Obsession: 2020’s Most Rewatched Films

Ella Kemp dives into Letterboxd’s 100 highest-rated, obsessively rewatched films of 2020 to find out what exactly it is that we want to rewatch again and again.

List: Highest Rated Obsessively Rewatched Club for 2020

Take note, development execs: we want to watch more of everything that makes us feel alive; that makes us feel thankful to be. To bottle that feeling, and drink it up as often, and as obsessively, as we like. We also want: more singing, more dancing, more drugs, more talking animals, more of whatever Director Bong is serving—and make everything gayer.

We know this because, a few years back, the Letterboxd team asked one very simple question: what’s the highest-rated film of all time, when the criteria is that you must have seen it five or more times? Not the ‘guilty’ pleasures, not the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ gems, but the already-excellent films that are also inherently rewatchable. The resulting top 100 from back then are all extremely, objectively good. What can we say—you have great taste.

Because 2020 is, well, 2020, we revisited this idea to see how four years and an endless quarantine might have changed things. The usual suspects have been rounded up (Christopher, Quentin, Ridley, Damien, David and company), but a lot has shifted in the Highest Rated Obsessively Rewatched Club for 2020.

The top ten in the 100 highest rated, obsessively rewatched films of 2020.
The top ten in the 100 highest rated, obsessively rewatched films of 2020.

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is now top of the heap, where Spike Jonze’s Her was number one last time around. In fact, only Jaws and Carol remain from the last top ten. The Letterboxd community favors a wider world view: in 2017, the top 100 had only one film by a female director; in 2020 there are eight. The list has gone from exactly zero films entirely in languages other than English, to two (Portrait and Parasite), with several more containing a portion of non-English dialogue. Not quite leaping the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, but it’s progress. And, there is substantially more LGBTQ+ representation all round.

This year’s top 100 shows that we still like to return to the idea of the auteur, and the challenge of a franchise. In 2017, Christopher Nolan was the filmmaker with the highest number of highly rated, obsessively rewatched films; in 2020 Quentin Tarantino has taken the lead, just ahead of Nolan. Joining them in the multiple-titles group are Edgar Wright, Peter Jackson, Joe and Anthony Russo, epic-scale filmmakers from whom we’ve learned so much, and whose films have more to offer the viewer on every watch. (When ratings are not part of the equation, Avengers: Endgamestill with a respectable 3.9 average—was the Most Obsessively Rewatched title of 2019. “You give me someone flying, turning invisible, super speed… that’s where I live,” explains obsessive rewatcher Max Joseph this Letterboxd interview. “In Endgame, I get a little bit of every genre and mood.”)

Obsessed with obsession

What is “obsessive”? To put some kind of parameters around the search for this year’s top 100, our team looked for the feature films that had five or more rated watches from a minimum of 150 Letterboxd members each, then we sorted that list by the ratings of those members.

But that word—“obsessive” —⁠got me thinking. Just how obsessive are we talking here? It’s reassuring to know that Parasite is, naturally, a film we enjoy returning to, but when we’re talking about rewatches plural, what happens when we sort these 100 highly rated titles by another value: the number of diary entries logged by these obsessive members. And what would that list say about our tendencies as watchers?

Spoiler: we also pulled those numbers, and found an entirely different top ten:

The most obsessively rewatched, highest-rated films of all time, as at 2020.
The most obsessively rewatched, highest-rated films of all time, as at 2020.

Look at that image. Compare it with the inarguable cinephilia of the ratings-based top ten, which soars on critical strength. What are we seeing here? That’s not the question. The real question is: what are we feeling? What do these ten films do to us so consistently, that helps them to retain high ratings across many, many, many rewatches?

You see, in the top 100, members typically log their favorites between five and seven times—but there’s a select handful of titles that see an average of up to 24 viewings per obsessive member. You read that right. There is a film on Letterboxd that multiple obsessive members have watched 24 times or more, at the time of writing.

Comedy that never gets old

The film in question is Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, a genre-smart mockumentary about three vampire housemates just, well, pure vibing. It’s entirely in a league of its own, no doubt helped by a spin-off series, with the next entry, The Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping racking up an average of 17.7 rewatches per obsessive member.

These top two most obsessively rewatched titles make sense. When you’re feeling low, or when there’s some time to kill, what better place to turn than somewhere where the jokes never get old? As James writes on Letterboxd, Shadows “never fails to make me laugh”. Never fails. Taking a chance on a new comedy harbors its risks, so when you find the ones that work, you have to hold onto them like gold dust. It’s the sense of familiarity that comes from the same sharp, self-aware sketches, the endlessly quotable one-liners and screenshots that make memes feel like works of art.

(On that note, I asked the team: what were the highest-rated, obsessively rewatched comedy specials? No surprises: Bo Burnham’s masterful 2016 Netflix special Make Happy, and John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous at Radio City. Comedy is good when it catches you off guard—but in a pandemic, it’s even better when you can rely on it to deliver that same rush of endorphins, every time.)

Thank you for the music

Speaking of pick-me-ups, ever notice how much better you feel after karaoke? Or, when you know everyone else has gone out so you can let rip across every inch of the house with ultimate privacy? The cathartic thrill that comes from a sing-along is what keeps our obsessive members returning to musicals, increasingly. There’s comfort in memorized lyrics; the words we yell and hold dear.

You’ve got this in Popstar (‘Finest Girl’, anyone?) and, crucially, in a double-bill of jukebox musicals celebrating ABBA’s greatest hits: Mamma Mia! and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. With fifteen rewatches on average for the former, and almost seventeen for the latter, the sequel’s slight upper hand proves the film’s triumphant formula—there really is an endless supply of ABBA bangers—but also that the repurposing of the most pivotal tracks (‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Waterloo’) will work even better the second time around, due to the familiarity, both of the songs and now their new-found purpose in this world.

The feeling of singing along with Lily James as Donna, as she dances around Paris with her young Harry, of latching onto Cher’s every breath as she reunites with the eponymous Fernando—these moments become part of our own memory, and the satisfaction that comes from performing them again and again never fades. It’s also why so many musicals are rewatchable staples. Singin’ in the Rain, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody and Pitch Perfect all feature in the top 100.

Out of interest, I asked the team to lift the curtain on non-narrative music films to see which greats we return to. Again, zero surprise (to me, at least): Jonathan Demme’s transcendent Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense is, and has long been, the highest-rated, most obsessively rewatched concert documentary on Letterboxd. And it’s only been a few months, but the Disney+ filmed version of Hamilton is up there, along with Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé. #BEYHIVE, come in.

Maybe we should trust love

At the other end of the spectrum, two titles in the most obsessively rewatched top ten point to our tendencies to find catharsis in our most extreme, most vulnerable expressions of emotion. Our two revealing films here are Love, Simon and Interstellar—one a grounded and sensitive coming-of-age picture of a teenage boy’s coming out, the other an epic space-travel thriller. Still, both films understand that, ultimately, love transcends all.

These films make room for us to revisit these most searing feelings, of love hidden, lost, afraid or universal, they let us cry out what we relate to, and escape into whichever onscreen emotions we prefer to project ourselves into beyond our own lives, time and time again. Because however much changes, you know you’ll always crave and be rewarded by love. (And by the existential exploration that often accompanies these big feelings: Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow is the highest-rated, most obsessively rewatched short film with Letterboxd members.)

Ink spots and needle drops

The idea of projection—of escape beyond our own lives—comes back often when thinking of the rewatch. But certain titles reveal how we choose to find escape in a quite literal form; observe the love for Tangled, rewatched on average ten times per obsessive member.

And then there’s Shrek 2, revisited on average 7.9 times (more on this bizarre, outstanding oddity on its own soon). The leap of faith into an animated world is one that offers a blank canvas painted over with new colors: the pastel pinks and soft peach oranges of sunset skies in Tangled, the rich purples and blues of the twinkling lights of the afterlife in Coco, the playful blue waters of Moana, with the sun giving everything a new glow. Animation works as relaxation here, clearing the mind and coloring it calmly time and time again. Elsa said it first: you can, and should, let it all go.

It is entirely probable, of course, that no Letterboxd parent is logging the Frozens—or any other animated family film, for that matter—as often as their household is actually watching them, the truth of which would completely upend this data. We know the math underpinning this whole exercise is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s an interesting starting point from which to analyze why certain things just work, again and again.

Take the oddity that is Shrek 2, deserving of its own dissection purely because of how masterfully it combines so many of the previously established elements. This film and its predecessor create so many vivid images that fit into the category of animated escapism, but music plays a major part, also. ‘Accidentally In Love’ by Counting Crows as Shrek and Fiona blissfully enjoy their honeymoon period; ‘Funky Town’ by Lipps Inc. as Shrek, Fiona and Donkey roll into Far Far Away; Jennifer Saunders as Fairy Godmother, with her sublime cover of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out For A Hero’. There are too many perfect needle-drop moments to count, and every time the rewatch comes around, they feel new.

Add to the comforting visuals and euphoric music the countless one-liners, perfectly performed by Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers, but really, here, Rupert Everett as Prince Charming—a squirm-inducing, note-perfect pantomimic performance. Shrek 2 might just be the defining example of what makes a good movie the best movie, and one that only grows greater with every rewatch. Lucky us.

Festive fever

The inclusion of A Christmas Story, the second-last in our most rewatched top ten, makes sense when considering the times in our lives when we turn to movies for comfort (and discomfort: note the Hallowe’en-related rewatchables in the top 100). A Christmas Story might not be your first festive choice, but you will have your own equivalent. The Muppet Christmas Carol also made the top 100, with Elf, Love, Actually and the Home Alone movies bubbling under. We recognize all the beats, and seeing as the holidays return each year, it’s natural that we return to the titles that make us feel most at home within them.

Like Carol. Darling Carol. The last of our top ten most most most rewatched. Flung out of space into our eyeballs by Todd Haynes as some sort of Christmas miracle, its rewatchability as much seasonal as it is about love, representation, vintage glamor and that final scene. Let’s see where Happiest Season sits this time next year, shall we?

And so, what can filmmakers and distributors learn from what we want to see, not just once, but again and again? In just four years the list of titles the Letterboxd community has chosen to revisit and protect has blossomed with an open heart and feverishly enthusiastic mind.

Looking over the top 100 highest-rated, obsessively rewatched films in 2020, we want more queer love: Portrait, Moonlight and Carol but also Booksmart, The Favourite, Call Me by Your Name. We definitely need more singing and dancing: Suspiria, La La Land, Singin’ in the Rain, Mamma Mia and beyond.

We want more adventure, more time travel, more mind-melters, more drinking, exploring, investigating, more talking animals, more drugs, more laughs, more tears, more goosebumps. We want more full-body feelings of falling in love with a movie you know you’ll hold onto with everything you’ve got.

In the end, numbers can only tell us so much, and these numbers are drawn from what we’ve already seen, which is what’s already managed to make it through the system. There’s as much to learn from how these films were made as there is from what they’re about. Because, no matter how many AI tools people dream up to help with the green-lighting process, moviemaking is fundamentally about magic. And when all the right ingredients make it into the cauldron, the spell can be so strong that a film will win our hearts forever.

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