Oscar-worthy, but are they classic?

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."

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.

And Burr predicts the originality of the computer-animated Pixar movies - "Toy Story," "Toy Story II," "A Bug's Life," and "Monsters Inc." - will propel them into the rarefied air of the classics.

The sheer weight of the subject can also help. " 'Titanic' is sort of a law to itself," says Leonard Maltin, film critic for "Entertainment Tonight" and host of the syndicated weekly movie show "Hot Ticket." "I think we'll still be looking at that film because we're fascinated by the Titanic." For this reason, Mr. Maltin adds, Holocaust movies such as "Schindler's List," "The Pianist," and "Life is Beautiful" can stay with the public because of their ties to history.

The great movies tend to have a level of complexity to them that isn't entirely obvious to the viewer at first glance, says Zacharek.

"Sometimes there's this stealth factor at work," she says. "A movie just plants a seed in you. And you don't realize it until you've gone home, and you've tried to forget about it - and you can't."

This complexity can hide a movie's greatness initially, says Charles Dove, director of Rice Cinema at Rice University in Houston. Many Stanley Kubrick movies were not well received - especially "2001: A Space Odyssey," a movie that broke many established norms by having no single character, no romance plot, and no clear narrative thread. It wasn't even nominated for best picture in 1968.

"It was perceived as ponderous and pretentious," Professor Dove says. But over the years, people began recognizing its innovation. Today it is No. 6 on Britain's prestigious Sight and Sound's Top 10 list of all time.

Dove says that "Fight Club," which, like "2001," initially got panned, is gathering the same kind of momentum. One reason for its growth in popularity is the DVD revolution. Dove says that DVDs will play a big part in determining which movies become classics.

"The Matrix," a fixture in many DVD collections, is leading that charge. The fact that young people can watch a movie like "The Matrix" over and over sears it into their psyches, Dove says, and will likely carry it into the future. "It is so much a part of their ethos as a human, they go around thinking in the terms of those characters," he says.

Akrami is not so sanguine about the effect of so easily renting and owning movies. "In the past two decades, the proliferation of videos has made our access to movies much easier," he says. "Because of that, we tend to be less awestricken by new films."

But the Globe's Burr says it's easy to romanticize the past. "What you don't remember is that for every 'Casablanca,' there were about 50 totally run-of-the-mill ... movies that we don't remember," he says.

For Burr, it comes down to what it always has: a good story well told. He cites "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" as this year's best example. "It takes you to a place with absolute and total conviction," he says. "And it's not so much the special effects as the conviction of the storytelling. That's why I think it will last."

Of the final five this year - "Gangs of New York," "Chicago," "The Pianist," "The Hours," and "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" - Roger Ebert, movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, thinks that only "Gangs" might become a classic. He is more hopeful for three movies that weren't nominated. " 'Far From Heaven,' 'Minority Report,' ... and 'Adaptation' will have the best chance," he says.

Zacharek looks overseas, with "Yi Yi" (Japan, 2000) and "ChungKing Express" (Hong Kong, 1994) as two she thinks will endure. And Mr. Ebert says classics could come from the ranks of the independent films as well.

"They come from where they come from," he says. "You never know until they arrive."

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