How to see movies you actually want to watch

The 8-step program to breaking lazy movie habits


It can often feel like there are too many movies. The abundance of choices at our fingertips, thanks to services like Netflix, can make deciding what to watch on any given night overwhelming.

As a critic, one of the things I hear most frequently is that people want to watch great movies, but that they simply fall into watching whatever happens to be in the glossy preview section at the top of Netflix's homepage. Yes, the streaming Goliath is a master at goading users into watching exactly what it wants you to watch (see: the Bird Box phenomenon), so it's no surprise that this method can ultimately leave you dissatisfied.

This year, make a point of being a purposeful film watcher. This is The Week's guide to watching movies with intention in 2019.

1. Plan ahead

The easiest way to end up watching something you don't want to watch is to go in without a plan. While Netflix's algorithm could potentially suggest something you'd end up loving, more likely you'll become victim to the company trying to push its original content down your throat (or, worse yet, browsing until you run out of time to actually watch anything — been there, done that). Instead, consider strategizing ahead of time. Plan a movie night a day or two in advance, and at the same time plan what it is that you want to watch.

Unfortunately, with the death of the streaming service Filmstruck last year, it has become harder to watch classic, foreign, or art house films if you're looking for them. If you can't find something on Netflix or Amazon, try Kanopy; it's free if your library is a partner. You can also always order DVDs and blu-rays from your local library as well, or request interlibrary loans if your branch lacks something you're looking for — all of which shouldn't be a problem if you're preparing ahead of time.

2. Refer to lists beyond the IMDb Top 250

If you're looking for a list of films to start with, don't limit yourself to the popular IMBb Top 250, which skews heavily in favor of American movies made in the past two decades. I recommend instead checking out Sight & Sound magazine's once-a-decade poll of the "greatest films of all time," as well as the late, great critic Roger Ebert's top 100 list. The web resource They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? also aggregates a number of acclaimed best-of lists, if you don't want to spend time jumping around between websites.

You don't have to watch any of these in order, of course. If you know you love Westerns, then skip straight to Sight & Sound's seventh film, The Searchers. This isn't homework; the whole point is to have fun and find new things that you like. That being said ...

3. Watch movies outside your comfort zone

Imagine if you only ate American food — you'd miss out on so many great dishes, like pasta and tacos and curry. Movies work the same way; right now, for example, some of of my favorite films are coming out of China and Taiwan. By only watching English-language films, you're missing out on a whole universe of experiences. The same goes for time: There are over 100 years worth of films out there, so why would you ever stick exclusively to what's been made this decade?

One of the biggest problems with Netflix, though, is that it only has a very narrow slice of the movies that exist available online. "[T]he streaming platform offers just 43 movies made before 1970," Newsweek wrote in 2017, "and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era." As a result, it takes work and time to find movies beyond your comfort zone, which is partly why lists and preparation come in handy.

4. Let someone else make the hard choices for you

There are tons of fantastic curation services that can help narrow down the world of options. My favorite streaming service is Mubi, which posts a new film a day, with the caveat being you only have 30 days to watch it. As a result, you can't get away with just adding movies to your watch list and then never actually watching them. Counterintuitively, the time limit results in me watching far more films, simply because I want to see them before they vanish from the site. Mubi does a great job representing a number of countries and demographics too, so there's a little bit of something for (and from!) everyone. You can get a week-long free trial to see how you like it; the service costs $8.99 a month after that.

Trying to cut costs? Director Nicolas Winding Refn's service byNWR invites quarterly guest curators to pick "rare ... forgotten and unknown" films for their collection, under the philosophy that "culture is for everyone." The movies are free to watch and are organized by themes such as "Regional Renegades" and "Hillbillies, Hustlers, and Fallen Idols." Guest editors include the great British film magazine Little White Lies and celebrity biographer Jimmy McDonough.

Also check if your cable subscription includes TCM. The channel shows a wide range of films, often with helpful, contextual intros and outros. The service additionally has films available for streaming if you happen to miss something you'd hoped to catch live.

5. Seek out critics you love

One of the most fun things about becoming an avid movie watcher is following the viewing habits of critics you respect. If you're on Twitter, seek out like-minded viewers (a quick cheat is using the search function to find who is talking about a movie you love). You can also join "the social network for film lovers" Letterboxd where you can browse other users' reviews.

While everyone's tastes are slightly different, you're naturally more likely to be led to other movies you like by following critics who share your taste.

6. Go to the movies alone

When I went to see Roma at New York's IFC Film Center, I sat next to a group of college students who were talking about how they never go to movies by themselves. This is a rookie mistake! Going to movies by yourself is one of the best ways to see a film, and it will allow you to see a lot more — rather than having to coordinate plans with someone else, you can skip off to whatever film you want.

If you're lucky enough to live by an art-house or repertory film center, you can count on the programming to introduce you to great films the same way you might count on the streaming services named above. Here's one list of independent film venues around the country; you can also check for a local Landmark or Alamo Drafthouse, or see if your nearby college offers screenings, which are frequently free and open to the public. Museums of all sorts also tend to offer screenings of classic or culturally significant films. Try going to something you've never heard of before (without the hassle of having to convince someone else to go with you).

7. Keep a log of what you're watching

The best way to become an intentional movie watcher is by keeping a log of what you're seeing. I initially started out keeping a log by hand (Moleskine has a great movie journal for just this purpose), although I now watch enough movies that I appreciate the metrics, statistics, and community available over at Letterboxd.

There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your progress as you explore the world of film. Keeping a log helps you to identify what you gravitate towards, as well as highlight the blind spots you might want to further explore.

8. Don't get discouraged if you don't love the 'right' things

At the end of the day, the most important thing to keep in mind is that there is no right or wrong way to love the movies. Like all the arts, greatness is subjective — if you don't love Citizen Kane, it doesn't mean you've failed Being A Movie Lover 101. And if you want to watch The Princess Switch for the seventeenth time, more power to you! It's all about identifying what you like.

There is a great pleasure in watching movies the same way you might think about going out to a nice dinner or ordering a book from the library — with intention and with open-minded excitement. Sure, you will still see bad movies every now and again. But hopefully, you'll be seeing a lot more that you love, too.


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