Rotten Tomatoes, its top 10, and modern bias

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With Paddington 2 knocked off the Rotten Tomatoes throne, what do the next contenders for best film say about how we watch and rate our films? Some thoughts.

His reign was short-lived but won’t be forgotten. Just weeks after knocking Citizen Kane off the Rotten Tomatoes top spot for the Best Movies Of All Time, Paddington 2 was also de-throned earlier this year, in a story that earned headlines around the world. A critic uploaded a negative review of the film written when the film was initially released and pulled the films tomato-meter rating down. In its place, another piece of classic cinema history, It Happened One Night.

Released in 1934, it’s one of cinemas original and most beloved rom-coms, its influence still seen in many modern romances through the use of unlikely lovers thrown together and a chalk and cheese romance forming. It Happened One Night follows socialite Ellie who has eloped against her fathers wishes and is trying to reunite with her new husband. Her path crosses with Peter, an out of work reporter who offers to help her on her journey in exchange for an exclusive article on the marriage. In true rom-com fashion, the pair face numerous obstacles on their journey and love blooms where there was originally contempt. It’s a wonderfully pleasant film that swept the awards winning five Oscars including Best Director, Actor and Actress – accolades that were well deserved. Despite being almost 90 years old now, the film holds its charm and though slightly dated, the core story remains timeless.


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Holding a 99% score on the review aggregator site, you might think it unlikely that the film will be budging anytime soon, but that’s what we all thought about Citizen Kane. In reality, what film sits atop of the Tomato-meter means little in the grand scheme of things. But the films waiting in the wings to pinch this top spot share an interesting trait. Every film in spots 2-10, bar one, were made between 2015 – 2018.

That’s right. According to the site’s algorithm (remember, it’s an algorithm not an actual human’s opinion.  According to the site, the Tomatometer score represents the percentage of professional critic reviews that are positive for a given film or television show. A Tomatometer score is calculated […] after it receives at least five reviews) eight of the best films of all time were made in a four year time span. In fact, out of the top 20, only two films are pre -2014, It Happened One Night and at #9 1940’s The Philadelphia Story.

Our other eight contenders are as follows, Black Panther, Lady Bird, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, BlackKkKlansman, Get Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse and Moonlight.

There’s an element of ‘well duh’ here. Rotten Tomatoes is still a relatively modern website with reviews being uploaded as the films are released and reviewed. As such, there’s of course a wealth of reviews for modern films constantly being uploaded to the site, versus films pre-internet. Even film criticism outlets that were around pre-internet aren’t going to be prioritising the digitisation of every film review ever published. There’s also more film outlets than ever before as the film criticism industry has expanded to allow for much needed diversity.

But that aside, what do these top films say about movies and what movie-goers want to see?

Despite the industry being over 100 years old, it’s only in the last 10-15 years that we are seeing real diversity on screen (at least within Hollywood), especially to mainstream audiences with large budgets behind the camera. Within the top 10 we have one female led, female written and directed film in Lady Bird. We have five films with black male leads including Black Panther, Get Out and Moonlight, many of these share similar diversity behind the camera. In a medium that has been around for this many years, it remains exciting to see something fresh and different, new perspectives on the screen rather than what can often feel like a conveyor belt of identical films, remakes and reboots.  That being said, the top 10 list still boasts two superhero films and more than one sequel, so originality isn’t quite key, rather new spins on old ideas.

Is there an element of self-fulfilling prophecy at play here? In the modern age, how do we as an audience member really choose what we watch? Most audiences access films through streaming services and though you may think there is an element of freewill, streamers, their advertising and purchasing budgets and their algorithm play a huge part in what you’re watching and rating.

In a recent episode of the movie podcast The Big Picture, host Sean Fennessey spoke to writer-director Alex Ross Perry about great works of film that have fallen out of circulation. In the conversation, Perry discussed this idea of self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to high calibre modern films. He referenced how a film is marketed before its release: “it’s based on advertising dollars and how much have been invested in this and this applies to tentpoles and festival acquisitions […] that basically decides the rest of their life, and something remains visible because it carries with it the aura of respectability or success or popularity” he went on to develop this further “they’re released with the correct marketing, seem like relevant films, whether they make 1 million or 10 million dollar. Then they’re on Netflix so they must be important and then they’re on Netflix so people watch them and then people watch them so Netflix pays money to keep them there. Then its like, ‘that must be one of the most important movies'”

It raises the question, do we really love these modern films more than any other film in the history of the art form, or is it simply that most audiences don’t have the opportunity to see films made pre-millennium with the same ease and in the same numbers? As such, we’re voting for modern masterpieces as they’re what is available to us? Whilst I love almost all of the films in the current Rotten Tomatoes Top 10, can I honestly say these are the best and most crowd pleasing films of all time? I’m not sure. But the data thinks it’s true.

What do you think the top 10 says about film appreciation – do audiences and critics alike have less appreciation for classic cinema? Is recency bias at play here? Most importantly, what can I do to ensure Portrait Of A Lady On Fire moves up a few places…?

Lead image: BigStock

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