How I Letterboxd: Darren Carver-Balsiger

List maestro Darren Carver-Balsiger on arthouse cinema, enduring The Room, obscure essential horror films from around the world and tips for how to conduct a Letterboxd community poll.

While he joined us back in September 2014, it wasn’t until January 2017 that Darren Carver-Balsiger began reviewing films consistently on the platform. Since then, it’s been a steady path up the popularity charts, amassing over 13,000 followers thanks to his thoughtful analyses, wide variety of personal and community lists, and his full embrace of the social aspects of Letterboxd. Darren describes himself as “a pessimist in life but an optimist regarding films” and he has found a comfortable home here for everything he wants out of a communal film experience online.

A 26-year-old software engineer from Leeds, England, Darren chats with fellow list-maker extraordinaire Jack Moulton about how the Letterboxd community has helped him discover obscure gems that aren’t likely to appear on the IMDb Top 250 any time soon. He also gives tips for other members on how to build their own relationship with the welcoming Letterboxd community, and what it takes to curate exceptional lists of all shapes and sizes.

“Every second of it blew my mind.” Darren had his brain rewired by Persona (1966).
“Every second of it blew my mind.” Darren had his brain rewired by Persona (1966).

Let’s start at the beginning with how you joined Letterboxd. What was your ‘no-turning-back’ moment?
Darren Carver-Balsiger: My memory of joining Letterboxd goes back to when I first heard it mentioned by a YouTuber named Jonathan Paula. I had been maintaining a spreadsheet of the movies I watched, so the idea of a website that let me share that data with people seemed really cool. At first, I only used Letterboxd to log and rate movies, but my point of no return began in January 2017, when I decided to challenge myself to review every film I watched. I expected that to last just a few months, as a distraction from the exams I was revising for at the time, but over four years later I haven’t stopped reviewing.

What was the film that turned you onto cinema? And which was your gateway drug into the arthouse?
None of my family particularly care for film and I didn’t really watch a lot of film or television as a child. However, as a teenager I began to explore the medium in my spare time. The first films to really make me reconsider what cinema could be were Memento, which taught me that movies can have any structure, Pan’s Labyrinth, which pushed me past the ‘one-inch barrier’, and Grave of the Fireflies, which taught me to not be ashamed of crying at a movie. I have a distinct memory of ugly crying to Grave of the Fireflies when I was fifteen or so, when my parents were out for the day. It changed my life.

As for arthouse cinema, the one which flipped a switch in my brain to make me go “art cinema is for me” was Ingmar Bergman’s incomparable and enigmatic Persona. I had seen art films before, but I had just watched them because they were part of the ‘canon’. I stumbled across Persona on Amazon Prime, with no clue of its status in cinema history. Every second of it blew my mind and rewired what I thought cinema could be.

Tips for a perfect movie night? Friends. Alcohol. The Room (2003).
Tips for a perfect movie night? Friends. Alcohol. The Room (2003).

Okay, but tell me, how much longer can you tolerate Tommy Wiseau’s The Room?! So much for film snobbery, eh?
To enjoy The Room requires two things: friends and alcohol. The reason I have seen it so often is that it is the perfect movie for late-night drinking. I have shown it to so many people and everyone always has a great time laughing together, especially when we have a drinking game going. It’s become an informal tradition between me and a friend to always watch the film when one of us stays at the other person’s house. During our drunken student years, that was pretty regular.

Your follower count has been a runaway train recently, quadrupling in the last two years. When did you notice your account growing in popularity and how did you ride the momentum? (No need to be coy, we see you tracing your journey from 300 to 400 followers.)
I had almost no growth for many years. It all became exponential very fast. I’m grateful to have anyone follow me, because I just started my Letterboxd to post for myself. Most of the lists important to me predate a lot of my followers.

For me at least, the way to grow in popularity is just about consistency and keeping a dialogue with people. I post a review every day, I update lists all the time, I respond to every single comment on my posts. Letterboxd is a social site, so the best way to get noticed by the community is to give back to the community. I like keeping lists open and malleable, so they don’t just belong to me. I like having comment sections open, so I am not hiding myself from anyone and can be confronted when someone has a disagreement. I don’t know the exact reasons why anyone follows me, but I think being a constant presence helps.

These tigers aren’t afraid of claiming their spot on Letterboxd’s Top 250 Horror Films.
These tigers aren’t afraid of claiming their spot on Letterboxd’s Top 250 Horror Films.

Arguably your greatest service to Letterboxd, and especially during spooky season, is running the official all-time horror list (with the occasional expansion). What have you noticed about this list that stands out above the buckets of other consensus horror rankings on the internet?
The Letterboxd Horror list stands out to me because it represents our global community and not just the opinions of a few critics, who usually just stick with American, European and Japanese horror. Our list has multiple films from countries rarely considered on most horror lists, like the Philippines (Kisapmata and Killed the Family and Went to the Movies), Brazil (At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul and Hard Labor), Mexico (The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales and Tigers Are Not Afraid) and India (Manichitrathazhu and Tumbbad).

The list has opened my eyes to a whole new world of horror. Since films are listed by average rating alone, popularity does not guarantee that a film places high, whereas polls and online lists tend to skew towards the horror classics which are most seen. Our list of course includes the iconic horror classics, but it also has plenty of silent movies, genre hybrids, modern gems and lesser-known horror. That is what makes our list special.

As official listmakers, we spend a lot of our time parsing the average ratings of the community. How do you define that little spark that makes those average community ratings worth exploring over other aggregates?
To be blunt about it, I think the Letterboxd average ratings are nicer because they are less mainstream. At its core, Letterboxd still remains a site of film fans and the ratings come from people who watch a lot of movies. IMDb and RottenTomatoes, for example, are owned by massive corporations and most casual movie viewers know of them. The audience score on both skews to a different demographic and is more susceptible to targeted campaigns due to [those services’] larger presence and commercial use. The Letterboxd audience demographic better represents movie fans in my opinion, though obviously we also have our own biases.

Film criticism can and should be personal, because anyone can talk about the technical qualities of a movie. Only you can interpret how your thoughts, feelings and life experiences made you react to a film.

—⁠Darren Carver-Balsiger

What is your advice for anyone inspired to curate an ‘official’ list? Can you give us the absolute dos and don’ts?
The most simple do is: lay out very clear rules and take as much out of your control as possible. Picking out a rating limit and a clear definition of what is eligible is paramount. From there, you no longer need to care about what films belong on the list, just stick to your criteria and list the films with the highest average rating.

As for don’ts, I suppose don’t choose a topic you can’t easily maintain. For example, it would be difficult to maintain a list of top gangster movies, since there are no [genre] tags to help you track all gangster films on Letterboxd, so the criteria would be open to interpretation and even once you found them all you would have to keep on checking new releases.

With polls and surveys, the best way to conduct them is to keep them simple and inclusive. Fancy points systems are confusing and put people off from voting or make them vote tactically. Simplicity allowed me to get hundreds of votes on my sci-fi poll for example, because it was just about listing ten films and there were no rules as to what counted.

Twelve nominations at this year’s Letterboxd Oscars? That’s desert power.
Twelve nominations at this year’s Letterboxd Oscars? That’s desert power.

You diligently took over the annual Letterboxd Community Awards from Gonzo last year. What do you expect from the results in 2022? (Voting for the winners is open until March 22, for members looking to make their voice heard.)
First of all, I want to say that I never took over the Letterboxd Community Awards. Gonzo did a great job and I always loved taking part in their awards. The ‘Letterboxd Does the Oscars’ poll came about because I was really intrigued by the Oscar voting process and decided to emulate it out of curiosity. My poll was always meant to be separate from the Community Awards.

However, if people see ‘Letterboxd Does the Oscars’ as a replacement now that the Community Awards have ended, that’s fine with me. I think it’s cool to have some way of seeing what films really resonated with people once the year ends.

I honestly don’t know what to expect from the 2022 results. There are a lot of films that people love this year. The Letterboxd community seems to be more receptive to genre and arthouse movies than the Academy, and I imagine Titane, Spencer, The Green Knight and C’mon C’mon will perform better in our poll than the real Academy Awards.

One of the things which surprised me with ‘Letterboxd Does the Oscars’ over the past three years is that our results aren’t so far off the real Academy. For Best Picture, we nominated at least five films the same as the Academy in the previous two years, although that number is down to just three for this year.

Yet simultaneously I think when the community differs from traditional awards bodies we are picking more varied films. In the past, our community Best Picture nominees have included films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Lighthouse, I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. These films never gathered awards attention from the real Academy.

Feeling hopeless? Darren’s got a list for that.
Feeling hopeless? Darren’s got a list for that.

Your themed lists are some of the most popular on the site. What’s the secret to your simple and poetic titles?
I don’t think there is any secret to list titles, they just have to sound cool. Sometimes I pick out a phrase that I like, such as Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth”. Generally, list titles derive from phrases I think of when writing reviews. I’ll be writing, then pause and think ‘hmmm, there are other movies which would match that phrase’. That was how High Art Genre Movies, The City is a Character and Two Lost Souls Find Comfort came to be.

Because my titles are vague, I feel like the first five films need to be really representative of the list. I try to not always put the most mainstream options, but the ones which most represent the list. Trying to ensure some smaller, older and foreign films appear in those first five makes it clear that this isn’t going to just be a list of twenty movies that came out from A24 in the past few years, or anything else so limited.

I think The World is Hell: Hopeless Cinema is a good example of carefully picking a first five. They are all pessimistic to varying degrees, with a mixture of films most Letterboxd users recognize, such as mother! and First Reformed, and films which are deeper cuts but match the list theme perfectly, like Sátántangó and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

What’s your biggest personal disagreement with any Letterboxd consensus?
Time for hot takes. One of my biggest disagreements is that I don’t really consider the Before trilogy that great. They’re fine, but I don’t find them naturalistic or charming. Other quickfire disagreements would be that I found Arrival slightly irritating, I think The Thin Red Line is one of Terrence Malick’s worst, and most of Makoto Shinkai’s filmography is unbearable for me.

As for underrated, I adore Wong Kar-wai’s lesser-praised works—Ashes of Time, My Blueberry Nights, The Grandmaster. I think Mank is much better than many on Letterboxd say. Finally, Ben Wheatley and Nicolas Winding Refn make uber-violent masterpieces that aren’t appreciated enough.

I have a distinct memory of ugly crying to Grave of the Fireflies when I was fifteen or so, when my parents were out for the day. It changed my life.

—⁠Darren Carver-Balsiger

You tend to want to touch on every corner of your opinion when you’re writing down your thoughts. What’s your stance on the long review vs. quick-take approach that some take issue with?
I can’t distill my opinion to a one-sentence quip or witticism, and I’m a little jealous of those who do it well. So, I just write what I’m comfortable with, which is sometimes a single paragraph if I have little to say, or an entire essay if I have loads of analysis.

Film criticism can and should be personal, because anyone can talk about the technical qualities of a movie. Only you can interpret how your thoughts, feelings and life experiences made you react to a film. I don’t personally gravitate towards quick takes when I scroll through Letterboxd, and I prefer reading long reviews, but I think the site has room for both.

If people want to avoid a certain style of writing, just block people who write that way. I know people have blocked me to stop my lists appearing in the popular lists section, and that’s fine. Do whatever to make Letterboxd work best for you. I haven’t blocked anyone, because I’m happy to read whatever I see.

Darren has the Letterboxd community to thank for his love of Ikiru (1952).
Darren has the Letterboxd community to thank for his love of Ikiru (1952).

Whenever you hit a follower benchmark, you immediately go to the community to request recommendations. What have been your best discoveries through this project?
Asking for picks from the community has made me discover a lot of films. I have a whole list just to collect recommendations. The best films I watched through my follower benchmark polls are A Brighter Summer Day, Yi Yi, Ikiru, The Battle of Algiers, and Beau Travail. My favourite movies list is now cluttered with things that I first discovered through Letterboxd. It contains over 200 films that I only watched after joining. Without the site, my movie taste would be much more boring.

Through those invitations, you also regularly celebrate the members you support and who support you back. Can you narrow down that list to three essential writers we should be following?
It is very hard to pick just three when I follow so many talented people. For me, BrandonHabes is the greatest writer on Letterboxd, as his reviews are always so analytical and well-researched. He explores cinema one director at a time and I love that approach, because he can examine an entire filmmaker or movement so thoroughly.

David Wheeler is someone I have followed for a long time and has a remarkable consistency. His reviews are always detailed, clear and eye-opening. Finally, I want to recommend the writing of Samcrom, who writes incredibly profound and in-depth reviews. I don’t even know how he manages to think of such beautiful and meaningful sentences to describe the films he writes about.

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