Three Qualities of a Memorable Movie

Watch a video essay that analyzes how movies last in our memory thanks to their combination of great music, cinematography, and conclusion.

Annihilation Memorable Film
Paramount Pictures

What makes a movie memorable? The films I remember the most are complex and thoughtful in theme and message. Sure, I love when movies are entertaining and well-executed, but I love the movies that make me think deeply about their philosophical, theological, or social implications.

A few recent films that have been particularly memorable, for me, include Annihilation, Silence, and The Florida Project. Each kept me thinking for days about their profound themes. Other viewers may remember different films for different reasons. However, the following video essay by Karsten Runquist argues that most movies are memorable to certain audiences for their technical execution.

In the grand scheme of things, I mostly agree with Runquist. He argues that the most memorable films successfully demonstrate technical prowess through a creative score, thoughtful cinematography, and a strong ending. Without excelling in these three aspects, a film turns out to be forgettable. Runquist distinguishes bad from forgettable, making the point that it’s worse to be unremarkable because people at least talk about bad films.

Runquist remarks that film scores are vitally important to their personality because good ones immerse your senses deeper into different scenes. A string section and some synth sounds aren’t enough to produce a thoughtful score and should be more creative in order to truly enhance a film. He names Swiss Army Man and Arrival as two films with unique scores that round out their tone. These films are great in their own right, but the scores here are wacky and mysterious, complementing the rest of their merits.

When I think of memorable film scores, I’m thinking of the songs I find myself whistling throughout the day. The Incredibles, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and Pirates of the Caribbean all have incredible scores that stick with you well after you’ve seen the films. Whether it’s the blaring horns of the theme to The Incredibles or the melodic opera from The Phantom Menace’s “Duel of the Fates,” these are movie songs are incredibly catchy, but they also benefit and enhance their films. When the oceans rage and the battles ensue, the Pirates theme only makes you more excited for Jack Sparrow to duel the enemy.

In regards to cinematography, Runquist believes most audiences will remember specific shots from movies rather than specific lines. Since many people are visual in nature, this makes it all the more important that a film’s cinematography is exciting, engaging, and thoughtful. He compares this year’s First Reformed to Disobedience. Both films feature similar color palettes and similar shots, but for Runquist, First Reformed outclasses Disobedience with camera characteristics unique to the film. The cinematography in First Reformed is inventive and thoughtful, while Disobedience is more generic and baseline, adding little to the narrative.

Cinematography is an art and should really serve to benefit the narrative. Through the camera, we experience the characters’ emotion, drawing us deeper into their lives, so it’s even more important that cinematography is intentional. Some films whose camerawork have resonated with me include Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Sicario, and Columbus because they all use cinematography to enhance the story. Sure, they all feature inventive and masterful techniques, but more than that, they capture the essence of emotion through the camera. Cinematography is memorable when it means something, not just when it produces perfect shots.

Lastly, endings can make or break a film. Many of us are familiar with the mediocre film that’s elevated by its stellar ending or ruined by a lackluster ending. This may be the most obvious indicator of a film’s memorability. Audiences often judge a film’s merit on its ending. While this may not be fair, it certainly makes sense. Those last 20 minutes of a film usually stick last with a viewer. Will it push the audience to process the film? Will it leave them wanting more? Or less?

Annihilation is truly mind-bending. Everything about it is great. From the dazzling CGI effects to the visceral acting to the complex storyline. I love everything about Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller, and I absolutely love the ending. I thought about that ending for weeks after watching it. What are the aliens doing here? Are they even aliens? Who was it sitting in the chair in the end? For me, I love endings that tie a whole movie together and provoke thought. The forgettable movies are those that simply tie up the loose ends or leave nothing to interpretation. I want to think at the end of a movie.

More to Read:

Lover of coffee, the emdash, and General Hux. Journalism student at Biola University in Los Angeles.