When I die and the stats of my life are displayed I’m going to skip over the section that details how much time I spent looking at the IMDb, particularly between the ages of 17 and 29. The Internet Movie Database, as it’s known to people with no word count limits, quickly became the definitive film resource in the early years of widespread Internet use. These days it’s seen as much as an advertising venue and celebrity tracker (and, anecdotally, a blind date resume corroborator in some circles in LA), but in the late 90s it was the ultimate fan-operated movie guide. It was unprecedented and vast, a continually updated catalog of every film in history laced with juicy trivia and a list of “goofs” for each movie. This meant it gave the lizard brains of film buffs nonstop doses of endorphins years before wikipedia, listicles, and articles picking the nits of popular films.
The IMDb is still those things, though the vibe is now more corporate than fanatic. Ad space encroached the original, easily navigable pages, the Friday morning roundup of critic reactions to new releases disappeared and don’t get me started on the STARmeter. The site pushed farther away from the fan community aspect in 2017 when it deep-sixed its sprawling message boards. But one aspect has remained a consistent touchstone: the Top 250 list.
The movies on the IMDb are thoroughly tagged and ranked to an absurd degree, but the Top 250 is the one list to rule them all. It’s been the target of tampering, campaigns and criticism. It’s introduced many a young cinephile to titles they may not have known and further boosted the profile of films everybody knows. For myself especially in the days before IMDb tinkered with the formula to give more weight to frequent voters, I took the recent titles included with a grain of salt (this was in the days when American Beauty, currently #72, was vying for the top spot). My rule of thumb was if a film could stay in for 10 years, it probably had something more than hype going for it. If I watched a movie I particularly liked and discovered it was on the list when I pulled it up (I looked up every movie I watched on the IMDb), I felt a twinge of vindication.
With nearly a quarter-century of history behind it, the IMDb Top 250 is now a living historical snapshot of sorts. We can ask if a film has ever been on the list and we can analyze trends over time. A great tool for this, IMDb Top 250 Informer, is also a great tool for people who love movies and charts and statistics but hate getting anything productive done with their day.
The list seems to have been invaded by pop culture tent poles recently, but a few clicks reveals that franchise entries and genre films have always been crashing the gates. The earliest poll on record (probably before the programmers behind the curtain put much serious thought into the voting process) gave top spots to not just Star Wars (#1 in 1996, #24 in 2019) but to then-recent release Star Trek: First Contact (#7 then, absent now) (hat tip to this letterboxd list that brought this to my attention). It also claimed Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke was the 27th greatest movie ever made and that Disney’s Jonathan Taylor Thomas vehicle Tom and Huck deserved a mention (seriously, check out that list, it’s wild).
Of course no mention of populism versus prestige would be complete without recounting the battle of The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather for the #1 spot. Only three other films ever have held the top spot: Star Wars (briefly), The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings (for what appears to be about a day), and The Dark Knight (for less than a month). The rest of the time has been either Shawshank or Godfather with Andy and Red holding the top spot for more than three times* longer than the Corleones. Fans of the Don will have to console themselves with having their sequel also a top five mainstay since 2002.
What of the fortunes of toppers of other high-profile lists? Citizen Kane enjoyed dancing around the lower top 10 for a while before jumping up to #6 in September of 1997. In June of 1997 Kane, already synonymous with cinematic achievement, was named the number one movie by the American Film Institute on their “100 Years…100 Movies” list. The IMDb didn’t dispute this high-ranking status for several years, keeping Kane in the top ten and as high as #3 in late 2001. But from there the film would slide for the next decade-plus, including a stretch in late 2013/early 2014 where it lost a spot nearly every single day. Another set of recent drops puts it at #92.
Vertigo, recent winner of the most recent Sight & Sound critics poll and the first to beat Kane in that publication never enjoyed quite the same highs on the IMDb. It mostly hung around the #30 spot before taking a similar slide and ending in a similar spot (#89).
IMDb previously posted their weighting formula for the rankings but now keeps it under wraps in an attempt to prevent tampering (who knew in 1996 there would be clans dedicated to making sure Batman got his due?) so it’s interesting to try and backwards engineer the changes from the outside. That September of 1997 seems to be the time of a major change in the formula, possibly skewing to account for the quantity of votes for a title, as several classic films saw a bump in this time period, including Vertigo which jumped a vertigo-inducing 44 spots in less than six months. Kane and Vertigo‘s synchronized dive in 2013-14 would seem to indicate more tinkering either from within or without, but it’s a curious kind of tinkering that left alone Goodfellas** and Ran and actually benefited Gone with the Wind. There’s been another round lately as several traditional canon titles have seen their stock fall in recent weeks.
Because of the known tampering in favor of certain directors and genre films, it’s tempting to think these movies are being shoved out by current popular movies. That’s true (and inevitable) for a few spots but it doesn’t tell the whole story. A list that continually rewards Twelve Angry Men (#5) and Modern Times (#32) doesn’t seem completely under the thumb of modern genre fanboys.*** It’s a messy list where Green Book (#125) and Howl’s Moving Castle (#130) rub elbows with To Kill a Mockingbird (#112) and The Battle of Algiers (#245). We can all agree it’s very wrong in spots, but it’ll take forever to agree which spots.
See also: Gillianren’s “This Is Not the Populism You’re Looking For”
* Meticulously tracking the Top 250 wasn’t invented overnight, so the early data is from sporadic snapshots sometimes months apart, while data from the last ten years is collected daily, making it difficult to pinpoint the fortunes of films between samples, especially in the late 90s.
** It’s unavoidable to point out that the voters of IMDb have been overwhelmingly male over the years, tipping the list toward certain titles the way canons typically have.
*** My guess is some of it celebrated titles like Citizen Kane and Vertigo come with a set of expectations, whereas other films on the list can still take the general population by surprise.
- As a side note, can we take a moment to appreciate how much India loves movies? To the point where a separate Top 250 list just for Indian movies is listed alongside the “classic” Top 250 in the front page menu. I don’t know if this is supply and demand or if it’s to keep the other list from becoming all Bollywood movies but either way it speaks to a vocal enthusiasm for those movies.
- The header image is a breakdown of the IMDb Top 250 by genre, a cool design by Martin Kruusimagi, except where it mistakenly refers to animation as a genre.