This question is near and dear to my heart. Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer for you.
Basically, it comes with time and experience. To give you an idea, I see a minimum of 200 movies per year, usually more. As I watch a movie, I’m keeping track of the cinematography, the editing, the performances, the production design, the score, and more, while simultaneously following the story (which I’m trying to keep separate from what was probably written on the page as the original script). Thing is, though, I can’t point to a specific time when I was suddenly able to do this. It just sort of developed.
Some of it comes from seeing lots and lots and lots of movies. Eventually, you begin to recognize that you’re seeing the same half-dozen stories over and over (with rare exceptions, which you treasure), so you start looking for the variations on the themes. And in order to differentiate these variations, you need to know something of the vocabulary; for example, it’s helpful to know something about editing to know how Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven handles its revenge motif differently from, say, Will Penny.
Another part of it comes from seeing the same movies multiple times. As a red-blooded American kid, I must have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark a dozen times in the cinema. You can’t sit through that many repetitions without noticing things; I don’t know how many times I’d seen the film before I finally saw the almost invisible edit that jumps in on Belloq while he’s sitting at the edge of the ceiling entrance to the Well of the Souls mocking Indy below. Noticing something like that can only help increase one’s observational skills, which of course can apply to any movie. Likewise, I’ve seen Fellini’s 8 [sup]1[/sup]/[sub]2[/sub] seven or eight times, and I see something new every time.
A third part of it comes from paying attention to who’s making the movie. If you’re keeping careful track of the director, cinematographer, editor, etc., you can start to notice common elements to the work. Paul Thomas Anderson moves his camera in a very different way compared to Stanley Kubrick or Stanley Kramer or Jane Campion; if you look at a specific filmmaker’s work in a bunch, it’s a lot easier to see these signature elements, and then to isolate them when looking at other filmmakers. And then you can start to recognize the difference between a legitimately groundbreaking film artist like David Cronenberg or Wong Kar-Wai and talented craftspeople like John Badham or Penny Marshall.
Another part of it comes from knowledge of how movies are made. I’m going to mention editing again, because, to a very large extent, filmmaking is editing. The more you know about it, the more you recognize just how much control there is in this aspect; you can radically change how the audience perceives an actor’s performance by choosing how you juxtapose an overemotional take in scene A with a cold and flat take in scene B, or vice versa. Good directors (and editors) know how to craft a performance, and a story, and a movie as a whole in the editing room. At the same time, it’s possible to hide a bad performance or a clunky story with flashy editing (see Underworld for an attempt at this).
Yet another part of it comes out of choosing challenging movies. If all you ever see are titles that are nationally advertised and open on 500 screens or more, then sure, you’ll see some good movies now and then, but you’ll very rarely see anything that expands the medium or tries to do unusual or innovative things with it. A lot of valuable experimentation happens around the fringes, if you know where to look; Russ Meyer was doing MTV editing twenty-five years before there was an MTV. And this doesn’t mean you have to go out and look at Brakhage or Anger or Barney or similar experimentalists right out of the gate, either; you can find good challenges just in subject material, as in Nil by Mouth, for example.
And still another part of it comes out of reading quality criticism. By noting what experienced and intelligent critics are looking for, you can start to look for the same things. The Reader’s own Jonathan Rosenbaum is an excellent film writer, to name one; there’s others available on the web (I’m occasionally impressed by these guys, for example) and in print. One big warning sign that what you’re reading is a review instead of a critical essay? A rating. Responsible film critics recognize that it’s impossible to boil down any movie, no matter how shallow and disposable (say, Daddy Day Care) to a single dimension of judgement. Newspaper editors tend to impose this to serve the skimming public, but note that none of the New York Times writers bothers with a scale-of-one-to-ten or one-to-four-stars or anything like that.
The real trick, I think, is to come to the movie on its own terms and its own territory. Try to figure out what the film’s objective is, and then decide (a) whether it meets that objective and (b) whether that objective is worthwhile. The biggest mistake made by inexperienced or irresponsible film critics is to review a movie other than the one they looked at: the “I wish it had done this instead” syndrome. That’s a giveaway that they’re responding with their own biases and preconceptions, rather than looking at the movie fairly on the ground it’s attempting to occupy.
Is this helpful?