How to Talk Like a Film Critic: Glossary of Film Terms

Image from Bond University Website
Image from Bond University Website

So you want to be a film critic? Well here's something to get you started; a general guide to some of the language of film criticism...

Alan Smithee Film: A director seeking anonymity on a film will traditionally use the pseudonym Alan Smithee in the credits. This sometimes happens when directorial control has been tampered with and the director no longer wants to be associated with the completed film.

Auteur: Auteur is the French word for author and in film theory, refers to the director's personal vision; the director being the 'author' of the film. "Auteurism" means analysing films, to search out the defining features that might identify the director as the author. Auteur theory was developed in the 1950s by, among others, director Francois Truffault and noted film critic Andre Bazin, editor of the French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma (Cinema Notebooks)

B-Grade or B-Movie; Low budget, B-grades are often shot by an independent director or one who has lost his gloss. They commonly have a cheesy storyline and star no-name, second-rate actors, fresh starlets or aging stars looking for retirement funds. However some B grade films have a low budget but a talented cast, good director and an interesting and/or unusual storyline and end up cult classics. Both Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Double Indemnity were rated as B-Grade on release but later became cinema classics.

Bomb: A film devoid of merit or a financial flop.

Cineaste or Cinephile: Film enthusiast.

Cinéma vérité: Translates as truth cinema. Cinéma vérité grew out of French Cinema in the 1960s and refers to a film movement which uses documentary-style techniques to create realism. Influenced by the neorealist (see below) film movement of post-World War II Italy, as well as post-war British documentaries, characters are shown in real-life, everyday situations and employ authentic dialogue and natural action. Sometimes referred to as "kitchen sink" drama.

Colourisation: Process of recreating old black and white films in colour and i generally regarded as a no-no by film buffs, who reason that films originally shot in b&w weren't designed for coiour and thus nuances may get lost. Arose in the 1980s.

Decoupage: In film, decoupage refers to the editing process and literally translated, means 'to cut up'. However, it usually indicates a particular style of editing, in which the transitions between shots lends continuity to the narrative.

Denouement: The defining point of the film. The denouement is that part of the film, just past the climax, where everything is resolved (or not, depending on the flavour).

Deus ex machina: Refers to a clumsy plot device, by which problems in the storyline are conveniently resolved by improbable event/s or situation, usually at the end of the film.

Diagesis: Those elements in a film which logically and realistically exist within the narrative; eg; a bird singing, a radio playing, dialogue - as opposed to illogical mood elements such as a background musical score, a narrator etc.

Film Noir is all about light and dark and shades of grey. Still from Carol Reed's "The Third Man"
Film Noir is all about light and dark and shades of grey. Still from Carol Reed's "The Third Man"

Film Noir: Film noir is a dark and shadowy genre that deals with danger and moral ambiguity. The style emerged from b&w B dramas of the 1940s and has been hugely influential on a number of directors -including Roman Polanski, whose 1974 film, Chinatown was created in the noir style. Film noir is often cynical in tone and visually early noir was influenced by the German expressionist films of an earlier decade.

Fourth Wall: An invisible wall that divides the characters from the audience. Sometimes the fourth wall is deliberately broken through for effect, such as when a character stops mid-action to talk to the audience.

Genre: Genre originated in literary criticism but in cinema terms, it refers to the characteristic style and construction of a film and similarities in the narrative. Typical examples of film genres might include Westerns, Musicals, Romances, Black Comedies, Cyberpunk, Crime, Sci-fi, Thrillers etc.

Grand Guignol: (Grand puppet). A gruesome, gothic melodrama.

Leitmotif: Originally a musical term leitmotif is sometimes used in a film context to describe a recurring theme within a film. For example in the movie Jaws a distinctive, menacing musical piece is used throughout the film to indicate the presence of the shark. The leitmotif need not be musical - it can be a repeated image, sound or word, eg; In Citizen Kane the leitmotif is rosebud.

McGuffin: A term popularised by Alfred Hitchcock to denote a plot device that drives the main character/s and draws the audience in, though it may have little or no real significance - in plot terms, it's usually a red herring. Often the McGuffin is an object, such as the falcon in The Maltese Falcon or the microfilm in North by Northwest. In Pyscho the Macguffin is the theft of 40, 000 dollars, yet as the film progresses we see this has little importance. Another example is the cloud of radioactive dust which floats over Scott Carey in The incredible Shrinking Man. It seems important, yet throughout most of the film the audience has been more concerned with the effects of the shrinkage than the causes.

Scene from The Incredible Shrinking Man
Scene from The Incredible Shrinking Man

Mise-en-scène: A French term used to describe the design aspects of a film, mise-en-scène incorporates key aspects such as lighting, props, set design and costume. More recently the term has been broadened to include reference to a director's attempt to get across all the information about a scene in a single shot. For example, a character's internal struggle may be conveyed through nuances in the lighting and set design - thus a mise-en-scène is created.

Montage: In a cinematic context, montage refers to a series of shots edited together to create either the passage of time or symbolic meaning. In the very early days of film-making, narratives were created in one long take, rather than by different shots edited together. From the French, montage translates as assembly and means the putting together of parts of a film to form a cohesive and meaningful sequence. For example, take two separate shots; one of a girl walking on a railroad track and another of a fast travelling train - put them together in the right sequence and you create the idea that the girl is in danger of being destroyed by the train. Similarly, a filmaker can create symbolic meaning through juxtposition. A shot of a man and woman walking through a fair ground interspersed wtth a shot of a merry-go-round horse moving up and down creates a sexual innuendo, albeit a fairly tired one.

Radio Cinema, Barcaldine NSW. Image by Jane Bovary
Radio Cinema, Barcaldine NSW. Image by Jane Bovary

Narrative Film: A film that tells a story in a traditional, linear way where you have a series of events linked by cause and effect. Thus the story moves forward logically with each scene dependent on the one before.

Neo-Realism: Characterised by a desire for authenticity, neo-realist directors employ real life scenarios, no special effects, authentic locations, often no-star casts, natural or no make-up and simple camera work (no tricks). As a result, the films have a documentary-like feel.The term was first used by critics to describe Viscottonti's film, Obsessions, after its release in1942 and the movement reached its zenith through the work of post-war Italian directors such as Roberto Rossellin and Victoria de Sica.

New Wave Cinema: New Wave had it's roots among the French filmakers of the 1950s and 60's. The term was coined by critics to describe those filmmakers who rejected traditional forms of cinema in favour of experimenting with narrative, editing style and visual images. New Wave directors considered themselves auteurs, influenced by Neorealism and Cinema Verite. Francois Truffault and Jen Luc Gooddard .Their films often have a gritty, 'street' feel and they often used hand held cameras, improvisation and a non-linear framework.

Title credit from Vincent Sherman's 1939 film
Title credit from Vincent Sherman's 1939 film

Psycho Noir: A blending of film noir and psychological; Mulholland Drive, and Blue Velvet.

Rack Focusing: Rack focusing is a means of directing the viewers eye to a particular part of a sequence by means of blurring out part of the image on the screen, so that only a particular area remains in clear focus.

Stock Character: A minor, ususally stereotypical character who's actions are wholly predictable.

Swashbuckler: A genre which denotes high action/adventure in romantic, historical settings. Swashbuckler films features heroic,resourceful and physical adept characters who often engage in dangerous activities, such as swordfighting,

Tech-noir: A combination of film noir and science-fiction or; Blade Runner and The Terminator.

Tentpole: A blockbuster/star-cast/high budget film that is expected to prop up the studio and compensate for the flops.

Vignette: A scene or segment within a film that is a contained story in itself. Vignettes are sometimes used in postmodern films that don't follow a conventional structure, as displaced, self-contained scenes, in order to reveal certain aspects of a character, an idea or even an object.

Z-movie: Campy, trashy and usually exploitational films that make B-graders look good.

Comments 21 comments

DavitosanX profile image

DavitosanX 5 years ago

Hi, Jane, nice to read you again. Great compilation! Curiously, in spanish we use cineaste as 'film maker' and cinephile as 'film enthusiast'.

DaNoblest profile image

DaNoblest 5 years ago from California

Awesome hub. I found it very interesting to learn what some of the terms I have heard before mean.

satomko profile image

satomko 5 years ago from Macon, GA

Excellent list. This is a good guide to film vocabulary that can help anyone who wants to deepen his or her appreciation for the medium.

Pierre Savoie profile image

Pierre Savoie 5 years ago from Canada

A very good hub. I speak French and I've seen contemporary movies from France which take "cinéma vérité" too far. They show life in couples and families with such realism that...nothing significant happens. These are godawfully boring movies. Or maybe I'm too dense to catch the wondrous symbolism, or too brought up on American movies that need at least one chase and car-crash each.

Pierre Savoie profile image

Pierre Savoie 5 years ago from Canada

Also, I thought "bomb" referred to a financial failure, like "it bombed at the box-office", rather than some film entirely devoid of merit.

Also, there have been some films where the directors wrestle with the uncertainty of the plot, unsure where to take the story, that have become classics, like CASABLANCA or APOCALYPSE NOW. Is there a word for those?

drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

Thank you, Jane, for adding substantially to my glossary of film criticism language. One word, genre, has always bothered me when it appears too often in the description of a film by a so-called film critic. To this day, I can easily dismiss any criticism that contains more than one 'genre.' How about you?

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi Davito, thanks..well that's interesting. I wonder where the 'cineaste' as a term for fan came then from then? I'll put cinephile on the list as's probably more widely used than cineaste anyway.

I usually just say 'film buff'...;)

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi DaNoblest..thanks very much for stopping by and commmenting.

Satomko thanks. I'm glad you apapeared 'cause it reminds me, I'll have to get over to your hubs and read some more of those excellent reviews.

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi Pierre,

Nice to see you. Re bomb, it can have both those meanings and when I finish typing this I'll be be adding that in, so thanks for drawing it to my attention.A film without any merit usually will bomb financially but there are films that bomb at the box-office but aren't necessarily *bombs*, for sure.

To your second question about uncertainty in the plot ..there probably is a term for that but I can't think what it is. If I find out I'll slip it in.

Speaking of tedious French films, have you seen this one? It's a real classic:

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi drbj..haha. There is a fair degree of intellectual wanking in film criticism, to be sure...;) Thanks for popping over.

barryrutherford profile image

barryrutherford 5 years ago from Queensland Australia

Very useful terms I need to adopt if I want to start reviewing films etc..Voted up ^ !

Pierre Savoie profile image

Pierre Savoie 5 years ago from Canada

Hahahaha, funny! But these actors are British. Although they've spent time learning French, they're not hitting all the sounds.

Boomer Flicks profile image

Boomer Flicks 5 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

Excellent hub! I'd forgotten all about MacGuffin, a standard plot device in detective fiction. There's even a comic novel, The MacGuffin by Stanley Elkin, that pretty well demonstrates the device and its inherent weakness once the reader (or viewer) figures it out.

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi Barry, thanks for that.

Lol Pierre...well it sounded good to non-French speakers!

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Boomer Flicks..thanks for the visit. Sounds like a good book!

Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

This is so nifty! I am DEFINITELY going to refer to this in the future... hahaa, maybe I'll be able to talk about films without reverting to my own silly references.

jadugan profile image

jadugan 5 years ago from Radford, Virginia

I love this! The clip you added was really cool, I definitely want to see that film now! Thanks!

RachaelLefler profile image

RachaelLefler 5 years ago from Illinois

Good job. As an amateur anime critic here on hubpages (and it helps that I speak french) I knew some of these, but I didn't know a lot for example the origin of the term "MacGuffin" or the fact that there were Z-Movies in addition to B-Movies! (I'm picturing [no pun intended] the $5.00 bin or some of the movies on Hulu and Youtube.)

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hey Simone...thanks!

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

jadugan, thanks and do check out The Incredible Shrinking Man. It's a fun flick...and "deep" for a 50's sci-fi..;)

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Rachael, haha, yeah 'Z' is as low as you can go. Thanks for reading!

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