Critics Corner

a Guide to Film Critique by Philip C. Congleton


1. Film Era
2. Film Genre
3. Sub Genre or Mix
4. Grade Category
5. Grading System
6. Conversion Table
7. Sample Critique

Before we get started I want to explain what I mean about film as it is today. I will only critique films that have been first shown on the big screen. A movie has to be at least 67 minutes long, unless it was released before 1910. Those films can be at least 22 minutes long. I will not critique films that where made for television, like "Brian's Song", and I will not waste time on films that have gone directly to video. There are too many movies in the world and I only have time for so many, and as long as films are shown in theaters I will stick to this philosophy. When the theater system is replaced by something in the future, I will than think of change.

Also, the concepts I have built here are for my own use. I do not consider them written in stone, or even perfect. They help me come to a decision. I do not like to force my beliefs or morals or my form of criticism on anyone. I wrote this as an option for others to use if they want to. It may not be perfect, but I feel it is accurate and fair. Have fun with it, and always remember to have fun with the actual films first and foremost.


I feel it is very important to know when a film was made. When we view a film we should be open-minded to when it was made. Certain technologies had to be created to make films and improve on them. Films of the 80's and 90's look to most people as being better than movies of the 30's and 40's. At the same time film has evolved in other areas. There are no musicals anymore. Films of the 40's and 50's relied more on talent and script, while films of the 80's and 90's rely more on big budgets, action and special effects. Even the way we watch films has changed. Today we have home video. Drive-ins do not exist anymore, and neither do the large cathedral-type movie theaters.

Also, sub-genre (or genre) saturation throughout the decades also has effected film. When a sub-genre is hot, it is during that time that quality films are made. After that, the quality begins to taper off, and than the output of films in that sub-genre tapers off, until you really don't see them anymore. By that time you are glad because the few select films being released in that sub-genre are not very good. What happens next is that the sub-genre will go into a deep sleep and awaken, hopefully with quality, ten or fifteen years later. I will explain what I mean about sub-genre later in this guide.

Film Eras have also been effected by the growth of the international market as well. These are a few of the Era-type things to look for when watching film. There are others, but I can cover some of those areas in the Film Era breakdown. I came up with my own concepts, ideals and category names that best suited what point I was trying to get across.

1.) The Pioneer Era: (1895 to 1910) This is the era when film began. The first camera, first actor, first film stock, etc. was used. Techniques were brand new. Of course there was no sound at all. Most of the films were documentaries, news footage and recordings of stage plays. The first narrative dramas, being maybe five minutes long, would start to become common around 1905, beginning with George Melies "A Trip To The Moon" in 1902. The big names were Edison,Lumiere and the already mentioned Melies, with his "trick" films. When you view these films, be open minded and aware that they were the first in a new medium. Do not look at them as being silly. Primitive they may be, but remember, the energy and work that was needed to generate these films was astounding and the undertaking for the creators to even complete these films was incredible. Look at these films with respect.

2.) The Silent Era: (1911 to 1926) This era would improve on the last one by beginning to experiment more in film editing. It was not entirely silent either. There would be uses of sound tracks, and special effects, however no dialogue would be spoken until the next era. Plot formats would change. The stage recordings would be fazed out and replaced with narrative dramas. This would also mark the beginning of the silent epics. The names of the era consisted of Chaplin, Chaney, Griffith, Pickford and DeMille. More money would be poured into these films, and quality would become an issue. Distinct genres were created also. Look on these films slightly more critical than the ones in the last era, but remember that the medium was still just a child.

3. The Pre W.W.II Era: (1927 to 1940) Most people refer to this era as the talkie era. I find that redundant. Does that mean there are only two eras in film, silent and talkie? The era would begin with the release of the first sound film, called the "Jazz Singer" in 1927. Distinct sub-genres were being created also. Color film would be used more in the 30's, and animation would make it's debut in this era. Matinees became common. Theaters would grow. The star system would be common place, and the slapstick comedy was very mainstream. The names consisted of Gable, Capra, Ford, Hayes and the only two people to really survive the change to talkies, Laurel and Hardy. Quality became king. The Oscars were born, and movie-goers loved their movies. Look on the movies of this era as a teenager just starting to mature. Try to distinguish what was big budget and what was not. If they felt the Academy Awards were needed, use that in your judgment. The special film techniques may still look primitive, but to these movie-goers it was amazing.

4.) The Golden Era of Film: (1941 to 1954) World War II would create a ll kinds of changes in film. During, and after the war, the slaps tick comedy would flo urish. Musicals were king. Horror films were po pular, but with minor use of special effe cts, because of production costs. Production costs created an even more visible difference between low budget and high budget films. Movie studios actually used low costs to their advantage by generating cheap film after cheap film, one by one, to the masses, like an assembly line. The gangster film genre was born. Sub-genres, like detective films, jungle films, and exploitation films were born or growing. Science Fiction was truly born around 1950. The few big names of this era consists of Abbott and Costello, Grant, Bogart, Hepburn, Cagney, Fonda, Stewart, Astaire and Rogers. The biggest reason I named this era the golden era was basically because if you subtract 50 years from 1995 you get 1945, which puts us right in the middle of the golden era. Again look for low and high budget differences, assembly line films, and exploitation (good or bad), when judging this era.

5.) The Transition Era: (1955 to 1966) I call this the transition era because this marks a time when film really begins to mature. Avant-garde and art films are created. The Hollywood walls are knocked down to allow movies from other countries to flourish in the United States. Assembly line films are replaced with cheap drive-in films. Expliotation is now popular. Major Studios loose some power in the distribution area. The film industry now has a new enemy called television, so quality is again addressed. Social issues of more mature natures are approached. Color films are the majority now over black and white films. The names consist of Hitchcock, Curtis, Munroe, Bardot and Taylor. T he cold war begins, and the blacklist creates chaos in Hollywood. When viewing films in this era, watch for clues that distinguish normal film from avant-garde. Look at quality, but be open minded to special effects. Plots and continuity are very important to notice. Do not be scared off by foreign films, or adult content. Remember film is mature now.

6.) The Silver Era: (1967 to 1979) This is really the dawn of the modern film, but I didn't want my modern film era to be 28 years old. There is a new era here today, and even a new one coming. Also, I named it Silver because, well, subtract 25 years from 1995. My silver era starts right were it should, with the release of "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde". However, it ends a little late. It really should end in 1976, right before the release of "Star Wars", but I don't want to have a nine year long era. So, I will end it in 1979, right after the release of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." Back to the Silver Era of film. Film has grown into movies, and now has lost the moniker of motion (or moving) pictures. The outbreak of explicit mature subject matter result s in the formation of the MPAA. The names that rule this era are Co ppala, Hoffman, another Fonda, Spielburg, and Brandow. The use of black and white is now down to probably 3% of films made. Hollywood really knows how to make movies now. You can see a distinct difference in low and high budget. Look upon movies in that respect, but still be open minded to the film for other aspects. Low budget movies do not have to be looked at as being bad.

7. The Modern Era: (1980 to 1995) Again, this era really begins in 1977 with the release of "Star Wars", which ushers in the computer era of special effects and new film techniques. I will start it at 1980. We will say that "The Empire Strikes Back" can be the starting point. This era includes the introduction of computers, home video, cable and block buster movies that cost tens of millions of dollars. As mentioned before, this era relies more on those big budgets than plot or acting, but it still has the ability to generate quality entertainment. The few big names of the last fifteen years consist of Stalone, Schwartzenegger, Burton, Zemeckis, Connery, Nich- olson, Cosner, Roberts, Moore and Speilburg (again?). There are still cheap movies being made, and it shows. Be open minded. These low budget film- makers are doing the best they can with the budgets they have. I will explain more at what I mean later in this guide.

The next section will explain the genres that I use as my main genre categories.


Genre is an important concept to understand. Many people may be turned off by a film because of the genre it is in. People must learn to be open minded in these cases also. Genre is a very important component of film. It defines what the general direction the plot line will go and allows you to prepare yourself for that film. Genre helped create the building blocks of today's films. We would not have made the technical landmarks in film today if Meles had not started his trick films back in the pioneer days, (some people feel the first science fiction film was Melies "A Trip to The Moon" in 1902 and that the genre of science fiction started then) There are about eight or ten main genres that most video stores, books and critics use usually. I like to work with 15. They are listed below. They normally speak for themselves but may have a brief description if needed.

1.) Action: A fast paced film that displays the use of human endurance.
2.) Adventure: Journeys to other lands.
3.) Animated: Cartoon or stop-motion.
4.) Comedy: Funny!
5.) Crime: Plots are based on unlawful human actions.
6.) Documentary: A film that tells a report on an issue. Not a story or narrative drama.
7.) Drama: Films that deal with strong human emotions.
8.) Family: A film with subject matter suitable for all ages.
9.) Fantasy: Films that deal with fairy tale adventures or plots from the dark ages.
10.) Horror: Films that are created to scare the audience.
11.) Musical: Films that have song and dance as the primary factor.
12.) Science Fiction: Films that deal with outer space adventures and extra-terrestrial encounters.
13.) Suspense: Films that keep secrets from the audience. The outcome is always kept secret in the best way possible.
14.) War: Films based on wars that occurred in recorded human history.
15.) Western: Films based upon the exploits of the American west during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The next section will break these genres down into there sub genres and will explain the main subgenres that I prefer to use when I critique a film. Understanding sub genre is as important as genre.


As the decades went by, genre after genre was created. Most of the genres are as old as the film industry itself. Some were established later on. The Animation genre began in the late 20's. Science Fiction began in the early 50's. In my mind Science Fiction was a sub-genre of Horror and Fantasy in which both of these genres were established between 1902 and 1910. Science Fiction Films in my estimation reached Genre status around 1985. I feel a sub-genre must consistently last for 35 years before it can reach genre status. A sub-genre is a film category that has lasted for at least 12 years. Anything else would be just a film fad or category.

Let me explain further. A sub-genre of Comedy was Slapstick. Slapstick came into film because of the success of Vaudeville. Slapstick became popular as early as the 1910's. It would reach its 35 years after WW II. It became its own genre. However, Slapstick as a film genre was dead by 1960, when the last real comedy team of Martin and Lewis broke up in 1959. Since it died it is again just a sub-genre of comedy. At the same token, the sub-genre of Martial Arts and Espionage will reach genre status by the year 2000. Espionage really began in 1963 after the release of Dr No in 1962. Martial Arts films became popular in Hong Kong around 1966. The genre of Crime films has been called cops and robbers. I like to stay with the term Crime. It covers a very broad area. I also have two sub-genres of that genre. One is Gangster films, the other is Police films. Some would say that Gangster films have been around since Jimmy Cagney in the 30's. That may be true, but they have not remained consistent. There are great yearly gaps, and there may only be 20 or 30 true gangster movies ever made. The same goes for true Police films also.

These are only a few examples that I have used, that apply to my concept of sub-genre. The important thing is to understand that sub-genre helps break up the genres so that we have an even better understanding of what the film is really about before we even view it. I try to look at the future and see if it is possible for a sub-genre to so effect our culture and philosophies that it could possibly turn into its own genre. The following 30 sub-genres are the ones I prefer to use as my main sub-genres. There could be more, but for now I like to use these.

1.) Adult film: This sub-genre really began in 1970 as a sub-genre of Drama. They are films which explain human social and sexual values on a scale that only people over the age of 17 can really understand. Look for the NC-17, X, XXX and some R ratings.

2.) Atomic Age: This is a sub-genre of Science Fiction. It began almost as early as Science Fiction itself. It came about because of the Atomic bombs being used in the late 40's and 50's. I like to use the starting year as 1954, with the release of "Godzilla, King of the Monsters". This basically describes that the chief concept of the film is the end result of the use of atomic weapons, and that atomic weapons will be the end of us.

3.) Concert: Sub-genre of Musical. When a musical group has a concert filmed and released to theaters.

4.) Dark Humor: Sub-genre of comedy. When a serious subject has many comical undertones.

5.) Detective: Sub-genre of Suspense. Came out in the late 30's. The films of Dick Tracy are the best example.

6.) Disaster: Sub-genre of Action. Films which are made to show natural or mechanical disasters, with large death-tolls, that have befallen mankind.

7.) Espionage: Sub-genre of Action. Spy films, such as James Bond.

8.) Exploitation: This sub-genre has been around for a long time, but it too has not been consistent, and some people will tell you that is good. It really began to get strength in the 50's. This is an era that explains the worst about human beings in graphic detail. It is basically a sub-genre of all.

9.) Frontier: Sub-genre of Western. This kind of western is treated as a drama. There is minimal gun shooting and the chief concepts explored are the stories of the frontiersmen moving west in 19th century United States.

10.) Futuristic: Sub-genre of Science Fiction. Simply future-earth.

11.) Gangster: Sub-genre of Crime. Handles gangsters and prohibition. Takes place in the 1920's. This does not include films on the Mob or Mafia. You will find those elsewhere.

12.) Historical: Sub-genre of Drama. Explains something that happened in history.

13.) Holiday: Sub-genre of Family. Story that surrounds a holiday. Made mostly for children.

14.) Macabre: Sub-genre of Horror. Began in the sixties. Films that have a gothic feel to them. They deal with human beings, but have supernatural undertones. Examples are The Phantom of the Opera, films on Edgar Allen Poe, and selected works of Dario Argento.

15.) Magic: Sub-genre of Fantasy. Magical powers.

16.) Martial Arts: Sub-genre of Action. Films that come from Hong Kong or at least deal with the concepts of Kung-fu, Karate, etc.

17.) Mystery: Sub-genre of Suspense. Murder mysteries. Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, etc.

18.) Police: Sub-genre of Crime. Films that deal solely with police activity.

19.) Political: Sub-genre of Drama. Main plot-line is Politics.

20.) Prehistoric: Sub-genre of Science Fiction. Dinosaurs, and lands from millions of years ago during earth's past.

21.) Romance: Sub-genre of Drama. The chief plot is about love and relationships.

22.) Slapstick: Sub-genre of Comedy. Vaudeville. Comedy teams. Physical Humor.

23.) Slasher: Sub-genre of Horror. Began in the late 60's. The actual term was not used until 1978 with the release of Halloween. The title refers to the murders and weapons of the main antagonist, and that the creators of such films use the blood and edged weapons as shock value. This sub-genre can be used in Science Fiction also.

24.) Social: Sub-genre of Drama. Deals with social issues of the world.

25.) Speculation: Sub-genre of Documentary. These documentaries are films about mysteries of the world such as Bigfoot, UFO's, etc.

26.) Spoof: Sub-genre of Comedy. When a film makes fun of a certain film genre. Examples are Airplane, and films by Mel Brooks.

27.) Stand-Up: A sub-genre of Comedy: When a stand-up comedian has his concert filmed and released in the theaters.

28.) Sword and Sorcerer: Sub-genre of Fantasy. Films that take place during the Medieval times. Merlin the Magician and King Arthur.

29.) Terror: Sub-genre of Horror. No monsters. All human beings. Ex: Psycho.

30.) Thriller: Sub-genre of suspense. No Mystery. The audience still is gripped until the end. Hitchcock did a lot of these.

The next thing I need to explain is sub-genre mix. There are many films that can not be exp- lained by just one genre or sub-genre. A great example is Back to the Future III. Most books call this film an action film. I call it a Comedy. It also is a mix of Adventure, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Western. This is what I mean by mix.

The next session will explain the grade categories that I like to use when judging certain types of movies.


Every film that has been made must first acquire the funds to make the film. Many companies have a hard time raising the funds than others. Of course, the big movie conglomerates in Hollywood can get the money easier than a film company in Gap, PA. At the same time other for- eign countries may have a harder time getting the money than the United States. Many people who know me, know that I have tried to do some of my own films. They were surprised that I even completed work on a 10 or 15 minute film, let alone a full feature film. So I know how hard it is to make movies when the funding isn't there. Th ere is an old saying in fi lm that ven completing a film is a milestone. So, if a company can get the funding to even complete a film, their next step is to get enough money to bring in the quality. I feel that this should be an important tool to use when you judge a film.

Some countries, and film companies can't get the funding like others and most of the time people scoff at that and therefore say the film is no good. A major block buster company is going to have more audience because they can hire more talent and technical utilities for a film than maybe a small independent. You must first try to understand the undertaking it took to make the film, than try to estimate how much money was used, than see how the money was distributed in the creation of the film, than from there you become judge, jury and executioner. What I have come up with is a system I like to use as my grade category. By using these guidelines, and the chart on the next page you can see how I fairly distribute the use of grades so that every film, no matter how cheaply made, gets a fair chance. Below are the grade category names and a brief description.

The following should be looked at as converted into 1995 dollars.

1.) Big Budget: Films that had a budget over 20 million dollars.
2.) Mainstream: Films that had a budget ranging from 1 to 19 million dollars.
3.) Independent: Films that have a budget ranging from 500,000 dollars to 999,999 dollars.
4.) Low Budget: Films that have a budget ranging from 50,000 dollars to 499,999 dollars.
5.) Plan 9 Phenomenon: Films that have a budget below 50,000 dollars.
6.) Animation Modern: Animated film that has a budget over 1 million dollars. Most of these films would be found after 1975, because of computers, but there are some that could be older in the case of Disney.
7.) Animation Low Budget: Animated films that had a budget under 1 million dollars. Most of these films are pre 1975. They also almost entirely come from other countries or could be reconstructed cheap television shows.

Use these guidelines along with the chart on the next page.


The best way to utilize my system is to first pick the movie, and decide if it is better for theaters, or to watch at home. If you watch it at home try to get the largest screen and sound system possible that you can get, and have all the lights off. Try to get the film in letterbox widescreen also. Lazer-disc would be the best if you can do it. Get together enough time and money, so you can watch it twice. If you can only watch it once, than do not critique it until you see it the second time. The next step in enjoying a film and understanding it is to do research on the film. See what the background holds. Try to understand the Director, by doing research on him. Find out what the budget for the film was, and the production company or studio. Understand what genre the film is in, so you can put your mind at that frame of mind. Learn all you can. When you are ready watch the film.

The first time you watch the film, should be the time in which you have come to be entertained. Come to enjoy the film. Follow the story and see what the characters do. The second time you watch the film is the time where you become critical. Watch the film for flaws, and excellence. Understand the direction, and editing. Look for plot flaws, character development (or underdevelopment), and build you final analyses from this second viewing. Watch the film a third time if you have to or even watch it frame by frame, until you feel you can judge accurately and fairly.

When you are ready to give the grade this is the system I feel is the best to use.

First, the individual film components must be broken down. Here are the components I use.

For Non-Animation Films:
Character Development/Acting(CA)
Music/Singing (MS)
Directing/Editing (DE)
Cinematography/Special Effects (CS)

For Animated Films:
Plot/Continuity (APC)
Character Development/Voice Acting (ACA)
Music/Singing (AMS)
Directing/Editing (ADE)
Animation/Special Effects (ACS)

Next use the normal letter grade grading system, which also has a number value that I use.

A+ = 10 - 9.7
A = 9.6 - 9.3
A- = 9.2 - 8.9
B+ = 8.8 - 8.5
B = 8.4 - 8.1
B- = 8.0 - 7.7
C+ = 7.6 - 7.3
C = 7.2 - 6.9
C- = 6.8 - 6.5
D+ = 6.4 - 6.1
D = 6.0 - 5.7
D- = 5.6 - 5.3
F+ = 5.2 - 4.9
F = 4.8 - 4.5
F- = 4.4 - 0

You assign a number grade to each component, making 10 the best, 1 the lowest. You than find the average, and there you have your critical grade.
The next step is the conversion table. As stated before films with a higher budget are always looked at being better than films with a smaller budget. I fall into that trap myself. We need to cut the smaller films a break. The next page will show you how.


You take your critical grade and you plug it into the conversion chart below to arrive at your final grade. I like to call this the entertainment grade.

Big Budget: (Final Grade)
F- .F....F+ ..D- ..D ..D+..C- ..C .C+ ..B- ..B ...B+ .A- .A ...A+

Mainstream / Modern Animation:
.......F- .F....F+ ..D- ..D ..D+..C- ..C .C+ ..B- ..B ...B+ .A- .A ...A+

Independent /Animation Low Budget:
..............F- .F....F+ ..D- ..D ..D+..C- ..C .C+ ..B- ..B ...B+ .A- .A ...A+

Low Budget:
.....................F- .F....F+ ..D- ..D ..D+..C- ..C .C+ ..B- ..B ...B+ .A- .A ...A+

Plan 9 Phenomenon:
............................F- .F....F+ ..D- ..D ..D+..C- ..C .C+ ..B- ..B ...B+ .A- .A ...A+

Any film with a final grade of C- or worse, is not recommended by me. Save these films for home video use. Do not waste your good equipment on these films. Watch it on a regular TV screen.

Now you have all this information. On the next page will be a sample critique. After that, you are ready to go.


Title: "A Song is Born"
Year: 1948, Color
Run Time: 113 minutes
Genre/Sub/Mix: Musical, Comedy, Romance
Era: Golden Era
Grade Category: Mainstream
Cast: Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong
Director: Howard Hawkes
Plot: A naive Professor of Music (Kaye) falls in love with a beautiful bar singer (Mayo), and that creates trouble for him because her boyfriend is a gangster. When she tries to use Kaye, by seducing him, he inadvertently thinks she wants to marry him. When the gangster boyfriend gets wind of this, he decides to use it to his advantage as an escape route for his girlfriend. Mayo winds up falling for Kaye, and it's up to Kaye and his professor friends (includes Goodman and Armstrong) to help foil the gangster's intentions.
Critique: The film is very funny. It is an enjoyable piece of work. The musical interludes do not take the viewer away from the plot. Kaye is enjoyable and his character has a friendly yet sophisticated manner. Mayo is beautiful. The film has a certain bit of maturity, especially during some scenes with Mayo and Kaye, and it some times catches you off guard because of the year the film was released. Kaye calls himself an "ass", and Mayo is not only beautiful, but hot.
PC: 8.1 (B)
CA: 8.8 (B+)
MS: 8.8 (B+)
DE: 9.2 (A-)
CS: 8.1 (B)
Critical Grade: 8.6 (B+)
Final Word: I recommend the film because it is fun, and Mayo is a sight. Also, it is a treat to see all those musical greats assembled into one film.
Entertainment or Final Grade: A-

Welcome to My World: The Film Critique World.


Title: "Twister"
Year: 1996, Color
Run Time: 127 minutes
Genre/Sub/Mix: Action, Disaster
Era: Modern Era
Grade Catagory: Big Budget
Cast: Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton and Cary Elwes
Director: Jan DeBont
Plot: A Storm Chaser (Paxton) returns to his mid-western home to locate his ex-wife (Hunt), and have her sign their divorce papers. She, her father being a victim to an F-5 tornado, is also a Chaser, and she talks Paxton into one last chase. This final chase will enable them to use their new tornado analyser perfectlynamed Dorothy. This amazing machine sends hundreds of tiny orbs into the funnel to study and compute how a tornado works. Another competing chaser (Elwes), has stolen the idea for Dorothy, and both teams race to see who can analyse the first tornado ever, and be a hero in history. A few renegade storms, and many tornadoes enter the picture to destroy their plans.
Critique: This film contains amazing special effects. The action is great and the terror is very evident. Hunt and Paxton do very well. The rest of the cast do fine jobs also. The film is not boring, but the plot is very weak and can't hold much wind, until the tornadoes come. Many holes are found in the script, and you find yourself guessing ahead of time what will happen. DeBont did a much better job on "Speed".
PC: 6.8 (C-)
CA: 8.6 (B+)
MS: 7.6 (C+)
DE: 8.8 (B+)
CS: 9.9 (A+)
Critical Grade: 8.3 (B)
Final Word: Go see the movie for the action, terror, special effects, Hunt and Paxton, and the biggest star of them all the Tornadoes. It is an incredible sight. Do not however look for a story. Snore!
Final Grade: B