Philip French: Will this year's films become classics?

Tonight, Hollywood will name the best movie of 2005, but that alone will not guarantee it entry into the pantheon of all-time greats. The Observer's film critic asks which recent pictures may one day keep company with Citizen Kane and La Regle du Jeu

Tonight in Los Angeles, one of five films - Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night, and Good Luck or Munich - will enter the record books as winner of the Oscar for the best picture of 2005. But will it become a classic? Will it be recognised as a cinematic landmark or milestone? Are there other potential classics this past year that have been overlooked by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as the public and critics? Will future generations mock us for not greeting these overlooked pictures with proper regard? Have recent years actually contributed any films to the permanent repertoire of world cinema?

Several querulous guests at the worldwide banquet to celebrate the centenary of the cinema a decade ago expressed the view that everything of value had already been achieved. All that was left to be done in the future, they felt, was remakes, conscious or unconscious.

According to Frank Kermode's 1975 book, The Classic, the first person known to have used the term 'classic' to describe a work in the great canon of literature is the second-century Roman writer, Aulus Gellius. The Greek and Latin texts he discussed were from a distant past, and he wrote that 'classicus scriptor, non proletarius' ('the classic writer is distinguished from the rabble'). By the late 18th century, the meaning of 'classic' extended beyond the ancient world to other literatures and arts, though, in the mid-19th century, Sainte-Beuve put the question: 'What is a classic?', which was to be the title of TS Eliot's 1944 address to the Virgil Society.

Aulus Gellius wrote, or quoted from a predecessor, that 'truth is the daughter of time'. He had in mind hundreds of years. More modestly, Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise, first published in 1938, proposed itself 'as a didactic inquiry into the problem of how to write a book which lasts 10 years'. Enemies of Promise did so last, and for much longer, and is considered a classic study of the literary life.

When Connolly wrote Enemies of Promise, the cinema was a mere 43 years old, and it almost certainly never occurred to him that more than a handful of movies would survive. In a sense, he was right. The pioneer moguls had little interest in preserving their productions; 80 per cent of silent pictures no longer exist. This neglect continued into the Fifties and Sixties, when the major studios didn't bother about the way the colour of their widescreen pictures faded with age, and the original negative of My Fair Lady was allowed to decay in Warner Brothers' basement. But all over the world, film archivists and that new breed of academic - the film scholar - has been preserving films and retrieving forgotten reputations.

When I became a serious student of the cinema in the late Forties, before there was a National Film Theatre and when few movies were shown on TV, you had to catch old films at film societies, in ragged prints in back-street cinemas or when re-issued. But there was a firmly established, relatively small canon of classic movies that had been created by the editors of serious film magazines and the authors of books on the new art. Most Hollywood films were frowned on. Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Antipodes were unrepresented in the cinematic repertoire, which largely consisted of films from Germany (mostly silent), Sweden (ditto), France and the Soviet Union. Italian neorealism was embraced, and these low-budget, naturalistic films persuaded potential film-makers around the globe that they should make similar cheap movies that recorded the world around them. A big change came in 1951 at the Venice Film Festival when Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) brought Japanese cinema onto the world stage.

French nouvelle vague directors encouraged cineastes everywhere to launch their own new waves. At the same time that Hollywood was being challenged by art-house movies, the critics of Cahiers du Cinema who became the directors of the nouvelle vague were changing received ideas about Hollywood. They turned Hitchcock and Hawks into gods, created a new hierarchy and elevated dozens of directors to auteur status. Among the nouvelle vague directors' heroes was Henri Langlois, the inspired creator of the Cinematheque Francaise. He insisted that everything should be preserved, however seemingly insignificant, and be available for screening. Cans of old films were stacked in his apartment, piled in any available space.

The shambling, chaotic Langlois was right. His fastidious contemporaries in other archives listened to advisers as to what they should preserve, then often protected the films from the damage that might ensue if they were subjected to exhibition. They were honest, but wrong. There is no established canon, Langlois asserted. Film fulfils endless purposes - social, sociological, historical, political, artistic, nationalist, personal and pleasurable - and anyone or any group can use, interpret or draw sustenance from the rich tradition of world cinema.

Already the gay community has incorporated Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain into its project, making it the centre of a sidebar event in the forthcoming Homosexual and Lesbian Film Festival at the National Film Theatre on 'The Queer Western'. The populist Empire magazine appeals to its readers to establish the best 100 films of all time. The elitist Sight and Sound polls a worldwide roster of respected critics and movie-makers every 10 years to draw up its '10 greatest movies' list, which have fluctuated more significantly in the last couple of decades.

There is, in fact, no canon any more. Cyril Connolly's '10-year test' means nothing in pictures when films costing $80m have a five-week life in the cinema before going to DVD and television. Aulus Gellius, Sainte-Beuve and Eliot would change their views of what constituted a classic should they revisit our excited times.

Lists of great movies voted by young cinemagoers invariably concentrate on recent successes. But many, possibly most, of the films voted for by older moviegoers, certainly in the recent past, were disregarded in their time. Welles's Citizen Kane, Renoir's La Regle du Jeu, Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, Donen's Singin' in the Rain and Hitchcock's Vertigo were critical and/or box-office failures. Their elevation to pantheon status has led to critics, in the English-speaking world at least, becoming unduly circumspect in making a judgment on controversial movies, lest they incur the contempt of later generations.

It is the critic's duty, I believe, to deliver honest opinions to posterity on the immediate experience of viewing movies, hoping that successors will respect their honest opinions and find them useful, rather than sneer at their insensitivity. I dislike the term 'classic' applied to new movies, as in 'instant classic'. We could say of a film that 'posterity might come to regard it as a classic' or 'it may eventually be elevated to classic status'. But chancing my arm on the cinema since 1990, I think that Wong Kar Wai's Hong Kong pictures, which I don't really like, will be popular in the future. Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, though not his Kill Bill, will enter the essential repertoire. These years have seen a major revival of animated pictures and the Toy Story films and a couple of Japanese anime will figure among the classics of this movement.

Brokeback Mountain, whether or not it garners an Oscar tonight, will take its place as a milestone western alongside Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves, because they permanently modify and enrich our understanding of the cinema's greatest genre. Movies that have an intense, immediate impact, drawing on current passions and concerns, will have a place in cultural history, without necessarily becoming part of the essential repertoire.

The Constant Gardener is a key social-conscience picture of our times. Will it be of more than historical interest two decades hence? I doubt it, as I also doubt that future generations will admire The English Patient as much as some of us have. Michael Haneke's Hidden disturbs us today, but will it retain its ability to puzzle, engage and imaginatively transform us the way Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad did 45 years ago? I think it will. James Cameron's sensationally popular Titanic has yet to confront the Connolly 10-year test. Already its reputation has considerably faded. He is, however, likely to be remembered for his two Terminator pictures.

There are serious contenders for posterity this year. David Cronenberg's oeuvre should survive, and A History of Violence, which attracted just two Oscar nominations, will be near its centre. But turning aside from the Oscars, there seems little doubt that recent films from Pedro Almodovar, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Bertrand Tavernier will take their place in the permanent repertoire. Goodfellas (1990) is probably the last Scorsese picture to be granted classic status, while his more recent ones will be valued merely as part of his oeuvre.

But who will decide? As the great John Maynard Keynes, one of the sponsors of the London Film Society that, in 1925, put the seal on cinema as the new 20th-century art, said: 'In the long run, we are all dead.'

· What are the classics of tomorrow? Email us at


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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