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Mark Twain famously defined literary classics as “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Watching a film classic may not be as time-consuming as sifting through Anna Karenina or Middlemarch, but the opposing urges to define what counts as a “classic” and the difficulty in doing so remains just as palpable.

Movies That Innovate

One way film differs from literature is its wholesale dependence on the march of modern technology. Cameras, lighting and sound equipment, editing tools, film stock, and digital media itself – of these and more are ever-evolving, leading to a slew of cinematic “firsts” and breakthroughs. For example, The Jazz Singer is often considered the first talkie. Likewise, the special effects for the original Star Wars trilogy, Terminator 2, The Matrix, Jurassic Park, and Avatar were all groundbreaking for their time. 

Movies That Matter

Other films innovate by breaking industry and societal barriers, such as Katheryn Bigelow being the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, or Parasite being the first non-English foreign film to win Best Picture. Tackling serious social issues can also help catalyze the creation of a classic, from 12 Years a Slave to Holocaust films such as Trial at Nuremberg, Schindler’s List, and Europa Europa. Social context is likewise important, such as WWII providing the context for Casablanca’s famous anti-fascist themes and romance or the Civil Rights backdrop to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Being part of a cinematic “movement” doesn’t hurt, either, from Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, and European New Wave Cinema of the 60s and early 70s to Second Wave Feminist Cinema such as Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and Thelma and Louise.

Movies That Last

Despite the ubiquity of the term “instant classic,” a time-honored measure of a classic is lasting long enough to be counted as one. Good films, even award-winning ones, can slip into obscurity over time. By contrast, the sands of time reveal what generations consider to be classics. The era of black and white slapstick is long gone, but we still remember Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. La La Land is a great modern musical, but where would it have been without classics that inspired its style like Singin’ in the Rain and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort? Cinema’s full of shoot-‘em-up crime movies, but none have matched the complexity, artistry, and acting talent on display in The Godfather saga. 

That doesn’t mean “classic” means “perfect” or above criticism, either, as the high profile debate over Gone with the Wind’s treatment of racism and the Old South shows. Still, truly great films can stand up to such criticisms, because one of the truest measures of a classic is a film we keep coming back to and debating because, for better and for worse, it’s a part of us.