Though video essays have existed for over a decade on the internet, it’s only in recent years that there’s been a significant boost in their popularity. Defined as “a piece of video content that, much like a written essay, advances an argument,” video essays are an excellent way to learn about a subject both through the spoken word and a diverse array of visuals. You can find a video essay on pretty much everything, from politics to history to an obscure scientific concept you’ve never heard of. But, in my experience, the best and most watched video essays are about movies and television. The video essayists who make up this niche online are not only excellent editors and speakers, but they’re also incredible at reflecting on ideas within films that you probably wouldn’t have grasped as a casual viewer.
Like many film nerds out there, I’m always looking to learn about movies, whether about the process of making them or subtle insights into films I’ve seen that would enlighten my perspective. Yet I’m reluctant to read books or articles on the subject — something just doesn’t click when I try. To learn about a film, you have to actually watch the scenes a writer is talking about. Film is mainly visual, so the medium you use to learn about it should be visual, too. This is why watching video essays might be the best way to expose yourself to new interpretations of the movies you’ve seen. Not to mention the fact that many of these video essayists have actually gone to film school, so in some ways, you’re going to film school for free.
Below, I’ve gathered a list of five exceptional video essayists who will undoubtedly broaden your perspective on some of the best movies out there today.
1. Spikima Movies
Spikima Movies was the first video essayist on film that I watched, as well as the channel that led me to appreciate and consider video essays more seriously. His content focuses partly on independent American films from directors like Charlie Kaufman, Chloe Zhao and Darren Aronofsky, and partly on the greats of foreign cinema, with videos on the films of Park Chan-wook, Michael Haneke and Bong Joon-ho. Basically, he caters directly to every indie film nerd out there (including myself). What I love about Spikima’s videos is the fact that you are guaranteed to learn a lot from each and every one. He provides insights that you simply wouldn’t get as a casual viewer.
In his video on “Nomadland,” he discusses how Zhao’s choices in framing and the different kinds of shots visually embody Fern’s character journey, while in his video on Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance” trilogy, he zooms in on one of the films and identifies how its narrative structure reveals Park’s subtle messages and ultimate goals as a director. I’m consistently impressed by the thoughtfulness and unique insights that I had never considered before. As a bonus, his videos are quite soothing and smoothly edited, which makes his content stand out among the many visually overwhelming channels on YouTube.
2. Thomas Flight
Thomas Flight’s taste in content is largely similar to that of Spikima Movies, though I’d say Flight skews a little more mainstream. Since beginning as a video essayist five years ago, he’s put out an impressive amount of content and strikes a good balance between film and television. He’s commented on editing quirks, sound design, why certain directors make such weird films and Martin Scorsese’s belief that cinema is dying. In this way, his videos aren’t just limited to certain movies; he succeeds in hitting on topics that anyone who loves movies would be interested in.
But this isn’t to say that he doesn’t put just as much effort into his videos that do focus on specific movies. His early video essays, on films like “Manchester by the Sea” and TV shows like “Better Call Saul,” are incredibly articulate and reflective. Like Spikima Movies, Flight isn’t trying to teach you anything — instead, he’s opening up a dialogue and offering some amazing commentary, and along the way, you’ll find that you’re learning a lot more than you thought you would.
3. Broey Deschanel
Broey Deschanel differs from some of the other video essayists here in that she turns her attention more to the social and political dynamics underlying films and their narratives as well as broader issues like Hollywood and celebrity culture. She also, thankfully, focuses more on women in film and television. Watching her video essays, you really understand just how far the film industry has to go when it comes to women’s stories.
If you’re interested in concepts like the male gaze and its long history in Hollywood, her channel will be right up your alley. I definitely appreciate her takes on these ideas, even if I don’t agree with each and every one of her opinions. What’s important is that she’s commenting on issues that really do impact the films we watch to a tragic degree. Though Broey mostly examines films through a political lens, she’s also put out a few videos that go a different route, including one on the romanticism of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies.
4. Accented Cinema
This channel focuses on Asian cinema, particularly the Chinese and Japanese film industries. Within the world of Asian films, the video essayist behind Accented Cinema offers a pretty wide range of topics, on everything from Kung Fu movies to Japanese horror films. He also discusses some Asian-American films like “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “Shang Chi” and “Turning Red.” I, for one, am extremely thankful his channel exists, because it’s a great introduction to the beautiful world of Asian cinema. It’s a world with a catalog of films that Hollywood has tried to emulate for years, yet few American viewers have seen many of these films.
If you’re new to watching Asian movies but not sure where to start, Accented Cinema is a great channel to check out, as the creator reviews some of the best films from countries like China, South Korea and Japan. My only gripe here is that so few of his videos touch on South Asian cinema, a whole other world of its own — but hey, we all have our blind spots.
5. Like Stories of Old
Like Stories of Old definitely stands out among the video essayists here. As the title of his channel suggests, the video essays focus on the archetypes, myths and complex ideals behind some of the most influential movies of our time, with two series called the “Archetype Series” and “Filmmaker Philosophies” as highlights. He operates in weighty philosophical ideas and often refers to academic thinkers, but always grounds his thoughts in the films or filmmakers he’s discussing and never gets too abstract.
One of the best things about this channel is that the creator doesn’t just analyze films in a vacuum of their own — he studies films as part of a long cultural history that goes back centuries or even millennia, and still affects us today. Like Stories of Old excels at placing films in a specific cultural context that will enlighten your understanding of the work itself and perhaps even a tradition you weren’t aware of. His videos are perfect for cinephiles who love making connections between different films and media.