Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Makes a Good Movie "Good"?

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Think about your favorite movies.  Just the top few, maybe.  Now, why do you like these movies so much? 

So first of all, I think it’s important to set aside movies you like for purely accidental of coincidental reasons; like “it’s OUR movie”, or “it’s the movie my grandma used to show me before she died”.  Those kinds of movies aren’t good on their own merits.  But so think about the purely great movies you’ve seen.

Here are a few commonly given reasons:

1)      It’s entertaining.  The movie is purely fun/thrilling/enjoyable to watch.
2)      It’s relatable.  There is something about the movie that was very easy to identify with.
3)      It’s profound.  It makes you think about something in a new way, or it just says something so true and tough-to-articulate about life.
4)      It’s amazing to look at.  The movie was visually stunning.

 Of course, there are more, and these categories could be broken out into a million subcategories (which it’s a critic’s job to do), but I think these are the main ones which we can now unpack.

Here’s my take:
If a movie is entertaining, but that’s about it, then it’s something that I may enjoy watching once, but likely never again.  A movie’s really gotta have something enduring about it, or it won’t stick with me and give me a reason to go back to it.  For instance, I was watching “Source Code” (directed by Duncan Jones, starring Jake Gyllennhaal) tonight, which was genuinely fun and compelling to watch, but that was it.  There was very little depth or ingenuity, the characters weren’t very empathetic or complex, and there were what seemed like a million things that broke the rules of logic or science, or just flat-out left stuff unexplained.  So while it gave me an hour and a half of amusement, I’d never watch it again.

On the other hand, though, there are some movies that seem like fricking social treatises, and are boring as hell to watch.  So being profound or intelligent isn’t enough.  “The Seventh Seal” (directed by Ingmar Bergman, starring Max von Sydow) is about the most brilliant film I’ve seen in my life, and although it’s still mostly interesting to watch, there are times when it can be just too dry.

At the other end of the spectrum are tired, cliché movies.  If any film is too-filled with hackneyed, trite moments that seem false and calculated, like a politician’s worst slogan (most romantic comedies[1] or slasher-horrors fall into this category), then I know I’ll roll my eyes in disgust.  A movie’s got to have the integrity and ingenuity to venture out on its own ideas if it wants any sort of substantial respect.

 Of course the worst cliché movies are the ones that think they’re so absolutely brilliant and earth-shatteringly profound, when in reality, they’re just one more load of already-been-said BS.  “Revolutionary Road” (directed by Sam Mendes, starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) comes to mind, as does pretty much anything written by Charlie Kaufman.

Being relatable means more than “I could identify with the main character”.  It actually is more along the lines of, “Could I suspend my disbelief?”  Any movie can be as fantastical as it wants, can break any Earth-bound laws of nature that it wants, as long as it’s true to the rules it sets up for itself.  Think “Harry Potter”, for instance.  Sure, none of us can relate to really being in a wizarding world with magic spells and cloaks and wands and such.  It’s not real, and as far as we know, it’s not possible.  But the reason “Harry Potter” still works for us is that it follows its own rules.  The way that things work in the world of “Harry Potter” is logical and consistent; every character casts spells the same way, and flies the same way, etc.  If a movie consistently breaks its own rules (e.g. If Harry could fly like Superman and cast spells out of his hands in one scene, when in the scene before he flew on his broomstick and pointed his wand) then our spell of “suspended disbelief” will be broken.   We’ll see the falseness behind the contrived, fantastical world. 

Another thing having to do a movie’s relatability is whether it has the courage to follow through with the course it’s been taking; does a movie that seems really sad and tragic bail itself out with a Disney-esque happy ending?  For instance, think about how in “The Adjustment Bureau” (directed by George Nolfi, starring Matt Damon), even though the point of the whole movie is that this secret organization that runs the universe won’t let Matt Damon and Emily Blunt get together, in the very end, just when the two of them should get caught and separated forever, the evil organization magically says ‘Oh, well, we can see you guys really love each other, so it’s ok.  You can be together now.’  See, crap like that just doesn’t fly.  Even though we all like happy endings, if a director appears to contrive a happy ending just because he wants one, or wants to appease his audience, I’ll resent it.  I can’t relate to it, because in life, magical happy endings just don’t happen.  Yes, Billy Costigan really did get shot at the end of “The Departed”.

Personally, whether or not a movie is visually stunning really doesn’t matter much to me.  If a movie is pretty, but its story sucks and so does everything else about it, then I’ll still think it’s awful.  Take “Avatar” (directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington); the effects, and some of the shots are just breathtaking.  But the unbelievably clichéd storyline, the wooden dialogue, the 1-dimensional characters still overwhelmingly, in my opinion, make it a mediocre and forgettable movie, despite the visuals.  Still, when attached to an already decent film, spectacular visuals can make a movie that much more enduring.

 So I suppose, what makes a movie good is having one, or maybe two of the traits listed above in moderate degree.  But what makes a movie really great is when it has multiple of these traits, to a high degree.

[1] Or “Rom-Coms”, according to my pal Heisman.


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