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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Dominance or submission? The strange Netflix reign of 'Crash'

April 17, 2009 |  1:15 pm


What movie has been comfortably perched at the top of Netflix's Top 100 rental chart for 43 consecutive months, easily beating off competition from such blockbusters as "Iron Man," "The Dark Knight," "Spiderman 3," "Shrek the Third," even such guilty pleasures as "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay"?

OK, so our headline gave it away -- it's "Crash," the 2005 Oscar best picture winner that wasn't especially beloved by critics to start with and is now viewed as something of a earnest liberal curiosity piece in many film blog circles. But at Netflix, it continues to rule the roost. Why?

Even "Crash" director Paul Haggis is mystified by its continuing dominance. As he told the Chicago Tribune's Robert Elder: "I have no idea why anyone went to the movie in the first place, let alone rented it. It was a little independent film.... I happen to like my second film ["In the Valley of Elah"] better than 'Crash,' but no one went to see it." 

Vulture's Logan Hill also took a crack at unraveling the mystery, though as you can tell from the snarky tone of his blog post, he's no fan of the film, which he describes as a "loathsome" object clinging to the top of the Netflix chart "like some preachy fungus." I remain an admirer of the film, but I did find Hill's analysis pretty intriguing. He suspects that the much-heralded Netflix recommendation engine might be "best at serving up search-engine friendly films, instead of films we might really like." He offers four possible explanations, excerpted as follows:

1) Timeliness: "Crash's" success is distorted due to historical accident: It was awarded best picture in 2006, just as Netflix's user base was exploding. It was likely one of the first films new users added to their queues.

2) Awards: Awards seriously skew Netflix recommendations away from films people actually like and toward films that associations praise. [So] Crash is linked to every other award-winning film in the database and sucks up referrals.

3) Keywords: "Crash" is a connector. Thanks to its massive cast of actors from disparate genres, it's linked to hundreds and hundreds of other films. Via keywords like "Sandra Bullock" or "Don Cheadle," it's a single degree of separation from "Miss Congeniality" and "Hotel Rwanda."

4) The Bradley Effect: Clearly, it doesn't hurt that "Crash" has a nearly inexplicable four-out-of-five star rating based on 2.8 million user reviews. The only rational explanation for such positive reviews is a film-crit Bradley Effect, a self-flattering bias in the star ratings that pairs nicely with Haggis' middle-brow self-righteousness.... Yes, the Bradley Effect was supposedly discredited in the last election, but can you really think of a more plausible explanation?

OK, what do you think? Was "Crash" overrated to start with? Or does have it an enduring appeal that would account for its long reign atop the Netflix charts?

Photo of Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton in "Crash" by Lorey Sebastian / Lionsgate Films