Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

The strange business of the IMDb 250.

If you go to the cinema more than once every two months and you own a computer then you will almost certainly have visited the Internet Movie Database. In the unstable digital multiverse, IMDb — initiated a quite staggering 21 …

Wed, Jul 21, 2010, 18:54


If you go to the cinema more than once every two months and you own a computer then you will almost certainly have visited the Internet Movie Database. In the unstable digital multiverse, IMDb — initiated a quite staggering 21 years ago — seems a little like a creation of the Bronze Age. Finding it still fit and functional is akin to encountering Henry I’s favourite lute player at the top of the hit parade.

“It’s at number three and it’s coming for us, Red.” “Don’t worry, Andy. It’ll be gone in a spell.”

Aside from offering visitors the answer to most sane queries concerning the cast, crew and origins of virtually every film ever made, IMDb has, of course, become an important social resource. This is where you go to call X-Manfan19675 a moron or to make it clear that you think Jessica Alba is “like, way hot”. It’s also where you go to rate films from past and present. There is, I suspect, no other chart that takes in so many voters from so many locations as the IMDb Top 250. And yet the results are so strange. Here is the top 10 at time of writing:

1. The Shawshank Redemption  (1994)

2. The Godfather (1972)

3. Inception (2010)

4. The Godfather: Part II (1974)

5. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

6. Pulp Fiction (1994)

7. Schindler’s List (1993)

8. Toy Story 3 (2010)

9. 12 Angry Men (1957)

10. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Now, you might argue that this chart — created, as it is by real people — has more worth than, say, the British Film Institute‘s venerable list of the greatest ever films. Well, yes and no. The BFI  does vet its contributors and the voting procedure is nice and public. By way of contrast, though IMDb does employ a formula that attempts to root out lunatics, concerted campaigns still have an effect on the site’s final table.

You can probably see where this is going. Two years ago, just such a campaign pushed Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight to the top of the chart for a month or two. How do we know it was an organised strategy? Well, not only was there a surge of 10/10′s for the Batman picture, there was also a simultaneous avalanche of 1/10′s for The Godfather and The Shawshank Redemption. It seems unlikely that the world’s cinemagoers had suddenly spontaneously turned against Francis Ford Coppola and Frank Darabont.

Hence the timing of this post. Unusually, there are, this week, two current films in the top 10. Toy Story 3 appears at number eight. Inception makes it into number three. Nolan’s dream-invasion thriller is a decent piece of work, but I defy anybody to offer a lucid argument for it deserving a place this high in a list of world’s greatest films. The Nolanistas are out in force again.

The performance of Inception highlights the most serious problem with this list. Like most such sites, IMDb receives contributions from a disproportionately high number of teenage boys. If you doubt this, look at the ratings for the Twilight films. I know that most critics are less keen on the teen vampire pictures than I am, but the appalling ratings for the pictures on IMDb speak of a spotty allergy to “gurl’s fillums”. Such boys idolise Nolan and — crucially — know how to put together internet campaigns.

Anyway, what else is of interest on the list? Well, like a lot of folk, I remain baffled by the cult surrounding The Shawshank Redemption, but there is no doubting that enormous numbers of intelligent punters — men, women, kids, pensioners — adore Darabont’s decent, humane prison picture. We should, therefore, not be surprised to see it at number one.

Similarly, The Godfather has always managed to appeal to a wide range of moviegoers. It works as both a post-Visconti art picture and as a violent soap opera. No sane person will bugrudge it remaining at the top of such lists for 40 years.

It is more surprising — but similarly cheering — to see The Good the Bad and the Ugly sneaking into the top five. Sergio Leone is, it seems, the only director of westerns who still has wide appeal with cinemagoers. What else? A bit of Tarantino. Some Spielberg. No surprises here from the internet junkies.

Looking further down the list, we find a few other predictable entries. Coming in at an impressive number 15, The Seven Samurai — from Kurosawa, the Japanese Leone — registers as the highest ranking foreign language picture. The ragingly idiotic Fight Club, a film made for teenagers by teenagers, secures a place in the top 20. And so on.

There is, for this writer, one continuing, apparently unshakable anomaly with the IMDb chart. There it is at number nine. This is not an aberration. This is no occasional visitor to the upper reaches. 12 Angry Men has a semi-permanent place in the IMDb top 10. Now, don’t get me wrong. Sydney Lumet’s film is a  fine piece of work. Okay it’s a bit stagy and it relies on single-adjective characters — racist, stupid, heroic, etc — but it’s the sort of picture you will always watch all the way through when it appears on TV.

Oh look, it’s that guy. Don’t tell me. It’s on the tip of my tongue.

Most sane cinemagoers would, however, be amazed to discover that 12 Angry Men was, of all films made before 1965, unreservedly, unquestionably the very greatest. As I say, the picture is always in the top 10 and it is always the highest placed film made before the death of President Kennedy. This is truly weird. Surely, when looking back into (for them) antiquity, the kids on IMDb would favour Casablanca (number 16), It’s a Wonderful Life (30) or — for Pete’s sake — Psycho (23). Each of those films is screened on television every bit as frequently as 12 Angry Men.

An American pal of mine did, eventually, offer a possible explanation for this (overseas readers can confirm or deny). He claims that American kids are often shown Lumet’s film in school as part of their civics lessons. It explains the judicial system and it argues for the virtues of a liberal democracy. 12 Angry Men is, thus, for many US kids, the only “old film” they’ve ever seen. Sounds plausible. I just wish they’d show them Bergman’s Persona or Browning’s Freaks or Lang’s M once in a while. That’d learn them some hard truths about the universe.