When the topic comes up about how film is a big hobby of mine, the first question I get asked is what my favourite movies are. This one I never have a good answer for. Choosing just one feels so wrong to me! The next most common question is how I know what movies to watch. This post tries to answer that. I’m not sure if it serves as a particularly useful guide, but hopefully I can at least give some insight into a process that I enjoy.
I used to rely on RottenTomatoes scores a lot, but now I basically never look at aggregators. I almost never watch trailers, and sometimes I don’t even know what genre the movie is going to be before it starts. I usually don’t choose movies based on what actors are in them, either. These are some common ways films are marketed, yet I find the signal-to-noise ratio way too high. The only (somewhat) commonly marketed signal that I do find reliable would be the director. I think the key is to read more about your favourite films, and then follow the critics and entertainment writers whose writing you like. Which leads me to…
The Film Community
I think the most obvious piece of advice that you’ll hear about any hobby is, find a community! I follow a lot of directors, film societies, entertainment writers, and amateur and professional film critics on Twitter and an app called Letterboxd. Letterboxd is the app I use to record what films I watch, keep a watchlist of films I want to watch, and read reviews and lists. Think of it as Goodreads for movies, though I personally think Letterboxd’s UI is way better. I love the app a lot.
Just by passively reading Film Twitter tweets and Letterboxd reviews, you get a good sense of (1) what upcoming movies are anticipated and (2) what past movies you need to stream. Plus, there’s a lot of great memes.
The community does quite a bit of the work for you, but there’s a lot more you can do as well.
Finding Upcoming Movies
This section isn’t super relevant during quarantine, since we’re not going to get huge movie releases in theatres for a while. Still, figuring out what movies are going to be big before they’ve even hit theatres is so exciting! The first thing you need to know is how movies get released.
Most highly anticipated films premiere at film festivals. Unless you’re in the film industry or a professional film critic, this is the earliest possible time that you can watch a movie. The most prestigious film festivals are: the Cannes Festival, the Venice Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the Sundance Film Festival, and the Berlin International Film Festival. These can be competitive to get into, but many major cities will have festivals as well. I love New York Film Festival (NYFF), personally.
Cannes Festival is definitely the most prestigious — often, it’s the first place highly anticipated films will ever be shown. If you’re not in the film industry, you have to apply for a festival pass by writing a cover letter, so it’s not easy to get in. Cannes has a special program for people under 28 years old, where it’s completely free if you are accepted (besides travel and accommodation costs, of course). I was hoping to go this year, but then the craziest thing happened recently and Cannes was postponed indefinitely… I digress.
Every year (well, typically every year), Cannes will award a Palme D’or, the highest prize of the festival. Parasite won in 2019. Other awards to look out for include best director, best screenplay, and the Grand Prix (which is like “second place” at Cannes).
Other festivals, like TIFF and Sundance, will have similar awards. TIFF and Sundance are also great because they’re a lot more easily accessible to general audiences. By paying attention to these awards and the general buzz from the industry, you can know which movies to watch either at a local festival or as soon as the movie is widely released. Right before and during the more popular festivals, you can get a sense on what films people are excited about on social media and news publications.
I feel really fortunate to have watched Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire at NYFF, before they were released and well before general audiences heard much about them.
In my experience with TIFF and NYFF, getting tickets works similarly to getting tickets for a really popular concert. You have to keep a reminder for when the tickets are first released, and as soon as the tickets come out, go to the website and you’ll be put into a virtual queue. You may have to wait a couple hours at this point. Your chances at getting tickets will be very good, but sometimes really popular films can still sell out right away.
If you can afford it, you can buy a membership for the film society that runs the festival — they often have cheaper prices for students and younger people. This lets you get early access to tickets, so you’ll be pretty much guaranteed any ticket you want.
Watching a movie at a film festival is different than watching general release. There’s no trailers. The audience demographic is generally older. Most importantly, there’s often a Q&A at the end of the film with the director and some of the actors, which adds so much to the experience.
Even outside of festivals, you can find screenings that feature Q&As with an actor or director, especially around the movie’s general or early release. To track these down, either sign up for mailing lists or follow social media accounts for local independent theatres and film societies. In Toronto, I follow @TIFF_NET. In New York, I follow @FilmLinc and am on mailing lists with IFC Center and Angelika Film Center. You can also follow the specific directors and actors who you are interested in seeing.
Choosing Movies to Stream
I have Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and occasionally I’ll sign up for a free trial for other streaming services when I need to mix things up. Worst case, if a movie isn’t streaming anywhere, it’s almost always available to rent on YouTube. One particular service I’m excited to try soon is the Criterion Collection, which has a lot of classic and foreign films.
Besides word of mouth, I build up a watchlist by searching for movies in a variety of ways: looking at popular movies released on a given year, looking at lists of movies curated by others, looking at directors’ filmographies. I do most of this on Letterboxd, which has a useful feature of greying out movies I’ve already watched. There’s lots of ways to conveniently filter lists and sort lists as well.
Nowadays, I completely ignore any recommendations from streaming services. I have a Letterboxd Pro account, which allows me to specify which streaming services I use and then allows me to filter my watchlist by those services. I especially like the fact that I can specify streaming services by country, so paired with a VPN, I have lots of options (though I’ve found the availability data to be not super accurate for certain countries).
There’s so many good movies to watch!!!