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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog

(OR EL DUDERINO IF YOU'RE NOT INTO THE WHOLE BREVITY THING)

-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Good vs. Great?

It seems that I've been saying quite frequently lately that I like a movie, but don't love it. It's been seeming like though I've seen movies I enjoy, I haven't seen anything quite great.

On a similar note, I heard a decent amount of grumbling from people about the recent Oscar nominees. Some (like Chris, for example) felt that there were simply no great movies last year, and I'm generally inclined to agree.

So it got me thinking: What is it that makes a great movie? I guess one starting point would be to list some of the movies that I consider great (not just my favorites, but really great). Here are a few:

Chinatown
Annie Hall
Diabolique (original, of course)
Vertigo
The Princess Bride
Wings of Desire
The Godfather

Okay, so what do these movies have in common? Well, for one thing, they are all over 18 years old. Does this mean there have been no movies that I consider great from the interceding years? No, but I think that one of the marks of greatness is that the film stands the test of time, and to at least a significant degree doesn't even look dated when watched much later. Of course Vertigo looks like a film from the 1950s, but if you remove the trappings, such as fashions and styles of speech, it could have been made this year and would be just as affecting. More importantly, such films as Chinatown, The Princess Bride, or Wings of Desire barely even look as dated as Vertigo does. So I think that a certain timelessness is a key factor of a "great" film.

But just so you don't think I'm biased, let me also list a few more recent films that I think have the potential to be considered great. I'll have to think about them more, and see how I feel about them down the road. But how about:

The Shawshank Redemption
L.A. Confidential
Pulp Fiction
There's Something About Mary
Silence of the Lambs

The Big Lebowski
Unforgiven
Big Fish


Still, since I'm not convinced I'll consider these "great," I'm going to focus on the first list. (Please also note that neither of these lists is meant to be anything close to exhaustive.)

I think the most important aspect that all those films have in common is a cohesive and strongly stated style and tone. Some would call this a "voice." Theme also plays into this. And I am certainly referring to more than just a visual style, as this is a screenwriting blog, not a directing one. If you examine the screenplays of the movies I listed as "great," they all display this element. I'm referring to a sharp focus that filters out any extraneous material, be it character, plot point, dialogue, or anything else. Look at those films, and you'll see how sharply sketched they each are. And I believe that it is the expertly crafted screenplays that led their talented directors to maintain that focus in the films themselves. Thus, a cohesive focus of voice is another key element.

Lastly -- and this is connected to my second point -- a great film doesn't have to be flawless (though it would obviously be preferable, should such a thing be possible). But I believe that a great film will make us more willing to overlook the flaws we know exist, or perhaps even distract us from such flaws so we don't even notice them.

I think a great example of this (though not on the list I put above) is Casablanca. I know many will disagree with me, but hopefully some of you will agree, that the flashback to Paris sequence is a major flaw in this film. I find it overly long, relatively unnecessary, and somewhat distracting. Yet still, everything else about this film is simply so great that I don't even care that much. I still love the film, and I simply ignore this major flaw whenever I watch it. I'd say the original version of The Manchurian Candidate is another solid example of this. The film's groundbreaking originality of story far outweighed the purely extraneous addition of the Janet Leigh character, for starters.

An example of the opposite -- a good film that I believe is not great enough to overcome its significant flaw and become truly "great" -- is The Birds. Clearly there are some truly great aspects to this film (such as some extremely memorable and haunting images), but I feel that its weak storyline and lack of motivating force ultimately remove the film from the "great" category.

Of course, this aspect I'm listing is more an element that plays in when we evaluate a film as good or great. But it is difficult to use this last element as a means of guidance to writing a great film. Nonetheless, I think that a final important element must be the ability of the film's positive traits to greatly overshadow any flaws the film may display.

So, how about you guys? What do you think makes a film great? Any movies that you'd consider great that don't meet these criteria? How about examples of films that highlight these points?

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10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess its subjective, but I would not put Big Fish in the 'great' category, nor Annie Hall (I haven't seen some of the others). I know Annie Hall is considered a classic by a zillion people, but I saw it recently for the first time and was greatly disappointed.

Allen

6:17 AM  
Anonymous Leif Smart said...

Citizen Kane not make the list or just forgotten?

I do think another criteria for a great film is a film that you can watch over and over. For me, this puts movies like Star Wars, Aliens, Terminators into contention since I can watch them repeatedly and still enjoy them.

Also, how about some big name movies, like Titanic, and Lord of the Rings. I think LOTR is going to stand the test of time, and possibly Titanic as well. Potentially they will look dated due to their abondunt use of special effects, but they are both well grounded in their stories.

I also have a strong liking for films where the director is also the writer, or at least well involved in the writing process. I think results in far better stories portreyed through the movie. In adition to those already mentioned, I would add Sixth Sense, The Abyss, Sin City, and possibly the Matrix, original one only.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I have no problem putting Shawshank in the great, possibly greatest, category even now.

10:39 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Anon -- I definitely hear you on the Big Fish front. I love it, but I'm not yet convinced I'd put it in that category. Annie Hall, however, I think you may have either had certain high expectations that weren't met, or perhaps it just isn't your brand of comedy. That's why comedy is so tricky. For my part, I see it as a truly groundbreaking film, and hilarious to boot.

Lief -- While I recognize Kane as great, I didn't list it because over time I've lost some of my love for it. Not to take anything from it (because it is def great), but I don't fully connect with it, finding it a bit chilly and consciously constructed. I do love it, just not as much as some of the others I listed.

I would also leave out a number of the other films you listed. I hated Sixth Sense, and find it terribly overrated. Matrix I def enjoyed and found lots of good things in it, but again find it overrated. Abyss and Sin City were visually groundbreaking, but their flaws may be too great to consider them great. And Titanic had amazing FX of course, but merely a passable story. LOTR I love.

Chris -- I knew including that would garner that reaction from someone. ;-) Glad you approve!

4:01 AM  
Blogger Georgi Rimsakov said...

Why has nobody mentioned Grease 2?

8:59 AM  
Blogger The Moviequill said...

Grease 2

3:17 PM  
Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Shawshank, yes. Lebowski? I don't it will achieve "greatness" but will always be viewed fondly as an underrated gem.

Big fish was ok, I wanted to like it a lot but was very disappointed.

Lambs Unforgiven and Pulp Fiction (especially Pulp), I'd say probably yes, will be thought of as "great."

Too many Something About Mary clones have ruined it for that movie, although it's funny as hell.

Glad you didn't include Kane actually, yes, it was groundbreaking for its time, but please, talk about a snooze and overrated. Best of all time? Fuck no.

Agree with chinatown, Annie * Godfather on the "greatest" list. Also, I'm a Rear Window fan myself.

7:40 AM  
Anonymous galaxy far away said...

Okay, but you have to admit that Eggs in a Basket certainly look like a yummy breakfast food. Growing up my Dad used to make them, but called them "a riddle, a riddle, a hole in the middle." That's because you make a hole in the middle of the bread for the egg. And, of course, I have started eating Eggs in a Basket for breakfast again. Yum! :-)

4:00 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Not quite sure, but I think that last comment applies to the V for Vendetta post, vaguely. Again, I'll just leave it there, and let you all ponder it!

5:49 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Okay, so I spoke with "Galaxy Far Away" last nght, and indeed it was meant for the V for Vendetta post. It will make sense once you see the movie. Not such a non-sequiter after all!

3:36 AM  

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