“Citizen Kane” – What Makes A Classic?

It seems like a simple enough question. What makes a movie a classic? What makes a movie great? Are the two even the same thing? I started thinking about this after reading a post on a fellow film blog, The Critical Cinephile (which I highly recommend). That post, “Can Oscar Spot a Classic?”, looked at the Best Picture winners from the Oscars throughout the 1980s and placed them along with lists of other films that debuted that year. It would be a waste of time to run through them here (since you can easily hop over to The Critical Cinephile and check them out for yourself), but the overall idea is that what gets considered a classic film, a great film, the best film is A) not always the same thing and B) not always what we would pick to watch on a Saturday night with some friends. Why is that? Why is it that few people argued with 12 Years A Slave winning this year’s Best Picture, but I doubt that many people are going to pick it for a movie night flick or choose to watch it more than once (a common barometer of a classic film)? And yet I know plenty of people (myself included) who would happily watch Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues on loop, a movie that was sufficiently snubbed by the award show circuit this year. Obviously, 12 Years A Slave is a much heavier film (DISCLAIMER: I have not yet seen 12 Years A Slave so take everything I say with that in mind). It’s the type of film we should watch, the type of film we need to watch, but it’s not necessarily the film we want to watch. On the other hand, there is no reason in the world that I need to watch Anchorman 2but you better believe I will, over and over again. They’re both great films in their own ways. Are they both classics? Are either of them? Is there a world where these two movies could be described by the same adjective?

If you’re looking for an answer from me, you’re out of luck I’m afraid because I have no clue. I think there are movies that are important to watch. I think there are movies that are fun to watch. I think there are movies that are important to appreciate for their historical or technical significance. I think once in a long while, there are movies that hit all of these marks, and those are the ones we can safely call classics. But I don’t think a film needs all of these to be a classic. To me, movies are so diverse and watching a movie is such a subjective and personal endeavor that it’s almost foolish to come up with a definition for what a classic is or needs. What makes a movie classic for you? What movies do you consider to be classics? Post in the comments!

Now that I’ve spent three paragraphs rambling about how I don’t know what a classic movie is, let’s talk about a movie that is almost universally considered to be one. When AFI came out with their original list of the 100 greatest movies in 1998, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane pulled down the top spot. 10 years later when AFI updated its list, Citizen Kane refused to budge from its top perch (FUN FACT: Citizen Kane lost the 1941 Academy Award for Outstanding Motion Picture to How Green Was My Valley). My parents and I had never seen it so we decided to culture up and watch the greatest movie ever made. Here’s what I thought:

1. Citizen Kane

Released: 1941
Big names: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins and Agnes Moorehead
One sentence summary: A reporter looks back on the life of a powerful newspaper magnate (Welles) to try and decode his mysterious dying words.
Scene that sticks out: Shots of Kane’s massive private island of Xanadu are impressive especially given the mature vintage of the film.
Thoughts: I was nervous going into this one. I mean it’s Citizen freaking Kane. The greatest movie of all time. What if I didn’t like it? Would I be able to show my face in a movie theater again? Luckily for me, I was spared that foul fate because I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I loved the story centered around power, vanity and the media. I loved the painfully flawed Charles Foster Kane (played wonderfully by Welles) who showed us the dark underbelly of the American Dream. I loved the storytelling technique of using several narrators to tell the story of Kane’s life entirely in flashback. I loved Welles’ use of space throughout the film to demonstrate Kane’s distance from those around him. And I loved the simple question of Welles’ dying words (“Rosebud”) which carried the film and was finally answered justly at the very end.
Ranking (out of 10): 7-10 – It was a great watch, but I don’t know if I would choose to watch this repeatedly like I would some of the other films on this list.

And the Oscar Goes To…

A spot on the AFI 100 Years…100 Movies list may prove a film’s lasting impact, but the measure of a great film in any given year comes in the form of a small, golden man named Oscar. Since 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Academy to its friends and family) has named one film the best of each year. Since 1962, that award has been known as the Best Picture. So you would figure that the 100 greatest films of all time would be locks for such an award. You would be wrong.

A look at how the AFI 100 Years…100 Movies have done in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards.

NEXT WEEK: As I head back home to school after spring break, we meet up with everyone’s favorite alien in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. 

5 thoughts on ““Citizen Kane” – What Makes A Classic?

    • Thanks! I figured a shout out was the least I could do for providing the inspiration for the post. I know you work mainly with lesser known films but if you ever feel inspired to write on an AFI film, let me know and I’d love to do some sort collaboration. Thanks for the read and the comment!

  1. I really liked this post! My favorite movie is Trainspotting, and one of the reasons I like it so much is that it isn’t an unqualified “classic movie”. Even though it has its share of critical acclaim and has been put on some greatest movie lists, its Rotten Tomatoes rating is only 89% and Roger Ebert only gave it 3 out of 4 stars. The movie is a little off-putting to some people, which is why some critics don’t like it, but it’s also why I do like it so much. But I have watched Citizen Kane, and even though I would say that Citizen Kane is a masterpiece that deserves its reputation, it will never be my favorite film.

    • There definitely is an added element to a movie that not everyone loves. We all have different things we look for in movies which leads us all to our own classics. For me, The Shawshank Redemption and Apollo 13 are my personal classics. Both are liked movies and Shawshank made its way to AFI’s 10th anniversary top 100, but neither has the esteem of a Citizen Kane. But I will sit down and watch either of them at anytime. I haven’t seen Trainspotting but it’s on my list now!

      Thanks for the read and the comment!

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