IMDb Top 250 Movies List Analysis, 5th Edition

A statistical look at how the IMDB Top 250 Movies list has changed over 17 years.

On October 17, 2012, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) will turn 22 years old. Over those 22 years, it’s become one of the most visited websites in the world (somewhere in between Facebook and the New York Times, according to on the strength of both its factual movie information as well as the crowdsourced movie ratings that power its Top 250 movies list. Millions upon millions of votes have given these ratings and the Top 250 list an air of authority that most of us take for granted.

Most of us, that is, except for Over the past five years, I’ve been conducting an annual statistical review of the Top 250 movies list that attempts to suss out trends and possible biases of the list based on changes to its composition over time.

In previous editions of this study, we’ve found that the IMDB list is skewed towards newer movies compared to a list generated by industry professionals: the IMDB Top 250 list from 2008 had a median year of 1975, while the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 films from 2007 had a median year of 1964.5. But we’ve also found that, when looking at changes to the composition of the IMDB Top 250 list from 1996-2011, there is no discernable internal trend towards favoring newer movies at rate faster than what you’d assume from the linear passage of time:

There does seem to be a recent uptick from 2008-2011, but given the up-and-down history of the years prior to 2008, it’s far too early to say there’s a real trend here.

But enough of this recap. Let’s add the 2012 data and see what the Overthinking It IMDb Top 250 Movies List Analysis, 5th Edition, has in store.

The 2012 List

We obviously can’t get at trends when looking at a single year of the list, but let’s pause for a moment and consider what IMDB users are calling the best movies of all time as of October 7, 2012:

  • The median year of the list is 1984. Quick statistics refresher: that means that half of the movies on the list are from before 1984; the other half are after 1984. So yes, the list is still heavily weighted towards newer movies.
  • The two best years for movies, according to this list, were 1995 and 2003. Those years had 8 movies that made the Top 250.
  • The Shawshank Redemption currently sits atop the list with a 9.2 rating. The Godfather, also with a 9.2 rating, is at number 2.
  • 4 movies from 2012 have already found their way onto the list: The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, Looper, and Moonrise Kingdom.
All fine and good, but the real value of this data is in its contribution to the 17-year long trend analysis. With this addition, has the skew towards newer movies accelerated faster than the accompanying passage of time?

The 1996-2012 Trend

The short answer is no:

In 2011, the median year of the list was 1983.5. In 2012, after one year, the median had only moved up 0.5 years, to 1984. As I mentioned before, the changes in the list from 2008-2011 seemed to suggest an increasing lean towards new movies, but the change from 2011 to 2012 belies such a trend.

(It’s worth noting that IMDB recently changed the formula used to determine which movies are eligible for the Top 250 list; the threshold for minimum votes to be eligible shot up to 25,000 from a mere 3,000. But the exact effect on the list’s composition is hard to judge, and in general, we don’t have great insight into this and other changes to the algorithm on the list’s composition over time, so I’m setting this recent change aside for the purpose of this analysis. Feel free to debate its effect in the comments.)

“Too Soon Movies”

Here’s another way of looking at the list and its bias towards newer movies (or lack thereof). It seems a little strange that a movie that just came out a few months ago (or weeks, as in the case of Looper at the time of this writing) can so quickly be given a spot in the pantheon of the Top 250 list. These occurrences are often used to criticize the legitimacy of the list.

Let’s look for a trend in the prevalence of movies that seem a little “too soon” to be included on the IMDB Top 250. For each list from 1996-2012, I counted the number of movies on the list that were released either the same year of the list or the year prior to the list:

There appears to be a downward trend in the prevalence of these “too soon” movies. Also, remember that plenty of these “too soon” eventually drop off the list, so there’s an additional correction process that we don’t see reflected by looking at either this trend or just by looking at any given snapshot of the list.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the new additions to the 2012 list and the drop-offs from the 2011 list.

Additions for 2012

There are 26 movies on the 2012 snapshot of the list that weren’t on the 2011 snapshot. As I previously mentioned, four are from 2012. The rest are spread out between the years 2011 and 1922:

In previous editions, I had separately called out the removal of King Kong and Nosferatu from the list as sad casualties of its relentless forward march, so it’s nice to see these classic monsters of cinema return to some form of prominence.

Removals from 2011

With 26 additions, of course, comes 26 removals:

Some of us on this site may be glad to see that Avatar is no longer on the list.


While writing this post, I went back and looked over the previous four editions in this series and the numerous comments that people have left for each installment. I’m afraid that this exercise has stagnated a bit, given our limited insight into the factors that affect the ratings and the lack of surprising or counterintuitive findings in the data. More importantly, we keep coming back to the dead end that is the idea of applying a single quantitative rating to a movie and ranking those movies based on their ratings. It’s reductive, and it’s antithetical to the very nature of Overthinking It. Sure, the IMDB Top 250 list is important due to its popularity, and it’s valuable to gain a deeper understanding of its nature, but I think we’ve gone deep enough over the course of these five editions.

That being said: I am open to entertaining new ideas for this study, and if something compelling comes up, then there just may be a sixth edition in the cards. So let me know what you think in the comments!

[Update: here’s my raw data for you number-crunching types.]