Righto, time to nerd out just a little bit.
This all was kicked off by something that came up in my YouTube feed, from ScreenJunkies. They were put the question of which was the best movie year in history, and ended up debating three possible years — ’82, ’84 and ’99 — and argued their pros and cons, including how they shaped movies, which one had the best movies and so on. But I was curious about that — after all, our bias is always going to be towards the years we watched, the movies we grew up with, the movies we liked. But if you’re asking a question like “the best in history”, you’ve also got to consider whether there’s a significant case for earlier years.
(I’ll come back to their three picks myself later. But for now, I’m rambling on.)
My first thought was to look at the top five most popular movies on IMDB for each year, and see how they shaped up. Now, IMDB is not a great judge, but it has one advantage — it collates the views of a LOT of people, so it’s not limiting me to answering the question of “which year do I like the most”, or some derivative of that question. It’s taking it further. Now, on the grounds of five-most-popular, at first, it seemed like 1964 to have a compelling case — its top five are Mary Poppins, Dr. Strangelove, Goldfinger, My Fair Lady, and A Fistful of Dollars, which is a pretty respectable set. But the trouble with that is that the popularity doesn’t relate to how good people think the movie is (for example, in #6 is “Get Yourself a College Girl”, with a 4.8 out of 10 — Zulu, with a 7.8, is down in 8th.) So what shows up on that list is what is being looked at — it’s really not a reflection of the best that year had to offer.
So instead, I decided to tally based on IMDB’s top 250. Now, that’s still very subjective — in particular, as the internet is dominated by the current generations, more recent movies show a very clear bias in the voting, which isn’t necessarily a fair indicator of how good previous years were at, or closer to, the time. There are people who will rate a movie 1/10 just because it’s in black and white, for example. But I’ll come back to that later.
To begin with, I just tallied, and looked at the total number of movies each year had in the top 250. (I excluded 2014, because recent-release scores are always biased upwards, so 2014 can’t be fairly judged yet.) And based on this figure alone, the strongest year in movie history was…1995! Nine of the top 250 movies came from that year, and they were:
– The Usual Suspects
– Toy Story
– Twelve Monkeys
– Before Sunrise
– La Haine
Now, I like this list (and Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, and Robert de Niro are each on it twice), even though I’ve never heard of the last two movies (which is part of why I fancied this approach — the results aren’t in any way affected by what I have or haven’t seen). Six of the top seven, though, are movies I really like — Twelve Monkeys and Se7en in particular — and the seventh movie, Toy Story, I haven’t seen.
(Now, looking back at the original three years that were argued over — 1982 had Blade Runner, The Thing, Gandhi, and Fanny and Alexander — 1984 had Once Upon a Time in America, Amadeus, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and The Terminator — and 1999 had Fight Club, The Matrix, The Green Mile, American Beauty, and The Sixth Sense. Of those, ’99 was the winner in the show, and I think it may just squeeze out 82 — and it has five top-250 films to the other years’ four — but on the strength of its films alone, I think that ’95 comes out on top.)
But there’s more. Firstly, they commented that every year produces a great movie — and based on this list, it seems true. You have to go back to 1970 before you find a year that isn’t represented in the top 250 — 44 straight years from 1971 to 2014 are represented in the top 250! — and then, you have to go back to 1956 before you find another. Now, the bias towards voting for recent releases is clear in the numbers — every year from 2006 on has at least four films in the top 250, and every year from 1993 on has at least 3. The earlier you go, the more the tallies fall, on average. But it’s because of this bias that one year in particular stands out.
Now, you or I might not agree with it — but despite the fact that IMDB voting is tilted heavily towards recent movies, 1957 still manages to have an impressive SIX movies in the top 250. Only three years manage to more — the excluded 2014, 2001 (with 8) and the aforementioned 1995, with 9.
So, what movies DID 1957 produce?
– 12 Angry Men
– Paths of Glory
– Witness for the Prosecution
– The Bridge on the River Kwai
– The Seventh Seal
– Wild Strawberries
Now, I’ll admit up front that I have seen only parts of two of these movies. I was born 20 years after they all came out, and a great deal of my viewing of old movies was been restricted to what came on BBC2 in the morning, either during lazy holidays, or when I was home sick from school. But despite this, three of these films are legendary — enough that most people who’ve never seen them have heard of them. And only one of the six I haven’t heard of.
The trouble is, ultimately, when voting for “the best year in movie history”, it’s subjective — and none of the people voting was around in 1957 to see whether or not these movies shook the world, changed the way movies were made, and so on. But the fact that they are so etched into history — that I know the names of movies over fifty years old that I haven’t even seen — means they’re genuinely special. And whether I actually like them or not wouldn’t alter that one bit.
So, what’s the best year in movie history? I’m not sure. And I’m sure that there are plenty of earlier years that, IMDB ratings aside, could make a pretty compelling argument. But 1957 at least deserves be in the mix.