Great Films: Defining Movies That Matter–Criteria of Evaluation

Which movies matter the most? How does one define influential or significant films? How good are movies that have won the Best Picture Oscar?

These are questions that are part of a debate that’s been going on from the very beginning of the medium, over 100 years ago.

If you want to know more about the history and politics of the Oscars, please read my book:

Here are some criteria for evaluating films of various national cinemas according to different dimensions.


Film is free of the traditional restrictions that surround other arts, such as painting or sculpture. At the aesthetic level, film’s physical and technical properties are ideally suited to innovation and experimentation, both thematically and stylistically. Take, for example, Antonioni’s experimental framing and cutting, or Godard’s elliptical and postmodern texts.


Various theories have speculated about the unpredictability of movies, the way they work as art and entertainment, the way they cut through preconceptions and established formulas. Great movies refuse to deal in preconditioned response by the audience, or in viewers’ emotional identification with the film’s characters.

Social Criticism

Every film, even the most popular and commercial one, offers some criticism of reality. How, for example, are power, wealth, and sex generated and allocated among various members of society. The film’s criticism can be manifest or latent, overt or covert.


Commercial artists are obsessed with how the audience will react. In contrast, the more pure artists, those represented in the book, don’t worry about audience; they try to work things out to satisfy their inner voices and dictates of their work.


Movies absorb material from their culture and the other arts so fast that they often become not only aesthetically but also socially important. Because of the intense ways viewers react to such films as Rebel Without a Cause or Easy Rider (both in the book), these movies enter the national bloodstream as cultural and even psychological documents.

Cinematic Greatness

Great films are marked by dramatic and spiritual quality and by the highest level of technical skill. Reel Impact contests the conventional wisdom that film is the medium of action, while introspection is the domain of literature or drama.


As an art form, film keeps its freshness through endless possibilities due to the medium’s special character. Film is a medium where physical differences between one object and another, not to speak of differences between one actor and another, are of paramount importance.

Dramatic Power

As a narrative medium, film’s power stems from its ability to evoke similar experiences to those of dreaming. Our souls are never so naked and never so vulnerable as when we are dreaming, when horror and joy are unbounded by the requirements of reality.

Pure Cinema

Great and significant movies go beyond technical bravura. They propagate pure cinema, which means that their text cannot be reduced to literary “content” detached from the images. It also means that their meaning is based not on plot, but on the structure of images and the movement from image to image. The films in Reel Impact force us to see them instead of mentally reducing their text to content analysis. The realization of themes in these films makes us see and “experience” them both intensively and extensively.


Significant films underline cinema as an institution with its own methods and scope. A novelist can resolve and explain, but he can’t make viewers feel and react in the same direct and immediate way as visual imagery does. Arguably, no other medium controls–and manipulates–our reactions as precisely as film. As mentioned, these films contribute to the notion of cinema as an autonomous art, not as an adjust of novels or dramas. They argue that cinema should be treated with the same respect accorded to the more established art forms.

Emotional Involvement

Viewers talk about situations and characters in movies such as The Godfather or American Graffiti with as much personal involvement as the talk about their immediate problems. The chosen movies contain screen roles that have informed the psyche of a whole generation, roles that have slipped into the cultural vernacular, such as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather; and Guido (played by Marcello Mastroianni) in 81/2. When moviegoers remember their stars as well the screen characters played by their stars, it’s safe to say that movies have entered mainstream culture, that screen characters are functioning as folk heroes in the collective consciousness.

Reel Impact

Some pictures are influential within the film industry, while others influence the society at large. Reel Impact deals with movies such as Citizen Kane and Psycho that have exerted impact both within and without the film world. The book will analyze innovative and influential films that may or may not have been popular with the public. Scorsese’s Mean Streets was a commercial failure, yet it’s indisputably the most influential film on American independent movies over the past 30 years.


Films can move us when they not only serve up a particular slice of life, but also acknowledge a larger spectrum from which that slice was taken. The most interesting movies are those in which viewers can look past the ostensible plot and see something else going on. This also represents a simple visual principle: It’s more fun to look when there’s more to look at.

Multi-Layered Structure

Great films work on a number of levels simultaneously. To enjoy them, viewers must participate in them actively; they can’t tune in and out at will, as can be done while watching most movies. These films bear hidden meanings, they have layers that are more than the sum of its parts.


The power of many films derives from the way they integrate emotional meaning and technical facilities in a unified conception rather than matching these two aspects of production. A film succeeds if it provokes emotion. The more meaningful the emotion, the better the film. As in all masterpieces, technique and emotion are inseparable.


Great films enjoy lasting power, or timelessness. If anything, their stature continues to grow over the years. The movies that stay on our minds, that resist forgetting, do so because they either loosen some previous bonds to the world or provide new connections. Most movies are easy to forget, either because the relationship they establish between the world projected and the viewer is static and predictable, or because they provide no sufficient grounds to inform or to transform the relationship between the world onscreen and the viewers. All great works change their meanings or reveal new ones in dynamic relationship with the historical and cultural situation within which they are perceived.

Existential Themes

Great works are statements about the human condition, about life, and they are essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; their significance arises from the interaction of its parts. These movies enable spiritual exaltation, or momentary intimation of the transcendent.


Disregarding their commercial standing and box-office popularity, great movies are often controversial. Not every controversial film is influential. Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Kevin Smith’s Dogma were controversial due to their theme, representing explorations of faith and sacrilegious, but they have not had impact on the movie world. By contrast, A Clockwork Orange and Blue Velvet have been both daring and morally objectionable; each stretched the standards of morality deemed permissible in film.