There are lists online of the 100 Greatest Films of all time. The American Film Institute has compiled theirs; Rotten Tomatoes offers another; and Entertainment Weekly offers another. There’s overlap in these lists, but they’re far from being identical.
The lists differ because there are so many noteworthy movies and weighing their relative value gets a bit arbitrary. It’s not even possible to agree which elements define greatness, let alone on how well any particular movie expresses those elements.
What the typical movie-goer means by “great” is that the movie made him feel good, but there has to be more to greatness than that. What the film historian means is that the film is “important,” in the sense that it proved culturally expressive or affective, but that isn’t a fair criterion. What the movie reviewer means is that you’ll like the movie and won’t regret having shelled out ten bucks to see it, but that alone doesn’t establish greatness, either.
Two measures of greatness matter to me. The first is whether I can enjoy watching it again and again. The second is whether the movie comes close to being perfectly made. Sometimes the two measures go hand in hand, but not always. I’ve watched Goldfinger twenty times and I’d never claim that it’s any artistic masterpiece (although the title sequence is). On the other hand, Oliver Twist (with Alec Guinness) is near-perfect, but I’m content with having seen it just once.
I do have favorites that qualify by both measures. Groundhog Day comes to mind, and The Godfather and Miller’s Crossing and North by Northwest. I am forever bewitched by American Graffiti, mesmerized by Network, and enchanted by Casablanca. I love the surreality of Barton Fink, the anarchic joy of Animal House, the ruthlessness of The King of New York, the timeless innocence of War Games, the unpretentiousness of Red Rock West. Although I’ve watched all of these at least a dozen times, with each viewing I catch nuances in them that I hadn’t noticed previously. They are great movies by both of my criteria.
Keep in mind that film is far, far more complex than other forms of art; complete perfection may be impossible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a perfect movie, although museums are full of perfect paintings and sculptures. The only film of those I mentioned above that might actually be perfect is Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers 1930’s gangster offering.
And it’s worth noting that it’s even more difficult to make a perfect comedy than a perfect drama. That may explain why comedies rarely win Academy Awards for best film. Annie Hall garnered a Best Picture Award, but Hollywood fawns over Woody Allen. In 1964 Some Like it Hot wasn’t even nominated, although it’s considered by some the greatest film comedy of all time. So you have very funny movies like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Without a Clue and When Harry Met Sally which are great by comedy standards but don’t make it into the Best 100 Films lists. Comedies are just not taken seriously, because they can’t approach perfection in the way that a drama does.
Over the past several years I’ve rented hundreds of films from Netflix. I rarely bother with a movie that doesn’t earn at least three stars (out of five) from the Netflix viewers. Although I’m seldom disappointed with my picks, occasionally I’m gratified to come across what I consider a near-perfect film. Many of these are Hollywood hits that I’d never gotten around to before, like Master and Commander, Fight Club, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Gangs of New York, The Pianist, Hugo, The King’s Speech, and Apocalypto—great movies, all of them.
But a lot more are indie or foreign films, or Hollywood feature films that slipped through the cracks without catching the attention of a distracted public. Some of these are off-beat, a few are older films, but all are great in the sense that they’re just about perfect. For those of you who are looking for something better than the generic and formulaic crap you usually end up with, here’s the list. Print it out and give these gems a chance!
The Killers (1964 version)
The Lady from Shanghai
The Girl on the Bridge
The Lives of Others
Tell No One (French film)
Requiem for a Heavyweight
The Last Picture Show
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish version)
Point Blank (2010, French)
The Next Three Days
Enemy at the Gates
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Glad that you brought up those two important distinctions of what movie greatness means to you, because I do feel they both accurately portray what would likely be why most movie goers want to see, or continue to see, any given movie.
Your insight with comedies is spot on as well – comedies usually aren’t taken as seriously by the Academy as dramas, so they are rarely nominated – less of course, “Annie Hall”. However, one area that I’d argue, is the fact that “greatness” in a movie cannot be measured in any way. You hint at that here, but it’s important to note that “greatness” in movies cannot be defined until we first define the term “greatness.” To order to agree with that statement, you have to believe – like I do – that “greatness,” in all respects of the word, is and will always be subjective, no matter what tangible or intangible item(s) are associated with it (in this case, movies).
For instance, to prove my point – behavioral, environmental, cultural (among many other) stimuli throughout any ones’ life, renders countless varying insights and opinions about the world around them. Because of this, “greatness,” becomes an opinion and not fact. It’s for this reason that “greatness” in a movie will always be subjective and open to interpretation. I believe the same thing can be said for art or literature (which I know you disagree with) – but what is art to one person isn’t always art to another. You could argue that there are “measurable” elements in art that, if we can strictly abide to, could define “great” art – same could be said for movies. But isn’t that an oxymoron in of itself? I mean isn’t the purpose of art to challenge the status quo and forms of expressionism? To not be measured by any conventional means, but to let it be whatever it needs to be for the person enjoying/experiencing it? Anyhow, I should digress before I run too far down this pretentious path. Overall – great article, I look forward to reading more – thanks Stan!
I would argue that Planes, Trains, and Automobiles fits your near-perfect criterion. Plotline, dialogue, and character development are flawless. Music fits and is memorable. Minor characters are alive. Cinamatography depicts accurately everything from New York office buildings to small town grittiness to Chicago suburbs. Story is complete and satisfying.
Princess Bride and Parenthood arguably fall into the near-perfect category, too. In the same way Princess Bride says “Here’s what it is like inside the fantasies of our minds when we care to go there,” Parenthood says, “Here’s what it is like in the thick of reality for familes. Good luck!”