There is something we must acknowledge when it comes to great movies: there is great movie-making and then there are great movies. Let me break this down a little further.
There is a lot of great movie-making out there. Let's take Avatar for instance. I was blown away by this movie. There is no denying that the visuals for the movie were absolutely stunning. Though the plot was predictable, the movie was still exciting. This was truly great movie-making. I walked away thinking, "That looked really cool!" I had received some wonderful candy for my eyes. But does great movie-making make a movie great?
Before answering this question, it would be helpful to first determine the factors that generally make a movie great. In my opinion, these are the more objective non-negotiables that must be examined: writing, acting, and directing. Let us take Schindler's List into account here. The writing is convicting, horrifying, and inspiring. The acting is superb. And the directing is probably Steven Spielberg's (the director of directors) best. Thus, a great movie. On top of that, you throw in the fact that it is great movie-making as well, (telling the story through almost all black and white with splashes of color at times for emphasis), and you have one of the best movies ever made.
To take an example of a movie that I would not consider to be any kind of breakthrough in movie-making, let us consider last year's movie Doubt. Again, the acting, writing, and directing were all great. I consider this again to be a great movie.
Now let us consider Avatar once more. In terms of writing, the story was unoriginal and predictable. The script wasn't anything outstanding and was actually laughable at times. (Unobtanium is the element the humans are after? Really?) The acting was so-so. (Sam Worthington seemed to have trouble controlling his Australian accent.) The directing, however, was phenomenal. Again, the visuals were absolutely stunning. I felt as if I were pulled into the world of Pandora. I was amazed with the imagination it took to create this movie. It truly was breakthrough in terms of graphics and animation. Simply put, Avatar was extremely entertaining.
But does this make for a great movie?
Stepping away from (what have tried to be) objective elements of movies, let me get a little more subjective. When watching a movie, I want to be taken somewhere. Avatar definitely brought me into its story. However, I felt simply entertained after the movie was over. After watching a movie like Schindler's List or Doubt or Lord of the Rings or Atonement - those movies stick with me. I can't get them out of my system. I wrestle with them for days. I feel like I've been shown a piece of truth and reality, and somehow I have to do something with it.
So for me, great movies portray truth and change something inside of me.
I cannot say that happened to me with Avatar, but maybe it did for someone else. No doubt, Avatar had its great elements, but should it be considered among the greats?
I believe Hollywood will honor Avatar to an extreme this year. (It just won the Golden Globe for best picture.) The movie has been a huge money maker, but so was The Dark Knight and Spider-man 3, and in my opinion the Dark Knight is by far the best of all three. Could this be a sign that though we wouldn't admit it for ourselves, we are still allowing culture to dictate that just because something is beautiful it is something great?
But maybe that's a discussion for a later time...