DiPatri: What Makes a Movie Great?
Arts, Movies, Column

DiPatri: What Makes a Movie Great?

I think Marvel movies are entertaining. While I’ve never been incredibly invested in the franchise, my friends and I usually go to see the newest installment every few months. But I also love many less “fun” movies, such as Marriage Story—which although it was one of my favorite movies of 2019, some people found it to be slow or boring. But entertaining movies and great movies are not the same. While I’m not going to get up on my film studies high horse and say that the only movies we should watch are those that receive over a 90 percent score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, I will say that we should not judge all movies on the same scale, and that great movies should be celebrated just as much as entertaining ones.

What makes a great movie, you may ask? This might be the most subjective question ever, but I believe a movie is great when all of its elements work together seamlessly to tell a story. First Reformed (2017), written and directed by Paul Schrader, tells the story of Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) who becomes disillusioned with his faith as he struggles to understand the climate crisis. All parts of the film come together harmoniously in that every choice adds something: The use of the Academy ratio—a visibly tight 1.37:1, which is almost a square—keeps the viewer uncomfortably aware of everything happening in the frame. The muted colors emphasize the pure bleakness of the film. The shots are intricately planned, from the symmetry to the characters’ positions. Although it is great, First Reformed was also incredibly painful to get through because as the viewer, you feel as if you too are in Toller’s desolate situation, one that doesn’t end in a triumph of the good guys over the bad guys because it deals with real emotions that aren’t resolved by the time the credits roll.

Of course, entertaining movies can do this too, but they often don’t go beyond the story. Many Marvel movies stir up emotions in the viewer, but beyond special effects, the cinematography often feels neglected, especially as Marvel gains traction never seen before with a franchise. I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing the incredibly talented filmmakers behind these productions, but rather the recent way in which movies are shifting from great and entertaining to only entertaining, because the thing is, it is possible for films to be both entertaining and great. Take BlacKkKlansman, a 2018 Best Picture contender masterfully shot by Spike Lee, which is filled with suspense and excitement. Great movies are frequently very entertaining, but entertaining movies often don’t have to be great anymore—Marvel movies will make money no matter what. This shift has harmful implications for the future of cinema in that it could make it even more difficult for aspiring filmmakers to break into an industry that is increasingly focused on simple entertainment and profits over technical skill.

Such possibilities must be considered. Martin Scorsese recently came under fire for claiming that Marvel movies weren’t “cinema.” Understandably, Marvel fans erupted with anger. Scorsese responded in an opinion piece for The New York Times in which he explained his worries for the future of filmmaking when it seems that franchise films are the only movies audiences are seeing in theaters anymore. Thus, industry giants like Marvel have a decision to make—will they start to pave opportunities for great filmmaking, or will they commodify entertainment to such an extent that it keeps out aspiring talent?

Featured Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor

February 23, 2020
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