How to Write a Film Review

So you want to write film reviews, either for a website, to discuss films more intelligently at parties, or to publish some reviews in print. How do you get started?

First of all, you should really love films. I do, I usually see a few every week. I even like the bad ones! I try to figure out exactly how and where the film went off track. You should be a comfortable writer, although you don’t have to be Shakespeare.

Second, pick a film you think you will like to start out. It is much easier writing a positive review than a negative one. Perhaps that new flick from one of your favorite directors would be perfect.

Third, read up on what others are saying. If it’s a new release, and there are few other reviews available, perhaps there are some advance articles about the making of the film and any other information you can gather. Research until you have some handle on the overall scope, impact and importance of the film.

Then watch the film. Really actively watch it though, not just for your personal enjoyment. Listen to the music and dialogue. Try to catch the camera angles, and see how the director and cinematographer set the mood. While your thinking about these technical things, don’t forget to note how the film impacts you emotionally. Does a particular actor leap above a lackluster script through their sheer talent? Or does another less gifted actor distract you from the narrative flow?

It helps to have a pen and paper handy to take notes. With practice, you will eventually learn how to read your quick notes you may take in the dark. Some people jot down notes immediately after the screening.

Watch what and how the director is telling the story. Is it clear, or muddled and confusing? How does the artistic choices of the filmmaker reflect his or her vision for the film. Are there any choices you would rather he or she not have made?   Study the acting, the music, the cinematography, all the various elements that go into the composition of a film. Is this a new director, or a new release from an established director? Is it a studio project, or independent work? Give yourself some idea of the budget, and how was it released and where. Did it just open wide all across the country, or can it only been seen in limited release or obscure outlets.

Lastly, when you have really thought about all these elements, make some attempt to put the film in a broader cultural context. Is this a groundbreaking documentary, or a summer popcorn feature for teens? Who is likely to watch it, and why? Will it have a major effect on the culture, or come and go with barely a ripple.

Don’t be shy about sharing your own honest impressions and reactions to the movie, but be candid if there is something that might prejudice your review. If for example you just can’t stand horror films, be upfront about that.

Study other film reviewers, especially top film reviewers like Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby, etc. The reviewer Barry Norman wrote a wonderful book 100 Best Films of the Century, a classic that is very helpful to read.

See how they carefully unpack a film, it’s almost like a mystery they are trying to solve, with graceful, often humorous writing that pulls the reader along smoothly. Read as many well-written reviews as you can, especially for films you have also seen.

Finally, start a rough draft of your own review, reminding yourself that you can always change it later. Let your thoughts pour out freely and simply, don’t overthink it, and don’t be too critical on your writing in the early going. Then let the review sit overnight, there may be some additional points that come to you. Finally, read and revise your review carefully, realizing your words and ideas could have an important impact on an artist’s hard work and vision. You owe it to the filmmaker to carefully consider his or her work. And as a last careful check, read your review aloud. You will see if there are some glaring problems or areas that just don’t make sense, or are awkwardly phrased.

Needless to say, you will of course avoid spoilers; and always mention somewhere the director's name. You would be surprised how many films have the same or similar titles, and this will avoid confusion.  

As I said, it is much easier to review films you like instead of ones you don’t, but don’t shy away from tackling a less than satisfying film after your first few reviews. You will loose credibility as a critic if all your reviews are glowing and upbeat, or relentlessly harsh. Strive to be diplomatic though, almost every film has at least one or two good qualities.

Don’t make the mistake of falling into needlessly vicious and cutthroat reviewing. Films of any quality are a huge endeavor, costing much time, money, teamwork and collaboration. Respect the filmmaker’s craft, even as you painstakingly dissect his or her strengths and weaknesses.

Carefully written reviews, intelligently crafted, are essential to the film industry and viewing audience. You owe it to them to give it your very best shot.

Joy Bennett has been a paid film reviewer, and has reviewed films and covered film festivals for many years. You can read some of her reviews here: joybennett.com/film-reviews. Her website is joybennett.com.  

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