What Makes A Film ‘Important’?


I recently went on a Martin Scorsese films bender and after I had more than my fair share of gangsters and Leonardo DiCaprio, I went on Youtube and found this insightful interview of Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. I strongly advise anyone to watch this interview, as both filmmakers discuss interesting points about the film industry. A matter that I noticed that came up in this interview and generally amongst filmmakers’ discussions was the importance of a movie. “I had to make this film because it was so important” or “It was a very important movie.” This got me thinking – what does make a film “important”?

I think it’s important to point out that there is a difference between the “greatest” films of all time and the “most important” films of all time. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is, but I’ll try my best to at least come up with suggestions in the form of three categories: time, themes, and dialogue. I thought a good place to start was the National Film Registry. The NFR is composed by the United States National Film Preservation Board and works towards preserving the most “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” in history. Every year, the NFR adds up to 25 movies to the prestigious list, which includes “Scarface”, “The Wizard of Oz” and “A Streetcar Named Desire”. You can view the entire list here. As of last year, there are over 600 films preserved in the Registry. What’s more interesting is that I only recognise a small proportion of the films named – there are numerous films/documentaries that I have never even heard of before; “The Right Stuff” and “Daughters of the Dust” for example. So, I tried see whether these films shared characteristics that could help me determine what made a film more important or not.

A. Time

One of the things that caught my attention was the issue of time. The most recent film on the NFR’s list is a movie called “Decasia” (another film that I have never heard of) which was released back in 2002 – over 10 years ago! In fact, almost all the films in the NFR have at least a 10 year gap between the year the film was released and the year it was added to the Registry. For example, Martin Scorsese’s classic “Goodfellas” was released in 1990, but wasn’t selected by the NFR until 2000. So, does this mean that a key attribute of an “important” film is longevity? I mean, we don’t say hindsight is 20/20 for nothing. Can a film only be considered “important” after a significant amount of time? Is an “important” film one that still resonates a decade after its release? What I do believe is worth noting is that many of the films included in the NFR were probably selected for how significant they proved to be during the time that they were actually released. Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” was an instant hit back when it was released in 1990, however, I doubt whether it would even be given a second’s glance if it had been released this year. So maybe it’s a combination of relevance and longevity that makes a film “important”?

B. Themes

I think an obvious ingredient of an “important” film is the theme. Whether it’s equality (“The House I Live In” 1945), self-evaluation (“Groundhog Day”, 1993) or even plain old nostalgia (“Toy Story”, 1995), the majority of the movies considered significant all have distinctive themes that affected (and still affect) the audience. A great example has got to be Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.” Somehow, the word “important” doesn’t seem to quite cover how influential this film was. Spielberg famously drew upon his childhood experience of his parents’ divorce in the making of “E.T”. The touching themes of neglect, imagination and hope spoke volumes to the film-goers of 1982, as the film is still regarded as one of the greatest of all times. I think it’s also worth highlighting the significance of films that were brave enough to reflect societal issues of the time, like “Dirty Harry”  which was praised for its true portrayal of crime in the 70s and how wearisome the American public had grown to be about the issue.

C. Dialogue

“I’m gonna make him offer he can’t refuse.” Without a doubt, unforgettable dialogue contributes to the “importance” of a film because it’s really a testament to either the innovative script or the improvisational skill of the actor. Quotes are a huge part of popular culture and I think “The Godfather”  is a perfect example. Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, “The Godfather” amassed a large portion of its success from its remarkable dialogue and the creation of mafia-centred nomenclature. In fact, author of the original book, Mario Puzo, actually made up the term “the Godfather” as a position within the mafia. I mean, even “The Godfather Part II” (which is also included on the NFR’s list) is filled with memorable quotes like “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Quentin Taratino’s “Pulp Fiction” is also included in the Registry. The non-linear storytelling may have made “Pulp Fiction” a commercial and cultural phenomenon, but I believe the great script which included the famous “Royale with Cheese” dialogue contributed greatly to the “importance” of the film. When you have time, get up the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movie quotes of all time and cross reference it with the National Film Registry’s list – it can’t be a coincidence that almost all of the films in the AFI’s list are also in the NFR’s! So, does this mean that “quotability” affects the importance of a film?

I’m sure I must have missed some factors out (like technical advances etc) but I wanted to keep this post as short as possible! I realise that this post is full of questions and this is largely because I’m not entirely sure what the answer is! I’m not entirely sure what makes a film “important” or not, but a small part of me thinks that I can recognise when a film is significant or not.

You can actually vote here to nominate any films that aren’t on the list (like “Fight Club” or “When Harry Met Sally”) and the NFR could consider it!