Learn from the films you love

To become a better film watcher, go beyond collecting favorites. Ask yourself why some of your favorite movies are the way they are. Favorites are idiosyncratic, personal, and influenced by forces beyond what’s on the screen. The more you understand your tastes, the better you’ll be able to find movies to watch in the future. And just as life can influence how we appreciate film, looking back on what we enjoyed can help us reflect on our lives.

This is an opinion borne out in my personal best of 2023. Four out of my top five pointedly reject the traditional “Hollywood narrative” approach to genre.

Killers of the Flower Moon is an epic western that explores systematic racism and unbridled capitalism without redemption, hero, or savior. The Zone of Interest is a Holocaust movie that engages with its horrors sonically but not visually. It “humanizes” the banal desires of its Nazi protagonists, which makes their actions all the more chilling. Past Lives is a romance that rejects an easy love triangle for a more mature vision where one can lose a soul mate and still live a fulfilling life. Anatomy of a Fall is a courtroom drama that avoids dramatic swings, explosive climaxes, and tidy resolutions.

Pushing against genre conventions wasn’t the focus of my top ten in the last few years. Movies at the top of each list trended towards conventional, familiar narratives, with standout acting performances (Tar, Women Talking) or creative mise-en-scène (Decision to Leave). Alternatively, I gravitated towards art house avant-garde unclassifiable by simple genre (Memoria, Titane).

My shifting tastes moved in parallel with a change in film-watching habits over 2023. I watched more films than average last year, including many rewatches of older movies on the big screen, thanks to the TIFF Cinematheque program. I volunteered at TIFF for the first time, a ten day concentrated period where I saw a high volume of festival premieres and talked about them at length with my fellow filmgoers. I also went cold turkey on MCU films for the first time in a decade and lapsed my subscription to Netflix, both sources of hit-and-miss quality.

All these changes pushed the average quality of more traditional narrative and genre fare way up for me in 2023, be it festival premieres at TIFF or classics in a theater. As a result, many new 2023 releases that colored within those lines could be great but had a “been there, done that” quality. For instance, over one month, I watched David Fincher’s Se7en on the big screen and William Friedkin’s Sorcerer at home, both sensational thrillers. Weeks later, I watched Fincher’s The Killer. It’s an exceptionally well executed movie, and it made my top ten, but I can’t deny that having watched two classics earlier had a dampening effect.

In contrast, movies like Anatomy of a Fall or The Zone of Interest knowingly subverted genre in a way that made it hard to point back at an earlier masterclass. Anatomy’s take on the courtroom is a million miles from The Insider or JFK. The Zone of Interest is no Schindler’s List or Son of Saul. That lack of an earlier reference point was greatly appealing to me.

But what was great in 2023 could become a creative rut for me in 2024. So this year, I’m seeking out messier movies for which genre identification is difficult. I’m following up with several blind spots from last year that I unfairly labeled as “too conventional,” like Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers and Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers. I can’t say where any film watching shakeup will lead to, but I’m confident over the long run, I’ll find some fantastic discoveries I wouldn’t have otherwise given the time of day.

A similar introspection on your part can provide many benefits to watching films. Yes, self awareness of personal tastes can make it easier to spot likely future hits. But it also provides a point of origin to broaden in new directions. In doing so, you might find a genre, actor, or director you fall in love with.