A Star is Torn: getting to the heart of the low-rated movies that we love

Have a heart for Jill (Adam Sandler), Harley (Margot Robbie) and Bombalurina (Taylor Swift).
Have a heart for Jill (Adam Sandler), Harley (Margot Robbie) and Bombalurina (Taylor Swift).

Kyle Flynn unpacks the formula behind the iconic “one star with a heart” Letterboxd rating: committed directors, middling efforts, fun times.

Twenty years ago, a film synonymous with the concept of “so bad it’s good” changed the cinematic arts forever. Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 directorial debut, The Room, received overwhelmingly negative reviews upon release. Despite that, it was able to garner love from audiences and, to this day, there is undeniable enjoyment to be had while watching Johnny’s life fall apart. 

I have always adored “bad” films. I use the term loosely since film is subjective, and every film has merit. That subjectivity also attracts healthy discussion and opens the space for articles like this, in which we look at the films that the Letterboxd community have given the highest ratio of a single star and a heart. On the surface, a single star rating on a film should make it easy to identify as a terrible movie, a failed concept, a problematic idea. But one star with a heart? That’s more complicated. And more fun. 

To that end, in the recent 2022 Year in Review, Letterboxd changed the name of the “Most Loved to Hate” category to “Low Rated, Most Loved” to reflect the more complex feelings we film lovers have for movies with low ratings. 

Letterboxd members have room in their hearts for Tommy Wiseau. 
Letterboxd members have room in their hearts for Tommy Wiseau. 

And what are these feelings? Perhaps reality television is a helpful comparison: Why watch The Bachelorette on a Monday night if not to be entertained; to experience the euphoric, joyous feeling of watching an admittedly goofy concept? It’s the heady combination of guilt, irony and a great time. A not-good movie made with passion, care, and an idea can invoke those same emotions.

Figuring it’s always best to go to the source—Letterboxd reviews, of course—I asked Letterboxd’s numbers department for help to identify the films we might be talking about. I had my suspicions, and the data confirms them. The stats team came through with two Low Rated, Most Loved lists for me: the 50 films with the highest total of low-likes and hearts on Letterboxd (a popularity measure), and the 50 films with the highest ratio of low-likes to hearts (the true measure, in my opinion). 

Some math nerdery: To establish a reliable data search, the team set the “low-likes” rating range at 0.5-to-1.5 stars out of five, and the minimum number of likes at 1,000. (By comparison, LouFerrigno’s Anti-Letterboxd Top 250—a delightful “exercise in misery” on which many of these films also appear—has a 500-view minimum.) 

The Room, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and Tom Hooper’s Cats make up the top three on the first list. (The Room is far and away the biggest “winner” here, with around 10,000 more low-likes than the other two.) I would happily argue that these are some of the best “bad movies” of all time. I have seen all three films at the cinema, and I was always entertained. Wiseau, Ayer, and Hooper are also deeply passionate about each of their respective projects and other films on the list strike a similar chord: middling efforts, committed directors, fun times.

Many film lovers have willed themselves to love the 2016 Suicide Squad. 
Many film lovers have willed themselves to love the 2016 Suicide Squad

In recent years, more nostalgia-driven entertainment has entered the mainstream, with the viewing habits of many cinema-goers evolving towards recycled intellectual property. But in this constant fight for box office, many legacy sequels fall flat for both general audiences and fans of the original films: four Star Wars films are in the top fifteen on the “highest total” list. Comic book movies that miss the mark also make frequent appearances: Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World and the not-the-Snyder-cut Justice League included.

Recency bias naturally plays a large part in what movies resonate loudest with our users, across all statistics and especially here. Despite the wide range of tastes and views in the Letterboxd community, only six films in the top 50 highest low-likes were released before the year 2000. Film Twitter’s favorite (or least favorite) 2022 movie to talk about, Morbius, is the only film from last year there—fitting, since it also topped the Year in Review Low Rated, Most Loved in 2022 section. From Matt Smith’s dancing to Jared Leto’s method acting, all its parts add up to the definitive good bad-fun experience.

You split the difference for Morbius, making it the lowest rated, most loved film of 2022. 
You split the difference for Morbius, making it the lowest rated, most loved film of 2022

Since it is purely based on numbers, the list that focuses on the highest total of films with low-likes and hearts generally favors more popular titles. But it’s when we look at the ratioed Low Rated, Most Loved list, which focuses on the highest ratio of low-rated films that Letterboxd members have also felt compelled to smash the heart button for, that we start to really see some fascinating psychology at play in the shift from studio misfires towards weirdo passion projects.

Lawrence Kasanoff’s 2012 animated comedy Foodfight! tops the list. Cats is still there (let’s face it, Cats will always be there). But here’s a fun fact: John Travolta and Neil Breen dominate the list, each with three films in the top fifteen. 

For those who don’t know or have tried to avoid learning about him, Neil Breen is a real estate agent, architect and self-financing filmmaker who has gained quite the cult following with his low-budget films—to the point that we must always, according to Letterboxd reviews, write Neil Breen’s name out in full every time we mention Neil Breen. 

Fateful Findings (2013) star Neil Breen prepares to rate his latest rewatch.  
Fateful Findings (2013) star Neil Breen prepares to rate his latest rewatch.  

I greatly admire anyone who works hard to make a movie, even when people don’t like it. Neil Breen clearly has a blast making his fantasy thrillers and even though they aren’t outstanding, they have much charm. As Thomas Callahan writes on Letterboxd in a recent review of Neil Breen’s most popular title, Fateful Findings, “Neil Breen committed so hard to the political thriller/mystery/Lynchian fantasy that he put a twist IN THE CREDITS. Astounding. I wish every weirdo with a passing interest in filmmaking could have the money, time, and willpower that Neil Breen has.” 

And Kednanze, who recently watched Twisted Pair, a sci-fi thriller in which Neil Breen stars as identical twins, gets to the nub of the writer-director-star’s appeal in a rare five-star review of the film: “I have more respect for Neil Breen than I do for any other filmmaker alive, and I say that in total seriousness. The man may be completely devoid of any talent whatsoever (both in front of and behind the camera), but goddamn is he pure. He’s never once let public opinion affect his work… Who cares if he’s under the delusion that he’s making legitimate movies and people unironically like them? This man has the innocence of a child, and we need to protect and cultivate that.” 

Terl (John Travolta) is in a battle for the survival of Earth and Dutch angles. 
Terl (John Travolta) is in a battle for the survival of Earth and Dutch angles. 

At the other end of the celebrity spectrum, John Travolta is one of the biggest stars of all time. His handful of iconic roles (from Grease to Pulp Fiction to Face/Off) play a big part in why I enjoy watching any film where he is involved. There is something reassuring to us ordinary folk about someone with such cachet landing in such laughable stinkers as Gotti, Fred Durst’s The Fanatic and Battlefield Earth. The latter, directed by Academy Award-winning Star Wars art director Roger Christian, has a 1.1 out of five star-average, making it one of the lowest-rated films on the ratio list. 

While John brings his full commitment as an actor, Letterboxd reviews make it apparent why these films fail to rate highly, while still being fun. “[The] movie is allergic to the camera being flat,” writes Garfriends in a five-star (!) review of the Dutch angle-saturated Battlefield Earth. “There are worse movies out there, some of them much worse,” argues Tim Brayton after a half-star rewatch of the same, “but dollar-for-dollar, I truly and with all my heart don’t believe that I can name something that wasted more resources on something more astonishingly inept. Essential viewing for every serious fan of the cinema.” 

While many of the Low Rated, Most Loved films with high heart-to-like ratios are movies I would associate with “ironic” favorites—Ratatoing and Cool Cat Saves the Kids, for example—I think Travolta’s trio of low-rated titles embody the heart of this essay: entertainment. Relaxed enjoyment, uncomplicated pleasure, happy diversion: these are the best signifiers of what makes a film worthy of one-star-with-a-heart. 

The Magical Mr. Mistoffelees is another. It’s impossible not to discuss films that embody the one-star-heart ideal without mentioning Cats and its impact. From an infamous trailer to its streaming availability as the world went into lockdown, the Tom Hooper adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of T.S. Eliot’s poems has become a cult classic. 

This theater cat found himself in one of 2019’s most notorious films.  
This theater cat found himself in one of 2019’s most notorious films.  

Lloyd Webber’s smash stage musical, with its human cast vamping in fur and makeup, is camp supreme. While the VFX weirdness of the film falls somewhat short of that vital ingredient, it meets the camp canon with the inclusion of acting icons Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen. Cats currently has a staggeringly low overall Letterboxd average rating of 1.4 stars out of five, whereas true camp generally rates much higher on Letterboxd—only three films on Sally Jane Black’s 85-film ‘Camp’ list (including Cats) fall below an average of 2.0. Still, history has a way of correcting itself: Cats’ camp elements may yet elevate its rating in years to come.  

Another significant element of low-like movies is rewatchability. Case in point: Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight, the first film in the Bella-Edward saga, has a very mid 2.9 average rating, yet is in the top five most obsessively rewatched films among Letterboxd members (some enjoyers have been known to watch it daily for an entire year, something that could equally be said for the highest rated film of 2022, Everything Everywhere All at Once, but probably not for Letterboxd’s highest rated film overall, Come and See).

Bring me the body of the person who rated Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) one star with no heart. 
Bring me the body of the person who rated Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) one star with no heart. 

One of the first films to be associated with ‘so bad it’s good’ cult cinema, as Hannah Strong writes in an earlier Journal story about the camp-bad films that got us through the early months of the pandemic, was Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. The 1957 sci-fi horror is on both the highest low-likes and the highest ratio of low-likes lists, and I watched it for the first time while writing this piece. I was enamored by Plan 9—how could I not have been, with those gleefully basic flying saucer effects? (A must-watch: Flying Saucers Over Hollywood, Mark Patrick Carducci’s 1992 documentary, which is both longer and more highly rated than the original film.)   

Recently, via Twitter, Letterboxd prompted folks to tell us the last one-star film they also gave a heart to. Amongst all the usual suspects, several piqued my interest, including M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender and Alex Garland’s 2022 thriller, Men. Another that caught my eye given the impending arrival of the fifth Indiana Jones instalment was the 2008 reboot, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Often seen as the odd one out, especially in comparison to the original Indy trilogy, it still has plenty of fans.

Put Cate Blanchett in a film, any film, and it will be somebody’s favorite. 
Put Cate Blanchett in a film, any film, and it will be somebody’s favorite. 

Paul Benis is one such Crystal Skull cheerleader, and he’s gone to town in a review of a recent rewatch in preparation for this year’s Dial of Destiny, praising director Steven Spielberg’s roasting of capitalism and ’50s white America, and his command of CGI: “What happens when you embrace the technological advancement of CGI and one of cinemas greatest talents with an adventure story? A goofy movie. A goofy movie in a franchise where the last goofy movie was Temple of Doom

“The shots are overexposed and glamorized to the max. The series has never looked so visually stylish. Maybe people wanted to see the same practical effects shot on film Spielberg magic of old, but times have changed. The movie also moves at such a brisk pace that I honestly didn’t fully see its brilliance on first watch. Granted my balls had barely dropped by that point.” 

Let us hope James Mangold can deliver a five-star experience with Dial of Destiny, so that we get the Daniels on board to write installment six with their “Indiana Jones and the Daughters of the Confederacy” idea (as heard on The Letterboxd Show), hopefully with some Ke Huy Quan action as a grown-up Short Round.

Five stars and a billion hearts for this D23 reunion of Harrison Ford and Ke Huy Quan. 
Five stars and a billion hearts for this D23 reunion of Harrison Ford and Ke Huy Quan. 

I asked around Letterboxd community members in my activity feed about films they would rate one star with a heart. One of the most interesting answers was from one of my mutuals, Libby Caldwell. They told me, “No, because that’s not how I rate movies. Based on merit, F9 and The Room would be one-star films, but since I consider enjoyment and quality, I end up giving films that would be rated one-star with a heart, 3.5 or four stars.” This was a common answer amongst those I asked. Many mutuals were not open to the idea of giving a like to any film under 2.5.

But Gavin Sullenger, my PictureBox: Cinema Hour podcast co-host, mentioned the hilarious Steel, which stars national treasure Shaquille O’Neal. It’s one of the funniest superhero films made, in my opinion, never mind the 1.4 out of five-star average Letterboxd rating. George, another Letterboxd mutual, mentioned both Cop Out and Grown Ups as films he would consider to be one-star with a heart, while Matt said The Cat in the Hat and Doogal are low-quality, enjoyable movies that have stuck with him.

The forlorn faces of small animals who know they deserve your love.  
The forlorn faces of small animals who know they deserve your love.  

I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t mention the one film that prompted me to write this story, a work of art that Gene Siskel once called “the best film of 1998”. I was listening to an episode of The Letterboxd Show featuring Variety writer Selome Hailu, who gave George Miller’s talking-pig sequel Babe: Pig in the City a one-star rating whilst having thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching it. That’s when hosts Slim and Gemma suggested they’d like to read an entire feature about the one-star-heart phenomenon. 

Babe: Pig in the City has a devoted fanbase, largely for the way it diverts thematically and geographically from the first film. I was thoroughly impressed with it and wouldn’t consider it a one-star film; indeed the overall Letterboxd rating has risen from below three stars to its current, perfectly good 3.0 out of five average. 

The truth is, this piece hasn’t been the easiest to write. Few movies are purposefully made to be bad. When I get stressed sometimes about what ratings I gave films, it helps to remember that ratings aren’t the only measure of a movie and that films affect everyone in different ways. We each have paths to recognizing the passion and creativity in a project, and connecting with other cinephiles on Letterboxd to learn more about their takes is a core part of embracing the idea of one star with a heart.

“Smash that heart! Smash that heart!”
“Smash that heart! Smash that heart!”

The cinema is my second home and I am a wide enjoyer of movies, but since this essay is about the low-rated films we love in spite of themselves (and ourselves), I want to finish by mentioning a few movies that I have gladly given the low-like to. Jack and Jill, in which Adam Sandler plays the titular twins, may have been the first movie I saw in the theater that I considered to be a “one star with a heart” experience. I can still remember the joy I felt watching that admittedly bad film. 

Since I am a basic boy, The Room and Cats are also films that resonate with me. My local arthouse theater, The Enzian, recently held a screening of The Room, with co-star Greg Sestero in residence for a Q&A before the showing. I would have gone regardless, but felt it my duty to be there given the topic of this piece. 

While in line, I had the opportunity to talk to many fans of The Room, and the energy in those discussions was electric. Rarely do I feel right at home, but everyone there was so excited—from the memories of each person’s first watch of The Room to discussions of the film’s legacy. At the film’s start, there was thunderous applause. People clapped to the music in each sex scene and yelled, “Who are you?!!” whenever a new character appeared without an introduction. We quoted every notable line and threw spoons at the screen, as is tradition. 

Oh, hi Greg. 
Oh, hi Greg. 

As the credits rolled, I was smiling ear to ear. Outside in the lobby of the Enzian, there was a line forming to meet Sestero, who clearly loves engaging with fans. When I reached him, I explained that I was writing this article on one-star films that Letterboxd members love. He was more than happy to oblige with a quote, telling me: “If you have an idea you believe in, go for it! Even if people laugh at you and think it is not something that is interesting... People may still end up caring about it twenty years later. Technically, [The Room] is not Back to the Future or Jurassic Park, but at the end of the day, it is still a movie that stuck with people.” 

I thanked Sestero for coming out to the screening and chatted with him a bit longer about his new cult horror, Miracle Valley, which is now streaming on Tubi with a 2.7 out of five star average. I admire that Sestero is somebody who has taken a lot of shit for his previous work (albeit a lot of praise as well) but still manages to be so passionate about his newer indie films. No doubt as The Room’s 20th anniversary approaches this June, he’ll be in ever more demand, and deservedly so. 

This is what the movies are all about: the chance to see something new, the shared experience, enjoying different viewpoints. Most of all, engaging with the filmmaker’s vision. You may like a film, you may not, but ideally you should feel something—enough to pump the blood into that Letterboxd heart. 

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