Are Movies Getting Worse?

It depends on who you ask. The average citizen in the street might say no. Movies now have 3D, wonderful sound, and computers have all but removed the necessity for actors.

But film critics might say yes. What good is 3D when two will suffice? What good is stereo-hydro-thrillo-ponic sound when you give the actors nothing to say? And computers have been responsible for some of the biggest messes ever put on screen (think Michael Bay).

So when were the greatest movies made? Recently, or in the past?

Having just finished reading, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era by Thomas Schatz—highly recommended—and drawing on experience, yours truly is convinced that Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age really was golden.

The 1930s to 1940s (plus or minus a year or two) saw the release of Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Double Indemnity, All About Eve and many other classics.

The 2000s have seen Transformers a-plenty, Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , WALL-E, and many other computer-animated cartoons. Each of these, except Transformers, has something to like about it, but all are polarizing. Many out there thinks at least one of these is the “best movie ever“, while many others would be inclined to put them at the bottom. You don’t find that kind of sharp divide in top movies from the Golden Age.

Schatz’s thesis, in part, was that when discipline ruled, there was a more of a chance that a production would be good. He didn’t produce any quantitative evidence of this, but I wondered if it could be found. So I compiled lists of the “100 Best Movies”, as judged by both critics and citizens.

I joined all the critics together and noted in what year their 100 best movies appeared. And then I did the same for citizens. The sources I used are these:

  • The American Film Institute is the best known critics list. The one used here is the current, 2007 version.
  • Rotten Tomatoes is another critics list. The ranking is by the number of reviewers giving the movie 100%. This list appears to have been generated recently.
  • The Internet Movie Database has a list based on reader’s votes. It is generated automatically. Only the top 100 (out of 250) were used.
  • Mr Showbiz, now defunct, but at one time quite popular, had two lists (maintained here): one of critics and a users choice. Neither list was updated after 2001. This will introduce bias to the extent that top movies came out after 2001.

Best Movies

 

I joined together the citizens and critics list separately and plotted the frequencies of the years of their top movies. Citizens thought the best flicks were in the mid to late 1990s. Critics picked the Golden Age.

According to citizens, movies are getting better, at least until very recently—however, this late drop off is very probably a data artifact because the Mr Showbiz data stops before 2001.

Critics feel that movies have been getting worse—and there is still the chance of bias right at the end because of Mr Showbiz.

An objection might be that there is a bias introduced by using internet-based voting systems, such as IMDB’s. There is a bias to the extent that the IMDB list does not reflect the average, non-IMDB-using citizen. That means old people. This means, probably, that younger people like that with which they are familiar. No surprise there.

But this criticism doesn’t work for the critics guides. Critics really do think that movies are getting worse. I agree. The decline is steady, and given the trend towards the spectacular and character-free glitz, it is likely to continue.

25 Comments

  1. Taking AFI for instance, Casablanca has moved from #2 in an earlier version to #3 replaced by The Godfather. Now why is that? Will it sink still lower in the future while being replaced by movies it competed with in the past? The critic lists (and IMDB) aren’t really ratings so much as indicators of rater tastes and experience. They should only be used for calibrating reviews against your own tastes.

  2. I will say that I detest Gone With the Wind, and don’t understand the accolades that insiders shower on Citizen Kane.

    It takes a few years for a movie to settle in the popular culture. Something that I have alwasy found interesting about these lists, is how frequently the “Best Picture” for a given year has been forgotten, while movies that were not consided brilliant at release cimb the ranks.

  3. Ah, this is a frequent subject of contention between my husband and me. When I make the statement that “they don’t make them like they used to”, he explains that they are just playing to their target audience (young people). But to me, if they weren’t making such crappy movies, I’d go watch them more. The movies moved away from me, I didn’t move away from them!

    Also, given that you are only using internet based lists, I would say that this heavily biases your citizen data towards higher regard for newer films. Especially since you essentially have NO data from people who were young when the classics came out. Just a thought, Hilfy

  4. Hilfy,

    The AFT’s and Rotten Tomatoes are on the internet, but not of it. The AFT is peopled with film critics, and the RT list compiles reviews from newspapers. It is hoped that professional critics have some judgmental abilities over plain citizens.

    The abilities, as Doug M and DAV rightly point out, are not perfectly nor static. But it is hoped they have some value.

  5. Uh, shouldn’t your title be “Are Movies Getting Better”? It looks like from your first two paragraphs that is what you were referring back to.

    “Each of these, except Transformers, has something to like about it, ”

    LOL!

  6. Movie fans might enjoy spending a few minutes with Everything is a Remix, Part 2: Remix, Inc.

    Of the 10 highest grossing films per year from the last 10 years, 74 out of 100 were either sequels or remakes of earlier films or adaptations of comic books, video games, books and so on.
    http://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/

    The credits come in the middle — keep watching to the end.

  7. I think the movies are different. And in any case, what makes\\ for the “best” movie? How do you compare, say, Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie” to, uh, “Shindler’s List?”

    When critics’ reviews of current movies disagree so often with my enjoyment of the same, why would I place much weight on what they say about older films?

    As with measures of probability, we’re always ignoring the assumptions (whatever they are, I’m against them), one of which is that films can be a well ordered set.

  8. Briggs,
    I use those same sources of movie ratings myself. I look at both the critic and citizen ratings, they can be telling in their differences. The latest Transformers film is a case in point.

    My comment really was only with respect to “citizen” opinion which has only started to be fairly well documented with the advent of the internet. Critic opinions have been well documented over the entire time period displayed.

    Audience ratings for the older movies from those sources are necessarily going to be mostly from people who were not alive when those movies were made. I suggest this unavoidable phenomenon contributes to the rise in viewer satisfaction for newer movies. It’s hard to watch a black and white film and think it’s great when you cut your teeth on raz-ma-tazz color/CGI films.

    Still, even though I wasn’t alive when they were made, Harold Lloyd capers leave me laughing so hard I can barely breathe.

  9. If you are using IMDB’s top 250 as a populace vote, then keep in mind their methodology. Newer movies will have fewer votes and a component of being in the top 250 involves the rating of other movies. Wouldn’t there be a bias against new movies then?

    The formula for calculating the Top Rated 250 Titles gives a true Bayesian estimate:

    weighted rating (WR) = (v ÷ (v+m)) × R + (m ÷ (v+m)) × C

    where:

    R = average for the movie (mean) = (Rating)
    v = number of votes for the movie = (votes)
    m = minimum votes required to be listed in the Top 250 (currently 3000)
    C = the mean vote across the whole report (currently 6.9)

    for the Top 250, only votes from regular voters are considered.

  10. Wouldn’t revenue be a proxy for “citizens?” That would have to include DVD sales, rentals, Cable showings etc.

    I’m always intrigued by movies like “A Christmas Story” that were box office duds but have turned into popular classics. I laugh just as hard every year.

  11. I was going to comment on how you could also factor in how many more movies are made now than back then, giving more opportunity for being a ‘top 100’ now, but on further thought there are major problems

    1) Less movies back then means less to compare and compete with. Older movies had less competition, and were still a ‘new’ experience. Today, the ‘new’ experience isn’t a movie in and of itself, but the content of the movie and ‘3D’ (barf!), sound, cgi! Rarely are new concepts or ground breaking techniques found (Both Matrix and Tron were ground breaking, and Tron is remembered fondly because of it, but it really wasn’t a good movie)

    2) Society as a whole is a lot more diverse today than back then. This will naturally tend to reduce the focus on a particular genre

    3) Critics generally have their head up their a$$es these days.

    4) I have seen inflation adjusted figures, comparing movie takes, which isn’t a bad way to start, but even then audience size has changed as well.

    So are movies getting worse? I expect so….but they are also probably getting better.

  12. Interesting. My impression — and it is mere impression — is that:

    1. Acting is much better now. Marlon Brando and others did change things for the better. This is an elevating factor.
    2. There is a higher percentage today of worthless pop culture or agenda-driven political releases. This has degraded the industry as a whole.
    3. Many plot lines reflect the general decline of society, as much to titillate as to provide insight. (Why should I acclaim a story about the maturing kids of an unmarried Lezbian couple?)
    4. There are fewer great director/innovators now. The John Fords, Stanley Kubricks of the past do not have equals today. Most of the avant guard directors produce garbage.
    5. Effects technology has made for films that emphasize visual experience and less the human condition.

  13. Movies have changed, but I’m not sure whether it is appropriate to call the change good or bad. Up until the 1970s filmmakers had to entice viewers to enter the film’s reality, the post 1980s films have instead been able to immerse viewers into the film’s reality from the get go. Earlier (good) movies were more skillful at drawing viewers in, something not needed as much with modern technology. However it is still amazing to see someone like Besson, who does an excellent job of drawing viewers into the film reality instead of simply immersing them in it, do their work with modern technology.

    It is difficult to compare the quality of old with new though. There were many truly awful movies made in the past and a goodly number of very bland one, however the only ones that are regularly seen and thought about are those which have passed the test of time. Rather like old furniture or house – it isn’t that they never build cheap fiberboard equivalents, but nearly all the cheapjack low quality stuff that wouldn’t last 5 years built in the 1930s didn’t last five years and was in the trash heap by end of the 1940s. There have been feature films as we thing of them being produced for almost 100 years, if we assume the same numbers of same quality films are being produced the chance of any given year producing one of the 10 best films of all time is about one-in-ten and decreasing.

  14. We movie viewers are changing too. My wife and I both remembered enjoying Camelot from 1967. Much later we had kids and the film came out on tape. so we got it and told the kids it was great. They’ve never trusted our judgment on films since. Neither have we. Wooden acting, long tedious passages. Yet, obviously, the film itself didn’t change. I think our expectations have be altered by the films we’ve seen since and if that’s true then movies must be getting better else we’d be hankering for the good old days of Camelot.

  15. Hoi Polloi: Roger Ebert once said that the Coen Brothers get four stars for style and zero stars for content.

    I still like their movies — there’s a lot to be said for style.

  16. Briggs, isn’t there some… what’s the term I’m trying to think of.

    There’s some filtering effects to history, nobody can really deny that. If there is a really good piece of art, people will have an incentive to make the effort to preserve that art and pass it down to their descendants, who then do the same, on and on. Art which sucks, gets forgotten, except among a niche group.

    But since you say “are movies getting worse”, shouldn’t you also have a corresponding graph of how the worst movies on the BOTTOM 100 distribute? (and I say this as a fan of MST3k)

    I’d like to see that data combined with the top 100 and whether there’s any conclusions to be drawn.

    (and I actually kind of agree, I think a loss of discipline and challenges have spoiled today’s artists – but that’s a much longer rant)

  17. Hoi Polloi: Roger Ebert once said that the Coen Brothers get four stars for style and zero stars for content.

    Which is a whole other debate. Not to mention how genre films come and go.

    I’d also like to see Briggs do a chart like this by genre. See how the top 100 dramas go, then action, then scifi/fantasy, then comedy, etc etc (well… to be fair, probably should only do a few of the major categories, we want him to finish while we’re still alive).

    That would be an idea. How about some of us readers all pitch in a dollar or two and hire Briggs to run numbers on this. (it could even start a precedent of Briggs having a tip jar where people can vote for a topic with their dollars)

  18. Thank God for TCM. I’ve even become addicted to movies made before I was born. Dialogue, wit, actual human interaction and much imperfection, many more “character” actors, a plethora of great Actresses – I’m trying to restrain myself. I also see many new movies thanks to my “kids”, some quite good, but overall…no contest. It’s gotten so bad with me that even Elvis is starting to look pretty good by comparison – Flaming Star. Maybe some day I’ll get caller Id.

  19. Although I enjoy movies, I have never been the fan that many are. One night this week, not having found a decent movie on Showtime or any other movie channel in our cable offering, I turned to Netflix streaming movies.

    All the Netflix movies available for streaming are old, and not very interesting to me. I’m sure there is somebody out there that really digs vampires, but that’s not me. The movie we watched using Netflix was, “No Time For Sergeants”, starring Andy Griffith. It was old, in black and white, but was simply the best Netflix was offering.

    Yesterday while at the grocery store, I checked the movies in the Blockbuster Express kiosk, and found nothing worth watching that we have not seen, before. It’s frustrating.

    There are tons of good acting talent, and even more tons of good writers out there. Why can’t hollywood do good movies?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *