Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel on Letterman

Beyond Thumbs Up or Down

Thoughts on How to Decide if a Film is Any Good

Most of the time, writers for Metaphilm approach films to see what they mean or what they have to say—consciously or subconsciously, seriously or humorously. We typically avoid the subjective question of whether the film under discussion is any good. Here, one film professor offers his introductory guidelines for ways you can evaluate the films you watch. Think of it as a meta-level approach to film-watching, or perhaps a way to go meta with movie critics.

::: Michael D. Gose

“Stop asking, ‘Is it a good thing or a bad thing?’ and start asking, ‘What is going on?’ ” —Marshall McLuhan

What you don’t need anyone to tell you

The single best way to approach a film is openly and authentically, simply finding what you find. An authentic reaction (and a willingness to grow) is the best kind of film reflection.

To watch a movie and enjoy it to its fullest—to have an “authentic” movie experience—you need to reach out to the movie. This requires certain essentials from you as viewer, primarily personal qualities like integrity, authenticity, and an ability to be real. Intelligence and education help too, as does a commitment to emotional and intellectual growth. In lieu of such a commitment—which is, admittedly, a pretty heavy expectation for watching a movie—the needed virtue is humility, a willingness to admit that you don’t quite yet know “everything.” The stronger these personal qualities, the more you’ll get out of the movie.

“Openness” implies that, in approaching a movie, you come to the viewing with a reserve of judgment, a willingness to accept a movie on its own terms. This means not judging it immediately for failing to live up to your terms: don’t judge a horror film for not being psychologically nuanced enough; don’t judge a psychological thriller for not being horrific enough. If the film didn’t set out to score in some arena, don’t force it to compete there because of some personal preference.

Virtually every film is an entertainment and must first be experienced as such in and of itself. This does not necessarily mean one can or should always suspend judgment for the duration of a film. A Clockwork Orange, for instance, challenges the viewer to disassociate with the main character, only to sympathize with him later when the state turns out to be a more hideous form of evil, by virtue of being an “institutionalized evil”—or at least, that’s what Anthony Burgess was after.

Begin at the end

The overall film experience begins once the viewing ends, for a film needs assessment prior to being fully appreciated. The unexamined film, we might say, was not worth watching. And reflecting on a film offers its own rewards. The near-inevitable procedure in thinking back on a film includes comparing the experience of the film with all your previous experiences and contrasting the world of the film with your own worldview. The more all-encompassing your knowledge, the more considered your worldview, the more astute will be the resulting reflection and review.

Films that are much like films you have seen before, or about subjects you are familiar with, offer the joy of recognition. Such films are often reassuring and reaffirming, if slightly predictable and sometimes boring. The vast majority of Hollywood’s product falls into this category because the economic standard is based on the most conservative and “safe” speculations, which is why most of what you see is just an update of what you’ve already seen. Stock characters, clichéd situations, and predictable endings aren’t there because no one wants to produce an original film, but because the business-end of the Hollywood production equation stipulates that if it worked once it will work again, provided you add the topic-du-jour, setting-of-the-week, and actor-of-the-month. Comparisons are the key. Nuances become important; whether they are in the details of the soundtrack, plot twists, themes, or familiar faces in new settings.

When the film is outside your own cinematic or real experience, the joy it can bring is most likely in the surprise; the challenge is to integrate the new material into your perspective. The contrasts between your own experience and the film tend to point toward the most significant observations, pro and con, about such films.

In both cases, evaluation begins as you identify the aspects of a film you found most interesting, significant, or compelling, and begin to articulate why. This process of considering will be influenced entirely by your prior experiences, but your response should also be made with regard for the film itself.

Think about what you recollect most strongly from the film, what scenes, characters, or shots made the greatest impression. This line of reflection will often lead to an insight worth sharing, something that you have seen accurately that will be true for others. Just as John Dewey claims that “criticism is the re-education of perception,” your insight may reveal something important about the film to yourself and those with whom you will discuss it. Ultimately, this is both a reason to watch films and a reason to make films. Robert Bresson’s famous quote summarizes this succinctly: “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”


Having viewed and thought about the film, you will inevitably come to an evaluation, usually couched in terms of whether the film was “good.” What does it mean for a film to be a good film? We typically assign “goodness” or “badness” to a film based on a mushy amalgamation of moments, feelings, memories, and thoughts that the film triggered in us. Our brain downloads this to our hand, and our thumbs jerk instinctively either upwards or downwards, confirming the archetypal standard of judgment of Siskel and Ebert (now carried on by Ebert and Roper).

But if this article is going to tell you anything you don’t already (or instinctively) know, it is that there are levels of “goodness,” with higher levels being more comprehensive in what the judgment addresses. Within each of seven levels or categories of goodness set out below, a necessary weighing occurs. We can assess a film’s relative degree of success within each level, but my emphasis here is on the distinctions between the levels themselves.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle agreed that there were “forms of the good,” such as Beauty, Truth, Happiness, and Justice. They did not, however, agree on which form of the good might be highest—and neither have their philosopher successors. While I admit to a general agreement with Kierkegaard that the aesthetic (thus beauty) is superceded by the ethical, which is superceded by the religious, the final three levels for my ranking of “good” are defensible—but certainly not authoritative.

Anyone can approach and assess film in this way, although the higher levels of evaluating goodness may be challenging: the depth of your analysis is directly related to the richness of your connoisseurship. But films often ask questions that evaluate you, the viewer, in return. If you are willing to grow as a person as you interact with films, over time tastes can be refined, connoisseurship developed—and enjoyment deepened.

* * *

Level One—Attention

Was the film entertaining? If the movie held your attention, it will generally get a thumbs-up review. The Last Boy Scout met that criterion for me. It was a guilty pleasure. An action film. A buddy film. To date I have been unable to remember any redeeming value in the movie. It was objectionable on any number of accounts, including blatant sexism and gratuitous violence. It was only “good” in that limited sense of having (for all the wrong reasons) held my attention.

I find this the only truly objectionable definition of “good,” because a “bad” film can be termed good at this level. These days I find myself pretty much skipping movies in this category—there’s just not enough pay-off. Perhaps it’s time for another Bruce Willis Die Hard.

Level Two—Personal connection

Did the film strike a personal chord? A film is often perceived not only as good, but great, if it makes a connection with you, the viewer. There’s little room to argue such judgments because ordinarily you know yourself best. Such movies for me include A Christmas Story, Harold and Maude, and King of Hearts. I am not arguing that these films have only this degree of goodness, but the fact of the matter is that they are, idiosyncratically, on my list of top films regardless of any other considerations. This insistence on my part, inevitably, says more about me than the films’ artistic or historical stature.

Level Three—Notable strengths

Was there something particularly special about the film? Almost any unique or excellent element can make a film sufficiently good to recommend to others and to some extent redeem even significant flaws. I recommend Night Shift strictly for the performance of Michael Keaton. Being John Malkovich gets a rave for its imaginativeness. Each Star Wars film must be seen if only to see the current state of special effects at the time of its release. Memento must be seen for its plot, Gladiator for its action. Something special is reason enough to call a movie good.

Level Four—Social significance

Does the film have social significance? A film can earn further recognition as “good” if it carries some redeeming or revealing connection with the wider culture. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The China Syndrome, Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, The Insider, Philadelphia, and Boys Don’t Cry are examples. We might also add to this category such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for bringing a Chinese film to mainstream America; A View to a Kill, for having the first African-American love interest for James Bond; Lara Croft and Charlie’s Angels for bringing women to the action hero roles; and Thelma and Louise.

I watched Thelma and Louise in an audience whose average age must have been over 70. When the elderly, blue-haired women sitting near me were cheering Thelma and Louise, even—or especially—when they were committing acts of violence, I knew something special was happening, even if it was as sociological as it was artistic.

Such social significance can make a film a “good” film, and since it gives the entire film a certain currency, I consider this a higher level of “goodness” than that a particular aspect of a film was particularly good as in Level Three.

Level Five—Artistic

Is the film an overall artistic success? I do not think any film has been better done than The Godfather. Every aspect of the storytelling and filmmaking seems nearly faultless to me. Aesthetically, artistically, it does not get any better. In this regard it is a truly great film . . . never mind that the audience willingly identifies, sympathizes, and even roots for characters acting criminally and unethically.

I do think, however, that a film like The Godfather has a higher level of goodness than a film with mere social significance. Such artistic success is approaching a form of the good and is thus a richer, more complex, and more comprehensive achievement than Level Four’s standard.

My “favorite” example for this level is Pulp Fiction. I respectfully disagree with this interpretation on Metaphilm: I don’t see any significant change in any of the characters, and I think the film deliberately distorts (and doesn’t understand) existentialism, nihilism, and scripture. Its ideas are a mess, but it also shows technical and even artistic brilliance. It’s a movie I love to hate.

Level Six—Ethical

Does the film have something to say about life’s ethical complexities? A film does not have to have a moral to be an ethical film. One of the greatest films in this regard is Schindler’s List (with the exception of the tacked-on speech at the car at the end of the film) because of the great complexity in Schindler’s moral choices.

Because of this consideration, I find The Unforgiven to be by far the best of the Clint Eastwood westerns. His earlier cowboy movies were either amoral (e.g. operating within the law as a bounty hunter in A Fistful of Dollars) or immoral (e.g. the lawless avenger in High Plains Drifter). In The Unforgiven I felt that there is an implicit moral worldview and that the consequences of ignoring this worldview weigh heavily on the Eastwood character.

I also see Broadcast News as a particularly good film because it deals intelligently with the issue of truth on a number of different levels. Dead Man Walking is particularly impressive in the way it handles both the criminal and the victims.

I would add that a movie that reaches ethical heights cannot be didactic or preachy. Such films might have social significance, but they are not likely to reach this standard of having something truthful to say about ethical complexities.

Level Seven—Spiritual

Does the film capture with insight something transcendent? From my perspective, the greatest films are those rare few that are in the final analysis religious films—not films about religion, but films that have inherent and implicit religious significance.

From this criterion Tender Mercies is as good a film as I have ever seen. Full of life’s complexities, it has a sure sense, often represented in the lyrics of the soundtrack and in the body language of its characters, about God’s ways in the world. This film has great artistic goodness and great ethical goodness, but it surpasses those standards by incorporating them while also having a sense of the transcendent.

Not many people saw them, as they require the (rewarded) patience of dealing with subtitles and “slow” plots, but both Central Station and Behind the Sun work at the religious level—so successfully that some or most viewers may not have noticed. When watching Central Station, it may be instructive to know that in Hebrew the word for wind and spirit is the same (so pay special attention to where and when the wind blows). And Behind the Sun gives a whole different feel to sacrifice . . . the brother appreciates the sacrifice made on his behalf and smiles his joy.

Michael D. Gose is Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Humanities and Teacher Education at Pepperdine University.

Posted by: editor on Jan 21, 2004 | 1:52 pm

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