Do films need a pyramid?

The straight-forward answer is no, they don’t. However, the critics and any member of the audience who wants to be savvy in the language of film need one to accurately judge the film and examine their values. I may have committed few faux pas in compiling the following pyramidal scheme (9th level being the most populated to the rare treats of the 1st level). One, I follow Hollywood movies primarily, and two, I have my own prejudices. What follows is just a handy guide, not a set of rigid rules.

9. The Cheap: This reviewer simply refuse to examine the 9th level, which probably includes 70% of movies being produced by Hollywood. Cheap thrills, sensational horrors and lackadaisical acting are just three most polite things I can think of when I went to see movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Final Destination.

8. The Exorbitant: On the eighth level, we find the movies with the largest audience, which just don’t mean that they don’t have cheap thrills and terrible plots. In 2007, one magic word topped box office top-ten lists the entire year: threequal: Spider-Man, Shrek, The Bourne Ultimatum, Rush Hour, and Ocean’s Thirteen just to name a handful. And then there are movies based on toys (Transformers), amusement park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean), resurrection of old sagas (Rocky, Die Hard, Indiana Jones), and exploitation of every superhero envisioned on comics (Daredevil, Fantastic Four). They cater to the largest audience, young and old, but lack cinematic value (or any value what so ever).

7. The Simple: Some call the films in this level ‘guilty pleasures’ or ‘feel goods’. I call them ‘unrealistic’. Every teen movie put on screen, every Disney movie (animated or otherwise) falls into this category. They do cater to a smaller audience that level eight’s blockbusters and have some values but it is as if those values are seen through the eyes of a simplistic five year old. The struggle between good and evil and love conquers may fittingly belong to a toddler’s bedtime story cache, but on screen, they are just too simple.

6. The Limited: The Cult movies rarely achieve audience outside a small group of fans, but they do make a lot of noise, and even sometimes appear on the best movie lists. Such examples include Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, and Pulp Fiction. In the middle, we have movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Big Lebowski, and at the opposite end, we have so-bad-that-it-is-worth-laughing-at movies like Night of the Living Dead and Showgirls. It is by far the most exhaustive category. Blockbusters (Blade Runner), simple movies (ET), animations (Fantasia) and classics (2001: A Space Odyssey) all can belong in this category and also in somewhere else.

5: The Borderline: The action is pleasurable to watch. The acting is to the point. The plot is perfect. The only thing that is wrong with the pictures that fall into this category is their overall lack of cohesion and themes. Movies that are adapted from novels usually fall into this category because the adapted screenplay truncates the small nuances that make the book great. Recently Atonement is a good example, but the great examples include early James Bond movies (latter ones are simply terrible) and critically acclaimed The Prestige. They are worthy of second or third viewings, but aren’t timeless.

4. The Pure: We are finally in the good territory. Small, yet complex and pure is how I will define the movies in this level. By my criteria, movies like Lost in Translation, Annie Hall and It’s a Wonderful Life are good not good matches for the movies we will see in further levels. Every Woody Allen movie and similar art and indie movies fall into this category.

3. The Novel: The word ‘novel’ is this category’s sense is ‘new, unexplored’ but its other definition as a work of fiction doesn’t seem far off either. The movies like Sleuth and Rebecca explore the hard-to-discern triangle between identity, integrity and love, but they are also based on stellar original scripts. These movies can stand in their own right as great movies but Hollywood just has to ruin them through terrible remakes and sequels. In Sleuth’s case, the remake ruined not only the original but also the play itself. (Incidentally, it is the second time Jude Law ruined a great Michael Caine movie; the first time was with Alfie.) Indeed, the first Star Wars trilogy and the first installments of Jurassic Park, Pirates of the Caribbean, Ocean’s Eleven (with Frank Sinatra), The Pink Panther (David Niven-Peter Sellers version) are great, their follow-ups not so.

2. and 1. The Great and The Exquisite: When it reaches to the pinnacle, the rankings matter a little. Other factors (a popularity contest) come into play. In apples to apples comparison, The Birds will be in the second level while The Rear Window will be in the first, because the latter relies on psychological provocation, while the former makes use of sensational and more physical elements. What makes a film more than great is its language. A film which is physically oriented tends to create an artificial approach towards the audience. A film that speaks directly to the audience’s mind plants a powerful idea which is spontaneous. That is what films like Citizen Kane, Casablanca and There will be Blood achieved and that is why they are not only great but also exquisite.

P.S. Some movies are exceptions and can’t be put into a specific category. For example, I am at loss with that terrible boat movie of James Cameron on whether to assign it to The Exorbitant, The Simple or The Limited. One thing I know for sure, it isn’t novel, great or exquisite. Oscar count sometimes belies too. Titanic and Lord of the Rings’ final movie both got eleven golden statuettes but they are not Ben Hur quality. A notable omissions is with the Biopics.

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