What I learned from watching the first 10 minutes of 500 movies

What I learned from watching the first 10 minutes of 500 movies

Design by Nick Wanserski
Design by Nick Wanserski

Film critics watch a lot of movies, but we can’t watch everything. With approximately seven weeks left in 2015, I’ve seen (as of the day I’m writing this) 204 features that have been commercially released this year. That’s kind of a staggering number, but it’s less than a quarter of the truly staggering 857 features that have played at least a week-long run in New York City since January 1. When I vote in various year-end polls, I’m always acutely aware of the likelihood that I’ve missed something I’d have loved, even though I make a point of seeking out every film that gets strong reviews. There’s just not enough time to sit through it all.

A few years ago, I started making an effort to give some of the also-rans a chance, by watching as many of them as is feasible (once they’re viewable at home) in what I call sampling mode. Basically, I give the movie 10 minutes to grab my attention. Most of them fail, and get turned off at that point. If I’m still interested, though, I’ll watch for another 10 minutes. There are two more potential bail-out points at 0:30 and 0:40; if I still want to keep going after 40 minutes, I commit to watching the entire film, even if it turns awful later.

Since 2012, I’ve sampled just over 500 films in this manner. That amounts to roughly 6,150 minutes, not including the 36 films I wound up watching all the way to the end. Here’s what I’ve learned from spending an accumulated four full days of my life, so far, receiving an intensive education in how movies begin.

• 10 minutes is more than enough to identify mediocrity.

People who read screenplays professionally often say that the vast majority of scripts are dead in the water by page 10. Completed films are no different. It’s not that most of them are terrible right off the bat, by any means—it’s just that most offer no compelling reason to stick around. In many cases, it’s clear that the movie is on autopilot within the first two or three minutes. Characters are indistinct, dialogue is functional, shots are banal. The plot, if there is one, usually hasn’t kicked in yet by the 10-minute mark, but that doesn’t matter. When a movie is firing on all cylinders, waiting to see where it’s headed is a pleasure. Its opening minutes should extend an invitation. Too often, all they do is serve up bland exposition.

Granted, there are exceptions. One of my favorite films of the past 15 years, the Georgian drama Late Marriage (2001), starts off so tediously that I nearly bailed on it at the festival where I initially saw it, and doesn’t really get going until about half an hour in. But those cases are rare enough to be worth ignoring. As a rule, if the film doesn’t grab your attention right away, it’s never gonna. Feel free to move on.

• Likewise, creativity tends to manifest itself immediately.

The first movie I saw from start to finish via this project was Lockout (or Space Jail, as my friends and I all call it, because we can never remember the actual title). Its first scene is a close-up of Guy Pearce being interrogated by an offscreen thug; he spits out sarcastic answers to every question and gets punched so hard each time that his head is knocked out of the frame, leaving an available space for one of the opening credits. That’s inventive enough that I already felt confident I’d found something special, and while Lockout isn’t remotely a masterpiece, it did prove to be more than entertaining enough to stick with to the end.

That’s entirely typical. Because most sampled films get turned off after 10 minutes, I tend to watch them right before I go to bed, the way that I used to read a few pages of a book back in the Dark Ages, when watching something in bed required a TV in the bedroom. Once in a while, though, I stop a film after just a couple of minutes—not because it’s putting me to sleep, but because I’m already enjoying it so much that I know I’ll likely continue, so I’m better off saving it for when I’m fully awake. Sometimes these go south a bit later on and get abandoned anyway, but most of the movies I’ve finished in sampling mode were immediately compelling. That’s true even when there’s no narrative to speak of, as with Tim Sutton’s rambling, lyrical Memphis. A few starkly beautiful images were enough to fuel me.

• Certain genres have an unfair advantage.

Curiosity is a powerful force, which means that it’s easiest to get sucked into a movie that poses a question to which you want to know the answer. When I find myself regretting not having turned the movie off earlier, it’s almost always a horror film or a thriller. Even when these genres are handled clumsily, they have a built-in narrative tractor beam, which almost always gets turned on right away. Comedies are either funny or not funny from the jump—and if they’re not funny, what else could possibly persuade you to continue? Lukewarm drama, too, holds no promise whatsoever. Bad action borders on unbearable, and let’s not discuss bad musicals. Only suspense can inspire the reaction, “This is so lame, but I really kinda wanna know what happens next.” Rarely do I not make it at least 20 minutes into horror.

• If a movie received good but not great reviews, there’s a reason.

Because my job involves seeing so many movies, I’m extremely picky about what I go see in theaters just for fun. Consequently, some of the so-called “also-rans” that I’ve sampled are actually pretty acclaimed—they just weren’t quite well-loved enough to motivate me into my car. When Edge Of Tomorrow hit home video (sporting its new, superior title Live Die Repeat, though All You Need Is Kill remains the ideal), I spent the first 40 minutes (a) not even for one second dreaming of switching it off, and (b) wondering how the hell a film this blatantly fantastic had received respectful but generally less than rapturous reviews (like, for example, our own). Then I reached the third act and ohhhhhhhhh. Of the 36 films I’ve watched start to finish via this process, some are decent, many are quite good, a few are really good (special mention to Joe Swanberg’s All The Light In The Sky and Bradley Rust Gray’s widely misunderstood Jack & Diane), but none are genuinely great. As a rule, the best films of a given year are properly identified as such as critics (if not always necessarily by yours truly). If you’re thorough about seeking those out, you can feel confident you’re not missing much.

• Some films will absolutely surprise you.

By far the most fun aspect of this project has been unexpectedly enjoying movies that I was certain I’d hate, or would at least find utterly without interest. You truly never know. Brett Ratner, for instance, is a director I’d always dismissed as a hack, despite having only ever seen the first Rush Hour; all of his films have been poorly reviewed, and he tends to sound like a douchebag in interviews, so I drew what seemed like the obvious conclusion. And yet Hercules was not just surprisingly fun (perhaps due in part to my predilection for seeing myths punctured), but proved to be far more spatially cohesive than the vast majority of recent Hollywood action flicks (yes, especially the Marvel pictures). Nor did I think I wanted to watch a Chinese drama about the friendship between a bachelor and his family’s long-time maid (A Simple Life), or the fifth sequel to Universal Soldier. Given the slightest chance, though, both of them won me over.

The most extreme example of this phenomenon is Would You Rather? Gore per se doesn’t particularly bother me—I can watch corpses being hacked to pieces all day long—but suffering is another matter. Consequently, I tend to avoid anything characterized as “torture porn,” like the Saw and Hostel movies. So a horror movie in which a sadist forces people to repeatedly choose the lesser of two horrific evils is emphatically not my thing, and I looked forward to giving Would You Rather? its 10 courtesy minutes and moving on to something less nauseating. Had I only been hooked up to an EKG at the time, I could show you my mounting anxiety as I found myself unwillingly drawn deeper and deeper into the movie, which is more interested in psychological cruelty than in grossing viewers out (and features some heroically serious performances, most notably from Jeffrey Combs and Dollhouse’s Enver Gjokaj). The ending is flat-out awful, but of course by that point it was far too late. And I have no regrets, honestly. It was worth sitting through a patchy low-budget horror movie to have my preconceptions so firmly challenged.

Naturally, everyone’s experience will be different. If you sat down with my 500 films, you’d almost surely turn off some of those I finished and finish some (perhaps many) of those I turned off. But the nifty thing about the recent shift from physical media to streaming—offering an all-you-can-watch menu for a set monthly fee—is that it affords you the option of finding movies you’re likely to enjoy, with just a small investment of time. (Admittedly, the new-release inventory often leaves a whole lot to be desired. Hopefully Netflix and Amazon and the others will work that out soon.) In the old days, taking a chance on something meant either sitting through it to the bitter end or having to find an alternate activity for the evening after giving up. Now, it’s possible to investigate almost everything, just to be sure.