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An introduction to the Flickchart world of ranking films

A while ago, I found myself staring at my computer screen, furrowing my brow, tilting my head from one side to the other. Flickchart.com had just told me to choose between Blue Valentine and Before Sunset. Two movies I really love, and I had to put one above the other. Do I go with all the wonderful conversations that are the core of Before Sunset? Or the powerful contrast between hope and dismay found in Blue Valentine? Should I take into account that Blue Valentine stands on its own better, whereas Before Sunset relies on its predecessor Before Sunrise to achieve its full impact? Or should Before Sunset be credited for achieving so much despite only being two people talking for 80 minutes? Should I just go with my gut-feeling? Which one would I rather watch right then and there? Reaching a decision took me a good five minutes, I reckon.

There are those who say that making ranked lists of movies is a pointless endeavor. Films should be judged by their own merits and not just in context of others, they might argue. My take on it is that context is something we always use when thinking about films. I saw The Gold Rush back in July, which was not only my first Charlie Chaplin film but also my first ever silent comedy. Did I like it? Yeah, I did. It was funny and charming. But it was very different from the types of films I had seen before. It took a while for me to get into its groove. It seems likely that my opinion of it will shift when I get around to seeing more Chaplin films, more 1920s films, and more silent films. As it is, I can still evaluate The Gold Rush strictly as a comedy and determine if I like it better or worse than, say, There’s Something About Mary. But as I haven’t seen anything quite like it, I can’t compare it to movies that are more closely related to it. Still, every movie we see, no matter what kind, gives us some degree of context against which to judge every other movie.

We rank movies all the time. Every time you give a film a review score of 8/10, you’re ranking it above every film you’ve given a 7/10 and below every film you’ve given a 9/10. When you call a movie the best of the year, you’re ranking it above all the other ones you saw that year. The issue people have with ranking, then, seems to be one more of degree than of concept. Any rating scale allows for a varying amount of ties. That 8/10 movie gets deemed to be in the same tier as all the other 8/10 movies. Are they all exactly equally good? Of course not. But the numerical rating is just a shorthand. If you write reviews, you hope that people will read the full text to find out what you thought about the film, which aspects worked for you and which didn’t. The score is just a quick summary. But when you go beyond these steps on your review scale to rank films, things can get very detailed. Too detailed for some.

Saying that Casablanca is better than Sucker Punch may be easy enough, but is it better than Pulp Fiction? “Oh, I couldn’t say. They’re so different.” Well, Casablanca is different from Sucker Punch too, and that didn’t stop you from proclaiming it superior. “Yeah, well, I can’t choose between Casablanca and Pulp Fiction. They’re both great. Ranking movies is stupid anyway.” Except when it’s easy, it seems.

This fictional conversation partner might have a point, however. Distilling all discussion on film to “good” or “bad” – and by extension “better” or “worse” – is reductive. I talked about this briefly in the opening of my blog post Noble Failures, where I argued that even overall bad films, or films we don’t like, can have parts or qualities that are worth discussing. “Good” and “bad”, like review scores, are just the sum total of everything we think about a movie. A useful shortcut in many cases, but we should be careful not to boil it down to this sum all the time. It’s a trap worth avoiding even when going into the specifics. The movie was “good”. Why? It had a “good” story and “good” acting. Why was the story good? Why was the acting good?

But for the purpose of ranking movies, we need these shorthands. Once you take everything about a movie into account, from technical merits and emotional impact to story, acting, how much it speaks to you as a person and everything else, you end up with your opinion of the film. Making a ranked list then becomes a matter of weighing this overall opinion against the opinion you have of other movies. Is your opinion of X stronger than your opinion of Y? If yes, is it stronger than your opinion of Z? And so on. Compiling a ranked list is to make a series of choices between different movies.

This is where Flickchart comes in.

Flickchart, the brainchild of Nathan Chase and Jeremy Thompson, is a website that presents you with two movies. Pick the one you like best. Now you get two more films. Pick again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If you get a film you haven’t watched, you mark it as unseen and get another one instead. Eventually, you get recurring movies in new match-ups. If you like Trainspotting better than Fargo, and then Batman Begins better than Trainspotting, that means you like Batman Begins better than Fargo too. As you go along ranking on Flickchart – which can be devilishly addicting – the site compiles a list based on all your choices: your all-time list, from the very best to the very worst. Eventually, you will spot things that don’t look right. The first movie you pick to win a match-up will end up at the top of your list, and if that one doesn’t show up in match-ups for a while, it will sit at #1. Maybe it doesn’t belong there. You can then look up that film and re-rank it. This will pit it against the film at the center of your list. Is it better? Then it gets pitted against the film a quarter from the top. The halving process continues until the film has been placed at its opimal spot on your list. You can then go back to ranking films at random again, or keep fine-tuning your list by re-ranking individual movies.

A typical Flickchart match-up. Notice how your top 20 list is always staring you in the face as you rank? This is why most Flickcharters are obsessed with keeping their top 20 nice and tidy.

Should you pick the films you consider your favorites, or the ones you think are the best? This is a hot debate topic among Flickcharters. Some like to focus on a film’s objective qualities. Others favor a subjective line of thinking, going strictly for the films they enjoy more. A third group thinks that good films and films they like are one and the same. Flickchart doesn’t force you into either way of thinking, but lets you create your list according to your own parameters.

Choosing between two films can be hard. I’ve already mentioned Blue Valentine vs Before Sunset. What about Back to the Future vs Raiders of the Lost Ark? Or The Empire Strikes Back vs The Shawshank Redemption? The Breakfast Club vs Groundhog Day? How about a more unorthodox battle, like The Devil Wears Prada vs Saw? It can be equally tricky to decide between two so-so films, such as Charlie’s Angels vs Dan in Real Life. And just which is worse: Street Fighter or Super Mario Bros? Flickchart doesn’t allow for ties; there’s no Skip button (reloading the page will bring up a new match-up, but that’s not in the spirit of things.) One must always choose.

When you get tired of ranking random films, you can employ some of Flickchart’s various filters. You can choose to rank only films from the 1970s, or specify it further to 1977. Maybe you just want to rank action movies. Or Pixar films. Or Best Picture Oscar winners. If you just want to get new stuff on your chart, you can use the Unranked filter and only be presented with films you haven’t ranked yet. And if fine-tuning the top 20 on your chart is what you want to do, you can restrict your match-ups to just those 20 films as well.

A snippet of Flickchart's global chart

Flickchart offers plenty of other features too. Every match-up has a discussion page where you can leave a comment on your reasoning for your choice and see what other users have had to say. Then there’s the global charts, where the win percentages of all films are compared against each other to produce a list of Flickchart’s favorite films. Here too you can use filters to get specific information. You can also get recommendations on the best films you haven’t seen of various types. If you’ve added other users as your friends, Flickchart allows you to combine the rankings of you and them to find out what your combined favorite films are, or what the best films neither of you have seen yet are. New features are added frequently; the Flickchart of today has more bells and whistles than the one I joined a few years ago, and more is always on the horizon. But the core essence of pitting one film against another remains the same.

Is Flickchart a useful tool for making ranked lists? It can be, but you have to work at it. If you just rank random movies, getting anything fully accurate will take a very long time as a lot will hinge on getting “the right” match-ups. If you use the re-rank feature diligently, you can get something good going. That said, I don’t tend to look at Flickchart when I make my Top 10 lists here on the blog. The main reason is that my Flickchart isn’t in perfect order. During my time as a Flickchart member, I’ve picked winners in over 14000 match-ups, but there are still oddities on my list. Some films are way higher or lower than what feels right. Plus, I’m very fickle. From discussions with fellow Flickcharters, I know there are people who feel there is a perfect order for the movies they’ve seen. I’m of the mindset that my opinions can sway daily. I might pick the black comedy of The War of the Roses over One Hour Photo one day, only to find that the latter’s creepy atmosphere speaks more to me the day after. Movies drift in and out of my top 20 with ease, whereas other users keep a tight lock on their top spots. Different strokes.

Why do I keep using Flickchart then? Primarily, because it’s fun. It’s fun to just think about random films I’ve seen and discover what it is I really like about them, and seeing my list change and transform is oddly satisfying. It can also be a source of revelations about my viewing preferences. I might file a movie away as a 3/5 after first seeing it, only to later realize that I keep choosing it over films I thought I liked more. There are also more general observations to be made. For instance, I’ve never considered romance to be one of my favorite movie genres, and yet my Flickchart top 20 has a pretty high amount of them, all films I truly adore. Apparently, I do love me some well-made romances after all.

As you might gleam, there are many aspects, features and uses when it comes to Flickchart. Some use it as their primary way of keeping track of films they’ve seen. Others employ it to calculate their accurate ranking list of movies. Others still, like me, see it as an entertaining time-killer. Either way, it’s a site well worth checking out. You might just learn something about yourself. It made me realize I had a new favorite movie a while ago.

So go to Flickchart and start ranking. If you do, feel free to add me as your Flickchart friend at my profile page there.

Oh, and for the record:

Blue Valentine > Before Sunset
Casablanca > Pulp Fiction
Back to the Future > Raiders of the Lost Ark
Shawshank Redemption > Empire Strikes Back
Groundhog Day > The Breakfast Club
Saw > The Devil Wears Prada
Dan in Real Life > Charlie’s Angels
Street Fighter > Super Mario Bros

 
10 Comments

Posted by on 2 March, 2012 in Links

 

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Which films of the 2000s will be remembered?

Which films of the last eleven years or so are the ones people will still talk about 20-30 years from now? I don’t just mean hardcore film buffs, because hardcore film buffs will take any excuse to talk about any movie. No, I mean the public at large. Which movies will be remembered and pop up in conversations even in the 2030s? Which films will be referenced? Which films will be the ones people know of even when they haven’t seen them?

This question is trickier than what it might seem at first glance. Any of us can rattle of a bunch of great films that have received critical approval and made good money at the box office. But consider movies of the 70s and 80s. How many are still talked about or remembered today? Not just by you and your circle of friends and acquintances, but the films that you could mention the title of to any random person on the street and they’d be able to tell you something about them. It’s probably not that many. I can think of a few. Jaws. Star Wars. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Karate Kid. Carrie. The Godfather. Back to the Future. The Terminator. The Exorcist. Nightmare on Elm Street. Rocky, though more the sequels than the original, probably. These are movies that have in one way or another entered the public consciousness.

Everyone knows what this is.

This question occurred to me during the last awards season, when I was looking up nominees for the acting Oscars through the years. What struck me was that while the name of the actors and actresses were familiar, the films they were nominated for didn’t ring any bells. And this wasn’t movies from ancient times or anything; just looking through the Best Actress nominations of the 1990s was enough to leave me confused. The End of the Affair? One True Thing? Afterglow? Marvin’s Room? Lorenzo’s Oil? What were all these films I’ve never heard of? In their respective years, there must have been lots of talk about and critical acclaim for them. But they haven’t stuck in people’s minds to any real degree. This caused me to realize that a similar fate would befall lots of the movies everyone was buzzing about at the time. As great as they are, who’s going to remember Winter’s Bone, 127 Hours or The Fighter 20 years from now?

So the question I ask is this: What films from 2000 to today do you think people at large will still mention or know of 25 years from now?

To me, the most obvious pick would be The Lord of the Rings. A massive undertaking that gave use three epic movies that will live on for a long time in people’s memories. Being based on well-known novels doesn’t hurt either as the films are far removed from them and doesn’t fall under their shadow. Compare this to Harry Potter. The films will live on, yes, but they arrived so close to the books that they won’t be standing on their own. The fact that the films haven’t had universal acclaim hurts their chances too.

But scoring big at the box office always helps. If the film made tons of money, it means lots of people went to see it. Avatar won’t be soon forgotten. It bested Titanic‘s money record (even if that’s likely to be toppled again as inflation continues) and also brought on the latest trend of 3D movies. We’re still feeling the effect that movie has had on the cinematic landscape. The Dark Knight is another big success story, though I think the love for it will morph into more of general adoration for Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy as a whole once The Dark Knight Rises arrives. And probably Pirates of the Caribbean too, largely thanks to Johnny Depp‘s memorable Captain Jack Sparrow. Characters like that don’t come around too often.

Pixar’s animated films will of course all be remembered. The kids who see them today will keep them with them and probably show them to their own kids in the future. Which ones will be the stand-outs? Hard to say, but I think Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 will be the big ones. Will any animated films from other studios stick with us? I can’t see any that really will. Maybe How to Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda, but even those seem iffy. How many non-Disney animated films from the 70s and 80s do people talk about today?

Comedies can have an easier time then other genres. As long as they manage one or two gags that become really memetic, they can be set for eternity. More than any other from this past decade, Borat will probably live on for a long time. Everyone was quoting it for a long time, it’s an unforgettable character and the film’s semi-documentary approach also helps to make it stand out. The films Judd Apatow has been involved in have dominated mainstream comedy during the brunt of the past years, and of these, I see Superbad being the one to stand the test of time. If mostly for McLovin.

Love it or hate it, the Saw franchise will live on too. A high concentration of movies (seven in as many years) that kicked off the whole “torture porn” genre, and yet they still have managed to remain uneclipsed and even unequalled by any of its followers in terms of mass appeal. And just because there wasn’t a new movie this year doesn’t mean there won’t be any attempted revivals somewhere down the line. Teens of the 00s will hold on to Saw the way teens of years past did to Friday the 13th and other slasher films.

What about Best Picture winners at the Oscars? They all enter the history books, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be remembered for anything other than their victories. Mention some of the 80s winners like Ordinary People or Out of Africa to someone today and you might well be met with a blank stare. Of the winners during the aughts, it’s slim pickings. Gladiator seems the most likely one since it was such a big box office hit and spawned a short-lived resurgence of historical epics (Alexander, Troy et all). Apart from that and the aforementioned Return of the King, none of the others seem like they will really stick. Maybe The Departed? One non-winning nominee definitely will, though: Brokeback Mountain. People will always remember “that gay cowboy movie”.

Now it’s your turn. Which films from the 2000s (so far) do you think will be remembered?

 
11 Comments

Posted by on 28 November, 2011 in Discussions

 

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