Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Beginner’s Guide to Movies: Where Do I Start?

One of the questions film critics get asked a lot is where a young movie fan should get started, and frankly, I sympathize. Every year we get further and further away from the dawn of cinema, and the amount of material a film fan needs to “catch up on” only gets larger, and more daunting.

The simple answer to that question is… you just have to start somewhere. Pick a filmmaker, or pick a genre, and start watching movies! But as with most journeys, it’s easier - and frequently, more fun - to have a guide to help you along.

That’s where The Beginner’s Guide comes in. Every week, the critics here at Critically Acclaimed will help you on your path to film fandom, with starter courses on filmmakers, subgenres, terminology, and even how to read film criticism in a way that expands your view of the medium.

And since we just have to start somewhere, let’s start at the very beginning, and make sure you have the tools you’ll need to explore film history and become an expert!

Here’s what you’ll need…



It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of movies out there, and it’s easy to read or listen to critics who seem to know more than you do, and feel discouraged.

Take it from me, you don’t have to feel that way. Everyone started somewhere, and every single critic who seems like an expert has blind spots. There’s too much content out there for anyone to have seen it all!

We’re all on the same path. Some of us started walking it earlier than others, but once you get started, and start absorbing movies en masse, you’ll quickly find out that you’ve seen movies that other people haven’t. 

And sharing art with people is one of the best parts of being a film fan. After all, we watch movies in a theater, with a crowd, and feed off of each other’s energy. We’re all in this together, and you’re a part of that.

So don’t be discouraged, be excited! Many older film fans and professional critics, myself included, get a little jealous of young people for getting to watch certain movies for the very first time, and have those first beautiful moments of surprise, of horror, of romance, and - every once in a while - of mind-blowing revelation.



This seems like a no-brainer, right? 

But maybe not. Lots of people watch movies on devices that aren’t a television, like their computers and their tablets and their phones. 

And if that’s all you’ve got, that’s fine. It’s important to watch movies however you can. But it’s also important to watch movies the way they were meant to be seen, or at least the closest approximation. 

Most movies are meant to be watched in a theater, with the biggest and best presentation possible, but you won’t be seeing most movies this way, because as a film fan, you’re going to be watching a lot of movies, and there are only so many in theaters at any given time.

So your second best option is a TV, which A) is as big as you can reasonably afford, B) has a decent sound system, C) is set to the correct a/v settings. 

Believe it or not, “C” is the most important item. Widescreen TVs are getting cheaper all the time, and unless you have a pretty big living room, the sound quality on your TV - or the sound quality on a modestly-priced sound bar - will probably be just fine, unless you have a very sensitive ear.

But most televisions come out of the box with visual settings designed to pop out at a store, and not designed to make a movie look like it’s actually supposed to look. You’ll probably need to adjust the contrast, turn off motion smoothing (this is really important), and tweak the color a little bit. 

There are lots of websites for audio/visual aficionados online. Look up your model of television on Google and do a little digging. It should be relatively easy to find the settings that will actually preserve the presentation of the films you want to watch, instead of messing with them.


Universal Pictures / Rogue Pictures

One of the other questions I get asked a lot, when I mention on Twitter that I’m watching a particular movie, is “Where can I stream that?” 

My answer, more often than not, is “You can’t.” That’s because, as convenient as streaming services are, even the best ones have a limited selection. An enormous number of movies - good, bad and in between - are not currently on streaming, especially if you want to go back further than ten years. And that’s something you’re going to have to do if you want to become a film aficionado.

So you’re going to need a DVD player. I recommend a Blu-ray player, if you don’t already have one, because they are backwards compatible and can also play DVDs. Do a little research and find the model that’s best for you. There’s no need to break the bank on this. There are plenty of options.

An option you may want to consider is an all-region Blu-ray and/or DVD player, which can play discs from any country. It’s great technology to have, but if you don’t plan on really digging into discs from other countries - many of them for films which will eventually come out in your territory anyway - then don't consider this a requirement. It's not an issue we're going to run into terribly often in this series (although, again, depending on how interested you are in really exploring international cinema, it still might be something you want to invest in).

If you really plan to dig into the backlogs of cinema, you should also consider getting yourself a VCR, because it’s only going to get harder to find those as years go by. Quite a few films that were made available on VHS have still never been available on DVD or streaming, and there’s no guarantee that many of them ever will.

The same can be said for LaserDiscs, but finding players in good working order isn’t always easy, and the discs themselves have a tendency to deteriorate anyway. (VHS tapes degrade over time as well, but they're usually still playable. Due to complications in the pressing processing, some LaserDiscs literally rot.) So collecting Laserdiscs might not be worth your trouble, unless you really get into the archival aspects of being a cinephile. (Then again, you might!)

Of course, the next question is, where do you find DVDs?



If you’re lucky enough to still have a video rental establishment near you, head on over. Many of them have monthly subscription services for affordable rates. 

Keeping these stores going is invaluable for the film enthusiast community, and most stores that are able to remain competitive in the current streaming-centric marketplace are the ones with selections which dramatically overshadow what’s available on Netflix, or Amazon, or Hulu.

If you don’t have a local video rental store, there’s at least a really good chance that you have a local library, and that your local library also carries DVDs. Get yourself a library card! Selections usually range from blockbuster to arthouse, and they may also have access to additional digital libraries as well.

If you don’t have a local library (or if their selection stinks), you can also find a lot of DVDs for sale online, often at low, low prices because so many customers are moving to streaming. Buy them from retailers if you can - that’s how the original artists earn money - but that’s not always an option, especially for older and more cult-y films. When that happens, the used market is available, often through sellers like Amazon, and it’s full of great material you often can’t get anywhere else.


TriStar Pictures

Streaming services aren’t a bad thing, they just have limitations. So although you can’t be beholden to their selection - i.e. you need to have a DVD player as an option - you will probably want to have access to at least one or two streaming services to fill out your viewing library.

Each streaming service has pros and cons, so do your research before you decide what to spend your money on. But I recommend the following, for the following reasons.

Amazon Prime: Amazon has one of the best selections of any instant streaming service, with deep back catalogues and far-reaching genre offerings. Many of these are available for a flat yearly rate (which comes with other perks, like free shipping on many other Amazon products).

The downside is that a lot of their content doesn’t come with that yearly charge. So you may discover that they have a film you want to watch, but it’ll cost you an additional couple of bucks. This can be annoying but it’s also, sometimes, the only way to watch certain films, so having the option may be worthwhile.

FilmStruck: The Criterion Collection, Turner Classic Movies and the Warner Archive have combined their impressive catalogues into a single streaming service, with classic movies, art house wonders, and some fascinating cult stuff as well. If you really want to take a deep dive into film, FilmStruck is probably the best service around.

The only downside to FilmStruck is that, like very other streaming service, their offerings are sometimes subject to change. They don’t offer every movie from Criterion, TCM or the Warner Archive at all times, so if you’re looking for something specific you might still have trouble finding it, even though it’s ostensibly available from those companies.

Still, that’s a nitpick. This service is great.

Shudder: If you like horror - and if you’re want to become a film fan, there’s a good chance you do, or that you soon will - Shudder is a great option. This service is dedicated almost exclusively to horror and horror-adjacent motion pictures, from throughout film history. They have a great selection of classics, cult classics, and the really weird stuff you won’t believe really exists.

Of course, like FilmStruck, their selection is pretty focused on a certain kind of film fan, so it may not be worth a monthly fee for you to sign up yet. Consider how into horror you are (or how into horror you want to be) before you start paying for it.

Netflix/Hulu: The “big two” instant streaming services have a lot of great original content, and a reasonable motion picture and television library. Hulu has more classic TV shows than Netflix, and Netflix has more movies.

I put these at the bottom of the list because the odds are good you already have these. They’re an adequate baseline subscription service but if you’re looking for something specific, esoteric, or classic, there’s an exceptionally good chance that neither of these streaming services will have it. Don’t rely on Netflix and Hulu for all your content. You’d be missing out on a lot of great movies.


Warner Bros.

Movies are great, but reading is always essential. Heck, you’re reading right now! 

You’re going to learn a lot from watching films, but if you want to learn more about the craft of filmmaking, the history of filmmaking, and beyond, you’re going to need to read about it. 

This is a topic that warrants its own Beginner’s Guide at a later date, but suffice it to say this is another good reason to have a library card. Larger branches probably have at least a modestly sized media studies section, with books on film history, screenplays, and more. Go check it out, and come back here another time, because we’ll eventually offer a quick primer on some essential tomes you’ll definitely want to have in your collection.

If you just want to start somewhere, right away, consider buying one of the many guidebooks to the best films ever made, like - just to pick one famous example - “1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

These kinds of books are never as complete as they should be, and of course they’re out of date as soon as they’re published (because great new movies are released all the time), but any halfway decent tome on this subject will offer a list of highly recommended movies with at least a little bit of context, to help you appreciate what you’re watching, and why it’s considered important. 


Dreamworks Pictures

Again, journeys are easier with a good guide. It doesn’t have to be the critics here at Critically Acclaimed, but you’re probably going to want to find at least one or two film critics whose expertise you trust, to help you along.

“How to Read Film Criticism” is another topic we’re eventually going to tackle here at The Beginner’s Guide, and probably more than once, but here are some quick tips to get you started on finding a critic who’s right for you.

Firstly, don’t fall into the trap of only reading (or watching/listening to) critics whose opinions exactly mirror your own. There’s a really good chance you won’t learn anything new if you only listen to critics who share your exact same sensibilities, or worse, only know what you already know. 

Film is an art form, and art forms exist to share ideas and experiences with other people. Critics can help unlock the inner meaning of movies, and articulate ideas and interpretations that you weren’t consciously aware of. Find the critics who look beneath the surface - the ones who do not, as they say in the comments sections, “just turn off their brains and enjoy the film” - because they can expand your awareness not just of cinema, but of the whole world.

And if you're getting into cinema in the hopes of one day being a film critic... that's a subject we're going to tackle someday too, but you might want to consider starting a journal right now of the movies you watch, the observations you make, and the filmmakers whose work you want to explore in more detail. (If you want to share these thoughts with others, Letterboxd is a fun website that a lot of film fans use to keep track of their viewing habits.)

We’re going to explore the world of cinema in more detail as time goes on, and help you get started on the essential classics, the weird subgenres, the most influential filmmakers, and many more topics besides. This is, as with all future installments of The Beginner’s Guide, just a place to get started. (And if you have any other suggestions, leave them in the comments below!) 

The important thing is, you’ll learn more as you go along. Heck, you might learn more than we know here at Critically Acclaimed! But we all have to start somewhere. And we’re thrilled to be your guide.

So… let’s get started!

Top Photo: Paramount Pictures


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