Joey Schuman: Letterboxd lists and the art of the feel-good film

Monday, March 11, 2019 - 5:07pm

Some friends of mine recently introduced me to Letterboxd, and immediately I was hooked. Letterboxd is a social media service that allows users to track films they’ve watched, write their thoughts about said films and even see peers’ movie-watching activity. It’s the reason I can feel inadequate about my review of “Mary Poppins Returns” (“meant to watch Nanny McPhee”) as I monitor friends’ much sharper critiques. (In writing about 2014 A24 thriller “Ex Machina,” one friend reflected, “if I wanted to watch ‘Black Mirror’ (which I don’t) I would’ve just watched ‘Black Mirror’ (which I won’t).”)

The platform has plenty of interactive promise. Perhaps my favorite thing to do on Letterboxd is browse its “Lists,” user-created curations of films grouped by some sort of common characteristic. Popular lists this week, for example, are collections of “The Absolute Beauty in Everyday’s Mundanity” and “Women Be Poisoning.” I think of Letterboxd lists as the film equivalent to Spotify playlists — both are mechanisms that provide users agency to curate a vibe, of sorts, that might resonate with whoever subscribes to the collection. Such is the performativity of lists; they operate through taste-driven claims, connecting users with moods that transcend digiality. Lists carve out communities.

One list in particular caught my eye recently. I wasn’t having an especially lousy day when I discovered “feel-good films to watch when you’re depressed, lonely, or have a general feeling of worthlessness,” but I still felt compelled to explore it. Sure, I had just watched two movies that dealt exhaustively with death, the finality of death and the inevitable loneliness you’ll feel upon dying. (“First Reformed” and “Synecdoche, New York,” if you’re ready for total emotional shutdown.) But as I browsed this “feel-good” list, I struggled to accept the notion that someone else can assume — and publicize — something as “feel-good.”

Letterboxd tells me I’ve watched 44 out of the 326 films included on the list, meaning I’ve achieved 13% cinematic feel-goodery. Does this list’s creator mean to tell me I haven’t hit on 87% of the content I can consume for happiness?

How, @ruiz, do you explain “Inside Out”’s place in this list? The overindulgent 2015 hit is what happens when one Pixar employee convinces a room full of studio execs to allow him to animate his most cathartic acid trip.

“Midnight in Paris” is similarly inexcusable. It’s a feel-good movie if only because you can’t not feel accomplished after surviving almost two hours of Owen Wilson’s stream of consciousness.

Yeesh. You’re the man, man, and your feel-goodness is a you-only decision. “Minding the Gap,” for example, did it for me. Broadly, the Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature focuses on three skateboarding friends (one of whom directs and produces the doc) who, over the course of five years, diverge as the real world becomes increasingly burdensome. It moves along a timeline of formative upbringings, bad decisions and immaturity, and it’s all uncompromisingly real. Ultimately the documentary vividly reminded me of my friends from back home, and after reading various takes online, I’m not the only one with that sentiment. That’s worth something.

Movies don’t need to be sappy or wholesome in order to be “feel-good.” Last year I watched “A Serious Man” for the first time and, even as it undermined nearly every religious pillar of my childhood (and depicted a painful portrait of loneliness throughout), it cultivated a distinct sense of security by revealing the triviality of everything important to, I think, everyone. Some movies allow you to feel good about everything bad. I like that, even if others don’t.

Sorry if you only now recognize the lawn from which you so crustily have been asked to walk away. But, like, no one tells me how to feel good! That’s the secret sauce of feel-goodness! Only you can decide if you like the taste! A social networking service that (attempts to) curate my mood irks me to the point of writing a rambling, incoherent column about it, because one person’s “Reservoir Dogs” torture scene is another person’s “Almost Famous” bus sing-along, and we need to preserve that beauty.

I don’t know. I’m continually stumped — and offended? — by what should, what does and what will make me feel good. If the above is any indication, coherence doesn’t fit into this mediation. John Mulaney singing about diner lobster does. That’ll be a solid ending point, for now.