Liking good movies should be pretty easy—I mean, if they’re good movies, we should automatically like them.
But it’s usually not that easy. A lot of the time, we find that everyone likes this one movie and we can’t stand it, or maybe we like a certain movie and no one else is on board. Often times, we’re content to chalk it up to preference—people like what they like—but sometimes it bothers us or maybe even intrigues us. What is it about these movies that affects so many people?
And that is the question of movie criticism—realizing that there is something almost objective in film that affects lots of people in the same way and asking what that something is. When we can identify that x-factor, when we can put a name on it, it not only helps us enjoy movies more, it also gives us a window into the collective mind of a culture and even helps us to distinguish and filter the message of any given movie. Knowing how movies work, why the masses like certain ones and forget about others, and why the experts praise particular titles are tools that allow us to more actively and constructively engage the world around us.
In this vein, many people have asked me how one should go about getting into movies and film criticism; they want to know what they need to do so that RottenTomatoes scores actually mean something to them.
My advice is to watch these movies:
1. Iron Man (or Pride & Prejudice—just pick a movie you already know you like)
2. The Raiders of the Lost Ark
3. A Beautiful Mind
4. The Prestige (for bonus effect, follow up with The Illusionist)
5. 12 Angry Men
6. Back to the Future
7. Ocean’s Eleven
9. Lawrence of Arabia
10. Hot Fuzz
11. The Princess Bride
12. Mad Max (1979)
13. No Country for Old Men (Fargo would work too)
14. Citizen Kane (or All About Eve)
15. Pulp Fiction
18. Troll 2
19. All Quiet on the Western Front
20. Cool Hand Luke
21. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
22. Raging Bull
23. The Big Lebowski
24. City of God
25. 2001: A Space Odyssey
26. Bicycle Thieves
27. Before Sunrise
28. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
29. Wild Strawberries
30. My Dinner with Andre
If you want to get into movies, watch these movies in this order. There’s no deadline, simply begin the next before you’ve forgotten the last.
This scientifically calibrated list is designed by me and friends to objectively augment one’s movie appreciation. If you’ve seen the movies on the list before, watch them again, because they are chosen to work in roughly this order. The list begins with fairly straightforward films, generally well liked and mainstream, but as you move through the list, they become more stylized and experimental and thought-provoking, and finally, they end with movies that I assume most viewers would not normally enjoy or even find boring. If you can get to the end and get something out of My Dinner with Andre, you did it right.
(And it really doesn’t have to be these movies. The whole list could just as easily be made of Westerns, starting with 3:10 to Yuma and leading up to El Topo. But this list is a good starting point.)
Still, just watching these movies won’t be enough. You’ve got to start caring about what you’re watching. Part of “caring” is watching movies you normally wouldn’t, but it also involves putting yourself in the right mind to watch a movie. Let the movie lead your thoughts and emotions where it wants to; watch it like you’re in the theater on opening night in whatever year it came out—you have to adjust your mind to each movie.
For this list, try three simple disciplines after each film: Ask yourself what you liked about the movie, what you didn’t like and how someone might defend that, and read either a newspaper critic (e.g. Roger Ebert or Dana Stevens) or someone who gives good critical reviews (so not CinemaSins or Nostalgia Critic).
Getting into film can be difficult and intimidating. People like to throw out movie lingo and cinematography terms—and those things are useful—but you obviously don’t have to start there. Just watch some good movies and put some thought into why they’re good. Once you can do that regularly, it will no longer be work but will come naturally, and every new movie will be a unique and enlightening experience.