Mostly, it's the quality of the writing and the acting of a movie that catches my attention. I'm content with most movies that are of better than average quality in those areas. Many movies have problems in the same area--with continuity, plot design, etc.--but for me, as long as the dialogue and the acting are consistently good, I'm invested.
One area that I rarely pay attention to is who directs the flick.
Sure, there are directors that create a buzz for a film just by having their names attached to the project. My favorite movies, though, are those that allow the film itself to tell the story, and which avoids the signature devices some big name directors like to embed into the story. In music, that works: I always loved recognizing an opening Joe Walsh lick, and being able to anticipate the auditory miracle that was about to occur. On the other hand, I was always annoyed with Alfred Hitchcock's obsession with finding a spot for himself in his films.
The audience began to look for it, and that "there he is" moment made the film less believable to me.
I admit that on occasion, I'll notice something so special about a movie that my curiosity is piqued about the director. Maybe it was her use of visuals to tell an aspect of the story, or how he paced the film. Those rare instances stick in my mind for some reason, and I have to figure out ways to purge them.
My Top 5: Who Directed That?!? Moments
Duel: (1971) This made-for-TV flick was Steven Spielberg's transition from directing episodic TV to directing feature films. Dennis Weaver starred as a businessman who, while driving through a lonely California desert region, is nearly killed by a driver in a semi-truck. Weaver's character--as well as the audience--never sees the assailant during the cat-and-mouse adventure, except for a glimpse of the driver's cowboy boots. It was that fear of the unknown that caught my attention. It was an unusual plot device at the time, and one that made me look forward to future films made by some guy named Spielberg.
Reservoir Dogs: (1992) The directorial debut of Quentin Tarantino was riveting: amazing dialogue, well crafted scenes and peep-through-your-fingers-so-you-don't-miss-a-thing violence. It was, simply, brilliant. The opening scene of the jewel thieves having lunch and debating the method of tipping the waitress is still one of my favorite movie scenes of all time. Tarantino's work grabbed me by the head and forced me to take notice. And I loved it.
The Sixth Sense: (1999) M. Night Shyamalan's early home run is the flick to which the rest of his movies are compared. While that may not be fair, it's easy to understand. Shyamalan told the story with integrity and patience, allowing the audience to invest in the characters. That's why the ending was such a surprise: we cared about the characters, and were distracted by the emotion. It was a masterpiece.
Raging Bull: (1980) During the 70s, I knew nothing of Martin Scorsese. New York mob stories didn't play long at Grove's Theater, and I was too young to get into an "R" rated movie anyway. So, Raging Bull was the first Scorsese film I saw. And I was hooked. Filmed in black and white, the biopic of boxer Jake La Motta was psychologically edgy with it's themes of guilt and insecurity. It was also the movie that made me search out VHS (and Beta, back in the 80s) tapes of Scorsese's earlier work.
Chasing Amy: (1997) I caught Kevin Smith's flick on VHS, and immediately understood the guy. The flick had tight dialogue and characters that were interesting, but it was Smith's ability to make transparent the angst of twenty-something slackers with which I most identified. (Although I count on my fingers that I was 32 years old in 1997, in my mind I was still 25.) Chasing Amy made me camp out at Blockbuster the following weekend to check out Clerks and Mall Rats. I still identify so much with Smith's perspective of life that I miss his work when he hasn't directed in a while.