23 February 2014

How I Flickchart

For various reasons, I thought it might be helpful for me to offer a microcosm display of how I use Flickchart. There are lots of approaches. Mine is what I've taken to calling "fluid Flickcharting", where the idea is to focus exclusively on the match at hand and pay no heed whatsoever to the results. [Admittedly, I do take note of the results if it's in the course of either adding or re-ranking a movie on my chart, just because I record that in my reviews. It's for archival purposes only and not because I care.] Some of my fellow Flickcharters have a hard time accepting a newcomer breaking into their top 100/50/20 groups. It doesn't faze me, because my objective is not to create a ranked list that looks right to me.

Instead, my only objective is to use the randomly generated head-to-head matches to prompt me to reflect on the respective merits of the two films at hand. It's that contemplation that interests me; not the generation of a ranked chart. Anyone can create a ranked list of things (see: 78% of the Internet), and without the Flickchart process, at that.

When I sit down to just rank movies, I normally choose to filter to just movies I've already ranked. I'm not interested in movies that I haven't ranked being presented to me, because I've almost certainly not seen them. Typically, I'll start with generating matches from my entire chart, and as I go on, I'll narrow the focus. Here's a walk-through of an ordinary Flickcharting session for me.

Descendant is a fairly routine, but mostly game, homage to Edgar Allan Poe. I've seen it once, last October, and while I thought it was an alright movie, I have little overall enthusiasm for it. Trail Mix-Up is a Roger Rabbit short film. A lot of people have a mental barrier that keeps them from even having short films go up against feature films, but this isn't a problem for me. I was more entertained overall by Trail Mix-Up than I was by Descendant (which, really, I think would have been stronger as a short film), and I care more about Roger Rabbit than I care about Poe (Ligeia notwithstanding). This one goes to Trail Mix-Up.

Another feature vs. short match. Of the three documentaries I've seen made by Michael Moore, Sicko is the one that got to me the most. After all, it came out just two years after I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and began to find out just how jacked up healthcare in America is. It's a sharper doc from Moore than is the better-known Fahrenheit 9/11. There's still some of his trademark, condescending snark and he doesn't connect all the dots as clearly as I'd like, but Sicko's role in reinvigorating the nature of healthcare debate in the U.S. should not be underestimated or dismissed lightly.

Acting for the Camera, on the other hand, stands as one of the most affecting shorts I've seen. I'm fascinated by actors - not movie stars; I've little interest in glamour - and how completely vulnerable they have to be at times. Mallory Zeilstra's performance in this short rattled me the first time I saw it. It rattled me after I saw it. It rattled me when I saw it again. Hell, it rattles me right now just thinking about it.

So, what do I do here? One intersects directly with my experiences as a Crohnie, the other grabbed me by my throat and hasn't let go. In truth, I could pick either of these and be simultaneously contented with my choice and disappointed in myself for not picking the other. I run into this kind of thing fairly often, actually. My tie-breakers vary. Here, what makes the difference is that President Obama has done a lot more for the cause of addressing healthcare reform than Michael Moore's film was able to do. That's no fault of Moore's; it's just that film does have its limits. It can prompt social action at times, but a film cannot directly make changes. Acting for the Camera, however, explores as its subject its own medium in as perfect a way as I've seen. I'm indebted to Sicko for asking questions no one in mainstream media could be bothered to ask at that time (and don't even try acting like you're outside the mainstream media, Fox News; certainly not on the matter of asking why our healthcare during the Bush years wasn't better than it was!), but Acting for the Camera squeaks by with the win.

Note: It took me so long to deliberate that match that my filter timed out. Now's as good a time as any to narrow the filter just a bit, to my Top 1000 (at present, I have 1617 titles ranked, so we're dropping the bottom third).

The only thing I really care about in Footloose is Bonnie Tyler's "Holding out for a Hero", which is much too cool to be reduced to playing in the background as two twits play chicken on tractors. Far more deserving uses of the song include being in a montage ad that played at the beginning of several Paramount action movies on VHS in the late 90's, and the cover performance by Jennifer Saunders in Shrek 2. On the other hand, I love everything about Hot Fuzz except the fact I've yet to see it in a theater. This is an easy choice for me to make.

Here's a case where I had previously drawn this match and commented on it:
Pierce Brosnan showdown! "After the Sunset" is something of a guilty pleasure of mine, but "The Matador" features my favorite Brosnan performance to date as the egocentric and eccentric Julian.
I stand by that. Someone else commented that After the Sunset is a guilty pleasure of theirs, too, but that they were underwhelmed by The Matador. Sometimes I respond to comments, especially if they're in direct connection with one of my own, but I really have nothing to say here. I could champion The Matador, but even if I had some kind of evangelical zeal to do so (which, right now, I don't), this other person may never even know about it because at present there's no comment notification system in place. I'll just let it go this time and sing the praises of The Matador elsewhere.

Horror Express has a lot going for it: A pervasive eerie mood, an engaging setting (a trans-Siberian train), and a mystery that draws into it no less than two Bond villains (Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas). A Beautiful Mind is interesting throughout, and yes, Russell Crowe's performance is more compelling than any performance in Horror Express. However, A Beautiful Mind is a once-and-done movie for me that I have no enthusiasm to revisit, whereas Horror Express is one that, even though I've yet to actually revisit, I want to see again - preferably with someone else who hasn't seen it before but that I suspect would enjoy it. The replay value wins this one for Horror Express.

I'm from the original Pee-wee generation, so his Big Adventure was part of my youth. I was thrilled to find that it holds up remarkably well when I finally sat down to watch it on DVD a few years ago. I'll always connect with The Ghost and the Darkness because I've seen the actual lions of Tsavo on display at the Field Museum in Chicago - as has Val Kilmer, who starred in that movie and whom I saw at C2E2 in Chicago in 2012. What hinders The Ghost and the Darkness here is simply that I've not seen it since the VHS era. I can still vividly recall different passages of the film, and how I felt watching it, but those recollections aren't quite as sharp as the ones for Pee-wee's Big Adventure. If/when I ever go back to re-watch The Ghost and the Darkness, however, there's a strong chance I could be more swayed to go with that in a future re-match.

I have a guideline that says Batman > No Batman, though obviously that's not a particularly reasonable rule to adhere to, if only for the existence of Batman & Robin. Year One is as faithful an adaptation of its source material as anyone could have expected or wanted, and the fact I'm a fan of that story certainly helps. And yet, I'd be lying if I said that it knocked my socks off or reached me the same way that the original comic book story did.

I respect The Godfather's greatness, but it too is a film that I don't really love; certainly not on the same level as many others. Like The Ghost and the Darkness, it's a film I've only seen once, back in the VHS era, but I can recall it far more vividly. (Its ubiquity in pop culture has something to do with that, I'm sure.) I should have a stronger positive feeling for a Batman movie than I have for Year One. That costs it against the objective strengths of The Godfather.

I wish more people would see The Minus Man just so that Owen Wilson could be given more opportunities to flex his acting chops, because his performance is captivating and, at times, outright upsetting. It's sort of what American Psycho would have been if conceived as a "quirky indie film". Every now and again, someone will bring up movies that should be considered for sequel, and I never think to mention The Minus Man so let it be known here and now that I'd love to see another story with this guy, all these years later.

Niagara Motel resonates with me for its portrayal of isolating, suicidal depression - an unsettling movie for me to have watched during my Year of Hell, I assure you - and I'm a fan of Craig Ferguson, too. I've yet to fall in love with any of his movie work that I've seen, but he's one of the finest late night talk show hosts I've ever seen, and his Between the Bridge and the River is the novel I wish I'd written.

In the final analysis, I'm going with The Minus Man, for being more consistently even from start to finish and for having more staying power.

At this point, I decided to modify my filter. Because this is already a lengthy blog post, I'll skip ranking my Top 500 and go directly to my Top 250. This level is, obviously, more challenging.

RED is vacuous fun, but fun all the same. It's basically Grumpy Old Spies, and any time you can use "Grumpy Old" anything as a shorthand, you've got my attention. Its dialog is sometimes tedious (clearly informed from spy movies instead of homework about actual spies), and while it may be unfair, I have to admit that its "meh" sequel costs it some standing with me.

Bringing out the Dead is something else. I can understand the complaints about it; the narrative feels to meander too much before expecting us to be impacted by events in the final act, and it's hard to understand the dearth of consequences for these characters (in real life, no one flips an ambulance and is back on the street the next shift). It's a shame that Martin Scorsese adapted Bringing out the Dead as a film when he did. Not only have movies been given greater rein to be self-indulgent today, but I think it would have worked even better as a mini-series on premium cable.

Catch me in a lighter mood, and I'll probably go with RED, but you didn't. You caught me in a different mood, where Nicolas Cage basking in grittiness appeals to me, and so Bringing out the Dead gets the nod.

I didn't originally fall in love with Zombieland. I left the theater feeling like it was alright, but that other people were going to love it a lot more than I did. Then I rented it to watch with my brother and it was more entertaining. I caught it on TV during a free weekend of Starz! and enjoyed it even more. Last year I watched it on Blu-ray by myself and found I dug it even more. Somewhere along the line it went from being an overachiever to a personal favorite. I think the reason for this is that each time I watched it, I was able to identify with different character relationships. Because the characters themselves make a point to stay one-dimensional, it's relatively easy to draw parallels between them and people in my life. I'm generally disapproving of that trend toward generic tropes using shorthand for actual character, but in the context of this specific story, I think it was a clever and wise narrative choice.

Knocked Up has largely fallen out of favor with me since 2007, though not necessarily because of anything in the film. Rather, it's because it was one of the movies that my wife would re-watch semi-regularly, and that connotation bothers me. (This is also true of both films in that last match, RED and Bringing out the Dead.) Still, I gotta say that scene in which Leslie Mann busts Paul Rudd at his fantasy baseball draft is absolutely brilliant and probably my favorite single scene in any of the movies directed by Judd Apatow so far. Fun fact: Rudd says he created an alibi so that the week before, he could go see Spider-Man 3; the only problem is, that movie opened an entire month after the baseball season started, so it was a terribly organized fantasy baseball league.

The near-concurrent rise of Zombieland and fall of Knocked Up make this choice obvious and easy for me.

What makes Sleepy Hollow such fun is that Tim Burton's brilliant sense of mise-en-scene is exactly how this story should look and feel. The ensemble cast is terrific, too. Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane has a lot more wherewithal than his literary counterpart, but that's okay. It works because he still infuses the macabre tale with some needed moments of levity.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is about as perfect an adaptation of a literary masterpiece as one could ever want. It nails the muted bleakness of John le Carre's world of spies (black and white cinematography was definitely the right choice for this picture), but where the novel's slow burn simmers throughout, the film is never quite as unsettling as it ought to be. The middle section of the film ought to evoke a sense of intrigue and dread similar to something like The 39 Steps, but instead feels more like going through the motions to get us from London to the trial in Germany. Le Carre's stories aren't about big events; they're about the undercurrents and eddies that take characters and threads alike in unpredictable directions. The film's coldness helps make it stand out next to the glamorized spy movies that dominate the espionage genre, but it also prevents it from delving as deeply into its story as it could have.

This one goes to Sleepy Hollow. It's solidly entertaining, and I love just looking at it. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is solid, but at the end of the day, I'd rather get someone to read le Carre's novel than to see the movie adaptation.

Here, again, I took so long deliberating that my filter timed out. That seems like my cue to wrap up this session. I can tell you that Sleepy Hollow jumped from #169 to #99, but only because as the last match I ranked, that result is on my screen right now. Otherwise, I have no idea what (if any) movement occurred on my Flickchart as a result of this ranking session, nor do I care.

This microcosm is by no means authoritative. For one thing, there are lots of other factors I consider that didn't even come up in these example matches. None of these matches really prompted me to scrutinize the objective merits of either film, primarily because I was able to make a choice without delving into that. I can be swayed by anything from narrative theme to theme song. In the interest of trying to make this somewhat readable, I also gave thought to some factors that I didn't bother to list in my write-up. Still, I hope you got a sense of some of the various things that I take into account when making a decision.

Do you Flickchart? If so, be sure to friend me here, and don't be shy about sharing how you approach using the site!
Also be sure to check out my pal Emil's blog posts: "Flickcharting" and "Flickcharting 2: Rocking my Top 100"
(I, too, Dear Reader, am disappointed that the sequel wasn't called "Flickcharting 2: Electric Boogaloo".)

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