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The Art of Writing Film Reviews

The film ends, the credits start to roll, you wipe away a few rogue popcorn kernels from your lap and head to the theater lobby. You turn giddily to your friend and ask, “What’d ya think!?” For our Film Review Competition, we want you to harness that post-movie buzz as you start thinking critically about the film and drafting your review. To help get you started, we’re thrilled to have Vox Critic-at-Large Emily VanDerWerff  join us as our competition Guest Judge. Emily offers some helpful ideas around the purpose of film review and how your goal shouldn’t be to “trash it” or “rave it” but to get to the crux of what the filmmaker meant to convey and how that came across in the finished piece.


photo credit: Adam Emperor Southard

For January’s competition, writers are tasked with reviewing any movie of their choosing. How would you suggest they go about picking a movie to review?

Find something that speaks to you! Don’t just pick a movie to trash it or to rave it, though you might find your voice most clearly through panning or praising a film. Pick a movie where you know you will have something to say that only you could say. We don’t read criticism to hear if a movie is good or bad; we read it to find out more about the critic and what she thinks. Yes, you should say if the movie is good or bad and why you think so. But ideally, you’ll have more to say than that.

How is watching a movie with the intention of reviewing it different than watching a movie for entertainment?

On one level, it’s not. If a movie doesn’t entertain or engage you on any level, that’s something the reader of your review should know! But on another level, you are working to understand why a movie entertains or engages (or doesn’t). You are looking past the surface and trying to intuit how the movie works and just why it works on you the way it does. In explaining that reaction, you can better help the reader understand his own reaction, even if the reader wildly disagrees with you.


What are the most important things for a reader to understand about a film from a review?  

I would say they are threefold:

  1. They should have an idea of what storylines, themes, or ideas the movie tackles. This might take the form of plot description, or it might take the form of saying something as simple as, “This is another classic romantic comedy, only this time, girl meets girl, instead of boy meets girl.” The reader has seen other movies. They can catch what you’re saying.
  2. They should have an idea of how the movie tells its story. Roger Ebert has a famous quote: “A movie is not what it is about. It is how it is about it.” What he means by that is that a movie is as much about its particular craft as it is the story it’s telling—what choices have been made in terms of the filmmaking, the screenwriting, and the actor’s performance?The bulk of a good review should be spent explaining these choices and how they affect the audience’s experience.
  3. They should have an idea of whether the critic did or didn’t like what she saw. But this can be a nebulous thing! You might think a movie was Just Okay, with some interesting bits in it. It’s more helpful for the audience to hear about what makes a thing interesting than it is to hear, “This is just okay,” though you should still convey that the interesting stuff doesn’t somehow make the whole movie interesting.

At Vox, we try to write about a movie that covers two of the three following bases (the movies that get the most response from our readers cover all three): 1.) It’s really good or even better. 2.) It does something that’s really interesting to think about. 3.) It’s something our audience will be deeply excited about. Ideally, you, too, would find a movie that covers two or three of those bases for you to review.


What role, if any, do you think film criticism can or should play in the craft of filmmaking?

I don’t believe filmmakers should be looking to critics as their report cards. Sometimes, a filmmaker needs to make something that critics won’t embrace, and both sides have a healthy role in that divide. Sometimes, that movie goes on to become a classic that critics of the time just weren’t ready for. Although sometimes, the critics are just right, and that movie stinks on ice.

There are, I think, great filmmakers who almost function as movie critics. Quentin Tarantino would be a great example of a director who seems almost as interested in getting you to watch his favorite movies as he is the movies he actually directed. And a few great filmmakers actually started out as critics, like the ‘70s director Peter Bogdanovich. And it is inevitable that critics and filmmakers will develop a kind of combative friendship, as you may have seen whenever directors and critics interact on social media.

But in general, a director shouldn’t be looking to critics to find out if they did a good thing, and a critic’s job isn’t to tell filmmakers what to do. A critic’s job is  to explain what they think about a movie to audiences, who can use that information to decide whether to buy tickets or perhaps to help frame their own feelings on a movie after seeing it.


What advice do you have for young writers who are interested in careers as film critics?

The advice I give to anybody who wants to be a writer applies–read and write as much as you can and as many things as you can. And don’t just read about movies or TV shows. Get a grounding in things like psychology, religion, history, and the visual arts, all of which inform the history of film considerably. But also read great fiction and great plays and great poetry. Really, anything you want to read is going to help you become a better writer.

But you should also start reading other movie reviewers. Don’t try to read them as though they’re right or wrong—try to read them and understand why they have the taste they do and why your taste might be different. (This is especially important in an era when we’re actively discussing what harm having a critical body that is so white and so male might have done to not just movie criticism but to the movies themselves.) Become familiar with some of the great critics of the past—or at least Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael, the three most famous movie critics in American history. (If you like those three, try James Agee and Andrew Sarris next.)

And, finally, a critic should always be watching too. Try out movies you think you’ll hate. Try out movies you think you’ll love. Try out movies you’ve never heard of: documentaries, foreign language films, and shorts. In general, spend a couple of minutes after every movie thinking about how it affected you and why it affected you that way. Then, when you’re ready, start to put those thoughts down on paper.

About Emily

Emily VanDerWerff is the critic-at-large for Vox and the first TV editor of the A.V. Club. Her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Grantland. She lives in Los Angeles.


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