What Makes a Great Movie?

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.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. I can’t believe you didn’t put acting among the few key components that make up a film. This actually serves to show that you are more in tune with current cinema than I. For me, most films today fail exactly because the visionary director cannot properly stage a scene.

    But really, sorry. That’s not why I’m here. What scares me is this current trend of calling something “great” and quickly adding “well, you know, it’s not a masterpiece, it’s just great”. I understand that there is a difference in greatness, that not everything that is very, very good is an actual masterpiece, don’t worry, no one wants a world with nothing but masterpieces, but… Aren’t people too shy nowadays? It seems that everybody (fans, critics, professionals) seems to believe that a long time ago there was this thing called art… but they don’t do that kind of thing anymore.

    Can’t we sit at the adults’ table? Do we really think that everything has been done already so there’s nothing to add and we don’t even try? What about an audience that seems to believe that great cinema is necessarily boring and old? Just homework? Stuff that was once “groundbreaking and innovative” but that now has been absorbed so we can make “Thor 2″ without worrying about it.

    I mean, as much as I despise the current cinema, even I can quickly think of a dozen films from this century that in my opinion are as good as the best by Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Welles or Kubrick. Lady Vengeance is one.

    So, okay, Harry, I get it, “great” is not good as “masterpiece”, fine, but I hope you use the m word from time to time, okay? Let’s keep the expectations high!

    • Check in this week for a review of a recent masterpiece!

      I think the trick is it’s hard to claim masterpiece status for something without seeing how it holds up overtime… For most forms of art that time is important. So something has to truly prove itself for me to immediately christen it a masterpiece.

      Acting can be fabulously important. And I probably should have mentioned it. In my defense my vote for greatest movie of all time is one with well-utilized but incompetent actors – 2001: A Space Oddyssey.

      • Yes, but as you’ve mentioned, in 2001 the actors are very well-utilized. There’s some very good acting during the “stop, Dave” scene.

        But again, sorry. The big question is: why is time important? It didn’t use to be. You’ve mentioned the French New Wave, and wow, when they were critics Truffaut and Godard had no fear to claim the highest status for what they thought were true masterpieces. Yes, sometimes they were wrong. So what?

        Most films I like, most books I like, most songs I like were made before I was born. That may be true for you too. But when I look back and see the critical response for those masterpieces, yes, the great majority of them were critically aclaimed (even if they all had their critics – Kael, for instance, hated Kubrick, but she was pretty much alone on that).

        One of the reasons why I love comics is that it’s an art that belongs to my lifetime. My generation discovered Moore, Morrison, Gaiman, Milligan and Miller. First time I read Moore or Gaiman was in the pages of Secret Origins. My first reaction to Animal Man was “that’s okay”, but after 20 issues I knew that I was reading something that was truly exceptional. It fell on our lap, and we embraced it.

        I’m dying to read your review of a recent masterpiece. Hope it’s something I haven’t seen yet.

      • By the by, I hope that I made it clear that I was defining “great movies” but not at the exception of the use of term “masterpiece.” If I want to assign that praise I will without hesitation. I just think it’s almost less complex and worthy of definition. It’s not as personal a term.

        Time can be important on a personal level, just for the understanding of a film, and on on a cultural level, to understand the effect and significance of the film. That’s all :)

  2. Fun piece. Alas, I’m one of those “lazy” people who tense up at the use of the word “objectively” to describe an assessment of a work of art. I don’t think Hamlet or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony are “objectively” great. That doesn’t mean we can’t build a case for why something is more complex, daring, stimulating, profound, or even beautiful, but trying to insist that something is “objectively” great … I dunno. Doesn’t that lead to formulas and ideologies? I don’t trust a formula with objective standards. In fact, I specifically distrust something like that.

    Instead, I trust you (if you make a good case for something). You actually got me to watch all the Apes movies even though they really weren’t to my taste, and I wound up being really impressed with the 4th one.

    But like Mario, what I’m talking about isn’t why I came here. :) Instead, I’m intrigued with your idea of whether we can “tell the difference between a movie that simply strikes a chord with [us] personally and a movie that’s honestly good.” I think we’ve all experienced that, but I’ve also experienced the opposite. I’ve loved a film that struck a chord with me personally, but I never considered that it might be “honestly good” until years later. I’m talking here about Groundhog Day. I loved it, watched it repeatedly, felt inspired, moved, etc., but it took years for it to dawn on me that it might be a really “great” film. But of course it now frequently makes lots of Top 10 lists. I’m guessing I only saw it as a personal favorite because of the cultural bias against comedy.

    Which makes me wonder what part consensus plays in our perception of films. All those guys Mario named–Bergman, Fellini, etc.–we are all introduced to them as “masters.” We know they’re “great” before we’ve seen a single frame. And when we don’t dig their work (Tarkovsky for me) we tend to be generous and say, “Well, it doesn’t click with me.”

    What am I trying to say? (And that’s not just rhetorical–I’m stumbling through this comment one sentence at a time.) If there is a consensus of greatness, then maybe, as critics, we should try to define “greatness” as just that–a description of the general consensus of what makes great film. In that sense, we’re writing about how our culture regards film–describing the virtues and values that our culture puts on film–and then relating a particular film to that idea.

    Or, perhaps we should just define our own subjective taste and explain why one movie clicks with us and why another doesn’t.

    Now, fearing that I just stammered and stumbled until I talked myself into a circle, I should probably shut up. But I like this topic. The critics I used to read (they were from before my time, admittedly) were mostly from the ’60s–Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kaufman, John Simon–but they really stressed these questions in ways that I don’t think contemporary critics do anymore.

    All of which is to say, I enjoyed the piece. :)

    • I think subjective taste is super important… There’s just too many people out there who think that because they like something it automatically makes it good. Not that I think you’re among those people. I think it’s easy enough to separate the two. For example I wrote like 3000 words or something where I raved about how amazing Godzilla (2014) was. But if someone else saw it and didn’t like it I’d be like “well, yeah. Fair enough.” It’s pretty flawed.

      For me my spot of disconnect is French New Wave. I’ve watched a few (probably the wrong ones) and I can appreciate the craft of the scenes, the daring and experimentation, all the objective stuff that led to these directors being considered great, and still not be moved at all. And I do think that’s part of my subjective taste, and I would never truly argue that Bande Apart is bad.

      For the same reason one of my favourite movies might very well be a Funeral Parade of Roses, a sprawling experimental mess. I’d hesitate to recommend it to anyone but the most devout Kubrick fanatic, but I love it. It’s weirdness clicked, and I truly believe it’s an objectively good example of building experimentation and weirdness around a thematic framework.

      And really, the true reason I come down so hard on subjective taste is writing, and sometimes in debate, is twofold. For one nothing cauterizes a good debate more than “well, fine, I just didn’t like it.” If you can’t start to discuss why something didn’t click vs why it did (like that conversation I mention in my Dawn of the Apes article) then what’s the point. The other is that Subjectivism has become the refuge of so many critics who, because Internet, can become critics without actually knowing about film. Or write for Rolling Stone. The world is inundated with critics who do nothing but talk about there surface reaction. I think where objective interpretation comes in can be as simple as asking “why.”

      My turn to be scared to reread what I just typed and hit send…

      • I think you’re right about the cop-out approach of, “Well, I liked it, so there!” For me, if we’re splitting hairs, the key difference is between someone who refuses to analyze versus someone who doesn’t believe in the idea of something being objectively great. The first is laziness; the second is a philosophical difference.

  3. It’s a controversial and fascinating topic I think about maybe every day, really. So here’s my two cents.

    I’ll use film as an example. I always try to judge a film by trying to figure out what the intentions of it are (not the author’s intentions of course) and how much of what it set out to do it actually accomplished. I think that can be judged pretty objectively.

    These intentios go from thematic content and its execution to artistic and narrative experimentations or techniques. For example, Pulp Fiction is a film whose intention (one of them) is to tell many interconnecting stories in a non-linear fashion. Okay. I think you can objectively judge whether all narratives are well executed or not, whether the non-linear overall narrative is a confusing mess or not. And being a mess and confusing are clearly not the intentions of the film. And if they were, you’d have to judge it by how confusing it gets, and the more confusing the better piece it would be. (Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis comes to mind, but it’s debatable).

    Where I think taste and subjectivity enters is when you judge the intentions itself. You can hate non-linear narrative and it’s okay. No one can say non-linear narrative is inherently awesome after all, or an epitome of good narrative technique. But you can’t say Pulp Fiction is a bad film BECAUSE it’s not linear. You would be judging the film unfairly if you did.

    A film can have the intention to just make people laugh with fart jokes or try to talk about the nature of the universe. It doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, they’re just the intentions. How they’re executed is what matters in judging a piece. And then you may like fart jokes more than philosophy, but that’s just taste. And, in any case, we’re not always the same person at every moment in time. Sometimes I like fart jokes more than philosophy, depends on the day.

    It still is a very complex topic, and I find myself always doubting everything nonetheless, especially my own standards.

    • Yes, Mariano, I almost agree. In theory, it’s beautiful. And I certainly believe that you should watch every movie with an open mind. But in the real world most films intend on being nothing but fart jokes (or badass or whatever), and that can leave some of us feeling empty. So far, fine. The problem is that when we open our mouths, part of the audience replies: “not fair, it’s not supposed to be meaningful or interesting or memorable or smart or creative!” Well…. Then why are you defending it? Because you had two hours of silly entertainment? Someone spent hundreds of millions of dollars to make it. In many countries, they used public money!

      However, I don’t think assessment is what matters. Discussion is. What you have to say about a film (or comic book or whatever) is more important than just your personal evaluation of its value. And most people have more things to say, and more interesting things to say, about something that tries to be something a little more rewarding.

      The problem with being fair to films that just want to be silly fun is that sometimes all we want to talk about is how dumb they are. That’s what take from them. And the other side has nothing to add but: “it was fun!”

      That said, yes, some art films are dull as hell!

      And of course we’ll all be thinking about this topic on our deathbeds. Personally, I intend to go arguing with a nurse about some crap she liked.

      • Discussion is totally the important part!

        But quality of objectives are important too. There’s deeper goals in Pulp Fiction than the logistical intertwining of the story. Pulp Fiction, can, for instance, be read as a King Arthur retelling, effectively tapping into many of the themes of religious faith and duty those stories do. That thematic core is what separates a movie that merely accomplishes what it sets out to do from a “great” movie. A movie that just tries to be funny might have good joke writing, but if it’s not about something on a thematic level it’s JUST good joke writing. Like I said in my article all-round excellence, especially in the area of thematics, is more important to my label than anything else.

  4. Brent Holmes says:

    Harry, always glad to see this question raised. On the one hand, I’m comfortable saying the most fun movie for me ranges depending on my mood and for today let’s call it Team America: World Police. On the other hand, when I separately define my greatest movie, I always say Blade Runner; and while the acting, set design, cinematography and themes are all first rate, I’m not sure how objective I am. I ignore faults like the very bad editing when Leon swats away Deckard’s gun. Part of my brain won’t acknowledge the film with Rutger Hauer’s incandescent ‘tears in rain’ moment can be anything less than perfect.

    • One bad moment of editing doesn’t mean the movie is badly edited. Blade Runner should qualify I think. Besides the context of the movie means we can forgive some of the editing as a result of an uphill battle on the part of Scott. I’ve been editing and I feel this comment is incoherent so – thanks for reading and imma stop typing now…

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