How I Letterboxd: Dave Chen

In our second of this series, we put Dave Chen in the spotlight. The podcaster, musician and filmmaker is most famous on Letterboxd for his weirdly specific lists. He tells us how he uses the platform, why every film that exists is miraculous, and why we shouldn’t sleep on Not Another Teen Movie.

Hi Dave! How long have you been on Letterboxd?
Dave Chen: About eight years. I believe I first signed up when it was in beta. I loved (and still love) the interface: how smooth the user flow is for logging/reviewing films, and how beautiful all that movie art looks as it’s organized on the site.

What do you mainly use Letterboxd for?
I love reading the reviews on Letterboxd. On a film’s page, the site surfaces many of the most popular reviews and I find it’s a great way to find some quick, witty, and thoughtful comments on something I might be considering watching. But of course, I also love reading and making funny lists. Finally, I’ve heard Letterboxd is great for keeping track of films at a film festival but sadly I haven’t yet attended one since I started using it again.

Do you rate films? Would you consider yourself a generous or harsh rater?
I rate films to remind myself how I felt about them at the time I watched. Of course, my opinions on movies change but it’s sometimes interesting to look back and think back to a time when, “Oh right, I did love that movie in the summer of 2019 when I was going through XYZ”. Our feelings about movies can often reflect what’s going on in our lives.

That said, over time, I’ve come to understand that films are miracles. I don’t think I’m the first person to come up with this observation but they are like miniature plays resulting from the collective work of hundreds or thousands of people that have been preserved for your amusement, and you can just play them on demand. Many of them cost only a few dollars. Some are free! Every film that exists is miraculous.

So, despite some of my harsh reviews, I do try to keep that perspective in mind.

You’ve been a member for a while but most of your reviews are recent. What brought you back? We note that you restarted with your third viewing of 1917!
I am pretty active on Twitter and I started seeing a bunch of screen-capped reviews go viral there. But to be honest, much of social media can be exhausting to me these days. What I realized recently about Letterboxd was that much of it is free of the negativity. It’s just a bunch of folks who love movies sharing thoughts on those movies, but it also feels like a real community of people. There are filmmakers on there who share their thoughts on films and their favorites, and that’s of course endlessly fascinating (such as Sean Baker). Even the negative reviews can be fun to read. There’s a lot of pithiness and wit on the site, and its design really helps facilitate that.

Okay, take us way back, what was the film that got you hooked on cinema?
My first cinematic true loves were the films of John Woo. I’d watched action movies before but I was introduced to John Woo ironically by a counselor at my church youth group! I became dazzled by movies like The Killer and Hard Boiled. It was then that I realized that things I had seen dozens of times (e.g., a shootout in a warehouse) could be elevated by sheer craftsmanship.

What keeps you from sharing your four favorites on your profile?
A few reasons. For me personally, it takes months if not years for my thoughts on a film to really crystallize. My relationship with a movie doesn’t end when the credits roll—its ideas and themes and images are often clanging around in the back of my head for months if not years afterwards. As a result, my favorite films of all time change pretty frequently and I didn’t want to have to think about maintaining my four favorites over time.

Michael Caine in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006).
Michael Caine in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006).

Is there any film you could say is your all-time number one?
If I had to name one though, it’d probably be Children of Men. It combines all my favorite things into one movie: science fiction, action, Michael Caine and a heartfelt message about how humanity has to be kinder to one another if we are to survive the challenging days ahead.

Your most popular lists are weirdly specific and fun (but true!). What are some other weirdly specific lists on Letterboxd that spoke to you?
All the lists I like fall into that category. I love it when people make connections that I never otherwise would’ve thought of. To make a funny list, I think you need to be able to juggle extremely specific pattern recognition with a description that makes people feel like they are learning something about the films or their subjects. While the vast majority of the time these are just for fun, sometimes they actually can lead to insights about filmmakers, actors and the specific themes they try to bring to life in their work.

Also, shout out to Thijs Meuwese, who is leading the way on creative lists.

What is your favorite or most useful feature on Letterboxd?
The Stats page [generated for all Pro and Patron members] is a beautiful visualization of the history of my film watching. As I continue to build out my watch history, I’m curious to see the trends that will arise.

What’s a movie where you don’t understand why Letterboxd members love or hate it so much?
To answer this question, I took a look at some “worst-rated films on Letterboxd” lists and here’s a totally random one for you: the teen romantic comedy parody Not Another Teen Movie. It’s rated a 2.6 and a lot of the humor of this film has aged poorly but there are some amazing gags in here and it features Chris Evans in a performance that will likely be the apex of the comedic phase of his career. My brother and I still quote this movie to each other. Don’t sleep on it.

Chyler Leigh and Chris Evans in Not Another Teen Movie (2001).
Chyler Leigh and Chris Evans in Not Another Teen Movie (2001).

Your feature film, Stephen Tobolowsky’s one-man show The Primary Instinct, has a Letterboxd page and a pretty solid rating, congrats! How do you feel having that livestream of instant reactions to it?
I’m glad that the ratings are decent, but to be honest, I can’t bring myself to look at them! As part of the filmmaking process, I’m totally open to constructive feedback from people I know and trust, but I’m not sure I can handle the same from strangers. Nonetheless, I’m grateful some Letterboxd members have seen fit to watch the film and take the time to rate it! Perhaps if I make more films in the future, I’ll feel better about checking out the reviews for an individual one.

Among your other skills, you are a talented musician. Can you tell us about some of your favorite film scores? Any cello-heavy scores or composers you find particularly influential?
While not really cello-specific, the music of Nicholas Britell makes amazing use of strings (see Moonlight and [TV series] Succession). His music is achingly beautiful and is often in rotation in my playlists.

More generally, Hans Zimmer and John Williams are both legends and I’ve always found their work to be very interesting. In recent days, I’ve been quite taken with the work of Daniel Pemberton, whose work on films like King Arthur and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. have a great populsive energy to them. Finally, when I’m into something more moody, atmospheric or modern, I appreciate the work of Cliff Martinez.

Are you self-isolating right now due to Covid-19? Discovered anything great and new to you to pass the time? We hope everything is alright otherwise!
Yes, I’m quarantining due to a “stay safe and healthy” order in Washington State right now. Like many people staying at home, I’ve been watching a lot of TV, which includes things like Tiger King, Devs, Better Call Saul, and Dave (the show on Hulu). These are the things that give me comfort and distraction these days.

Jennifer Ehle in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011).
Jennifer Ehle in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011).

What are your go-to comfort movies that you recommend to people at this strange and difficult time?
This is a weird recommendation, but I’d say Steven Soderberg’s Contagion is a great choice. Contagion depicts a virus far more deadly than Covid-19, and how it eventually leads to the deterioration of the social order. But it’s also a deeply hopeful movie. You see governments come together to try to figure this thing out. You see the people on the front lines risking their lives to fight the fictional virus and I think it’s a great way to help people understand how courageous and valuable all our medical workers are in times like these. It’s “competence porn” in an era where I think we need to be reminded of what competence looks like.

Editor’s note: Dave isn’t alone, Contagion has consistently been in our 20 most popular films for the past month.

When the universe is allowed to go back to the cinema, where do you prefer to sit?
As close to the center of the theater as possible, with my eyeline at about halfway up the screen.

What’s in your ‘hall of shame’—the movies you haven’t seen and know Letterboxd will boo at you for missing? Don’t worry, we’ll protect you.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Say Anything. Also Firefly, the Joss Whedon show which I don’t think is on your website anywhere. Many people have been complaining to me about this oversight in my viewership for years so I think it’ll do well if we can list it here.

Which film from the past ten years that went by fairly unloved do you think will be a future classic and you’ll fight to the death for loving?
I’m going to cheat a little and list a movie that’s eleven years old: Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity. This movie didn’t do super well at the box office when it was first released and currently has a 2.8 on Letterboxd. But it was one of my top ten films that year. I think Clive Owen and Julia Roberts have great chemistry, but I think the film’s depiction of corporate espionage is outlandish, fun and irresistible. These characters are playing a “triple game” and it’s so much fun to see the layers upon layers of deception that they’re creating, and the cascading impacts they have on their relationship. Also, how can you say no to a movie that has Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as competing CEOs literally going at each other?

And finally, please name three other Letterboxd members you recommend we follow.
I collaborate with Melissa on YouTube/podcast reviews and she is incredibly thoughtful and articulate. I always appreciate Khoi’s thoughtfulness. And Mike Ginn—this guy is hilarious.

You can enjoy more Dave on his website; his YouTube channel; and his podcasts The Slashfilmcast and Culturally Relevant. Dave was photographed by Brandon Hill.


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