Need to know
Most people like movies. After all, 50 years before television became a dominant fixture in many homes, the cinema had established itself as the great popular medium of the 20th century. Some – myself included – go further, and refer to cinema as the previous century’s greatest and most popular artform. Others, especially if their experience of movies has been limited to what’s available at the local multiplex or what’s on offer from Netflix or Disney, might raise an eyebrow at such a claim. Artform? Aren’t movies just about entertainment, a distraction from the daily grind?
Well, no, not entirely. If your film-watching life has been shaped exclusively by the programming of the major cinema chains and global online platforms, you could be forgiven for thinking that most films are American (or at least in English), that with few exceptions they were made in the past few decades, and that they are the perfect accompaniment to a tub of popcorn. But that’s a huge distortion – in fact, movie-making is an international phenomenon that began long before Marvel kicked off. Long before the original Star Wars, even. Film has been with us for more than 125 years. The contemporary mainstream is just the tip of a massive cinematic iceberg.
There is, and has always been, far more to the movies than action spectaculars, thrillers and feelgood romances. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with such films – there are excellent, terrible and middling examples of every kind of movie – and we should never underestimate the appeal of escapism. Fantasy has been an important element of the cinematic offer ever since Georges Méliès delighted audiences with his trick films back in the late 1890s and early 1900s – and his influence lives on today. Méliès was referenced in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) and in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011); his best-known film, the delightfully imaginative Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), can be found on YouTube.
But there’s more to life than escapism, and film has reflected that. There have always been filmmakers concerned with pondering the realities of everyday life; with looking at and portraying the world with curiosity and compassion. (I am not merely alluding to documentaries, but to all kinds of films.) In the right hands, a movie can touch us – emotionally and intellectually, culturally and philosophically – in ways mostly neglected by the mainstream ‘product’ churned out as if on a conveyor belt, its raison d’être not artistic worth but profit.
If you’ve felt that frustrating sense of déjà vu as you work your way through yet another romcom or superhero movie, you may be curious to explore what else is out there. At the same time, perhaps you’re not sure where to start – if so, this Guide is for you.
Prepare to take a rewarding dive into the unknown
I grew up in a small town in the English Midlands and, like many others at that time, my cinema-going progressed from a children’s diet of Disney cartoons and family comedies to what I came to regard as a more adult regime of westerns, thrillers, sci-fi, spy and horror movies. True, this was supplemented by the old American and British black-and-white movies then constantly on television, but the selection was mostly restricted to English-language genre cinema. Then, in my first term at university, a friend persuaded me to accompany him to the local arts cinema to catch ‘the new Ingmar Bergman’. (At that time, I had no idea who Bergman was or what he did.) My experience that evening blew my mind and effectively changed my life.
My friend and I got the last two seats in the centre of the front row, and were soon confronted by the opening scene: a harrowing close-up of a woman in agonising pain. The film, Cries and Whispers (1972), told of two women visiting their sister’s deathbed to pay their last respects. It was about suffering, fear, death, guilt, self-loathing, resentment and recrimination.
That’s entertainment? Not in the usual understanding of the term. But I was gripped from beginning to end, and sat with my friend for hours afterwards discussing life, death, film and art. It was quite unlike any movie I’d seen before; it stirred me both intellectually and emotionally, and made me want to learn more, not only about this Bergman chap, but to see if there were other movies by other people that might prove similarly affecting. I’d had no idea cinema could be like this, and I wanted more. It was the start of a life-long passion – that eventually turned into a decades-long career.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a friend knowledgeable about the cinema who invites them to watch a preconceptions-busting movie, let alone to have a cinema screening such fare in their locality. Moreover, I was fortunate in that my particular dive into the unknown involved a film now widely regarded as a masterpiece; I might have gone to see something disappointing or downright awful. So it could take a few dives to get the hang of swimming in film’s hitherto uncharted waters. That’s why a little research before you begin can be useful. There’s so much out there to explore – and in this Guide I’m going to share with you some tips on how to get started.
What to do
Start with an open mind
Before you embark on your journey, it’s important to set aside your preconceptions about the kinds of films with which you might be unfamiliar. Here are a few things to consider.
Some folks seem to think that a movie with subtitles must be ‘arty’, pretentious, difficult or boring. But all it really means is that the film was made in a country where the first language is not English. In fact, subtitles can be a good sign, since their presence shows that the film has been deemed interesting enough to be exported to other cultures. Remember that many – perhaps most – of the films widely regarded by movie critics, historians and directors as among the greatest ever made are not in English. Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) and Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) are regular high-flyers.
Similarly, just because a film is in black and white rather than colour doesn’t mean that it is inferior or impoverished. Many of the most rewarding and entertaining films of all time were shot in black and white, either because that was, for technical reasons, the norm when they were made, or because the filmmakers deliberately chose to shoot in black and white; monochrome can produce a formal beauty different from colour. Again, critics, historians and directors number many black-and-white movies in polls and surveys of the greatest films ever made. Alongside the titles I mentioned above, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) are consistent favourites.
Don’t be put off because a film was made before the advent of sound brought us ‘talking pictures’. Of course, sound – which is considerably more than just the spoken dialogue – has been an important part of the filmgoing experience since the late 1920s. But even before then, films were rarely ‘silent’ because they were usually presented with music – and that is how movies from those years are presented and enjoyed today. Moreover, many films made during the first three decades of cinema history have an extraordinary visual eloquence and elegance, not to mention an exhilarating inventiveness – this, after all, was when filmmakers were establishing, exploring and extending the language of film. That’s why best-ever movie polls often feature classics such as F W Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Dziga Vertov’s semi-documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Buster Keaton’s The General (1926).
Remember that a film’s age has nothing to do with its worth or its capacity to entertain. Like any other medium or artform, film is constantly changing, but not necessarily for the better. People have made good and bad movies throughout cinema’s long and varied history. Finally, try not to be put off by a film’s genre, its running time, its title or the term ‘documentary’. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve mostly mentioned fictional movies in this Guide, but much of what follows can also be applied to nonfiction films. Bear in mind that there are great (and awful, and utterly average) documentaries, animated films, short films, long films, experimental films, etc; and that a film’s title usually tells us very little about the experience of watching the film.
Give movies a chance
Once you’ve selected a movie to watch, try to view it under the best circumstances possible. A cinema with a decent-sized screen, good sightlines and quality sound is the optimum option for appreciating a film’s visual and aural subtleties; try to find one where the audience tends to be attentive rather than talkative. If such a cinema isn’t accessible, then the best alternative is as large a screen as you manage at home (or at a friend or relative’s home). Laptops are not good for picture quality or sound, let alone any kind of ‘immersive’ experience, and phones won’t do anything for your appreciation of a movie’s finer qualities, so these should be avoided. TV and streaming channels are fine for home viewing, with some (eg, Mubi, BFI Player and the Criterion Channel) specialising in curated, non-mainstream fare. Many Blu-rays (for the best-quality picture and sound) and DVDs have extras (commentaries, introductions, documentaries, essays), which can add to your understanding, appreciation and enjoyment. These extras are best watched after the movie itself, to avoid spoilers.
Be patient. Give the movie time and your undivided attention. Don’t expect to be hooked from the first minute. Even if you feel you’re getting little out of a movie, if you’re watching at home, give it a minimum of, say, 40 minutes before you switch off; you’d be surprised how many filmmakers wait half an hour or so before they drop their first narrative bombshell.
Get some advice
If you have any friends or acquaintances who fancy themselves as film-buffs, ask them for tips on which movies and filmmakers to check out. You’ll also find that staff working at cinematheques and independent cinemas showing old films or art movies are often more than happy to share their enthusiasms. And remember: people don’t just like movies; they tend to like talking about them, especially their favourites, too. So try to watch movies with friends and share your thoughts; if you notice that the cinema you frequent has regulars, they could be cinephiles who would be happy to discuss movies in the lobby or bar after a screening. Finally, if you’re lucky enough to have a film festival in your locality, that’s a great way to not only see movies but to meet like-minded people too.
Play to your strengths and interests
If you have a special interest in a particular genre among recent mainstream movies, you could do worse than explore its history: comedies, action adventures, horror films, thrillers, sci-fi, westerns and love stories have all been going strong for well over 100 years, and musicals became popular as soon as sound became predominant at the start of the 1930s. You may find it useful to work your way steadily backwards in time from the present. Or it could be exhilarating to check out early landmark films of the genre in question, such as: Lang’s Metropolis (sci-fi), Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922, horror) and Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928, comedy) – all still impress and amaze more than 90 years after they first appeared.
If you’re especially fond of, or knowledgeable about, a country or part of the world, or want to know more about it in anticipation of a forthcoming visit, why not check out its films and filmmakers? If you’re a news junkie or fascinated by politics and current affairs, you might find yourself drawn to documentaries. If you’re a fan of contemporary art, you could sample avant-garde and experimental films. If you’re a history nut, there are period dramas galore – not to mention ‘contemporary’ movies made over a fast-changing period of more than 120 years. If you’re a bookworm, there are countless literary adaptations. You get the idea – indulge yourself.
Follow your likes
If you find a movie especially interesting or enjoyable, use the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website to identify another film starring the same actor, scripted by the same writer, shot by the same cinematographer, or, above all, made by the same director. Directors are widely regarded as the most important member of a film’s creative personnel because they – if they’re any good – bring all the other cast and crew members’ contributions together to form a coherent whole, sometimes with a recognisable signature style or thematic concerns. As film follows film, you’ll get a better idea of what and who you like and dislike, and come across new exploratory paths to follow.
At the same time, when you find a film that’s worked well for you, do a little research to find out more about its place in cinema history. Besides being made by a specific group of people, it will also be part of a national cinema, and you might follow that route: in every continent, there are countries renowned for having distinguished and distinctive schools and styles of filmmaking. Moreover, the film in question may also be regarded as having been part of, or influenced by, a historical movement. So if you find that it’s an example of German expressionism, French poetic realism, Italian neorealism, the French New Wave or whatever, it can be rewarding to check out other examples. For instance, let’s say your diet has mainly centred on American crime films; you could do worse than check out the ‘New Hollywood’ films of the late 1960s and ’70s – which gave us classics such as the Godfather movies (1972, 1974, 1990) and many more lesser-known gems – or the extraordinary flowering of Hollywood film noir of the 1940s and ’50s, with dozens of hard-boiled gems, such as The Big Sleep (1946), The Killers (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958).
Reflect on how films are made
As you explore the world of film, you’ll enrich your experience by dwelling on different aspects of how they’re made. A good place to start is by thinking about a film’s narrative structure. Narrative is not story itself but how a story is related; it is about tone, texture and timing, pace and duration, perspective and point of view, consistency and credibility.
Most stories are told in a fairly straightforward, chronologically linear fashion: Keaton’s The General and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) are both models of structural clarity.
But in Citizen Kane, Welles deploys a series of flashbacks to investigate a recently deceased tycoon’s life as remembered by those who knew him best. Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) repeatedly interrupts a chronologically linear story with shots of uncertain status – might they be memories, anxieties, wishful fantasies or clairvoyance? – to explore a couple’s response to the death of their child. And in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), any overarching story is virtually abandoned as the film simply observes, to impressionistic effect, the everyday behaviour of dozens of characters attending or somehow connected to a five-day-long country music festival.
Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (2000) goes still further, evoking the fabric of modern urban society by interweaving brief fragments from the lives of a number of apparently unrelated individuals who were unwittingly all present at a seemingly unremarkable event in a Parisian street. In other words, narrative can be extremely flexible.
In fact, there is more – far more – to a film than its story. If indeed there is a ‘story’ because, as Code Unknown shows, there doesn’t always have to be! Indeed, it might help to start thinking about films a little differently – approach them as you would, say, a piece of music, a painting, a photo, a sculpture or a poem.
Movies are actually made up of many different elements. Alongside the script and performance, just as important are composition, lighting, colour, camera movement, editing, costume and set design, music, sound design, use of space and architecture. A skilled director will deploy all these elements in such a way as to suggest how characters relate to one another and to the world they live in, and to inflect the viewer’s relationship to everyone and everything seen and heard on screen.
Film is such an immensely rich, complex medium, which at its best works on several levels at once. The more you watch, the more you will come to appreciate the collaborative artistry that goes into it. In the final section of the Guide – Learn More below – I’ve shared some pointers for other aspects of film you might look at more closely as you continue your deep-dive into cinema. I hope that, in time, your own journey into film will give you as much pleasure as it has given me.
Key points – How to find great films to watch
- Prepare to take a rewarding dive into the unknown. In the right hands, an artistic movie can touch us – emotionally and intellectually, culturally and philosophically.
- Start with an open mind. Before you embark on your journey beyond the mainstream, it’s important to set aside your preconceptions about any films with which you might not be familiar – such as foreign language, black-and-white, and ‘silent’ films.
- Give movies a chance. View your chosen film on a big screen if you can, and be patient – don’t expect to be hooked from the first minute.
- Get some advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for tips from film-buff friends, staff at independent cinemas, or cinephiles at your local theatre.
- Play to your strengths and interests. If there’s a contemporary genre you like, check out its history; if you have certain hobbies or countries you’re interested in, try exploring related movies.
- Follow your likes. If you particularly enjoy a movie, look for other films by the same director, featuring the same actor or from the same era or movement.
- Reflect on how films are made. Film is an immensely rich, complex medium: at its best, it works on several levels at once. The more you watch, the more you will come to appreciate the collaborative artistry involved.
Cinema can operate on various levels. To deepen your appreciation of film, here are some further aspects that you might look at more closely, along with some viewing suggestions. These categories and the film examples are far from exhaustive, but will help you begin exploring cinema as an artform.
Composition, lighting and colour
The look of a film is all-important, providing not only essential narrative information but mood, atmosphere, character, subtext and theme. Some films are remarkable for their sheer beauty, such as Bergman’s Persona (1966), Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999) and Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). Some – Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and his other films, for instance – are distinctive for their deliberate, pared-back functionality and focus on essentials, while others – such as John Cassavetes’s Faces (1968) or A Woman Under the Influence (1974) – have a seemingly casual spontaneity in terms of composition so as to suggest reality rather than artifice. The high-contrast shadows and pools of light in film noir – Robert Siodmak’s The Killers is a prime example – or in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), speak of isolation, vulnerability, fear and danger. But a film need not be in black and white to have its expressionist moments: the use of colour in Jean Renoir’s The River (1951), Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys (2008) is no less eloquent in dealing with the characters’ emotions.
Camera movement and editing
Camera movement can be expressive, as well as aesthetically pleasurable. In The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Carl Theodor Dreyer uses a wildly swinging camera to evoke psychological turmoil; in the films of Max Ophüls – Madame de… (1953) and Le Plaisir (1952) are arguably the greatest – the camera tracks and circles around characters suggesting they are imprisoned by their desires and social circumstances. The extended travelling crane shot that opens Welles’s Touch of Evil is, like other long shots in the film, crucial to the narrative in respecting temporal and spatial continuity in order to emphasise causality, while the way the camera repeatedly follows the central character in the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta (1999) highlights the stressful urgency of her plight.
Films by pre-talkie filmmakers such as Abel Gance (Napoleon, 1927) and Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) used rapid editing or ‘montage’ to create excitement, particularly in dealing with conflict. Meanwhile, in movies such as Sabotage (1936), Rear Window (1954) and North by Northwest (1959), Hitchcock perfected a distinctive but highly flexible editing style that, in carefully concealing certain information from the viewer, not only created suspense but manipulated audience sympathies. Agnès Varda’s use of long takes in Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) deftly tricks the viewer into thinking the naturalistic story is happening in real time, while the use of editing to create a fragmented, repetitive narrative rhythm in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) reflects the central character’s obsessive mindset.
Music and sound
Music can underline a film’s emotional dynamics or create mood. For memorable examples, consider Bernard Herrmann’s many scores for Hitchcock, Ennio Morricone’s for the movies of Sergio Leone – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is probably the finest – and Miles Davis’s improvised soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (1958). But music can also be ironic – Michael Nyman’s scores for Peter Greenaway’s films such as The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) – or indicative of a character’s state of mind: eg, Nyman’s score for Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). Of course, following in the footsteps of George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), there are also soundtracks compiled from popular songs to evoke the exact era depicted in the film.
Sound can be expressive too. Welles used all he’d learned working in radio when he made Citizen Kane, deploying echoes, volume changes and other effects to suggest the scale of rooms in which scenes take place, whereas Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), about a prisoner of war, makes expert use of off-screen sounds to suggest activity in the world outside his cell. Bergman’s Persona deploys sound (and silence) to hint, subtly, that certain scenes may be dreamt or imagined, while David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986) are essentially expressionist in distorting and exaggerating sounds to create a sense of unease.
Costume and set design
Memorable early examples of expressive set and costume design include the aforementioned Metropolis (renowned for its evocation of monumentality) and the films Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich – Morocco (1930) and The Scarlet Empress (1934) are perhaps the most impressive – famous primarily for their ornate elegance and excess. Immediately conspicuous design can still be found in a diverse range of later films, such as Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (2019) and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018). But costumes and sets are chosen and made for most fiction films, many of them rather more naturalistic in tone. Fine examples would include Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Éric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach (1983), Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009).
Location and architecture
Where a film is set and shot has an inevitable influence on its mood and, sometimes, its meaning. Just as the Monument Valley settings of John Ford westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Searchers (1956) reflect their heroic stories and stark moral dilemmas, so Bergman’s decision to make many of his films of the 1960s and ’70s – Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Passion of Anna (1969) among them – on the island of Fårö in the Baltic Sea contributed to their examinations of suffering, loneliness and dark despair. Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni and Alan J Pakula made highly expressive use of both architecture and landscape in films such as The Trial (1962), The Eclipse (1962) and The Parallax View (1974), respectively. Again, however, virtually all films feature architecture and landscape, and less conspicuously expressive examples can be likewise effective and impressive: Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities (1974), Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness (2002) and Valeska Grisebach’s Western (2017), to name but three.
Links & books
Few serious magazines about the cinema survive in print in English but Sight and Sound, probably the best-known, is now available digitally too.
The Australian website Senses of Cinema is an informative repository of director profiles and features.
Just as you can find out which films and directors are rated highly by the critics and filmmakers who have voted every 10 years for Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time polls, it might also be worth checking which films were awarded top prizes by the juries at major film festivals, especially at Cannes and Venice. Many winners of the Palme d’Or and the Golden Lion went on to become major arthouse hits over the years.
The history of cinema, if dealt with globally, is so huge and complex as to be beyond the scope of any one book. That said, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s The History of Cinema: A Very Short Introduction (2017) provides an outline of what has happened over the years.
Another book The Story of Film (2nd ed, 2020) by Mark Cousins offers an alternative, occasionally provocative perspective on developments.
Other books, along the lines of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (updated ed, 2019), edited by Steven Jay Schneider, might prove a helpful starting point.
The Aeon Video and Psyche Film channels feature many films that can complement your cinematic explorations, from an explainer about how film cuts work, to movie analysis from The Nerdwriter, and artistic experiments in the medium itself.