Today, by “popular” request, I’m going to be talking about what, in my opinion, makes a movie good.
Now you might be thinking, “But Bod, are you at all qualified to make these determinations?”
No, no I’m not.
Where were we? Right, movies.
Now usually in my reviews I break everything down by category, so I’m going to do that here and say what I think makes each of these components “good” or “bad.”
There is absolutely no way for me to describe what a “good” premise is. This is an extremely subjective topic, and I think what people would consider good differs immensely by taste. Generally speaking, premises are somewhat of a litmus test: take any movie and summarize what it’s about in a few sentences. Now go and describe that to someone. Most of the time, people will respond to a movie premise with either a “wow, that sounds really interesting,” or a “boy, that’s stupid as hell, I ain’t seeing that shit.” Based on those responses, you can usually tell.
It’s worth noting that some ridiculous premises have been executed extremely well, and vise versa. So don’t judge a movie by its description (judge it by the score I give it, you sheep).
Similar to premise, the quality of a plot is both subjective and highly dependent on the type of film. A good action plot will be very, very different than a good mystery. With that being said, there are a few elements that I usually look for to see whether I’d consider a certain plot good.
Coherence: This is more about storytelling, but a good movie plot should be coherent. I’m not saying that a movie needs to hold your hand and tell audiences everything. However, the events happening should be at least somewhat related, and there should be a sort of progression present. Otherwise, your “movie” is really just a collection of images and sounds. Granted, this stuff only really applies to narratives, so to all you experimental filmmakers out there, keep doing… whatever it is you do.
Rationality: A movie should abide by its own internal logic. I want to make clear that I’m not saying one small plot hole or unexplained detail immediately renders a movie invalid. Some hand-waving is fine, not everything needs to make perfect sense, etc. That being said, every movie takes place in its own world: this can be our own, or one created for the film. These worlds usually have some rules, at least as many as the movie wants to tell us about. If something happens in the film that blatantly violates the logic of all preceding scenes, or feels completely out of place, I consider that evidence of lazy writing. If the filmmakers can’t even be bothered to have their own movie make sense, why should I bother watching it? (Just kidding, I ❤ shitty movies)
Predictability: Depending on the type of story, certain movies will be more predictable than others. On top of that, not every movie needs some kind of plot twist; a film can unfold exactly as you’d expect, and that’s fine (I guess). However, if I can anticipate every development, every reveal, every outcome, then the movie doesn’t become as interesting. This isn’t to say that knowing a movie’s plot makes it worthless: I personally couldn’t care less about soilers, and often times movies with big twists actually get better upon rewatching. But a predictable plot doesn’t really mean that a movie was too obvious— usually, it means it was unoriginal. If a movie has the same basic plot as other films that have been done hundreds of times over, this just means that the filmmaker didn’t bother adding anything new or clever. If you’re going to essentially remake an existing film, at least put some twist on it (like Rango with Chinatown).
Things that, in my opinion, make characters good:
Compelling: Movie characters don’t need to be likable. They do, however, need to be compelling in some way. We need to feel something towards a character: maybe we like them, maybe we can relate to them, maybe we hate them with a burning passion. The absolute worst thing that a movie character can be is just… boring. If the audience has absolutely no feelings towards a certain character, especially if they’re one of the main ones in the film, they simply weren’t written well. The only exception I can think to this is when a character is used as a framing device for the rest of the events to unfold (think Nick from The Great Gatsby). Otherwise, good characters need to get our attention.
Grounded: This varies, but generally speaking, characters that are more realistic tend to be more interesting This doesn’t mean that every movie character needs to be some regular, boring person, or that eccentric/fantastical characters are automatically disinteresting. Obviously, this isn’t true. However, characters with realistic elements are generally more relatable. I’m going to use comic book characters as an example: people love Spiderman (overrated tbh, but that’s beside the point), because aside from his red suit and his sick parkour moves, he’s just a normal teenager. Batman’s cool cause he’s some rich guy. I mean, he’s some rich guy who knows ten languages, a hundred different martial arts, and happens to be the “world’s greatest detective,” but given enough time and money all of that seems (somewhat) feasible. Where characters fail is when they have no humanity at all. Man of Steel Superman is incredibly boring because he’s not really a person. He has no mortality, an extremely rigid morality, talks like a robot, and looks disinterested in every situation. The fact that he’s an alien has no bearing here; dude was still raised as a human. When characters have no emotion, no drive, they’re simply not relatable to the audience. And if you can’t relate to a character at any level, you’re probably not going to get invested in their escapades.
Cliche: This is a minor thing, but a lot of movies have characters that are just… overused. Demanding boss, crazy ex-lover, passive-aggressive parent, spooky demon ghost that jump scares people (this differs by genre). None of these archetypes are inherently bad, but they are very copy-paste. When one of “those” characters shows up in a movie, it becomes clear that the writers had little interest in creating an original person.
Good dialogue does one of three things: reveals information (expositional), explores characters or their relationships (developmental), or has some comedic/ideological value (entertaining). Dialogue that does none of these things is usually useless and can mostly be cut out of scenes.
Furthermore, good dialogue shouldn’t be predictable. If I can call out exactly what the next word a character is going to say, repeatedly, chances are the dialogue is either cliche or overdone. Most of the time I’m able to do this, it’s because I’ve seen the exact same speech/monologue/rant/conversation/banter/plea performed in other movies before. This goes back to the copy-paste thing: taking conversational templates and throwing them into your script is lazy, and makes your movie lose its originality.
Good tone is:
Appropriate: A movie’s tone should match whatever it’s depicting, and whatever it’s trying to say. A holocaust drama would be considered offensive if it took an overly light-hearted or farcical tone. Similarly, a comedy that’s too dark, or takes itself too seriously, is going to play as awkward, or boring. This doesn’t mean every war drama needs to be gritty and dark one hundred percent of the time, or comedies can’t ever get real. However, if your movie is made in a way that evokes a certain style, when the actual content of the film doesn’t match that at all, I’m probably not going to respect the movie.
Consistent: Movies can have tonal shifts, but shouldn’t overuse them. Usually tonal shifts occur between acts, or at the reveal of some brand new information. If a movie is constantly going between light and dark, it gets exhausting. Similarly, a sharp tonal shift should only really happen once or twice. Movies can sort of go back and forth if they do it gradually, but if a movie’s tone is shifting from scene to scene, it gets really confusing as to what the movie is trying to say.
At a technical level, a movie should be shot in a way that everything on screen that the film wants to show should be clear and easy to make out. Shots should have lighting such that they are neither under nor over exposed (unless it’s done for a specific purpose). The focus of the shot should be on whatever the subject is, and the use of focus (lens), should be appropriate for what the scene is trying to depict. Colors should be accurate, and while use of some sort of filter is fine, it shouldn’t be overbearing to the point of taking away from the content of the shots themselves.
Editing should also be done in such a way that it’s not jarring to the audience. While sharp transitions from scene to scene can be okay, with one scene the editing should such that everything can be pieced together in a coherent way. For example, if two people are having a conversation and the camera is switching between their faces, it should be obvious where they are, where the two are actually facing, and to whom they are speaking. This includes basic stuff like the 180 degree rule: if two characters start on certain sides of the frame, those sides should be maintained throughout the shot for visual consistency.
Finally, the use of camera and camera movement should be appropriate for a scene. Handheld or “shaky cam” is fine for a scene with a lot of action or movement, but for a simple conversation the camera (conventionally) should be locked down. Similarly, camera movement should be smooth (something something dollies), unless done otherwise for specific effect.
Sound in films has a technical component, and an artistic component.
Sound design: Sound design refers to the general use of sound throughout the film, including dialogue volume, ambient noise, and other sound effects that are scattered around in movies. Sound design usually has a right answer. If the sounds in a movie are accurate to what the scene is depicting, we typically don’t take notice, but it does help with the immersion into the film. On the contrary, if something doesn’t sound right, this immediately takes you out of the scene and usually stands out. A car moving should make car noises, gun should make gun noises, etc. Sound design is one of the more under-appreciated components of movies, but can make a huge difference whether depending on whether or not it is done well.
Score: Score refers to the music used throughout a movie. There’s no real right or wrong answer with this: some directors may choose to use an extremely loud score, while other may forego it altogether. Usually, a good score will add to the film’s atmosphere, while not being distracting to the scenes that it’s in. Bad scores are overbearing and actively take away. Personally, I don’t take offense to a movie having an understated or otherwise unmemorable score, however some may consider it to be a lacking component in certain movies.
I usually compare films within their own genre, so what makes any given film good is largely dependent on what it’s going for. Just as we don’t judge fish on their abilities to breathe oxygen or whatever, we wouldn’t judge a comedy on its success in delivering social commentary, or a horror movie in its historical accuracy or costume design (unless those are integral parts of the film). Dumb action movies have every right to be campy or poorly written, but high-brow science fiction movies don’t.
But really, none of what I wrote above actually matters. Movie quality is subject, and what makes something good is whether or not you liked it. Unless you take some weird pleasure-by-proxy in critical analysis of good movies, you’re the only audience that matters (to yourself, that is–– studios don’t care about you). If a movie looks good, go and watch it! Fuck the critics. Except me, of course.