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.
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.