The best of 2016’s Oscar-nominated movies are better than they have been in decades, data show

Moonlight is among the most critically lauded Best Picture nominees ever made.
Moonlight is among the most critically lauded Best Picture nominees ever made.
Image: A24
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According to critics, the 2017 Academy Award best picture nominees Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, and La La Land are historically great movies. In fact, these three films were so well received, they might be the best crop of films to have graced the Academy Awards’ Best Picture category in decades.

In order to assess just how special this year’s best contenders for the Academy’s highest honor are, Quartz analyzed data from the website Metacritic. The site takes movie reviews from major media outlets and uses them to give movies a 0-100 overall rating. Moonlight (99), Manchester by the Sea (96), and La La Land (93) all scored as well or better than last year’s Best Picture-winning Spotlight, which received a 93. The highest-rated, Moonlight, is the site’s fourth best-rated movie ever, scoring just below The Godfather and just above Pan’s Labyrinth.

The following table shows the average rating of the three best picture nominees with the top ratings in that year, over the last twenty years. We chose to look at the three top-rated movies among the Best Picture nominees because we thought that a year should not be penalized for a bad outlier. (We’re looking at you, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.)

The table shows that this year’s critically lauded crop of movies is more than a one-year trend: Three out of the four top fields of Best Picture nominees came in just the last four years.

Part of the explanation for the higher ratings in recent years might be a change to the nominating rules the Academy made in 2009. Instead of a maximum of five movies in the Best Picture category, it now allows as many as ten. The Academy has always had a preference for popular movies, but this change has allowed some great, low-grossing independent movies to get a nomination. La La Land, with 300 million dollars in revenue, would likely have been nominated in any era, but the lower-grossing Moonlight might not have made it prior to the rule change.

Still, this doesn’t entirely explain the rise of critically adored best picture nominees. Even before the rule change, the average score of the top three movies was increasing.

Not only are better movies getting nominated, but it is increasingly common for the Best Picture winner to be the movie that got the best reviews. In five out of the past eight years, the movie with the best Metacritic rating won the Oscar. (This had only happened two of the twelve years before that.)

It’s difficult to say exactly what accounts for this. It’s possible that the movies aren’t actually getting that much better, but critics are less likely to disagree with one another.

It’s worth noting that as the Academy and reviewers are more and more in lockstep, it appears that Hollywood is getting further out of touch with the taste of the people—audience rating data and box office success often don’t correlate to critics’ views. And not one of the movies nominated for the top movies this year were even among the 15 in terms of domestic box office.

La La Land, a movie about Hollywood in a town that loves its own story, is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar. But given Academy voters’ growing tendency to follow the critics, Moonlight might have a better chance than people think.