Saturday, June 20, 2020


Movie lovers love to make lists. There’s a whole section for them on the popular film logging site Letterboxd. Users make lists of all kinds of films: favorite films, favorite Japanese films, films set in Los Angeles, etc. While such lists of course make for pleasant diversions, some lists can also help to shape the course of film culture.

When I first started getting into film in middle school, lists were a real guiding light. The American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Movies and a list of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films that I found in the back of a Tarantino biography were particular touchstones for me. As far-flung as my tastes are now, I feel like most of my present day favorites can be traced (Kevin Bacon style) to those two lists.

The two lists with arguably the biggest sway over film culture as a whole are Sight & Sound’s critics poll that is conducted every ten years, and the Internet Movie Database’s extremely populist top-250. While both lists are packed with numerous excellent films, the assumption that they are the Alpha and Omega in terms of Cinema is quite damaging for the evolution of the artform.

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In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police, lots of lists began circulating with suggestions of films to watch for a better understanding of the African-American experience. Only a scant few of these can be found on either the Sight & Sound or IMDb list. Equally abysmal is the representation of queer and female filmmakers on both lists. Is it any wonder that minority voices continue to struggle to get their stories told when they are widely excluded from the Canon of great films? How do we begin to address that problem?

When Social Distancing started to become more than just a good suggestion, I decided to start  using social media to recommend films people could stream at home. But rather than regurgitating my 130 favorite films list from Letterboxd, I decided to deliberately assemble a diverse list that would hopefully expand people’s viewing horizons...and maybe even my own! And so, on March 12th I launched #CriterionQuarantine.

I chose The Criterion Channel because I figured that their selection would offer me a wider variety of marginalized voices than Netflix or Amazon Prime. Also, as a big Criterion fan, I hoped that maybe this would send some new subscribers their way. Once I settled on a venue, my other “rules” quickly fell into place.

In order to achieve gender parity, I decided to alternate daily between male and female identifying filmmakers. To further diversify the field, I chose to not repeat any directors because it would be cheating to just have a list of nothing but Agnès Varda and Alfred Hitchcock films. Lastly, I decided to recommend films that I had seen myself. As the days and months rolled by, some adaptation became necessary regarding that last rule.

While I’ve certainly seen more female directed films than many, they aren’t necessarily all available on The Criterion Channel. Around half-way through this journey I had to pivot to recommending female directed films that I had not seen. These selections were made by picking early films from directors I like and/or picking films that have been sitting for years on my to-see list.

When Criterion responded to our current moment by making many of their films from Black filmmakers free to stream on The Channel, I pivoted again by bumping a few well-established white, male directors in favor of films I had not seen from Charles Burnett, Horace B. Jenkins,  Billy Woodberry, and William Greaves. Of the 31 films on the list that I had not seen when I started, I've now seen 6. My hope is to perhaps finish the other 25 by the end of the year.

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In the end I was able to generate a list that featured an even number of male and female voices. I was also successful in making a list that was nearly 60% non-American. As for shortcomings, only 25% of the list are from non-white filmmakers and the number of queer voices barely moves the needle. So just like every list out there this one is extremely flawed. But if it got someone to watch something from a new-to-them voice, then it was at least a small success.

More than anything this whole experience makes me want to even further diversify my viewing habits. I know better what my blindspots are. Bollywood, Nollywood, and the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema are particular areas I want to focus on. It would be helpful if more of these films were available and with English subtitles, but that is a matter of access which I have little control over. 

Perhaps if more people were to take a similarly inquisitive approach towards film viewing, the Sight & Sound and IMDb lists would look drastically different in their next incarnations. As a parent I think: Wouldn’t it be nice for the next generation to come of age with a radically diverse Canon? Regardless, something has to break the current, inbred stasis because a limited definition of “Cinema” leads only to extinction.

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