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Six Aspects of Highly Effective Movie Classics


Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Chronicle outlines six factors in cinema that propel a great movie to classic status after the test of time.

Doing what I do, I often try to project myself into the future and imagine what, of our current movies, will be of value to later generations… Looking at the films that do last, that achieve classic status, I’ve observed six tendencies:

1) Great movies were often topical when they were new, or in response to something going on in the world at the time. (This can include costume dramas that were, nonetheless, in response to something.)

2) Great movies usually embody timeless human values, things that mean the same today as they did 50 years ago and as they will 50 years from now.

3) Great movies often contain a great performance.

4) Great movies almost always have at least one great, memorable scene, usually two or three.

5) Great movies usually have some overarching consciousness bringing the elements into alignment – a director’s vision, or a writer’s personality.

6) This is the most important: Great movies usually end on a note of complexity, not to be confused with ambiguity. Their endings usually are like the sounding of a chord, with one note perhaps dominant, but with several notes in play and coloring the tone. In this way, they capture some of the fullness of life, which is rarely completely happy or completely sad, but vibrates in all directions.

LaSalle is careful to add this caveat:

[The very best] films are distinctive, great in their own way, and yet these tendencies persist from one classic and future classic to the next. In observing this, however, I want to make a crucial distinction: They aren’t classics because they have these tendencies. These tendencies are not what makes them classic. And yet it’s rare to find a classic movie — something acknowledged and lauded as great for generations — that doesn’t have, say, at least four of six of these tendencies.

Do you feel each of these tendencies is as important as LaSalle believes? Is he forgetting any factors you perceive again and again in movies you consider to be classics? Let’s hear your thoughts.

One thing for me is hard to pin down and even harder to define. It’s that ineffable magic that happens when all the collaborators come together at the top of their game, firing on all cylinders, meshing together in a sustained burst of perfection that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. Movies that spring to life from the kick of interconnected inspiration, almost as if everyone on set is trying their best to impress the hell out of each other and having a blast while doing so. Movies like Casablanca, All about Eve, The Wizard of Oz, Cabaret, The Player, Network, The Big Lebowski in which the giddy electricity of mutual admiration practically bubbles down out of the screen.