Friday, August 12, 2011

Good Movies, Bad Movies: Is It All Subjective?

I was discussing movies with a co-worker the other day and how opinions about films differ depending on the individual. He mentioned overhearing a couple of people say The King’s Speech put them to sleep while he enjoyed it. It got me thinking about the times when my opinion of a film differed from my husband’s or my friends’. Whether we like or dislike a movie is a very personal and subjective thing. How we view a film is influenced and filtered through our personal experiences, our emotions, our likes and dislikes, and whether we’d like to admit it or not, the outside opinions of others.

Whether a film is good or bad is dependent upon one’s idea of what those things are when it comes to film. There are general criteria by which to judge a movie that people more or less agree upon – screenplay, acting, directing, cinematography, editing, simple entertainment value – and these criteria carry a different degree of weight depending on the individual. The importance a person places on any or all of these criteria in judging a movie as good or bad is dependent upon an individual’s preferences when it comes to the films they like.

While our perceptions about some of the films we enjoy or dislike remain firm no matter what, we may come away from a film feeling a certain way about it and then discuss its merits with a friend or read a scathing or a glowing review about it and suddenly find ourselves reevaluating and thinking differently about it.

Our likes and dislikes also greatly influence our film perceptions. If you’re a sports fan you may appreciate films about baseball more than someone who doesn’t follow the sport. Some movie fans enjoy being frightened by horror films while others avoid watching them. Others simply enjoy movies that make them laugh and steer clear of serious dramas and violent action films. Even those films with seemingly universal appeal (a few possibilities being The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, and Casablanca) beloved by critics and the masses have their detractors. One man’s great movie is another man’s dud.

Even though people bring their subjective criteria to bear on their ultimate opinion of a movie, it cannot be denied that some films are just better than others. A person may like Disaster Movie more than The Godfather, but can it be argued that Disaster Movie is actually a better movie? Some films are technically and artistically superior to others, tell better stories and are superbly acted and well-scripted. It is possible to evaluate a film in a way that is not entirely based on a person’s personal taste, yet it is personal taste that determines whether even artistically and technically superior films are films we like and are films we consider good films.

What do you think? Is it all relative, or is there an objective way to measure movies? Tell us in the comments section.


  1. my initial feelings towards this question is that like and dislike can be totally seperate to good and bad. whilst we may leave a movie screening saying "that was a bloody good movie" what we mean is "i bloody enjoyed that" but then what is a "good" movie? i think we may have to go back to bazin's 'what is cinema?' for a long complicated answer!

    you might say something that is incredibly well made, almost a "good" movie by numbers but then those movies often leave you feeling incomplete. for bazin it was about the truth in the image and i guess i've always felt quite similar to that.

  2. Anonymous1:40 pm

    No, there is no way to measure it. It is all with books, tv shows, clothes, etc. Movie reviewers are useless....everything is subjective and reviewers just pollute our minds about a film before we even see it. That's why I don't read about or discuss any film before I see it; I like to go in with an open, untainted, uninfluenced mind.
    What someone else thinks doesn't matter.

  3. ^^^
    Someone is more close minded than a republican from Texas.

    I have to think about it for a while, I don't just spout my thoughts off impulse.

  4. haha duke, i assume that is not about me?

    considering the hatred anonymous feels towards movie reviewers it's a little odd to come to a movie review site in the first place. they certainly seem to have missed the point of the post anyway.

  5. Well, it is all subjective. But, that doesn't mean one should just shut off one's mind to new interpretations...or to gain knowledge not previously known in order to better ascertain what the movie tried to say. Case in point, my favorite film: 2001--I saw it when I was 14 and was annoyed by it. As a "space kid," I "got" the Moon sequence and the Discovery sections...but what did that have to do with monkeys and light-shows and Space-babies. A little research, a little reading and I cam away convinced that I'd seen a monumental film that went way over my pay-grade at the time. It's all subjective, of course, but that subjectivity can be flawed or incomplete.

  6. My thoughts are in synch with those of Yojimbo_5. I feel that when it comes to appreciating art, cinema, and literature, it's all subjective. But additional knoweldge and insight may change one's subjective opinion.

  7. I was just making a joke - I'm fascinated how one could contradict themselves so openly.

    Bashing film criticism, while simultaneously visiting a site that does just that.

    Anyways, onto the article at hand here. It is all subjective, but I feel ones who write about film - whether it be Roger Ebert or a LAMB member like Andy Buckle or James Ewing - at least these people have seen enough films to have an *educated* and informed opinion on film as a medium.

    There is a need for a film criticism - is it always subjective? Of course - people write from a personal stand point - and base their opinions accordingly.

    To not contradict what we've been discussing here: I found this article to be great.


  8. I have been thinking about JBT's article for a few days know (since she passed on an advanced copy) and my views on the subject echo what others have already stated.

    When I was younger I use to think that all film critics had the same formula for judging movies (which was learned at film/journalism school). As I got older I realized that it was all subjective. The only real difference is that the critics have seen a large cross section of films so there decisions are more informed.

    I found this to be true in my own life as well. I never went to film school, or took a film course in University, but I could still hold intelligent conversations with my friends that did. This was mainly because I watched a lot of films. In many cases I have seen way more films than my friends who carry degrees in film.

    1. that should read " for a few days now..."

  9. He mentioned overhearing a couple of people say The King’s Speech put them to sleep while he enjoyed it.

    It's funny for me to read that statement because within the past few days I fell asleep twice while watching The King's Speech. But that was only a consequence for staying awake too long.

    Siskel and Ebert is the perfect analogy for this topic. Two very well informed and well educated men that have probably watched more movies than all of this post's commenters combined. Yet they disagreed so often (and sometimes very far) that it made for great television. There is never a definitive answer for deciding a movie's quality and that's what I love about them.

  10. @blahblahblah Toby – I agree. To like or dislike a movie is about personal enjoyment or lack thereof and not necessarily about judging a movie according to cinematic standards/conventions taught in film school, etc. There’s definitely a distinction when talking about measuring a film as good or bad based on specific criteria, and personally enjoying a film. Liking or disliking a film is subjective since we all enjoy different kinds of movies for different reasons.

    Anonymous – while I agree that liking or disliking a movie is a very subjective thing, I think hearing/reading other viewpoints, sharing opinions and having discussions is important no matter what the art form. You may come away disliking a film, then have a discussion with someone who enjoyed it, and it may not change your opinion of the film, but it may leave you appreciating it on a different level than you did without that other viewpoint.

    I think it’s totally possible to read a review before seeing a movie and still form your own opinion about it afterwards. If I look forward to seeing a movie and read a negative review about it beforehand, it doesn’t affect my initial desire to see it. I still want to have my own experience watching it and be able to form my own opinion about it.

    @Yojimbo and @John Bem – Well said. Subjectivity is inevitable when it comes to whether a person likes or dislikes specific art forms, but discussion and debate is an integral part of being a movie/art/literature lover. Willingness and open-mindedness only adds to the enjoyment (at least for me) because you can have some great debates about the merits of film and about different ways to interpret movies.

    It’s great when an afternoon at the movie doesn’t end when the credits roll. It’s like added value when you’re able to read and discuss it long afterwards and maybe come away appreciating it just a little bit more, even if you didn’t quite like it.

    @Duke – thanks for supporting film criticism! Agreed. Those with a wide breadth of expertise due to years spent in the film industry watching and studying film do provide a unique and informed perspective, and what’s also refreshing is that they have a sincere passion for film and take critiquing it very seriously, and I appreciate reading reviews from people like that.

    @CS – You know how challenging I found this post to write. The idea of film and subjectivity wasn’t an easy one to tackle. I knew that it would generate some great discussion, and that’s what it’s all about!

    I took a few film courses in university, but I can admit without reservation that you’ve seen far more films than I and that your tastes are far more eclectic (I know that you have a distinct love for foreign films) and yet our discussions about film are always colourful, insightful and interesting. I think being a movie lover is that much more interesting if you can share your opinion about movies and listen to opposing opinions too.

    @Ian Montgomery – I haven’t seen The King’s Speech yet, but I intend to. I’ll make sure I’m well rested beforehand to rule out falling asleep on account of fatigue.

    I used to love watching Siskel and Ebert. Their lively and heated debates about the latest new releases were so fun to watch, and so insightful too. You’re right – they disagreed so often and it was often better when they did because it gave you even more food for thought.

  11. I think it's not all completely subjective - sometimes, after having watched a film, I think: "I liked that film, though it wasn't good", or the contrary. But then again, is that the truth, I can a film be bad if we liked it?

    We can probably agree that a film can be good though we *dis*like it, but the other thing I'm not sure.

  12. Isn't the statement "it's all subjective" itself subjective?

    Even though there's a lot of subjectivity, I am almost 100% sure that Godfather is better than Air Bud 4 (I haven't seen Disaster Movie) even though I can't formulate an exact, airtight reason why I think that.

  13. There will never be a 100% objective way to determine how good or how bad a film is, as long as humans are reviewing films.

    Sometimes separating yourself from how a movie made you feel to instead judge it on how well it was made, is not possible. Sansho the Bailiff is a very depressing film. I can acknowledge how well it was made, it's place in cinema history, and the fact that it generated such a strong reaction from me shows that it was very effectively presented. That still doesn't mean that I would ever recommend it to more than a handful of people I know.

    Even if only one person ever reviewed movies for everyone else, there would still be inconsistencies. Perhaps that person had a bad night, just broke up with someone, just fell in love with someone, etc. Maybe they were expecting to be disappointed and the movie was somewhat good, or they were expecting to be overwhelmed and the movie was only somewhat good. A reviewer's mood and emotional state will always affect his or her review of a film.

  14. I suspect that it's mostly subjective. I know there's an idea for the LAMBcast to discuss movies that we love that everyone else hates, which I think more or less supports the idea that appreciation of movies are subjective. I know I've personally disliked movies I knew to be well-made (Dark Knight) and loved movies that were utter crap (Trojan War).

    We might, MIGHT be able to "grade" movies on technical merits: quality of the performances, affects, cinematography, etc, but I'm betting no two people would agree on either the quality of those things or how they should be calculated to determine whether or not the movie is good.

    And sorry for double-dipping on you for my post on your Must-See List. I've been having some issues with Blogger and today's have been that I can't tell if my posts are getting through.

  15. @Lime(tte) - It's definitely not black and white. I've got so many guilty pleasure films that I thoroughly enjoyed and still like watching, yet others wouldn't agree they’re any good and they wouldn’t be considered good films if pitted against some great film classics. I think it’s definitely possible to like a bad film. That brings us full circle because thinking it’s good or bad is again subjective.

    @Andrew – Sure, it’s a subjective statement. I think a degree of subjectivity creeps in no matter what. I wholeheartedly agree that The Godfather is a better film than Air Bud 4 (which I can’t believe I’ve seen), and I, too, can’t quite explain why. Perhaps it’s because it’s such a beloved film and it’s considered a classic, and maybe because when it’s talked or written about it, it’s almost always about how good a film it is.

    @Chip Lary – Agreed. Film and objectivity could be an oxymoron. Objectivity will never be achieved devoid of subjectivity. I like your point about how our frame of mind at the time we watch a movie impacts our overall perceptions of it. We bring so many filters to bear when we watch movies and they ultimately impact the impression we walk away with after the credits roll.

    @Alan – I’m thrilled with the response this post has generated, so a related LAMBcast discussion is liable to be a lively one! I, too, have disliked movies that were thought to be well-made (Children of Men) and loved movies that were awful (what I call my guilty pleasure films, like Masters of the Universe.) I think that anyone who frequently watches films has seen one that they knew deep down was wretched and terrible, yet still got a level of entertainment value out of it.

    And I agree that even attempting to measure a film strictly by its technical merits will fall prey to subjectivity one way or the other.

  16. I have to say I'm overwhelmed by all the comments. All I can add is that I want a movie to hold my interest...although an "It was interesting" response is not what I like to hear when I ask "So, what did you think?".

    Sure, there are movies that I love...whether they were categorized as good or bad, but (generally speaking) they have to make me feel something - whether they are manipulating my emotions or they relate directly to my personal experience.

    Then there's the Godfather! How could I not be affected by it? I was in the front row of the theatre (last two seats) on the day it opened (I think)...looking up at the screen...and I swear the blood from that horse's head was dripping us!

  17. @Cracked America - this post did generate a lot of comments and I'm thrilled it did.

    I agree that the best movies are those that evoke some kind of emotion, apart from the dreaded "Those are 2 hours of my life that I'll never get back."

    The Godfather is definitely a film that evokes feeling. I watched i recently and it's inspired a couple of my recent posts. It still has great impact and affect. Seeing it on the big screen would have been something else.


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