Everyone’s a critic at the movies, America’s favorite pastime and favorite way to show off intellectually. A good movie leaves you thinking after the credits roll, and sparks discussion with your friends – for better or worse. While it seems everyone can have (abnormally strong) opinions about movies, very few people know how to intelligently analyze them. And sometimes even the brightest of us can be very sure we felt something in the theater – but can’t seem to put it to words, or breakdown what it all means. Fortunately, I know 4 time-tested ways to break apart any movie and examine it’s inner workings.

You’ve faced this situation many times. You’re sitting in the theater – the movie just ended. Your friend/date/in-laws turn to you and exclaim, “THAT WAS AWESOME!” Your heart rate increases as you scramble to find a diplomatic way to share your disappointment with the movie – or, they hated it…and you had a life-changing movie experience. It can happen anywhere – someone shares their undying passion (or deep disdain) for a movie, and you have to enter the ring. It’s hard to rate a movie by numbers and percentages, and I believe there’s far more to a movie than thumbs-up-or-down. Well, thanks to my favorite film school professor Dean Duncan, these 4 concepts encompass the breadth and depth of any movie, leveling the playing field regardless of budget, genre or age. It makes it easy to peek under the hood and articulate exactly why you loved it, or were left wanting more.

Consider these 4 aspects of a film:

CRAFTSMANSHIP – How was the quality and design of the overall production?

A Hollywood movie involves the talents of hundreds of artists in every discipline. From cinematography and music to writing and visual effects – consider the effect the movie had on your senses and the sweat that went into it. Weak acting in PACIFIC RIM disappointed me, while the visual effects were the best I’ve ever seen.

IMAGINATION – What did the filmmakers bring to this story world, and where did they take you?

Some movies seem predictable and derivative, while others spark exciting ideas and first-time wonder. The key to art is a sense of surprise – we expect a fresh feeling of adventure at the movies. While drawing on a large pool of sci-fi nostalgia, SUPER 8 and AVATAR didn’t have as much new material to offer as I hoped.

CONVICTION – How much did the filmmakers believe in their story and the importance of sharing it?

The best movies are created by passionate storytellers who really want to share a journey with you. Evaluate your sense of the movie’s heart. I was stirred by TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM and DEAD POETS SOCIETY, which proudly upheld their core virtues.

AFFECTION – Did the filmmakers fill the movie and your viewing experience with love and generosity?

When filmmakers truly love their characters, story and audience, it’s simply more fun to watch. This affection is usually manifest in small ways – emotional beats, comic relief, gags and references – that emotionally connect you to the movie. It’s rewarding to rewatch DAN IN REAL LIFE and A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN because they offer so much love to the viewer.

It’s a simple approach, but in the past 5 years I’ve used this method to discuss hundreds of movies and TV shows, and I always have something mildly intelligent to say. Instead of feeling stuck at “I liked it” or “It wasn’t my thing”, there’s plenty of good discussion to follow any movie when you have some useful starting points.

Share some examples in the comments below.

Bonus tips:

  • There’s a difference between being a critic and an audience member – and most movies are made for the latter. Unless you’re a full-time journalist, sit back and enjoy the movie!
  • Don’t judge. Our friend Roger Ebert said, “We must see a movie for what it is, not for what we think another film might have been.” So be fair to a movie’s intent.
  • Everyone connects emotionally in their own way. We don’t have to like the same stuff.