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WALL-E and EVE watch a dance sequence from 1969’s Hello Dolly! in Pixar’s animated movie Wall-E
WALL-E
Image: Pixar Animation Studios

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How to enjoy movies more

With so many demands on our attention, it’s hard to pick something and commit — but it’s worth the effort

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

The rise of streaming services means there are more options than ever about which movies to watch and how to watch them. But those options have also left a lot of us jaded. It’s easy to feel so overwhelmed with choice that you end up watching movies out of a sense of obligation, whether that means doggedly trying to keep up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe or taking in all the awards-season conversation-starters. Or, maybe, wind up not watching anything at all. But when watching feels like homework, it’s easy to feel like any given movie that isn’t an absolute banger is wasting precious time you could have used on something else.

Plenty of us still love movies — love watching them, talking about them, reading about them, even collecting them. If you’ve felt disengaged or even bored with movies lately, perhaps plagued by the “hundreds of titles released every year, but there’s nothing good to watch” feeling, or if you find yourself second-screening just to stay engaged, you certainly aren’t alone. As someone who’s literally turned movie-watching into work, I fight the “movies are homework” feeling as much as anyone else. Here are some solutions that helped me enjoy movies more, and that might work for you.

Start with a plan about what you want to watch

A screenshot of Google’s “People also ask” page with questions users have asked: “Is it normal to find movies boring? Why do I get bored while watching movies? Why is it so hard for me to watch movies? How can I watch movies without getting bored?” Image: Google via Polygon

Flopping down on the couch and flipping through streaming service launch pages is a recipe for boredom. “I don’t know what I want, streaming service, figure it out for me” is a high barrier for any movie or recommendation algorithm to overcome. Instead, decide what you want to watch before you turn on the TV, like you’re headed to a movie theater. Actively looking forward to watching a specific film puts you in a better, more curious, more engaged mindset before you’ve even started.

How do you pick one movie when there’s so much out there? First off, keep your own running “films to watch” list — when you see a trailer, hear a recommendation, or catch a reference to something that sounds like your kind of thing, jot it down somewhere accessible, like a memo app in your phone, your preferred streaming service’s queue function, or movie-focused trackers like JustWatch and Letterboxd. Anything to replace that sense of “Eh, nothing better to do, guess I’ll put on a movie” with a sense of anticipation.

Try something new

Hollywood director David Merrill (a young Robert De Niro, in black suit and tie and a white collared shirt) sits in a red-walled movie theater and watches a film with the projector light behind him in 1991’s Guilty by Suspicion
Guilty by Suspicion
Photo: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

We all have our preferred genres, directors, and other categories, but comfort can often stand in the way of finding our next favorite thing. How do you cultivate eclectic taste? Risk.

To find something you’d never think to watch, check out Metacritic’s annual list of the best movies of the year, or look for a Letterboxd list that sounds interesting. Ask your friends or social media network for a recommendation based on your tastes, or work your way through one of the big, controversial, classic lists of the best movies ever made. Find sources you can trust; Polygon has plenty of guides to steer you to the best movies on whatever streaming service you prefer, or the best movies in your favorite genre.

“Try something new” also goes for methods of experiencing movies. Out of the habit of going to the theater? Try it again the next time you spot a Barbenheimer or a Top Gun: Maverick-level event movie. Avoiding theaters because you’re worried about the price tag or disease exposure? If you’re in a larger city, look for free outdoor movie experiences in your area in the warmer seasons — they’re pretty common.

Give a new movie-watching method a whirl even if you’re dubious about it. I avoided the quarantine-era “remote movie night” phenomenon because I try to avoid distractions during movies, and watching my friends type out jokey responses to what we were watching sounded annoying. Instead, it was joyous and validating, a real reminder that movies are a connective communal experience. (Your mileage may vary; I’m lucky enough to think my friends are hilarious.) If you usually watch movies alone, try hosting a dinner-and-a-movie night. If you usually watch with friends, watch something on your own. Mix it up.

And if you really want to get ambitious about it, jump on a trend, or create one yourself. Phenomena like the Gentleminions movement or the wave of Barbenheimer dress-up screenings were started by fans approaching movies as social events. TikTok may not make the movie itself better, but it starts everyone off with a spirit of joy before they walk through the door.

Build a network

Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a teenage boy in a green Scout uniform with a red neckerchief, sits in a movie theater watching his latest film project, with all his Scout buddies sitting around him talking to him in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans
The Fabelmans
Image: Universal/Everett Collection

For most people, experiencing any kind of art is better when it’s a social experience. Finding a friend group, online forum, local movie club, or some other social circle where you can talk about a film you just saw can really help with that sense of engagement and community. Even finding a movie podcast, online reviewer, YouTube reactor, or Twitch streamer whose tastes align with yours can help make a movie experience better — they may be less interactive, but they can still help you unpack your response to a movie, and maybe gain some insight into it.

Finding the right venue for discussion is like finding a good doctor or therapist who actually works well for you — it tends to take work, and dealing with a bad one can be discouraging. But it’s worth putting in the effort to curate or create your own movie friend circle, in whatever form that takes.

Unfortunately, everyone’s right about turning off the world around you

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) stands up and declaims to Joe Gillis (William Holden) as they’re watching a movie together in her home screening room. She’s being very distracting.
Sunset Blvd.
Image: Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection

“Put your phone away, turn off the lights, and minimize distractions” is such rote advice for movie-watchers these days that it should go without saying — but for a lot of us, it’s really hard advice to take. And yet. Any movie that’s actually worth watching is trying to put you in a specific headspace, whether that’s a mood or a setting or an entirely new world. Movies tend to rely on creating and evoking emotions, and when you multitask while you’re watching a movie, you’re putting your emotions somewhere else, cordoning them off into a place the movie can’t access. You’re basically hamstringing the movie before you’ve even started watching it. This is common advice for a good reason, and if you haven’t tried it, you may be surprised at how well it works.

And if you haven’t been watching movies in a fully darkened room, you may be surprised how much it changes the visual experience. As movies get darker, it’s easier to make out all the details if your TV is your only light source. Directors optimize movies to be watched in a dark theater, not a well-lit room. Turning off the lights doesn’t just make the TV more prominent in the room, it helps you see everything on the screen more clearly and makes it all seem more immediate — a particular boon for horror movies, but it works with any genre.

Just give it 15 minutes

Kermit the Frog sits on a low red upholstered bench in and watches The Muppet Show on TV in Muppets Most Wanted
Muppets Most Wanted
Image: Walt Disney Co./Everett Collection

If you aren’t enjoying a movie, embrace the power to turn it off and try something else. Maybe you’re in the wrong mood for it. Maybe it just isn’t your thing. Maybe you accidentally picked up the wrong version of The Shining, and you have regrets. Like any other form of entertainment, movies are meant to be engaging and diverting, and if you’re watching one that isn’t, you can let it go.

But when you sit down to watch something, whether it’s at home or in the theater, alone or with friends, commit to giving it your full attention for just 15 minutes, and see how that goes. Much as the Pomodoro Technique is meant to help people get things done by encouraging them to focus on something in short, sustained bursts, thinking of a movie not as a two-hour commitment but as a 15-minute experiment in “Is this what I’m in the mood for right now?” can make it easier to sit down and get started. Give it a shot, and happy movie-watching.