It’s a rare thing to find. And an even rarer thing to define. It’s that feeling we get when a lightness settles in our stomach. Or when the world around us begins to fade. Or as silence falls over a crowded cinema. It is the instant we go from watching a good film, to watching a great film. Great films are not the type to simply occupy our minds for two hours, or throw as much action our way as we can possibly handle (I’m looking at you here Michael Bay). They are instead the types of films that stand the test of time, define generations, and leave us wanting more. Those that every director, every studio, every audience member, strives to create, facilitate, and consume. They are the defining moments of the film industry.
Such great films however, do not happen often. Part of what makes great films so, is that they are like the proverbial needle in the haystack. They are the glory at the end of the very long and hay-fever induced search. Like the movies themselves, it’s never any fun if it’s simple, right? But what then makes a film great instead of good? In a world filled with expanding knowledge, personal opinion and varying tastes, it is easy to say that everyone’s a critique and that nobody can agree. Personal opinions will always vary, and decidedly so, greatness is after all in the eye of the beholder. That is not to say however, that there are not common threads that are weaved through great films, setting them apart from the everyday splash of colour and sound on screen.
Great films are great for one main reason. Whilst they presuppose the features of any good film – quality acting, beautiful cinematography, evocative music, intelligent and eloquent script writing, and focus in story and direction, they elevate this in one important way. Great films make us believe. They make us believe in the director; in how their vision, insight, and choices have led to something so beautiful, so important, that it leaves us slightly breathless in its wake. Spielberg did it with Jurassic Park (1993), and Jaws (1975), just as Nolan did with The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2010). You don’t become a world-renowned director on the back of good films. They make us believe in the characters too. How their trials, tribulations, happiness’ and success' can mirror our own. Good films tell us characters are important to the plotline, fill space, and are used to tell us what we ‘should want to be’, instead of ‘what we can be’. Great films, well, they make us root for the characters, they make us trust them when they are deceitful, or doubt them when they are not. They make us understand them as if they were our best friend, sibling, parent, or child. Great films make us believe in the reality of the character, instead of simply in their reason for existing.
But most importantly of all, great films make us believe in their world. The story, the cuts, the setting, the sounds. How all of it blurs and gathers together, in exactly the right way and at exactly the right time, to allow ourselves to get lost within it. Great films are not made by their realism alone, but instead by their believability. Realism in the sense of the story-line can only take us so far. I mean God help us if computers ever take over like in the Terminator series, or if scientists find the means to reinstate dinosaurs into the food chain, a la Jurassic Park (1993) (thank-you DNA half-life!). Believability instead lies in the essence of life, not in its imitation of it. And that’s what makes films great. Without belief, we would never travel to worlds like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, Lucas’ Star Wars or Abram’s Star Trek. We would never understand the Navi’s way of life in Avatar (2009), enter the Matrix, eagerly await our Hogwarts Letter, or cry at Mufasa’s death in The Lion King (1994). We would never dread the opening of the box in Se7en (1995), or the long walk down The Green Mile (1999). We would never quote the rules about Fight Club (1999), or understand how life is like a box of chocolates. Without belief we would never be a part of films, we would simply be a watcher of them.
Any good critic will argue that great movies contribute something to the medium of film, that they demand to be watched again and again, that they make important statements which make you think about your life instead of just live it. They aren’t wrong. But any great critic knows that the true distinction in creating a great film lies in how a viewer believes in it so much, that they let themselves become a part of it. After all, great movies are lived, not watched. And it’s hard to live something without believing in it first. As Tim Burton once said: “Certain things leave you in your life and certain things stay with you. And that's why we're all interested in movies - those ones that make you feel, that you still think about. Because it gave you such an emotional response, it's actually part of your emotional make-up, in a way.”
The Art of Thinking About Films
What makes a great film? How do you survive a horror film? Which movies deserve to be in Top Ten lists? This is the place to discuss that.
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