Are movies better than they used to be?

In my annual top ten list for 2008 I quoted a conversation with my friend Paula, who had suggested that films overall were getting better. Last night, on the other hand, my co-producer was bemoaning the fact that a movie star nowadays, by comparison with the Seventies, has far fewer opportunities to produce intelligent, politically engaged work: we were comparing the careers of Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, who starred in a string of provocative pictures, including All The President’s Men, The Candidate  and Three Days of the Condor.

So which opinion is correct — or is there room for both? Certainly there are plenty of film fans who talk about the Seventies as a vanished golden age, when audiences flocked to gritty adult dramas like The Conversation, Serpico and Midnight Cowboy, rather than today’s gross-out comedies, cheesy musicals, tired sequels and superhero movies. Let’s look, then, at the US box office from exactly thirty years ago. Here are 1978’s top 5:

1. Superman

2. Grease

3. Animal House

4. Every Which Way But Loose

5. Jaws 2

Ah. But then, a lot of people date the decline of movies from the phenomenon of Jaws, which set the template for today’s wide release summer blockbusters. So let’s take the year before Jaws, 1974. Here the top 5 looks like this:

1. The Towering Inferno

2. Blazing Saddles

3. Young Frankenstein

4. Earthquake

5. The Trial of Billy Jack

Admittedly, The Godfather Part II comes in at #6, but I think it’s fair to say that popular taste hasn’t changed that much over the years. But of course, in this awards season, popular taste isn’t all that counts. How about the Academy Awards? Here are last year’s nominations for Best Picture, the winner in bold:

No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, Atonement, Michael Clayton.

And here are the winners for the other years we’ve looked at:

1978: The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman.

1974: The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno.

By any standards, 1974 makes a strong case for the Seventies: this is a Best Picture list as good as any since the all-time best year, 1939, whose nominations included Gone with the Wind, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz. But in truth there have always been good years and bad years; the box office has always been dominated by crowd-pleasing genre entertainment; and each new generation of film-makers includes a few great talents who will produce outstanding, lasting films. Any period that can offer directors as varied as Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro, Danny Boyle, Fernando Meirelles, Alfonso Cuaron, Tsai Ming-Liang, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Shane Meadows, Thomas Vinterberg, Lukas Moodyson, Jonathan Glazer and James Marsh just for starters has no need to fear for the future of cinema.

What is depressing about the current crop of English-language movies is the lack of passionate contemporary drama, particularly set against that Oscar list from 1974. The current box office is dominated by super-hero movies, the awards shows by self-consciously artistic period films. All the more reason, then, to applaud the triumph at the Golden Globes by Slumdog Millionaire, which is largely subtitled, has no movie stars and engages with one of the great changes of our time, as the axis of the world shifts eastwards. That alone is cause for optimism as we look forward to the year ahead.