What a beast of a question. Of course, everyone has their own way of answering this because every person has a different taste in films. Personally, I like arty films and films that show a different culture or have an interesting or descriptive story, but that doesn’t mean that I think every other film is bad. I’m not a fan of the Sci-Fi genre but I know a good Sci-Fi when I see one and I can definitely appreciate it.
So is it a good cast? A huge budget? An accredited director? Award success? Good advertising and publicity?
These aspects will certainly influence the success of the film – that is a fact. But the Box Office success does not always reflect the long term results. Look at The Shawshank Redemption that flopped at its release and now holds its position of No.1 on IMDB with pride.
So what about if we look at the core of the film instead of its reputation to assess how ‘good’ it is. This is a guide for the average audience member.
The cinematography – Sometimes not noticing the cinematography is a winner – it’s meant to be our eyes to view the story, not to be viewed and assessed by our own eyes. It should feel natural. Having said that, stylish or arty cinematography can be very effective depending on the type of film.
Editing – Does it feel clumsy and awkward or does each shot flow nicely to create a logical story?
Acting – When viewing Forrest Gump we watch the character as Forrest Gump, not Tom Hanks. That’s good acting. We shouldn’t think ‘wow, Tom Hanks is really good at acting’ but instead ‘wow, what an inspirational person Forrest is’.
Sound – Is the use of sound effects and music effective? Does the music used help create the atmosphere and reinforce the themes of the film? Is silence used effectively? Sound should just build on what is already present in a film – a good soundtrack cannot make a film on its own but it can certainly add to the mood
Story and narrative – is the story and are the characters believable, relatable and interesting? Is the characterisation strong and the character development significant? By the end of the film we should feel an emotion – excited, inspired, horrified, depressed.
Plot – The story must feel like it’s moving somewhere and even if the narrative is more descriptive than action-based, there should be something that keeps us hooked to the screen.
Dialogue – I always believe dialogue is more important than we realise. I mentioned in a previous review that it can be poetic but must have meaning and over-used lines are a definite ‘no’. Depending on the type of film, it’s good to be quotable because lines are usually quoted for their originality and meaning. Dialogue should also flow, which is one of my biggest criticisms of the embarrassingly awful The Tourist… ‘You’re ravenous.’ ‘Do you mean ravishing?’ ‘I do.’ ‘You’re ravenous.’ ‘I am.’ This was the moment that I walked out.
Other aspects may be genre specific, for example, a comedy must make you laugh and a horror must make you scared but I think that is common sense, really.
You can also judge a film by your own character and how you react to it personally.
I have my own little checklist in my head that I use to assess a film after I’ve watched it:
– I know all the main characters’ names
– I want to clap at the end
– I haven’t looked at the time during the film
– I think/talk about it for days afterwards.
Feeling like you know the characters is essential and if I know each character’s name and a little bit about them then I can say that characterisation was successful. We don’t finish Harry Potter thinking, ‘what was that Hag… Hig… Hogrid guy again?’ We know and we love Hagrid.
Clapping at the end is just my way of judging the ending – the most important section of a film. If it was an epic film and I’m excited at the end, say for example Pirates of the Caribbean, I want to clap and jump up and dance around with the credits rolling to the incredible music. It may have been a sense of achievement in which case I’ll want to clap because I feel accomplishment, for example with The Kings Speech. It may have been an incredible plot twist which is so mind blowing that we have to applaud it, such as Shutter Island. It might be such an aggravating and brilliantly unsatisfying ending like Inception that made us bash our hands in anger and excitement. Or it could have been an excruciatingly painful ending like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas that is absolutely terrible but fantastic.
The fact that I haven’t looked at the time during the film is important. If I am checking the time every ten minutes like a long shift at work then a film is boring me and I want it to be over. Time flies when you’re having fun and the same applies to enjoying a film. All sense of time and normal life should vanish in a good film. And if you’re annoyed that it’s nearly over and want it to continue, that’s a bonus.
Lastly, it might be obvious that a good film is one that you think about and want to talk about but sometimes we can surprise ourselves by not enjoying the film enormously at the time and then growing to love it after thinking about it. Films aren’t meant for unconscious consumption – they are there to be judged, analysed and interpreted in our thoughts. And for some reason after I’ve watched a brilliant film, my instincts are to shout about it and encourage everyone I know to watch it.
So this is my personal guide to what makes a good film. Strong cinematic features as listed above, good characterisation, a great ending, sucking us in making us unaware of our surroundings and being thought-provoking and memorable. The main point is that we should feel something – any emotion is a good emotion when it comes to film and we should be bursting with feelings.