Film

Scientists Have Determined the Most Influential Film of All Time

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Every year, the Earth circles the sun, and film critics write lists of the best movies of the year. "Of the year," is just one time period, though, and "best" is just one way of ranking movies — a highly subjective one at that. So a recent study used network science to create a new type of list, one that's both more epic and more scientific: the most influential movies of all time.

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Search Your Feelings, You Know It to Be True

You can measure a movie's level of influence by how often other movies reference it, the study's authors argue. So for instance, "Old School" references "The Graduate" when Will Ferrell falls in a swimming pool, tranquilized, and Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" starts playing. This could be used as evidence that The Graduate was influential. (It was, though it didn't make the researchers' list.)

References like this one get tracked on IMDb, an online database of information on more than 5 million movies. Users generate some of IMDb's content, and one of the things they do, conveniently, is tag references between movies. For this study, researchers scraped IMDb and mapped out its network of references. The more a given film had been referenced by other films, and the more those films had been referenced by other films, the higher the original movie's influence score.

Why care about influence at all? Why make another ranked list of movies, when it sometimes feels like the internet is overflowing with rankings already? The study authors argue that films are both commodities and pieces of art, and too often, rankings treat them as one or the other. Critics treat them as pure art; box office numbers treat them as pure product. Influence charts a middle path. You can't achieve influence if your movie was a fad or a pure marketing phenomenon, but you also can't achieve it if no one saw your movie.

Overall, the researchers scored 47,000 films that had been tagged as referencing or being referenced in other films. That's a small subset of all the movies on IMDb, and it skewed toward Western culture. IMDb has more thorough records of English-language movies; Western culture, in general, has also been skewing towards sequels and remakes (the ultimate references?) and pastiche (just look at Ariana Grande's "thank u, next" video!), which means we're kind of gaming the influence system. So are older movies — they've been out in the world, available for referencing, for longer than new releases.

In other words, take these rankings with a grain of salt. But also: Rankings are fun! And the researchers ranked not only movies but performers and directors, for good measure.

And the Winner Is ...

Without further ado, here are the top 10 most influential movies in Western culture, according to the study.

10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

9. Frankenstein (1931)

8. The Birth of a Nation (1915)

7. Citizen Kane (1941)

6. Metropolis (1927)

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

4. King Kong (1933)

3. Psycho (1960)

2. Star Wars (1977)

1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

And here are the top 5 most influential directors ...

5. Steven Spielberg

4. Mervyn LeRoy

3. Alfred Hitchcock

2. Victor Fleming

1. George Cukor

... and performers.

5. John Wayne

4. Arnold Schwarzenegger

3. Tom Cruise

2. Clint Eastwood

1. Samuel L. Jackson

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Ready for a movie marathon? Then it's time to pick up "The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made: An Indispensable Collection of Original Reviews of Box-Office Hits and Misses," compiled by the film critics of the New York Times. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice December 27, 2018

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