My definition of a masterpiece is simple in that it coincides with the English definition of the word, which is basically an outstanding achievement by an artist or craftsperson of some kind. Am I infatuated with The Dark Knight? You bet your baterang I am. That's why I think it's a masterpiece. Do I think that with subsequent viewings I'll find it less masterpieceful? No. I can tell the first go around when a movie is better than 90% of other movies out there. Will I want to watch it over and over and over and over for the rest of my life? Probably not without long spaces between viewings, but that's true of anything isn't it? Unless of course we're talking about my kids who would love nothing more than to watch the same episode of Miss Spider's Sunny Patch on a continual loop for the next six months. I love Big Macs but I’m smart enough to not eat them for every meal for a month unlike some documentary filmmakers I can think of. Still, I do enjoy seeing some movies repeatedly at close intervals when they first come out. The Dark Night will be one of them. Knowing my past behavior, I'll probably see it five or more times during its theatrical run before I will get over the urge to ditch work and school and my family to try to get out and see it again.
So let's get specific, here’s what makes this movie a masterpiece:
Superior writing in terms of story, ideas, character development, humor, dramatic tension and dialogue
Superior acting in terms of believability, emotional conveyance, display of dynamic range and charismatic appeal
Superior Cinematography in terms of consistent tone, visually stimulating and mood appropriate lighting, innovative technique (IMAX format, and the flying camera that doesn't feel like it's in a helicopter to name a couple) and astounding choreography and composition (take the shot of the Joker getting into the bus and the camera dollying back and craning up to show the actual destruction of a building--anyone can set up 14 cameras and blow up a building, but that shot took guts and brains.
Superior Editing in terms of pacing, cross cutting between complex story lines and creating tension
Superior Funness in terms of being totally awesome and super fun to watch.
But here's the bottom line: films, art music--none of it so precious that we need to think ourselves to death with questions of is it too soon to know if it's a masterpiece or will there be a better one in the future? I call Batman Begins a masterpiece. The Dark Knight is even better, but man I love that first movie too. It's a simple question of opinion which is somewhat subject to common sense in terms of obvious questions of the quality of the work in question, but mostly the determination of masterpiece status has to do simply with the intensity and degree of one's admiration for the work. I'm not sure why that would change over time. There can be and are many many many many masterpieces in the realm of cinema.
And no I wasn't being strictly facetious in my post's title, I think Gates of Heaven is a masterpiece.
This is a movie that tricks you into thinking it's about pets when it's really about humans and very poignantly so. To address the question posted by Jason, I have no idea what Morris was trying to do with the film, but I believe that what the film does is to draw us in with compelling and humorous oddities, and to hook us emotionally with poignant and relatable explorations of Human and more specifically American issues of what makes a life valuable.
The value of a pet is obvious to most of the film's interviewees who seem to agree with Mack's assessment that they are meant to love and be loved in return. Nat King Cole must've had a puppy. Anyway, presenting this simple philosophy along with portrayals of people who seem to struggle a great deal with the being loved part is both thought provoking and heart-breaking. I'm reminded of the brilliant lecture by Professor Steve Duncan that I heard at BYU on the subject of documentary filmmaking where he described docs as praiseworthy for their ability to give voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless and to exalt the ordinary. It's clear that Morris finds these people odd and funny, and that he's making fun of them, but I get a real sense of love as well. He holds his camera on the ranting lonely old lady a lot longer than most of us would ever consider sitting and listening to her in real life. It's true that by putting her in his film he invites us to laugh at her quirks, but the laughter I think is not meant to be spiteful or judgmental. Most of us probably see our own grandmothers in her, and ultimately will probably become not unlike her if we're old.
Then there are the sons working at the pet memorial park. It's easy to laugh and say what a couple of losers, but only if you're someone whose never had to worry about being successful, proving yourself to anyone or just making a good living to provide for a family. Their failures along with Mack's represent such an aching in Middle America by people who don't know how to make their dreams come true or even what their dreams should be. They will always be judged by what they do 9 to 5.
This movie reminds me a lot of my time as an LDS missionary in the south. I met and talked to so many people. I heard their stories, I laughed at them and I felt their pain. The story of my mission would have a lot to do with preaching Mormonism just as this film had a lot to do with pet cemeteries. But the bulk of my mission story would be a mosaic of different personalities both tragic and amusing, and that’s how I saw this film.
Like I said before, to what extent Morris may want to be mean spirited, I really can't tell. I know in The Thin Blue Line he really depicts people as idiotic, but there we're dealing with people who were idiotic and most likely sent an innocent man to death row through there actions. (I apologize if I'm remembering the details wrong with TTBL BTW, it's been over a decade since I saw it). But with Gates of Heaven, I don't get that feeling of belittlement.
Sometimes the saddest and funniest subjects are one and the same.
Does Morris exploit his subjects? Absolutely, as does every other documentary filmmaker who every points a camera at a human being.
By the way, my favorite part humor wise is when the old guy in front of the cactuses listens to his wife for like 10 minutes then adds his contribution: the word neutered. I laughed my head off.
In short, see Gates of Heaven, it's a bat-tastic masterpiece.