These days, there are tens of thousands of movies to watch, all at the touch of a button. This leads to frustration. How many times have you stared at a streaming service, unsure of which of the hundreds of options on-screen to choose from?

I’ve done this an uncountable number of times. Without being deliberate– knowing what I might like to watch, or giving our family just two or three choices–I get overwhelmed and annoyed at the hundreds of choices I could make.

So just how should you go about finding movies? Here’s my three best and worst options regarding choosing one movie, among the tens of thousands of movie-options easily available to you.

The Best Ways to Choose Movies

#3 — Go through a “Greatest Movie List,” choosing movies based on your interest in the plot and actors.

You need to choose a good list, not a clickbait list written up by interns at a dying culture website that needs hits.

The best lists for you are the “Sight and Sound” polls, the AFI list of best Hollywood movies, and Ebert’s “Great Movies.” I also humbly suggest my Best Movies Ever list.

Stick to these alone, and you’ll be fine.

Also, do not just pick any movie off of these lists. There are plenty of stinkers on them. Find something that appeals to your sensibilities. For example, I generally enjoy crime movies but avoid musicals because they tend to annoy me. When I scour the AFI list, I’ll chose the lower-ranked crime-movie over the higher-ranked musical every time.

#2 — Find a critic or two whom you mostly agree with, or know how to read well. Then, sift through their opinions.

This option requires a time-investment, but it pays off massive dividends. Suppose you could find somebody who watches a lot of movies, who has the same assumptions as you about what a good movie is, and who offers worthy recommendations while steering you away from bad choices.

That person could really help you find good movies regularly, while keeping you from wasting your time with schlock. They will reward you while preventing you from the pain and suffering that a bad movie induces.

So go find that person. Movie critics are a dime a dozen on the Internet. There has to be at least one you can trust, somewhere.

My critic was Roger Ebert, whose writing I enjoyed for its own sake. I could decipher whether I would like a movie based on how Ebert wrote about it. I probably agreed with Ebert 70% of the time. For the remaining 30%, it became easy to tell that Ebert was praising a movie I would hate, or hating a movie I would enjoy, just based on his reasons for why he did or did not like a movie.

When Ebert died, I lost a guide and a friend. Now I go it alone, using numbers 1 and 3 on this list as my way to save time and to maximize my choices.

You need to find your Ebert, a living one. Look for a critic who gives REASONS for why a movie is good or not. Mere opinions are worse than worthless; they are a waste of valuable time, since no one cares whether a critic liked a movie or not, except maybe their mothers.

“He liked it, so I will.” This is almost never a good way to make a choice.

Instead, pay attention to a critic’s reasons for WHY they think a movie is a good one or not. Those WHYS will give you the answers you need as to whether you should watch a movie or not.

By the way, you can try me as that critic. I’m aware that my tastes and presuppositions are very different from most people, so my reviews are only for some. But maybe that’s you.

You’d be likely to be helped by me if you are some of the following:

  • a serious Christian.
  • from smaller towns, the country, or Midwestern America, appreciating any or all of these three.
  • a classical conservative who nonetheless appreciates classical liberalism and even a touch of Tolkien-esque anarchy. (Scale matters.)
  • anti-war, in general. Also, anti-State, in general.
  • interested in philosophy and art.
  • interested in movie history.
  • okay with weird stuff, such as fantasy and science fiction.

#1 — Find a director you really like, and watch all of his or her movies.

Of all possible ways to find movies, I’ve had the best success with this one.

Let’s say I really loved The Iron Giant. This was directed by Brad Bird.

Okay, so then I try other Brad Bird movies. And what do you know? I like them better than most or all critics do. Even his Tomorrowland, not a great movie by any means, was still better to me than the lousy reviews it got.

Similarly, I didn’t care for the movie Arrival as much as most critics did. I then look at the movie Blade Runner 2049, which is by the same director. Turns out I didn’t like that movie much either. Now I will avoid that director in the future, saving myself time for the thousands of other movies I could watch.

Why is this the number-one best way to choose movies?

The director of a movie provides it with its vision. While many other people make great contributions to a movie, a strong director (or “auteur”) can shape an entire movie with his/her artistic insight. A movie is essentially a piece of that person.

If you love one movie by a director, you will probably like others by that same person.

The Worst Ways to Find Movies

#3 — Look at cumulative ratings such as the score.

Never look at Rottentomatoes scores or IMDB ratings to judge a movie.

First, who owns these websites? Giant media companies. Why would giant media companies own ratings websites that can persuade millions of people to go buy something?

This is not hard. A mild dose of paranoia is always a good thing. I’m not saying the ratings at these websites are rigged. But we know from experience that they can be, either internally or by a horde of external reviewers.

Second, those Rottentomatoes ratings are divided among critics and general audiences. One group is not the other, sometimes not even close. The critics are paid writers who generally work in the Blue-State coastal regions of the United States. They are predominately liberal in their views.

There’s nothing wrong with the bulk of critics being of a similar mind and of similar presuppositions. But hardly anyone I know seems to recognize this. The ordinary people I know take the Rottentomatoes score as Gospel, when in fact most of the critics reviewing movies on that site disagree with those ordinary people’s views of nearly everything.

I enjoy looking at Rottentomatoes occasionally, especially to see if the critics and audiences disagree. When they do, that’s usually a sign that audiences know best.

However, there’s a caveat to that thought. Who exactly rates movies for the “general audience” score? Beats me! It’s probably a different group of people for every movie, and it’s possible that there’s a built-in bias. (Because the people who want to see a movie go see it, then review it, driving its rating too high because of their interest in it, or driving it down too low because it didn’t meet their expectations.)

Anyway, avoid looking at aggregate ratings at these websites because I’ve found that these numbers don’t tell me anything and are sometimes misleading.

And if you ever see a Rottentomatoes score of 95% or above from the critics, run away from that movie, as it will never be good.

(***EDIT — regarding the paragraph above, I mean reviews of recent movies, from the last 15 years or so. Of course Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are at 95% and above on rottentomatoes, but those are based not on original reviews but on newer, contemporary essays.)

#2 — Let a critic whom you don’t know persuade you to watch or not watch a movie.

Some ordinary people I know read reviews, or even blurbs, and then take those as the definitive word on a movie.

Well, do you know who said those things? Do you know why they said them?

No, probably not. Why are you trusting an authority whom you know nothing about?

I said above that a mild dose of paranoia is a good thing. Do you think any of the critics work for media companies, owned by giant media companies that have a stake in a movie that needs to make a lot of money?

Do you think critics ever say things to keep their jobs, please their bosses, or appease giant media companies?

The answer is yes, yes, and yes. Critics are people, too. Some are honest, others aren’t. If you are going to ever trust a critic, do your homework to figure out that you are trusting one of the honest ones. Never trust a review without knowing well who the reviewer is and what their assumptions about movies are.

#1 — Let the algorithms decide for you.

Let’s say you are on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. You see all of the choices on the screen. How did those choices get there?

In the simplest terms, the answer is a computer, programmed by a programmer, under the orders of a company who needs people watching their channel and subscribing to it every month.

Now, on the one hand, you’d think that scenario would mean that the company will pick movies you love so that you’ll keep watching and subscribing. Sounds great for you, right?

No, not at all. Those companies have a vested interest in hawking their wares. For Netflix, that means featuring their terrible “original” movies and TV series, over and above anything good, such as most movies on the AFI or Sight and Sound lists.

Second, the lists on Netflix are not curated by real people (as they are on the Criterion Channel, which I recommend if you love classic and artsy movies).

Instead, a computer picks for you.

Are computers humans? No, not even close.

So why are you allowing a machine to do your thinking and choosing for you? Take back your life!

And as always, if you don’t know what movie to watch, then don’t watch one. Read a book, write a poem, play an instrument, tend a garden. There are better things to do than to spend your time with a mediocre movie, such as just about any creative or social endeavor.


  • Douglas says:

    Hmm. . . I like a bunch of the highest rated movies on Rotten Tomatoes.

    Maybe I’m going Pycho (96%)! I’ll make an appointment to go see Dr. Strangelove (98%). I hear he lives over in Chinatown (99%). Is that North by Northwest (99%) from me? I better quit this post as I’ve probably triggered at least 12 Angry Men (100%) by now.

    • mm Josh Matthews says:

      I should’ve qualified that as “new releases.” Thanks for the correction! Rottentomatoes counts new essays on old movies, but those 95-100% ratings are not original reviews.

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