Ways to Choose Your Next Film

Watching films may seem like the standard choice of lockdown activity to many, but there are plenty of people that aren’t that interested. I obviously watch enough for it to be worth keeping a film diary. My parents, however, were on a film every week schedule back when DVD rental was a thing, but now they only really watch one a month, if that. And they’re sort of unusual in that they will only ever a film once, usually. Many people watch more films than my parents, but there’s a solid core of rewatching involved, which is great, but there’s a balance to be had.

Films are very much a group activity in the house. I’ve moved an old blu ray player into my bedroom, but it’s unusual that I’ll watch a film at home alone. It’s more fun to show something I like to the housemates, have them show something they like to me, or experience a new film together. And when we are rewatching a film we all like together, it takes on the tone of a celebration: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with a good amount wine springs to mind. However, it can be difficult to pick a film out of the thousands of options available. It is also very easy for someone (usually me) to dominate the choices. So, here are the ways we decide what to watch.

Firstly, there is the System. The three of us rotate the choice of film, although there is always a soft veto available – there’s no point showing something to a hostile audience. The upsides of this system include a lack of decision fatigue, and can throw up some surprising or unexpected choices.

The downsides include a great difficulty in programming longer films, since it’s much more likely that your pick will be on a weekday rather than the weekend, which is usually the worst time to watch a long film. Also, the lack of a specific “film night” means that while we will in theory watch more than one film a week, in practice we move at the pace of the slowest member, so a week can easily go past without watching any.

We have also had some successful film seasons alongside this system: The Planet of the Apes series, on Sunday mornings; Michael Caine season leading up to a showing of The Muppet Christmas Carol; 8 1/2 and its musical descendants All That Jazz and Nine; Sharpe Sundays, if you want to argue the definition of “film”. We ought to do another one.

My favourite was one I have unheroically titled The List. The idea is simple. You pick four films: Fantastic, Shit, Meaning To See, and a Wildcard. It’s best to pick films which you have seen but the rest of your group hasn’t, since that provokes the best discussion. The exception is Meaning to See, obviously, which should be new to everybody. You can watch these choices in any order – and it’s probably best to mix it up, since the Shit films could easily turn into a trudge and put you off the whole thing – but it’s probably best to write and post your list in advance.

A Fantastic film is the easiest: something you’ve watched, you love, and want to show to someone else. For example, I picked Y Tu Mama Tambien, which is a wonderful film that I watched for the first time alone, so this season was a chance to watch it with people.

Meaning to See is a film you’ve been thinking about watching for ages, but there has never been an occasion to do so. This is that occasion. This means it’s usually an older film, potentially more niche, and is best if it’s a personal choice. For example, Citizen Kane is a great choice if you yourself have had it near the top of your watchlist for a while, and you just need a push towards it, but a terrible choice if you’re just picking it because every critic says it’s the best film ever. Usually it will come with some acclaim – part of the reason I chose Silent Running was because Mark Kermode kept going on about it, but mainly because a serious pre-Star Wars SF film with an environmental message and cute robots sounded like me with bells on.

Wildcard is the second hardest choice, and you’d probably pick it last. It can’t just be your runner up for one of the other categories. It has to be somewhat off the beaten track of what your group understands to be a good film. Otherwise, it’s hard to say. It may be best to pick a film that resists definition – La Jetee, a time travel story told through narration and photographs; Luna; a magical-realist film about grief set in a converted lighthouse; Under the Skin, an alternatively meditative and horrific alien invasion film. Or it may be the time to pull out Basic Instinct and bemoan the death of the Hollywood erotic thriller. Ball’s in your court. Don’t be boring.

The most difficult choice is the Shit film. A Shit film can’t just be bad – there are plenty of bad films. It has to be interesting, or astonishing, or unique, or perhaps something you wish to reappraise – there’s no point in showing a boring bad film with nothing to talk about. Films made in order to be “bad” like Sharknado, Asylum, Sci Fi Channel and the like are also excluded, as they’re very much their own thing. However, it’s perfectly valid to indulge your sadistic/masochistic streak.

For example, I chose Shock Treatment, because I found it so tedious and disappointing the first time round I was sure I had missed something – I hadn’t. Izzy chose Shoot ‘Em Up, claiming it was a dreadful mistake of a film, but Alex and I loved its surely-intentional camp OTT violence. Alex subjected us to Epic Movie, and we clearly had done something terrible to upset him so much that he made us watch that irredeemable dreck. it does however pass the “interesting” test, because those parody movies were a phenomenon, and that’s worth exploring.

If you do try out The List, let me know. It’s a really valuable way of discovering people’s film tastes in a relatively short space of time.

We also very occasionally choose a film using a game. For example, Boldly Go: The Star Trek Film Game. With just a d20 and a few DVDs, you too can have the fates decide which starship adventure you will take next. I’ve included the results table below. As you can see, there are only thirteen official Star Trek films, so I’ve had to get creative.

Roll a twenty-sided dice, and whichever number comes up, that’s what you’re watching tonight.

You must watch whichever film that you roll. No exceptions. Repeat until you have seen all twenty films, or you have seen any one film twenty times, whichever comes first.

1Star Trek: The Motion Picture
2Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
3Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
4Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
5Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
6Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
7Star Trek Generations
8Star Trek: First Contact
9Star Trek: Insurrection
10Star Trek: Nemesis
11Star Trek (2009)
12Star Trek Into Darkness
13Star Trek Beyond
14Galaxy Quest
15Forbidden Planet
16Flash Gordon
17The Empire Strikes Back
18Starship Troopers
19Futurama: “Where No Fan Has Gone Before”
20Compilation of “Pigs In Space” sketches from The Muppet Show
As always, when you roll a natural 20, you get the best result.

These are some additional rules, should you like to use them.

Kelvin Timeline: On a repeat viewing of a film, you may choose to watch an alternate cut, edit, or version, if available. You may also listen to a director’s commentary, or a dub for a language that one or more viewers is not fluent in, but this can be vetoed by other players.

Where Man Has Gone Before: Before a repeat viewing of any film, you must watch the video to “Star Trekkin'” by The Firm and sing along VERY LOUDLY.

(Playtesting notes: The game has had limited success so far. One housemate refused to accept that the dice is got and insisted on rerolling because he “didn’t fancy” watching First Contact right now, which is very much against the spirit of the game. Also, we haven’t really played it since, so that’s its own review. I still maintain it could be fun, especially in a scenario where you roll the dice and realise to your horror you have to watch Star Trek V: The Final Frontier for the sixth time, but you still haven’t watched The Wrath Of Khan.)

Obviously this game is adaptable to other film series, so I’ll share my listbuilding methods so you know where I’m coming from. Firstly, there’s the practical limits to the system. A d20 is probably the largest dice you can use, and still have enough repeats in it to be fun. You could roll percentile dice (two ten-sided dice representing the 10s and the 1s) to pick from the Sight & Sound Top 100, but there’d be no comedy value in forcing you to watch repeats, so it’s less a game and more a way to bypass decision making. And while you can of course randomise an arbitrary number of films using a PC, more than twenty choices is overly cumbersome, not having to fill out a list of choices is less entertaining, and nothing is as fun as rolling a dice.

Then there’s picking a film series. Star Wars is the obvious next list: eleven live action, plus one animation, gets you a straightforward and boring d12 list. For a d20 list both Guardians of the Galaxy films (clear homages), two Ewok films and the Star Wars Holiday Special gets you to 17, leaving you three wildcard choices. Or, swap two Guardians for four Indana Jones films and you’re down to just one wildcard. I would say Willow, Radioland Murders and Strange Magic are the frontrunners for the final spot in that list. But you could choose Howard the Duck.

James Bond? Officially there are 24, with #25 yet to come out, which is too many. However, Connery through Dalton is just 16, giving you room for the 1967 Casino Royale, Never Say Never Again, the 1954 TV Casino Royale, and O.K. Connery, also known as Operation Kid Brother. That’s a decent list. Combine the eight new ones left over with the five Jason Bourne films, three Johnny Englishes, and the four Spy Kids films and you’ve got a second great, balanced list, at least until No Time To Die comes out.

Let’s survey Harry Potter for my final attempt. Obviously, eight Potters and two Fantastic Beasts is a svelte d10 list (and The Crimes of Grindewald is probably enough comedy value by itself). Once you pull in the films Harry Potter inspired, though, it very quickly becomes unwieldy, since the series straddles both children’s fantasy fiction and the YA boom.

For the younger half there’s three Narnia films, two Percy Jackson films and any number of individual films like The Golden Compass or A Series of Unfortunate Events which you can bulk up the list with.

Skewing older, you’ve got four Hunger Games films, five Twilight films, three Divergents, three Maze Runners and The Host before you’ve even stopped to think, which is already 16, so I’d be tempted to make YA movies a list itself.

I can see the argument for putting the six Middle-Earth films in the mix, but personally I can’t imagine watching those in a random order. At least with Harry Potter nearly all of them have individual stories. But you can see why I started with Star Trek. That’s relatively straightforward.

Actually, just coming up with these lists is a fun lockdown activity in my book. And probably a sign to wrap up this post. Obviously, the film’s the important thing. All these methods are just ways to get you to watch more films, and a wider variety of films, or reorganising your rewatch schedule to something a little unexpected. Let me know how you get on.