During this high-stakes political season, there is no topic more incendiary than … what makes a movie a classic movie. Attempting to honestly answer this slippery question will only result in threats made against your life. How dare you impose your own value system upon the entire canon of cinematic art? What gives you the right to promiscuously throw around the title classic simply because you liked it? Scumbag.
Fear not! Read on for the authoritative answer to the question of what makes a movie a classic movie, and impress all of your friends. No? Then, read on for one individual's opinion about the criteria that matter. Do not worry, you shall not find a clumsy, inept, or embarrassing attempt to list classic movies — that is a fool's errand and a sure-fire way to wake up the internet trolls. For now, let us simply begin with the definition of "classic."
No less than Merriam-Webster tells us that "classic" means "considered one of the best of its kind … of recognized value." Therefore, a classic movie must have agreed-upon value. But how should value be assigned? Is it found in the acting? The cinematography? The story, the characters, the special effects? According to Merriam-Webster, a classic movie must be so valuable as to be considered one of the best of its genre. So there is little to be gained by arguing that there is no room at the table for a science-fiction or animated movie — all are welcome, as long as they are best in their class. Which sort of places us right back where started, in a position of subjectivity. Perhaps we can find more substantial criteria in the next paragraph.
This does not necessarily mean a classic movie must have been made long ago. A modern-day movie can still have the potential for longevity based on its current cultural importance. A classic movie serves as a time capsule, perfectly preserving a certain place, time, and culture that yields increasing value with each viewing in perpetuity. American film critic Mick Lasalle points out during a lecture at Dolby Laboratories that "Great movies usually embody timeless human values … things that mean the same today as they did 50 years ago and as they will 50 years from now." Whether an old or a modern movie, neither should be valued on age alone but on their ability to remain relevant regardless of the time period. As Forrest Gump might have said, "Humans are as humans … are." Right.
Both literally and figuratively, a classic movie honestly shows us as we really are, in all of our bumbling glory. A classic movie produces a seed of honest truth about the imperfections, duality, and struggles of humanity. The totality of the film (its production, acting, visuals) nurtures that seed into an emotional response from the viewer. In other words, a classic movie sticks with you long after it ends, its significance slowly blossoming over time.
Which movies end up sticking in your craw is a strictly personal matter, and explains why there will never be total agreement about any "definitive list of classic movies." Make your own damn list, keep an open mind, and maintain some objectivity in how you choose to define value.
Sleep on, internet trolls, sleep on.