Most people assume that the words “film” and “movie” are synonymous, but these people are wrong.
A film is a movie at its most artistically successful, while a movie is an entertaining diversion captured on film. The greatest film of all time is “Citizen Kane” (ambitious, innovative, and artistically successful), while the greatest movie of all time is “King Kong” (bigger-than-life cheap thrills-n-chills).
Films are generally in black-and-white, often foreign, and are almost always more “appreciated” than they are thoroughly “enjoyed.” Films are usually longer than movies, and get much better reviews. They also tend to underperform at the box office, in part because nobody goes to see them.
Movies are usually in color, reek of Hollywood, and often utilize the fleeting thrill of the present to the point of dating light-years sooner than films do. They usually follow storylines that are predicable and trite, and take the form of popular genres like science fiction and romantic comedy. They also make a ton of money, even though they often serve as an excuse to either eat popcorn or make out.
One of the surest signs that a film is a film is that it’s made it into the Criterion Collection. Their catalogue includes some of the filmiest films ever made – artsy stuff like “The Seventh Seal,” foreign stuff like “The Bicycle Thief,” influential stuff like “Breathless,” and artsy influential foreign stuff like “8 ½” (and, in varying degrees, all of the above). Sometimes you don’t even need to be able to read to enjoy one of their films (i.e., it’s either British or American), but even then, context is often just as crucial as what’s happening on screen. I mean, how enjoyable is Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” without foreknowledge of where it stands in the canon of filmed Shakespeare? And when was the last time you got together with friends to watch John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln”? (Okay, so I did that once, and then got made fun of by the time the movie was over; turns out that, classic Americanism and cinematography aside, the film can seem pretty damn hokey to the uninitiated. For the record, I still stand by it, even though I probably never would’ve seen it if it wasn’t a Criterion. But I digress.)
Movies, on the other hand, are enjoyed by people who have never heard of the Criterion Collection. Another term for these people is the vast majority. They are a special group of people who know what they like and often just want more of it. As a result, many of the best-remembered movies come with two or more sequels, usually with diminishing returns, which is to say, the movies become increasingly more movie-y. These are things like “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Die Hard,” and anything that is animated without subtitles. There is often a film for every great type of movie – a “2001: A Space Odyssey” for every “Star Wars” – but these are usually seen more as academic necessaries than things to be cherished and shared with each new generation.
Sometimes a film can seem like a movie or a movie can seem like a film. Some of the best battles between the two have occurred at the Academy Awards, an institution that likes to think of itself as the chief vehicle for judging film, but more often than not gets sweep up by the populism of movies. How else to explain “Shakespeare in Love,” a movie that was dressed up like a film, beating out “Saving Private Ryan,” a film that moved like a movie, for Best Picture? Or the unprecedented success of “Titanic,” which is either the most self-serious movie or the funniest film ever made? (I mean, the protagonist almost doesn’t get saved because she is making out with a frozen corpse!) However, enough film Davids have overpowered movie Goliaths to give the Academy the illusion that they always know what they’re doing, as when “Annie Hall” and “The Hurt Locker” beat out “Star Wars” and “Avatar,” respectively, for Best Picture; in both cases, the lowest-grossing Best Picture up to that point won by beating out the highest-grossing movie ever up to that point.
Such moments are what give the Academy credibility, at least until you’re reminded that “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men,” and “Network” all lost Best Picture to “Rocky.” But many credit the success of “Rocky” to the fact that it was America’s bicentennial year, and the Academy wanted to go with something more optimistic than a film that invoked the sins of Vietnam (“Taxi Driver”), Watergate (“All the President’s Men”), or the modern media (“Network”).
And perhaps that says it all: Movies are the welcome escape from the starker film-like world we live in.
Just ask Travis Bickle.