Cinemath is our semi-regular feature that combines the wonder of movies with the tedium of mathematical analysis. At least it is when I write it, and a year has passed since that has happened. To revive the feature, I declare this Cinemath Month: We will release a new article every Sunday until I run out.
This week’s edition examines the career of Woody Allen over the last five decades. Allen has directed 43 movies since 1966, and we tend to perceive his filmography subject to a particular arc. Allen warmed up with a few jokefests in the late 60s/early 70s, peaked with Best Picture winner Annie Hall in 1977, continued through the 80s and 90s as a critical darling, but has since struggled to produce at the level of his earlier work—save for a few hits like his most recent effort, Blue Jasmine. After the jump, we will see if the data on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes supports that narrative.
The IMDB rating is a good starting point. Every Allen movie has thousands of votes—more than sufficient for statistical analysis, where sample size is key (as you’ll see later). On the whole, IMDB users love Allen: 26 of his movies received a rating of 7.0 or higher. That is amazing volume, and if you like 7.0 as an arbitrary cutoff for a “good” rating on IMDB, at least 60% of his 43 movies are viewed favorably by the general public.
There is a noticeable absence of any top 10 movies from 1990 to 2004. But it is also difficult to make a definitive conclusion based on a mess of dots. To clean it up a bit, we can classify each movie into a quartile—the top 25% highest-rated movies are in Quartile 1 (7.6-10), the bottom 25% are in Quartile 4 (0-6.5). Quartile 2 is 7.2-7.5 and Quartile 3 is 6.6-7.1.
There is certainly a dark stretch from 1999-2004 with little love for Celebrity, Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, and Melinda and Melinda (although Sweet and Lowdown is a relative bright spot). But the current period (2005-present) has yielded five movies over 7.0: Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Whatever Works, Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine. It is clearly not peak Allen with lowlights like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and To Rome with Love—but at least in the eyes of IMDB voters, Allen is still making good movies more often than bad ones.
Of course, IMDB viewers may be biased toward newer movies when critics stay more objective. Rotten Tomatoes is not a great source of data for judging the critical opinion of older movies. There are small sample sizes (Another Woman recorded just 13 reviews) and there is a danger of selection bias, since many of the reviews are written in retrospect. (One example from the Sleeper page: “Good early Allen just before he became great.”) Rotten Tomatoes scores should give some idea of the critical reception to Allen’s filmography, though. Below are the plots of Rotten Tomatoes score and the related quartiles. (Quartile 1 – 94-100%; Quartile 2 – 79-93%; Quartile 3 – 56-78%; Quartile 4 – 0-55%)
The Rotten Tomatoes data fits the narrative better. The top-rated movies on Rotten Tomatoes were all released between 1973-1994 with a handful of pleasant surprises in the years that followed. Notably, critics don’t appear as high on Match Point, Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine as IMDB based on these graphs. However, note there are 5 Woody Allen movies rated 100% (Annie Hall is not one of them) that push anything below 94% out of the top quartile. 100% is easy enough for Love and Death with 18 reviews in hindsight, but nearly impossible for Midnight in Paris with 190 reviews. The RT score for a 70s movie is measured on a different scale than a current release, so Midnight in Paris has to settle for 93% and a Best Picture nomination.
In conclusion, you can see pieces of the narrative of decline in the IMDB rating, and it’s even more pronounced in Rotten Tomatoes ratings. But I believe it is more complex than a linear decline from great to mediocre. The odds are better than a coin flip that his next project is a good movie. We may not like Allen today as much as we like his greatest hits, but we like the new stuff more often than not.
Except for 1999-2004 Woody Allen. Nobody enjoyed that.
I will leave you with a combined scatterplot of the rank of all the Woody Allen movies from 1 to 43 on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes so you can compare the critical reviews to the public reception for each movie.