We all have lists of movies that we think everybody should see. We all have movies that we can watch time and time again, and be touched in different ways by the story, by the characters, the humor, action, or by the sheer beauty of the cinematography or the score. When we think about what great movies are, we think about the movies on our “list.”
Every year as Oscar season comes around, people start talking about what the great movies of the year were. We think about our “lists,” which films we saw (or didn’t see, just heard about) that struck a chord with us, or friends, or with our favorite critics. We cross our fingers and hope that everyone else will think that those films were great too, and that one day, they’ll be added to the list of classics.
It’s impossible to tell, however, what will make a movie into a classic. Of course we’re biased to the films that came out in our lifetimes, or that came to us when we most needed them, and it’s not unusual for films that were once considered classics to fall out of vogue with younger generations. Mrs. Minerver, the Best Picture winner from 1942, for example, is just another meaningless title to most of us. But in 2006, the American Film Institute listed it as one of the most inspirational movies of all time, and the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry in 2009.
So does winning an Academy Award for Best Picture, or even snagging a nomination, guarantee that a film will be a classic? No, but then again, we all knew that already. The Dark Knight isn’t going to stop being on my “list” just because it never got a nod from the Academy, and no matter what happens, Birdman, the 2014 winner, will never rank with the best (in my opinion). But overall, the Academy does tend to recognize at least some of the films from any given year, or even the decade, that have touched the hearts and souls of most of the audience members, even if it’s only with nominations. Pixar’s Up and Toy Story 3 are prime examples of this.
Even though all of us know that the Academy Awards do not constitute a definitive list for the best films of all time, there’s always been plenty of hot debate over what even qualifies a film to get nominated for Best Picture in the first place. Cultural relevance? Quality acting or directing? A well-considered story, and editing that helps to move it along? Innovative uses of the medium that advances the field as a whole?
Maybe it’s a mix of all of these, as well as some other factors. Some years, certain qualifications are probably deemed more important than others.
In 1941, Citizen Kane lost to How Green Was My Valley in spite of its seemingly numerous qualifications. Gregg Toland, the cinematographer, perfected the deep focus technique in which the foreground and background are equally in focus and which was used extensively throughout the movie. The script, written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, features one of the most iconic lines of all time (“Rosebud,” which my mother took every opportunity to whisper to me throughout my childhood). The story itself shows the slow decay of a man away from his ideals to ultimate isolation and is chillingly human to watch unfold.
How Green Was My Valley, in deep contrast, tells a moving story, and was shot in a full-scale replica of a Welsh mining town that had to be built in California, due to limitations caused by World War II. It did not, however, use the same scale of innovative techniques as in Citizen Kane, or endure so well in public memory.
The hard truth is that nothing can predict what will become a “classic.” Not the Oscars, not Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb, not the lists made by the Library of Congress, or AFI. Very rarely, in fact, does everyone really agree about what gets a spot on the ultimate classics list even with time. In my experience, Casablanca—which won Best Picture in 1943—always gets a mention, but so does The Big Lebowski, which was never even nominated at all. In all the rankings I’ve looked at for the best of the Best Picture winners, The Hurt Locker (2009) appears most often, but it has yet to make an appearance on any lists of “classics,” while other recent former Oscar contenders, like 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Moonlight (2016), haven’t had too much trouble earning that distinction early. Whether they stand the test of time, of course, remains to be seen.
We ask for a lot from movies. We ask for laughs, for meaning, for action and excitement, and genuine human connection as well. Some films catch our attention, and our affection, instantly. Others take their time and court us slowly. The unlucky ones live in infamy on hate lists. I think what ultimately makes a film a classic for each of us is the meaning that we can attach to it. High School Musical 3 was not and never will be recognized by the Academy for being a landmark film. For our generation? A must-see.
It doesn’t matter which film wins Best Picture this year at the Oscars. Well, it matters, but the award also doesn’t quite merit the weight that it’s given. It’s indisputable that all of the nominees this year are good movies, which deserve to be on the list for an equally good reason, but it’s worth noting that the Academy also snubbed some good contenders (Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade was beloved by critics, and Barry Jenkins’ beautifully adapted If Beale Street Could Talk practically speaks for itself). Only time and the ever fickle popular opinion will determine which films from our time live on to be classics, and it’s hard to know now which of the potentials from this year deserve ultimate recognition, so it’s best to remember that the lists of great films we make for ourselves…well, sometimes they’re the best lists that we can find.