'Just Watch' Movies: A Categorization
This is an article about the top Just Watch Movies. You know when someone asks you what movie they should watch, and you recommend one, and they say “oh, what’s that about?” First of all, trust my recommendation, you jerk. Second, okay, fine, with certain movies I will tell you. “Oh it’s a teen comedy about dueling cheer squads that’s unafraid to take on race in America” (Bring It On) or “it’s a movie about Ben Affleck’s life after Will Hunting moved away to California and he stayed in his construction job” (The Way Back) or “it’s either a period drama or a Tim Burton movie, I can't remember which, but it definitely has good costumes and Helena Bonham Carter” (most movies). But with some movies, if you ask me what they’re about, I will say some version of “no, no, just watch. You just have to watch.” Those are the movies I’m interested in discussing. What makes a Just Watch movie? Are there different types of Just Watch movies? What are the best Just Watch movies – and does that mean the best movies that fall in that category or the movies that are the most Just Watch-able?
This article is inherently difficult to write, because the whole point of these movies is that I don’t think you should know much about them, if anything at all, before watching them. So instead of going movie-by-movie, I’ll split them into different categories of Just Watch Movies. In hindsight, I should probably delete this entire introduction and replace it with: “just read.” The Basic Premise is a Spoiler
If the basic premise of a movie – say, like, what it says above the table of contents on Wikipedia or in the little summary box on Letterboxd – would also ruin the experience of watching a movie, it’s definitely a Just Watch movie. How can you tell if something would “ruin the experience” of watching a movie? Say there’s a moment in the movie when you realize exactly what’s going on, and you’re totally blown away and three days later when you’re bored at work you find yourself thinking about that moment. If that moment would be spoiled by hearing the basic premise of the movie, then it’s a Just Watch Movie. Being John Malkovich is this type of Just Watch movie, for obvious reasons if you’ve seen it. The Lobster is also one of these movies, also for obvious reasons, also only if you've seen it, which is kind of the point. I think you could argue that Memento falls into this category too, along with a number of other Christopher Nolan movies. And The Game, which is a great David Fincher movie that not enough people have seen. I personally think Us would be in this group, but popular opinion might disagree with me, given the movie’s title hints at the plot. The most common movie in this category is the cool-premise-sci-fi movie, like Edge of Tomorrow, The Matrix, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. An interesting question is whether a movie can elevate so far beyond its premise that it stops being a Just Watch movie. Take Back to the Future, for example. If someone, somewhere, somehow, even after having lived in the world for a number of years and read the title of the movie, still does not know what Back to the Future is about, should you tell them the plot summary? I would argue that the movie does so much with and beyond the basic premise that it’s not great anymore just because of the premise, and when you think back on it, it won’t really be that moment that sticks with you, it will be all the little moments, like the clock tower scene or the skateboard chase. Basic Premise is a Spoiler movies are different from movies with a twist, especially movies with a twist toward the end. I won’t use too many examples here – I’m a firm believer that just telling someone that a movie has a twist, without telling them what the twist is, is still a spoiler – but if a movie has a distinct plot that can be described without spoiling the twist, then it isn’t a Basic Premise is a Spoiler movie. The logline for The Sixth Sense, for example, is: “A psychologist struggles to cure a troubled boy who is haunted by a bizarre affliction – he sees dead people.” Anyway, these are the most important movies to recognize and avoid describing for your plot-eager friends, because there’s no going back. Once you offer a quick summary, you ruin a historic movie moment forever.
How would you describe the plot of Pulp Fiction? A crime-thriller, okay. Wikipedia tells me “it tells several stories of criminal Los Angeles,” which, okay, that is true. IMDb - taken from the script’s logline - says that “the lives of two mob hitmen, a boxer, a gangster and his wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption,” which is also true, but would both confuse me and also tell me nothing about the actual movie if I hadn’t seen it. Letterboxd says that “a burger-loving hit man, his philosophical partner, a drug-addled gangster’s moll and a washed-up boxer converge in this sprawling, comedic crime caper.” Okay, that’s just the IMDb description with a creative adjective in front of every noun, I guess. All of these things are true, but none of them accurately summarize Pulp Fiction, because you cannot do that in just one or two sentences. Attempting to do so is probably unlikely to ruin someone’s experience of the movie, though it could certainly shape their expectations, which in turn changes their experience. But nonetheless, for movies that defy any basic logline, people should Just Watch. Persona is another such movie. If anyone can perfectly convey Persona in one sentence, I will give up on the entire concept of Just Watch movies. 2001: A Space Odyssey also fits into this category, but you should feel free to tell your friends that there’s an intermission, even on the Blu-ray version, because that’s a cool fact and helps them prepare bathroom and snack breaks. I would also include Spirited Away in this group. In short, if there was a Twitter account that exclusively tweeted out short descriptions of movies, this category would be all the tweets that had the most responses from film bros beginning, “actually…” Some movies, like Chungking Express, fall into this category and the basic premise as spoiler category. It’s a love story, of course, which you can certainly tell people, but anything more would fail to capture its true essence, and would simultaneously probably ruin the magic of experiencing it for the first time. The same is true of Certified Copy, and that’s all I’ll say about Certified Copy, for your and my benefit both.
Not Knowing Is the Point
There are some movies that don’t have a single premise to reveal, and that you could probably describe in a few sentences, but that you nonetheless shouldn’t describe to people before they see it. I was tempted to call this the Catch-All category, but that seemed lazy, so instead this is the Not Knowing Is the Point group. These are the movies where a major part of the movie-watching experience rests on the rip-roaring ride, the not-knowing-where-things-are-going feeling. These are the movies where people tell you to “go in knowing as little as possible.” It’s not, like in the first category, “oh, I don’t want to ruin it” because of one specific thing. And it’s not, “oh, I can’t do it justice,” like in the second category. It’s more a situation where there’s no given detail that would totally ruin the movie, but literally any single detail would make your experience slightly worse if you knew it. The best and most recent example is Parasite. Before you argue that Parasite fits in category one: that’s not right, because while there’s definitely a specific moment that you should never reveal, I would argue that you could definitely summarize the movie without that moment, because it’s not part of the basic premise. No, Parasite is definitely the archetypal Not Knowing Is the Point movie. The Handmaiden also falls into this category. So too, I would argue, does Inception, and in that case I trust the filmmaker, who made sure the trailers gave little to no indication of the movie’s actual plot. I’d also put Get Out here.
Parasite raises an interesting question: what recent Best Picture winners qualify as Just Watch movies? Oscar movies are not typically Just Watch movies, in part because a lot of them are historical epics or true stories, including half of the winners from the last decade (Green Book, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, The King’s Speech). Keep in mind that it’s easy to be biased toward naming good movies as Just Watch movies, or movies you like as Just Watch movies, because you don’t care as much about ruining bad movies. That is wrong. Quality is irrelevant to categorization, though it can, of course, inform your decision whether to abide by the categorization. All of that is preamble for my reveal that, before Parasite, Crash was the most recent Just Watch movie to win Best Picture, and that it even falls into multiple categories, none of which I am particularly pleased to conclude. I’m a strange breed that prefers to go into nearly every movie with as little information as possible (sometimes, to my wife's and friends' embarrassment, I close my eyes and plug my ears during trailers), so this was a particularly difficult exercise. But there are thousands of movies, and people need some way of prioritizing, and most people, including myself, have entire genres or sub-genres that they prefer (or prefer to avoid). Plot summaries are helpful. But sometimes they’re useless, and in many instances they can be actively harmful. In those cases, Just Watch.