Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What makes me like a movie?

Yesterday I posted the following status update on Facebook: “With Selma this past weekend, finished-up all 8 Best Picture nominations now. I kinda put Selma in a category with Unbroken (not nominated for picture) which is “totally fine and respectable narrative history lesson”* but not astonishing in the way say Schindler’s List or JFK were. I sure hope Best Picture goes to Birdman, Boyhood, or The Grand Budapest Hotel.

*Honestly, I put American Sniper and The Theory of Everything in this camp too. Perfectly fine, but missing the “it” factor that I can’t define, but know it when I feel it.”

My friend Kelli commented and asked me a very interesting question: “What makes you like/dislike a movie?” She also commented that she liked Boyhood, but didn’t love it.
I decided to respond to her here on my blog as follows . . . .

Dear Kelli,

First, let me say that you are not lacking in expertise. One doesn’t need expertise to ponder what makes them personally like a movie or not. I’m not an expert in movies; rather, I’m only an expert in knowing what movies I like and don’t like. I could say the same thing about ice cream: I’m not an expert, but I know that mint chip is better than chocolate (hopefully you see my point there).
By the way, I agree with you about Boyhood. I too liked it a lot, but did not love it. I sure loved director, Richard Linklater’s film before this, Before Midnight, better than Boyhood. Ironically, I thought he should have won the Oscar for Best Screenplay last year for Before Midnight, but he lost to 12 Years A Slave. And, he’s gonna end up winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay this year, for what’s, in my opinion, a weaker screenplay.  That said, I rank movies on a 1 to 5 star scale, 5 being best, and I do give Boyhood 5 stars. Keep in mind that in this conversation that you commented upon, the discussion was limited to Academy Award nominations. I was talking about predictions for the Oscar. But, Boyhood was not in my personal top 10 *favorite* movies of 2014. More than I “loved it” I would say I totally RESPECTED Boyhood. Which brings me to your question, “What makes you like/dislike a movie?”

Because I really love the art of cinema, I think part of me actually decides to like a movie based on the respect I have for the craft of filmmaking. Thus, as is the case with Boyhood, I look at the craft itself and say, “Wow! What a monumental achievement that was.” So, when I see a movie like say, Lawrence of Arabia, I’m blown-away by the cinematography, the editing, the set design, the costumes, the score, the acting, and I just say, “What a well-made film” and then I love the movie! But, that is not enough! For example, with a movie like Avatar, one could clearly argue that it is well-crafted. However, I found it stupid.

If I was to say that what makes me like or dislike a movie is that it’s not stupid, that’s silly because what is stupid to one person is not stupid to another. It’s like asking, “What’s the best flavor of ice cream?” right? So, as I look deeper, a key key element to me are the characters! I love broken characters. I love real characters and real characters are broken because we’re all broken. So, back to a movie like Avatar, I couldn’t care less about any of the characters. And, most of them were not real. Like the Colonel guy played by Stephen Lang was a total cartoon, no grey area. Totally stupid. But, as you said, Boyhood had real characters and I was invested in them. Some of my very favorite movies of all time are movies that some would say are not particularly well made, but I love the characters. Elizabethtown is one of those. Drew and Claire are a mess, they’re “substitute people” and I love them. Gotta have real characters, the more complex, enigmatic, and broken, the better. FYI, that right there is one reason I hate Pretty Woman, I don’t want a cartoonish hooker with a heart of gold and a nice john. I want Ben and Sera in Leaving Lost Vegas, I want people so broken they make me cry. This brings me to my final criteria: Emotions.

I want to feel when I see a movie. I don’t go in deciding what will make me feel something down to my gut, but when I do feel it, that is when I love a movie.  If the credits are rolling and I literally can’t leave, don’t want to talk, and preferably I am literally weeping, then that’s a movie I really like! But, it doesn’t have to be sad or crying as the emotion. It can be a feeling of joy or just total intrigue. A recent example is The Perks of Being A Wallflower. That movie ended and Chrisy and I were literally crying and Max was with us and he finally asked, “Why are you guys crying?” I told him, “Because life is so painful, but life is so beautiful.” The movies I like a lot tend to make me feel that. The movies I dislike are movies that do the opposite to me.  Before they even end I know I just don’t care about anyone in the movie and I just didn’t feel anything. To be clear: I do not go to the movies to “escape” though. Many say, “I go to the movies to escape” which usually means something along the lines of just give me mindless action. That is not escape to me. That is torture.

So, there you have it. I think the answer is:

1. The totality of its craft.

2. Complex characters that I care about.

3. It makes me really FEEL something.

When all three of those come together then, no matter how hefty (or light) the film appears to be, I find it is a form of escape for me.  The two best examples of all three of those elements converging for me in my lifetime are Schindler’s List and Magnolia. Recent examples on the seemingly lighter spectrum would be both Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which I like more than Boyhood.

Finally, there is one final bonus aspect that is kind of the wild card if you will. Once in awhile a movie will hit me because of it's uncommon! In that case, I think there is a final aspect:

4. The uniqueness.

This is best summed up with the question I ask myself, "Have I seen this before?" Sometimes there is a movie that just blows my mind because it just something really creative and it offers me a new experience. I really hate what I call "cookie cutter" movies, films that just offer up the same ol' same ol' formulas. I guess in reality there is nothing that isn't, in some way, derivative, but movies that I really like tend to be things that are super creative, movies that stretch me, movies that are often very ambiguous. I love a movie wherein the director doesn't "spoon-feed" me all the answers, one in which the filmmaker allows me to interpret things a bit. Obviously, this year Birdman totally fits that criteria. My favorite film of the year, Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin, did this as well. Other fairly recent examples include Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. I love those movies so much because they offered me a huge break from the standard fare offered up on most mega-theater screens.

I hope that answers your question. What makes you like a movie? I suspect the answers out there are unlimited.