One of the most common things you can expect to hear when listening to people on the internet talk about movies is questions from people who would like to get into more artistic or harder to digest movies as to *how* to get into those movies. The question makes sense – how does one go from watching standard Hollywood fare with it’s explosions, big names, and franchises, to watching films of a quieter and more introspective variety? It can be very easy for many ‘cinephiles’ to forget just how hard it was to get hooked in the first place.
The first place to start, is with the question ‘why?’ Why are you looking to watch different movies than what you are already enjoying? After all, there is nothing wrong with liking the big box office films. Many of them are extremely enjoyable, and there isn’t exactly a prize for liking more obscure films than what you’ll see in theaters. Taste, no matter what anyone might tell you otherwise, is a very subjective thing. What you like or don’t like, can never be ‘wrong’. With that though, maybe you’re wanting to watch new films to freshen up your experience? A lot of Hollywood tends to boil down to the same few ideas without much variance. Much like the super catchy pop music of the radio, this can start to get old once you can predict the beats and ideas in all of the music you listen to. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this, but there IS other stuff out there.
Maybe it’s a desire to see some different perspectives? Foreign films are an incredible way to begin to frame your mindset in a different way by developing empathy that can only be gained from experience with stories and ways of telling stories that are outside of your perspective. The world of film and film history is so vast that it’s possible to experience the human condition in any number of perspectives both now, and through the last hundred years. Interested in what it might have been like to be a prospector looking for gold and all of the challenges and hardship that followed? Films like Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’ or 2016’s ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’ can help you begin to understand the emotions that surrounded a very specific time in the US. Ever felt like you weren’t important, and wanted to be someone else? Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Close-up’ might just be the film that helps you reconcile some emotions you didn’t know how to process any other way.
Still From Kiarostami’s ‘Close-Up’
Maybe it’s because you’re interested in the ‘form’ of film more than the story. When I say form, I’m specifically referring to the elements that construct each individual film – the photography and shot selection, editing, music, directorial choices, casting, costuming, production design – all of these elements are things that you can watch movies specifically to see. Not that it’s a problem, but many American films tend to stick to a specific subset of choices in regards to these elements. It’s not that mainstream films always play these things ‘safe’, but merely that many of them can’t be too outlandish for fear of alienating potential moviegoers (and thus – profits!). Film in America is big business, so it makes sense that business decisions often lead the conversation around production decisions. This isn’t the case everywhere though – check out a film like ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’ from Armenia to catch a glimpse at just how different things like framing and usage of color can get from American films.
How then do we start to get into this ‘next level’ of film? To start, I’d recommend finding a list that resonates with you online. There are a few ‘go-to’ lists that many cinephiles tend to start with. None of these are perfect, but all should do a fairly decent job at exposing you to new films and ideas. Some of the lists I like people to start with are the Sight and Sound Top 250, Roger Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’, and the r/Truefilm Top 1000 (links to all three are below). All of these lists have pluses and minuses, and all were compiled through very different methods. But I think for the person starting from scratch with a new film hobby, you’d likely do well with the Truefilm Top 1000. Unlike things like the IMDB top 250 (which is one of the most common ‘watch projects’ that people embark on), the TFT1K is going to give you a pretty good mix between popular artistically minded films (like Malick’s The Tree of Life), and things that are much more obscure (like Resnais’ ‘Last Year at Marienbad’) which should give you a much better mix of films.
Still from Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’
Where to start then on these lists? Well, wherever you want, really! This is obviously going to be a daunting first step – so if it were me, I’d recommend starting with movies that look interesting on the surface. Open up imdb, letterboxd, rotten tomatoes, or any other movie database, and start checking out what some of these movies are about. See an actor you like? Watch the movie. Already familiar with a director’s other work? That’s as good a place as any. That’s the thing, there isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do any of this. With that said, I’d try to keep two things in mind as you choose and watch your films:
Challenge yourself. Try your best to challenge yourself with your film selections. Obviously don’t start watching horror films if you hate horror. However, is there something you’ve been avoiding because you’re worried you might not ‘get it’? Start there. Jump in the deep end. *At worst* you just don’t like something. At best you have a new favorite film. There’s nothing to lose by challenging your movie tastes!
Try to open your expectations. Much of what you know about movies is what you’ve picked up from regular movie watching as you’ve lived your life, and because of that, your expectations are set to enjoy movies that are more mainstream. Some of these movies are going to do things that are *way* outside of your expectations, and that’s ok! Learn to embrace these differences in how these movies are put together or what their subject matter is, and you should start to feel a little more comfortable with films that would have previously seemed unattainable to you.
Don’t forget, this is supposed to be a fun process. Some films aren’t going to be for you. Some films are going to click with you and never let go. It’s a ton of fun to find out which films are which, and to start discussing these films with other people both in person and online. Films are a gateway into so many different places, ideas, perspectives, arts – I’m jealous that you’re going to get to watch most of these films for the first time. You’re in for a treat. Trust me.
Still from Kobayashi’s ‘Harakiri’
Next time I’ll be talking about *how* to start watching some of these films and how to dig in deeper with them. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. I’d also love to hear about what you’ve found on your movie watching journey – please let me know what it is you’ve seen that resonated with you, and what absolutely didn’t.
*Featured image – Still from Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’
Sight and Sound top 250 – https://www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time
r/Truefilm top 1000 – https://letterboxd.com/momsaysitsok/list/r-truefilm-canon-1000-films/
Roger Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ – https://www.rogerebert.com/great-movies