How to Choose What Movie to Watch (for All Audiences)


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Daniel Franzese and Lizzy Caplan in Mark Waters’ ‘Mean Girls’ (2004)

Rotten Tomatoes: the site where film criticism goes to die. That’s a whole other article in and of itself, but I likely won’t be able to provide an article with as much depth and condemnation as Tom Brueggemann’s piece for IndieWire.

To summarize his argument, there are serious problems with the site’s methodology for choosing critics, the communication of their ratings, and their degradation of the critical process. Yet recently, Rotten Tomatoes has become “the shorthand for critical response.”

But you’re bored, you’re on Netflix, and you have a few hours to burn. How do you choose what film to watch without treacherously submitting to the whims of the rotten tomato?

A helpful tool for all audiences is JustWatch, a search engine where you can find where to stream, rent, and buy any movie or TV show.

Here are three categories with specialized guides for your special taste.

Paramount Pictures
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ (1997)

1. When your favorite film is James Cameron’s Titanic

The only reliable benchmark for the opinion of general audiences is Cinemascore. IMDb and similar audience rating sites are susceptible to brigading for political reasons (or simply because the users have a “hating black people” problem).

Cinemascore’s methodology: “On opening night around the country, CinemaScore polls moviegoers for their opinions on new movie releases. Audience members fill out ballot cards right at the theatre, grading a movie A to F and providing demographic information. CinemaScore uses this direct balloting approach to establish a movie’s grade—its overall ‘CinemaScore.’”

One unfortunately problem with Cinemascore is that it only polls films with a wide release (defined on its website as those with at least 1,500 screens in the United States). But when your favorite film is Titanic or similarly basic, you’re probably not watching many independent films.

Any film with an A- or higher on Cinemascore will generally be non-offensive for popcorn audiences. For example, the vast majority of Tyler Perry-directed films have an A- or higher on Cinemascore, even though not a single one of his films has been positively received by critically. B+ films are mostly fine, as well.

Conversely, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, an art-house horror film that is an allegory of the Bible, has an F on Cinemascore, the lowest possible score. Paramount Pictures, the film’s distributor, likely thought that Jennifer Lawrence’s bankability could carry the film through a wide release. But audiences weren’t expecting to see Lawrence in an art-house horror adaptation of the Bible; they were expecting a basic popcorn pleaser like The Hunger Games, thus, the low score.

However, the film got generally positive reviews from international critics, including many raves, placing on the Sight & Sound 2017 poll, showing a disconnect between critics and general audiences.

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Sally Hawkins in Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’, 2017’s Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards

2. When you watch some Oscar-bait films during awards season to feel fancy

The list of Academy Award nominees for Best Picture has a good mix of genres for those with middlebrow taste. With the Film Academy’s efforts to form a more diverse membership, Best Picture nominees are getting more and more interesting every year.

Last year’s Best Picture nominees, for instance, were an adventure fantasy drama (The Shape of Water), a mystery horror film (Get Out), a teen dramedy (Lady Bird), an action war film (Dunkirk), a crime dramedy with a long title (Three BIllboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), two basic biopics for basic old people (Darkest Hour, The Post), and two period romance dramas for heterosexual (Phantom Thread) and non-heterosexual (Call Me by Your Name) audiences.

A better critics review aggregator than Rotten Tomatoes you can use is Metacritic. While Rotten Tomatoes generally accepts any publication or blog with a high number of visitors, Metacritic judges each site on its own individual merit before accepting it as one of its sources. Rotten Tomatoes accepts YouTubers Jeremy Jahns and Chris Stuckmann, whose only qualifications are that they have a camera and a pulse. Metacritic does not.

You can look at the aggregated scores to determine what you want to watch, or you can look at some of the individual reviews to find critics who you often agree with or those who make the most sense to you.

Erika Bók in Béla Tarr’s ‘Sátántangó’ (1994)

3. When you watched all seven hours of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó

If you know Béla Tarr or Sátántangó, you probably don’t need this help (and you’re probably in your 30s at the very least).

But if you’re curious, They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s (TSPDT) 1,000 Greatest Films list and 21st Century list are great resources for critical and academic consensus and generally have higher brow options than the previously discussed sources, including many foreign language films and art-house films. Both lists are updated every year, and the 21st Century list, in particular, updates to include the previous year’s best pictures, usually in February or March.

The source with perhaps the greatest weight on the 1,000 Greatest Films list is the Sight & Sound poll. Every decade since 1952, the publication has polled critics, academics, directors, and other film professionals on the greatest films of all time to create two lists: one for directors and one for everyone else, with the latter being the most important. Currently, the reigning champion of the main poll is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 magnum opus, Vertigo, which dethroned Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in the 2012 poll.

Sight & Sound also has a yearly poll for the greatest films of the year (2017 poll), which is accounted for in TSPDT’s 21st Century list.