So, you think you’ve got what it takes to be a movie critic? It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
How do you know when a movie is review-worthy?
The answer is, quite simply, when people are paying attention. Whether everyone’s raving about an actor’s performance in a new release or talking about how disappointed they were with the ending of their latest Friday night popcorn flick, if people are talking, you should be writing.
What’s the point of a movie review?
Movie reviews are where critics voice not only their opinion, but also their analyses of a movie. A review should encourage discussion; it should make the audience curious so that they go and see the movie you’ve reviewed, to see if they agree or disagree with your opinion. And that’s why, when writing, you need to inform the audience of what the movie’s about and voice clearly your stance on the movie so that, by the end of the review, they understand whether you like or dislike the movie.
Writing your review
There are numerous stages to writing a movie review, detailed as you read on.
Step One – Getting Started
To kick things off, you need to view the film you’d like to review. Get a piece of paper and jot down your top-level thoughts about the movie. Ideally, you should do this while watching so that you can detail important moments in the movie, too. Then, when writing your review, you can state the facts. For example: What genre is it? And what’s the subject at the heart of the movie? Who’s in it? Which performances did you like and dislike? What scenes stood out for you? Write it all down so that you have a good understanding of the movie’s strengths and weaknesses before you start writing.
Once you know what you’re writing about, you can construct your opening. This needs to hook the reader so that keep reading, so it must count. There are a few ways you can do this:
Comparing the movie
Opening with a comparison will give the reader an understanding of what the movie is about, before you’ve told them anything. For example, if you were reviewing the 2013 sci-fi Gravity, you might write: Depictions of space adventure is nothing new in cinema, but with its ground-breaking visual effects and a stellar performance courtesy Sandra Bullock, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity brings us the most gripping 90 minutes set against the stars since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This opening tells us that you, the critic, enjoyed the movie, found it gripping, and favoured Sandra Bullock’s performance. It also tells us that the movie’s visual effects did something new and that the film shares similarities with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Therefore, if I have seen 2001, I might now want, or need, to watch Gravity.
Summarising your opinion
Many critics open their reviews with a rounded summary of their thoughts on the film. For instance, they might write: Thor: Ragnarok is an explosive addition to the Marvel cinematic universe and a must-see for any action fanatic. However, more traditional writers would argue that this is the sort of statement best left for the review’s ending, as this is the pinnacle you might want to lead up to throughout the piece.
Saying the facts
Many viewers will lean towards true-story narratives or award-winning performances, in which case you might want to start your review with some background information. For example: Widows is not only based on a true story but, according to viewers thus far, is certainly going to earn Viola Davis another Oscar nomination. Alternatively: Using state-of-the-art technology to restore and add colour to original World War I footage, Peter Jackson masterfully depicts the stories of soldiers on the front line. Both use context and information about the film’s making, or its background, to engage the audience, or at least to engage a very specific type of audience.
Step Two – Establish your opinion
Even though you might not want to tell the audience everything from the get-go, it’s important that they understand your stance early on, but not your verdict. Therefore, by stating ‘I loved’, ‘I liked’, ‘I didn’t enjoy’, ‘I found boring’ you tell the audience exactly what you’re thinking.
Then, for the rest of the review, they understand your position and can read further into why you felt that way. By the end of the first paragraph, the reader should have a good understanding of your stance on the movie.
Step Three – Present your argument
Now you’ve gripped the reader and set out your thoughts on the film, you need to present support for your argument, which means using facts to back up your writing. For example, here’s how you might present three different opinions of the same movie, using Snowpiercer as an example:
Chris Evans’ determination would keep anyone’s eyes locked, even if he weren’t aboard an ‘end of the world’ train on a never-ending circuit, battling his way to the front. At various points he takes a hit or two, losing those he cares about, but I never for one second believe that this isn’t what he’s always dreamt of, ever since boarding the train.
Snowpiercer’s plausibility might be laughable, but when watching the artfully crafted battle sequences its many flaws are a thing of the past. Chris Evans is far from charismatic but his rich backstory, depicted in breath-taking flashback sequences, will have you rooting for him until the end.
What I don’t understand is how Snowpiercer even made it to the screen. It’s here only that the very idea of eating children to stay alive could be made comical, mostly due to Chris Evans’ delivery, and there are so many plot holes that it’s hard to concentrate, with my biggest gripe being that, per the train’s design, school children would need to pass through a nightclub, sauna and restaurant, plus more, to get to school every morning. Worse still, afterwards, they would have nowhere to sleep due to a lack of, or complete disregard for, bedrooms or living areas.
As soon as you can present evidence for your like or dislike for something, your audience has no option but to trust you, even though they may not agree with you.
Step 4 – Don’t just write about the obvious
There is much more to cinema than plot, so make sure you talk about it. Around the halfway mark, which may be two paragraphs or so in depending on the length of your review, you can stop talking so evidently about your opinion or the story itself and start to look at other areas of the movie.
Other areas you might want to focus on when reviewing include:
This is how the film looks, including its framing, colours and lighting. Here’s an example from Peter Travers’ 2000 review of The Beach for Rolling Stone: The Beach is colorful and exciting, as far as it goes. But Boyle and Hodge pull back on their usual wit and grit. The actors — shirtless whenever possible — look suitably awed by the beach, which cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Evita) lights almost as sensually as he does DiCaprio.
This is how the film feels. Is it melancholic? Lonely? Dark? Desperate? Here’s an example from Peter Bradshaw’s 2000 review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia for The Guardian: Magnolia is a sprawling, howling miasma of strangeness, and some may find incontinence and indiscipline in its sheer length and Anderson’s love of bringing the soundtrack up to ear-bashing levels over the dialogue – particularly in the opening 10 to 15 minutes. But there is a compelling darkness in Anderson’s film, a Mood Indigo of desperation.
Music and sound
When you least think it, music is often what makes a film, so the soundtrack or score is always worth talking about. Here’s an example from Richard Brody’s 2014 review of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash for The New Yorker: The movie has no music in its soul—and, for that matter, it has no music in its images. There are ways of filming music that are themselves musical, that conjure a musical feeling above and beyond what’s on the soundtrack, but Chazelle’s images are nothing of the kind.
We all have a favourite actor, or actors; it’s what drives many to the cinema in the first place and is an essential part of a film review. Here’s an example from Todd McCarthy’s 1995 review of The Bridges of Madison County for Variety: It’s impossible to imagine anyone but Eastwood as Kincaid, so it follows that he’s perfect in the part — charming, confident, amusing, sexy in a low-key way. Eastwood has been loosening up his image in some recent films and while he may lose some of his edge in the process, here he goes much further than ever as he cries and makes tender love to a sensitive woman.
You may even want to zone in on costume, set design and editing if you feel they’re important.
Step Five – Bring your review full-circle
To close your review, you need to bring everything full-circle, which means circling back to your original point and then summarising.
If you originally fell for the performance or that the movie was true to the source material, it’s in your last paragraph that you need to re-highlight that. By the end of the review, the reader needs to know whether they should or shouldn’t watch the film, and it’s up to you to tell them. Here are some examples:
Yes, watch it
Throughout Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke’s romance has you on the edge of your seat, striving for them; hoping that they’ll end up together. And will they?
See what you think
Daniel Day-Lewis’ is always on top of his game, but perhaps less so in Phantom Thread. Yet he still manages to capture an intriguing, at times scary gentleman whom you won’t be able to make your mind up about.
Don’t watch it
Fanboys may be raving about it, but they always do. This is undoubtedly an attempt at a Marvel movie, not the real thing.
Your review should establish your opinion, voice your argument and then support your argument for liking or disliking the movie. It should then zone in on some of the more technical aspects of the movie so that you don’t fall into the trap of talking about plot non-stop. Then, circle back to your original point, which was why the reader started reading, and prove it, giving the reader a final sentence that indicates whether they should spend their money on a ticket. That’s all there is to it.
Movie writing resources
Becoming a superb movie critic doesn’t happen overnight, but there are a variety of resources out there that you can use to improve your craft.
First and foremost, read the reviews of some of the industry’s best, including:
- Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 1967-2013)
- Peter Travers (People, Rolling Stone)
- Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)
- David Edelstein (New York, CBS)
- Rex Reed (The New York Observer)
- Mark Kermode (The Observer, Sight & Sound)
There are also a variety of books you can read, not only about reviewing but also movies in general:
- What Is Cinema? by Andre Bazin
- The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film by David Thomson
- The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 by Andrew Sarris
- Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies by James Agee
- Film Form by Sergei M. Eisenstein
- Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut
- Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition by Jonathan Rosenbaum
- Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema? by J. Hoberman
- Film History: An Introduction by Kristin Thompson & David Bordwell