Since August, I’ve been taking a look at my ten favorite movies, as a means of remembering what I love about them. And let me tell you, this has been a genuine pleasure. But now that I’ve taken a look at all of these films individually, let’s take a look at all of them together.
When I started watching these movies, I decided I would look at them all through the same lens: what makes them great? What makes these my personal favorites?
There’s a lot to be said for style. A movie like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is carried by its style above all things. Each shot is a painting, and each song on the score is an absolute gem, used to masterfully raise the intensity of every sequence. Or in 12 Angry Men, where the camera starts above our characters and moves below them as they gradually change their minds. Or how Snowpiercer has its characters moving perpetually from left to right.
Style is crucial, but if anything draws me in, it’s substance, and story. If I’ve noticed anything that unites all of these movies, it’s great heroes and great villains. If there’s one important thing about a great hero or a great villain it’s their motivation. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
The Man with No Name is difficult to rank because his motivations are unclear. What does he want? Money. Why? Who knows? (But The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has always been a matter of style over substance.) In 12 Angry Men, Henry Fonda’s Juror #8’s motivation comes from a more clear place – sympathy. He states upfront that he doesn’t want to be the last person who votes to send a young boy to his execution, and we root for him for that very reason. In my Raiders of the Lost Ark post I talked about what made Indiana Jones my favorite movie hero of all time – it’s not his proficiency with a whip or how he rocks a fedora, but the fact that he values treasure for its academic value and not for its political value. Every protagonist has a motivation – Batman wants to clean the streets, Curtis wants change, Django wants to be with his wife, Woody wants to get back to Andy.
And don’t even get me started on villains! Each of these movies is centered around a great villain, many of whom are motivated by different things. Angel Eyes is the weakest, since we know he wants money but we don’t know why he wants it. Juror #3 – who is definitively the villain – just wants kids to respect their elders. Belloq and the assorted Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are motivated by greed, just like Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Racism motivates Calvin Candie and many of the characters in Django Unchained – except for the film’s real antagonist, the wise and manipulative Stephen, who just wants his master to respect him. The League of Evil Exes fights Scott because they’re jealous. The most common motivation is creating order – Lotso from Toy Story 3, Wilford from Snowpiercer, and Darth Vader all are trying to establish order by oppressing or killing whoever opposes their rule. None of these characters are quite as terrifying as their opposite – The Dark Knight‘s Joker who will do anything to create chaos.
A well-orchestrated plot twist will do wonders. Whether the villain organized the whole operation or Darth Vader is your father, a plot twist will certainly keep people talking about your movie long after it’s relevant (example here).
Maybe a film just needs a great action sequence. Raiders of the Lost Ark shows Indy running from the boulder, Empire has Luke’s and Vader’s fateful duel, Scott Pilgrim is choc full of amazing fight sequences (Scott versus Todd is the best), and Django Unchained has the goriest shootout on this side of The Wild Bunch. These are all considered to be high points of their films. Why? Because they’re fucking thrilling.
Sometimes, all you need is a great character arc of a hero coming into their own. Compare Scott Pilgrim‘s first and last fight scene. Compare Django being afraid to look into Dr. Schulz’s eyes in the first scene to when he descends the staircase in his final scene, giving the impactful speech about how exceptional he is, claiming victory over Candieland. Or in Snowpiercer when Curtis mentions how he would gladly give up his arm to help others, and by the end of the film he actually does?
Striking images are crucial. For this post, I picked my favorite shot from each film. After all, Film is a visual medium, and having a memorable shot, like any of the ten pictured here, will provide a film with staying power it needs to be watched for many years to come.
Sometimes it’s just about raw emotion. Maybe a villain gets his comeuppance, or Curtis tells his emotional story. Or George Bailey realizes that his life is truly wonderful. Whatever makes you feel something, whether it’s “So long, partner,” or “Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings.” (The two movies that consistently make me cry are Toy Story 3 and It’s a Wonderful Life.)
Individual performances are crucial. Let’s say you’ve got a man realizing life’s value, or a psychopathic clown who’s’ trying to incite chaos, or a sassy space princess. Before the story is put to film, these characters are just words on a page. The actor or actress breathes life into these words and makes them something more, something real.
What makes a great film? Any number of things. The right style, a great performance, an inspirational hero, a nefarious villain, a narrative arc? I don’t know. It’s hard to boil it down to one of these things, but on a fundamental level, the film has to be compelling. In this regard, the sum must simply be greater than the sum of its parts.
And, for some of these films – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Knight – some might consider it worthwhile to argue these as the greatest films of all time. Others – It’s a Wonderful Life, Django Unchained – suffer from awkward pacing. And others – Toy Story 3 or Scott Pilgrim – are far too low-brow for any serious film critic to consider the greatest all time. But that’s the point of this series. These are my personal favorites. These are just movies that speak to me. And that’s what it all comes down to – these are just movies that speak to me.