What’s the difference between a good movie and a great movie? In a recent lecture at Dolby Laboratories, San Francisco Chronicle senior film critic Mick LaSalle identified six qualities that make a movie great.

“You can make a classic movie without having all six of the tendencies, although a lot of them actually do have all six of the tendencies. But I have found that it’s very difficult to make a film that’s considered a classic without having at least three or maybe even four of them.”

LaSalle originally joined the Chronicle staff in 1985 as an entertainment columnist and became the lead critic in 1987. MLS_BookCovers

Now age 55, he has published his film criticism in hundreds of movie reviews and blog posts, and in three books: Complicated Women (2000) and Dangerous Men (2002), studies of Hollywood before the Hays Code went into effect, casting a fig-leaf-shaped shadow over many films; and The Beauty of the Real (2012), on the work of French actresses.

With clips from favorite movies, LaSalle discussed those six tendencies of great movies:

  • The movie is topical when new.
  • It embodies timeless human values.
  • It contains a great performance.
  • It has an overarching consciousness or personality that brings the movie into balance.
  • It contains at least one memorable scene.
  • It ends on a note of complexity, not just ambiguity.

A great movie “separates a lot of the lies that we live in and with,” LaSalle said, conveying a “pure truth” that attracts viewers year after year.

Tendency 1: Topical

“Great movies were often topical when they were new, or were in response to something going on in the world at the time,” he said. He showed clips from Queen Christina (1933), starring Greta Garbo, and Casablanca (1942), with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. In both, the characters must choose between duty and the desire to pursue love, with very different outcomes.

Poster_casablancaMade after the end of World War I, at a time of increased mistrust of government, Queen Christina favors the importance of the individual over the collective; she abdicates to marry the man she loves. But Casablanca, made after the start of World War II, “when everybody [had] to basically just submerge their own ambitions, their own desires,” shows the couple sacrificing their relationship out of a sense of duty. “These are two very topical points of view for their time and both contained within movies that I think we can safely identify as great. In any case, we’re still watching 70 and 80 years later.”

Tendency 2: Timeless

“Great movies usually embody timeless human values,” LaSalle said, “things that mean the same today as they did 50 years ago and as they will 50 years from now, … love, death, relationships between parents and children.” To illustrate, he played clips that depict a child’s relationship with her father and another that deals with love and death.

In A nos amours (1983), French actress Sandrine Bonnaire plays a teenager opposite director Maurice Pialat as her father. In a highly improvised scene, he quietly confronts her about staying out late with a boyfriend, then announces that he himself will soon leave the family. In C’est la vie (1999), Bonnaire plays a hospice worker who falls in love with a dying patient. Neither movie is likely to attract crowds to the multiplex, but the evocations of relationships are timeless.

Tendency 3: Great performance

Poster_letter3“Great movies tend to have a great performance.” To illustrate, LaSalle played a clip of actress Jeanne Eagels in The Letter (1929), a role that earned her an Academy Award® nomination. Her character has killed a man she claimed had raped her; her husband discovers that the two had been lovers and that she’d shot the lover in a jealous rage. In four minutes, Eagels rockets from embodying fear of being found out to utter scorn for the husband, who plans to keep her locked away in the life she has come to hate.

“She’s just wild! … She looks like she’s coming apart right in front of your eyes,” LaSalle said. “Part of what makes up great acting is that you feel that somebody is really giving us some of their substance.”

Tendency 4: Guiding vision

PsychoSquare“Great movies usually have some overarching consciousness that brings the elements together,” LaSalle said.

For example: If a movie “makes you feel nervous because you feel that something bad is going to happen from the corners of the frame, you know you’re watching a Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock will do that eight times, and seven times, everything will be all right.

“But the eighth time, Norman Bates will come through the bathroom door. … Ultimately, what makes something great is the personality behind it.”

Tendency 5: A great scene

“Great movies usually have at least one great scene—and by ‘great scene,’ I mean that when people leave the theatre, and somebody says, ‘Hey, how was that movie?’ they say, ‘Well, there was this thing that happened in the movie,’ and they tell you this thing. There’s something in the movie that is so identifiable and so memorable that it doesn’t get old.”

Poster_goodfellasLaSalle played a clip from GoodFellas (1990). Joe Pesci plays Tommy DeVito, a rising mobster entertaining a group of mobsters in a club. Ray Liotta as Henry Hill says something that Tommy pretends to find offensive. Tommy’s fake anger and menace is chilling; then he flies into a real rage, breaking a bottle over the head of the bar owner who has asked him to pay his enormous bar tab. “You’re scared of [Tommy] in this movie on the basis of this scene, before you know he’s crazy.”

Tendency 6: Complex ending

“Great movies usually end on a note of complexity, not to be confused with ambiguity. Their endings are like the sounding of a chord. … The whole thing has reverberations in different directions.”

In City Lights (1931), Charlie Chaplin plays a tramp who befriends a blind girl. The girl needs an operation to restore her sight. He borrows the money from a rich man; the girl has the operation and regains her sight. At the end, LaSalle said, “she’s waiting for this guy to turn up because she thinks that it’s this rich wonderful guy who’s going to make life wonderful, and it turns out to be this kind of pathetic mess—but it’s like … this wonderful soul. But it doesn’t look like there’s going to be much of a romantic situation going on there. It’s very complicated, and people have been reading their own emotions into that ending for the last 83 years.”

Movies and the box office

LaSalle believes that great movies are still being made. His choice for 2014 so far is director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, shot over 12 years with the same actors. “I don’t see how that movie doesn’t last,” he told the audience of Dolby employees.

The problem, LaSalle says, is there are fewer and fewer good movies. “And in a way the health of a particular era is … determined by how many good movies are made, how many three-star movies are made, as opposed to masterpieces. … Good movies spring directly out of what the tendency happens to be at the time.”

Many of today’s hit movies lack ambition, he says. There was once a direct correlation between top box-office titles and the movies that film critics declared as the best of a given year. No longer.

“When you see that the movies that are the biggest moneymakers are almost uniformly unambitious, then you have to [ask], well, whose fault is it? It’s the public. It’s what people want.”