Data Journalism

Crunch time for critics or classics? How are sites like Rotten Tomatoes changing the way we talk about films.

Written by Amy Sullivan

Revered film critic Roger Ebert talked about how movies provide us with insight into the minds of others. “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters…but by seeing the world as another person sees it.” But what if you could gain insight from film reviews and ratings as well?


Sites like Rotten Tomatoes provide ratings for films based on published opinions of hundreds of film and television critics. These reviews are compared to determine which films rate high or ‘fresh’ and which movies rate poorly or ‘rotten’. Fresh films have a 60% or higher score with those 59% and under receiving rotten ratings based on these professional reviews.


Given that art is subjective and one person’s favourite movie could be another person’s worst nightmare, these ratings are not seen as perfect reflections of the films they review but a general idea of the quality of film and the regard with which it’s held – based off these industry reviews. It’s no surprise then, that when looking at the top 20 highest rated films on Rotten Tomatoes that the films that dominate the list are ones considered universal classics or masterpieces by the industry, and films that come from the era of ‘Classical Hollywood narrative’ cinema, which spans US films from 1917 to the early 1960s.


Photo of Orson Welles in The Third Man | Photo credit: twm1340 via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA


The top 20 highest rating or freshest films list contains four films made in the 1940s, four made in the 1930s, three made in the 1920s and two made in the 1950s. Of these films, at least 10 are considered instantly recognisable classics such as Citizen Kane at number three, which constantly takes the number one spot in greatest all-time film polls and was considered ground-breaking for ushering in a new class of narrative and technical style.


In the top 20, seven films have a 100% certified fresh review, with all except Singin’ in the Rain which was made in 1952, being made before 1950. Six of these seven films; The Third Man, Citizen Kane, All About Eve, Modern Times, Singin’ in the Rain and Laura are all considered greats of the American Classical Hollywood narrative wave. These films were seen as trail blazing and innovative for their time, and have endured to become pillars of cinematic excellence. It is no surprise to see these titles at the top of the list, but how did they get there?


When looking at this chart I created with the data from Rotten Tomatoes, you can see the rating of the top 20 films and then in the next chart you can see the total reviews the film received.

Chart made on Datawrapper by Amy Sullivan | Data from


Chart made on Datawrapper by Amy Sullivan | Data from


The funny thing about the highest rated films is that majority of them didn’t receive the most reviews as you would expect. The top three films with the most reviews are Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out and Boyhood, the only films on the list made in this century, released between 2014 and 2015. Does this data reflect changing attitudes towards film journalism and critique, or were the movies from yonder just a higher quality than those of today with less buzz?


Senior Lecturer and Head of Cinema Studies at RMIT University, Dr Adrian Danks thinks the older films on this list are the majority for a good reason. “It often takes time for us to be able to adequately assess the lasting value of a movie. And that’s as it should be. I would think that five films from the 2000s in such a list is a very high number – objectively far too many, and those films from the last 17 years are definitely not as strong as the others listed here; which doesn’t mean great films haven’t been made, of course – just not those five in my opinion. Although great films are made at all points in time, it would be hard to argue that the cinema doesn’t peak sometime in the 20th Century when it was truly the dominant art form globally.”


The Wizard of Oz film poster |Photo credit: twm1340 via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA


Film reviews really started to take off around the 1930s when cinema started to take shape as a new form of art and entertainment. It took a while but eventually film critiquing went from a few journalists writing an extra review with their usual beat to having dedicated film writers to take on Hollywood. Over the years we’ve seen many prominent and influential reviewers from James Agee to Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. But these days the internet has enabled most people to rely on platforms such as Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB or Metacritic when gaining insight on a potential film to watch, whether at the cinema or at home. These platforms have also enabled everyone to let out their inner critic and have an opinion on film, blurring the lines of what makes a professional film journalist and a regular joe’s opinion. The playing field has been levelled for better or worse.


“I’m not sure (these platforms) are positive or negative – just inevitable when we are dealing with meta-data of one form or another. This is also an outcome of the film rating systems that became prominent from the 1980s onwards…. I think the real problem here is if someone just looks at these percentages as an indicator of a films quality – a more contentious, polarising and experimental film will always suffer with these kinds of aggregations. This will also not encourage someone to actually encounter or embrace film criticism – as it would be very sad if such percentages replaced good and creative criticism. The percentage can tell you nothing about why something is good, great or overrated or where it sits within particular histories, traditions, etc.” Dr Danks said.


While these sites have not taken down film reviewing entirely they have enabled more content to circulate and more opportunity for more criticism. The data shows a shift in how we consume opinions on film, and exactly what films we see as classics. It also shows that of the classic films that round out the top 20, while there are less reviews out there for them, those reviewers all universally agree on the revolutionary qualities of those films pushing their ratings up. It’s not necessarily that the films of today are of poorer quality, though some could argue they are, it’s that there are more people with an opinion than ever before and more people seeking opinions. However legitimate film criticism is still king when it comes to getting proper insight into a particular film. It seems you still can’t mess with a classic after all.


About the author

Amy Sullivan