What makes a movie a Best Picture? Inside the mind of a film critic ahead of The Oscars

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Posted at 11:41 AM, Apr 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-22 11:41:26-04

Tom Santilli is a respected journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association, Detroit Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society since 2010. Tom is the Executive Producer and co-host of the syndicated TV show, "Movie Show Plus," which has been on the air for 20+ years in the Metro-Detroit market and Mid-West. He is also the film critic for WXYZ-TV.

It seems simple enough: What makes a movie a good movie?

The experience of watching a film is subjective of course. You have to factor in not only what you're watching, but where, when and with whom you're seeing it. "The Wizard of Oz," for example, is a great film on many fronts, but its achievements in sound, visual effects, production design or musical numbers are not why I personally think of it as a great film. Sure it has all that, but it's great to me, because it reminds me of my papa and grandma's house, of being a kid curled up in front of their vintage TV, seeing the joy on their old, wrinkled faces, rewinding and watching that tired VHS tape like there wasn't a care in the world. There really wasn't back then.

A question I often get asked now that I watch movies for a living is: "What makes a movie a good movie?" Sidestepping that direct question, since it is "Oscar Week" (the 93rd Academy Awards air this Sunday on ABC), I thought I would ponder a similar Oscar-themed inquiry: What makes a movie a Best Picture candidate?

I put some thought into this and asked some of my fellow film critic colleagues to ponder the concept (and looked to a few of the icons of the profession as well), in the hopes that the average movie-goer may gain some insights as to why critics like certain movies and dislike others, and what makes some movies a Best Picture candidate and others, not.
Let's just state right off the bat and say that simply because a movie is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, or even wins the Best Picture Oscar, it still isn't a reliable barometer for what makes a movie great. There have been many Best Picture winners and they're all, of course, different, with different attributes and different things they've done effectively. Looking across the board at all of the Best Picture Oscar winners over the years, you could probably draw some commonalities (they are well-acted, well-directed, or both), but there isn't an all-encompassing "recipe"...if there was, the studios would have figured out the ingredients long, long ago.

Don't forget too that many great films have not been nominated...I don't need validation, for example, that "Tombstone" isn't one of the greatest, most watchable movies of all time (or that Val Kilmer's Doc Holiday isn't one of the best performances ever...a different subject...). It is, to me, and ultimately that's all that matters. And it was nominated for a total of zero Oscars. Conversely, the 1996 Best Picture winner "The English Patient" isn't in my top 1000 movies.

To better understand the mind of a film critic when he/she is enthusiastically claiming a film is "one of the year's best" or even "one of the best movies of all-time," it's important to acknowledge the overriding role of film criticism - or any criticism - in relation to any artistic endeavor. The late, great Chicago Sun-Times film critic, Roger Ebert put it this way:

"Film criticism is important because films are important. If films weren't important, the criticism wouldn't matter so much. Films are the art form of the 20th century...the affect the way that people think and feel and behave. And they can be both a good influence on society and a negative influence...the job of a film critic is to encourage good films and to discourage bad films. Of course it's his opinion if it is good or bad, but that's what makes it interesting." - Roger Ebert (Archive of American Television)

By the way, I pinch myself sometimes when I consider the fact that I am now and have been a "professional movie critic" for over a decade, and that I get a voice in groups like the Critics Choice Association and the Detroit Film Critics Society, both of whom nominate and award a "Best Picture" each year. What are these collective groups looking for when making their selections? When crafting a year-end "Top 10" list, why were those movies chosen above others, or to get more into the weeds, what makes the #2 movie better than the #3 movie on the list?

If you're NOT a film critic and you're reading this, you probably have your own opinions on movies. Opinions that, by the way, are just as valid as mine. I've always rejected the idea that because I'm a "professional," that somehow makes my opinion on a particular film "better" than yours. Again, I look to Roger Ebert for perspective:

"Criticism itself is a first-person's not a science, it's a personal essay." - - Roger Ebert (Archive of American Television)

So in other words, if your favorite movie is my least favorite movie, is one of us "right" and is one of us "wrong"? Is "Cloud Atlas" - one of my favorite films of the past decade - a worse film because it was panned by other critics and was a box office disaster? Or do I get extra credit points because my love for "La La Land" was more in-line with popular consensus? Does my opinion make yours invalid?

To all of these questions, of course not.

So why listen to what a film critic has to say at all? Can someone claim to be an "expert" on something that is agreeably subjective? NY Times film critic and author A.O. Scott puts it like this, in his book "Better Living Through Criticism":

"It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us.

What am I supposed to watch, to read, to feel, to dream about? What do I want?

This state of wondering paralysis cries out for criticism, which promises to sort through the glut, to assist in the formation of choices, to act as gatekeeper...There is only so much time, so much money, so much cognitive space, and we might require help in using it wisely...This is the job of the critic..." - A.O. Scott

Interpreting this in my own words, film critics can contextualize a film, can offer insights based on things they are trained to look for, or can add weight to a film by reflecting on the history of that film's genre and sharing this knowledge with the movie-goer. It's one thing to read and interpret Shakespeare, but it's interesting to hear from a historian and an expert on Shakespeare's full body of work. It's the reason why episode "recaps" are've already watched the episode, but you seek out clarification, opinion or deeper meaning as to what you just saw. Often times, that "expert" can deepen our understanding, widen our horizons, or even (gasp!) change our ways of thinking.

For me, when I call something my "favorite movie of the year," I'm regarding it as the one movie that affected me more than any other. I don't actually quite know what that "thing" is about it most of the time. Speaking personally, I'm able to allow for a film's imperfections if the overall work blows me away. A "lesser" film, I may nitpick because I felt nothing, or very little, from watching it. I enter every single movie to have a profound experience, knowing that of the 200+ movies I'm going to watch in any given year, only a handful of them will deliver.

Ebert - yes him again - offers a great way to look at movies as "relative to genre":

"Ratings are the bane of professional film critics, and in the paper (The Chicago Sun-Times) I give movies one to four stars. And the only way I've been able to live with that is to consider them to be relative to genre. What is the purpose of this movie? What do people expect from it? What do they hope from it and does it achieve that? If it's a really good slasher movie, like 'Last House on the Left,' I'll give it a good review. But if it gets "x" number of stars, that doesn't necessarily mean it's as good a film as 'Citizen Kane," which got the same number of stars. Stars are relative, not absolute." - Roger Ebert (Archive of American Television)

Here's what some of my favorite contemporary film critics had to say when I asked them to explain how they select a "Best Picture" and what they're looking for.

Film critic for Us Weekly & SiriusXM Volume, Mara Reinstein writes:

"So most Best Picture nominees are impeccably executed across the board, from acting to costume design. But to me, that’s not enough. I want to feel something. Anything. Let me feel joy or pain or terror or love — and, perhaps most important, empathy. And let me feel it organically, not as a result of a bunch of executives getting in a room and pressing buttons to manipulate me. A Best Picture winner is a movie so well done that I want to watch again and experience these emotions, even under the most extreme of circumstances. If Michael Keaton is in the movie, even better."

Michelle Kisner, film critic for writes:

"When it comes to the Oscars and Best Picture nominations, I look for a film that makes me feel something and a fresh perspective. It doesn’t have to be particularly flashy, but it needs to be apparent that the filmmakers had a lot of love and passion invested. Looking at past winners (some I agree with and some I don’t) it seems that Oscar voters swing back-and-forth from comfortable so-called “Oscar bait” to edgier choices. I was overjoyed, for example, when The Shape of Water won in 2018 as genre films don’t seem to get a fair shake with nominations. That film encapsulates the kind of thing I’m drawn to--creative, emotional, beautiful, and at times quite dark.

I’m also a fan of strong auteur driven works that resonate with a singular vision. Something that feels personal to the director. In 2017, Barry Jenkins’ vulnerable and illuminating Moonlight was that film. This year’s Best Picture nominations are varied and the directors diverse, movies that rose to the top during a pandemic year fraught with fear and challenges to the film industry. Whichever one wins, I think it will inspire joy because it means that art is still going strong and is ready to make a comeback."

Adam Graham, film critic for The Detroit News puts it like this:

"Ideally, a Best Picture winner should be the cream of the crop of the year it was released. It should at least somewhat align with popular tastes and it should reflect something about both where we are as a society and where the movie industry is at, at that given moment of time."

So to summarize what makes a movie a Best Picture? It has to be technically sound, unless it isn't. It has to be well-acted, unless the acting isn't what grips you. It needs to be socially relevant, unless of course it isn't necessarily. It must be popular, unless of course you're the only one that likes it. It must not contain any flaws, unless you are able and willing to overlook them for the greater impact the film has on you. And it must make you feel something, unless...unless...

Actually, that's the key. In other words, the movie just has to be great, to you, and that's really all that matters.