Better-than-Best Pictures, or Who Needs the Oscars?

As you know by now, The Shape of Water won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2017. But read this post before you rush to a theater to see it. Or, if you’ve already seen it, claim that it’s among the best movies ever.

Business Insider offers a ranking of Best-Picture winners in “All 89 Oscar Best-Picture Winners, Ranked from Worst to Best by Movie Critics“, which covers releases through 2016. (This year’s Best Picture award is for a film released in 2017.) Business Insider bases its ranking on critics’ reviews, as summarized at Rotten Tomatoes.

The Business Insider piece doesn’t help the viewer who’s in search of a better film than those that have been voted Best Picture.  A post at Political Calculations takes a stab at the problem by offering alternatives to the five worst-ever Best-Picture awardees. But the alternatives are limited to films that were nominated for Best Picture for the same five years.

Three years ago, in the wake of the Academy Awards for 2014, I posted “Another Trip to the Movies“.  There, I showed that of the 88 films which had then earned the Best-Picture award, only 14 were in fact the highest-rated among U.S.-made feature films released in the same year.

I based my comparison on ratings given by users at Internet Movie Database (IMDb). IMDb user ratings aren’t a sure guide to artistic merit — as the latter is judged by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), or by movie critics. But members of AMPAS and movie critics are notoriously wrong-headed about artistic merit. The Shape of Water exemplifies their wrong-headedness:

This Guillermo del Toro film has gotten rave reviews from critics, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93%, and lots of awards-season buzz. And while some elements of the film are praiseworthy, … the film turns out to be little more than a collection of manipulative and ludicrous set-ups for social-justice lectures lacking any nuance or wit. The Shape of Water assumes its audience to be idiots, which makes this the kind of painful and unoriginal exercise that is all but certain to win awards throughout this winter in Hollywood….

The Shape of Water never allows the audience to get the message of tolerance from the central allegory of the love between Elisa and the creature. Instead, del Toro and the writers fill up every square inch with contrivances and lectures.

And those lectures come with all of the subtlety of a jackhammer. Giles lost his job in the advertising business for unexplained reasons, but which seem to be connected to his sexual orientation. He tries to reach out to a waiter at his favorite diner, who rejects him just as the waiter also gets a chance to demonstrate his racism by refusing service to a black couple, both of which are completely gratuitous to the film or to Amphibian Man’s fate. Shannon’s Strickland spouts religious nonsense to justify cruelty, and sexually oppresses his wife in another gratuitous scene, sticking his gangrenous fingers over her mouth to keep her from expressing pleasure…. The bad guys are the US space program (!) and the military, while the most sympathetic character apart from the four main protagonists is a Soviet spy. Strickland dismisses Elisa and Zelda as suspects, angrily lamenting his decision to “question the help,” just in case the class-warfare argument escaped the audience to that point. Oh, he’s also a major-league sexual harasser in the workplace.  And so on. [Ed Morrissey, “The Shape of Water: Subtle As a Jackhammer and Almost As Intelligent“, Hot Air, March 5, 2018]

If The Shape of Water is your kind of film, you’re at the wrong blog.

In any event, IMDb user ratings are a good guide to audience appeal, which certainly doesn’t preclude artistic merit. (I would argue that audience appeal is a better gauge of artistic merit than critical consensus.) For example, I have seen 10 of the 14 top-rated Oscar winners listed in the Business Insider article, but only 5 of the winners that I have seen are among my 14 top-rated Oscar winners.

The first table below lists all 91 of the Best Picture winners, ranked according to the average rating given each film by IMDb users. The second table lists the 100 features given the highest average ratings by IMDb users. (The list includes films released in the U.S. through 2017 that have been rated by at least 3,500 users, which is the approximate number for Cavalcade, the least-viewed of Oscar-winning pictures.) Only 16 of the 91 Oscar-winning films (highlighted in red) are among the top 100. (Lawrence of Arabia would be among the top 100, but IMDb categorizes it as a UK film.)

In short, there are many Better-Than-Best Pictures to choose from.

Top 100 films through 2017


See also my post “A Trip to the Movies“, and John Sexton’s “Oscar Ratings Likely to Set an All-Time Low” (Hot Air, March 5, 2018).

Another Trip to the Movies

Before I resume regular blogging, I must follow up on “A Trip to the Movies.” Here’s another look at the films voted Best Picture (or the equivalent) by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

Ratings of best pictures_2

Each entry highlighted in red indicates a Best Picture winner that is also the highest-rated film among that year’s releases:

Most highly rated films, by year

If you put stock in the ratings assigned by users of IMDb, a movie-watcher in search of good entertainment will often find it in a film other than one from the Best Picture list. But don’t put too much stock in the relative ratings of films across the years. If you’re in search of a great comedy, for example, go with one of the top-rated choices from the 1930s — It Happened One Night, A Night at the Opera, or Bringing Up Baby, for example — as opposed to more recent fare, such as Toy Story, The Big Lebowski, or The Grand Budapest Hotel. (If you’re not familiar with IMDb’s Advanced Title Search, you should be.)

It’s a sad fact that movies have become progressively worse since the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but user ratings don’t fully reflect the decline. (For a definition of the Golden Age and a detailed explanation of the reasons for the decline, see “The Movies: Not Better Than Ever (II).”)

Before I get to that, I must point out that I’m “pickier” than the average person who rates films at IMDb. As indicated by the following graph, the films that I have chosen to watch have been given higher ratings than all films:

Ratings of films ive seen vs ratings of all films
Note: These averages are for 64,600 films designated by IMDb as “English-language,” of which I have rated 2,100.

The next graph illustrates two points:

  • IMDb users, on the whole, have overrated films released from the early 1940s to about 1980, and from the late 1990s to the present. The ratings for films released in the latter period undoubtedly reflect the dominance of younger viewers who “grew up” with IMDb, who prefer novelty to quality, and who have little familiarity with earlier films. On the other hand, I have rated 852 films that were released in 1996-2014, and 1,248 films from 1920-1995.
  • My ratings, based on long experience and exacting standards, indicate that movies not only are not better than ever, they are generally getting worse as the years roll on.

Movie ratings_annual and overall

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A Trip to the Movies


Once upon a month ago I tried to watch Birdman, which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2014. It failed to rise above trendy quirkiness, foul language, and stilted (though improvised) dialogue. I turned it off. It’s the only Best Picture winner, of those that I’ve watched, that I couldn’t sit through.

There have now been 88 Best Picture winners, and I’ve seen 69 of them. (I include Birdman because the several minutes of it that I watched seemed like two hours.) How do they stack up with the average viewer who has rated the films at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), and how do they stack up with me?

Here’s the story. Best Picture winners are listed according to the average rating assigned by IMDb users, as of today (highest to lowest)*:

Ratings of best pictures

A blank in the “Me” column means that I haven’t seen the film.  The gaps tell a story: I usually avoid films about war because of their propagandistic aims. (The exception here is one of the earliest anti-war films, All Quiet on the Western Front, which is an artistic masterpiece that puts all subsequent anti-war films to shame.) I also tend to eschew melodramas, musicals, “message” movies, and movies about the Holocaust (I don’t need to be reminded; Barack Obama does). There are exceptions to these rules; I am not foolishly consistent.

I prefer films that entertain — that evoke laughter, challenge the mind, or put great writing or acting talent on display. Here’s how I assign ratings:

1 = So bad that I quit watching after a few minutes.

2 = I watched the whole thing, but wish that I hadn’t.

3 = Barely bearable; perhaps one small, redeeming feature (e.g., a cast member).

4 = Just a  shade better than a 3 — a “gut feel” grade.

5 = A so-so effort; on a par with typical made-for-TV fare.

6 = Good, but not worth recommending to anyone else; perhaps because of a weak cast, too-predictable plot, cop-out ending, etc.

7 = Enjoyable and without serious flaws, but once was enough.

8 = Superior on at least three of the following dimensions: mood, plot, dialogue, music (if applicable), dancing (if applicable), quality of performances, production values, and historical or topical interest; worth seeing twice but not a slam-dunk great film.

9 = Superior on several of the above dimensions and close to perfection; worth seeing at least twice.

10 = An exemplar of its type; can be enjoyed many times.

And here are the 69 feature films that I have rated 10 or 9**:

My favorite films_rated 10 or 9

As you’ve probably guessed, based on the year of release, Dr. Jack isn’t about Jack Kevorkian. It’s one of Harold Lloyd’s many hilarious productions.


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Related posts:
A Hollywood Circle
Christmas Movies
Pride and Prejudice on Film
The Movies: (Not) Better Than Ever
At the Movies: The Best and Worst Years
My Year at the Movies (2007)
Forgotten Stars
The Quality of Films over the Decades
More about the Quality of Films
The Movies: Not Better than Ever (II)
The Longevity of Stars
2013: A Bad Year at the Movies

* Sunrise (1927) won for Unique and Artistic Production (a category used only once), not for Outstanding Picture (as the Best Picture category was then called). The award for Outstanding Picture went to Wings. The apparent gap between 1927 and 1929 is due to the timing of the first six awards, which were given for 1927/28, 1928/29, 1929/30, 1930/31, 1931/32, and 1932/33.

** I have given a rating of 8 to 635 movies (see my reply to the comment by Ron Pavellas). By my count, I’ve seen 2,405 feature films made in 1920 or later, and have rated 2,100 of them.