Writing the Film Evaluation: An Exercise in Critical Thinking

Writing the Film Evaluation: An Exercise in Critical Thinking




Johnie Scott

Associate Professor of Pan African Studies

California State University, Northridge





As noted by Ronald Lunsford, “Writing an evaluation will require you to judge whether the topic of your essay is good or bad, effective or ineffective, beneficial or detrimental, important or unimportant, and so on.” (369) This noted writing authority goes on to say, “As an evaluator, you’ll need to impress your reader with your fairness, and with the thoroughness with which you consider your topic. Because you’ll present your opinion about the topic, you cannot avoid your biases, but you must take care not to let any preconceived ideas about your topic go unsupported.” (369)


Within those statements, Lunsford is making the point that if you’re evaluating a film by one of your favorite directors, actors or actresses, you might make the assumption or claim that this film will be just as good if not better than previous films by this same star. That may be true; on the other hand, it may not be. It is your task to evaluate the new film as fairly and completely as possible, to move on ahead as a fan of the particular artist, but to be open-minded and willing to criticize if that proves necessary. To convince your readers that your evaluation is worth considering, you must demonstrate that you have given serious thought to the topic.


When writing evaluations, whether of a film, documentary, CD, concert, photograph or painting, the reader expects for you to have established some sort of criteria. As Lunsford states, “Sometimes criteria are referred to as the standards against which you’ll judge your topic…Criteria are the standards used in evaluating something, and if you don’t establish criteria for your evaluation, then you’ll present a statement of personal taste rather than evaluation.” (370-371) What this means is that in writing evaluations, you are consciously and constantly exploring the topic. While doing this, you must establish criteria by which to evaluate. Expect to be called upon to justify that criteria, to defend that criteria as appropriate and effective in evaluating your topic. Student writers often make the mistake, for example, of thinking that documentary films are expected to have the same entertainment value as feature films and this is certainly not so.


One would not, for example, expect a videotaped documentary that an interested director has done with writer Alice Walker to carry the same “entertainment values” of her book The Color Purple or the film based upon that work. And yet, I often receive evaluations of documentaries from students asserting they were not “entertained” when the purpose of the film was clearly to inform and educate. As I say to my students, “It is not my job to entertain you or be your friend. It is not my mission to win a ‘Most Popular Teacher’ Award. That would be nice, but for me it is not important. What is important, however, is that I be your Professor, that you see and regard, respect me as that individual who is there to teach first and last.” The point being made here is that you need to think through and establish what would be relevant criteria for the particular film that you are looking at and evaluating. You don’t want to make the mistake of comparing apples with oranges.

It might be helpful for you, at this point, to list the traits or characteristics of two or three of the following film genres: suspense thrillers, action-adventure and youth-oriented. After making your list, name two or three films that exemplify the traits in each category.


The next point to be made is that your film evaluation “should present a value judgment about the worthiness of your topic. Once you’ve made this judgment, it is your job to marshal support for it. The criteria you established for evaluating your topic can guide you here, because you can state the criteria as reasons, and reasons must be supported.” (374) That value judgment is your thesis, what you see as the central theme, message or concern of the film. To support your evaluation, you are expected to provide details that develop and support the criteria you’re chosen. Those details are framed as “statements,” and it would be expected in a film evaluation that you would list specific scenes, dialogue and action to support and develop those statements.


It is always a good idea to state your evaluation in a thesis sentence near the beginning of your essay. The body of your essay may be structured by the criteria you use in evaluating your topic. Accordingly, as noted by Lunsford, “in an evaluation of a movie, a paragraph (or a block of paragraphs) might be given to acting, a paragraph (or block) to cinematography, and a paragraph (or block) to special effects. Your conclusion may make clear once again what your evaluation is and briefly summarize the evidence you have offered that makes you think your reader should share that evaluation (i.e., your opinion about the film).” (378)




When doing film evaluations, I typically ask my students to take the following approach:

  • Describe what stands out as the single most compelling scene or incident in the film. Use very visual details for the reader;
  • Identify what you see as the major premise or idea in the film and then discuss what you see as the three primary ways in which that idea is developed. For this, you want to cite specific details, examples and illustrations from the film; and
  • Lastly, state what you see as the importance or relevance of the film. What do we learn, or fail to learn, from watching this film? I always ask my students to develop a rating scale to conclude their film evaluations (one they explain to the readers like a 5-Star system) because they are, in fact, film critics.




In submitting the film evaluations to me via email, students are to follow these guidelines:


ü      Under the Subject heading, write “Film Evaluation #” followed by the actual title of the film. When it arrives to my email inbox, I am able to look and immediately see who the email is from, that it is a film evaluation, what number the film evaluation is, and the title of the particular film. Right away, I know this is business;

ü      If students are sending those evaluations to me as attachments, then I insist upon those attachments being in MICROSOFT WORD and no other program. To send an attachment in any program is to run the risk of my not being able to open, evaluate and send you a grade. It also costs me valuable time in trying to download an item that is impossible or time-consuming for me to do so. When sending me attachments, ALWAYS USE MICROSOFT WORD!!!

ü      On the other hand, it is not necessary to send an attachment. You can simply write your evaluation within the MESSAGE portion of the email. In either event, I always ask for the student to give their name, course and ticket number. In today’s world, so many students have mail nicknames and addresses that do not identify who they are at all (e.g., loverboy17@hotmail.com, romeo007@yahoo.com, etcetera). Please identify yourself whenever sending me communication via email. To do otherwise is to run the risk of not receiving proper credit for your work;

ü      Always keep copies of those transmissions to me. Backup copy everything that you do. Work sometimes gets lost or accidentally deleted. You want to always have a copy in case that request is given to you; and

ü      Lastly, take pride in your work! When using a program such as MICROSOFT WORD, always run spellcheck to pickup those misspelled words. Run grammar check for awkward phrasing and problems with grammar and mechanics including sentence fragments, run-on sentences and the like. Never use abbreviations. Never assume – it is your responsibility to write as though your reader is not familiar with the film. This doesn’t mean you repeat scene by scene, word for word everything that happened in the film (just think of those times you tried to watch a film with someone, then had to tell that person to be quiet and let you see the film rather than listen to tell you everything that was taking place! They are insulting your intelligence when doing so.) And definitely, make certain that you use fully-developed, 5-sentence paragraphs when writing!


One thing I can assure you after teaching in the University now for 18 years, those students who stick to the program outlined above invariably see great improvements in their writing skills by the end of the semester. Think of that as a “perk” while you’re taking this course.


Works Cited


Lunsford, Ronald and Bridges, Bill, The Longwood Guide to Writing/Second Edition, Pearson Education, Inc., New York, NY/2002.



Revised 9/10/02