Movies old & new: How I evaluate motion pictures

A Facebook friend recently asked me why I gave The Wizard of Oz a B+. “Do you rate [a movie by] how it stacks up against modern films? Or how it compared with other contemporaneous movies? How much should your personal reaction to the movie count when you first saw it and how you feel about it now? Do you consider if the movie had aspects that were ground-breaking?”

His questions forced me to think about how I grade and review movies. It’s not like reviewing computers (which I did for PC World long ago). It’s all about my emotional reactions.

So, let me answer my friend’s questions one at a time:

Do I rate an old movie against modern films or against those of its time?

The Wizard of Oz: I like it enough to give it a B+, which is nothing to sneeze at

I never really thought about that. I like or dislike old movies and new movies. To a large degree, it depends on the quality of the movie on its own. I’m not upset if a film is in black and white or shot in a narrow aspect ratio. I know it’s a film of its time and I accept that.

And that includes such seemingly up-to-date issues as special effects. I love George Méliès’ early trick films and modern Computer-generated Images (CGI). It’s not the technology, but how the technology is artistically used. That’s why so many people still love Ray Harryhausen‘s 60-year-old effects.

The only problem I really have with old films is the racism. America and Europe were far more racist decades ago. When I look at an old film, I often squirm. But I also consider the time the film was made. Buster Keaton’s films in the 1920s had scenes that seem horrible today. But I realize they were made in a very different time.

By the way, I give an A+ only to films 20 years old or more. I want to make sure the movie would last beyond its time.

How much does my personal reaction to the movie count?

Collective: Important story, boring movie

I like to think that my personal reactions are the only things I consider. This is what reviewing is about – how you reacted to a work of art, and how you explain that to your readers.

But with consideration, it’s more complex than that. For instance, we’re in a time where American art cinema seems overwhelmed by left-leaning documentaries. If I pan one of these docs, someone may tell me I was wrong because the film had an important message to tell. But the most important message in the world won’t help if the audience is sleeping.

And yes, my own leftwing political views affect my reviews, as does my joy of well-made slapstick comedy. My reactions to a movie are complicated.

Do I reconsider a movie’s grade when I see it again?

2001: A film I loved it, liked it, then loved it again

I occasionally revisit a film and decide an early opinion needs changing. Consider 2001: A Space Odyssey. When I first saw it in Cinerama as a teenager, it was the greatest film ever made. Slowly, as the film’s many prophesies turned out not to be true, my love of the film shrank. By 2015, I was giving it a B+.

When I saw it again in 2018, I decided that it was a masterpiece again, and gave it an A+. But even then, I didn’t always give 2001 my highest grade. This particular film needs to be seen on a very big screen with great sound – projected in 70mm or 4K DCP. Sometimes, it’s not just the movie.

Do I consider a film’s innovations?

Last Year at Marienbad: innovation doesn’t always work

Cinema, like any art, needs innovators. Without experimenting, we’d have nothing but the one-shot actualities of the 1890s.

But a lot of experiments fail. And if an experiment fails, I’m not going to give it a good grade.

Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, for example, is very innovative. It originally looked and felt like nothing that its original audiences ever saw. Many still consider it a masterpiece. While beautiful to look at, it’s slow and pretentious. The people onscreen (I hesitate to call them characters) give you no reason whatsoever to care if they live or die. I consider it a mess.

And that brings up another issue: If you hate a film everyone else loves, or if you love a movie everyone else hates, don’t follow the herd. Stick to your opinions unless you – and no one else – changes them.