Most of us like watching movies for entertainment, to socialize, or to expand our perspective. Among the millions of movies out there, some of them stick out and stand the test of time. What makes a movie memorable? I’ve been thinking about this question, and I have pinpointed a few vital elements that might be the answer.
Before diving into the list, I want to clarify that I’m just a casual movie watcher, so I’m basing my opinion on my preferences. In other words, no movie critic was bribed in the writing of this article. Right then, on to the first vital element!
1. A Catchy Story & A Meaningful Message
Every movie starts with a script containing the main details on the action, characters, and scenery. From my point of view, the story is everything; nothing can save a movie with a lousy story.
In this context, catchy has multiple meanings: from a complex plot with many characters to a seemingly simple drama with unexpected twists and turns that keep the viewer at the edge of their seat. Every viewer has particular preferences, but I’m willing to watch any genre as long as the story grips me.
The message is equally important. People want to witness a movie they can relate to on some level or awakens something within them. A memorable film has a gripping story with a profound meaning concerning general themes like life, death, war, hope, fear, and any other subject that moves us.
As for me, I’m a die-hard LOTR fan, and I’m OK with action movies as well. Still, I also enjoyed Carnage (2011), a comedy-drama taking place in an apartment involving four characters bickering. I know it doesn’t look like much, but the script was so good that I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Of course, the stellar cast had a vital role in this, which brings us to the next point on the list:
2. The Right Cast
A good movie needs gifted and dedicated actors who care about the project, do their research, and have a deep understanding of their character. A competent actor can make the viewers understand the complexity of the character, whether it’s a protagonist or an antagonist. Moreover, good acting compensates for the script’s shortcomings, like James McAvoy literally saved Split (2016) and Glass (2019) with his portrayal of a character with dissociative identity disorder.
Some actors embodied a specific role so good that their performances became iconic, such as Jodie Foster as FBI agent Clarice Starling, Daniel Radcliffe as the boy who lived, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron man, etc. This perfect match between actor and role is a double win because both the actor and the movie get the critics’ and fans’ appreciation.
Casting can be a tricky part, especially when it comes to book adaptations. Many fans have complained about the cast of The Witcher(2020-), to give a recent example. I care less if the character looks exactly like in the book as long as the actor renders the character’s energy on the screen.
3. Breath-taking Cinematography
This term refers to ‘the artistic vision, tone, look, and feel of a video production’ (source), meaning the camera angles, color palettes, lenses, lights, perspective, costumes, scenery, and other elements of the particular aesthetic of the movie.
Cinematography shapes our view towards the material we consume, influencing how we perceive its message. For example, a black and white movie has a different impact than a color one. Let’s think about the infamous Sin City (2005), a gory black and white masterpiece meant to emphasize the dark side of human nature. In all this monochrome decadence, bloody red and golden yellow splashes become focal points, making a solid impression on the viewer.
At the opposite end, the soft aesthetic and large camera angles in Magic in the Moonlight (2014) fit the romantic genre and the time in which the movie takes place. The lush interiors, the sumptuous gardens, sunny beaches, and light-colored costumes immerse the viewers into the story. These are only two examples of how cinematography plays a vital role in the movie industry.
4. A Killer Soundtrack
Imagine a movie with no soundtrack: no song, no rhythms, no instrumental piece to accompany the epic fight – just silence. It sucks, right?
The music conveys emotions, helping the viewers understand the characters’ state of mind, anticipate the next scene, or meditate on their feelings.
Some theme songs are so epic that fans will recognize them after a few seconds. One famous example is this piece of The Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, called He’s a Pirate, composed by Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer. The latter has worked on the soundtrack of many popular movies, such as The Gladiator, Sherlock Holmes, Dunkirk, etc.
I also enjoy when movies/shows use already popular songs or give them a twist to fit the story, whether we’re talking about a cover, the instrumental version of the song, or a remix. I think it’s a clever trick because by associating a song viewers already like to the movie, you get them to appreciate the latter too. The Umbrella Academy is an excellent example (review here).
5. A Director with a Vision
The Director makes the elements mentioned above work together as a whole, according to his vision on the movie subject. He can edit the script, guide the actors, collaborate with the photography director, and make sure the scenes look flawless. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is the best example I can think of: he put a lot of effort and thought into every aspect. It paid off; the project became an acclaimed trilogy and a must-see for every movie enthusiast.
The biggest trap for a director is to get stuck in one genre, making all his works look the same. I feel this happened to Tim Burton, whom I admire, but who hasn’t had a creative breakthrough in quite some time.
6. Ultimately, the Movie must have a Soul
Apart from the technical elements that I’ve mentioned above, what really makes a good movie is the dedication of the entire crew. I’ve watched movies that matched all the criteria. Still, I’ve also watched terrible ones that stuck with me over the years because they just felt good. Despite a weak story, a low budget, or laughable CGI, the people involved did their best. The result was worthwhile in terms of acting, costumes, or other elements, making the final product entertaining.
Look, I know The Expandables is a mess. The trilogy is about a bunch of middle-aged mercenaries who don’t fit anywhere else but together – and I couldn’t have wished for more! The project brings together big names in the action genre, like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Statham, and Jet Li (to name a few), who have worked together in the past; it’s basically a buddy reunion with lots of shooting and fighting. What I love most about these movies is the fact that the off-screen friendship between the cast members translates on the screen. Also, the fight scenes are rather good. I might sound like an old person, but they simply don’t make movies like this anymore.
That’s it, folks! What do you think are the vital elements of a great movie? Let me know in the comments! Don’t forget to add some movie recs too!