letterboxd

Making Watchlists a Challenge

By Isa Bulnes-Shaw

More than ever, our movie and TV. recommendations come from what’s trending — whether it be on social media or among our friend groups, it seems as though the number of flicks we’re adding to our queues are endless. But, with the movie theater industry’s fate sadly up in the air and social gatherings outside the home still unsafe, the face-to-face opportunities to talk film with fellow moviegoers, filmmakers or festival attendees is indefinitely suspended, leaving streaming services themselves to do the bulk of the recommending.

And while technology may be intuitive, the truth is that sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video only display a sliver of what’s truly available, based on algorithms formed from your watch history. That may be all well and good at first, but what happens when you’re constantly faced with the “watch it again” widgets, or are unsatisfied once finished scrolling through what appears to be the whole genre catalogue? Well, we simply don’t know what we’re missing; many folks don’t truly “discover” new film horizons.

I know I’ve spent a good hour or two sifting through Netflix, trying to find some way to browse a list of every movie that’s streamable, but was met with the same barrage of percentage matches to the films I’ve given a thumbs-up when faced with the binary options of like or dislike, with nothing in between. Amazingly, this does little to change the algorithm anyway, as when a title is disliked, it does not leave the Netflix homepage for you, but is instead blacked out.

Netflix is far from the only perpetrator of this, as Amazon Prime Video shares the absence of a comprehensive way to view your own watchlist in its entirety outside of a desktop — and whereas the expiration dates of titles being removed are hidden in several details pages with the former, the latter lacks any display of this information at all. I find this particularly egregious, as titles I’ve wanted to watch have been removed without my knowledge. What’s worse is that it’s relatively unnoticed in the sea of items in my list, particularly if it was an unfamiliar title I wanted to try out for the first time or hadn’t heard of before. Needless to say that this stunts what should be a way to encounter more media than ever before, and instead makes it seem as though you’re limited to the most mainstream options, original programming, etc. If you don’t know an exact title to search for, you’ll likely never find it.

Thankfully, whether you’re dedicated to Blockbuster franchises or obscure art films, a little site called Letterboxd brings humanity back into movie recommendations. The site (and mobile app), urges you to share your taste in film, through social film discovery. Functioning as both a database and means to socialize, it can be described as a cross between IMDB and Tumblr or Twitter. And frankly, it’s more fun and addicting than I would have ever imagined!

I first downloaded the app about a year ago, after many of my fellow volunteers at an independent cinema kept discussing it amongst themselves. What stood out to me most was the diary function, which allows you to log the movies you watch and note your initial thoughts or leave a review and rating. This feature is also a godsend for people who like to revisit what they watched of the course of the past. As someone who’s been collecting movie theater stubs for over a decade, it was the perfect way to keep track of the movie memories without a physical ticket, such as anything watched at home, or bought digitally. I also love that I can tag these diary entries with anything I’d like, such as which friends I watched a movie with and for what occasion. Diaries are also public, so I can see what my friends are watching and what’s trending with actual discussion and conversation attached to it. Though the term “review” might give off a snobbish vibe, comments on a movie’s main information page can be anything from a gorgeous analytic essay to a snarky, meme-ish comment; either way, it’s sure to get a conversation going, as users can communicate through comments and @ing each other.

This very thing happened to me, as I became mutuals with a user from the United Kingdom after a discussion regarding one of my all-time favorite stand-up comedians, Stewart Lee. Lee is an English comedian that I stumbled upon on YouTube a number of years ago; despite his acclaim across the pond, he’s not well-known at all in the United States, so I’ve felt pretty alone in my obsession with his comedy, which contains some of my all-time favorite bits. But then, in my review on his latest and much anticipated special, I mentioned that although “I laughed so hard I got a headache,” there were significantly more references to English politics than in his past specials that I didn’t understand as an American. A user who must have been reading the reviews on it commented on my reply, sharing that he saw the show live, on the day directly after the Brexit vote, which made Lee change a lot of his material. It led to a really cool conversation with someone who has a different and more informed perspective on something I love that would never have happened in person!

Something that also could never happen in person is the ease with which Letterboxd allows anyone to create and share lists with an unlimited number of movies that can be crowd-sourced with suggestions from folks around the world. Though it’s a standard idea to have a list of comfort films, or Best  ___ films of the year, the Letterboxd community is a prime example of humanity’s creativity.

There are lists for any theme imaginable, from chronological histories of queer cinema, to ones creating messages through movie titles. A couple more examples, to truly showcase the diversity that’s out there:

 Anything is fair game, and while entertaining, it’s also an awesome way for film fans whose voices would otherwise not be heard to find their niche and connect with other people wanting to change their familiar viewing routines.

The only problem with these types of lists is that it adds a whole lot more movies to my watchlist, which is already too long to manage. Amazingly, this is solved with more Letterboxd lists — this time through challenges users create which make a game out of getting through your watchlist! Not only are challenges fun and addicting, often leading down a rabbit hole of new films I’d never stumble upon otherwise, but they’re also a clever and motivating way to cross titles off at a reasonable rate.

 Scavenger Hunts makes you explore and seek out films that meet the hyper-specific criteria for each entry, which is easy from within the app. Not only can you get around to watching the classics you’ve always wanted to, but you may find a few hidden gems in your search!

If you’re not a fan of such detailed suggestions, there are still plenty of challenges that give you an incredible amount of freedom. A-Z Challenges are as simple as can be -- just pick one film with a title that starts with each letter of the alphabet! You can even specify it to a certain theme, such as Halloween-centric films, and choose whether or not to include rewatches or not.

For the ambitious, the 52 Years in 52 Weeks challenge urges users to make a list of 52 movies to watch within the year, released in at least 10 different decades, with only one film per year. One film a week is certainly manageable, and definitely worth it for a large variety of genres, and even forms of film. I love silent films and early talkies from the beginning of the 20th century, but I know I have a ton of watching to do to truly have all the period’s classics under my belt. This is a great way to learn about trends in media through the ages, and maybe find an era you particularly gel with.

 

The near inverse of the 52 Years challenge is the Birth Year Challenge -- my personal favorite I’ve taken part in so far. The prompt is to only watch films from the year you were born that you haven't seen yet, with the number of films correlating to your age, adding another film if your birthday passes before the challenge is completed. For myself, I created a list of 22 movies from the year 1997-- and boy, were there a ton of choices to pick from!

I knew of a few of the most noteworthy flicks to come out that year that I haven’t seen, such as “The Fifth Element”, but didn’t realize how many acclaimed films were being released at the same time as the stuff I’d grow up with, like Disney’s “Hercules” or “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”. I even found some new movie’s I’ve never heard of before, but am dying to watch, such as The Beautician and the Beast starring Fran Drescher -- it looks so incredibly cliche, and just what I need right now. Thank goodness it kept leading to more trashy rom-coms, like Kate & Leopold (which I had to manually put into Netflix to finally find out it was streaming somewhere) that I can laugh and groan at with my friends over Zoom movie nights. It’s really neat to see what trends there were in pop culture at the time, and whether they seem outdated or are perhaps making a comeback.

 

Watching Disney Channel Classics like “Air Bud” back-to-back with Oscar-winning masterpieces in the vein of “Good Will Hunting” was not only a wild ride, but a welcomed change of pace! I believe in the importance and life-changing power of cinema, as well as its ability to bring us comfort even with the most ridiculous garbage. Sometimes though, we need a change in perspective or a helping hand to truly see what’s out there, and perhaps test our comfort zones in attempts to learn more about the world around us. I’m really thankful for Letterboxd for feeling like a safe place where you don’t have to be a film scholar or in the industry to feel like your opinions and experiences matter, or like your taste is a reflection of your own quality.

Now that it’s summer break and I’ve got nowhere to go, I’m definitely going to be doing a lot of movie watching in my own home; fingers crossed I can complete at least one challenge before the year is through! I hope anyone who finds themselves in a similar position can find the right group of people to share the fun with.