Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Consumed! @ TIFF06 – Postlude

The most common questions you get asked at any film festival are, "What have you liked so far?" and, "What have you hated?" And depending on how well you know the person asking, your answers may vary. There are friends of mine whose taste is simply not my taste, and though it doesn't diminish my regard for them as critics and as people, I know that when I say I thought Seraphim Falls was pretty good, I should tack on a quick, "But you probably wouldn't like it."

Somewhere in the middle of the experimental documentary Zidane, my mind started to wander and I thought a little about what I like about movies: the characteristics that would allow anybody who knows my taste to say, "This would be right up your alley." I came up with a list of ten. I don't necessarily expect every great movie to contain every one of these attributes, but if I think about the movies I like best–the ones I'd watch anytime and anywhere–this is what they generally have in common:

1. Location shooting. In old movies especially, there's something exciting about the rare times when the cameras go off the studio lot and record real cities and landscapes, now framed and locked for something like eternity. Location shooting is pretty common today, but I still appreciate the glimpses of Tehran I get in a Jafar Panahi film, the cross-country urban explorations of Curtis Hanson, and even the sprawling Los Angeles seen through the eyes of P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. Movies can show us places we've never seen before, and they can re-frame what we already know in a way that makes it seem revelatory and new. Starting with real places is half that battle.

2. Contemporary relevance. This doesn't mean that every movie made today has to be a metaphor for the war on terror or even a direct critique of the Bush administration, but only that it's nice when a movie set in 2006 acknowledges the issues and obsessions of right now. There's something to be said for timelessness, but at the same time, a lot of mediocre movies from 40 or 50 years ago are more interesting if they're dated, because they're a record of their times. It's hard to know what will "date" the movies of today, but certainly a movie like Anthony Minghella's Breaking And Entering–which deals with autism, post-environmentalism and Parkour–will be more fascinating a couple of decades from now, when its irritating plot will seem merely quaint.

3. Relatable problems and/or realistic responses. For about the first two days of this year's Toronto fest, I kept seeing movies in which the nagging emotional woes of the main characters were tied to some unimaginable horror, like incest, of the loss of a child. These are real concerns, sure, but they're also a lazy way out for screenwriters who can't justify their stories' extreme action without some hard core. It's much more useful when filmmakers explore the minutiae that surrounds real horror, like the way an unexpected death necessitates a thousand tiny bits of business. It's also great when filmmakers work with the everyday angst of those of us who get depressed sometimes just because life can be depressing, not because we're in mourning or because we've been improperly diddled.

4. Natural interactions and/or smart dialogue. Great movies stand up to repeated viewings in part because the dialogue either pops with pithy phrases or captures the little-recognized rhythms of everyday speech. Either way, we watch the best movie conversations over and over the way we listen to a song over and over, enjoying the musicality and the way they describe what we know in ways we could never express ourselves.

5. Economical storytelling. The classic example of keeping a narrative tight is the climactic scene of North By Northwest, where Alfred Hitchcock uses a jump cut from a person dangling off the edge of Mount Rushmore to a person being pulled up into a railroad berth. It tells us all we need to know. Person safe, ending happy. It's always a thrill when filmmakers find ways to give us the information we need without wasting too much time. That's a stunt that not everybody knows how to pull off.

6. Tension and transcendence. I don't necessarily have to have an emotional response to a movie to enjoy it, but certainly it's a pleasure to watch films that that make me forget to analyze them for minutes on end, just because I'm too caught up in what's going to happen next, or because I'm so deeply moved that my whole body tingles. I saw several movies at this year's festival that might've been great if they'd taken advantage of their scenarios to kick out some good old-fashioned nail-biter moments–most notably the inexplicably acclaimed The Lives Of Others, which has a suspense movie premise but a prestige movie thud.

7. Great soundtracks. Speaking of transcendence, nothing gets me on a movie's side faster than the exciting use of music. At this year's festival, the too-clever piffle of Stranger Than Fiction was converted into something entertaining and almost deep by the performances and by the soundtrack, which bops along to the beat of Spoon and The Jam. And the richer meanings of Shortbus' standard-issue indie relationship drama were conveyed as much by the opening and closing songs as by the explicit sexual content. Maybe it's because I'm as much of a rockophile as a cinephile, but when the two artforms I love the most come together, my reaction can be irrationally positive. (Addendum: "Great soundtrack" can also refer to the sound design, which with a lot of quiet foreign fare means just as much to the intended effect.)

8. Bravura technique/performance. The essence of entertainment is a guy or gal standing in front of a crowd and doing something amazing. Since movies are a cultural record as well as an artform, they're valuable for the way they preserve the finest actors/singers/dancers/comedians/etc. of different eras. And that "performance" concept extends to the work of cinematographers, editors, writers and directors, who can dazzle us even when they're not really saying anything profound.

9. Purposeful style. On the other hand, while bravura technique can be exciting in and of itself, it's better when a director know why he or she is zooming the camera all around the room. Is it to toy with the audience's perspective? To give us bits of plot through visuals instead of dialogue? Or, in the case of slower-paced movies, to give us time to soak up the atmosphere of a room? Does the style, the story and the mood all fit together?

10. Point of view/personal expression. I'm one of the few critics who thinks that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is a good movie. Why? Because it's so clearly a George Lucas auteur project, concerned with the pop junk that's mattered to him since he was a boy; and just as a great performance can elevate a mediocre film, so can a strong individual perspective make a clunker worth more than just a cursory dismissal. Comedies are better when the comedians have a point to make. Thrillers are better when they're dressed up with the director's personal kinks. Dramas are better when they express one person's worldview–so long as that expression doesn't come from a character standing up and making a speech. This isn't about "sending a message." It's about seeing the world vividly through someone else's eyes, and maybe understanding it a little better.


Share This Story

Get our newsletter