High Risers

Editor-at-large Dominic Corry highlights the 50 films with the biggest upward trend in critical regard throughout our first decade.

List: the 50 highest risers during Letterboxd’s first ten years.

Here at Letterboxd, we not only love movies, we love the love of movies. It’s why we exist, and we’re extremely proud of how our platform has provided a space for that love to be expressed, shared and discovered.

When we started this film-tracking party ten years ago, we had no idea what the data might show a decade on. As it turns out, we are especially proud to have made a space for you to foster your love of movies that have struggled to get their due. This can happen for a variety of reasons…

Sometimes when a film is released, it isn’t considered ‘cool’ to like it. We believe that nobody is ever wrong for loving something.

Sometimes when a film is released, monocultural critics from gatekeeper organizations dictate a particular sentiment that overwhelms the film, regardless of its intended audience. A film’s critical response shouldn’t be solely determined by a bunch of white cis males (full disclosure: I am one).

And sometimes when a film is released, the marketing completely misses the target audience.

But it appears that time plus Letterboxd provides some perspective. Knowing that our membership has grown and widened over the years, we’ve used our tenth birthday as an excuse to dive deep into the stats and produce a list of the top 50 “High Risers”These are the narrative feature films that have experienced the biggest upward trend in average ratings over the course of Letterboxd history.

These are not the highest-rated films. Nowhere near. The highest-rated title on the list hasn’t even cracked four out of five stars, while most are still chasing that elusive three. But our statistics department got all nerdy with linear regression and we can definitively say that these are the 50 films that have experienced the greatest upward ratings gradient throughout our existence.

Though many more films have slowly increased their ratings over time, we are generally talking about not much more than a modest half-star rise in most cases. But these 50 films have seen their Letterboxd standings organically (and in a few cases, dramatically) increase over time, thanks to unfiltered appreciation from Letterboxd members.

The results are fascinating, and demonstrate how certain types of films suffer more than others from a traditionally monolithic critical culture.

It’s remarkable how practically all 50 titles fit into one or more of five subgenres we’ve identified: overlooked Black cinema, the queer female experience, teenage-girl fun, joyful musicals and unsung rom-coms. These subgenres have traditionally been underserved by the prevailing critical and cultural conversations, but love for them has flourished on Letterboxd. If, for some reason, you have been embarrassed about loving White Chicks, fear no more. We’re all friends here.

There’s plenty of overlap between these categories, and of course a few outliers (come into the light, Clifford stans!). Plus: three Brazilian films. Brazil is famously a movie-mad country, and this just further proves it. Legal!

Things are lookin’ up for Jimmy Bones. 
Things are lookin’ up for Jimmy Bones

Overlooked Black cinema

For a very long time in Western media, almost all mainstream film critics were white, and their reviews reflected their specific experience of the world. Although many critics went out of their way to praise “prestige” Black movies, genre films reflecting the Black experience often got shafted.

So it is satisfying to reveal that the film that experienced the biggest leap in average rating throughout Letterboxd’s first ten years is Ernest R Dickerson’s 2001 film Bones. Dickerson, who started out as Spike Lee’s regular cinematographer, has long been a go-to director for prestige TV dramas including The Wire, Dexter and The Walking Dead. The Snoop Dogg-starring, gentrification-critiquing horror throwback was his seventh feature film as director.

Bones hit theaters six weeks after 9/11 and was quickly dismissed at the time, but it has undergone a critical reassessment in light of greater emphasis being placed on Black cinematic representation, and Letterboxd horror nerds have long sung its praises.

As Carlo V states in his review, he’s “disappointed that people still have trouble appreciating that, because this has just about everything I want out of a horror movie and I would’ve gladly ingested six more of these.”

“Dickerson’s ever-perceptive eye traces a genre history, tying figures of Blaxploitation with the politics of the time that have festered into the present day,” writes Arkheia. Dnealx6 agrees: “A fully realized, uniquely visualized haunted-house film, with a core of real sadness and betrayal, rooted in a very specific historical moment.”

Patrick writes that it’s “probably Dickerson’s best and most personal movie! You can feel his passion for the material bleed through the screen,” while River describes it as “Scooby-Doo plus Argento rolled into a nasty, very funny Blaxploitation update for post-Reagan urban woes.”

There’s clearly more meat on this Bones than the film was given credit for upon its release. Snoop has another film on the list: 2012 stoner-buddy-comedy Mac & Devin Go To High School (in 26th place), in which he stars with Wiz Khalifa, and there’s another Black horror in the 36th spot, Rusty Cundieff’s anthology, Tales From The Hood.

Other films cherished by Black audiences that appear on the list are the often-mocked but actually loved-by-all comedy White Chicks (“What ISN’T Shakespeare but FEELS like Shakespeare?” asks Michael), Michael Jordan wish-fulfillment fantasy Like Mike, and Hype Williams’ crime drama Belly, starring Nas and DMX. If you sort the High Risers list by highest-rated overall, Bill Duke’s increasingly iconic thriller Deep Cover, which has always had respect (and received its Criterion 4K release this past July), comes in second place, with a massive 3.8 out of five.

It’s unfortunately all too easy to understand why the critical “consensus” didn’t find room for these films when they first debuted, but our community was never gonna let them go underappreciated.

“What do you mean the ‘Justice for Jennifer’s Body’ t-shirts are sold out?!”
“What do you mean the ‘Justice for Jennifer’s Body’ t-shirts are sold out?!”

The queer female experience

Few films have undergone as radical a critical reassessment as Karyn Kusama’s 2009 feature Jennifer’s Body, the number-three film on our list (rising from a 2.39 in our first year to an average of 3.66 for all ratings cast in 2021, pulling its average up to 3.5 overall). It is the highest-ranking example of the many films on the list that speak to a queer audience, and one of many that speaks directly to a teenage-girl audience.

The initial reception to Jennifer’s Body—writer Diablo Cody’s follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut Juno—was grossly misogynistic, with critics seemingly unable to comprehend that a sexy teen horror with Megan Fox in the lead might actually have something to say. Or that its target audience might not actually be horny males. It’s all deeply ironic when you consider the text of the film.

The last few years have seen a loud decrying of its initial reception, with much of it articulated on Letterboxd—and on this iconic Super Yaki dad hat.

“One of most misunderstood and under-appreciated movies of all time,” writes Amanda, in her deeply thorough analysis of the film. “This film’s reception, not the film itself, is a prime example of the suppression of female voices,” she further explains. “Easily one of the worst marketing failures ever, this movie was sold to the complete opposite demographic than what the creator had intended.”

Ghostsarereal calls Jennifer’s Body “a thoughtful, perceptive, and scary examination of what it means to be a teenage girl,” and laments how it was “marketed as a sexy movie for boys when it’s actually a movie about female friendship”. Or perhaps Brat put it best when she wrote “This is Twilight for bi girls”. By the way, Twilight itself is also on the Risers list, at number 25.

A similar disconnect between marketing, perceived audience and intended audience occurred with Angela Robinson’s ridiculously entertaining 2004 action comedy D.E.B.S. (number six on the list) which has no time for subtext, striding headlong into a proper, and properly touching, lesbian romance.

Every female-centric action film made since has been chasing the rare, sunny alchemy thrown up by D.E.B.S., which has slowly accrued a cult following after being mostly ignored upon its initial release.

“This was created wholly for women and by women and when you see it from that perspective everything just clicks into place and it all makes sense” writes Robyn. “A tale of burgeoning sexuality, no one is shamed for their sexual preference [or] their promiscuity. I DUNNO MAN I JUST THINK THIS FILM IS BASICALLY REVOLUTIONARY?” 

The rest of the films on the High Risers list that speak to an LGBTQ+ audience do so mostly via a subtext that has become increasingly apparent over time, and most were also victims of the mentality that doesn’t allow for films aimed at young women to be taken seriously. See: Spice World, Sugar & Spice and the massively ahead-of-its-time Josie and the Pussycats.

And the queer experience is further represented by Beeban Kidron’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, which upon release in 1995 was perceived as something of Hollywood cash-in on the success of the previous year’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but has seen its reputation elevated since.

Chill it out, take it slow; that Letterboxd average will slowly grow. 
Chill it out, take it slow; that Letterboxd average will slowly grow. 

Teenage-girl fun

There are more ‘teenage-girl fun’ movies on the High Risers list than any of the other subgenres we’ve identified, with two in the top five alone. And you don’t have to be a teenage girl to like these movies. Trust me.

The patriarchal perception that these films were aimed at a shallow audience played a role in their low initial critical evaluation, and those perceptions exist on Letterboxd, but there also exists a chorus of those willing to stand up and fight for the Bratz movie, which is number two on the High Risers list. Sure, its current 2.4 average is concerning—not everyone is yet on board. But when you start at one-point-nothing, the only way is up.

“I am very saddened and disappointed by the negative response this has gotten from people I respect or consider friends on Letterboxd,” writes The Voluptuous Horror of #1 Bratz Fan, who goes on to call the film “hilarious, strange, bright, sweet, unique, and full of energy. It has a scene with the Bratz in full clown makeup. It’s not afraid to be weird as f—k!”

Highlighting what these kinds of movies can mean to viewers with certain curiosities, Muriel posits that “the B in LGBTQ+ stands for Bratz (2007)”.

Hannah Montana: The Movie, in fifth place on the High Risers list, didn’t make many year-end ‘best of’ lists when it was released in 2009, but nostalgic love for it flows unfettered on Letterboxd. “THIS IS MY HOME, MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF ALL TIME AND I WILL THROW HANDS IF SOMEONE CONTRADICTS MY OPINION,” shouts Hania. “My ten-year-old heart is sobbing,” writes Saskia. “Thanks for the smiles and the tears Miley,” weeps Luna <3.

It also becomes evident when you read through the Letterboxd reviews of this movie that Lucas Till helped a lot of people get through puberty. We support it.

There’s more Miley Cyrus among the High Risers in the form of her 2012 social media comedy LOL, and many more teen stars like Hilary Duff (on here with The Lizzie Maguire Movie and A Cinderella Story) Emma Roberts (Aquamarine and Wild Child are both on the list), Lindsay Lohan (Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen and Just My Luck), while the Olsen Twins and the Mowry Twins both feature with New York Minute and Twitches, respectively.

You don’t have to look too hard to detect some minor lesbian subtext in Scooby Doo and Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, which are both here, and it’s nice to find fellow fans of The Princess Diaries and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.

There’s also the Brittany Murphy/Dakota Fanning comedy Uptown Girls, and the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads.

The Cheetah Girls and The Cheetah Girls 2 both appear, as do some other Disney Channel Original titles (Minutemen, Lemonade Mouth) whose charms somehow evaded the critical community, and we’re also gonna chuck Robert Rodriguez’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in here because it’s closer to this than any of the other categories.

I mentioned Twilight right? Critics aren’t kind to films for girls. The culture at large isn’t kind to films for girls. But on Letterboxd, there is always a place for films for girls, and the people who love them.

These mammas are comin’ for the Letterboxd Top 250.
These mammas are comin’ for the Letterboxd Top 250.

Joyful musicals

The pure, unironic joy that musicals offer is somewhat in conflict with the cynical posturing of certain corners of cinephilia, especially if the musical in question isn’t seen as cool, which is most of them. But unironic joy has found an island to call home on Letterboxd.

Mamma Mia! is the fourth film on the High Risers list, with its average rating having leapt up from 2.65 in our first year to 3.85 for all ratings cast in 2021 so far, bringing its overall rating up to a very respectable 3.6 out of five. Many of the reviews directly address its haters, highlighting how Letterboxd provides a safe haven for fans of films that it’s (allegedly) not cool to like.

Pig Face Emoji asks:“@everyone who says this is a bad movie: why are you afraid to love?” while Miranda Todd warns: “literally do not speak to me if you don’t like this film because clearly you don’t know what fun is.”

Fran eloquently articulates the film’s undeniable charms in her review: “This movie just radiates pure happiness and love which everyone needs every day! I mean, even a cold-hearted bitch like me was smiling like an idiot when Dancing Queen started playing.”

Other musicals that Letterboxd members have significantly elevated the standing of over the years include High School Musical, High School Musical 2, The Country Bears and previously mentioned titles from other categories like Bratz, Hannah Montana: The Movie, Spice World, Josie and the Pussycats and both Cheetah Girls movies.

Tell me something I don’t know about why Another Cinderella Story rules. 
Tell me something I don’t know about why Another Cinderella Story rules. 

Unsung romantic comedies

For many people, romantic comedies are like pizza: if they contain enough of the basic elements, they’re impossible not to enjoy. But they’re also like Hawaiian pizza, in that many feel entitled to heap scorn upon them. There’s always been a dissonance between the critical reception these films get and the love audiences have for them—a love that has prospered on Letterboxd.

The highest-ranking ‘unsung rom-com’ on our list is Another Cinderella Story, the average star rating for which has grown from a withering 2.09 in the first year it qualified to its current, almost respectable 2.8. If we just look at its 2021 ratings, it scores an average of 3.05, indicating a swelling appreciation for star Selena Gomez this year. “IDK you either get it or you don’t… and if you don’t I’m sorry for you!” preaches Kelci. The film is joined on the list by its Hilary Duff-starring predecessor, the previously mentioned A Cinderella Story, as well as Reese Witherspoon classic Legally Blonde (did people actually not like this movie at some point?!), the J. Lo/Ralph Fiennes-starring Maid In Manhattan (ragged on when released, this cheese pizza eventually found its audience), the bittersweet Love, Rosie and the time-jumping Jennifer Garner vehicle 13 Going On 30, which, like several of our unsung rom-coms, also counts as a ‘teenage-girl fun’ movie.

Just like Clifford Daniels, Letterboxd is also ten years old. 
Just like Clifford Daniels, Letterboxd is also ten years old. 

So those are the movies that form our five main categories, but there are several unclassifiable leftovers on the list, including three Brazilian films, two of them biopics: Elis (about legendary singer Elis Regina) and Olga (about political figure Olga Benário). The third Brazilian film, and the highest-rated on this list, is the 2003 romantic comedy Lisbela and the Prisoner (director Guel Arraes also made O Auto da Compadecida/A Dog’s Will, the highest-rated Brazilian film on Letterboxd), in which Débora Falabella stars as the title character, who is obsessed with… American movies. “Lisbela please create a Letterboxd account and post reviews of the movies you watch,” asks Florence (in Portuguese).

Then there’s the Will Smith drama Collateral Beauty, which potentially could’ve gone into the Overlooked Black cinema category, but the initial lack of love for the film feels more tied to its extreme earnestness, which hasn’t usually gone down well with critics. Feel free to get very earnest on Letterboxd, because we’re all about that.

And we finish with comedy oddity Clifford, in which Martin Short plays a ten-year-old boy opposite a hilariously exasperated Charles Grodin, playing his uncle. Barely released in 1994 (two years after it was made), the film has been steadily gaining a cult following throughout Letterboxd’s existence, and experienced a bump in visibility when Grodin passed away earlier this year.

“Like that fake YouTube trailer about what if The Shining was a cute comedy, but an actual movie this time,” writes Matt Lynch, while Robyn “can’t help but admire the dark, cruel insanity of the finished product. I wish I’d made it. Absolutely cooked.”

Clifford is just the kind of weirdness that we relish seeing celebrated here on Letterboxd, where nobody is ever wrong for liking something, 99.999% of cinematic opinions are welcome and every movie has at least one review identifying a gay subtext.

What currently overlooked films will Letterboxd’s next decade bring to the fore? The only way to find out is to keep watching, keep rating and help keep things interesting by elevating the films you truly love.

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