So how exactly would one define a “great movie”? I feel it’s a term I’ve thrown around quite a bit of late, with maybe not enough context. It’s such a dangerous term – so undefined and loaded with potential meaning. Trying to define it also tackles even trickier problems, like what makes good art. A drought topic if there ever was one. However, terminology is important. Words are too transient and devoid of concrete meaning, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know exactly what I mean when I say something qualifies as a great movie. It’s impossible to have a good discussion or debate or even write an impactful essay without occasionally stepping outside of the essay to break apart some of the minutiae of the essayist’s intent. If you don’t know what I mean when I use a specific term, what use does that term serve?
Without meaning it’s fairly useless.
For the sake of THIS argument you have to assume that objectively judging art is possible. Not everyone feels like this is the case, however, I tend to disagree. Some art certainly challenges objective interpretation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Saying you can’t objectively quantify the success of a piece of art is a lazy defense best left to people incapable of properly articulating their point of view.
So first up, for something to qualify as a “great movie” it has to be artistically satisfying. Basically the artistic or thematic intent needs to both be well developed and at the centre of the film. The thematic intent needs to be the basis on which everything else is hung. Or, if not, whatever artistic experiment happens to be at play needs to be the frame the rest of the film is assembled upon. Preferably there needs to be some combination of both, and they need to be well realized concepts or themes.
There’s a wonderful quote from Andrei Tarkovsky, writing specifically about artistic realization in film. Here’s how he describes the effects of the phenomenon:
The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.
Touched by a masterpiece, a person begins to hear in himself that same call of truth which prompted the artist to his creative act. When the link is established between the work and its beholder, the latter experiences a sublime, purging trauma. Within that aura which unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognize and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions.
I think that quote really hones in on something it would take me thousands of words worth of rambling to capture. Because film is, by nature, an art form and any film that inspires this reaction can be said to be good art, and therefore a good film. However that’s where the problem of subjectivity comes in. Maybe for some people Space Jam inspires this response (somewhere Tarkovsky is rising from the dead to come find me and kill me). So there are some objective qualities that a film needs in order to be characterized as great. It doesn’t take very much awareness to tell the difference between a movie that simply strikes a chord with you personally and a movie that’s honestly good.
First of all, the individual aspects that make up what we call a movie need to be relatively on point. A movie is made up of a few key components: the script, the cinematography, the editing, and the sound (this list changes for the type of movie, for some obviously effects become far more important). The ultimate policing of all these aspects is what we call directing.
Now deciding the quality of these aspects is sometimes a tautological affair, but again I think that marks the approach of someone with a lazy standard of knowledge and limited abilities in the area of interpretation and analyzing and even self-examination. Which may sound horribly condescending and judgmental, but I think by pointing that out I right myself of that wrong. That got weird for a second, sorry. My point is it can be a tautological affair, because surely analyzing the good filmmaking that lies behind the movie’s impact can simply be a case of asking whether or not the filmmaking generates artistic impact? But there really IS such a thing as objectively good filmmaking.
You can’t really delve into this in brief, but as you start to learn about these art forms it becomes apparent. First and foremost is, indeed, communicating that central theme or experiment to the audience in a way that generates that satisfying artistic purging of which Tarkovsky wrote. Any rules you break have to be in service to this goal. Other than that there is an excess of redeveloped methods of communicating certain emotions or intents, and over time these have become the rules by which we judge other works. There are all sorts of books on these sorts of things, but using other movies as a baseline can be pretty effective too.
This is all starting to sound condescending and boring, let’s just accept that there is such a thing as good art and good filmmaking.
So my lousy point is that when I call a movie “great” I simply mean it has an artistic core and every aspect of the filmmaking is well executed. Not necessarily groundbreaking or innovative or transcendent, just somewhere above competent. To be “great” one or two of these aspects probably have to be a fair bit above competent. There’s a difference between something being great and being a legitimate masterpiece. So I suppose when I call a movie great I simply mean it’s an extraordinarily competent film with a prevalent theme. So now you are armed with this extremely limited knowledge about the idiosyncrasies of my writing.