Whenever you ask someone, ‘What are the greatest films of all time?’ or, more correctly, ‘What are your favorite movies?’ there is usually a hidden subtext that neither party is conscious of…In fact, there are probably several that undoubtedly come into play.
Think of this the next time someone presents a list of Best or Greatest or Favorite films.
I’ll start with this one since it is, in my view, the most common underlying factor in some of the more prominent, that is to say prestigious lists floating around out there. These are the compilations most widely circulated, oft-referenced and infused with the collective credibility of the film and/or film critic community. Ergo: They must surely be GREAT movies (because, after all, these people know what they’re talking about). Alright. Likely so. Yes…indeed; many of these are (as you say) superb examples of the art of filmmaking. Yet, I’ve seem many of them and observed a few things, principally that they are often of a certain nature of greatness. I’ll call the first classification…
Technical Achievements, commonly lauded by film students and students of the art of filmmaking – lest we confuse the two. A variation on this is a momentary buzz or general sense of awe at some new technique, never-before-seen technical achievement or style (usually in the areas of lighting, editing, direction or sound design). Unfortunately for films in this category these elements – impressive as they may be – don’t necessarily translate to the movie, as a whole, being a genuinely “great” film…
…except perhaps as a subject of study.
These films of introductory/revolutionary technical achievements are “great” with respect to the impact they had at the time. After all, it’s the first time anyone has seen this (or used such-and-such a technique in this way) and it is so awesome! and so I and you and all of us here at this time and this place in film history are feeling so excited about it that we must all agree with implicit consent to consider this movie (as a whole) to be…a truly…great film.
It might be. Or, in the larger historical context, to be more accurately revealed in later years through a more objective lens…
…it might not.
No specific examples will be given (I thought about it but changed my mind). Though some pretty good candidates are to be found among the winners of Academy Awards (in various categories), which segues nicely into the next classification; the few films that rose to the top in the context of all the other movies that happened to be released that year. I suppose we should just call these the Academy Influenced Films. I cite this as one of the natural classifications since it is not the same thing to label a movie ‘great’ with respect to its chronological contemporaries as it is to assign the same status of ‘greatness’ with respect to all films from all of history within the given genre…in the latter context many don’t stand up to the test of time. Which might mean that it only gets more difficult to make a truly “Great” movie (in a given genre) but that’s really a different conversation. And so is the matter of “genre” but I’ll save that one too for another time.
What shall be the next classification then. Ah. Yes; let’s go with: Because it touches you personally. I don’t mean this flippantly at all. Indubitably, there have been many, wonderful movies that have touched me deeply – and not only the first or second time through. I think, in fact, the desire to reach out and touch an audience may be one of the most noble aspirations that any filmmaker may possess. It’s too bad it costs so much money to reach people through this medium. But let’s stay on topic shall we. It’s probably happened to most of us. You sit down to watch a movie, only to find yourself completely and utterly immersed in this world. These characters, this place, the story have sucked you into another world, or another time and place. Maybe it didn’t cast the same spell on all members of the audience, but, for reasons unknown, you have fallen under its spell and there’s no doubt that a special bond has been formed. In your mind, never mind all other opinions, this movie is surely one of the greatest of all time. What should we call this one? The Sentimentality Factor? How about: the Emotional Connection. I think, in a discussion of what are the ‘greatest’ movies of all time, this is among the more credible influences behind the assignment thereof. In fact, it is also closely related the next one, almost to the point of amalgamation. But I’ll separate them anyway and here’s why…
I do believe it’s possible to walk away from a movie feeling deeply moved, and appreciative of how well it came together, without also experiencing the emotional connection associated with a story that also happened to touch you deeply and personally. That connection sometimes happens but not always, and I don’t believe it must be a prerequisite for objective consideration that the movie was, without doubt, a truly Great film. Sometimes, regardless of whether there was an emotional connection, the movie seems to have an inexplicable quality…something almost magical about it, where everything seemed to come together (writing, cast, cinematography, art direction, acting, pacing, score, direction, editing…). These are the rare gems that are characteristically impactful or, more importantly, enjoyable to watch. No, I think “experience” is the better word. You can only experience a movie in this category, and then maybe, after seeing it so many times (or if you’re unlucky enough to understand filmmaking on an intimate level) begin to merely watch it. I reckon we can refer to this classification as The Fortunate Accidents (if the studios knew how to make these happen they’d be doing it already).
Ah. But what about Highest Grossing films you ask? True; there is some value in taking that path. But, on further consideration, it ends up being just as much a conversation on marketing and, once again, technical achievements, as it is about truly Great movies [in the context of all time within a given genre].
There may be more but I’ll end with one that’s actually a corollary of the first: and which I suspect people will be least likely to admit to. These are the movies that, because a person worked on it, has a close affiliation with it or, more likely, admires those who did…is given a nod. They can’t help it. If you really like or admire someone then of course it’s natural to really want, consciously or unconsciously, to like their creation or body of work. And so, invariably, though perhaps undeservedly, the film gets a nod vis-a-vis inclusion to a body of ‘Great’ films. This is similar to being part of a social circle, one that’s collectively agreed ‘we like this film’ and, desiring to feel a sense of belonging finding yourself wanting to like it as well. The Interpersonal-Social Dynamic. Like the others, it is one of the reasons for a film’s elevated status.
I’m not a filmmaker.
These are my favorites.