What makes a film great?

A question that I get asked regularly throughout the year is what makes a film great?

This is a daunting question to answer, but one that gets thrown around quite a bit during awards season and especially during this time of isolation. For many people, it may have been something to consider in amongst the vitriol from the film industry after the Academy a few years back considered not televising the awards for many of the technical awards.

The creative talent behind the scenes had strong opinions of what makes a film great, but the viewing audience may have different criteria to answer this question. Is it acting, directing, cinematography, editing or screenwriting? Yes, but there is more to it than these categories. Can excellent acting work without a good director? Can beautiful cinematography be as effective without a talented editor? There has to be a more complementarian answer to this query. 

All of these categories can add to a great film, but to zero in on the ultimate criteria for a film’s greatness, it comes down to a combination of these things and more. Understanding why Citizen Kane, The Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner and The Godfather continue to top the ‘best of’ lists each year means there has to be something more than one aspect of the film making process that makes them great. Some of the best movies of all time were box-office disasters, but they went on to have a life of their own and after multiple viewings continue to be fan favourites. 

What is the answer to the question? Here are the three things that the Reel Dialogue team discovered that help us to categorise a film as great. 

Artistically Satisfying

When you go to hear your favourite band in concert, they may have a great lead singer, but these vocalists could not do what they do without the group. This is even more evident with great bands, Bono is a great vocalist and entertainer, but he is better and ultimately can only be identified as U2 when he is backed up by The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. 

The same can be said of great films. These productions may have a great director and lead actor, but as the viewer digs in and looks to see that it is the whole creative team that makes a film great. These movies manage to have this perfect synergy between the talent in front of the camera and those magic makers behind it. When the cinematography, editing, writing, sound, music, acting and direction come together, there is the potential for the film to be great. This aspect is not always guaranteed, but it is beautiful when it does come together. 

Even if there is a crucial scene or line that defines the film, it is the whole of the film that must leave people satisfied artistically for it to be considered great. Casablanca may be remembered for a significant line, Ben Hur may be remembered for that fantastic chariot scene, and West Side Story could be known for its grand dance productions, but these components can only make them memorable. These elements are the icing on the cake of a great film, because the longevity of the movie to appeal to multiple generations can only be found within the whole of the production. 

The first question to ask when considering the quality of a film is, is it artistically satisfying?

Emily Blunt and John Krasinski in A QUIET PLACE from Paramount Pictures.

Re-watchable or Sharable 

The second detail that makes a film great comes down to it standing the test of time and if it is re-watchable or sharable. 

A crucial indicator of the quality of a film is if it can or should be watched more than once. As someone who sees multiple films in any given week, the best movies are the ones that a critic would be willing to pay to go see with friends or family. Those are the films that get streamed on those nights when you just want to be entertained. No critique is required, just knowing that it will satisfy the craving for something great. These films are ones that may come to define a genre for you. When someone asks about the best rom-coms, dramas, action adventures or animated classics, certain films come to mind. Those movies are the sharable ones that will not damage your credibility when recommended.

Sometimes a movie contains a significant twist that makes it less watchable after more than one viewing or they may be too disturbing to watch multiple times, but that merely moves them into the ‘sharable’ category.  Even if you cannot or will not watch it multiple times, it is still the film that is top of your sharing list. An example might be The Sixth Sense or A Quiet Place, which were great films but may not qualify as re-watchable, but are definitely sharable.

What are the films that define a genre for you and there are no issues with you sharing them with others? These have the potential for greatness, but it is our final point that truly solidifies their place as great.

A great story is at the core of the film 

This last aspect goes beyond great screenwriting or a fantastic script and comes down to the film containing a story that cannot be missed. These narratives are the ones that keep you from looking at your watch or phone while watching the film, because they draw you into their world. They are immersive and accessible regardless of how familiar the audience may be with the subject matter or backstory. The very story that leaves the viewer wanting more when the credits roll. 

These films have the rare distinction of causing people to become an evangelist for their cause. Every person you know must know about this film. Serving as a catalyst for a multitude of conversations afterwards and potentially a desire to go see it again the next day. You want more and you cannot get enough. 

As a film critic, these are the stories that become part of ‘your story.’ The key script and key lines become your own, the character’s demeanour is reflected in your relationships or the message permeates your life to the point of changing it forever. These are rare films that reach down into your soul, affect you profoundly and come to define something about your identity. This may sound like an overstatement, but who hasn’t said, ‘You can’t handle the truth’ or ‘May the force be with you’ in a conversation throughout the years? These are the stories that prove they are great, because they live on in you. 

I know this is a bit over the top, but if you think about it, there are a few films that still affect you deeply. Right, Ferris?

A film that is artistically satisfying, it is re-watchable and has a great story at its core can be classified as great. A rare film, but one that should be celebrated.

What are your favourite films and would you define them as great?

Put them through these simple three categories and see if they measure up.

Other articles that address some of the bigger questions of a film:

What is a comfort film?

The impossible question: what is your favourite film?