What makes a good movie

November 5th, 2008

There’s a good argument for movies being the king of all forms of entertainment. There’s visuals, audio, stories and characters, and it all has to come together or the whole thing flops. No other form of expression has that: you’ve either got the words, or the sound, or the image. In a movie, you have it all. And unlike theater, the whole thing is preserved for posterity.

I have a pretty good idea of what makes a good movie, one that’s worth seeing a second time. Sure, my tastes are different than the next person. But to understand your own likes, it’s good to understand what other people prefer in movies.

My first favorite movies were science fiction and fantasy. I first obsessed over The Wizard of Oz, then the first Batman movie. I even marveled at 2001: A Space Odyssey before my voice changed. In high school, a friend made a list of movies for me to see, movies like Fight Club, The Big Lebowski, and The Producers – the good stuff. That list showed me movies that weren’t just fun to watch, they were of high quality. Then came Roger Ebert.

If you want an education of why some movies resonate better than others, read Ebert’s reviews. Everything I know about film I learned from reading his work. He also has a list of what he thinks are great movies. It isn’t what he thinks are the greatest films – there’s no such thing – but what he thinks are the best made that he’s seen. That means movies that are well made, but also movies he loves. La Dolce Vita is a mirror for his life, and Herzog’s metaphorical epics mirror his convictions, etc*. Citizen Kane, Solyaris, and the like are on his list – but they’re on every list of great movies. The reason why they’re there, and what everyone forgets is that at one time people were entertained by them, not just forced to watch them in film class.

Just because a movie is on one of these lists doesn’t mean it’s worth watching. So must we watch them? Yes.

Movies, good ones, are just like great literature, great music, or great theater: they reflect who we are and show us the truth in all its myriad contradictory explanations. Just like in Rashomon, where four descriptions of the same crime are wildly divergent. Every one is true. So a good shortcut in learning to live a full life is to be able to understand these art forms to learn from others who once lived what they learned about existence.

…this, of course, is a lofty ambition. In all honesty, I watch movies because it’s fun. I enjoy being wrapped in a story that requires more than one sensory input and has multiple parts to analyze. And by ‘fun’, I don’t just mean watching comedies. Think of ‘fun’ as wanting to watch the whole movie to find out how everything ends. Fun is working out why a character is acting the way they are. Fun is trying to guess why something happened and what might happen next, and being surprised when it turns out differently.

Stop watching movies if you aren’t having fun. Just because movie critics watch the entire movie (sometimes they don’t) doesn’t mean you have to – don’t think you have to finish Solyaris because is considered a great movie. I’m not quite sure how I finished it myself!

Finally, what makes a good movie.

This isn’t a list that I print out and check off for every movie I watch. Rather this is what I’ve gathered from the movies I’ve seen and why I liked one and didn’t like the other. Here’s what usually exists in a movie that I’d want to see more than once:

  1. The movie is fun. (See above for what I mean by fun.) This rule trumps all others. If I’m bored or not wanting to pay attention, it isn’t worth the effort.
  2. The characters behave like they really do in life. It’s not that the characters are behaving rationally (nobody does in real life anyway), but that there’s a cause-and-effect to what they do in the movie. This is easier to catch than to describe. If more than one character is doing or saying something that’s making you roll your eyes, especially if you’re by yourself, then something’s wrong. This also goes for characters that aren’t human or even alive: in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, New York is the main character, and she plays the part beautifully – I’ve never wanted to go anywhere after watching a movie as badly as I wanted to visit New York after seeing that movie.
  3. The movie accomplishes what it sets out to present. Not every movie has a plot, or necessarily about humans, but every movie has a motive behind its creation. Maybe the movie is trying to show how a teenager thinks as he is working out his place in the world (Wild Tigers I Have Known), perhaps a movie is about man’s place in nature (Koyaanisqatsi), or maybe the film’s creator just wants to screw with his audience (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Did the movie make its point? Of the three I mentioned, only Koyaanisqatsi failed. Or take my favorite example: Big Trouble in Little China - the movie’s purpose is only to be quoted and referenced with your friends, and it accomplishes that superbly.
  4. “Three great scenes and no bad ones.” Howard Hawks said that, but don’t take it literally. I think of it as, “If you can’t remember anything bad about it, then it works.”
A rule isn’t a rule if you can’t break them. So these don’t always apply. Psycho has a lame final scene, but it doesn’t detract much from the rest of the movie***. I suffered through The Passion of Joan of Arc and felt claustrophobic with the close-ups and the silence, but it moved me deeply.

*If I’m mistaken, I apologize. I don’t really know him**.
**Only Roger Ebert is being mentioned as a movie critic because my tastes align more often with his reviews than any other critic. Exceptions include Fight Club and Solyaris.
*** An example of this in music is Michael Jackson’s Thriller - there are five lame, sappy songs on the album, but the other four are so good, it doesn’t matter.

Similar posts:

Comments are closed.