BFI vs. IMDB

The first part of this was taken from a post I’m cooking up on Star Trek movies.

That’s called a teaser, you see. I’ve never been very good at them but I’m told they can be terribly effective.

I am a big believer in the Wisdom of Crowds … sorta. When it comes to judging the quality of art, I think mass rankings are more useful than critical rankings. They are not perfect: it often takes time for a work of art to be fully appreciated. And enthusiasm for the new can cause it to be over-rated. But, generally, if you ask me where to look for an objective opinion, I’ll look to the … well, not the mob … but to the large mass of those who are interested enough to form an intelligent opinion.

That’s why I always talk about IMDB ratings when I talk about movies. IMDB has done an oustanding job of creating a movie rating system that is useful. It allows anyone to vote, but only if they are interested enough to create an account. They can only vote once. And an algorithm tempers the enthusiasm for newer movies. The ratings are not perfect: you’ll usually see new movies rocket to the top of the ratings and then slowly fall. All three Lord of the Rings movies vaulted to #1 in the ratings initially, then slowly fell back to #14, #25 and #10, which is about where they should be. The Dark Knight Rises is currently at #11 but will probably finish outside the top 250. The Godfather and Shawshank Redemption have vied for the #1 spot for more than a decade now and I know many who would agree that they should be near if not at the top.

The utility of the IMDB rankings is most obvious when you contrast it against those of critics, like the recent revision to the Top 50 Films of All Time, courtesy of the British Film Institute. The big news is that Vertigo displaced Citizen Kane from the top spot. The bigger news should be the ridiculous bias. Consider the way the films are distributed in time:

1920′s: 6
1930′s: 3
1940′s: 3
1950′s: 12
1960′s: 15
1970′s: 7
1980′s: 1
1990′s: 3
2000′s: 2
2010′s: 0

(And yes, that’s actually 52 movies in the top 50).

Now I’m willing to concede that some movie eras were better than others. The 1970′s, in particular, stand out as a golden age for new film-makers like Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas. But it is insanity to suggest that the 1950′s and 1960′s produced 4.5 times the number of great films the last three decades have. This is telling you nothing about the quality of those films and everything about just how old the BFI electorate are.

Even their modern choices are a bit puzzling. Since 1980, the only films they rate in the top 50 are Shoah, Satantango, Close-up, Histoires de Cinema, In the Mood for Love and Mulholland Drive. I have not seen three of those. I would agree on the greatness of Shoah and In the Mood For Love. But Mulholland Drive is an excellent TV pilot with thirty minutes of bullshit sewn on. It’s a massively over-rated movie and I think it’s mainly over-rated because of the great lesbian sex scene that happens right before the movie implodes.

Let’s compare to IMDB:

1920′s: 5
1930′s: 10
1940′s: 18
1950′s: 31
1960′s: 25
1970′s: 24
1980′s: 29
1990′s: 40
2000′s: 55
2010′s: 13

Now there is a definite skew in IMDB toward recent movies. But that skew is not nearly as drastic as BFI’s. The 1990′s and 2000′s contain 38% of IMDB’s top movies. That’s compared to the 1950′s and 60′s containing 52% of BFI’s top films. BFI has only 12% of their movies in the last three decades. There is no three-decade period that has that low a percentage in IMDB. The only period that comes close is the first three decades of film. And that’s for a dynamic polling system.

The skew is stronger when you narrow IMDB to the top 50 movies. 15 of those are in the 1990′s and none in the 1920′s. But even then, the skew is not nearly as drastic as BFI’s, with plenty of top films in all decade except the 1920′s. And I would argue that this proves the point: IMDB is still better when you take the comparison that is the least fair because of IMDB’s over-rating of recent movies.

What are IMDB’s favorite movies of the last three decades? Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, Lord of the Rings, Dark Knight, Fight Club, Inception, The Matrix, City of God, Forrest Gump, Silence of the Lambs. I removed The Dark Knight Rises because it is riding a wave of enthusiasm and will certain sink lower (as will Inception and The Dark Knight). I would submit, however, that IMDB’s slate of films is better than BFI’s. It is certainly more watchable.

Consider the top tens:

BFI: Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, La Regle du jeu, Sunrise, 2001, the Searchers, Man with a Movie Camera, the Passion of Joan of Arc, 8 1/2

IMDB: The Shawshank Redemption, Godfather, Godfather Pari II, Pulp Fiction, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, 12 Angry Men, Schindler’s list, Dark Night, Return of the King, Empire Strikes Back

I will admit that BFI’s is more artistic and has a better international flavor. It’s less guy-movie oriented. But is it really better? Which of those slates would you rather have with you on a desert island? I thought so.

That’s why I talk about IMDB. It’s far from perfect, but it’s easily the best thing going. I especially like it is so very useful for relative rankings. It allows one to measure the progress of franchises, as I did last year with the Bond films and as I will soon do with the Trek movies. IMDB gives you an accurate glimpse of what the public thinks at this moment. And I find that far more enlightening than what some old, wizened critics think.

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