When asking what someone thought of a movie, their answer is sometimes, “it was great.” When asking another person the same question, the answer is sometimes “it was terrible!”. But what made it great to one person and terrible to another?
This article was a way for me to begin to understand and articulate a more specific answer to the question: What makes a great film? I’ve determined that the criteria for a great film must be different depending on how critical the person is about movies he or she watches, so I’ve divided the criteria into two categories: “for the average moviegoer” and “for the critical moviegoer”
“Great Film” Criteria for Average Moviegoers
It kept their attention most of the time and the circumstances in which it was viewed made it memorable or good (e.g. in 3D/IMAX, with friends, theatre comfort, a generally pleasing experience)
It was self-explanatory and tied up loose ends. Many moviegoers don’t like movies that confuse them or that leave something forever unexplained.
Played Out As Advertised
I would argue that you’ll hear these as some of the loudest complaints when a movie doesn’t live up to how it was advertised. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth if things didnt happen the way they were expected. (e.g. “I didn’t realize it was 2.5 hours long!” “The movie wasn’t even scary.” “The trailer made it look like an action movie, but the robots didn’t start fighting until the last five minutes!”)
Featured Favorite Actors/Actresses
Includes attractive or interesting people that are enjoyable to watch.
Had Sentimental Appeal
It made me feel certain emotion (e.g. it made me laugh, cry, or scream), or it connected emotionally with me (i.e. nostalgic, favorite genre, niche, or kitsch).
There is no content in the film that was offensive to them or their family.
Or Was Fascinatingly Vulgar
It was shocking, explicit, and flew in the face of current morality.
“Great Film” Criteria for Critical Moviegoers
Plot Was Intact
There were no apparent plot holes. Every character, object, and event that was introduced in the film was nicely tied together with a bow without any ambiguity.
Illusion Was Intact
The acting, the effects were believable (e.g. “That was CG? I couldn’t even tell!”) There was a verisimilitude to the entire presentation.
The properties of the world were realistic. Everything in the film operated and behaved as I understand the world. The laws of physics were properly adhered to. It felt real (even though movies aren’t real).
Made By People Whose Work I Respect
Considering a film as great regardless of the actual content because it was made by favorite Directors, Producers, Writers, DP’s, etc. (e.g. “I love Tarantino films!”)
Has an Interesting Making-Of
Knowing why and how the film was created enriches the experience. interesting journey of creation.
Was Beautifully Orchestrated
The film achieved something that pushed current bounds of technology, photography, or scale. It leaves you in awe of the talents of the involved filmmakers.
My Criteria for a “Great Film”
Does the criteria above matter to me? Sure, but I am willing to overlook most of the criteria listed above as long as it meets my “great film” criteria below.
Art, Not Just Entertainment
When I say it was “art”, I’m not referring to the quality of the film but to message and content. “Art” means to me that it communicates something unique and sincere about the human experience. The film was not manufactured solely to sell tickets.
Had Question Marks, Not Just Periods
The creator assumed that the audience is intelligent and willing to connect the dots; the film doesn’t shy away from ambiguity or abstraction in conveying the message. It leaves you with room to ponder after it has ended.
Had Layers of Meaning
The filmmakers made use of metaphors, symbols, and meaningful patterns. The hat in Miller’s Crossing, the monolith in 2001, and the unicorn in Blade Runner are just a few examples of symbols that provoke the audience to think about, discuss, and watch a movie over and over again.
Was Relevant and New
The film “adds to the conversation” instead of being simply derivative; it shows us something we’ve never seen before.
Examples of Great Films (to Me)
This is not a list of my “favorite films to watch” per say (otherwise I would have listed films like Better Off Dead, Pacific Rim, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Those are films I personally enjoy watching, but would not consider great films). The following are films that I would classify as “great” because they meet all of my criteria for a great film. I have a deep appreciation for them, and I feel like they are all important films.