What to Watch When There’s Nothing New to Watch
Image: Photo by Simon Q / Flickr

Americans watch a lot of movies. A 2015 poll from Rasmussen showed that 9 percent of those surveyed said they watched a movie “every day or nearly every day”; almost half (47%) of the respondents answered that they watched once a week or more frequently.

But are we watching a lot of different movies—or just the same ones over and over?

Older movies are more accessible today than ever before—but over 50 percent of the fans’ highest-rated movies at IMDB were released in the last 25 years. Nearly a quarter of the films that IMDB voters love best were released in the 1990s.

What explains this? With so many movies at our disposal, why do we stick to the same favorites over and over? One reason might simply be choice paralysis: there are just more good movies than you can watch in a lifetime. Getting a foothold—finding a place to start—can feel intimidating.

Yet watching broadly helps us become more aware of the world around us—and can even help us understand, feel empathy for, and learn how to love people who aren’t like us. Or it can give us a firmer grasp of film history that informs our future viewing. It can thrill us with unexpected beauty or wonder. And it can be a lot of fun.

But is picking at random the only alternative? Not at all.

Here are four ways to be intentional about expanding your film repertoire. Following one or more of these suggestions will not only expose you to a lot of great films you might otherwise have never seen, it will also make you better able to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the new films you watch.

Seek out other films by artists or directors whose work you have enjoyed.

You can’t guarantee that just because you liked one movie by a director, you’ll like the others—but it seems like a logical place to start. It makes sense that those who liked Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained would be first in line for The Hateful Eight, and those charmed by Silver Linings Playbook (directed by David O. Russell and starring Jennifer Lawrence) might be the easiest to convince to try Joy.

But strangely, we don’t always think this way retrospectively, at least not as movie watchers. It’s worth a try. Whenever I’m enthusiastic about a film from an artist whose work is new to me, the first thing I do is to check what else he or she has done in the past.

So try this: Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is wowing critics. His 2003 dramedy The Station Agent not only showcases his writing chops, it features a wonderful, pre-Game of Thrones performance from Peter Dinklage.

Don’t take my word for it—find out which movies influenced the artists you love.

In last year’s documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, and Martin Scorsese all praise Hitchcock—the master of suspense—and discuss his influence on their own work. So if you like the work of these three directors, then it might be worth revisiting Hitchcock.

But how do you know who influenced whom? Commentaries on films—like those released by the Criterion Collection (many of which are also available on Hulu)—are a good place to look for testimonials from other artists. Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Inherent Vice, The Master) cogently describes why Max Ophuls is considered the master of the tracking shot in the extras for The Earrings of Madame de . . . Charles Burnett and Hou Hsiao-hsien both give testimonials for Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.

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What to Watch When There’s Nothing New to Watch