What is a Classic Film?In your opinion, what is the definition of a classic film? What are some elements that make a film a classic?

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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What determines a classic film is the same thing that determines a classic piece of literature:  the test of time.  Period.  No film or literature of substandard quality would ever survive that test.  The key to passing this test of time is a work's universality.  Since you are specifically referring to films here, let me give expand upon this idea in the realm of cinema.

My suggestion of films that have stood the test of time:  The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Casablanca, The Godfather, and It's a Wonderful Life.  In regards to more modern films:  Star Wars, Superman, E.T., and The Exorcist.

My suggestion of films that people think will become classics, but absolutely will NOT:  Titanic and Twilight.  (Love the first and hate the second, but I have to admit, they have more hype than hope.)

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clairewait | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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It's rather like literature isn't it? Classic films will endure, and they will inspire, and they will keep people coming back to watch them. Interestinig thing to consider--how many "classic" films are based on "classic" literature? For example: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

I agree.  I think, also, that in order to be considered a classic (like literature) the film has to accuately capture some human sentiment for its setting.  All of the great books and movies that we turn to time and again seem to portray a time period from a perspective that allows those of us who didn't live through it, to understand it from a specific perspective.

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kiwi | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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I totally agree that a classic film has to endure and entertain, but I also feel that a film needs to extend the boundaries of the medium and take it to a new dimension. I can see that Disney's Up will become a classic due to its active audience shift to bring in the grandparents. Looking at movies with a more established reputation, I am a huge fan of Hitchcock's films due to the level of thought and effort to engage and shock an audience whilst remaining in the realm of the real.

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MaudlinStreet | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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I think in order for a film to become a "classic", it has to deal with archetypal characters/stories in some form. This connects to what others have said about the necessity of connecting across various generations, since archetypes are the link to our common human experience. I think it also needs to address some fundamental human emotion or conflict so the audience is reacting beyond a surface level.

Having said that, I doubt any 2 lists of classic films would look the same. I'm only 10 years out of high school, but I've already encountered the generation gap when it comes to films. I was trying to discuss One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and was disappointed to find that many of my students had never heard of it. One of them replied "Well, I was born in 1992". Of course, I had plenty to say to that, but I also resigned myself to the fact that not everyone would agree with me. Like the poster who finds Citizen Kane boring, I myself cannot sit through Gone With the Wind. However, give me Casablanca or any Frank Capra movie, and I will be enthralled for hours.

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marbar57 | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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By no means an oldie, I think the film "Gandhi" is destined to be a classic.  The array of emotions I experienced while watching that movie can't be adequately described!  It was moving, awe-inspiring, touching, loving, comical--it had everything and was pure entertainment at its height!  I'm told David Attenborough produced it.  He did a spectacular job!

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sboeman | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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I think, as others have mentioned, that it has to have a timeless quality to it-not just the film, but also the message and/or theme.  In addition, though, it should be revolutionary in one aspect or another: I find Citizen Kane, rated by many as the greatest film of all time, to be extremely boring, but it basically revolutionized film-making into an art form.  Check out AFI's Top 100 films and some of the films are rather surprising because of some new aspect of film making that was introduced (The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, etc.).

In-depth character study films can become classics as well, such as Raging Bull.  These films really help the viewers understand the struggles and motivations of the main characters.

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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I agree...it's much the same of what categorizes classic literature.  It stands the test of time, appeals to a wide variety of audiences, and deals with timeless and universal issues such as greed, love, revenge, etc.  Many teach one or more lessons, as well.   Some of my favorites include (but are by no means limited to) Somewhere in Time, The Wizard of Oz, and the Shirley Temple films.

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marbar57 | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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Classic films are films that are "of lasting worth or timeless quality."  They are well-made with great acting, music, and dialogue.  Their attention to historical details, costuming, and scenery are well thought out and done right.  Classic films are believable--enough so that people actually become absorbed in the movie to the point they feel they're part of the story.  Some classics deliver a poignant message that evokes strong emotions in the viewer, making them want to do better and be better people. 

Take a classic like "Gone With the Wind"--the acting is great, the music is spectacular, the scenery is breathtaking, the historical Civil War battle scenes are both authentic and heart-wrenching--though based on a novel, the story is believable.  It portrays to the viewer a multitude of messages:  that war is cruel and ugly, that love transcends all things, that jealousy rips people's hearts out and drives them apart, and that out of adversity's blackened ashes rise true heroes and heroines.  We laugh; we cry; we are inspired; we are angered; we are entertained!

That's what a classic does! 

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ask996 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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It's rather like literature isn't it? Classic films will endure, and they will inspire, and they will keep people coming back to watch them. Interestinig thing to consider--how many "classic" films are based on "classic" literature? For example: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

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martinjmurphy | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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To me a classic film is one that maintains its appeal through the generations; one that my parents found interesting, I find interesting and the younger generation finds interesting.  So, it of course has to be an older film. Next it has to have a message that is some what universal; that is, speaks to people no matter what age.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Great question.  Personally, I think to be considered a "classic" in my book, a movie has to meet a couple of key tests:

1)  Great dialogue - special effects will look outdated at some point, and action is just eye candy, where great dialogue and the relationship between characters stays with you, as do the lines and quotes that struck you throughout the movie

2) Stands the test of time - is popular with the generation after the one that first watched it, and the one after that.  Movies that are believable, well written and acted and meet criteria #1 will be popular for decades and with different age ranges.

3)  Offer some kind of revealing or profound commentary on the subject of the film or the time frame in which it was made, so that the movie becomes more than just a movie, but a reflection of society as well.

There's probably more, but this is the first time I've really thought about it.  Interested in what others think...

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