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As Time Goes By, What Makes A Movie Timeless?

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's <em>12 Years a Slave</em>. It could become a classic.
Jaap Buitendijk
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. It could become a classic.

Awards season is upon us. And on top of us. And all over us with red carpets, acceptance speeches and actor antics.

America is smack in the middle of its annual three-month making-much-of-movies mania. The 2014 Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards — among others — have already been handed out. On Jan. 25, the Directors Guild announces its winners. Then in February the industry's writers, cinematographers and art directors — among others — will be honoring movie makers. Which all leads up to the 86th Academy Awards on March 2.

And then what?

Which of the beloved and belaureled Movies of 2013 will we still care about in 2113 and carry with us for years to come? Which movies of our time will become timeless? And, while we're at it, what makes a movie timeless anyway?

Strong Directors

Unsettling experience: You insist to someone that a movie is a solid and ageless gem and you sit down together to watch it and the movie is a flimsy and dated yawnfest.

It has happened with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. With Jeremiah Johnson. With A Clockwork Orange. With a lot of movies, actually.

It's not true of all movies of the past. Zorba the Greek is great. So is The Wizard of Oz. Field of Dreams works every time.

"I definitely think there are films that stand the test of time," says Ann Hornaday, movie critic at The Washington Post. She says some movies even gain ground over the years "in relevance and aesthetic estimation."

Such as? "One that leaps to mind ... is Apocalypse Now," Ann says. "That's a movie that certainly struck a more immediate, visceral chord about Vietnam when it was released in 1979. Seen today, it's still a potent visual and aural experience, and the brilliance of its component parts — the cinematography, the editing, the performances, the dialogue — may be even more easily appreciated in the absence of immediate topicality."

What the best movies share, says Ann, "is a great director at the helm, someone who has marshaled all the many elements — screenplay, actors, cinematographers, musicians, etc. — to create a cohesive, expressive whole. And strong directors necessarily have a strong point of view, which is crucial to making something that will endure — and not just be timely, topical and disposable."

Audience Affection

What makes movies timeless are audiences, says Steven Spielberg in a 2012 interview for Universal Orlando. "They are the custodians of these visual memories, these stories. And by holding onto a film, or a fragment from a film, that marks a time in your life that will always be a part of your life."

So memorable films are timeless — and vice versa.

When NPR movie critic Bob Mondello is asked "What makes a timeless movie timeless?" he says, "Man, I'd love to say quality and universal themes and leave it at that, but I think it can be equally a matter of audience affection, of when in your life you see a film, and of the ever-changing zeitgeist."

A film that is too much of its own time, Bob says, "is unlikely to feel timeless 10 years later — in fact, it may quickly feel dated."

Lots of motion pictures that are now regarded as timeless weren't that popular when they came out, Bob says, citing Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life and Citizen Kane.

Conversely, other films that were once regarded as great haven't withstood the scrutiny of time. Bob points to The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Oliver! (1968) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). All three of those movies "won best picture Oscars in years when arguably far more timeless films — Singin' in the Rain, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Day at the Races, respectively — were not even nominated."

Gripping Stories

A movie is classic, says Mia Mask, professor of film history at Vassar College, "if it's a well-crafted, well-acted, compelling story that speaks to the human condition in a way that's unique."

Of this year's batch, Mia says, two offerings stand out. Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave "is a classic that will stand the test of time," she says. And David O. Russell's American Hustle "falls into the category of '70s nostalgia-flashback films. They will both be remembered but for different reasons. "

The movie 12 Years, she says, "is a brilliantly crafted film. First, it's got a gripping story that speaks to the human condition. It has amazing performances all around. It's wonderfully written, the music is great, and it's well-paced."

American Hustle, Mia says, is one in a long line of "auteur renditions of the banalities, excess and decadence of the 1970s." She ticks off a handful of similar titles: American Gangster, Boogie Nights, Summer of Sam, Zodiac and Blow.

Mia points out that in Hustle "a director with a distinctive — or recognizable — style tries to capture the zeitgeist of the '70s."

Period Pieces

The same two movies moved Rebecca Regnier as well. "Looking at the list," Rebecca says, "I think the films set in a period are going to be the ones that hold up. American Hustle comes to mind and 12 Years a Slave."

Rebecca has wrestled with the notion — Movies That Hold Up and Those That Don't — on her Does This Blog Make Us Look Fat? She concludes that there are certain aspects that can date a movie.

She hands out her own DNHU (Does Not Hold Up) awards to certain movies. Anything with Michael Douglas in the leading role is a winner. A bad soundtrack — like the music from the 1985 Ladyhawke — can screw up a good movie. Princess Bride holds up, she says. As do Caddyshack and Risky Business.

Back to this year's roster, Rebecca saysNebraska has a classic appearance. "Maybe it's the black and white?"

And though it was not nominated for Best Picture, Saving Mr. Banks "is an adorable snapshot of the early 1960s," Rebecca says. "I think it will hold up, too, because it exists in its own Disney mythology. Disney is good at protecting that."

Her, on the other hand, "might not survive when viewed in a few decades," Rebecca says. "Gravity I think will hold up for Sandra Bullock fans, but I'm not too sure about its place in a sci-fi world."

Why not? "We'll probably invent things that make it seem silly someday. I hope so anyway. I sure as heck do not want to go into outer space if what happens to Sandra Bullock in Gravity is a possibility."

Like many of us, Rebecca is intrigued by timelessness. By weightlessness, not as much.

The Protojournalist: A sandbox for reportorial innovation. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 22, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Martin Scorsese as the director of American Hustle. The film's director was actually David O. Russell.
Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.