Discover more from Stat Significant
What's the Greatest Year in Film History? A Statistical Analysis
What's the best year in movie history, and why?
Intro: In Search of Cinema's Greatest Year
What makes a year's worth of movies good or bad? Is there a single year in film history more memorable than others (a year to rule them all)? As a somewhat rigorous data person, this exercise was bound to drive me crazy—and it did. Sure, you can analyze one seemingly authoritative dataset, but each collection of datapoints represents its voter base as much as the films themselves. What is considered "great" varies from one perspective to another.
Take Tommy Wiseau's The Room—a fantastically terrible movie. Wiseau's awful masterpiece offers one of my all-time favorite moviegoing experiences, but if I recommended this movie to someone without context, they'd be angry. I first saw The Room at midnight in an arthouse theater surrounded by drunken cinephiles who knew every line of this gloriously awful film. It was the right movie at the right place and time.
Watching The Room surrounded by film snobs at Cannes would be significantly less enjoyable than a midnight showing amidst inebriated fanatics. Context is key when evaluating and mythologizing art.
To determine the best year in cinematic history, we'll employ a diverse set of perspectives, cataloging memorable years based on the selections of various voter groups, including:
Rankings from online databases: the people's choice.
"Best of" lists from movie critics: the intelligentsia’s choice.
The highest-grossing films in cinematic history: the choice of The Invisible Hand.
We'll deconstruct the preferences of each constituency before pinpointing a consensus selection. Will this exercise produce something authoritative? Who knows (and who knows what it means to be an authority). Will we better understand how each audience thinks about cinematic greatness? Absolutely.
Online Movie Rankings: The People's Choice
Movie databases like IMDB and Letterboxd present a unique intersection of moviegoer taste and large-scale data capture. Users express viewing preferences as free-form text reviews and star ratings, and the platforms parse, catalog, and aggregate this user-generated content to improve the movie discovery experience.
IMDB and Letterboxd are functionally similar—users rank movies, users write reviews, and users can discover films. That said, the two sites have cultivated distinct user bases through minor differences in form. Letterboxd movie reviews resemble quirky Twitter threads, while IMDB ratings read more like Amazon product reviews. Letterboxd users majored in film or wished they majored in film, while the average IMDB user is pretty much the average human. The two sites serve different markets—one niche and one broad.
We will analyze the top-ranked movies from both sites, incorporating each platform's favorite 250 films into a single catalog—which we'll call the people's choice. Combining these lists, we find a high concentration of movie selections at the turn of the century, as well as the late 2010s.
Why do citizens of the internet prefer these years? My hypothesis is that these periods represent the peak of distinctive cinematic eras.
The late 1990s and early 2000s: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a rise in accessible high-quality camera equipment and globalized distribution led to increased production of indie and foreign-language films, bringing us classics like Dazed and Confused, Good Will Hunting, and Spirited Away. Meanwhile, mainstream Hollywood studios began mounting big-budget adaptations of beloved intellectual property (IP), including Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and Christopher Nolan's Batman. The archetype forged by these franchises would soon lead Hollywood toward a narrow focus on "formulaic" IP adaptations. The turn of the century saw a box office with frequent releases for every type of moviegoer: big-budget adaptations, big-budget works from original screenplays (now extinct), widely distributed indies, mid-budget movies (also now extinct), and a globalized market for foreign-language films.
The late 2010s: The rise of streaming made consumers increasingly selective about when to leave their homes and spend $15 on an outing. Changing consumer preferences led to a "hollowing out" of the film market—a decline in mid-budget movies and a rise in high-budget blockbusters and low-budget indie films. Indie studios like A24, Sony Pictures Classics, and Blumhouse gave us darling hits like Lady Bird, Call Me by Your Name, and Parasite. Meanwhile, Marvel gave mainstream audiences remarkably high-quality content in the run-up to Avengers: Endgame, such as Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and Iron Man. Cinema snobs often view the notion of "mainstream" as a slur. But if films are going to be made and marketed to the masses, wouldn't we prefer these projects be thoughtfully engineered? There is a vast difference in quality between Marvel's Black Panther and DC's Justice League (that includes the Snyder Cut). The pandemic would soon break the film industry's fragile equilibrium as prestige content slowly migrated to television, which consumers graciously watched at home for $6.99 a month.
Online rankings tend to honor high-quality IP adaptations, culturally impactful indies, and beloved foreign films. The late 1990s witnessed a surge in these movies, while the late 2010s might have been their pinnacle.
Need Help with a Data Project?
Enjoying the article thus far and want to chat about data and statistics? Need help with a data or research project? Well, you’re in luck because Stat Significant offers data science and data journalism consulting services. Reach out if you’d like to learn more.
Critics’ Choice: Fuel for the Intelligentsia
Film critics typically serve two distinct functions—appraising recent releases (through star ratings and a thumbs up or down) and curating a distinguished selection of film classics.
The role of the film critic has changed since the days of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, as pundit influence over a film's earnings has waned. There is a high probability that Gen Z best understands film criticism as the input to a Rotten Tomatoes score. At the same time, film critics still command cultural influence through curation, identifying titles of outstanding artistic merit and documenting these films for posterity.
Google "Best films of all time," and you'll find a myriad of publications pushing similar incarnations of the same rankings. For our purposes, we'll focus on four lists of above-average prestige:
Our aggregated roster of movie classics indexes heavily on the early 1960s and mid-1970s.
What about the early 1960s and mid-1970s endears these periods to critics? The answer lies in a relative increase in directorial independence and a developing global community of filmmaking talent.
The early 1960s: Hollywood studios operated as a cartel in the early 20th century, with production and distribution dominated by a few major studios (Warner Bros., Paramount, MGM, RKO, and 20th Century Fox). These companies controlled filmmaking from script to screen, producing stale, commercially-oriented content in the absence of competition or forced innovation. In 1948, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibited studios from owning production, distribution, and screening venues. The dissolution of this supply chain monopoly paved the way for a diversified film market marked by increased artistic freedom. High-minded auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Stanley Kubrick took advantage of this newfound freedom, producing classics like Psycho, Spartacus, and Some Like It Hot. At the same time, global movements like the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism introduced groundbreaking filmmaking techniques and narrative structures. Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut, and Federico Fellini emerged to international acclaim, giving us expressive masterworks like La Dolce Vita, Breathless, and Yojimbo, films characterized by new-fangled filmmaking techniques, thematic profundity, and highly creative storytelling.
The mid-1970s: The mid-1970s are often referred to as "New Hollywood," a period driven by yet another wave of inventive, auteur-driven films further deviating from the traditional studio mold—you're probably noticing a pattern here. A new generation of American filmmaking talent emerged, including directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg. Box office smashes like The Godfather and Jaws gave way to the modern blockbuster, providing ambitious filmmakers with larger budgets for projects of ever-increasing scope. This era is viewed as the height of directorial autonomy in mainstream Hollywood, with auteurs such as Roman Polanski, Milos Foreman, and Stanley Kubrick granted creative freedom for major projects like Chinatown, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and Barry Lyndon. Critics feel intense nostalgia for this period—an era when creative and commercial interests briefly aligned to provide imaginative artists with ample funding.
Critics often fixate on visionary directors and cinematic theory. They select a film because it represents the high point of a filmmaking movement or of a director's filmography. The early 1960s and mid-1970s were a golden age for directors—a time before studio consolidation, CGI, franchise fatigue, and Bob Iger.
The Box Office's Choice: The Dollar Decides
No film (or series of films) better represents early 2000s Hollywood than Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings (despite being filmed in New Zealand). The adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved series came with an existing global audience, hedging the project's economic downside. The trilogy's groundbreaking special effects, especially motion capture, presented audiences with a dazzling combination of meticulous practical effects (not produced by computers) and revelatory digital effects—back when well-made CGI was novel.
Most unfathomable today was the excitement around the trilogy's sequels. These films were released before franchise fatigue when audiences were genuinely excited about serialized storytelling—the trilogy's final installment even won Best Picture. There was a newness to this cinematic archetype. Audiences could see their favorite works, like Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, faithfully realized on screen with awe-inspiring visuals.
When looking at the years with the most entries in Box Office Mojo's top 500 highest-grossing movies, we see a notable clustering around the turn of the century.
The beginning of the 21st century was the peak of box office potential—a time before streaming characterized by a rapidly growing international box office. TV wasn't that good yet; meanwhile, movies provided audiences with stunning imagery, things they had never seen before. The turn of the century offered an unparalleled array of movie options. There were hit comedies like Austin Powers, Big Daddy, and Something About Mary. There were high-grossing animated movies like Bug's Life, Shrek, and Toy Story. There were even megahit horror movies like The Sixth Sense, Signs, and Blair Witch Project. There was no one formula for commercial success—any movie could hit at the box office.
And Our Consensus Selection Is...
Merging our three datasets and calculating the average rank for each year across these groups, we find 2001 to be our consensus choice.
There are two potential interpretations of this finding:
The turn of the century was a period of maximal content selection: The late 90s and early 2000s had high-quality box office hits, widely distributed foreign-language films, and a series of indie darlings that went on to mainstream success. The collection of films released in this particular year showcased an eclectic range of outstanding content: Amélie, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Spirited Away, Mulholland Drive, Monsters Inc., Shrek, Ocean's Eleven, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and A Beautiful Mind. Movie theaters had something for everyone.
Pure Randomness: Much like 42 in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, our answer of 2001 may be absurd—the product of pure randomness. We had to choose something, so why not 2001? Perhaps selecting a single year, no matter the year, will always feel arbitrary and unfulfilling. We'd probably be unsatisfied if our winner were 1960, 1975, 1994, or 2019.
Personally, I believe in the maximal selection theory—that moviegoers between 1994 and 2002 enjoyed a diversity of superior content across a range of genres, budgets, and languages.
Final Thoughts: La La Land's Goofy Legacy
A film's legacy is dynamic—subject to continuous reinterpretation over time. Consider the 2017 Oscars, a confusing mess of an award show that played out on live television. Somehow, a group of adults severely errored in the simple act of reading a notecard. Warren Beatty initially announced La La Land as 2017's Best Picture winner, and for a surreal three-minute period, we got a glimpse of an alternate history, one where the legacies of La La Land and Moonlight (the presumed runner-up) looked something like this:
"Moonlight will forever be an unrecognized masterpiece."
"Of course an academy of old white dudes picked La La Land."
"I must rage tweet about this!"
And then, as quickly as these hot takes materialized, they soon disappeared. The tens of adults on stage combined their collective adult powers to properly read a notecard, rightfully anointing Moonlight as Best Picture. Instantly, a new set of hot takes materialized:
"Such a tragedy for La La Land, what gracious losers."
"The academy has acknowledged a film about people of color—hooray!"
"How can The Oscars stay culturally relevant when they give Best Picture to a movie that grossed 18 times less than Captain America: Civil War?"
"I must rage tweet about this!"
There is the experience of watching a movie, and there is the discourse surrounding that film. In a world of social media and never-ending listicles, the discourse around a movie is ever-shifting and increasingly dominates the visceral experience of the film itself. Our assessment of a movie is strongly influenced by the circumstances of its production and release.
Perhaps our answer of 2001 is the product of a random number generator, or maybe 2001 was the last time all filmgoing demographics were satisfied with their moviegoing selection. It’s possible we're nostalgic about an unspecified point in the past when things were better than they are now, or, like the number 42, maybe it's best not to overthink things. Whatever the case, congratulations to 2001, you are (without a doubt!) the greatest year in film history.
Thanks for reading Stat Significant! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Want to chat about data and statistics? Have an interesting data project? Just want to say hi? Email email@example.com