Artistic productions as the standard: Defining “classic” cinema

For most of us film enthusiasts who were born in the latter half of the twentieth century, there is a lingering question that often appears to surface when it comes to film. This question can be difficult to answer at times, depending on who is involved in the conversation. This question, of course, is not “What is your favorite movie of all time?” or “Who do you think is the best director in history?”. If these film enthusiasts are anything like me, these questions would be far too difficult to answer, as the comparable variables and opinions of such films and directors can be infinite in scale.

A more appropriate question to be asked is not to debate what we think the greatest work of cinema may be, but what constitutes the main characteristics of what makes a movie a “classic”. For all intents and purposes, I will focus on a few films that are considered “classics”, regardless of when these films were produced, and why these movies are considered as such by society and the world of film.These “classic” movies are the staple of which many of our movie quotes are derived and the very core of what we consider to establish the basic guide lines of an outstanding film. It is quite possible to experience a great film without it being considered a “classic”. Perhaps the guidelines of a “classic” movie are based solely on generational aspects or eras of cinema production. The general consensus of a “classic” can be skewed as “older”, or “not modern”, when the term “classic” is defined as “of the first or the highest of quality”. I would like to respectfully disagree with the former.

Although certain films have earned the right to be considered “classics” by the generations which adored them, I would like to assert the concept that it is not so much the year or decade in which a film was produced, but rather what the film accomplished by means of revolutionary ideas, breakthrough cinematography, unmatched technological innovation, or outstanding acting. Moreover, a “classic” movie will leave the audience with far more than two hours of film. It leaves us with a sense of accomplishment, a sense of passion, respect, and a powerful yearning to be part of the story. An image of ourselves removed from the real world and immersed in the world of cinema.

In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park redefined the world of film. His revolutionary directing and use of advanced computer graphics technology created a film that seemed all too real. Even by today’s standards, Jurassic Park is still one of the most visually stunning films of all time. Moreover, Spielberg grappled with much larger questions; should humans be able to wield such technology to create extinct animals? What does this mean for mankind? Why? Is this simply for profit? Greed? Regardless, the acting was near flawless, the concepts were overwhelmingly original, and film exuded a sense of realness into the hearts of cinema fans, as if they were expecting to see a world of dinosaurs the moment they walked outside. Jurassic Park has quite exceptionally stood the test of time. It is a film that could not and should not be disregarded as a “classic”. What will Steven Spielberg contribute to cinema this year? We will find out when Lincoln debuts in December. My guess is nothing short of an extraordinary film.

Nearly 20 years later in 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar revisited the same social and political themes; mankind’s passion for greed and an ignorance and sense of superiority to other beings. However, it can be argued that Avatar indeed fulfills the rules of a “classic”. Quite literally, James Cameron produced a film of “the highest quality” regarding visual effects, computer technology, and amazement. Once again, moviegoers were awed and immersed in a physical and emotional setting that can only be experienced by a “classic” film. It can be easily proven as Avatar is still the highest grossing film of all time. These two directors and their movies, separated by twenty years, can be categorized as film “classics”. They were both such pioneering accomplishments that we can safely consider them the standard by which all other films of their kind are compared.

In 1994, Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump instantly became a “classic”. The acting was superb, the story was original and outstanding, but it was a film that enthusiasts can easily place among the top of their “favorite movie” list. The realism of the characters and the connection which these characters maintained with the audience was and still is remarkable. This year, Zemeckis’ Flight, starring Denzel Washington and John Goodman, is in theatres in November. Based on his track record, Zemeckis will surely not disappoint.

In 2000, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator proved to be a cinematic masterpiece. Often I find myself comparing countless movies of the same genre to Gladiator. Although these two movies were only separated by six years, the cinematic standard that they establish is timeless. Scott’s attention to detail and his constant strive for perfection in nearly every aspect of film making is perhaps what makes films such as Gladiator the staple of a “classic”. Scott’s newest film Prometheus delivers nearly the same effect in that his theological concepts, deeply philosophical themes, superb casting, and attention to detail are mind-blowing.

Webster defines a “classic” as “of the highest quality, class, or rank”. Regardless of their release date or the generation to which they appeal, all of these films produce more than a visual aid to the imagination. They induce intense feelings and emotions, a subtle aspiration to achieve something more than ourselves. These films provide an escape from the real world. The next time a discussion of films presents itself, the word “classic” is sure to be muttered. Now that the standards by what constitutes a “classic” film have been discussed, albeit briefly, it is safe to say that age or time is not what creates a “classic”. These films are of the highest quality and the films to which all others are compared.


Author I Michael Fryer I Editor; Correspondent I He’s an aficionado of films; cinema and art. A film enthusiast, whose writing on film is always in depth and philosophical. He is a graduate of California State University with a B.A. in history with a concentration on modern European history.