Often film critics like to break a film down to its elements and weigh each of them independently, as though great cinematography, editing, acting, whatever adds up to a great movie. Not necessarily. These trades can all be brilliantly done or poorly done but they aren’t the reason we go to the movies. A film about industrial lathing techniques could be impeccably shot and edited and carry the most magnificent musical score since Wagner, but it probably wouldn’t make anyone’s top ten list — because film exists to tell us stories.
The acting, sets, score and everything else are on hand to serve the story and characters. Does the narrative hold your interest? Do you care what happens to the people (or animals, or plants, or Lego figures) in it? Are you caught up in their quest? Movies are simple. In the words of David Mamet, when you’re watching you want to know, “Who’s this guy? What does he want?”
Star Wars has reams of embarrassing dialogue and features mediocre acting. Two of its three leads (Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher) could barely have been called professional performers at the time.
Yet the film is almost universally beloved because audiences get swept away by — emotionally attached to — the characters’ needs. The beautiful, overwhelming score by John Williams and the then-dazzling special effects help us disappear into the story, to forget that we’re watching nonexistent characters poorly represented on sound stages. But if beautiful special effects were enough to make a sci-fi movie a wonder, The Fifth Element would be a classic. If intoxicating music were enough, the 1994 Beethoven film Immortal Beloved would be immortal and beloved.
When everything is working together, a film is a uniquely transporting illusion. We’re right there in the movie, awash in sight and sound, carried away in a manner a painting or a song or a book can’t match. Film is an ecstatic medium, as close as we come to experiencing magic. Ideally, in a movie theater, the art overwhelms us — the picture is so huge it takes up most of the field of vision, the sound is so skillfully done we feel as if we’re present in the narrative.
The question of which films move us most is, of course, entirely individual and subjective. If Titanic, or for that matter The Notebook, is your favorite movie, you’re not wrong. If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Eyes Wide Shut puts you to sleep, that’s not a character flaw on your part. It’s the filmmakers’ job to make you fall in love with the movie. When everybody in the audience shrugs at what’s happening on screen, the movie fails. Bad filmmaking breaks the illusion, makes you remember what you’re watching is artifice. A clunky line of dialogue, an awkward edit, corny music and wooden acting are all varieties of the same problem: They take you out of the movie you’re trying to disappear into and remind you someone is just trying to sell you something. No filmmaker ever turns down a large paycheck, but regardless of the money involved you can feel the emotional commitment, the gusto, the passion of filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, Steven Spielberg in E.T. or David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia.
Great movies make us want to watch them again and again. At times they are so technically ingenious that we can marvel at the way they’re made — Citizen Kane’s sheer filmmaking prowess, its spectacular camera movements, score, photography and editing are [check out the opening scene in the clip below] all magnificent by themselves — but Kane wouldn’t be a masterpiece if it weren’t for the tragic humanity of its central figure, a lonely boy with a sled who grew up to become a tyrant and was eventually felled by his own hubris.
Once you’ve committed to the story and characters, the cinematic details of how the film is put together add to the pleasure. The shot of Indiana Jones silhouetted against the sunset in Raiders of the Lost Ark is glorious in its own right, but a movie isn’t a coffee table book. You may become intrigued by the political ideas, even wrong or ill-considered ideas, if the presentation is scintillating (as in Oliver Stone’s nutty but engrossing JFK) — but not if you don’t care about the story. A film that doesn’t have a foundation in story and character isn’t a success.
A film school Ph. D. isn’t necessary to detect greatness in a movie. It isn’t required for you to have seen every black-and- white feature that ever aired on TCM to know whether a movie is working. You don’t need to know that a movie was filmed entirely on Steadicams, or shot during the day even though it looks like night, or that the star stayed in character off the set for the duration of filming. Because any child can appreciate the virtues of storytelling, and film is a storytelling medium. The details of how that story comes across are secondary As Darth Vader once said, search your feelings, you know it to be true.