What Makes a Classic, Iconic Movie: Unlocking the Formula

classic vs Iconic

Analyzing the Traits that elevate Movies to Classic and Iconic Status

My cousins and I spend hours waxing lyrical about films that we’ve watched and will often get into Euro temperature debates about various elements of what makes a film worth watching.  One such recent debate began when my cousin admitted that she had never seen The Breakfast Club.

After regaining my breath, I wondered how that could be? I have the DVD (yes, I’ve kept hold of my favourites) and I’d spent many hours during her formative years giving her, what I thought would be an enviable film education, but her admission made me feel like I’d failed.  

We had danced around and screamed the lyrics to Simple Minds and thrown our fists into the air, however she explained that this was just from her seeing clips on the internet, and other movies that had paid tribute to it such as Pitch Perfect (a movie which we knew word for word, and dance for dance).  But aside from this, she just wasn’t interested in watching it. She admitted that it was an iconic film, but she didn’t think it stood the test of time.

There on began a further debate. What makes a film appeal to people for generations to come? We’re talking, not just watch it once because you were told to, but actually enjoy it enough to watch it again and again from your own violation no matter what generation you’re a part of.

classic vs Iconic
What Makes a Classic, Iconic Movie: Unlocking the Formula 1

According to the Cambridge dictionary for something to be Iconic it needs to be “very famous or popular, especially being considered to represent particular opinions or a particular time”.  We can all agree that the Breakfast Club was indeed extremely popular and represented the fears and hope of teens coming of age in the 80’s therefore by definition it definitely earns Iconic status.

When I looked at the definition of classic it was harder to be establish a connection with the movie.  The adjective meaning would be that it is “high quality, or a standard by which other things are judged” so one check there, but then as noun describing films it would argue it would have to be “a piece that is well known, of a high standard and lasting value”, and that’s where it becomes questionable. Does it have lasting value?  

The Breakfast Club – Iconic – the Brat Pack doing what they did best but does not hold much weight with the Gen Z’s as it is no longer identifiable and doesn’t’ speak of their teen issues, despite the fact that the group are from mixed walks of life. At the time it came it was monumental and spoke to troubled teens everywhere. 

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We all know scenes from it, we can all identify the soundtrack, but would the current generation of Tik Tok governed almost adults down and watch all 97 minutes of it. Surely for the fashion alone, no? The film is brilliantly made and discusses issues of socio-economic status, romance, depression, bullying and popularity – something that every school aged human will come across, however, apparently not enough to give it that emotional tie to be revisited repeatedly. Where is that connection lost? In the characters? Or the story line? Maybe both.

So, when I asked her what she considered a classic movie, she provided a comprehensive list that I have to say I was quite proud of.  High on the list was Home Alone.

classic vs iconic Home Alone
What Makes a Classic, Iconic Movie: Unlocking the Formula 2

Home Alone achieved classic status because it can be watched again and again regardless of year.  It’s still charming, heart-warming, and funny. It brings families together, boomers, gen X’s, millennials and gen Z.  It doesn’t seem to matter how many times you’ve seen it before; Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas unless we’re watching Catherine O’Hara trying to gather her large brood for their family vacation.  The storyline although actually really concerning is equally endearing. Here we see literally a character for everyone.

Kevin’s fed up with his family attitude is something we’ve all experienced, thinking we’d be better off without them, only to miss them and all their annoying ways when they’re no longer with us.  We live vicariously through Kevin as he eats what he wants and comes up with the various tricks to defeat the burglars.  And the emphasis on togetherness is what cements it in the Christmas movie set list year after year.

I was pleasantly surprised when she added 12 Angry Men to the list of her perceived classic movies showing me that it was more than just a high school exam topic.  This black and white film was deemed a classic because of again the emotion that evoked.  The surprise came from the questions “why would this be relatable to Gen Z and what would make them happy to watch it repeatedly?”. This 1957 film with a majority white male cast should surely have the younger generations up in arms with anti-patriarchy and race rebellion but instead Reginald Rose wrote a movie that has us all thinking about the power of persuasion, social influence and how to form meaning debates. 

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classic vs iconic
What Makes a Classic, Iconic Movie: Unlocking the Formula 3

So quite rightly it doesn’t matter when you were born, you put yourself in the place of one the jurors.  You ask yourself, which juror am I, which would I be? You also feel the intensity and the importance of the decision that they are trying to make.  Your decision to watch it isn’t swayed by the language or the lack of variety in sets, the genius of the film is that you don’t even focus on that. And each time you rewatch it, you notice something new and challenge yourself again.

Now for balance I have to give you another film for the Iconic category Citizen Kane. Another one from the study list – but one that despite its poignancy for me personally, I’m repeatedly told by others is a one watch wonder – insert shocked face emoji.  I fight the urge to call out “Rosebud” every time I think of the Orson Wells 1941 drama, so for me this being iconic over a classic is questionable. But apparently, it’s age alone does not give it classic status. It has many scenes that are nothing short of excellent, but it’s often described as boring and one that only film people see the beauty in it.  

You would think that the politics, the love story, it’s use of montage and how it catapults you into a fantasy would draw the watcher in, but again there is that unrelatable feel to it. Apparently, you don’t route for Charles Foster Kane, a bit like the character of Gatsby, he’s a soul you wish you could like but just can’t, and therefore watching his life story once is enough.

There are many lists of what are claimed to be Iconic or Classic movies and I’ve found myself trawling through them to see if I agree or disagree, but it certainly has made me reconsider how I categorise the two. Such as moving the Scary Movie franchise from the iconic list to now classics, and Moonlight to iconic. I don’t know, I’m by no means an expert but one thing for sure, any film that brings all the generations together to either laugh, cry, or wonder at any given time is definitely one for the favourites list.  

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