Are there less great films after 1994?

Quentin Tarantino recently suggested that he thinks the current film era is tied for the worst ever, at least as far as American films are concerned. This probably connects to some different views he’s shared (that film should have a unique identity, that directors are supposed to have personalities apparent in the movies, that it’s fine for material to be very R-rated, that practical effects are important.) I like a lot of the recent stuff, but I think one major subtext for these types of discussions is that it seems that in the last 25 years, there’s a lack of agreed upon classics, the movies that will be on multiple best of lists, so I want to explore why that is.

The early 1990s had some all-time classics in quick succession. Hollywood produced Goodfellas, Silence of the LambsUnforgiven, and Schindler’s List. In one year alone, we had Shawshank RedemptionForrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. The last 27 years do not appear to have been as kind. There are some prominent films that are regularly considered among the best ever (TitanicThe Dark KnightThe Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring) but there’s not as many.

In a 2014 Hollywood Reporter list based on opinions of people in the industry, Goodfellas was in 19th place, Silence of the Lambs was in 22nd place, Schindler’s List was in 10th place, Forrest Gump was in 14th place, Pulp Fiction was in 5th place and Shawshank Redemption was in 4th place. No film from the 2000s was in the Top 40.

So what’s going on here? Have films gotten worse? Is the audience more divided so there’s less of a consensus? Am I imagining things? Or is it something else?

I’ve been thinking of some possibilities.

#1- The audience is divided so there are less recent consensus picks. You like action? There’s the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Daniel Craig James Bond, and Mad Max: Fury Road. You want the continuation of the 1990s indie directors? There’s Kill Bill, Boyhood, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Do you prefer films by women? There’s Nomadland, CODA, Power of the Dog, Lady Bird, etc. Do you prefer films by and about African Americans? There’s Judas and the Black Messiah, Get Out, Fences, Moonlight, Till and much more. Do you want historical prestige pictures? There’s The King’s Speech, Gosford Park, There Will be Blood, Lincoln, etc.

#2- There are artistic compromises for various reasons, with suggestions including the focus on superhero films, the advent of streaming services, a desire to get films to play in international markets, focus on CGI and green screens over physical effects, overreliance on wokeness, etc. This is one argument that’s been posed.

#3- Serialization means it’s hard to pick one representative example of a top franchise. What’s the best MCU film? What about the best Lord of the Rings? So this leads to a lack of consensus, even if as many people might consider at least one MCU film to be on the level of Pulp Fiction.

#4- Are critics more diverse? Perhaps the apparent consensus of the past is due to gatekeeping by an establishment that prized stories by New Hollywood directors about straight white men? Maybe the reputations of Shawshank Redemption and Unforgiven would decline in favor of Boyz N the Hood or The Piano if different critics shaped the first impressions.

#5- The golden age of television has taken some of the cache and critical attention of movies. Sylvester Stallone says that the one project he wishes he had done was The Sopranos, so he’s happy to do a streaming show by a top Sopranos writer.

#6- Critics and the culture pay more attention to foreign films, and with a much larger pool of films in the cultural conversation, it’s harder for an American film to really take off.

#7- One wrinkle may be the emphasis on, for lack of a better word, different types of derivative movies. A different way to phrase is that everything’s a remake. We have major franchises that are trucking along and we don’t even know what to call some new installments. Is The Batman a remake of Batman Returns (a previous film in which Batman romanced Catwoman and fought the Penguin?) because it’s not a sequel. Marvel’s been making the MCU fresh by using it to tell stories in different genres (Captain America: Winter Soldier was a 1970s style paranoid thriller complete with Robert Redford in a key role; the Antman films are basically capers.) There’s an emphasis on diversity and telling old stories with different contexts. Crazy Rich Asians was not the first romcom in which a young woman realized her boyfriend’s family was rich. Bros took romcom tropes for a story about a gay activist. So many prestigious films are about the history of movies and/ or in the style of earlier films. Lalaland is about an aspiring actress, and modeled on the Jacques Demi musicals. Many of the results are good, but there’s a difference between telling a good story in the spaghetti western style, and inventing something completely new. It could also result in some vote-splitting when it’s time to figure out a magazine staff’s favorites, as the derivatives compete with the classics.

#8- For whatever reason, recent films just haven’t taken off yet. Sometimes a work that’s been around for a while becomes popular for whatever reason. Shawshank Redemption was on the right cable channel. It’s a Wonderful Life accidentally went public domain. It could very well be that some streaming films weren’t promoted correctly, and will develop a later life.

One common complaint is that it takes a while to recognize that something has staying power, but it’s worth noting there are indications that previous critics liked some then-recent work. The first Sight& Sound Top Ten in 1952 correctly included the four year old Bicycle Thieves (good choice) and the three year old Louisiana Story (a more complicated choice that may have been a way to honor a recently deceased director.) 90s nostalgia is a thing, but it’s not the only factor here. Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Goodfellas and Schindler’s List became mainstays of best of lists pretty quickly. Dances With Wolves was initially very popular, but then its reputation faded.

There may be weird stuff that has nothing to do with the quality of the film that affects its reputation. Pulp Fiction might be less popular if Tarantino didn’t use his later films to develop a cult of personality. The Sixth Sense might be better regarded if M. Night Shyamalan’s next film has a really good reputation.

It could very well be a combination of many factors. Maybe American films are just as good as they were in the early 90s, but need to compete with foreign films and prestige TV for exposure.

There may be complex factors that lead to movies of a particular time developing reputations. So it’s hard to figure out whether the new Hollywood films were a little bit better for assorted reasons (film needed to compete with television which led to greater maturity of subject matter, studios were more willing to experiment, a generation of directors was influenced by foreign films, movie theaters moved to the suburbs where more viewers lived, etc) or if a handful of movies released in a ten year period (The Graduate, The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, MASH, A Clockwork Orange, American Graffiti, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Rocky, All the President’s Men, Network) just captured the zeitgeist even if these weren’t better than films released in another ten year stretch. Although that suggests that there are hidden gems in all sorts of earlier eras that have the potential to be recognized as all-time classics with the right promotion.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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