Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A new way to rank (Warning! May cause dizziness!)

Last Thursday, my friend Don turned me on to a nasty, wonderful little time-waster, which has since become my obsession.

I should say, for the average person it would be a time-waster. For Don and me, it is downright revolutionary.

It's called FlickChart (www.flickchart.com), and it does nothing short of help you rank your favorite movies of all time. But it's not just your favorite movies, either -- it's all the movies you've seen. All the movies you've seen that they have in their database, anyway. And that's quite a lot -- I've already ranked 2,279 of them, and am still going.

So how exactly does this work?

When you go the website and sign up for a free account, it immediately gets you started on ranking your movies. And it does this in a way that's so simple, yet so effective, that I can't believe it didn't occur to someone before now.

Quite simply, you rank your movies as a series of duels. On one half of the screen, you see the poster for one movie. On the other half, you see a poster for another movie. Whichever poster you click is the movie you like better. And each time you click a poster, you are presented with two new films to compare. If you haven't seen one of them, you click a button that says "Haven't seen it," and you are presented with a new film in its place. As you click -- and click, and click, and click, and click, and click, and click, and click, and click, and click, and click, and click, and click, and click -- the films develop rankings.

At first these rankings are goofy. Say your first two movies are (I'll take two that I don't think are all that great) Burn After Reading and Dead Poets Society. (I hate Burn After Reading, and was in the minority in finding Dead Poets Society manipulative and melodramatic). I would pick Dead Poets Society in this duel, which means that Dead Poets Society would be my #1 movie, and Burn After Reading #2. Then I will get two different movies, and then two more different movies, and then two more different movies, and then eventually duels between some of the same films I've already ranked.

The thing is, Dead Poets Society will stay at #1. Until, that is, it comes up against something better than it -- say, X-Men: The Last Stand -- at which point it will move to #2. When something better comes up against X-Men: The Last Stand -- say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which is a lot better) -- Dead Poets Society will move down to #3. And so on. After much clicking and many duels, Dead Poets Society will eventually end up in its proper place. Each time you get a new film, it adds one to the total number of films you've ranked, and each time you choose one film over another, it adds one ranking.

I found out about Flickchart shortly after I got to work on Thursday, and that's also when I found out two other things: 1) One of my bosses was leaving to spend the entire day at our corporate headquarters, and 2) My most anal other co-worker was out sick. When you added this to the fact that my other boss was already on a scheduled day off, it created the perfect storm for endless amounts of clicking.

And click I did.

All day.

In fact, I ranked so many movies, competed in so many duels, that I literally lost track of time. I almost forgot to eat lunch, and I entered some kind of dizzy fugue where my vision got fuzzy, and I had only a peripheral awareness of the events around me. When I had to do actual work, it was quickly, and with barely concealed annoyance. Sometimes I was so out of it that I realized I'd been staring through the posters, thinking for five seconds about whether The Empire Strikes Back was better than Saw II -- a decision that would have been instantaneous if I weren't half-dead from overindulgence. I was not only hooked, I was an actual addict.

You see, even though I keep a list of all the movies I've ever seen, I have never even considered ranking them. I always wished there was a way, but it's just too enormous a task. How do you decide that movie #1363 on your list is better than #1364? Simple: You can't.

Until now.

See, it's not one big decision about what goes where -- it's a million little decisions. Is Clash of the Titans better than Baby Mama? If so, there's one choice. Is It's a Wonderful Life better than Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls? There's another. And so on. And so on. I make the choices -- I leave the algorithms up to Flickchart.

I rank my favorite movies released in each calendar year as the year is unfolding, and one time, I tried to rank my favorite movies released from 1996 to 2006, just as an exercise. But ranking all the movies I've ever seen? How? How?

I should tell you that at first, it did not seem like Flickchart would be able to provide such an enormous service. As Don and I were both furiously clicking throughout the day -- he had limited boss supervision that day as well -- we both noticed that after awhile, we stopped getting new movies. At about 380 movies -- only 21 of which I hadn't seen -- I noticed no new titles being provided for my consideration. Which was a little disappointing.

But only a little. With a relatively small group of films to focus on, at least I would get a pretty much definitive ranking of those films. Maybe it would take 10,000 rankings, but by that time, I would really know whether I thought Back to the Future was better than Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lost in Translation was better than Children of Men, and Goodfellas was better than Citizen Kane. These are all movies I absolutely love, and eventually, I would have to make the choice between them. (And I can't even tell you how agonizing it has been at times. When I got Donnie Darko vs. Star Wars, I was so angst-ridden I had to email Don then and there. I eventually chose Darko).

If I believe that Flickchart is working its algorithm correctly, I will also have the answer to the question I have previously been unable to answer when anyone asks me:

What is my favorite movie of all time?

It gives me a chill just to think this could be possible. As a film critic, I get this question a lot.

So Don and I agreed that we would rank these 380 films -- or however may of them we had seen (and he had seen seven more than I had, darn him) -- 10,000 times, and then compare our lists. And we would do it by the end of the weekend.

I got halfway there on Thursday. That's right, I made a choice between two movies 5,000 times that day.

Now do you get the dizziness?

But, as I alluded to earlier in the post, there was a stunning realization still in store for me. While Don and I were no less interested by the task, all this clicking gets tedious, especially when you are seeing the same titles over and over and over again. (But not the same posters -- one of the most wonderful things about this website is that there are numerous different posters provided for each film, representing other languages, limited campaigns, etc. etc. That alone makes it a film lover's dream).

But on Sunday morning, I discovered that we had been filtering the movies incorrectly. Somehow, the default setting on Flickchart is for you to receive this initial selection of 380 movies, but nothing more. It's under a strangely and misleadingly named filter called All Movies. On Sunday, however, I discovered that there was a filter called Only Unranked Movies. And as soon as I filtered it that way, all variety of new titles started spilling in -- both totally thrilling me and totally overwhelming me at the same time. At least the goal of 10,000 movies by the end of the weekend would no longer mean anything.

So instead of obsessively ranking the same movies against each other in order to fine-tune the order more and more, I shifted my goal to adding new movies to the list -- and did that most of the day on Sunday, until my wife made me stop and watch a movie with her. I'm never one to turn down my favorite pastime, but a new one had since taken a stranglehold on me, so I relished every break in the action, when she got a phone call or had to go to the bathroom. I had that laptop on my lap less than five seconds after she hit pause. And as soon as we finished the excellent Transamerica -- which I enjoyed no less as a result of my Flickchart distraction -- I immediately added it to my ever-growing list.

I now realize that Flickchart is not a finite project, but a way of life. I will continue adding movies to my list -- there's a place where you can do that as well, instead of just waiting for them to pop up randomly -- and I will continue dueling them against each other over the course of weeks, months, years. It'll be the perfect way to pass the time as I veg out in front of the baseball playoffs for the next couple weeks.

But I did reach 10,000, our original goal, at the end of the night last night. So I thought I should present you my top 20 at this juncture, which now seems like just the beginning.

Without further ado:

1. Toy Story
2. Pulp Fiction
3. Donnie Darko
4. Dumb and Dumber
5. The Seven Samurai
6. Toy Story 2
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
8. Dances With Wolves
9. The Princess Bride
10. The Empire Strikes Back
11. Raiders of the Lost Ark
12. Children of Men
13. Unforgiven
14. Citizen Kane
15. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
16. The Untouchables
17. Requiem for a Dream
18. Fargo
19. The Professional
20. Die Hard

As evidence of how this is a work in progress, there are some films on here that are way too high. For example, though I love The Seven Samurai, it is not my fifth favorite film of all time. Nor do The Professional, Requiem for a Dream and Dances With Wolves belong in the top 20. But otherwise, you are looking at some of my creme de la creme. However, by the "end" of this process -- I put it in quotation marks because there is no end -- it's possible that only a few of these titles will still be in the top 20. There are dozens of wonderful movies in the second half of my current list, just waiting for their chance to move up. Never mind the movies I may one day love that I haven't seen yet -- or that haven't been made yet.

Then there's the question of #1. How long will Toy Story stay? It's hard to say, but I can say that it has been #1 for the entire 10,000. Toy Story happens to both be one of my favorite films of all time, and one of the first two I ranked. So it has ruled the roost from moment one. That's why it gets the poster art for this post -- in addition to the fact that it's also timely, as the film has returned to theaters, along with its sequel, for a two-week 3D run.

So if you are a big movie fan -- which you are if you're reading this blog, or else you're one of my relatives -- and if 2,000 words on Flickchart has not exhausted you too much already, I recommend you get started on it. Now. You'll remember this day as the day your life changed forever -- though whether you thank me or curse my name depends on how you take to the addiction.

And don't blame me if you start to get dizzy. I recommend taking a walk -- and having your bosses out of the office.

6 comments:

Lord Vader said...

I just want you to know that it is now your fault that I will waste the rest of my life...

Vancetastic said...

If my experience is any indication, the first few days are the worst, and then it slowly fits into your schedule at more reasonable time ratios.

Don Handsome said...

I can also attest to FlickChart’s addictive qualities…having been away on business for the last four days, I was frustrated by intermittent signal drops in my hotel and at my conference. I found myself, at one point, twitching and itching myself into a good old fashioned internet café (who knew those still existed) where I ignored my conference for 2 hours while getting my fix – I was up to 8,500 rankings upon leaving for the airport. I was able to find the weakest of internet signals at the San Antonio airport and got up to 9,000...then after getting back to my apartment late late late last night I did 1000 more...so here, at 10,000 clicks (and 2173 movies in competition) is my top 20:
1) Raging Bull
2) Chinatown
3) Citizen Kane
4) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
5) Eternal Sunshine on the Spotless Mind
6) Unforgiven
7) The Departed
8) Mulholland Dr.
9) GoodFellas
10) The Dark Knight
11) Chasing Amy
12) Jackie Brown
13) The 40-Year-Old Virgin
14) Donnie Darko
15) Jerry Maguire
16) City of God
17) Trainspotting
18) Brazil
19) Face/Off
20) The Shining

Of course, as is the case with you, this top 20 does not represent my top 20. Some of these flicks would be on it, and some wouldn’t. I think that part of the genius of flick chart is that you can root and root for certain movies (I’ve taken up the cause of Children of Men in my rooting) but when it comes down to brass tacks and its time for me to decide if Children of Men is better than GoodFellas, I just can’t pull the trigger in favor of my rooting interest. This is what is great about FlickChart…it eliminates pretention. If you’re the type that likes to dis on movies like Titanic, will you really be able to maintain your icy exterior when faced with a decision like Titanic Vs. Pluto Nash? How about Titanic Vs. Stand By Me?

If you are honest with it, FlickChart will create a weird world for you. It’s a world where you can’t hide behind your own safety nets. Sure, its cool to champion a film like Children of Men (and I do, truly love it) but when push comes to shove, I can admit that I think that Chinatown, Citizen Kane, GoodFellas and Donnie Darko are all movies I like better than it…Children of Men still sits at #45 for me. I want it higher, but I can’t lie to flick chart. By the way, Titanic sits at #145. What’s also strange is that FlickChart will illuminate films that you didn’t previously know you liked as much. I mean, sure I enjoyed Face/Off for what it was…the best of the American John Woo films featuring scenery chewing from two masters of the chewing craft…but I didn’t know I liked it well enough for it to crack my top 20. I don’t at all think of it as a top 20 film, but there it is…FlickChart doesn’t lie. Its beaten some real good flicks to be there, and I must respect.

This whole process will take lots of time. Since the Vance Breakthrough of Sunday, I have added roughly 1750 films to flick chart. Some of these are truly movies that I adore and, I believe, should be in my top 20. But the more films that you have to rank, the longer it takes to find those pairings that really make you think. Badlands surely beats Face/Off (and probably 90% of my current top 20), yet it sits at #759 right now because since adding it to my FlickChart database, I’ve only had two opportunities to rank it and these were against very low ranking films.

So I guess, Vance, you’ll need to run another post about this at 100,000 rankings…maybe then the top 20 will be a true top 20. Maybe not.

Until then, all hail FlickChart.

Vancetastic said...

Don,

Good top 20. You know we disagree on Chasing Amy and Mulholland Drive, but otherwise, quite excellent. I must give Raging Bull another watch. I saw it relatively recently (6-7 years ago) for the first time, yet still don't have much memory of it. However, I have been ranking it highly as a "film I know is excellent but don't remember very well," which means it beats all middle-of-the-road stuff and pretty good stuff, but loses out to some films that surely are not "better" than it, but which have more personal importance to me and which I remember better.

Here's the thing, as you indicated when you said you can't lie to Flickchart: You are not trying to come up with a list of the most respected films of all time, but rather, your own list of favorites based on idiosyncratic factors that you can't always put into words. If you were just trying to recreate the AFI Top 100, it would be a wasted exercise.

I think I am going to give Citizen Kane another watch soon, just to see how much I really LOVE it, or whether I just respect it incredibly, having had it drummed into me that it is the best film of all time. But is it MY best? I guess I'll have to see when it comes up against Toy Story, sometime in March of 2011.

Nathan said...

Really enjoyed your post. You hit the nail on the head with what Flickchart's really all about. We make it simple and accessible, but it really does open up your views and thoughts about film in a way you wouldn't expect. We're glad to have you on board. Thanks!

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for the feedback, Nathan! Glad to be a part.

I have more questions for you than you probably care to answer, if you are even reading this follow-up comment, but I'd love the answer to one if you have time:

How can you see your whole list as just a list of titles, without the detail? I'd love to see what I currently have ranked last, but I don't want to press through 48 pages of 50 titles in order to find it!

Thanks ...