What Makes a Great Movie
I love movies, but I have never written or produced one. I am writing this little piece from the perspective of a critic or a member of the audience, not from the perspective of film maker.
I am also not writing this piece from the perspective of a movie studio. I am not interested in what the box office or streaming receipts are. I understand that people go into movie theaters to watch the latest superhero or weather disaster festival, in which the heroes vanquish the villains. There is a large audience for this. It's just not for me.
The kind of movie I like has to be more clever. But it can also be a lot cheaper to make.
The most important ingredient in a great movie is a great script. Read this again, please.
Yes, nice cinematography, acting, directing, music can make differences; but movies (like academic economics papers) are really all about stories. If there is no great story to tell, it's nothing. Superhero movies don't have any new interesting stories as far as I can tell. The bad guy may be evil in different ways, and the good guy may beat him (usually him) slightly differently. But the story is really always the same.
What makes a good story? A good story is not a one-recipe-fits-all, as it is with super-hero crap. A good story needs to have two connected and important aspects:
- It must not be completely obvious what will happen next and you must want to find out what this is.
- The characters must face dilemmas, where their choices are not obvious.
Of course, the choices that characters ultimately make also have to be sensible. There is nothing worse than a character who is not "self-aware." The audience should not be smarter than the character and understand the obviously correct choice from the perspective of the character, while the character is too stupid to get it.
There is an important fine line to tread here. In their search for unpredictability (of what will happen down the line), some producers have made their characters make stupid and non-sensical choices. These movie descend into the absurd, where the audience understands that this is a stupid filmmaker who has run out of sensible ideas. This should be an absolute no-no. Better for a character to be predictable than not to be self-aware.
Good unpredictable movies: The Usual Suspects. Snatch. The Secret in Their Eyes. Icarus.
In an interview, Samuel Jackson explained how Quentin Tarantino gave him important advice in his role in Jackie Brown. At some point, Jackson sits in the car and tries to figure out what has just happened. Tarantino explained to his actor that he needed not to say his lines, but to think and wait. Jackson's character had to figure it out. Neither Jackson nor the audience should immediately know what he was going to figure it out. A character who is smarter than the audience, with the audience later understanding that he was, is a good thing.
When there is no template of how the cat is saved and perhaps not even a cat, it's a lot harder to write a good story. Worse, interesting scripts may never be funded. Hollywood now plugs scripts into computer programs to predict what they will earn. What comes out as recommendation? Superhero scripts. Yikes!
There are two categories that are not yet Hollywood-ed: International Movies and Indie Movies. Both tend to be lower budgets (and fortunately with a great script, a high budget is often not necessary), and they are often funded by a variety of sources. On my list of favorite movies (just below), none was a big budget movie. Unfortunately, these movies are now also shifting in the wrong Hollywood direction. Let's hope it's temporary.
In my mind, dilemmas are keys to interesting movies. Let me revisit my current 10-year best fiction movie list:
- The King (2019).
- The Two Popes (2019).
- The Handmaiden (2016).
- The People Vs. Fritz Bauer (2015) (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer)
- Whiplash (2014).
I was quite entertained by Gideon Raff's "The Spy" or "The Red Sea Diving Resort." (Borat acted well, too.) However, I happened to know the true events behind both stories. There are many serious deviations from them in both films. And the real stories are, if anything, even more interesting than their fictionalizations. Many viewers (me included), like the idea of having been educated, too — knowing something we had not known before. I much prefer movies where film makers do not alter history. Now, not all history is known and there is more than enough leeway to make up all sorts of interesting things that don't need to be true. But I hate it when they change what is known to be true.
I shouldn't blame Gideon, though. I know his significant other, who explained to me that film makers find the forced Hollywoodizations and script alterations even more painful than audiences. Whoever is making those decisions among greenlighting financiers, don't.
There is another reason for realism. It solves the "self-awareness" problem that requires characters both to do the unpredictable yet not to descend into the stupid. If real people acted this way, it's no longer an absurd choice by a film-maker who has run out of ideas.
Unfortunately, I don't like another recent development for "my" kind of movies: Equity, Diversity, Inclusion (EDI). I don't even understand why we need it in the first place. Many of our best movies, scripts, actors, and actresses have been based on minority experiences, especially Black experiences, and these have always featured plenty of minorities. (Not to speak of many TV series, of which "The Wire" is the eternal standout and it is full of great Black stories and acting.) If we make movies primarily out of pretentiousness, with stupid preaching on top of it, we will just poison the entire category. Consider the pre-EDI movies of "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming for Dinner," "Mississipi Burning," "Glory!," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Six Degrees of Separation," and so on. For that matter, pick five of Denzel Washington's movies. Just brillant!
These movies were about the Black experience but they were often almost guaranteed to be gripping. What do we get now? "One Night in Miami" or "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Frankly, they may be well-meaning but they are boring. They are just not that good.
I also do not need to have the entire good Rebel fleet consist of minorities and women; and the entire bad Imperial fleet consist of white (and red-painted white) men (as in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). Yes, a great story: the Rebels of the EDI department revolt against the Imperial White Men of the MPAA!?
Yes, I know that Hollywood has done similar stupidity before. Old Western movies used white hats and black hats to help confused audience tell the difference between good and bad, too. And, frankly, most of those movies sucked even worse. Maybe EDI is not so bad, after all...
Indie and international movies are funded by the same kinds of people that have interest in fairness (which is a good thing). But there are more than enough good dramatic stories (and enough bad white guys) that we can make good movies where the EDI is second, not first. (There is a related and unusually interesting article on When Wokeness Comes to Middle-Earth. It's the rare balanced report, where you realize that neither point of view is obviously right or wrong.) I am happy to have every movie be all about others' experiences, just as long as the story is gripping. I just don't want to see any more pretentious bores where the story is second and EDI is first.
So, scriptwriters, please give us great movies about the Black experience. And the Hispanic experience. And the Chinese experience. And the Jewish experience. And the poor experience --- (The Grapes Of Wrath). Just make it interesting!
Clearly, cinematography matters. Fortunately, with the advent of high-end digital cameras for cheap, it is no longer much more expensive to have great cinematography than ordinary cinematography. It just takes good expertise.
There are many great movie music composers. In fact, all my favorite living composers of the last 50 years have been movie composers: John Barry, Jerry Bock, Nicholas Britell, Philip Glass, Maurice Jarre, Ennio Morricone, Max Richter, John Williams, etc. In some movies, they can make the difference between meh and great. The movies "Arrival" and "The King" would not be the same without them. Many others would still be as good.
The movie industry has strange funding models. For one, it is apparently a faux-pas for producers to put their own skin into the game. What the heck?
At some point, it may well be that good indie movies will be made with funding from wealthy connoisseurs, the same way that many of the famous paintings of the 19th century were funded by wealthy mentors — or that newspapers and non-outrage news will be funded by non-profits.
Hopefully, they will give us more interesting movies to watch than most of the predictable or absurd dreck that has been coming across the streaming channels these days.
Good acting is hard work. And there are some roles where one needs a great actor. But, frankly, this talent is a dime a dozen. Just hire actors that really play primarily themselves. Don't have Ben Affleck play an autistic child (as in the Accountant). I am picking on him because he is a really good actor and he actually did as good a job acting this role as he could have done. It's just, it's not him Affleck is just intrinsically the opposite.
Oh, and please cast me as a German economics professor in an American university in your next movie, please!