror film but am I not going to scared more easily, fall for established tricks in a way a seasoned audience member is not. We all come with our prejudices and preferences but what I love about film is how it can take you to another place and time, give you the perspective of someone else and make you re-consider the way you look at the world. One of the reasons why I adore a good film festival.

          2. Ah…thats the critical dilemma because it is a judgement call to assess what is “supposed” to be the aim of the film. The point I was making is that we shouldnt apologise for our subjectivity because that is who we are. I’m aware of my biases (ie: preferences) but they are consistent and act as my emotional and intellectual compass. Whats wrong with that?

          3. While I’d hate to judge a film I enjoyed as poor, I know it’s “bad” to rate a poor film as good. Quite the quandary. I think that’s why I rarely review films. I like, instead, to write about them. I am a cheater.

    1. I would love to see someone develop global cross-platform aggregator software that gave a snapshot of opinion on a movie at any given time. IMO too much credence is given to the big name movie review sites. What influences you most when it comes to picking a movie?

      1. I’m interested in a film getting good reviews it’s true and I’m a sucker for blockbusters like anybody. There is talent that I like to follow the work of but ultimately a story has to appeal to me. For example I knew I was going to be interested in Sully and The Nice Guys last year. I’m glad my wife got me to see The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This year I was set for Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 and Dunkirk. But Wonder Woman kept on growing my interest and I’m glad I saw it. Independence Day: Resurgence and the new Transformers I missed and I don’t lose any sleep over that. Moonlight I would’ve missed if I wasn’t in the Oscars race and what a shame that would have been.

        1. Subjective, emotional responses to films are impossible to ignore. The mood I’m in greatly affects my response to a movie. I just watched ‘A Walk in the Woods’ starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. When I was 17, I was daydreaming in study hall that one day I’d walk the Appalachian Trail. The film was all about that journey. It was technically a weak film, but I enjoyed it nonetheless because it catered to a secret wish of mine.

  1. I write film reviews of course, and they are always biased for the very reason that I am offering a personal opinion. I am not trying to evaluate them in an academic fashion, only to pass on my thoughts, based on many years of watching films, and being fascinated by the industry. This is an interesting idea for your ‘club’, and got me thinking. Professional film reviewers, at least those ‘respected’ ones, like Roger Ebert, and Mark Kermode, have a very different agenda to bloggers. I am sometimes guided by such critics, (and a few articulate bloggers) on what films I might like to watch, but rarely if ever take advice about what NOT to watch. I prefer to make up my own mind there.

    My own criteria appears to me to be random. But thinking carefully, it does contain some constants.

    1) Originality. Original ideas for films are always attractive,as opposed to lazy remakes and re-hashes. (A good example of this would be the original version of ‘The Wicker Man’)

    2) Like you, Cinematography. This can make even a ‘mundane film’ wonderful to look at, and enhance a great film to the status of a masterpiece. I like films to look as if they have been ‘photographed’, not drawn on a computer, then placed on a green screen. (One example, ‘There Will Be Blood’)

    3) Casting. I tire of seeing the same big stars playing themselves, in a variety of different roles, and time periods. The main reason I am attracted to foreign language films, is because I rarely know the actors. That said, some frequently used ensemble casts ( As with Woody Allen, Welles, Besson, etc) can be effective.

    4) Style. One of the major criticisms levelled at some films is the accusation of ‘Style over Substance’. That has never bothered me. If a film has an unusual or attractive style, I can watch it without worrying about the substance. (I would offer ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ as a perfect example of this.)

    5) Ratings. I don’t rate films on a scale of 5 or 10 when reviewing. What might get 5 stars from me (Everlasting Moments) or a 10/10 (Blade Runner, or The Duellists) might seem excessive or unwarranted to others. I have always felt that others should want to see it based on respect for your recommendation, rather than a points rating.

    Thanks to both for a stimulating idea.

    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thank you, Pete for your thought-provoking response. Style is an interesting criterion. Usually, when I hear a film is more style than substance, it’s CGI generated which I know you don’t care for. I also thought of T. Malick films, which to me, seem very much style over substance. ‘The Tree of Life’ or ‘Song to Song’ and while they are visually stunning and evocative, I’m bored out of my mind. I keep thinking, “Where’s the story?”

      1. Malick has a tendency to wander, I agree. But when he gets the style right, it’s a sight to see. ‘The Thin Red Line’, and ‘Days of Heaven’ come to mind. I don’t think of CGI-heavy films as ‘style’. I think of them as technology, with a distinct lack of cinematography. To see a film ‘photographed’ is a joy. David Lean and his team were masters of the art.
        Best wishes, Pete.

  2. Your criteria appears to me to be far from random. I like the methodical articulation of what guides you. IMO evaluation criteria can only ever offer general guidelines; at the end of the day your own personal value set shapes your opinions and thats what provides consistency in expressing yourself. Numercal ratings are quicksand: the numbers do not matter as much as the reasons you offer behind your conclusions. What unites writer and reader is love of film and a willingess to converse about it. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

    1. Richard, that’s so true. I also find watching a film twice sometimes increases my appreciation and the rating rises. Take for instance, ‘Dunkirk’. First viewing, an above average score while appreciating the dogfight scenes the best because of cinematography. Then, upon a second viewing, I looked at the film from the angle of a fellow blogger who LOVED the film. I focused on the threads and the theme of the hero and I saw a nuance I missed at first. Now I would rate it higher. A 4/5.

      1. I would like to have your generosity and forgiveness Cindy but cannot see myself watching Dunkirk again and forming a different view. Come to think of it, I could watch any film again and expect to feel either same way as I did the first time or be more critical because its novelty value would have diminished. OMG, what does that say about me?

        1. There’s nothing like the first time, there’s something special in it. I try not to watch my favourite film too often because I don’t want to become too familiar with it. Some films are pleasingly re-watchable. You know my high opinion of Dunkirk but I am not in rush to see it again. Although maybe one more time on the big screen….

          1. I know what you mean Lloyd. Cooincidentally, I re-watched Jaws (1975) last night for a paper I’m writing in a subject on Hollywood Cinema. It holds up remarkably well as a movie and I was surprised at the special visual pleasures of seeing something that I have not seen for 40 years. Maybe its about aging…

          2. I think so! Nothing better than watching a classic you haven’t seen since you were young. To have the older sensibilities and still see the good about it — well, that’s why it’s a classic. 🙂

  3. I can see where the critic’s personal opinion comes in, but I prefer to hear the aesthetics, as you said. My opinion may not be that of a critic, so I naturally prefer the facts and let me make up my own mind of what I want to see – not be told by someone’s else’s (or whatever the total on FB happens to be) opinion.
    [that’s sort of like when people watched Oprah and treated her opinions as though they were written in stone.]

        1. The film theorists call this ‘verisimilitude’ and its the make or break criterion. It works in some interesting ways because you can see films like A Monster Calls and A Ghost Story that are rich in illusion and metaphor and not meant to be taken as realism. But what they depict has verisimilitude.

    1. Ha! I remember thinking “if only I convince Oprah to endorse my book” – or Stephen King!
      If they stamp it with approval, you’ve got a best seller. With film critics, I remember leaning toward Ebert and his opinions and it influenced my viewing of the film. Now I like to see a film based on my interests like historical films. After my initial criteria run through. Then I like to read reviews to see if we match up.

      1. I was always excited about a film Roger liked but we didn’t always agree. The magic of Ebert’s reviews for me was whether I agreed or disagreed I enjoyed reading them. That is kind of the critic we can only hope to aspire to be. His reviews for me were art pure and simple.

        1. The Ebert site is my most trusted source of intelligent film conversation. Note that I say “conversation”; I differ as much as I concur with it and I’m not interested in its ratings but an entry to a discourse. While the new generation of Eberters attempt to honour/emulate Roger’s writing style, its a hard act to follow. What I look for every time, and this is a ‘big thing’ for me, is a writer’s reasoning or substantiation. Its easy to express an opinion. We can do it seconds after seeing a film. But explaining and supporting is IMO the heart of the critical writing process.

          1. I agree. The thinking of the film, the analysis, is what makes watching a film worth the time. If there is a message, I enjoy thinking about it. I think that’s why I am a fan of Science Fiction. I don’t favor reviews that are a string of weighty adjectives. I like the angles presented by the reviewer. I like thinking about the how and why it worked for them, memorable.

          2. Science Fiction is a particularly good example of a genre that invites deeper probing. It thrives not because of the science or technology angle, but because of our fears and fascination with the unknown. I respect film critiques that are not locked into the film’s frame of reference. Ironically, the film is not ‘the thing’, rather its what we bring to it and why that makes it such a source of pleasure.

  4. Its funny your perspective as a writer felt familiar to me Cindy, as I often seem to focus on narrative too. When I was a kid I used to be disappointed by a film if the third act wasn’t a big finale. Now I found myself disengaged by the CGI blow out at the end. Often remarking about blockbusters this year the first half was better than the second. That seems like such a shame to me. War of the Planet of the Apes was a recent example. If the point was to show the main character learn his lesson then why did he make the decisions he did at the end. That disappointed me. While the overuse of green screen left me a little tuned out during the Wonder Woman finale the themes of the story were brought to fruition and a key character beat was present. I’m also finding if you’re making a parable or a point as it were you get some brownie points with me. Valerian had adolescent humour and mundane dialogue but it still had something to say about the need to come together and reject fear and hatred and in my mind that gave it some weight. Visually it was spectacular.

    1. Narrative is indeed the essence of storytelling; twas always thus, and always will be. But its a culturally-specific thing and once again, its our biases that shape our preferences. The major difference between Hollywood narrative and European (and other) approaches is that the former tends to be guided by logical causation that proceeds episodically to and neat and tidy closure. The European narrative tradition is more open ended and the finale is often ambivalent; art-style film is believed to more closely mimic real life which can often be quite random. So the word narrative raises more questions than answers. Do you have a preferred narrative style?

      1. I think I like all narratives. I’m a sucker for a happy ending, man don’t get me started on Edward Scissorhands 🙂 but I’ve seen some downbeat films and enjoyed them for what they are. I think we’re looking for is consistency and truth. Million Dollar Baby for example has characters at the end of that make choices I would hope they wouldn’t but it feels true to them and I’m moved by it. So that works. Plus the change of direction in that film is telegraphed by certain things early on so it doesn’t feel like a betrayal. I think that helps. Often an ambigious ending will be beloved if we as the audience feel we know the answer because we know the characters. Sideways. The Outlaw Josey Wales. Stuff life that.

    2. I find a lot of children’s films stay true that. They honor the virtues of human nature and it makes you feel warm inside. I tire of adult films romanticizing very bad behavior. Again, I’m turning old. Twenty years ago, I admired ‘Boogie Nights’ and every Mafia movie out there. Now, the glorifying of the immoral like ‘Suicide Squad’ do little for me.

  5. One more thing in terms of criteria. I’ve mentioned this before but if you can make me fall in love with the characters or at least be fascinated by them I will give you some flaws in your movie. The Force Awakens and Rey and Finn are a good example of this. Rogue One is a good example of the opposite occurring.

    1. I like that thought Lloyd; its one that I dont acknowledge enough. It is so human….liking people. Also your point about forgiving faults. I often feel that we expect too much of films: we walk in, sit down, and sub-consciously challenge the movie to prove that its multi-million dollar budget was well spent. Its actually easy to fault any film; much harder to set them aside and focus on its strenghts.

      1. That’s true, Richard. I saw a film I was sure I wasn’t going to like recently, a “chick-flick” and I found myself caring deeply for the protagonists as well as the ethical decisions raised. ‘Me Before You’. It was filmed in Scotland, so I loved it heaps and bounds. I thought the actress Emily Clarke was charming and her beauty grew and grew because of her personality.

          1. I just finished watching ‘The Free State of Jones’ and, here again, I wonder why it was panned by so many. I thought it gripping. Matthew M. did a wonderful job.

      1. I will have to check out both of these films. You know sometimes I like a film even though I look at it and just thinks its not a very good film. Xanadu for example. The lead is a bit of a dick, its jus a mash up of musical styles and not particularly great numbers and yet I like it. Maybe its about them dreamers and there’s something magical with sound. I remember seeing Chronicles of Riddick with a friend and thinking it passed the time. It had no real story but eh its alright. Its just weird how we react to things.

  6. Thank you Richard and Cindy for this post. Richard’s Cinemuse I often find challenging and enlightening. If I don’t agree with an opinion I never fail to be impressed by how he writes with confidence, intelligence and fairness. As for you Cindy, you know I love you. Another great post.

    1. You are always so kind Lloyd; I know I would enjoy a beer and a chat with you. Your comments on my blog are always thoughtful and often challenging. Thats important to me as critic: its nice to read nodding heads, but its the comments that dissent and explain why someone disagrees that are most enjoyable and rewarding.

      1. That’s very kind Richard, I’m not as well versed in theory as you are and struggle to articulate an argument but you’re always respectful and kind to me which is appreciated.

        1. I still struggle Lloyd. I went back to university study in 2011 because my son was doing a film studies degree and the material looked like the answer to a decades old problem of mine. I was tired of seeing thousands of movies and not being able to explain to myself what they meant. It was like not having the language or thought structures to organise the viewing experience into emotionally and intellectually satisfying explanations. I now spend a large part of my retirement writing about films, not because I think I’m good at it but more because if I stop practicing the language I’ll forget how to understand film. Writing helps me own my memories and keep one step ahead of Alzheimers.

  7. Two excellent responses there! For me the word that springs out most is experience. There’s a disparity between my dialogical response to a film and the final rating I will give a film in that my star rating is often as much an emotional response as it is analytical. I consider both Son of Saul and La La Land to be five star films but you would struggle to put them in a category together, whilst I would hesitate before naming either faultless. Film criticism isn’t a case of rights and wrongs as Richard says here, it’s entirely subjective. If I gave a film 1/5 that doesn’t mean it’s an objectively hateful film and I always try to remember that for someone in that production this probably meant quite a lot. I love giving films a star rating but only do so for the aesthetic fun of it at the top of a review. I write because I have a passion to delve within the frame and script of a film and uncover secrets, connections and stylistic flourishes that fill them – whether intentional on the part of the makers or not!

    1. Good point about the “struggle to put them in a category together”. In terms of my pwn ranking processes, I make a conscious effort to compare like with like. There is no common denominator between Son of Saul and La La Land, and using the same numerical rating system wrongly implies that they are in some way comparable. They are not. It becomes a judgement call what to compare a film with because so many are hybrid genres and their labels are very wobbly. As you say, “the word that springs out most is experience”.

      1. I think I do enter films always with the same criteria. I take in the cinematography and think about the way the film looks and the way the mise-en-scene has been crafted. I watch the actors and think about whether I believe in their performances and whether they do actually. I listen to what they’re saying and hear the script through that. Does it sound natural (if it’s meant to)? It’s a whole roster of criterium really. I think that emotion comes into my reviews most with five star films – if a film ticks all the boxes AND hits me emotionally that’s often what elevates it. I do have genre expectations and budget considerations that can affect how I view a film too

        1. Sounds like a thorough list to me. I find when I watch a film, I have an initial opinion ( I liked it! Or , That was boring. ) Then I enjoy thinking about it, going through my criteria list trying to pinpoint the flaws and strengths. Your reviews are nicely written. I enjoy reading them.

  8. Naturally all movies aren’t made with me as their intended audience. Few are. I have to take that into account if I do a review.
    For myself, my Rating for a Classic is any movie I can watch multiple times. It’s interesting that most movies that win the Oscar don’t arrive there.

    1. Thats an interesting rating benchmark jcalberta, and it makes sense if it works for you. The only way I can repeat watch a movie is if I have forgotten that I’ve seen it. I see that you are a fan of classic westerns; your collection of Stagecoach images is impressive.

        1. Who you watch it with can help as much as your age. There were these guys when I was in my 20s that really helped films like Charlies’ Angels, Hudson Hawk and The Replacements. I shudder to watch them now without them. 😉

  9. I pretty much agree with the things you listed about film criticism, Cindy. I think trying to be objective can also help, and having a certain balance. At least that’s what I try to do when I’m reviewing a movie.

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