The Quality of Films over the Decades

I have written before about my judgment of the quality of films in various eras. In 2007, I characterized the eras from 1933 to then as follows:

  • the Golden Age (1933-1942) — 179 films seen, 96 favorites (54 percent)
  • the Abysmal Years (1943-1965) — 317 films seen, 98 favorites (31 percent)
  • the Vile Years (1966-present) — 1,496 films seen, 359 favorites (24 percent)

Favorites are films that I have rated 8, 9, or 10 on IMDb’s 10-point scale.

I offered the following explanation for what I saw as a steady decline in quality after 1942:

  • The Golden Age had deployed all of the themes that could be used without explicit sex, graphic violence, and crude profanity — none of which become an option for American movie-makers until the mid-1960s.
  • Prejudice got significantly more play after World War II, but it’s a theme that can’t be used very often without boring audiences.
  • Other attempts at realism (including film noir) resulted mainly in a lot of turgid trash laden with unrealistic dialogue and shrill emoting — keynotes of the Abysmal Years.
  • Hollywood productions sank to the level of TV, apparently in a misguided effort to compete with that medium. The garish technicolor productions of the 1950s often highlighted the unnatural neatness and cleanliness of settings that should have been rustic if not squalid.
  • The transition from abysmal to vile coincided with the cultural “liberation” of the mid-1960s, which saw the advent of the “f” word in mainstream films. Yes, the Vile Years have brought us more more realistic plots and better acting (thanks mainly to the Brits). But none of that compensates for the anti-social rot that set in around 1966: drug-taking, drinking and smoking are glamorous; profanity proliferates to the point of annoyance; sex is all about lust and little about love; violence is gratuitous and beyond the point of nausea; corporations and white, male Americans with money are evil; the U.S. government (when Republican-controlled) is in thrall to that evil; etc., etc. etc.

How do things look now? About the same, on the whole, after another look at my ratings, which now extend into 2010.

I compared my ratings of individual movies with the ratings given the same movies by hundreds, thousands, and (sometimes) tens of thousands of viewers. Here’s how our ratings compare, year by year and overall, from 1920 through 2010:

I’m not surprised that my ratings, on average, are lower than those of other viewers, on average. Assuming that the difference is merely a matter of tough grading on my part, I scaled up my ratings so that my overall average is the same as that of others who rated the same films. The result:

The band of vertical bars across the middle of the graph indicates the normal range of the annual ratings. Points above the vertical bands are in the upper 1/6 of my ratings; points below the vertical bands are in the bottom 1/6 of my ratings.

I find it a bit shocking to see that there is a period during the vile years with normalized ratings above 100 percent of the IMDb average, specifically, 1978 through 1997. On the other hand, the first graph shows that I considered the films of that period generally inferior to the films of earlier periods. Moreover, going back to the first graph, it is evident that there was a consensus (of which I was part) about the vileness of the Vile Years (give or take a few of them).

So, I will stick to my guns, with one amendment — the Golden Age began in 1932:

  • the Golden Age (1932-1942) — 184 films rated, 110 favorites (60 percent)
  • the Abysmal Years (1943-1965) — 284 films rated, 107 favorites (41 percent)
  • the Vile Years (1966-present) — 1,425 films rated, 416 favorites (29 percent)

Will movies ever get better? Only time — and a lot of movie-viewing — will tell.