A common argument is that cinema today is just awful, and that popular series now don’t hold a candle to the films of decades past. So, Twilight and the Transformers sequels (of which I’ve only seen Transformers 2, which was dreadful) represent recent films, compared to classics like Sophie’s Choice and ET.
However, the top-grossing films of each of the last ten years are actually pretty good. Avatar was derivative, but it was definitely worth seeing. American Sniper, The Dark Knight and Toy Story 3 were great. The Avengers and the final Harry Potter film were also pretty good.
We could look at the year I was born for a comparison. American moviegoers in 1985 did have the good sense to enjoy Back to the Future, which was the top-grossing film of the year. At second place was Rambo: First Blood Part 2, with a 6.2 average score on imdb, and 29% positive reviews on rotten tomatoes. It was a good year for Sylvester Stallone’s paycheck as the #3 film of the year was Rocky 4, with a 6.4 average review on imdb and 44% grade on rotten tomatoes. Chris Bucholz of Cracked recommends it for the sheer ridiculousness.
If you haven’t seen it, Rocky IV is, on the surface, a movie about boxing. Beneath that mundane surface covering, however, is a film jam packed with completely preposterous things, to the point that many people forget that the film has a talking robot in it, because that’s among the least preposterous of those things.
Consequently, Rocky IV is a very funny thing to talk about, and I think I’ve mentioned it in my writing about 12 billion times now. Basically any time I’m discussing topics like montages, training to win, arrogance, friendship, montages, fighting to win, the Soviet Union, montages, or winning to fight, I will probably mention Rocky IV.
Now, that’s fine and that’s good, and I wouldn’t feel bad about dropping references to Rocky IV the rest of my life but for one problem: This movie came out 28 years ago, and a huge percentage (possibly even the majority) of my audience has never seen it. For example, the montage references I dropped above will be mostly indecipherable to you if you haven’t seen the film and don’t know that one-third of it is literally montages.
The next year wasn’t much better. Police Academy was the sixth most popular film of 1986, with a 6.5 on imdb. and 44% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Eddie Murphy’s Golden Child was the #8 film of 1986. I haven’t heard much of it, probably because audiences didn’t care for it (5.7 average on imdb) and neither did critics (26% positive reviews on rotten tomatoes.)
It’s easy to pick on the 80s, but other decades have had their share of crap on the top of the box office (in addition to good films.)
The top five of 1941 includes Sergeant York (by all accounts, a solid film that got Gary Cooper his first Oscar) and the legitmately great Philadelphia Story, as well as Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn’s mostly forgotten Dive Bomber, Clark Gable and Lana Turner’s now equally obscure, but slightly better reviewed, Honky Tonk. 1952’s top five includes The Greatest Show on Earth, the top selection for worst film to win Best Picture, This is Cinerama—which seems to be the Avatar of its day, noted for groundbreaking effects and little else—Gregory Peck’s Snows of Kilimanjaro (6.2 average on imdb), the slightly better reviewed Robert Taylor picture Ivanhoe and Hans Christian Anderson, which seems to be an okay biopic.
There may have been slightly better periods, but the norm was for a lot of shlock at the top of the box office. That it happens still today is hardly unique.