What Makes a Movie a Great Film?

By Tom Samp

Being part of the PHX Film Collective has broadened my perspective on movies and filmmaking.  Being an older member of the group, I have been introduced to contemporary films, and modern sensibilities about moviemaking, that I might not have explored on my own. 

At the same time, as one whose movie passions go back several decades, I like to find opportunities to introduce my friends in the group to great vintage films, those that were considered highly influential and popular, and that deserve a big-screen treatment once again.  It can take some persuading to greenlight a milestone film from a bygone era. So, I have to make a case.

The members of our collective bring diverse histories and viewpoints, lifelong obsessions, and unique experiences about movies.  We love to discuss a variety of films, culture , movie trends, and film history; and share with each other the greatest movies in our lives.  Out of these, we try to select just 12 movies a year to show on a big screen.

Complicating matters, however, is our desire to share those monthly screenings with other movie-junkies in Phoenix.  Choosing a movie that passes our group’s diverse criteria for greatness, which will also appeal to the largest possible audience, can be a challenge; especially since we must rotate our screening venues (until we find or create a permanent one).

The different locations help us reach different segments of the moviegoing community; but it makes it more difficult to build a base of followers who would attend, out of habit, at one particular venue.

Even so, we sometimes compromise our passions in favor of a movie that will attract an audience, by finding a tie-in that somehow justifies our showing a particular movie at a particular time (a holiday, a release of a new movie, an historic commemoration, a nod to a particular group).  Going further, we often seek a venue that not only makes sense for the film, but for the tie-in.  While this has worked pretty well so far, I think it has eliminated some great films that deserve to be screened on their own merits. 

We all have our movie favorites. “Favorites” might be an understatement; many of the films we love have become like our own children. Woe to those who criticize or dismiss the titles we recommend as being worthy for a future screening!   But sometimes our favorites are borne of personal taste and reflect a moment in our lives, but are unlikely to be enriching or enlightening. (I doubt that I could elevate a childhood favorite like “The Giant Gila Monster” into a screening of artistic merit, even though it remains a guilty pleasure of my own!)

So, how can we better determine what makes a film worthy of a screening, one stirs our passion that’s also a great movie?  What makes a film great, anyway?  

I won’t be able to provide the definitive answer here; but I have 3 criteria that, when considered together, seem to provide a good template to apply to any film.  I believe that a movie that meets these criteria is worthy to be presented by a group of true film enthusiasts, at any time, in any place that has a seating area, a screen and a projector:

1.       It is important to the history of cinema. A great film achieved one or more of the following:  In addition to being well-made in every department, the film expanded the art of filmmaking. It found original ways to tell its story, or told a conventional story in an extraordinary way.   It furthered the art of screen acting with great performances that created unforgettable characters. It stretched the boundaries of photography, editing, music, or design.  It took risks in what it depicted, or explored deeper themes that transcend a visual medium. It broke taboos in subject matter, without being exploitive; and set a foundation for these subjects to be explored further in cinema.  More than providing mere surface gratification and entertainment, the film worked on several levels that could be reevaluated over time.  It added to the resume of a great director who is worthy of continued study. There are many good movies that showcase one or several of these cinematic milestones.  But these alone aren’t enough to assign greatness to a film. Two other things, to me, propel a film into true greatness.


2.       It is significant to its moment in history; and/or it is timeless in its examination of the human condition.  A great film reflected the times in which it was released.  It depicted, or was shaped by, events of its historical moment. It is a mirror on the culture, and a valuable snapshot of an era.  Political conflict, war, racial tensions, sexual/marital relationships, family dynamics, religion, personal identity, and other concerns of the heart and mind, are all ingredients for a great film. Fewer films accomplish this in recent years, opting for the creation of "universes" that bear little resemblance to our own world, and doing little to help an audience come to terms with its humanity.  A great film can reveal, reinforce, or question what it means to exist in our world. Even some period pieces nonetheless achieve greatness by looking honestly at the universal experience of being human. Audiences project their own doubts, fears, and hopes onto characters that are experiencing love, conflict, pain, death, and joy; and by identifying with them, viewers have a healing moment of laughter, of catharsis, of epiphany. These movies are worth revisiting throughout a lifetime.


3.       It made a mark on culture.  A film could possibly achieve greatness with the criteria described above.  But films that influenced culture, in their initial release, and beyond, are those that reached an audience, and became part of the mosaic of our world.  These were the movies that mattered, and became part of our cultural conversation. There are many ways to look at a great film with this perspective. How was the film advertised? (Movie advertising is becoming a lost art, and a worthy subject of its own study.)  What important issues did the film illuminate and explore? What controversies did the film stir? What cultural or political events informed the making or distribution of the film?  What did the critics say, and how did that enhance the film’s appeal?  Has a film’s stature changed over time, and why?  How did the film affect our fashion, our language, our tastes in music, or our tolerance for realism in a more escapist medium?  How was the film awarded at the time?


So, pick a film.  See if, and how, it checks off the boxes in the three criteria I described above.  I think these criteria can help most anyone make a case for a film's worthiness for screening, and provide a great outline for anyone who wants to make a presentation about the value and the merits of the movie to a willing audience.  Evaluating movies in this way might also remind us why we got excited about creating and belonging to a film group.  It all starts with the movies.  

Chris Ayers