This month, some of you are graduating from high school. Some are you of graduating from college. To all of you, I say congratulations on your hard work. School can be tough. As someone who wishes he had chosen a different college, I can speak to that directly. But I tend not to dwell too much on regrets because ultimately my choices brought me to where I am now, and I’m pretty pleased with my life. And because I have that satisfaction, I thought I would impart a little wisdom in my area of expertise: movies. I’m sure there are plenty of people that are eager to give you advice right now, but if you’re wondering how you become a better cinephile, I can offer you a few points that might help you on your way.
The most obvious advice is to “watch movies,” but there’s no direction there, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Where do you start? What if you start in the wrong place? The good news is that there really isn’t a “wrong” place, but if you’re looking for a little bit of a direction to get your started, I recommend the AFI 100 Years 100 Movies list. Is it comprehensive? Not at all! It has many drawbacks like no foreign films, but that’s okay. This is just to get you started and to establish a baseline so that you can grow from there. If you’re looking to start with something a little more challenging but also more well-rounded, Sight & Sound’s Top 100 Movies, which are decided by critics, is a good guide. There’s overlap between the two, but Sight & Sound will provide more foreign films and essentials of cinema movements like Breathless and The Wild Bunch.
But it’s not enough to simply watch these movies. You need to engage with them. If you have a friend who’s also into movies, talk with them about what you’re watching (my freshman year roommate and I raced to see who could finish the AFI list; we’re still good friends today). There are also plenty of resources to help you get a better understanding of what you’re watching. When you finish a movie, find writing about it and write it about it yourself. I recommend using Letterboxd as a journal, and it will prove to be an invaluable resource. I can’t tell you how many movies I watched in college, but now it’s like I never saw them at all because I have no memory of them. On the one hand, this is nice because now I have an excuse to rewatch them, but I wish I had a record of what I thought about the movie at the time I saw it.
Once you get through the basics provided by a list (and there are far more than those two that I listed; feel free to use another if you like the guidelines it provides), start to branch out. If you find a director you like, make it a point to watch all of his or her movies. If you find a particular genre, start digging through those essentials (icheckmovies is another helpful resource for finding lists of those essentials). One of the greatest benefits of this generation for filmgoers is that so much more is available. The Criterion Channel alone is an amazing resource. While I understand that Netflix is a streaming staple, if you want to expand your horizons, you’ll need to budget for other streaming services (we’ve created a list of the major ones here).
You should also try to find a community that will encourage you to seek out movies you wouldn’t otherwise see. For me back in the early 2000s, that was the CHUD.com message boards, but today you’ve got an even wider selection. Podcasts alone can guide you to a wealth of movies you never thought about checking out before, but it’s good to have some kind of discussion forum or group we’re you can talk about the movies and learn more. But always remember to learn from people who have seen more movies because they can guide you to some rich, interesting places.
If you really want to expand your knowledge, be sure to make time for making-of documentaries, audio commentaries, and most importantly, books. Film Art: An Introduction is a standard Cinema Studies 101 text and worth having in your collection. From there, you have so many glorious options depending on what you want to learn. Personal favorites of mine include William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?, Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood, and Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. Of course, this is a very small sampling and just a place to get you started.
Finally, don’t be afraid to watch bad movies. Even bad movies have something to teach the audience, and while taking barbs at a bad movie can be fun, hating movies is not a personality. No matter how much you dislike a film, it’s always important to remember that filmmaking is incredibly hard. The fact that any film even gets made is a minor miracle, so while you’re free to critically appraise a movie, never forget the effort that filmmaking requires and the courage that sharing your creativity demands.
There’s a big world of movies out there, and the good news is you’ll never see them all. You can keep finding new veins to explore and expanding your knowledge, which in turn will deepen your film appreciation. Even if you think you only like blockbusters, I guarantee you that the filmmakers behind those blockbusters had a deep appreciation for films that have flown under the radar. Popular film tends to lead back to classics and classics can lead into hidden gems and back around again. There’s so much to discover, so never forget the joy of watching movies.