Like Roundness and Flatness in characters, and like Commercialism and Literariness in literature, Formalism and Realism are two extremes of a sliding scale by which we can evaluate movies.
Formalism in cinema, unlike formalism in literature, is the tendency for the filmmaker to make the moviegoer aware that she is watching a movie. The language, the sets and the other elements such as plot and character all lend to reminding the viewer that she is sitting in a theatre, rather than witnessing a live event. The actors will be emoting as much as possible, not acting natural at all, but more like stage actors. Often the plot elements of the movie will be symbolic, and the sets will look like sets, with a clear indication that the scene is self-contained, not a part of a larger scene, as in real life. Period pieces like Titanic and Sense and Sensibility, with their lavish sets, stilted language and staged feel are good examples of Formalistic filmmaking
In contrast, Realism in a movie is evident when the filmmaker chooses to create a more documentary style, with less staging and a greater feel of impromptu and natural presentation. Scenes will tend to feel as if they are observed as they happen and are only a small part of a larger scene, sometimes using camera shots that enhance the notion that the viewer is witnessing the action live, rather than observing a staged, rehearsed play. The settings are often real, rather than staged, with minimal lighting or sound effects. Often the actors are indeed nonprofessionals or will certainly be using a subdued or improvisational style that seems as natural as possible. Besides the obvious documentaries like Roger and Me and No Direction Home, movies like M*A*S*H and Easy Rider, with the use of many unknown or unseasoned actors, outdoor sets, handheld camera work, and crude language with characters talking over each other are good examples of a strong use of Realism.
Keep in mind that elements of both Realism and Formalism will be evident in most movies. Look for these elements to help determine an author's style and purpose.
© T. T. Eiland, January 1998