What Makes A Film Great?

I love movies.  I spend a good chunk of my time watching movies, reading about movies, following movies before they are made, conversing about them, etc.  Movies are a form of art.  Like all art, they are subjective based on the experience of a viewer.  This is why my movie shelf has Transformers next to The Blind Side which is next to Crazy Stupid Love (not really.  Who doesn’t keep their movie shelf in alphabetical order?  Terrible people; that’s who. But, you get the point) *SIDE NOTE*:  My current predicament is where do I put Creed?  It’s not technically Rocky VII, but it is black Rocky.  Does is go in the C section or does it follow Rocky Balboa.  These are things that keep my movie shelf from being everything it wants to be.  Like Dawn of the Plant of the Apes V.S. Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Do these guys not think of proper movie arrangement when they title these sequels? Douchebags.

Anyway, what makes a movie “good” is not an easy matter to dissect.  So many terrible movies have dedicated fans who swear they are good films.  (Do NOT listen to Cody; Transformers is excellent.  He is a liar who wants to steal joy from masterpieces) *EDITORS NOTE: It’s really not!*   In this day and age, we have dozens of genres represented every year in a big way.  To decide what makes each good in their unique way, we must first start with expectation.

EXPECTATIONS MATTER

I am going to make a bold statement here: 50% of what you think about a movie is what you expected to discover going in to the movie (I bolded it, because, you know, it’s bold and stuff).  Literally half of what you feel is “good” or “bad” is because of your predisposed ideas of that particular film.  You don’t walk into a movie about fighting dinosaurs expecting a solid comedy (well, maybe.  Perhaps I should make that a movie!).  A movie advertised as a horror film better deliver on its premise. Crimson Peak, I am looking at you, you sloppy mess of an identity crisis film.  Many, many movies fail because their marketing sets them up to be something they are not.  This alters moviegoers’ expectations and results in certain crowds being drawn to a movie that isn’t what it promises to be. It’s as common as it is frustrating. 

I watch many movies that are not that “great”. The Fast & The Furious franchise is all but a joke anymore, but I enjoy most of the series.  Why?  I know what I am getting myself into when I walk into the theater.  It is going to be crazy, over the top action.  The protagonist are borderline superheroes.  Do these movies bend or break their own rules?  All the time.  Is that frustrating? Absolutely.  Fast 6 had a 3-thousand-mile runway at the end.  It gets points knocked off for that.  Furious 7 became too ridiculous for me to enjoy.  That being said, so many people LOVED that movie. They expected crazy elements to be overlooked.  Expectations matter.

CHARACTERS

 The second most important element of any film is the characters.  If you do not care about the characters, you will not care about the movie.  Room or Short Term 12 are so successful, because you fall in love with who you see on the screen. Wall-E has almost ZERO dialogue, and people love that film because the creators make you fall in love with who you are watching.   If the story is set three thousand years in the future with humankind fighting to save planet Earth, you need to care about the characters.  If it’s a romantic comedy or a film involving social injustice, you have got to care about who you are watching.  

Characters are more than just the actors playing them.  They start with the writing, followed by the direction, carried out by the actors, and polished with the editing.  Don’t believe me?  Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern.  He did an excellent job as Hal Jordan, but wasn’t given a lot to work with.  Some of his most important scenes in terms of character were poorly written.  Those that had any substance, were editing awkwardly.  Going through deleted scenes on the Blu-ray reveals a few scenes that could have really benefited the viewer’s relationship with the character.  On the flip side of that coin, you have Deadpool.  Again, Ryan Reynolds.  Same actor with the same capabilities as before.  Though Green Lantern and Deadpool are both about normal, funny characters evolving into superheroes, their realities are vastly different.  But, both characters in the movie-verse are played by the same actor.  I’m not saying there aren’t a dozen other reasons one was successful and the other wasn’t, but I am saying that the viewer most likely cared for Deadpool as a character far more than Hal Jordan in Green Lantern.  Both were at the disposal of someone capable of playing them.  The difference lies in the writing, direction, and editing.

It is true that some movies rely on character relation more than others.  The modern Mission Impossible franchise does rely on characters, but it’s mostly an absurd, action/suspense movie.  To say it relies on a character’s development in the same regard as The Guardian, would not be a true statement.  Again, there is no magic formula or equation.  Some movies rely on character’s lovability to be enjoyed.  Others do not require as much development for the characters.

DIRECTION

Direction has so many categories that fall within its range, it can be difficult to figure out which is more important than the other.  The truth is, it’s like a team in sports.  A team may not have the “best” in a certain position, but that team can still execute at its best.  It is how the team works together.  Some teams utilize their strongest attributes better than others. Few movies nail every single category PERFECTLY, but the filmmakers play to their strengths. 

Editing, Costume Design, Special Effects, & Cinematography are just a few of the categories underneath direction. A movie such as Transformers has got to have special effects that showcase the story.  It is essential.  Forrest Gump might not play to that same strength, but that does not make one better than the other based on that one element. 

Cinematography and costume design are two elements that most viewers rarely recognize.  Although every film should strive for excellence in all areas, some films get away with basic costume design or plain cinematography.  Other films may be playing to their strength and exceed at these specific aspects. 

Editing is the way events unfold in front of the viewer.  Most movies are told in a linear fashion that is easy to comprehend.   Cloud Atlas was a movie that succeeded in nearly every way EXCEPT the editing.  It set an awkward pace and made the story extremely difficult to understand.  Most movie-goers rated the movie poorly as a result, and it did not do well at the box office.  The way in which the scenes are spliced together sets a pace; that pace dictates the flow of emotion and understanding throughout the entire film.  If you do not understand what you are watching or scenes never pay off emotionally in terms of pace, you’ll most likely not enjoy the film. 

Each of the above categories has many sub-categories to it.  Editing has runtime, pacing, and even character development in it.  But again, each of these fall to the director to oversee.  A finalized movie is a director’s polished baby.  You may watch an entire movie, love it, and never think about the direction as a whole.  However, that doesn’t negate the amount of time, effort, and care spent on each of the listed subjects that facilitated a movie you would enjoy.  In fact, the less you notice those things, the better the movie tends to be in general unless one of those are absolute stand-outs or you tend to critique those types of things.  

WRITING AND MUSIC

 These are the last two in this list, but it has nothing to do with their significance.  There are a multitude of people who work on films.  Some films have hundreds of employees and some have thousands.  Although direction plays a major role in how the writing is conveyed to film and how the music flows through each scene, these elements are there own entity.

Not every good film has good writing.  Not every bad film has bad writing.  Granted, most of the time a good film does have good writing.  Because of the amount of work done between writing and final product, there is a lot of wiggle room for everyone who works on the film to make something better or worse than how it was written.  Home Alone 1 & 2 may have basic writing while the director takes a lot of liberties.  I do not know this for fact, but based on the type of movie it is, it is safe to assume the writing doesn’t have to be some well-thought out, well structured masterpiece.  Whereas, The Martian is going to depend on a solid foundation of writing from the very beginning. 

Snow White & The Huntsman is great example of good vs bad writing.  This is because it has two different writers credited for the film who did NOT work together.  One wrote the first two-thirds of the film.  The studio did not like his last act and hired another writer to finish the last third of the script.  Interestingly enough, the first two-thirds of that film are GREAT.  The last third is awful.  The same director, actors, and crew worked on the entire film, but the writing was different.  I left the theater and immediately searched online to see if this was this case.  

Music plays a bigger role than the average viewer realizes.  If you were to watch Jaws on mute, the suspense of a shark emerging from the water would be way less stressful.  The music of a film manipulates your emotions in each scene.  If the director wants you to feel happiness and excitement, the music is the driving force for getting you there.  Without the music flowing through each film, the range of emotions would be less broad.  Next time you feel like cheering in a film, pay attention to how the music is pushing you there.  Sure, the other components are playing a significant role as well.l, but, the music is what sells the emotions. 

Final Thoughts/TL:DR

 Every film is different.  It is impossible to generalize all films as the same or having the same goal in mind.  Some are mindless action films and others are philosophical ideas represented though film. However, each is trying to capture the attention of the viewer regardless of the end goal.  

Expectations matter BIG time.  Characters are the most important thing within the story. Characters are more than the actors that play them.  They begin with writing, navigated by direction, played by actors, and polished with editing. The direction is best when it is unnoticed, but has so many categories that fall within its range, it’s impossible to list each and what their significance is.  Writing is important, but bad films can have good writing/good films can have bad writing.  Music is the polished layer that sells you what each scene is attempting to convey.

The Green Mile and Mission Impossible III can both be considered good films despite their goals/entire experience being so vastly different.  There is no magic formula, only movies that play to their strengths or those that do not.