It is often hard to compare films. On IMDB’s top 250, The Shawshank Redemption is number one and The Godfather is number two, but how do we decide such things? Are they subjective to each person, or do films hold an innate attribute that makes them either good or bad? These two masterpieces are incredibly difficult to judge when put side by side. There is a consensus that they are both brilliant because everyone says they are, and in my opinion, they are almost perfect—but why? What makes certain films better than others? If you’re not sure on a film, then I like to think that the easiest way to judge if it is good is to see if it wasted your time or not. As humans, our time is so very important. We constantly ask what time it is, punctuality is a modern day necessity and clocks are everywhere to make sure that we don’t fall foul of the first two rules of good time keeping. So, what better way to bluntly judge a film? When I watched The Godfather, I didn’t feel like my time had been wasted. I had gained something from it culturally and emotionally. It made me feel…something, and that is certainly no waste of time. However, Paul Blart: Mall Cop made me desire my time back, leaving me feeling like I had watched it for no other reason than to simply write about it in these few lines. I suppose you could say that we would never truly know the good films without the bad ones. If every film was like The Godfather, Taxi Driver or The Shawshank Redemption, then maybe Paul Blart: Mall Cop would be quite a hit. That brings me on to my second method of judging a film.
I like to see things that are new or innovative. Taxi Driver brought indie films into the spectrum as well as the controversial use of religion as a central theme. Travis (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver believed to be acting out God’s rage upon New York, and in Mean Streets, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) believes to have a spiritual purpose. Allison Anders captured Scorsese perfectly in what she said about his attitude toward film; “I would say that Marty Scorsese, no matter how much money he has, he’s still operating in an independent realm”. This is important and is reflected in the director’s films, which have managed to stay ‘indie-esque’ in mainstream Hollywood. The Godfather brings a strong ‘operative’ narrative which was influenced by the European new waves, and the first two films also revolutionised the power of the director, allowing Coppola to try and set himself up.
These films had brought something fresh to the world and they didn’t rely on special effects or revolutionary film technology—those innovations lie within the science fiction genre, which has allowed the creations of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron to flourish. To compare these directors to the likes of the gritty realisms constructed by Scorsese and Coppola is impossible. It would be like comparing two great scenic views on opposite sides of the world; they are both magnificent but their aesthetic qualities are highly unique. The sci-fi genre is huge and the stories that it owns are as varied as can be. Lucas used techniques that had never been seen before and was one of the first directors to use computers as a tool for film making. It is this reason that many cynics think that films have peaked and there isn’t anything better than what was around 30 years ago. I am not of this opinion and I certainly do not believe that we will get to a standstill in film making. There will always be something new. The fairly recent “found footage” films are developing well and the rising power of 3D, which is at times a little painful to watch, will hopefully soon be perfected.
The likes of Scorsese and Tarantino have both created new methods of directing and they had to follow the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense and mystery, John Ford, with his wonderful westerns, and D.W Griffith, with his innovative take on historical spectacles. Albeit, Tarantino having to follow Scorsese in the indie film genre must have been no easy feat. Hitchcock is probably the most fascinating of all the directors; he knew exactly what made a film work. The screenplay writer Ernest Lehman of North by Northwest described in an interview what Hitchcock once said to him about films. The esteemed director believed that movies are like organs and if you press one key, the audience will laugh; if you press another then they will gasp. This way of looking at a film has been much debated among film enthusiasts and many believe the director is in fact a manipulator of audiences rather than a genius of the movie industry. Nevertheless, I don’t believe this matters and if it works then it is a means to a great end.
Acting is obviously critical to the success of a film. The ability to make somebody completely believe what they are seeing and to create emotion within an audience is an ability not held by many. My personal favourite actors are Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Edward Norton for his performance in American History X, Robert De Niro for his superb acting in Taxi Driver, and Al Pacino in Scarface, providing one of my all time great film quotes; “Say hello to my little friend!”. The quote doesn’t sound like much and will probably only make sense if you’ve seen Scarface, but his delivery of the line is fantastic. However, behind all great actors are directors telling them what to do and how to deliver a line. It is important not to suffocate actors though; Alfred Hitchcock gave plenty of freedom to his cast, especially to Cary Grant in North by Northwest. However, some directors can make totalitarian control work. Quentin Tarantino is extremely protective over his script and seldom allows improvisation. The actors bring a film together, and without them films wouldn’t be possible. They provide the beauty of a film and the directors and other members of the crew provide the framework to hold it all together.
Unfortunately, I can’t talk about all films in human history and so I have focused on only a handful. There are also an abundance of things to analyse in a film such as the lighting, cameras, sets, scripts, make up, costumes and much more. The likes of One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Metropolis, Le Voyage Dans La Lune etc., have all been wonderful in terms of their contributions to the zeitgeist of the film world. They are all culturally significant and emotionally valuable when viewing. However, to write about all great films and what makes them good would require an entire book. If you do want to read about films and their directors then I suggest “A History of Film“, by Jack C. Ellis, and “Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers“, edited by Yvonne Tasker. The first is very good for a broad overview of all films up to around 1992, and the latter is useful for an in-depth analysis on all the top 50 directors from the 60s onwards. I leave you with a quote that has had an interesting interpretation on how films are made, what camera angles are used to create affect, and what every film hopes to achieve in a build up to a laugh or a scream: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”.