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Stars, Thumbs, and Tomatoes

It’s a holiday weekend, the perfect time for getting caught up on some of those films on your “to watch” list or cluttering up your queue. How did you end up in this situation to start? How did this list of films get so long, and why is there a need, or in some cases a compulsion, to watch these films? Is it a longing for finding something meaningful that will fill a need in our soul? Is it because you are a completionist that needs to check things off of a list? Is it a fear of missing out on important elements of our culture? Why do we allow input from outside sources to influence our decision-making process. Why do we defer to other authorities to decide what is important, of value, or worth our time?

In the 2010 New York Times article “Too Many Choices: A Problem That Can Paralyze” Alina Tugend writes “Research also shows that an excess of choices often leads us to be less, not more, satisfied once we actually decide. There’s often that nagging feeling we could have done better.” 

A choice between two options is not that difficult. Anyone who has tried out Flickchart can tell you that you can easily spend a half hour picking the better of two options presented to you. But picking one film from the dozens, or maybe hundreds, in your online queue is not as easy.

With all the movie titles available on VOD, Netflix, Hulu, Redbox, and other services it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Having some external authority to help us make our decision, not only helps us narrow the field, but give us a scapegoat if we aren’t happy with our choice: “I should have known that I wasn’t going to like that movie. You can’t trust movie critics with moustaches.”

Critics moustaches

Film critics write lengthy reviews of films, analyzing and examining the story, quality of the performances, and decisions made by the director, but what the public has decided is most valuable is a simple rating system. In 2008 Roger Ebert wrote about rating systems, particularly the often used, and flawed star rating system.

Some have critics that they come to rely on as a dependable source for quality reviews: Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss, David Denby, or Andrew Sarris. Last I checked none of them had a moustache.

To guide us there are 4-star, 5-star, thumbs up/down, fresh/rotten tomatoes and the unique Little Man of the San Francisco Chronicle. But taking an analysis and boiling it down to a simple rating system often results in loosing the finer nuances that differentiate quality films. Not all four star film are created equal. A 4-star comedy is not going to appeal to the same person that enjoyed the 4-star period piece. So even limiting your choices to those top rated films of the critics won’t guarantee you a list of options that you will enjoy.

Everyone loves a list. It gives us something to discuss, debate, and argue about. The American Film Institute has been creating top 100 lists for a variety of categories. It began in 1998 with AFI’s 100 Year 100 Movies list, which was promoted at the 100 greatest American Movies of all time. Citizen Kane became a film that was seen and discussed outside of film school classrooms. Then followed 100 Stars, 100 Laughs, 100 Thrills, 100 Passions, 100 Heroes & Villains, and so on.

Directors beards2
No one uses beards for a rating system, maybe they should. (Top row: Spielberg, Huston, Malick, Scorsese; Bottom row: Coen brothers, Lucas, Kubrick)

If you weren’t satisfied with what was on tv or at the local multiplex, these lists, derived from the opinions of over 1,500 people from the American film community, including screenwriters, directors, actors, film historians, and film critics, gave you some additional options. These are people who live and breathe film everyday of their lives. If there is a group that should know what is good, important, and worth watching, this is it.

Lists like these can turn us into completionists: “I’m working my way through Tom Cruise’s filmography starting with Endless Love, and I’m so thankful that I get Tropic Thunder to watch between Lions for Lambs and Valkyrie .” “I’m working through my list of bearded directors, I just finished my Malick list and am moving on to John Huston.”

The commoditization of personal data has allowed online services to provide customized feedback. Through the collection of data that includes what we’ve watched, bought, and rated online services try to give us useful information about what else they have to offer that we should enjoy.

Netflix uses a star rating system to recommend titles based on user ratings of films. Netflix values its recommendation system so much that on September 21, 2009 they awarded $1M to team “BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos” for creating an algorithm  with an improved prediction accuracy over Netflix’s Cinematch by 10%.  Netflix understands that the challenges of having a large library of titles is providing a way for their customers to easily find the movies they will like. If users aren’t finding the movies they like, especially discovering new favorites, that large library of titles becomes less valuable to the consumer.

Martin Scorsese Flickchart

Whatever method you use to build that list of films, pick one or two to watch this weekend. Stop over at Flickchart to rank it, add it to your Letterboxd list, and let us know what you’re watching. We’re always looking for suggestions of films and series to add to our roster of upcoming reviews.


If you’re looking for some lists to help you bulk up your “to watch” list, here’s a few more: 

Martin Scorsese’s list of favorite movies (

101 Greatest Screenplays  at the Writers Guild of America, West

Great Movies from Roger Ebert

They Shoot Pictures Don’t They

Greatest Film Poll from Sight and Sound (2012)

5-Star Reviews from Empire Magazine