On Good and Bad Movies

I’m going to say something now that might blow your mind, so prepare yourself. I believe – I hold very strongly to be true – that, unlike

  • steak,
  • kisses,
  • European countries,

there’s no point in thinking of movies in terms of “good” or “bad”. OK, are we all still together? Let’s carry on.

I’m not saying that there are no good or bad movies; I’m just saying that these ways of looking at movies are mostly a waste of everyone’s time.

When your friend at work tells you that Adam Sandler makes bad movies, what he’s saying is that he doesn’t like Adam Sandler movies. And he’s probably thinking of the comedies rather than something like Punch-Drunk Love, right? When you friend at the gym (I’m presuming you have at least two friends and your life is very different from mine) says Adam Sandler makes good movies, she’s saying that she does like them. And she also probably means the comedies. She might even have a Netflix subscription just for the Adam Sandler movies.

You have interesting friends.

Neither of your friends is making an objective assessment of the qualities of Adam Sandler movies. They’re just expressing a personal preference. And that’s what we all do when we talk about good movies or, god help us all, The Best Movies. What we’re really saying is These Are the Movies I Like (and am prepared to admit to as they say something about who I am that I want to share).

Like the ignorant teen I overheard in a comic-book store (see how our lives are so very different?), who said with no shame or hesitation that Batman Begins was the worst superhero movie ever. Now, first, notoriously stringent New Yorker fact-checker, you will not find this teen. He’s dead. I killed him. And I’d do it again. And, second, if he was talking about movie titles, he might have had me nodding in agreement. Batman Begins strikes me as a very poor movie title. But that’s not what he said, so that’s why he deserved to die.

And sure, maybe homicide is not only an extreme reaction but also massively hypocritical. I mean, if all opinions now have equal validity, then who says he isn’t right (at least for him)? And of course you’ve spotted the flaw in my otherwise perfect reasoning. Well done, you.

OK, you’re thinking (once you stop thinking about casual homicide confessions), but what about obvious marks of quality? Well-written scripts, believable performances, mind-blowing cinematography? Surely movies that have these elements are better than movies with poorly written scripts, wooden performances, and out-of-focus, barely framed shots? Well, I would say, if your idea of a good movie must have any of those obvious marks of quality to be considered good, then you’re missing out. Really.

Let me give you my main manifesto point: For a movie to be good, you as the viewer have to enjoy it. It has to have some kind of pleasure for you. And different movies will offer different pleasures. You can love Ingmar Bergman, Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill!, and Adam Sandler movies – that’s allowed. And the movies can be predictable, the performances might not be Oscar-worthy (or whatever your criteria might be), and the cinematography might be something a drunk chimp might deliver…and you can still love the movie more than a thousand Citizen Kanes.

I’m not saying people can’t have opinions; quite the reverse. I’m just saying, and trying hard not to sound like a Lebowski, that they’re just your opinions (man…DAMN). And maybe you shouldn’t be so intransigent with them. Like a teenager in a comic-book shop.

Citizen Kane is not everyone’s favorite movie. It’s not even most people’s favorite movie. It wins (or used to) all the fancy film critics’ polls because it fits the criteria they’re working with. But film critics don’t decide what are great movies, not by themselves. We do. That’s why Shawshank Redemption is regarded as a classic, even though it won’t show up in a Sight and Sound poll ever (I presume…I really should do research before I write something other people will see). And what the critics vote for – or even what comes top of the Box Office Lists at the end of the year – doesn’t tell you what the best films are. You decide that for yourself.

And production values might not matter for you. Dialogue might not matter to you. A coherent soundtrack might not matter for you…A clear picture or a linear narrative might not matter to you.

But, I would say that if none of those things matter to you, maybe you don’t really like movies at all? But that’s me just being a judgmental white male trying to impose my subjective reality onto your free spirit…and you should tell me to go to hell.

And, sure, sometimes you’ll claim arty films are your favorite because you want to be cool among your cool new college friends. But know that they probably (possibly secretly) love John Hughes movies, Jackie Chan movies, John Waters movies, or Russ Meyer movies. And they’re not going to change their mind just because none of those movies would ever make a critic’s Top 10 Movies Ever list.

And that’s a good thing.

So, what am I saying? If there’s no canon, then how do we know what good?

Nothing is good. Everything is good. Potentially. Sure, watch the classics. They’re classics because enough people saw something in them to put them on lists. See if you agree with the fancy folk. But dig deep – go to obscure movie festivals, download weird-sounding Serbian comedies, decide that you’re going to become this generation’s pre-eminent expert on Australian talking-animal movies.

Create your own canon. Because no one decides what great art is but you. This is the internet; you’re in charge now. You decide what’s good.

Let’s just hope you’re not a moron like that kid in the comic-book shop.


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