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An Introduction: What Makes a Film Great?

MY FRIEND THE ARCHITECT COLIN FRASER WISHART says that the purpose of his craft is to help people live better. There’s beautiful simplicity but also enormous gravity in that statement. Just imagine if every public building, city park, urban transportation hub, and home were constructed with the flourishing of humanity—in community or solitude—in mind. Sometimes this is already the case, and we know it when we see it. Our minds and hearts feel freer; we breathe more easily; we are inspired to create.

If architecture at its best helps us live better, then it is very easy to spot bad architecture. In a space intended purely to house the so-called “making” of money, for example, we are touched by melancholy, weighed down by drudgery, compelled by the urge to get away. But in a space whose stewards seem to have known that human kindness is more important than the free market, that poetry and breathing matter beyond bank balances and competition—a concert hall designed for the perfect reflection of sound, a playground where the toys blend in with the trees, a train station where the transition from one place to another is honored as a spiritual act—we know that it is possible to always be coming home.

This is not just true for architecture, but for all art—all human endeavor, actually. So when the well-worn question of the “greatest movies ever made” arises, my criteria may differ from the dominant wisdom among film critics. BBC’s 2015 poll of the greatest American films, for example, suffers from the same problem as so many of its siblings: a lack of both imagination and ambition. Such polls frequently produce the same results, especially around the top ten, the result of self-selecting bias toward films already considered great. And in any case “great” is a reductionist term—these days limited to middle-brow acceptability mingled with a dose of keeping up appearances. Instead of greatest, what about “most humane” or “transformative” or “courageous”? What about “films that made me laugh to the point of tears as I felt more part of the human race,” or “films that led to healing social change,” or “films that made me want to grow up—or not grow up”?

The movies have always been sources of solace and provocation across genres:

The battlefield epics All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Paths of Glory (1957), Come and See (1985), and The Thin Red Line (1998) confront audiences with the futility of war.

Imaginative explorations of family and community life like Fanny and Alexander (1983), Paris, Texas (1984), and Smoke (1995) invite us to take love more seriously than we take ourselves.

Evocations of the inner life and its outer expression like Andrei Rublev (1966), the Three Colors Trilogy (1993–94), and Yi-Yi (2000) wonder aloud about ambition, power, and the undeniability of spiritual transcendence.

We dance (because dancing is great and heals the world) with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952); we laugh and learn about managing our emotions with Bing-Bong in Inside Out (2015); and we see the journey toward spiritual maturity in Groundhog Day (1993).

And films like La Règle du Jeu (1939), Cabaret (1972), Munich (2005), The Village (2004), Of Gods and Men (2011), Lone Star (1996), Do the Right Thing (1989), and The Great Beauty (2013) investigate the relationship between individuals and history and nudge us toward the hope that we might learn something from the past.

Can the art of movie-making be an act of social justice? Of course it can. The Polish film A Short Film about Killing (1988) was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty there; Thelma & Louise (1991) upended the portrayal of women as second-class citizens; Michael Moore’s films have been a mirror to injustice (and his latest, Where to Invade Next, proposes solutions); the very fact that the Iranian director Jafar Panahi, threatened by his own government, continues to make films at all is a challenge to political repression; the astonishing The Act of Killing (2012) both memorializes genocide victims and has some of those responsible take on the burden of their own violence. More recently, Moonlight, Queen of Katwe, Embrace of the Serpent, Rams, Arrival, Lemonade, Paterson, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople all grant glimpses into what it might mean to love mystery, to love our neighbor, to love ourselves.

Stories shape our lives. They define what we believe to be possible or preferable in life. Movies are among the most powerful story-delivery mechanisms the world has seen, and while they may have been overtaken in popularity by social media, video games, and news-infotainment, they retain a unique power. The way a movie deals with violence, for instance, is enormously important. Does it tell the truth about violence? Do we see the impact of a killing, not just in gore but in the ripple-effect of trauma and loss? Do we see a plausible portrayal of what leads people to violence in the first place? Is movie violence portrayed proportionately to reality? Just as the stories we tell can become shelters or prisons, movies can promote or hinder empathy. Is the movie challenging, transcending, or simply reinforcing (or even worshipping) the belief that violence brings order out of chaos?

(For further reflection, you might sit down with these questions after a triple bill of The Godfather Part II, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Kill Bill. One is a tragedy revealing the ongoing damage that violence does, even to those who commit it, one is nationalistic propaganda for the war on terror, and one is either a cartoonish, dehumanized celebration of horrific killing or a hymn to motherhood. The question may be simple, but the answer isn’t.)

There’s more to be said about the aesthetics and technical craft of film, but for me, it’s simple: the purpose of cinema—as an art form, and as a communal and individual experience—is to help us live better. The best films help us to understand more of who we are. They show us how to transcend our brokenness without excluding our shadows. They help us see life through the eyes of the other and pay attention to the possibility that we may in fact be closer to the angels than to beasts.

It was a delight for Scott Teems and me to curate this symposium in which a wonderful range of writers reflect on a wonderful range of films. Instead of asking writers to argue for a film’s greatness, we invited them to reflect on how a film has shaped them, as artists, as viewers of film, and as people—in other words, how films help them live better. Their responses are collected here.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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