Film History: Defining Great Films?

“A Corner of nature seen through the temperament”-French novelist Emile Zola about great literature.

We all love different movies, albeit for what may be different, often very personal reasons.

Nonetheless, we should ask whether there is a more dispassionate, not to mention objective way, of how to define great films.

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?

 Working definitions of  great films (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 and coherent works that amount to much more than the sum of their individual parts. 


The late 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

9. Great films are the product of their artists’ logical and progressive evolution, in terms of theme and style

10. Great films deal with subjects and themes that would be just as interesting if they occurred in real life.

11. Great films continuously and constantly change their meanings, evoking different responses from their viewers, contingent on the socio-cultural contexts in which they are made and viewed and reviewed.

12. Great films are art works in which narrative, technique (style) and emotion are inseparable.

For example: Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939).

13. Great films are usually not planned or calculated as such. Rather, they just happen through some unusual confluence of talents and qualities.