Monday, February 02, 2009

How to Tell a Good Movie

Let's clear up a misconception. People often say to me: “You don’t like movies.” This is not true. I think it is more accurate to say: “I don’t like spending money on the empty Hollywood productions that do not contribute anything to society.” After all, I bet I’ve seen more movies at independent/arthouse venues in this town (Music Box, Facets, Gene Siskel) than you have. At least I’m not as dismissive as the poet Rivers Cuomo who said: “Movies are as bad as eating chocolate ice cream: they only sicken me.”

Look at it this way. The section of the newspaper where movie listings are found is called “Arts and Entertainment,” or something similar. Too many modern movies are missing the “art,” and usually fail badly in their attempt at “entertainment” as well. I want to watch movies that are enjoyable and hopefully have some lasting impact on culture.

But where to start? There were almost 1000 movies released last year—not even dedicated cinephiles can see all of them. Luckily, I’m here to help. I’m pleased to present (“an MPF004 Production of a post”) the second in my “How To Tell” series: How to Tell a Good Movie. Just look for a movie that contains most or all of the characteristics listed below.

A quick word on terminology: Example supports my point. Absence example shows how bad movies lack the trait in question and bolsters my point. Counterexample challenges my theory with good movies lacking the trait. Rebuttal lists bad movies with the trait. And a note: These are guidelines, not ironclad rules. The presence of attributes does not guarantee a good movie; absence does not guarantee it’ll suck. However, if you find a good movie absent most or all of these traits, I’d love to know about it.

Does True Grit = Truly Great in the MPF system?

Plot. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many movies don’t have one, and how many potentially good movies are hampered by lame ones.

Example: Malice, The Usual Suspects. Malice has a nice setup: the lives of an ordinary New England couple, trying to get pregnant, are upset when a surgeon they know operates on the woman after a car accident. Then things get dicey from there. Similarly, Usual Suspects weaves information into the plot that keeps the viewer guessing until the very end.
Absence example: Dude Where’s My Car. This movie has no plot and is not a good movie.
Counterexample: You could make an argument that documentaries don’t have a plot per se. But their topic is the plot, in a sense. Plus good documentaries like Wordplay find a way to generate plot amid the most mundane of topics.

Dialogue. I’m talking intelligent dialogue here, conversations that reveal character details, further the plot or provoke emotion. (This became more important when the “talkies” were introduced in the 1920s.)

Example: Anything by John Sayles, especially Lone Star. The characters’ conversations with each other drive the movie and force you to reconsider each one’s motivations. (I saw John Sayles on a cable movie channel once and he introduced the film this way: “I’m John Sayles, you’re going to watch my movie Lone Star. It’s about {pauses, thinking} people who have more in common with each other than they realize.”) Others: Ed Burns’ first two movies, Last Days of Disco.
Absence example: Snakes on a Plane-type blockbusters and slasher flicks. Generally these movies are driven by hype and star power, and contain nothing worth hearing. And they usually aren’t good movies.
Counterexample: Cast Away. Haven’t seen it, but apparently Tom Hanks goes hours and hours without talking, and people liked it.

Character development. In good movies, the characters learn from their mistakes, go through a transformation, understand how the world works or just grow up as human beings in general.

Example: You Can Count On Me, Superbad. Mark Ruffalo’s wounded, brooding character learns to let go of pain through his dealings with his sister (Laura Linney) and nephew (Rory Culkin). Likewise, the Superbad kids learn a little about life and women and come out better for it.
Absence example: Rain Man. The Rain Man character is exactly the same person at the end of the movie as the beginning. Therefore, this is not a good movie. (This is a joke.)
Counterexample: Ummm, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America? That was pretty funny, and nobody evolves or learns anything.

Well, *I* thought it was funny.

Nazis. Everybody hates the Nazis. They were the biggest threat to civilization in the 20th century. And nothing, not the Russkies during the Cold War or Arab terrorists post-Cold War, can fill the role of enemy in a good film quite like a batch of goose-stepping Nazis.

Example: Casablanca, Schindler’s List, The Sound of Music, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Absence example: Drillbit Taylor. No Nazis, not a good movie.
Counterexample: Shaft. John Shaft is a bad (shut your mouth), and Bumpy is a gangster. No Nazis but still pretty awesome. Although I should mention here the Mafia Corollary, which states mobsters have a similar tendency to make a good film.
Rebuttal: Is it possible to make a not-great movie with Nazis in it? I didn’t see Valkyrie, but it had Nazis, heard it was only fair.

Music. Saying one art form is necessary in another art form sounds like using meat as a condiment on meat. But it’s true: the right music at the right time can transport a movie from good to great.

Example: Almost Famous, West Side Story, movies about bands (like I Am Trying to Break Your Heart or Stop Making Sense). Everyone knows how incredible the boombox scene is from Say Anything or the “Tiny Dancer” scene from Almost Famous. I could go on and on here.
Absence example: Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle. Didn’t see it, but there was no memorable music. Not a good movie.
Counterexample: Swimming Pool. This movie had no music to speak of, and it was good. It did have other key attributes, however.
Rebuttal: The only bad movie with good music I can think of is Empire Records. Great tunes, worthless film. I'm Not There wasn't awful, but a movie with all Dylan songs should be better than it was.

Chicago. New York greatest city blah blah spare me. You want real film action, you come here. Some of cinema’s most memorable movies made their home right here in the Windy City.

Example: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the Sting, the el chase scene in The French Connection.
Absence example: Sex in the City. Not set in Chicago. Didn’t see it, guessing it was set in Manhattan.
Counterexample: Forrest Gump. A very good movie, set in rural Alabama and the worldly places Gump visits. Chicago not on the list.
Rebuttal: What Women Want. Being set in Chicago was about the only noteworthy thing about this film where Mel Gibson can read women's minds.

A good excuse to run the picture of Steve McCroskey.

Strong moral themes of right and wrong. You can have a movie about a dog or a tornado or whatever, but if you want to go for greatness, you need characters tested by big fat universal choices of good vs. evil.

Example: Most any Harrison Ford movie will do (especially Clear and Present Danger but also Frantic and the third Indiana Jones); The Limey. This overlooked indie gem stars Terence Stamp as a ex-con who travels to Los Angeles to find out who killed his adult daughter. Unrelated but very cool: the director used clips from Stamp’s films in the 1960s to portray the character as a younger man in flashbacks.
Absence example: Helvetica. This 2007 documentary about the ubiquitous font contains no moral themes. Helvetica just ... is. (I'm not saying it was an awful film--but it was a documentary about a font, after all.)

There are your seven key traits. In Part II, I’ll discuss the three optional attributes, and we’ll run some of the best films I know through the gauntlet to find some truly great movies.

Anybody think this will make the list?


dfeinstein said...

Please test these movies...
Blazing Saddles
Blues Brothers
Dirty Dozen
Cutting Edge
Sister Act

Greg said...

Also do "Bring It On."