Is 2015 the Worst Year in Film? An Investigation

By: Daniel Reynolds

Last week, noted author and important person Bret Easton Ellis tweeted a significant thought. He claimed that while at dinner with a noted filmmaker/cinephile (who? Let your imagine run wild), it was decided between them that 2015 was the worst year ever for American film. He ended the tweet with the ominous: “An infection has arrived.”

Now, you may be asking yourself, what’s the big deal? Authors say this about film all the time. The novel is dying, they’ll tell you, because all people want to do is watch Transformers and eat Doritos. (This last bit is left unsaid.) Still, Ellis is the author of some well-known books. He wrote “American Psycho,” which is now a movie, and some other novels you may not have heard of (that got turned into bad movies). He is a taste maker, a man of opinions (which he shares on his podcast). This is the guy who wrote The Canyons. He knows a thing or two about infections. When someone with so firm a grasp on the world of cinema lets loose, well, let me tell you, it’s best to pay attention.

So, is Ellis correct in his (and his–who could it be??–filmmaker/cinephile friend’s) assertion that 2015 has been the worst year for American film? I decided to investigate the last half decade.

Just hold up Bret, and let's figure this thing out.

Just hold up Bret, and let’s figure this thing out.

The Money

We’ll start with the harshest (and clearest) determinant of success, if not quality: the money. So much of what Hollywood does is determined by who is spending money on what. It really isn’t any more complicated than that. A good year in American film, which, while an artistic endeavour is also an industry, means audiences were out there paying their hard earned money, out of their hard earned pockets, made from their hard earned jobs.

Anyway, a look at the numbers shows that 2015 is currently killing the previous five years, comparatively speaking. The box office is up anywhere from 1.6 to 6.0 over previous years. Worldwide, 2015 is currently third overall in total box office receipts (behind only years when James Cameron made a movie). Based on this metric, it’s hard to deem this year a failure. Sure, we can debate the quality of the films released so far, we can highlight all the sequels and reboots, but the proof is right there in black and white. Even Ellis knows this. His last book, 2010’s “Imperial Bedrooms,” is a sequel to his debut “Less Than Zero,” which just happened to be his first and most successful book. Cash-in to success city, am I right?

The Critics

But I can already hear you (and Ellis, presumably) complaining about my use of the previous metric. Obviously the relative worth and merit of a year’s films does not rest merely on how much money they make. This is the crassest possible way to decide what a good movie is. Avatar made a $2.2 billion, but it’s still a straight rip-off on Pocahontas starring the charisma blackhole that is Sam Worthington. So, what’s the solution? We go to the critics.

Rotten Tomatoes, rather helpfully, has a great record, year-to-year of the overall critical taste. If we look at the top 10 reviewed films of each of the past five years, we can glean a few slivers of information. The average Tomato-meter score (percentage of good reviews against the total) for the last five years is:

  • 96.9 in 2015
  • 96.9 in 2014
  • 96.2 in 2013
  • 95.3 in 2012
  • 97.9 in 2011
  • 97.2 in 2010

We’re splitting hairs here, but there is a second factor to consider: the number of total reviews. Just go with me on this one:

  • 1,988 total reviews for the Top 10 films of 2015
  • 1,944 for 2014
  • 2,160 for 2013
  • 2,040 for 2012
  • 1,581 for 2011
  • 1,922 for 2010

Ah, now things get a little more interesting. (Also, what the hell happened in 2011? Was the Internet broken?) If we create a weighted average, we suddenly get a more fulsome story (that is still very close to call):

  • 96.54 in 2015
  • 96.62 in 2014
  • 95.82 in 2013
  • 94.17 in 2012
  • 96.90 in 2011
  • 96.66 in 2010

By this admittedly slight differential, it’s clear that 2015 comes in ahead of at least 2012 and 2013, but lags just behind 2014, 2010 and our champion, 2011. An aside here: 2011 had some of my favourite films of the decade (Drive, Beginners, Shame) but ended up giving the Best Picture Oscar to The Artist. My point here is math is hard.

Oh no, the bad movies are here.

Oh no, the bad movies are here.

The Worst

Now I know what you’re thinking: If we’re going to determine how bad a year was for film, we can’t just focus on the ceiling. We’ve got to look at the floor, too. And for that, loathe as I am to admit it, we must turn to our friends at the Golden Raspberry Awards–the trophies given out for worst films of the year.

The “winners” from 2010 onward include, in chronological orderThe Last Airbender, Jack and Jill, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Movie 43, Saving Christmas. Folks, these are some bad movies. We don’t exactly know which films will be in the mix for 2015 (though somehow I suspect Shyamalan and Sandler will be involved again), but let’s consider some facts here:

  • 2015 featured the best M. Night Shyamalan film in some time (The Visit, which OK, was probably still not great, but whatever) so already we’re doing better than 2010, the low point for M. Night.
  • The annual Adam Sandler vehicle of 2015, Pixels, did not magically fart its way to the top of the box office and also somehow did not feature something as abhorrent as Al Pacino falling in love with Sandler in drag. Sandler is making offensive content for Netflix now, so we can give 2015 that win, too.
  • The big female-led blockbuster of 2015 will be Hunger Games: Mocking Jay – Part 2, which will probably be an average movie, but will definitely not be anywhere near as embarrassing as whatever the hell Twilight and its confused gender politics was trying to do. Also, Jennifer Lawrence is boss.
  • 2015 did not feature ANY work from either a Farrelly brother or Kirk Cameron, ergo it can’t be the worst. Those are the rules.

The Verdict

Clearly, as my math and critical eye have shown, 2015 cannot be considered the worst year in American film out of even the last five years, let alone the last 105. (I mean, I didn’t extrapolate it, but I’m confident this truism will hold.)

Yes, 2015 has been the year of Fifty Shades of Grey and Minions, it gave us Jupiter Ascending and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. There have been more sequels and reboots, more comic book movies and inexplicably lucrative Christian movies. And poor Zac Efron may never recover from his EDM trip. But worst, collectively, of all time? I don’t think anyone can say that.

That is of course unless you are an out-of-touch novelist with an angry podcast, a bunch of film flops to your name, and an axe to grind. Then you can say it.

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