THEY DON'T MAKE 'EM LIKE THEY USED TO - AND THAT'S A GOOD THING - Gareth Higgins
Last year was one of the richest years in cinema history. My own Top Ten list has thirty films on it, and a handful of those - Endless Poetry, Dunkirk, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, mother!, and Downsizing among them - are likely to become recognized as ageless masterpieces. Yet the old chestnut persists that movies were, on the whole, better in the past. A recent internet discussion focused on an essay claiming the movies made since the turn of the millennium are worse than those made before the millennium, and gave twenty seven reasons why. It was a fun read, and clearly some genuine thought had gone into it, but I wasn’t convinced. (You can read it here.)
So in one of those moments where I almost certainly had something better to do but convinced myself I definitely didn’t, I decided to take a deeper look. Researching the list of every movie released since 1967 took a while, but it was worth it. I compiled a database of the films that meet the Movies & Meaning definition of “a great film” - what results when humane wisdom and grace, and technical and aesthetic craft operating at their highest frequencies kiss each other. (Whether or not you agree with my judgement of which films deserve this definition is up to you.)
What I found, as they say, might amaze you.
In 1967, six movies were released that, by my sights, are works of substantial craft and humanity - in other words, they are well-made from a technical and aesthetic perspective, and help us live better by inviting empathy with the good or marginalized, or reveal the consequences of bad choices in human affairs: Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, The Jungle Book, Cool Hand Luke, In the Heat of the Night, and Point Blank.
In 1977, it was seven: Twilight's Last Gleaming, Sorcerer, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Duellists, Annie Hall, and New York, New York.
Flash forward only ten years, to 1987, and by my count, twenty-seven movies appeared that embody genuine craft and humanity, and yes, Nicolas Cage is in two of them. (They’re getting too long to list entirely, but that’s what appendices are for…. Examples include The Last Emperor, Raising Arizona, Matewan, Maurice, and Swimming to Cambodia.)
In 1997, twenty-three (The Butcher Boy, The Ice Storm, The Sweet Hereafter…) In 2007, seventeen (Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Superbad…)
And in 2017, I can think of fifty-two movies that seemed to me to approach the definition of great: where imaginative craft and humane wisdom meet.
So the notion that movies are worse than they used to be seems to me to be, quite simply, a fallacy. But the idea that they don’t make ‘em like they used to is true: in fact, they make ‘em better.
What I think is happening might be explained by four notions:
1: It’s easy to confuse the memory of how we felt about the world when we were younger with a more objective judgement of good cinema. In other words, nostalgia may create a warm feeling inside, but it’s not the most valid way to assess whether or not a work of art will last. There were some beautiful movies made when I was a kid, and there are beautiful movies being made now. But we’re all different now - the burdens of adulthood make it hard to shake off cynicism or worrying about the mortgage. We didn’t have cynicism or mortgages when we first saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the seventies or eighties or nineties, so it may not be obvious that Shaun the Sheep and Paddington, Your Name and The Dam-Keeper (all made in the last five years) are even better efforts at working the same kind of magic.
The good news is that the experience of watching movies, at its best, is to do with wonder, so the childlike in us can be activated any time we go. It just takes us to decide to allow it.
2: More movies are being made than ever before, of course, so it only stands to reason that there are more good ones too. The fact that movies are easier to see than ever is the most exciting development: the fact that 1937’s Make Way for Tomorrow, or The Emigrants from 1972, or The Dekalog from 1989 or Yi-Yi from 2000 or so much of what you could ever want to see are a click away can only make the world a better place.
3: What has been called the expanding circle of empathy doesn’t just apply to relations within and between nations. It happens in, and is sometimes led by, artists, even those immersed in the industrial production of large-scale cinema. One of the reasons why Mudbound is a better film than In the Heat of the Night is that the racial politics of Mudbound benefit from half a century of cultural evolution. In the Heat of the Night might have been the best we could realistically hope for in 1967, but the fact that Mudbound is not only emotionally mature and beautifully made, but also now available - and promoted - to more than 50% of US households via Netflix? Well, that’s an answer to a dream.
4: And finally, the rogue variable in my dogged research into fifty years of US movie releases, done at great enjoyment and no expense, for you, dear reader: The Place Where It Is True That Movies Made Since The Millennium Are Worse Than Those Made Before The Millennium:
The Place? At the box office. Three of those same six 1967 movies cited earlier were all in the Top Ten box office for that year. I’d watch all of them again, any day of the week. In 1977 there’s two I’d repeat (Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). In 1987, two again (The Untouchables and Moonstruck); one in 1997 and 2007 (As Good as it Gets and Ratatouille); and there isn’t a single film in 2017’s top ten grossing films that I’d want to see another time.
Commerce trumps art, as far as the movies seen by the largest number of people in theaters. When I looked at box office receipts and asked myself which films I’d like to see again, it was obvious that the most popular movies are not as good as they used to be.
Why any of this matters may be a moot point to anyone who only has a casual interest in cinema, but I’d suggest there’s deeper treasure to be found here. Just as it’s not the movies that got small, but our horizons, the current political crisis-opportunity has arisen partly because of a historically unprecedented bombardment of information and propaganda, creating silos in which people to fear that the world is getting more violent, when actually violence is decreasing, but no longer seems as distant for people used to feeling safe. The world is getting better, and our minds are only now beginning to learn how to make sense of our place in it. There’s lots of evidence for this - Steven Pinker’s recent conversation with Bill Gates about his new book Enlightenment Now is a great place to start. Pinker brilliantly illuminates the paradox of how to deal with the suffering that we see amidst the progress that continues:
“You can say the same fact two ways. Extreme global poverty has been reduced from 90 percent 200 years ago to 10 percent today. That’s great! Or you can say: More than 700 million people in the world live in extreme poverty today. They’re the same fact, and you have to be able to describe them to yourself both ways.”
He’s speaking primarily to people with the privilege of not being among those 700 million, but if the duty of privilege is the responsibility to use that privilege to serve the common good, it’s also a duty to look at things as they actually are, not as ideology would demand. There are reasons for concern about the world - the conflict between tribalism and discernment probably chief among them; just as there may be reasons to complain about popular movies! But also, just as many things in the world are getting better, movies are getting better too, and if we don’t know this, it’s because we’re not looking.
WB Yeats once invited readers to come away with him, "for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand". He was right then, a century ago. He’s right now. But there's more wonder than weeping to go around.
APPENDIX 1: 1987: Moonstruck, The Last Emperor, Raising Arizona, Full Metal Jacket, Matewan, The Princess Bride, Broadcast News, Empire of the Sun, Babette’s Feast, House of Games, Gardens of Stone, Dirty Dancing, Cry Freedom, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Walker, *batteries not included, The Belly of an Architect, Wall Street, Hope and Glory, Radio Days, Maurice, The Glass Menagerie , The Whales of August, The Dead, Ironweed, Au Revoir les Enfants, Pelle the Conqueror, Swimming to Cambodia, and Vincent
1997: As Good as It Gets, Taste of Cherry, Contact, The Game, L.A. Confidential, Boogie Nights, Starship Troopers, Good Will Hunting, The Apostle, The Butcher Boy, The Ice Storm, Kundun, Life is Beautiful, Lost Highway, The Sweet Hereafter, Titanic, Donnie Brasco, The Full Monty, Cop Land, Mousehunt, Wag the Dog, Affliction, Waiting for Guffman
2007: Ratatouille, Zodiac, Superbad, In the Valley of Elah, Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, I’m Not There, Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood, We Own the Night, Juno, Atonement, The Darjeeling Limited, 3:10 to Yuma, Blades of Glory, Michael Clayton
2017: Endless Poetry, Patti Cake$, mother!, Downsizing, Wonderstruck, Call me by Your Name, Maudie, The Lost City of Z, Dunkirk, Beatriz at Dinner, A Ghost Story, Faces Places, Three Billboards, War for the Planet of the Apes, The Florida Project, The Shape of Water, Brigsby Bear, Okja, The Big Sick, After the Storm, Your Name, Blade Runner 2049, Lady Bird, Lucky, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Table 19, Logan Lucky, Columbus, Coco, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Jane, The Work, Rumble, Marjorie Prime, The Disaster Artist, Get Out, The Hero, I am not Your Negro, The Lego Batman Movie, My Life as a Zucchini, Their Finest, Battle of the Sexes, The Red Turtle, Personal Shopper, Manifesto, Dina, The Square, Mudbound, The Breadwinner, Roman J Israel, Esq, Last Flag Flying, Wonder.
APPENDIX 2: Good Movies I’d Watch Again, from the Top Twenty Five Box Office By Decade
1960s: Thirteen: The Sound of Music, The Jungle Book, Doctor Zhivago, The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Mary Poppins, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bonnie and Clyde, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Lawrence of Arabia, Midnight Cowboy, The Odd Couple, West Side Story.
1970s: Twenty-two: The Exorcist, Jaws, The Godfather, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Blazing Saddles, Rocky, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kramer vs Kramer, Young Frankenstein, Apocalypse Now, Star Trek The Motion Picture, Heaven Can Wait, MASH, Fiddler on the Roof, Alien, The Rescuers, All the President’s Men, Patton, The Godfather Part II, Papillon, The China Syndrome
1980s: Fifteen: ET The Extra-Terrestrial, The Empire Strikes Back, Batman, Back to the Future, Tootsie, Rain Man, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Platoon, On Golden Pond, Terms of Endearment, Superman II, 9 to 5, Parenthood, Dead Poets Society, When Harry Met Sally…
1990s: Twelve: Forrest Gump, The Lion King, The Sixth Sense, Mrs Doubtfire, Beauty and the Beast, Saving Private Ryan, Terminator 2, Dances with Wolves, The Fugitive, There’s Something About Mary, Apollo 13, As Good as It Gets
2000s: Five: Avatar, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Signs, Hancock
2010s: Five: Toy Story 3, Inside Out, Zootopia, Inception, Gravity