How I Letterboxd: Dave Vis

The keeper of the Official Letterboxd Top 250 on the day that Parasite “dethroned” The Godfather, the curious case of A Dog’s Will, and several Dutch filmmakers worthy of discovery.

Did I mention I’m a sucker for special effects?” —⁠Dave Vis

If you are one of the thousands of Letterboxd completists attempting to log every film on our official top 250, you have Dave Vis to thank for keeping that list up to date. Although he didn’t originate the list, he did adopt ownership of it, and the many, many Letterboxd follows as a result. 

You wear your tenure proudly on your profile (“Member since 12/11/2011”). How did you come across Letterboxd way back then?
Dave Vis: I joined in the beta days when I got an invitation in November 2011 from a good friend who knew I was into film. Up to this date, I have no idea how she got a beta invitation for a movie geek website from New Zealand, but I’m happy she did!

Here’s the $49 question: How do you Letterboxd?
I joined because I found it useful to keep track of everything I watched. At that point, I was probably still ticking off films from IMDb’s Top 250, and Letterboxd was a cool way to make other lists and see how I was progressing. When I started using the site more often, I also got to follow more users and enjoyed reading their takes on films. I don’t follow a lot of people, just a few that I know in real life and some other early adopters of the site whose opinions of film I got to value.

Talk us through your profile favorites. What spoke to you about these four films?
The pragmatic reason for these four is that they were the last films I watched that got full marks from me. So the four favorites on my profile keep changing as I come across more films that I think deserve five stars. About the current ones: Jaws, of course, is an absolute classic, maybe even Spielberg’s greatest. How he creates that much tension with minimal exposition is masterful. Blade Runner 2049 baffled me, especially on an aesthetic level. I love how the story slowly unravels in probably one of the best world-building efforts of the last couple of years. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring doesn’t need much explanation, I think. Peter Jackson did what was generally thought impossible and in a way that had me walking out of the cinema in awe of the spectacle and production design. Last but not least, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I’m a huge fan of the Studio Ghibli films and this one, [as well as] being the studio’s unofficial first, is probably my favorite. You can just tell that they worked years to get Hayao Miyazaki’s life’s work to the big screen.

Let’s get down to brass tacks: for the past six and a half years, you’ve been running the Official Letterboxd Top 250, one of our most popular and important lists. What prompted you to start the list? Did you think you’d be keeping it going this long?
At least part of the credit goes to someone else on Letterboxd, because even my list is a cloned one! A great deal of thanks goes to a member called The Caker Baker, who sadly isn’t part of the community anymore, for having the idea of doing this list even before me. On the exact day Letterboxd introduced a sorting option by average rating on the Films page, he created the first top 250 list.

I decided to clone that list [Dave has archived it here], because I wanted to filter out the documentaries, shorts and miniseries. As long as I am interested in film and won’t have completed the list, I do see myself keeping it. I feel the overall quality of the list is outstanding and for my taste and film-watching experience it’s probably the best combination of blockbuster hits, timeless Hollywood classics, non-English spoken gems, and some pretty obscure entries.

What’s involved in keeping the top 250 up-to-date? What’s the hardest thing about it? Have you ever found the responsibility a burden—your ankle chained to Letterboxd each week? (We’re grateful!)
These days it isn’t much of a bother at all, actually. I’m still so grateful for you guys introducing the ability to sort lists by average rating when editing them a while back. That was a huge relief, I can tell you! And apart from the odd comment when I’m a bit late on my weekly update or when I’m on a well-deserved holiday (yes, even the ankle chain comes off once in a while), I don’t feel like it’s a burden at all.

Let’s unpack it a bit. What are the best films you’ve discovered because of the list? Shoutout to my choices: A Special Day, Harakiri and The Man Who Sleeps.
Harakiri is an excellent choice! If it wasn’t for Letterboxd’s top list, I would probably not even know about it today, although it also cracked IMDb’s top 250 last year. What a beautiful film. If I have to name two other, one would be The Cranes Are Flying. I’ve rarely seen a film about war being depicted so beautifully. The other is It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the animation by Don Hertzfeldt about a stick figure you get to care deeply about in a time span of just over an hour. Very different films that, without Letterboxd, the chances are next to zero that I would have checked either of them out. Joining a Kickstarter to finance my own Blu-ray edition of the latter was special too.

Béla Tarr’s 1994 masterpiece Sátántangó.
Béla Tarr’s 1994 masterpiece Sátántangó.

So, what’s your percentage-seen of the top 250? Which films rank highest on your list of shame? Are there any that you don’t think you’ll ever watch?
At this moment I’m at 175 of 250, so 70 percent. I rarely consider films as being on a ‘list of shame’, but as I scroll through the unseen ones, there are a few that stand out. La Dolce Vita and Sátántangó [Editor’s note: recently re-released in 4K, nudge nudge] are ones that I feel I should have watched by now. Both are magnum opuses from legendary foreign filmmakers. Don’t really know why I haven’t though, but all in good time. Any that I think I’ll never watch? There’s not much I wouldn’t watch, but some are just so daunting in their runtime, that I’m not sure if I will ever feel up to the task (yes, La Flor, I’m looking at you). Probably also the reason I never popped Sátántangó in.

Has the way Letterboxd’s membership has changed and grown affected what’s in the top 250 in any interesting or unexpected ways?
That’s not a very easy question to answer, because different people will be surprised about different things. However, you do see a trend—surprising or not—of traditional western cinema classics giving way to more non-English language films doing well on the list. Asian and Brazilian films have skyrocketed to great heights, often at the expense of western classics. Films that are traditionally doing great at IMDb, such as Pulp Fiction or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, were in Letterboxd’s top ten for a long time, but have both dropped out of the top twenty. Beloved classics among film critics such as Citizen Kane, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Casablanca aren’t even in the top 100 anymore.

We now have a top ten with three Japanese films, one Taiwanese, one Russian, one Brazilian and a South Korean film at the very top. The only English spoken films left there are the two Godfathers and 12 Angry Men. I do tend to suspect that the growing community causes more diversity while also fuelling the more traditional moviegoers to broaden their interests. I personally think that’s a great development.

How did you feel when Parasite overtook The Godfather to become Letterboxd’s highest-rated film of all time? Do you think it’ll ever sink at this point?
To say I was surprised is quite the understatement. For something to even come close to The Godfather’s record borders on sacrilege, let alone dethroning it. What you usually see is that new movies with overly positive reviews enter the list’s higher ranks with a bang, but when they are introduced to a bigger crowd, they slowly descend. For example, fellow acclaimed Best Picture nominees 12 Years A Slave, Her, Call Me By Your Name and Roma all peaked in the top twenty and only Call Me By Your Name is still in the list, at number 232 for now.

In these days of ready availability it is extremely hard to create something that has such a large following. That’s why this takeover by Parasite is so extraordinary. Seeing it rise day-by-day—even after the masses took it in—was something I didn’t think possible. I, for one, am very slow to watch new films, so when I got to watch it, it was already in first position. Safe to say my expectation level was through the roof, which probably wasn’t really fair. While I thought it was an excellent film, I personally wouldn’t rank it among my favorites. However, it’s not only the highest-ranked film on Letterboxd, but also the most popular one [a measure of the amount of activity for a film, regardless of rating]! So don’t expect to see it sink lower any time soon.

The top 250 is home to the largest comment section on the platform. Congrats! What’s monitoring that mammoth thread like?
Thank you! Although that’s hardly an achievement on my part. I have to be honest, I don’t read everything in the comments section anymore. I try to keep up as much as possible, in order to respond to people who have an actual question. However, when I sign in in the morning and see dozens of new notifications, most probably about A Dog’s Will being in the top ten or about recency bias or about objective quality versus subjective quality, I let it pass me by every so often.

What is your take on A Dog’s Will’s rise to Letterboxd stardom? (At the time of writing, the 2000 Brazilian film from director Guel Arraes holds the number eight spot in the top 250.)
Ah, there it is: the elephant in the room… My honest answer is a politically correct one, but also the truth: I haven’t seen it yet, so it’s impossible to pass judgment. However, from the comments section on the top 250, it seems clear that there are two camps: the Brazilians, who adore the film and continually claim the importance it in their cultural heritage. And there’s the other group, mostly non-Brazilians of course, who think it’s a fine film at best, but in their opinion not deserving of a top-ten spot. I’m quite impartial: if the statistics say that it is one of the best-rated films of the Letterboxd community, why would it not deserve to be there? I am curious though if more non-Brazilians will see it and if so, if that will have a significant effect on its rating. We can only wait and see.

Are there any films you’re surprised to have stayed in the list for so long? Conversely, what are some films that we’ll be surprised to hear have never made the list?
If I have to name one film that I’m surprised about, it’s one I haven’t seen yet: Paddington 2. Every time I scroll past it, I find myself asking: “wow, this one still in?” It’s probably because I haven’t seen it, but it always strikes me as an odd one. I really have to seek it out some time. Some films that might shock people never having made it… Well, if you look at IMDb’s list for reference, you could say it’s shocking that a film like Forrest Gump never made it onto the list, but that might not be as much of a shock to Letterboxd members. Other popular crowd pleasers that never made it include E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Gladiator, all of Disney’s non-Pixar animated classics, and one of the films that also sparked my interest in movies, The Usual Suspects.

Dave has not seen Paddington 2.
Dave has not seen Paddington 2.

I’ve actually been working hard on completing the list during quarantine and I finished it yesterday. Has anyone else gotten to 100 percent yet or am I the first?
I have no idea, to be honest! There will probably be others who have, but I wouldn’t be able to name one. I suspect Jakk might have reached 100 percent at some point.

My completist streak will need a new avenue. What are your next most essential top lists?
If you ever feel up for a challenge, I recommend Top10er’s 1001 Greatest Movies of All Time. He combined the average ratings of critics and users from IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and Letterboxd, and then weighted and tweaked the results with general film data from several services. I have no idea how, but it’s a terrific list. Also, the directors’ favorites lists that are on Letterboxd are awesome. Edgar Wright’s 1,000 favorites and Guillermo del Toro’s recommendations are especially worth your while.

The top 250 list is the tip of the iceberg for the lists on your account. What is it you enjoy about keeping ranked lists?
It’s a compulsion. I just really enjoy making lists, ranking films by certain directors, franchises or studios. Not really useful, mostly just fun to do! And I’m not the only one, it seems. Although, of course, lists like the Letterboxd Top 250 will always be an inspiration for finding well-rated films I haven’t seen yet.

Which films got you hooked on cinema?
I do have a few titles that were important in terms of my film-watching development. Films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park came out when I was an early teenager and those were the ones luring me to the cinema to see and experience things you just couldn’t in the real world, both with groundbreaking special effects—I’m a sucker for those. Not much later, titles like The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction were popular and that’s probably around the time that IMDb’s list got my attention. That top 250 gets a lot of criticism, but the overall quality is fine and for me it was the perfect step in broadening my film-watching.

So, for a long time I watched a lot of films on that list and went to the cinema for your usual blockbusters, probably until Letterboxd arrived. That’s when I started watching the artsier stuff and foreign cinema of which, of course, all classics eluded me up till then. It was films like Seven Samurai, Persona and Werckmeister Harmonies that sparked that particular period. Now I just watch everything that comes my way that seems interesting or entertaining, from the new Marvel instalment to classic Godard.

Tell us about the one and only movie you’ve given a half-star.
Ha, that’s an odd one… Once there was a challenge on the site that you could ask a fellow member to pick the next ten films for them to watch. I participated once and, of course, there would be underseen gems or personal favorites on that list, but also one or two that would be almost unwatchable. In my list that was Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. If that title alone doesn’t give away how bad it was, watching the first five minutes will.

In your opinion, what’s the most underrated film according to Letterboxd average ratings?
One that comes to mind, which was in the top 250 once, but has dropped substantially in the last few years, is Gravity. I also have a list where I collect all the films that were once in Letterboxd’s top 250 and it’s at the very bottom there. For me, seeing that film in a theater is what cinema is all about—finding new ways to immerse your audience into a movie experience they have never had before. Oh, did I mention I’m a sucker for special effects?

Dave is a sucker for special effects, including those in Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity (2013).
Dave is a sucker for special effects, including those in Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity (2013).

As a Dutchman, please educate us: what are the greatest Dutch films people should see?
The Netherlands doesn’t really have a thriving movie industry that brings its films across borders. If I have to give the essential tip, it would be Spoorloos, which was remade starring Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock and was not half as good. Other than that I would recommend Paul Verhoeven’s early work, such as Soldaat van Oranje and Turks Fruit, and the two Dutch films that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, 1986’s De Aanslag and 1997’s Karakter. And to top it off, I want to mention two Dutch filmmakers worth your time, Alex van Warmerdam, director of De Noorderlingen, and Martin Koolhoven, director of Oorlogswinter.

What comfort movies are you watching whilst in quarantine? Are you working on any viewing projects?
I actually am in a viewing project at the moment. One of mine and my wife’s guilty pleasures is superhero movies! So currently we are, again, on a Marvel Cinematic Universe rewatch streak. They just provide a wonderful form of escapism and are definitely deserving of the term comfort movies. Some are better than others of course, but the perspective of rewatching The Avengers, Thor: Ragnarok or Guardians of the Galaxy after a while still tends to fill me with excitement. In a way, there’s still a bit of the twelve-year-old in me that was so thrilled to see T2 or Jurassic Park.

How do you plan on inducting your kids into the cinephile life?
Well, most important is that they just enjoy going to the movies like I did when I was young. Let’s hope we will be able to do so again in the near future. They are still young, but their access to screen time with Netflix, Disney+ and (mind-numbingly stupid clips on) YouTube is so different than the days when we were young. So having them watch some Ghibli classics is already quite a step. And then I think the rest should come naturally. If not, so be it.

Which, for you, are the most useful features on Letterboxd?
Did you know they have a list with the 250 best rated narrative feature films? That’s basically all you need to know… All kidding aside, just reading reviews once in a while by fellow members whose opinions I value is still the heart of the service to me. That and the statistics pages. And browsing other lists.

Does anyone in your real life know that your list is kind of a Letterboxd big deal?
Not really! Mostly because I don’t exactly feel that way about it. I mean: my wife knows, but other than that it’s pretty much still my pet project. To me, it’s still just a film enthusiast’s list that so happened to become the site’s official top 250. I do have to say that it is humbling to see the numbers of new followers every day—especially when Letterboxd mentions the list on her social accounts—and to realize that apparently almost 23,000 people around the globe have taken a liking to it.

Please name three other members you recommend we follow.
Fellow countryman and longtime member DirkH. He is not as active as he was before, but writes beautifully personal reviews, always with his trademark witty humor or sometimes cheeky sarcasm, not always to the liking of everyone. You all got to know Lise in the first How I Letterboxd, but I’d definitely also recommend following her other half Jonathan White. His reviews are great, he knows so much about film and is always willing to share his thoughts or answer questions. And damn, that man can rhyme. Then there’s Mook, if only for his franchise lists. Check out his MCU list, it’s my go-to place when I want to read up on anything Marvel.

Several of the films mentioned in this interview—Sátántangó, La Flor—are (at the time of writing) available for virtual screenings. The details are in our Art House Online list.

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