Good Reads: highlights from the first year of Journal

Lydia makes a stàrt on her next Journal assignment. 
Lydia makes a stàrt on her next Journal assignment. 

As Journal turns one, editor in chief Gemma Gracewood revisits favorite interviews and long-reads and teases some future treats.

Our online magazine Journal was launched exactly a year ago. We’ve published tens of thousands of words in the last 365 days (we had a blog before that, too, but now our stories have a proper home). So here’s to the orange dot in the top right corner of your Letterboxd app. It means there’s a new Journal story awaiting you, written by a hand-picked team of favorite writers, and guest voices shoulder-tapped from the Letterboxd community. 

Our goal with Journal is to keep finding films for your watchlists via conversations, explorations and through surfacing the idiosyncratic and powerful writing we find in Letterboxd reviews. Whenever we talk to a filmmaker, we ask for their recommendations—the films that made them want to work in movies, the films that inspired, intrigued or even troubled them—to make links between what you’ve just seen and what you might watch next. It might be Mike Mills in conversation with Mitchell Beaupre on Buster Keaton, Jim Jarmusch and Jane Campion, the McKenzie sisters, Thomasin and Davida, on their family’s holiday film favorites (hello, Throne of Blood!), or John Boyega on the power of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God.  

Mike Mills (left) on the set of his 2021 film, C’mon C’mon. 
Mike Mills (left) on the set of his 2021 film, C’mon C’mon

We love mining Letterboxd data and activity for story ideas: the member who watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople every day for a year; the playwright who loves SS Rajamouli and was the ideal person to interview him about RRR; the special ratings curve of a certain subset of films we call “high risers”; the keeper of the Black Life on Film list, Adam Davie, in conversation with Black Film Archive creator Maya Cade; animation enthusiast Alicia Haddick’s look at the 50 highest-rated animated features by women directors

Soon we’ll be launching Best in Show, a newsletter, column and podcast covering the madness that is awards season, brought to you by our West Coast editor Mia Vicino and our tireless awards insider Brian Formo. Cool World will be a travel column dedicated to discovering the next best place to visit, through the films, filmmakers and local cinemas and film clubs of that place. (Ella Kemp’s story on her visit to Oslo, Norway gives a tasty glimpse into this new feature.) And Boxd Office will survey the week’s new major theatrical openings.   

We’re also big on demystifying the craft details and nuances that go into movie-making, so that we all arrive at films with a greater empathy for the human foibles and industry speed-bumps faced along the way. If you have a burning question you want answered about an aspect of the movie industry—like, how those Top Gun: Maverick aerial stunts were pulled off—drop us a line

Renate Reinsve as Julie, on an Oslo restaurant balcony in The Worst Person in the World. 
Renate Reinsve as Julie, on an Oslo restaurant balcony in The Worst Person in the World

We occasionally accept pitches, but as a team with our hands often full, this is our public apology for taking a minute to reply. For guidance, we’re not looking for personal essays on individual films—that’s what Letterboxd reviews are for! We like stories that give us an excuse to play with numbers, or ask a question across a range of movies (like, what is the future of the rom-com’s gay best friend?). But we’ll be open to submissons from your corners of Earth for Cool World, and we love it when a Letterboxd list or data point fashions itself into a Journal story. 

That’s how Kate Hagen’s beautiful meditation on fat girls in film came about. She made a Letterboxd list to empirically demonstrate that there are not enough positive, fat female leads in Hollywood films. I couldn’t believe how few movies made the list, especially in a year that’s already seen enough fat-suits, and when I asked Kate to elaborate, she turned in 7,000 well-articulated words on how Hollywood continues to fail those of us who fall outside the narrow dimension of a conventional screen heroine:  

“We have become conditioned to the tabloidesque thrill of seeing a performer gain or lose weight or otherwise go through a ‘punishing’, ‘unrecognizable’, ‘Oscar-worthy’ physical change for a role. The ‘weight-loss journey’ becomes a celebratory milestone merely for the sheer amount of media it generates—while celebrity news vultures wait eagerly in the wings to feast on the almost certainly inevitable swing back into a bigger body.

What we really need is to reprogram ourselves and our industry to accept that bodies change over time, often many times in one lifetime—whether that be through adolescence or pregnancy, through menopause or illness, through weight cycling brought on by the diet industrial complex, through medication, or through none-of-your-fucking-business—and the negative career implications of this should be exactly zero.”

Tom Hulce sports one of the most iconic wigs in the business as Amadeus. 
Tom Hulce sports one of the most iconic wigs in the business as Amadeus

It’s also how Tracey Henton’s deep dive into the art of wig making and movie hair came to life. We kept noticing Letterboxd lists ranking the good and bad hair of various movie stars, and wondered why we are a) so obsessed with hair and b) actually how hard it is to do hair for film, so we sought out an insider to get to the roots of it all: 

“Creating great movie hair seems like it should be effortless but it is not. The craftspeople behind the scenes are responsible for not only creating a subtle and believable character through hairstyling decisions, but also maintaining its viability and continuity over long periods and through numerous time periods and story markers. A large part of their skill lies in blending their wisdom with the wishes and whims of the actor, the director, numerous producers and often the network or studio as a whole.

Hair is not a fixed state on any given day, week or month. It’s a living costume, it grows. It reacts to health, sleep, the environment, the weather. Worst of all, for anyone who’s been on set all day with the sole task of looking after hair, it moves around.”

Just some pals off to make an X-cellent independent skin-flick. 
Just some pals off to make an X-cellent independent skin-flick. 

Speaking of movie-making and Hollywood, the releases of Red Rocket, Pleasure, X and Sharp Stick in the same twelve-month period had us curious about how the mainstream has narratively approached adult filmmaking over the decades. So Charles Bramesco took a look at the variable results when Hollywood turns its lens on the other LA film industry

“Within the narrowed purview of non-porno films about adult filmmaking, there are chasms of variance in tone and perspective that make it impossible to condone or condemn wholesale. The more thorough lists assembled by Letterboxd members—Girlsgutsgiallo’s ‘Movies About Porn’ and Mike Sean’s ‘X Marks the Plot: Movies About the World of Porn’ seem to be the closest to comprehensive—run a gamut spanning the sophomoric sniggering of Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star to the pitch-black sleaze of Inserts to the lurid queer shenanigans of Knife + Heart.

Looking back on the impact of the noise around Don’t Worry Darling. 
Looking back on the impact of the noise around Don’t Worry Darling

One of our most-read stories of the year—thanks in part to the Harry Styles effect—is Sacha Judd’s analysis of the online and media attention that followed Olivia Wilde’s sophomore feature film, Don’t Worry Darling. Sacha is an O.G. Letterboxd member, a fandom expert, and a Styles fan; the perfect combination of person to send into the film festival maelstrom and emerge with some wisdom that might help move our industry and our social media habits forward: 

“In watching all of this unfold, all I could think was that we are overdue a reckoning with the way the online environment is allowing misinformation, conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods to be increasingly weaponized against women in cinema.

And the Hollywood engine is beyond overdue in getting to grips with fandoms and the power they wield, even after over a decade of toxic hate and harassment being leveled at artists of color, widespread blowback over casting choices, and the inability of studios to protect their stars.”

Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio, photographed for Letterboxd in London.  — Photographer… Ella Kemp
Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio, photographed for Letterboxd in London.  Photographer… Ella Kemp

Our other most-read story of the year owes its traffic to Ella Kemp’s casually gorgeous images of Aftersun daddy Paul Mescal and his co-star Frankie Corio:

“Meeting Corio and Mescal in person for a brief but beautiful photoshoot and conversation throws up a lot of the same push and pull [director Charlotte] Wells describes and the film spotlights. Corio is overflowing with energy, giddy a few hours before the London premiere of her first ever film, while Mescal is thoughtful, focused, careful about what he shares and just grateful to be here.” 

While we’re on photography, I had the immense pleasure of learning more about the art of unit stills photography, to find out how those iconic images we see on posters and Letterboxd backdrops happen. Campion and her photographer Kirsty Griffin described to me the 90 seconds Griffin had to get her masterful The Power of the Dog key still, and directors David Lowery and Joachim Trier and their stills gurus Eric Zachanowich and Christian Belgaux opened up about capturing the heart of a movie:

“Curious, quick-thinking, technically astute, empathetic—these are some of the qualities it takes to hold one’s own as a photographer in any setting, but a film shoot has its own kooky variables. Most especially, the driving force of the schedule, where making the minutes and preserving precious turnover time is the thing that matters, and anything holding that up is a problem—including a photographer who needs their marketing shot.

‘You have to be pretty broad-shouldered. You just have to be really aware of what’s going on around you,’ says Griffin. The way she sees it, her job celebrates all of the other workers on a film set. Having helmed art departments, and as a director of award-winning documentary work herself, this is the energy that drives her.”

The key image of Benedict Cumberbatch as The Power of the Dog’s Phil was captured in 90 seconds. 
The key image of Benedict Cumberbatch as The Power of the Dog’s Phil was captured in 90 seconds. 

The Power of the Dog briefly features Anishinaabe actor Adam Beach, who is a star of Chris Eyre’s landmark 1998 film Smoke Signals. It’s just one of many fun film facts I’ve learned in the process of working with Leo Koziol, our Indigenous Editor, who is of Ngāti Rakaipaaka and Ngāti Kahungunu tribal descent and works from a remote, coastal village in New Zealand (when he is not traveling to Native film festivals in North America and beyond). Letterboxd was born and is headquartered in New Zealand, where Māori are tangata whenua (traditional owners) of the land, and we are predisposed to elevating Indigenous voices—because, as Oscar-winner Taika Waititi said at the 2020 Academy Awards, “We are the original storytellers”. 

Among Leo’s many stories, I especially love his two-part look at “New Native Cinema”. In part one he highlights the films made up to the turn of the millennium, and in part two he surveys the progress made since the year 2000:

“We could count the number of Indigenous feature-film directors on two hands at the end of last century. Now, it’s not a difficult task to put together a Letterboxd list of over a hundred Native-identified filmmakers bringing diverse dramatic and documentary feature works across a range of genres to the screen. If we want a list of a dozen queer Native features, we can have one! If we want a list of 50 Native women-made features about Native women and their lived experience, we can have that, too. This change didn’t happen out of nowhere. Activist groups around the world planted the seed.” 

“The idea of being a cinephile means loving cinema.” —Isabelle Huppert in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. 
“The idea of being a cinephile means loving cinema.” —Isabelle Huppert in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

Over the past year of Journal, we have found out that David Cronenberg plays Wordle, what Isabelle Huppert’s definition of “cinephile” is, the film that Gaspar Noé watched on his near-death bed, what Downton Abbey’s Mr. Molesley would have in his Letterboxd diary, that Céline Sciamma is always thinking of you when she creates, and Anya Taylor-Joy packs sweatpants and books for film shoots.

We know that kogonada owes it all to Ozu, John Woo owes it all to the French New Wave, scriptwriter Christopher Larsen uses Letterboxd in his research, Apichatpong Weerasethakul doesn’t mind if you fall asleep during his films, Barry Keoghan rings Colin Farrell for a chat all the time, Aubrey Plaza knows Delaware’s time will come, Ed Harris is happy to be a “thinking woman’s whatever” and Cate Blanchett says “holy guacamole!” when she’s put on the spot.  

There’s so much more, without even mentioning the filmmaker conversations on our podcasts and social accounts. Our animation correspondent Kambole Campbell’s artfully thoughtful stories, Jack Moulton’s many Life in Film chats, Dominic Corry’s Deep Impact essays, Justin LaLiberty’s specific passions for things like Christmas crime and DTV action, our team’s film festival reports and Katie Rife’s Shelf Life column, which are both expertly edited by Mitchell. So many more superb names populate our pages alongside them. 

A big ol’ Letterboxd thanks to the entire Journal team and to the publicists and studios who help make the conversations possible. 

Long live the orange dot! 

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