Good vs. 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:
Diabolique (original, of course)
The Princess Bride
Wings of Desire
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
There's Something About Mary
Silence of the Lambs
The Big Lebowski
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?
Tags: great+movies, screenwriting