There’s a lot of advice out there about writing film reviews from a critic’s perspective, each with varying degrees of advice. I’ve been analyzing movies critically for six years, and I’ve personally found that reviews don’t need to be complicated. Rather, they need to be honest and encourage discussion.
The hardest part of this first step is going to be avoiding doing too much research or reading other reviews prior to watching the movie (as tempting as it may be.) I find that it’s more liberating to the experience to go in with an air of unfamiliarity.
Ideally, when I start on the path of reviewing a film, I will know very little about it—aside from the actors and the director involved. If I’m not familiar with the cast and/or the director, I’ll do a little filmography research, but only about their past work if I’ve never seen it before. Avoiding exposure to the movie can be more difficult than it sounds when it’s a popular film—as trailers and marketing run rampant. But if you can avoid watching the trailers and reading about other peoples’ opinions prior to watching, you won’t have any preconceived judgments and can go in with an unbiased perspective.
Trailers work well to provide some context and tone prior to watching a movie, but they can also be filled with spoilers, which is why I do my best to avoid them when possible. As for reviews, reading about what others think of the movie before watching or writing a review can affect your opinion heavily. And when you’re in reviewer mode, you want to be as honest with your own opinion as possible, and not allow any outside voice to alter it. Of course, after the review is finished, I always welcome a discussion with fellow cinephiles to hear and understand what they enjoyed and didn’t.
Without being affected by the trailers, marketing, and other reviews before watching a movie, you can really put your best foot forward to creating your authentic opinion and turning that into a movie review people can trust.
I believe you only need to a see a film once in order to critique a film. Of course, there are those who prefer at least a couple viewings, but from my experience multiple viewings can actually skew your assessment.
What works for me is to watch the movie in its entirety without distractions in order to get a grasp on what the director intended. If you spend your first viewing pausing, playing back, and re-watching segments at a time, you won’t get a sense for the way the film was meant to be enjoyed.
I also try not to take many notes while I watch the movie—if you’re jotting down a long critique or opinion while watching the movie, you can miss brief, yet vital moments. I will however, write down a word or phrase that stands out so that I can recall scenes or story information that catch my attention and that I deem important. This will help later when I’m constructing my review—for brief summary recaps, breaking down the themes, and reflecting on the direction or acting.
In general, I think of pausing, rewinding, and taking notes as interruptions that will bring you out of the film—literally and emotionally—and that can play a role in how you view a film from a critical standpoint.
The window of time immediately following the viewing is critical. Since I don’t take a lot of notes during the movie, one of the most important aspects of writing a critique is to stay focused and write down all of the things that stood out to me about the film. And since collecting my thoughts after seeing a movie can be chaotic, I need to be sure that I jot down everything that struck my radar as soon as it’s over. It’s better to get it all down on paper, and then evaluate what’s necessary to convey to the reader later. Being precise in your commentary and incorporating specific examples from the movie to back up your opinions is key.
This is where the checklist comes into play. When I write a review, I do my best to cover all aspects of filmmaking that went into creating the final product, including:
Let’s take the special effects as an example. I want to evaluate them based on utility, use within the film, and obviously how well it looks on screen. When I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, I was blown away with all the practical effects and how everything served a purpose to the story. It looked like everything was well crafted and built with love to develop such a brilliantly inspired wasteland.
On the other side of the coin, the Transformers movies, as detailed as the robots look, most of the time while I was watching the movies, I felt like I was watching a jumbled mess of computer animated metal smashing into each other. It didn’t look stimulating. You want the special effects to complement the story rather than just being used as a visual device.
After I have all of my thoughts down, I take as much into consideration as I can and then work on the flow. I put a lot of care into the organization of my review, and make sure my thoughts are read in a cohesive manner to help my audience understand where I’m coming from. I prioritize what’s most important to include and let the rest go.
Hands down, the most important component to address in a movie review is how it made you feel. Anyone can write a summary of a film or create lists about the highlights. But good reviews should convey to the audience how the movie resonated with you.
If you don’t put your voice into your critique, your audience will find it difficult to understand your perspective, connect with you as a reviewer, and most importantly, they may not be able to trust your opinion. And if they don’t trust you, they wont come back to read more of your work. And you want your review to provide value to the reader, right?
I want to ensure that my thoughts encourage readers to create a constructive discussion around the film, or help them decide whether or not the movie is for them. And hopefully, the audience will have as much fun reading my review as I did writing it.