Friday, February 26, 2010
About time for a change
Greetings everyone. Time for the latest update in my regular series of posts discussing my utilization of Flickchart (www.flickchart.com) to rank all the films I've ever seen. To see how Flickchart does it, I refer you to this post -- and then to the six other FC-related posts I've written, which you can find by clicking on my Flickchart label to the right.
I've now made it through 60,000 duels on Flickchart. That's 60,000 head-to-head battles between any two of the 2735 movies I am currently ranking. But just to look at my top 20, which I've isolated for your edification in a special spot on the right, you wouldn't have thought I was making much progress. At 40,000 duels, I discussed my frustration that there had not been a single change in my top 20 during the previous 10,000 duels. The next 10,000 yielded a couple changes, restoring some of my equanimity. But then the 10,000 after that -- the period I just finished -- went back to the status quo. No changes.
The reason for this is pretty simple, when you think about it. When you're pulling randomly from a group of 2735 movies, you get a lot more meaningless duels between the films ranked #1042 and #1311 than you do between films ranked #1-#20 and any other film that has a reasonable chance of beating them. Those 20 films get maybe ten duels every 10,000, and most of the time, they hold serve against some pretender in the low 1700s.
Thus far, I haven't been willing to use one of Flickchart's many available methods for focusing only on higher ranked films. I had decided that I loved the purity of the randomness of the duels. I knew that eventually, over time, even if it took one million duels, all my films would have all the duels they needed in order to reach their proper place in the rankings.
But it takes a lot of patience to wait for one million duels to transpire. At the pace I'm currently going -- not that I can maintain this feverish intensity forever -- I won't hit one million duels until about 2018. There had to be something faster.
There is, but I'd have to sacrifice some of that "purity of randomness" I discussed a moment ago to get it. I'd have to decide I am willing to take control of my duels, make them less random than they've been. And I decided it was about time. I was getting just as sick of looking at those same 20 titles as you were.
So I decided I would utilize a feature on Flickchart that allows you to duel only your top 250 films. Ever flexible, Flickchart also lets you duel your top 100, your top 50 and your top 20, but let's not get crazy here. Baby steps. Baby steps.
I decided I'd devote the first 1,000 of every 10,000 new duels to just the top 250. That would allow for plenty of reshuffling among my favorite films, a faster push toward greater accuracy, a faster push toward permanently removing The Untouchables and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (great movies though they are) from my top 20. And then for the other 9,000 duels, it would be business as usual. Those 9,000 duels would give lower ranked films, films that might deserve to be in the top 250, an opportunity to move into the top 250 in time for duels 70,000 through 71,000. And there still might be changes to the top 20 during those 9,000 duels -- they would just come organically, like they used to.
Did it work? Hell yes. Maybe too well. (I'll explain what I mean by that in a minute).
Here is how my top 20 looked at 60,000:
1. Toy Story
2. Pulp Fiction
3. Donnie Darko
4. Schindler's List
5. Glengarry Glen Ross
6. Dumb and Dumber
7. Back to the Future
8. Lost in Translation
9. The Seven Samurai
10. Toy Story 2
11. The Empire Strikes Back
12. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
13. Dances With Wolves
14. The Princess Bride
15. Raiders of the Lost Ark
16. Children of Men
18. Citizen Kane
19. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
20. The Untouchables
And here's how it looked at 61,000:
1. Raising Arizona
2. Toy Story
3. Pulp Fiction
4. Donnie Darko
5. Schindler's List
6. Glengarry Glen Ross
7. Dumb and Dumber
8. Back to the Future
9. Lost in Translation
10. The Seven Samurai
11. The Iron Giant
12. 12 Monkeys
13. Children of Men
14. When Harry Met Sally ...
16. Toy Story 2
17. The Empire Strikes Back
18. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
19. Citizen Kane
Maybe those differences seem abstract to you, but they weren't for me. Those differences represented a whopping ten changes to the top 20 in just 1,000 duels. That's compared to zero changes in two different non-consecutive periods of 10,000.
How did it happen? Well, I'll tell you.
1. The Shawshank Redemption defeated The Princess Bride. This came within my first 25 duels under the new system, and brought a sigh of relief that the process was working as I intended. Plus, I love Shawshank -- it's one of two films (along with Dumb and Dumber) I've told people I must watch to the finish if I come across it on TV. As an added bonus, The Untouchables was finally banished from my top 20. (No offense, Untouchables, but you just aren't top 20 material.)
2. Citizen Kane defeated Dances With Wolves. Another clear victory. Citizen Kane may just be my favorite film of all time -- maybe "the best" is more accurate than "my favorite." Jumping up to #13 marked its high water mark on Flickchart. Plus, although I like Wolves very much, it's been something of a mystery why it's stayed in the top 20 for so long. This duel pushed it one closer to departing that hallowed ground. But because Citizen Kane was already in my top 20 (at #19), nothing was pushed out of the top 20 with this duel.
3. Raising Arizona defeated Toy Story. This is when it started to get real. This one hit me like a ton of bricks. Toy Story had been my #1 movie since my very first Flickchart duel. It was in the first duel, it won, and it had not lost since. Nevertheless, I had started to get tired of it sitting at #1. There's a possibility it could be my favorite film of all time, but then again, I don't actually own it on DVD, which should tell you something. And Raising Arizona felt like the right film to dethrone it, especially since I featured it in the post I wrote after 40,000 duels -- it was the example I gave of a movie I couldn't, for the life of me, get up to a decent ranking. Is #1 decent enough? But because it was such a significant change -- could there be a change any more significant? -- clicking that button in favor of Raising Arizona shook me to the core. With this duel, Ferris Bueller's Day Off also exited my top 20 -- I can safely say for good.
4. 12 Monkeys defeated Toy Story 2. And another Toy Story movie takes a hit. This win for 12 Monkeys might not have been possible if I hadn't seen it again about six months ago, and remembered how great it is. I have also started to mentally turn on Toy Story 2 a little bit. It's a great film, no doubt, but I no longer know if it belongs in my top 20. One sad byproduct of this duel was that Unforgiven was kicked out of my top 20.
5. WarGames defeated The Princess Bride. This change came very soon after the previous one, and started to make me wonder if I could mentally digest all these changes at once. I decided that the constant sense of foreboding that pervades WarGames is more cinematically effective on me than Princess Bride's constant sense of whimsy. Another thing that contributed to my mounting anxiety: The brilliant Children of Men dropped to #21 after this duel. Wait! Stop! Hold on there!
6. When Harry Met Sally ... defeated Toy Story 2. Another duel that came fast and furious on the heels of the previous one. I've stated my case against Toy Story 2 already, so I'll say this felt very right: When Harry Met Sally (I'll omit the ellipses) may just be my favorite romantic comedy of all time. But another unthinkable casualty: The towering Raiders of the Lost Ark was bounced from my top 20.
Here a funny thing happened. I was given a duel between Children of Men, which had just been evicted from the top 20, and The Empire Strikes Back, which was holding strong at #14. I can't tell you how much I love Children of Men, but come on ... it's The Empire Strikes Back. Then again, this would get Children back into the top 20. I agonized over it for about a minute, but then, a deus ex machina saved me: We had a power outage. Every once in awhile, it's nice to be saved from the recurring Sophie's Choices that make up the Flickchart experience.
7. Adaptation defeated Dances With Wolves. The respite was brief. After only another couple rankings, Dances With Wolves was defeated again. This duel also would not have transpired this way if I hadn't just watched Adaptation again in order to rank my favorite films of the 2000's, reacquainting me with its non-traditional brilliance, which I realize is an acquired taste for most people. So long, Princess Bride.
8. The Iron Giant defeated 12 Monkeys. The Iron Giant is one of my top five animated films of all time, so I'm okay with this. But this again came right on the heels of the last decision, making me paranoid indeed about what I'd gotten myself into. WarGames got bumped from the top 20, its taste of the good life ultimately short-lived.
9. Children of Men defeated When Harry Met Sally. Thereby restoring one film that was regrettably purged from the top 20 four duels ago. Of course, for every restoration, there's a counterbalancing loss: The Shawshank Redemption dropped down to #21, it too given only a short furlough in the top 20.
Thus ended an intense period of about six top 20 changes in the course of less than hour of ranking in front of the television. My my.
10. Unforgiven defeated Toy Story 2. I'm really ganging up on Toy Story 2, aren't I? The final change to my top 20 came a couple days later, after a busy weekend in which I didn't have much time to rank. It was a relief to be nearing the end of my self-imposed 1,000 duels among the top 250 films, and to have Unforgiven restored to the top 20. (Though, as I am coming to realize, there are more than 20 films I think should go in my top 20.) The final film booted from my top 20? Dances With Wolves. Which, as I've suggested, is justified.
So how do I feel at the end of all of this?
Exhausted. In fact, it took me longer to get through these 1,000 duels than any previous 1,000.
You'd think I'd be excited to forcibly reshape my rankings to more accurately reflect my tastes, and it's true, the top 20 I have now is certainly more accurate than the one I had before. But in truth, it was scary. Over the course of 60,000 rankings, I've become something of an old dog, wary of new tricks. There has been a certain comfort in plowing through a hundred or two hundred duels in the space of five minutes, knowing that you will have mostly inconsequential duels. And that when a really important duel does come up, it will seem like an exciting moment, a really big deal.
When all the duels are consequential, it's a different story. It's really too much of a mental burden to always be deciding between really good movies. You need a buffer comprised of low-stress decisions. I felt myself actually starting to fear the conditions that I had put in place. It was like I was walking a minefield of really important decisions, and at any moment I could be sent into a panic of indecisiveness. What's more, I found there to be a lot of movement within that top 250 -- every film always seemed to be winning a duel that would jump it 100 spots in the standings. I started to worry whether my decisions were even internally consistent anymore. How could Movie A be better than Movie B, Movie B be better than Movie C, but Movie C be better than Movie A? I don't know, but it was happening.
Logically, I should be excited just to get where I'm going -- accurate rankings -- all the more quickly. But I discovered something about myself during this process: Old dogs can accept changes, but they'd really like them to be gradual. Ease us into the changes -- don't smack us in the face with a two-by-four.
Maybe I'll scale back from 1,000 to 500 next time. I can't take the stress.