Great Films: Defintions by Various Critics

We all love different movies for different, often very personal reasons. But is there a more dispassionate, not to mention objective way, of how to define a great film.

Phrased differently, what requirements or elements a particular film should meet in order to qualify as a masterpiece?

The French filmmaker Jean Renoir made many good films but why do we always go back to “Rules of the Game” (1939). Ditto for Fellini, a master of many talents and impressive body of work, but “I Vitelloni,” “La Dolce Vita,” ”81/2,” and a few others are on another level. Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” in on a league of its own, even among his superlative works. And so are “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai” among the many grand works made by Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa.

 

The work of filmmakers who are great artists follows a logical and progressive development, showing evolution of their thematic concerns and technical skills. Which means that Hitchcock was indeed an artist of the first rank. My ranking of Hitchcock’ American films, suggesting that “Shadow of A Doubt” (1943) is his first Hollywood masterpiece, and “Notorious” (1946) is his second, launched a huge debate among our readers of what’s a great film, a masterpiece, a masterwork. In other words, why is “Notorious” a masterpiece and “Spellbound” is not?

 

Here are some working definitions of what constitutes a masterpiece

 

1. Great films work on a number of levels simultaneously, whereas unsuccessful movies don’t even work on one. 

 

2. Great films call for active participation on the part of viewers on any number of levels, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, sensual.

 

3. Great films are ahead of the viewers at all times; when the viewer is ahead of them (in terms of narrative, plot, ideas), it’s no good.

 

4. Great films are multi-layered works that are much more than the sum of their parts. 

 

The distinguished film Andrew Sarris, my mentor at Columbia University, who, among many qualities, introduced auteurism into the American context, holds that great films must have hidden meanings, different levels, different layers.

 

5. Great films provoke strong emotional responses, and the more meaningful the emotion, the better the film. That said, all great works constantly change their meanings or reveal new ones. There is a dynamic relationship between the work s and the historical-cultural contexts within which they were created and the contexts in which they continue to be perceived.

 

6. The late Canadian critic-scholar Robin Wood has suggested that great works are statements about the human condition and about life, but statements that are essentially self-contained and self-sufficient. Great art strives, explicitly or implicitly, toward the realization of values and norms. It’s not a matter of whether the film is optimistic (upbeat) or pessimistic (downbeat); it’s a matter of the nature of the creative impulse. These works enable spiritual exaltation, offering a transcendental experience, even if it’s momentary one, akin to other sensual and spiritual (religion) experiences.

 

7. A successful work of art must be self-sufficient, its significance arising from the interaction of its parts. “Psycho is the best example for that, a well-made, well-constructed system.

 

8. Great films are marked by dramatic and spiritual qualities and the highest level of technical skill. In great works, such as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” or Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” mastery of technical skills (visual brilliance), narrative poignancy, and emotional meanings are inseparable

           

Great Films: Definitions

Crowther, Bosley, The Great Films (Vintage Films).

The work of great artists follows a logical and progressive development. There is evolution of his thematic concerns chronologically

Vincent Canby (N.Y. Times, Feb 2, 1986):

Good films work on a number of levels simultaneously

Unsuccessful movies don’t even work on one.

To enjoy these movies, we must actively participate in them. We can’t tune in and out at will, which one can do while watching the Rocky movies, without missing anything important.

 

A good movie is ahead of the viewer at all times; When the viewer is ahead, it’s no good.

A work which is more than the sum of its parts

A film succeeds if it provokes emotion.  The more meaningful the emotion, the better the film.

A test for movie: Is this movie as interesting as the same things would be happening in real life.

Emil Zola: “A corner of nature seen through the temperament.”

All great works constantly change their meanings or reveal new ones, as a result of the dynamic relationships with the historical/cultural situation within which they are perceived.

 

Robin Wood:

Great works are statements about the human condition, about life and they are essentially self-contained and self-sufficient.

A successful work of art must be self-sufficient, its significance arising from the interaction of its parts.

They enable spiritual exaltation–the momentary intimation of the transcendent (like orgasm and religious experience).

Great art strives–however implicitly–toward the realization of norms. It’s not a matter of whether a work is optimistic or pessimistic.  It’s a matter of the nature of the creative impulse.

Andrew Sarris:

Great films have to have hidden meanings, different levels, different layers.

 

David Edelstein (Village Voice, Nov 27, 1984):

As in all masterpieces, technique and emotion are inseparable.

 

David Thomson’s Great Films:

Birth of a Nation

Bonnie and Clyde

The Deer Hunter

King Kong

All monuments worthy of some shame and much exhilaration.

World of art made out of noveletta:

Daisy Kenyon

Imitation of Life

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Mortal Storm

Shanghai Express

Shop Around the Corner

A Star Is Born

Sunrise

 

Great American Pictures

Blue Velvet (grows larger with time)

Citizen Kane

Night of the Hunter

Vertigo

 

 John Simon, p. 341

Rules of the Game

I Vitelloni

L’Avventura

Here Is Your Life (Jan Troell)

One Fine Day (Ermano Olmi)

 

Pauline Kael, the late influential critic of the New Yorker, had showered  unqualified praise for a relatively few movies, including:

Ingmar Bergman’s Shame

Carol Reed’s Oliver!

Bellocchio’s China Is Never,

Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend and La Chinoise

 

Other films Kael had championed include:

M.A.S.H., and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, both by Robert Altman;

The Garden of the Finzi Continis by Vittorio De Sica

Alan Pakula’s Klute.

 

Kael’s list of the greatest films ever made:

D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance

Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr.

Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Day in the Country, and La Grande Illusion

John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon

Marx’s brothers’ Duck Soup

 

John Simon has singled out:

Rules of the Game (Renoir)

I Vitelloni (Fellini)

L’Avventura (Antonioni)

Here Is Your Life (Jan Troell)

One Fine Day (Olmi)

 

David Thomson

Thomson in his Film Dictionary has pointed out that great films combine both shame and exhilaration, as is manifest in Birth of a Nation, King Kong, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Deer Hunter.

Blue Velvet

Citizen Kane

Night of the Hunter

Vertigo

Great novels made into good films with their own art worlds:

Daisy Kenyon

Imitation of Life

Letter to an Unknown Woman

Mortal Storm

Shanghai Express

The Shop Around the Corner

A Star Is Born

Sunrise