What makes for a truly great film?

What makes for a good film, a great movie? I’m sure the answer can be just as diverse as the amount of films in existence. This makes it particularly hard to define a certain set of criteria I may use to define a film that stands out from the crowd.

Psycho Awesome

Hitchcock knows his spectacle!

Lets begin by films that left a lasting impression on me, and then try to ascertain why. Most of the earliest films I remember seeing were visual spectacles. When looking at films like Spider-Man (2002) the Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and the Matrix (1999) we can easily suggest that story and theme might have been neglected to make way for magnificent action sequences or eye candy. But is this really the case?

When we look at films and franchises like the Lord of the Rings and the Matrix, I can’t help but think there is more than spectacle contained within the binds of the titles. The Lord of the Rings, admittedly has a rather straight forward premise, but the way it is presented, and the way the hero’s journey is so accurately captured can’t help but seem more significant. Similarly in the Matrix, the protagonist is taken on a road of growth as in Spider-Man, but in this case the subject, and discussed themes, meanings, and subtleties make the film more than simple popcorn action.

In the Matrix I see discussed topics on religion, society, world-view, identity, destiny, and love, to name but a few of the many themes that seem to feature. These are the things I remember better than any action scene therein contained, things that stick with me, making me think. But was this a honest creation? Was the Matrix honestly what the film-makers were trying to communicate, or was it only unoriginal plot-devices used by the film-makers to trick me into thinking the film was more than a cool sci-fi with some legit fight scenes and hardcore stares?

To answer this would be practically impossible, I’d have to put the Wachowski’s on a polygraph before I get close, in the mean time I can say it did contain meaning for me, and so fulfil the next tick on my criteria for a good film, meaning.

Now I realise the examples used are rather mainstream, and it’s much easier to crown some cult art-film as being magnificent, or some obscure classic that in some renowned critics eyes captured the very essence of a great motion picture, but I think mainstream films should not be undervalued in their occasional magnificent contribution to the great film canon, just as classics should not only be seen a bygone building blocks, and avant-garde pieces as backwater hippy snuff.  When I watch a great movie, I know I’ve watched one, within me, be it a classic, avant-garde or modern blockbuster, it resonates within me, stays with me.

And thus, even when not considering other important criteria like technical competence, captivating screen performances, music and the other aspects that help make a film truly great, I believe what makes a film great lies with you, with me and with every viewer. We experience, we interpret, and we try to decode the film makers idea. If we are satisfied (or not, if open endings has your fancy) what ensues will be a truly great cinematic experience.

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2 thoughts on “What makes for a truly great film?

  1. Darksinne says:

    My classic criteria is that a film should invoke a feeling of some sort, for most films, the feeling of immersion is the ticket. If the Coen brothers can convince me that a man wants to buy a new rug because his old one was pissed on, then that makes it an enjoyable, memorable film.

    If Michael Bay keeps reminding me that a world in which people will stare at huge robots while they obliterate a city while Megan Fox tickles the chin of a whiny douchebag belongs solely on the silver screen, then thats the sort of film I’ll toss in the trash pile.

    Can Batman live in a world where a madman takes hold of a city and spreads chaos with nothing more than a purple suit and some makeup? In the world within Nolan’s established world, the amazing actors, stunning sets, effects, sounds, writing… Its all possible and so is my ability to love the film for taking me on that adventure.

    Does that mean that the film is great? I don’t think that /great/ is a matter of opinion, it must be up to more than just one person to determine whether a film can truly ascend to a level of respect that only great films can have.

    • PafuriZA says:

      I agree with all your statements in principle. Even the criteria you choose to judge your films on is very sensible. Where we differ though is that, yes, to judge a film with propper inter-subjectivity, you need to remove yourself from the equasion, and evaluate the meaning, and feeling, BUT that is still potencially AS flawed as any other judgement. Some films are unmistakably canon, but they are seen as such because most everyone is left in awe after a viewing (I call it ‘stays with you’ you call it ‘feeling’, same thing me thinks). The gist of my proposal is that, perhaps the best way to try and stay objective in “the man of the streets” view of great film, is to allow everyone their personal expression. This is rather naiv, and will screw with the canon if taken seriously, sure. But this is more personal, than official. We all have our guilty little secrets ;). Im sure you also have a few “bad” films you, deep down, secretly dig. Or am I mistaken?

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