Why some films are considered as « major works » ?

Carolina Duarte de Jesus, Translated by Perrine Berthier
23 Octobre 2014

When it comes to films, we often hear about « classics » and “cult movies”. Same titles keep coming up, and for film-lovers, it is considered inacceptable not to have seen these films. What makes these films so unforgettable for generations through ages, while many others have been forgotten ?

Credit DR
Credit DR
During the Festival Lumière, most films shown on the screen were not the most recent: the very essence of the festival is to pay tribute to cinema and its early age. Thus, presence of the Lumiere Brothers’ grandsons was obvious, and great names of French cinema - such as Michel Hazanavicius, Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Bertrand Tavernier – and international cinema - Keanu Reeves, Penelope Cruz, Faye Dunaway and obviously, Pedro Almodovar – were displayed on screen. Tributes were payed to great names on the field, and screening tickets were sold out for films considered as timeless. Among those present to commemorate the release of these movies and the youth, curious to take part in a single screening, the willingness to celebrate those movies is tangible, whatever the age of the viewers.

Classics : a goal to be achieved

The term “classic” shouldn’t be used too lightly : when it comes to tastes, everyone has their own opinion and for each person, some films bring back more memories than others. Whether a movie is a “classics” depends a lot on the time we lived, and simply refers to what people around us consider as classics. Although some films - the names of which are known by everyone, and the story learned by heart by film-lovers - are undeniably considered as models.  

This type of films often have the common point of making the viewer dream. In fact, they often present some aspects of life we would like to become reality. That is why Frank Capra’s Life is Beautiful (1946) caught everyone’s attention. This film depicts the American Dream, an idea according to which hope should never be lost and that everything’s possible in the United States. Despite the fact that it wasn’t much of a success in the beginning, facing a pessimistic post-war audience, it became step by step a film loved by everyone, still broadcasted nowadays on TV every Christmas day in the United-States. Another film still regularly broadcasted today is Bonnie and Clyde by Arthur Penn (1967). It is radically different from the former, considering it features characters “serial robbing banks”. The main characters are shown almost as heroes, which is strongly controversial, but they will be remembered by a whole generation. In the film, it is the free and rebellious personality of the characters that makes the youth yearn for a similar life. This is how the film created a polemic.

Credit DR
Credit DR
Finally, to give one more example of a memorable film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Sergio Leone (1966) is halfway between a classical film and a cult film. It can be considered as a classical film because it was very successful amongst the majority of people. Also, even if it is not the first of its kind, it is the most referred to. As the most famous of Sergio Leone’s films, it is appreciated for the time the story takes place in – the American Civil war – and the realism of its historical background, its violence, its actors, etc… It is a film that inspired many others and that is, nowadays, among the best westerns ever produced. These films, through the different moral issues they deal with – such as hope, love, freedom, bravery -, make the viewers want to yearn for a way of life or qualities the main characters possess, as they are represented in a realistic way, having human flaws and committing irreversible acts : suicide, robberies, murders. 

Cult film : controversial innovations

Three films broadcasted during the festival stood out from the others: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Tobe Hooper (1974), Rambo by Ted Kotcheff (1982) and Ghostbusters by Ivan Reitman (1984). They were classified as “cult films”, considering that despite the fact that everybody remembers them - like classical films are remembered - these are often controversial and have a huge fan base. 

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Credit DR
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was inspired by a true story, noticeably by the story of Ed Gein who had exhumed a corpse in a cemetery in 1957. This is how the introduction of the movie – and Tobe Hooper – brings up the fact that it was based on true events in order to attract a larger audience and create controversy. This film was the initiator of “slashers”, those films in which a psychopath is hunting a group of people to kill them. It is considered as one of the best horror films ever made, which can be explained by the innovation of its story and the way it is shot – close to what could be seen as a false documentary – and on the other hand due to the realism attributed to it, with some funny scenes and the feeling that anyone could be the enemy. The violent scenes, the psychological burden it carries and overall the grim scenarios led to the prohibition of the film during 8 years in France and 15 years in the United-Kingdom. It is still forbidden for children under 16.

In the same way, Rambo can be seen as too violent and might not have been well accepted because the Americans found it hard to face the problems war engendered. In fact, the film shows to what extend war can psychologically destroy a human being, and to what extend it is difficult to get back to normal life once war time is over. The film could thus generate a feeling of guilt for the American people which preferred to close their eyes to the issue. It is, however, a cult film because of its morality, like in classical films : the main character is brave and wants to avenge the death of his friends. Another indicator of a cult film is its psychological realism regarding war heroes. Finally, an example of a completely different genre, Ghostbusters gives us a sci-fi comedy that is still today a reference for this type of films. The idea was to mix both genres and the result was exceptional : unlike the other films, the audience was less divided. Moreover, very good visual effects for the time, the music - the soundtrack is still known today, even by those who have never seen the film - and successive surprises that the film can offer. As a very unpredictable film it is considered a bigger success that Gremlins by Joe Dante or Indiana Jones and the cursed temple by Steven Spielberg. 

These are only examples of a non-exhaustive list of movies that have stayed in people’s minds. They are still widely referred to, and often broadcasted on TV. They are most of the time set as examples and considered as the “must” movies to watch by film-lovers. It is in this mindset that the Festival Lumiere presents them to us, so that we can be carried away to the first screening of these films in the theatres, whatever the times.