what makes a movie good?

Before I start talking about individual films, I wanted to say more about my recently concluded History of Cinema Festival. In my last post I raised the question, What do I think makes a movie good? I’m going to try to answer that.

Cinephiles often talk about how much they enjoy a film’s cinematography or editing, or maybe its special effects or the acting or directing; but to me all of these things, while important, are secondary. For all of them are means to an end, and that end is telling a story. Film is a storytelling medium, a powerful one. There are documentary films and experimental films that do not tell stories, but if filmmakers had never thought of the idea of telling a story with film, there would be no movie industry. Filmmaking would have remained a marginal, niche activity with an audience no bigger than the class of people who go to public galleries to watch art videos.

True, I’m a writer, and therefore I have a special connection with and responsibility for story. I remember, when working on my TV show The Odyssey, I reminded the producer Michael Chechik of the importance of the story, he smiled and said, “Everyone on the show thinks his job is the most important.” I would have responded with something like, “Yes—but not everyone is right!” I might even have offered to handle the hairstyles for an episode  if the hair stylist would write the script. Of course, that never happened, because everyone wants to make a good show. But I was not wrong.

Indeed, the director of photography for The Odyssey, Rob McLachlan, in an interview I saw him give when he was signed on to film Game of Thrones, said that in making a successful film or TV project, story is all and everything. If the story’s not there, then the efforts of the most talented people are to no avail. Likewise, Robert McKee in his book Story notes that top directors and actors are acutely conscious that their best work is possible only with excellent writing, and hence they are always on the lookout for superior scripts. So I return to my assertion: film is a storytelling medium.

And accordingly I judge a film as work of storytelling. The best films are great stories, well told. When a film is mediocre or bad, usually what is wrong with it is its story. Some movies are technically inept, but they never make it into wide release. No, the typical bad movie that shows up in a theater is a well-made production of an inferior script.

So the films that get my top rating succeed first of all as stories. The flow of narrative captives me right at the opening, and doesn’t let go. Its progress is logical but unexpected; it is filled with surprises, big and small, as life is; its characters seem human to me, and I feel what they’re feeling. If the storytelling is very good I don’t feel the passage of time. I remember when Kimmie and I watched The Godfather in the 1970s leg of our festival the time whizzed by, even though the movie is 175 minutes long. Heck, I managed to note that the wedding scene near the beginning was the better part of an hour! I never would have suspected it; I was engrossed in the action.

Now storytelling is an art; that is, while it does require creative talent, its execution and refinement depends on techniques that can be—and must be—learned. I’ve been making a study of these techniques since 1990, when a bootleg copy of notes to one of Robert McKee’s seminars came into my hands, and it is this knowledge that I have applied in assessing the movies of my festival.

In short, I’m prepared to defend my choices and my ratings. I would like to affirm, with whatever humility is possible in the circumstances, that my choices reflect the mature, refined judgment of an audience member who is himself a writer and sometime filmmaker. And in that spirit I intend to offer my further thoughts on the films of Paul’s History of Cinema Festival.

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