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Oscar-worthy, but are they classic?

By David S. HauckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 2003

In 20 years, Blockbuster won't be able to give away copies of "Chicago." "Lord of the Rings" will turn up on late-night TV after Ginsu-knife infomercials. And kids will squirm as Grandma drones on about "The Hours."

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Unlikely? Perhaps.

It's possible that all of this year's Oscar contenders will one day sit side-by-side with "Casablanca" and "Gone With The Wind" as silver-screen classics - though it could take decades for posterity to decide. "Citizen Kane," widely recognized as the greatest movie ever made, was panned by its contemporaries. It took 30 years for "The Godfather" to make its first appearance on one of the world's most prestigious best-movie lists.

Still, amid the big-budget summer fluff and formula flicks, it sometimes seems that they don't make 'em like they used to. One five-year stretch in the 1950s included Oscar-contenders such as "All About Eve," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "From Here To Eternity," "Roman Holiday," and "On The Waterfront" - classics all. These days, even the best movies lose their flavor more quickly than matinee Mike and Ikes. (Quick: What won Best Picture last year?)


But take heart, doubting Thomases. Critics say that lurking among the "Deuce Bigalows" and "Blue Crushes" of today are, indeed, contemporary movies that will one day be considered among history's best.

Ty Burr, movie critic for the Boston Globe, believes that Hollywood is still making future classics. "They always are," he says.

"They're just never the ones you think they're going to be."

Take "It's a Wonderful Life," he says. The suicidal spiral of George Bailey in Frank Capra's 1946 classic was too dark and depressing for Americans coming out of World War II. "It was a flop. It was considered a major debit for Jimmy Stewart," says Mr. Burr. In the intervening years, however, audiences have embraced the perennial holiday favorite for its timeless message of redemption.

Timeless themes are an essential part of classic movies, says Jamsheed Akrami, professor of communications at William Patterson University in Wayne, N.J. For all its recognition as a cinematic pioneer, "Citizen Kane" contains universal messages not exclusive to the 1940s, he says.

"Citizen Kane is still appealing because it's basically a movie about corruption of power," he says. "Corruption of power is an eternal theme."

The timeliness of a film can also play a crucial role in determining its future greatness. In the way that "On the Waterfront" was a parable of Hollywood's blacklist days, "Minority Report" - with its precrime unit arresting suspects before they have committed a felony - holds a mirror to America's war on terrorism. And 1998's "The Truman Show" foresaw today's infatuation with reality TV. Such timeliness, says Stephanie Zacharek, a film critic for Salon magazine, could give these two movies added heft.

"It could be that people pick them up again in 10 or 20 years and say, 'Oh my gosh, we didn't realize how crucial this was at the time,' " she says.

Ms. Zacharek says that classic movies tend to break new ground. "The movies that become classic, sometimes they're quite mainstream, but even within those parameters, there is something a little bit quirky about them or a little bit original," she says. For that reason, Zacharek thinks that "Mulholland Drive," the 2001 cubist mindbender by David Lynch, will become a classic.

That originality is crucial, critics say. As "Citizen Kane" spawned a decade of followers with its use of flashbacks and fresh camera angles, Quentin Tarantino's 1994 "Pulp Fiction" left a wake of knockoffs - including "Run Lola Run" (1998), "Memento" (2000), and "Irréversible" (currently in release) - each pushing the boundaries of non-linear storytelling.