Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The best days of cinema were ... 2008?

We've all heard it. The claim goes that, back in the day, they made movies like  North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot and Ben-Hur, and that was just one year! Now we get sequels to movies that sucked, which themselves suck and an endless stream of romcoms that don't even rise to the level of sucking.

But this isn't quite true. Sure, you have stand-out years like 1959, but if you look at IMDB's top 250 movies, you'll notice something interesting. The top-voted movies of all time are fairly evenly spread across the decades with a big bump toward the end. Why? Well, in part a move you've seen recently tends to be more impressive in your memory, so movies that pre-date IMDB aren't always very highly rated.

But that doesn't entirely explain the phenomenon. 2008 for example, has:

The Dark Knight, WALL·E, Gran Torino, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, In Bruges, Let the Right One In, Changeling and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Now, I'll be the first to say that some of those represent short-term fascination or novelty. Still, I think Gran Torino, Slumdog Millionair, The Wrestler and Let the Right One In certainly do compare well to their historical analogs. Going back a year, you have films like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Meanwhile, in 1945, 1956, 1970 and 1971 there is only one movie that made the list each of those years. Why? Because movie-making has been inconsistent throughout history and that's both good and bad.

Certainly, if movie making followed any one formula, no matter how well crafted that formula, it would have precluded some of these films. Instead, it's a hectic and chaotic process that yields one or two great movies every year and a handful of very good films.

2008 had 9 movies last year in the top 250, beating out the next-best year by two movies (1957, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2007 all tied at 7 films). While this makes me wish I'd been alive in 1957 to sample the amazing creative output of that generation, it also makes me glad that I'm around now. So far 2010 has 4 movies on the list, and I think we'll see at least one of those (Inception, which immediately jumped to the #3 spot on opening weekend, not an easy feat) stay on the list for many, many years to come.

By year, here's the number of top-250 movies:

1921: 1
1925: 1
1926: 1
1927: 2
1930: 1
1931: 2
1933: 2
1934: 1
1936: 1
1938: 1
1939: 3
1940: 4
1941: 2
1942: 1
1943: 1
1944: 1
1945: 1
1946: 4
1948: 3
1949: 2
1950: 4
1951: 3
1952: 3
1953: 3
1954: 5
1955: 2
1956: 1
1957: 7
1958: 2
1959: 5
1960: 3
1961: 3
1962: 3
1963: 2
1964: 1
1965: 1
1966: 3
1967: 3
1968: 4
1969: 2
1970: 1
1971: 1
1972: 2
1973: 2
1974: 3
1975: 5
1976: 3
1977: 2
1978: 1
1979: 4
1980: 4
1981: 2
1982: 3
1983: 2
1984: 3
1985: 2
1986: 3
1987: 2
1988: 5
1989: 1
1990: 1
1991: 2
1992: 2
1993: 3
1994: 6
1995: 7
1996: 2
1997: 4
1998: 5
1999: 7
2000: 6
2001: 6
2002: 3
2003: 7
2004: 7
2005: 3
2006: 7
2007: 6
2008: 9
2009: 6
2010: 4