When we go out to the movies on a Friday night or open whatever streaming service we have subscribed to, that eternal question tends to manifest itself — what to watch? The same question presents itself to us when we attend a film festival or any event where multiple films are being screened for our viewing pleasure. Selecting from a list of films is the equivalent to choosing from a gallery of dreams. For the Surrealists the cinema represented a physical version of our minds. The screen and theater being the equivalent of our inner brain when it imagines, ponders and expresses ideas. So when we go to the movies or attend a festival, we are being invited to select from different titles where each filmmaker is trying to express a story, experience, hope, nightmare, frustration, doomed or successful romance or memory. For every The Godfather there is a Titanic, and for every Halloween there is an Aquaman.

See Road Scholar’s collection of Film Festivals

One of my favorite quotes when it comes to film watching is by the late, great critic Roger Ebert, who said, “It’s not what the film is about, but how it is about it.” What Ebert means is that you can make a movie about anything. The question is how is the movie approaching its subject? As a film critic I constantly have the funny experience of being surprised by good movies about subjects that sound low-key on paper and bored by bad movies with flashy posters. I have been thrilled by a drama about a boy who finds work taking care of a racehorse to being bored out of my mind during a “thriller” about bank robbers, but it can also happen the other way around. So when we are choosing what to watch, we should never be afraid to be a little adventurous.

Even though many of us have our own, specific preferences when it comes to genre, whether it be science fiction, drama or action, taking a chance on a film can prove to be a rewarding experience. Movies are a combination of directing, cinematography and sound, how good or effective movie is depends on how well these elements are utilized. Did the action film truly entertain us and produce an adrenaline rush? Did the romantic movie inspire feelings of longing or a deep sigh? Did the drama engage us or provoke us? Did the comedy truly inspire some good laughs? Some visually experimental films are memorable because they simply provided a powerful, sensuous escape. I have recently been recommending a little known film from 2013, Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi, about an Iranian violinist from the 50s and his haunted memories of a lost romance, because it beautifully combines a good story with such visual elegance and enrapturing music. The great film critic Pauline Kael once described her job reviewing movies as asking herself, “What just happened to me?”

So how to choose when we go to the movies or attend a film festival? A good start is to look at the films listed, see which ones first catch your attention in regards to their theme or story, and then look up the filmmaker via Google or at the Internet Movie Database. If the director is renowned or established, their previous body of work might give you an insight into what to expect. Finding a good filmmaker can be the same as finding a painter or author you enjoy. Being introduced to one work then inspires you to seek out their other offerings. Before reviewing the new film by a major director, or a director who has already made at least one notable movie beforehand, I always watch their previous body of work to get a feel for what to expect and make comparisons. By doing this you develop a background little by little, and before you know it you are familiar with several filmmakers’ repertoires. The same applies to classic cinema. If by chance you come across the revival of a David Lean or Luis Bunuel film at a festival and love it, why not then immerse yourself in their catalog?

One of the great things about cinema is that it has covered nearly every theme. Like literature the reach of film is boundless in terms of the stories that can be told. So when choosing what to watch also consider subject and theme. Some films speak to us because of the times, for example political cinema is coming back in vogue, but a movie might also entice you because on a more personal level you can relate to its subject matter.

A good movie should nearly always be “entertaining,” but that doesn’t mean it can’t speak to our deeper selves. Festivals (and many streaming services) also offer the added bonus of screening multiple foreign films. For American audiences this is a wonderful opportunity to discover good filmmakers from abroad and more importantly, to experience stories that can transport a viewer to another country, environment, culture and history. Even a police thriller from Iceland can prove to be an enriching cultural experience if the viewer has never had the opportunity to travel there in person. Countries like Chile are producing a fantastic new crop of filmmakers who are combining techniques or styles from the United States to tell stories from their countries. I highly recommend a wickedly fun Argentinian film, Wild Tales, to get a sense of the new, vibrant Latin American cinema one can easily find at major festivals. Asia and Europe are also constantly producing unique and stunning works. Israeli and Iranian filmmakers are also impressing global critics with high caliber works that combine historical and social commentary with riveting dramas or thrillers.

Once a selection of films has been made the viewing experience begins. There are no rules for watching a movie. Indeed, the merit of a film can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder. While watching a movie, simply ask yourself what it is making you feel, and why. I am always amused by friends who will hate a certain horror film precisely because it gave them a sleepless night. The director was obviously doing their job. Like music, a film has the power to evoke feelings and ideas, so when watching a film take into account the actual sensation of the experience. The way a director will frame a shot or the color scheme they will choose for the lighting can make quite the difference, in a ways you may not notice. A good comedy will make your sides hurt, and a good horror film will indeed quicken your heartrate. Yet the beauty of it is that our reactions may differ and so a film that might work for me might not have the same sense of fulfillment for my theater companion. You as the viewer can determine if the film was good for you.

If we disagree, then the fun art of critical discussion begins. The only cardinal rule when searching for a good movie is to enjoy the search itself. After all, it should be done out of sheer love for that moment when the darkness is banished and the screen comes alive.

See Road Scholar’s collection of Film Festivals

About the Author

Alci Rengifo is an award-winning writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, who is an instructor on Road Scholar’s program at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. For several years he has written numerous pieces of film criticism and cultural criticism for publications such as the L.A. Review of Books and Brooklyn & Boyle. He is currently the Rotten Tomatoes-certified senior film and television critic for the publication Entertainment Voice, and the Cinematics Editor for the cultural magazine Riot Material. In addition, he has also written several screenplays and short films which have toured numerous international and local film festivals. Alci also collaborates closely with Salvador Carrasco, the head of Santa Monica College's renowned film program in various projects and events.

  • Roger Ebert, who said, “It’s not what the film is about, but how it is about it.” This quote reminds me of the TV show Seinfeld which was a show about "nothing".

    The way a director will frame a shot or the color scheme they will choose for the lighting can make quite the difference, in a ways you may not notice.  This comment is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock whose use of black and white was awesome.  Also included in that category are Michael Ortiz for Casablanca and John Huston for The Maltese Falcon.  The use of shadows and muted lighting in both films was outstanding.

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