I’ve been thinking a lot since then about what makes a good movie. A lot of times, I’ll go see a movie in the theaters with some friends, and while walking out of the theater, a friend will say, “That was a great movie!” or “That movie was meh.” But what does either claim actually mean about the film? What follows here is simply my own attempt to construe the issue in a way that makes sense to me.
A few months ago, the internet was raving about the movie True Grit, which is a remake of an old John Wayne movie. A number of my friends had gone to see it, and each of them told me that it is a “must see” film. So my parents and I went to see it. The cinematography was beautiful. The acting was superb. The directing was masterful. The pacing was perfect. It was a very well-made film. And yet, I felt a little sick afterwards. I realized that I really disliked it, but not for any flaw I could find in the film’s technique or style. I disliked it because I didn’t feel as if I was a better person for having seen it. It didn’t invite me to change or see the world differently. It just did a really good job of telling a not very good story.
Now, you are free to completely disagree with me. You may have loved True Grit, and have been inspired by it to be a better person. This is all subjective, to some degree. However, I’m sure you’ve all seen films where you realized that the filmmaker has done a masterful job of telling a somewhat morally questionable story.
For example, I think Inception was artfully created, thought provoking, and in every other way a well-made film. I also think that Life is Beautiful is a masterfully created, thought provoking, and in every other way a well-made film. If I were to place both films on a scale of 1-10, they would both be sitting near 10. And yet, I think one of these films is far better than the other. Life is Beautiful is the better film. This doesn’t make sense until we evaluate the films using two different measures. We need to look both at how well-made the film is, and also how morally uplifting they are.
Here’s an example of how this might look (on slower connections, this GIF may take a little more time to load):
I made this little animation this evening mainly to illustrate the dramatic difference that two measures makes when comparing movies. Inception and The Testaments, for example, were right next to each other on the original scale, but then end up being very different once we look at the picture through an additional lens. Again, you may disagree with my assessments of each movie in the chart. I’ve mainly included them as examples of how the chart would be used.
Also, I think I’ve been able to invent a limited terminology that can help me express the two different dimensions of analysis. First, movies that aren’t well-made and don’t uplift are “trash.” This may sound harsh, but life is too precious to waste watching films that are in that quadrant. There are too many better alternatives (both in movies and in other uses of time). Second, a “good” movie is a movie that invites me to be a better person in some way. It uplifts me in such a way such that I’m a better person as a result. But it isn’t necessarily a well-made film. Investing time in this quadrant isn’t necessarily a bad investment. A lot of children’s movies and Disney sequels may be in this category. Third, well-made films that don’t necessarily uplift, or have some morally problematic themes, are simply “quality” films. Discretion is needed to decide how much time to spend in this quadrant. Finally, a well-made film that also uplifts is what I consider a “great” movie. Using this terminology, Life is Beautiful is a great movie, and Inception is a quality movie. With this terminology, I’m able to make distinctions that I haven’t been able to make before.
I’ve also been thinking about adding a third axis to the chart, but there’s no easy way to visualize it. The third axis would measure how much a movie invites the viewer to think. Many movies may be both morally uplifting and well-made, but they don’t invite the viewers to think about what they are seeing. This third axis would help accomodate anomalies like The Dark Knight, which isn’t necessarily an uplifting film, but it invites me to ask questions I wouldn’t otherwise ask. It forces me to see the world a little differently, and to question some of the assumptions that I have. Thus, The Dark Knight would be a “10” on the quality scale, slightly above neutral on the moral scale, and a “10” on the thinking scale. A film like Primer would be in the negative on the quality scale and the moral scale (it wasn’t very well made and had some problematic moral themes), but an “8” on the thinking scale (it forces the viewer to really think about what’s going on). This third axis, however, isn’t quite as necessary or useful as the first two, so I’ve made no attempt to visualize it, and it isn’t quite as relevant to my movie choices at this point. Someone who values cerebral films more might find this scale more useful. For me, I love films that make me think, but I value films that invite me to be a better person even more.
I want to emphasize that this is the way I’ve personally began to evaluate the entertainment I watch. I don’t think anyone else is obligated to use these same standards or this same vocabulary. However, I do think whatever vocabulary we use to evaluate films needs to be able to distinguish between films that are “virtuous, lovely, and of good report” and those that are simply well-made and engaging. A film that is masterfully created but which conveys problematic moral themes is simply more effective at expressing morally problematic messages. I’m not convinced we should champion films that make falsehood more persuasive, simply because they are artfully created.
Anyways, there’s my two cents. My hope is that this provides at least some of our readers with a tool by which they can better select media that is worthwhile. There is an ocean of media that we can swim in, and so we have every reason to be picky about what we watch.