Thursday, March 10, 2016

IMDB's outlier

The 50 highest ranked movies by the users of IMDB reads like a typical list of the usual suspects -- The Usual Suspects actually being one of them, at #25.

And then there's the one that comes in at #38, which I suspect most of the fans of the other 49 have only heard of because of its inclusion on this list.

It's Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache's The Intouchables, a heartwarming French dramedy from 2011 starring mostly people that IMDB's heavily American viewership have never heard of, which would also describe the film's co-directors. Or so we would think it was heavily American, if The Intouchables didn't prove to the exception to that rule.

I myself had actually heard of these directors, as I have seen their follow-up film, 2014's Samba, which also stars the outrageously charming and charismatic Omar Sy. But before yesterday, The Intouchables was one of only two of the IMDB top 50 I had yet to see, the other being The Green Mile just behind it at #40.

In fact, I'd guess most viewers would figure this as a French remake of Brian De Palma's 1987 film, The Untouchables, about Elliot Ness and Al Capone. The two have nothing to do with one another, of course. This is a story of a French billionaire paralyzed from the neck down, who invites one of the least likely candidates for the job -- a Senegalese immigrant with a healthy distrust of authority and a wicked sense of humor -- to be his arms and legs, as it were.

Having now finally seen the movie, I can understand why its broad populism would have earned it a place on this list -- but only just. There are certainly far more effective crowd pleasers that are nowhere near this list, and that were made in Hollywood, seemingly making them far more likely to climb a list featuring the likes of Star Wars, The Dark Knight and The Godfather in the top ten. In fact, its 8.5 star rating makes The Intouchables the fifth highest ranked foreign language film on IMDB, behind only Seven Samurai, City of God (itself an unusual inclusion), Life is Beautiful and Spirited Away (though many were likely to have experienced this last with an English language dub). But even if we narrow it down to French language films based on real-life paralyzed people, I'd like to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a lot higher than this.

So what, did a bunch of French viewers just stuff the ballot boxes for what became the country's second biggest box office hit of all time?

Something like that must be the case, but if so, why don't we see that phenomenon occur more with Bollywood films? We already know that Indians represent a powerful voting bloc on IMDB, as more than 44,000 of them engaged in a movement to make a movie called Gunday the all-time lowest rated on IMDB -- not because of the film's astounding ineptitude, but because it had some political affiliations that they found objectionable. Yet their best efforts have only managed to push a nearly three-hour 2009 comedy called 3 Idiots to #113 on IMDB. (For reference, Deadpool is already up at #78).

A little googling might discover the answer for me, but for now I'm just interested in musing about these statistical anomalies. They always fascinate me. Some movies' successes in an open and democratic forum like this are just kind of inexplicable, as are some movies' total failures. At #67, Citizen Kane seems to have claimed a particularly low spot on this list, since it is almost always in the top five of any critics' list of all-time great movies. Though that said, Vertigo -- the current title holder for best film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll -- is three slots lower than that at #70. If you go four slots lower, you get 1957's Witness for the Prosecution, a film I've heard of but am not even really embarrassed about not having seen. Before clicking on it just now, I could not even have told you its director (Billy Wilder) or any of its stars (Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton). Who can explain it? Not I.

As I said earlier, though, I can explain the appeal of The Intouchables. It's a warm and fun movie. Still, it's a bit broad and does almost nothing unexpected, other than delivering us an absolutely joyous Omar Sy performance. Given how predictable it is, I gave it "only" 3.5 stars on Letterboxd.

I guess people's love for this movie is one of its intouchable aspects.


Wendell Ottley said...

I think you might be selling this movie's popularity with American audiences a bit short. Compared to a lot of other foreign films, it was downright ubiquitous. Lots of people at least heard of it, and it helps that it showed up in RedBox kiosks all over the U.S. I saw it because my sister-in-law who generally doesn't watch foreign flicks happened to take a chance on it one night at RedBox and brought it by my house because she loved it so much. I imagine lots of people came to it that way. And a lot of those people went out and gave it a high score on imdb.

That said, I agree with you about the movie itself. It's a nice story, but wholly predictable, and never really rises to the level of greatness. I personally don't think it belongs anywhere near a top 250 list (neither does The Green Mile, btw). However, it is a crowd pleaser so I understand. Still, I wish imdb would figure out a better method of coming up with that list. I liked the old method, though it wasn't perfect. Movies with staying power were nearer to the top while the newer films that made it generally were near the bottom and had to work their way up. Currently, the list seems to reward the new, hot thing.

Anyhoo, great write-up.

Derek Armstrong said...

That raises an interesting point, Wendell. As cinephiles, we can often get an inaccurate sense how well something is known, whereas regular people don't have that same problem. Since we know about both domestic and foreign releases, both arthouse and mainstream movies, we don't always notice when something has made inroads into the mainstream because we would have been aware of it anyway. Of course, something like Redbox is a very good indicator. I must have not noticed The Intouchables there at the time, or thought nothing of it (even though I was using Redbox at that time).

Yeah, this is a decent film, more than decent. It's just not very remarkable.

I'm involved with a website called Flickchart, and am an active member of a discussion group on Facebook comprised of heavy users. Flickchart also has a global chart of the top-ranked films, and had to institute a recency bias in order to prevent what happens on IMDB. The issue came up when The Avengers ascended to the #1 spot on the Best Movies of All Time chart after something ridiculous like two weeks in the theater. Unfortunately, now I think they've gone a bit too far in the other direction as the top 100 has a bunch of classic movies that, while excellent movies, probably do not really reflect the tastes of a majority of the site's users. There's no perfect solution.