Checklist for Analyzing Movies

Aristotle’s  Six Parts of Theater is a handy tool for analyzing any show.   Almost every story can be followed through exposition, conflict, climax and resolution.  Characters can usually be broken down into good guys and bad guys, foils and stock characters.  The way these characters speak and move tells us who they are and what they might do.  We are also clued in by the music and sound, as well as by the costumes, props and sets.

However, Aristotle never had to think about depth of field, camera angle, point of view, editing or special effects.  Filmmaking is a complex process, much beyond the scope of this class, but to help you enjoy the thoughtful, beautiful craft of filmmaking, I’ve included a simple list of things to be on the look out for (and appreciate!) when watching a film.

Checklist for Analyzing Movies

Credits and mise-en-scene (arrangement of scenery and props to represent the place where a play or movie takes place): This first impression is very important and directors put a lot of thought into what hits you first.  How quickly do you get a feel for place?  Character?  Tone?  Are you given any hints as to how the film will end?  How about it’s ending?  What are you left with?

Cinematography and visual style: What is the overall look and feel of a film? The style?  Sweeny Todd vs The Hangover, Forgetting Sarah Marshall vs Children of MenCharlie and the Chocolate Factory vs Kill Bill – I could go on an on.  If we miss the start of a show, we can usually guess what kind of film it is just by watching for a few moments. Color, space, focus, depth of field, camera angles, point of view (POV), composition, movement, lighting and atmosphere all contribute to a style.  Sometimes directors fool with you though, deliberating playing against genre.  That can be very unsettling.

Editing: How a picture is edited makes an enormous difference.  The pace and continuity give us information as well as create mood.  Are there a lot of quick cuts?  Long takes? (Think of the famous shot in Children of Men) Do we see things up close?  Far away? Parts of people or activities? Montage? Are different characters edited differently? Different places?

Production design, costumes, and effects: Is it supposed to be real or fantasy?  Think of Eastern Promises vs Harry PotterStar Trek vs  The Godfather,  Get Smart vs The Usual Suspects.  We have to believe our characters are living in an appropriate world and we learn a lot about our characters and story from the world around them.

Narrative: We have to trust what we’re told, so point of view and narrative structure is important. Note voice overs, flashbacks, flash forwards and dream sequences, as well as dialog and more straightforward plot devices.

Acting, dialogue, and movement: A great actor can do wonders – think of Heath Ledger as The Joker.  Unfortunately, the opposite is true – think of Hayden Christensen in the unfortunate Star Wars series.  What makes an actor good, then? What makes us believe?

Sound and music: Music sets mood and sound makes it real.  Watch for change in music with change of character (leitmotif).  

Genre: what “kind” of movie is it, and how do you know?  We expect more from a “serious” movie than from a comedy, though the best comedies surprise us (Superbad).

Intertextuality: Isn’t it fun when you catch another layer of meaning – an “in joke” – in a film? Directors and writers love to reference other works to add dimension to their own.

“Critical” aspects of film: A good film addresses important issues while it entertains.  Look for historical, moral, social, gender, and economic issues.

Opinions: What is your opinion based on?  If you disliked it, what made it tedious?  If you liked it, what did you like?  A surprising  or emotionally satisfying plot?  Believable or funny characters?  A marvelous world?  We’re back to Aristotle again.