When I Was Wrong: About Good Movies

It’s never good to write a blog to win an argument. It’s frozen in time for everyone to see how wrong you were, the arguments grow stale and irrelevant, and sometimes you change your mind—it’s really a nasty situation.

Our example post originates in a conversation I had with a couple undergrad friends while strolling through Barnes & Noble. Flicking through classic movies in the back of the store, I heard one of them comment on the AFI Top 100 List,

“It’s definitely not a list of the best. They have way too many older movies on there.”

The other nodded his head, “I think, if anything, they’re listing the most influential movies. They’re sort of adjusting for inflation for those older movies.”

I was shocked. It hurt to hear the good name of AFI defamed, so I rushed to the aid of classic cinema. I soundly won the argument that evening and followed it up with a blog post that same week—and in that post, I authoritatively answered the question: Are new movies better than old?

If you read the post, you’ll see a few different points. You’ll see that I think most of the differences between older and newer movies are just differences, not making either better than the other. And I think I still stand by that. I also stand by the idea that while sometimes we may adjust movies for “quality inflation,” a lot of classic films don’t need that adjustment and stand on their own. They’re well-made by any definition. But by the end of the post, it’s clear I’m not unbiased on the topic, and I really think there is some sort of lost artistry at play in those classics.

And I’m not so sure I believe that anymore.

That’s partly because my argument was self-defeating and partly because I’ve watched a lot more old movies. Yeah, there’s a lot of good classic films, but with the notable exception of the 70s and 80s, the film industry has largely been building on the past and making ever-better movies.

This idea should be fairly intuitive. Just like with technology or literature or most anything that has existed over the course of history, we’ve been getting better at it. We went from torches to lightbulbs, from Gilgamesh to The Grapes of Wrath.

This progression is pretty obvious in movies, too. Not only are directors learning from the filmmakers of the past—as Spielberg adapted the stunt work of John Ford’s Stagecoach for Raiders of the Lost Ark or Tarantino learned from the story structure of Apocalypse Now—but they are also building on these influences. Primer is more complex than anything before the French New Wave, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting is arguably superior to that of Marlon Brando. No one can tell me these effects are better than these. Or that this animation is as good as this. It may be uneven or slow, but there is undoubtedly a progression.

This was not obvious to me for a long time. And I think that’s in part because of the movies I watched. I watched a lot of classics and lot of whatever was out in theaters. And if you were to rate the movies I was seeing (as I often did) and graph them, you would wind up with something like this:

Graph 1

If you look at it like that, old movies look about the same (if not better) than modern movies. But in the last few years, I’ve seen way more movies—and specifically, a lot of old movies. I find that I watch a lot more classic movies than most of my friends—black and white, silent, classics, B-movies, it doesn’t really matter. And now that I’ve started to discriminate less, not just looking for the “classics,” my graph starts to look more like this:

Graph 2

They had a lot of trash back in the day; they were no different than us. But unlike us, they didn’t have HD cameras to at least make their trash look nice. Like I said, it may have been uneven or slow, but films have been getting better since day one.

Sometimes we get pessimistic and we think we’re living in the worst era for some reason or another—we have golden-age thinking where we look back at some other time and say they did it right. I use to do that with movies; I thought the classics were the best, and filmmakers these days are just lazy. Why can’t we make art like that again? But when you start to explore film, you’ll see the trends and the movements that have given us ever-better movies. I’ll keep watching classics, of course, as long as they keep providing a window into film today and the lineage of our culture. But beyond that, I’m excited for each new release, each new blockbuster and indie flick to come each year to a theater near me.

Section Break

Postscript: You may have noticed in the graphs above that the 1970s and 80s are a bit of an outlier. There’s an objective reason for this: it’s because they made really good movies in the 70s and 80s. As a reminder, I did not live during those decades; I have no nostalgia for them. The 70s and 80s just made good movies. And that’s because the strongest indicator or influence for a movie being good is not the time it came out in, but the filmmaking industry in which it was produced. We’ll definitely need to discuss in this more in another post.

3 Comments

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  1. YES. Undergrad friend #1 or #2 here, can’t remember.

    I’m a little uncertain on which points you’re conceding and which ones you still stand by, but much of what you say here reflects my thoughts.

    It’s not that newer movies are better by default, but by sheer volume and resources (both technological and technical), the contemporary film industry ought to produce at least an equal amount of “great” movies on such a list. I do concede that you should probably let a film stand the test of time before rushing it to such a definitive list.

    If I had to identify a golden age of cinema, it’d be this one. I’m floored by the number of incredible movies produced in the past three years.

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    • If you want to write that belated response, I’m still up for it.

      As I mention in the post, I agree with most of the points I made originally–a lot of the differences are not reflective of quality, you need to watch classics with a sympathetic mindset, etc–just not the conclusion that classics are just as good if not better (which I don’t think I ever actually say, but I clearly intended it).

      I’m sure there’s something available somewhere, but I’d be interested to read a rationale for the picks on AFI’s list. If it really is just “the best,” then definitely–there should be way more movies released closer to the list’s publication.

      The last decade has seen an explosion in quality indie filmmaking. Smaller, independent films have always historically shaped the wider world of cinema, and this modern, golden age of indie film is no different; it’s already begun to drastically affect mainstream movies in an unprecedented way.

      Originally my postscript on the movies of the 70s and 80s was a much longer section in the article, but I recognized it was a bit of a digression. Still, I think the New Hollywood would have to be the golden age of film, if there is such a thing. Those decades were different in the most valuable way: the industry backing the creators. I’ll definitely need to write more on this.

      Thanks for the comments, undergrad friend #1 or 2!

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