How I Sort My Favorite Films

This past weekend I had some free time. What do project managers do with free time? Make lists!

Specifically, I decided it was time once again for my biennial Favorite Films sort. (you can find posts about the favorite film here).

Creating a list of favorite films has been something I’ve been doing since at least the late 80s, but my current method is something I’ve been doing since 2012 and have found easy –and not too onerous– to repeat every two years.

The Basic Method
I do a sorting method that compares each film as better or worse compared to another film. You repeat it and repeat it until all the films are compared and sorted. This pairwise comparison methodology is openly taken from Tom Vasel in how he comes up with his top 100 games of all time.

So, for example, I write the name of a film on an index card for every film that I like. I originally started my stack by creating cards for every DVD in my collection and then expanding from there.

Next, I shuffle them all up and pull one card out at random. Let’s say it’s Never Cry Wolf, a film I’ve enjoyed since first seeing it in the theater over 30 years ago… and not just because it’s a Disney film where the main character takes to eating mice!

I then take the next card from off the top of the stack and decide, “Do I like this film more or less than the first film?” In this case, the film is Airplane!, and while the mice-eating montage is funny and Never Cry Wolf itself is poignant, surely I must go with the high-jokes-per-minute film.

The next film in the stack is Twelve Angry Men, which I also like, but does not have the same personal resonance for me as Never Cry Wolf, so I put it below.

Now I need to go and compare every other film in that stack to Never Cry Wolf. I can then go ahead and sort all the resulting smaller stacks until every single film is ranked.

I like this method because it’s relatively fast and fun. The index cards also add a certain physicality to the whole exercise which keeps me engaged more so than if I were juggling numbers in some spreadsheet.

The Comparison Criteria
I realize people may not like the scientific rigor of the pairwise comparison method above (i.e., how scientific is it?). How do you deal with different genres and the radically different journeys that different films may take you?

I tried various quantitative methods in the early naughts and they were much less fun and lead to a lot of tied scores. In other words, even taking into account three different data points and trying to put each on a 100-point scale, there’d still be too many tied averages. I’d wind up having to do a qualitative judgement call anyway, so why not cut to the chase?

At the same time, I wanted to preserve some of the criteria I had come up with. This helps when dealing with films of different genres or any other particularly difficult comparison where you’re trying to figure out where to put that index card.

So the criteria are:

Quality: As objectively as possible, how good is the film? How well told is the tale? Put your film critic hat on and be honest. Some films are better made than others.

Watchability: This has been a Munson criterion since the 80s, when we knew darn well that kaiju films were not particularly good, but –for us– eminently watchable. Who doesn’t like monsters smashing cities… and other monsters? That has to count for something! Well, it did then and it still does today. Schindler’s List is an amazing film, but I’m going to sit down and watch Raiders of the Lost Ark more frequently.

Resonance: How much does the film mean to you personally? Perhaps there’s a character you identify with. Perhaps there were circumstances when you first saw the film. And how films continue to resonate –or don’t– is one of the main reasons I love doing the list. It’s clear what films I’m connecting with changes over time.

So there it is: Quality often lets you know how good the journey can be. Watchability speaks to how easy or enjoyable the journey can be — with “enjoyment” being tied to your mood. If you’re in the mood for a courtroom drama, A Few Good Men wins over Edge of Tomorrow for Tom Cruise movies. But furthermore, how often do you want to see courtroom dramas or find them watchable? (I’m thinking of one friend whom I’m pretty sure would always pick Edge of Tomorrow over A Few Good Men). Most of the time, I’m never in the mood for a horror film, so you’ll find few movies there — but I have to give credit where credit is due for good horror films. Finally, resonance speaks to how you feel at the end of the journey.

I find combining these criteria with the pairwise comparison method makes going through films of different genres and radically different journeys works. Here’s the proof: What happens when I go back and pick out all the animated films, or sci-fi films, or comedy films and ask, “do I like the highest rated comedy more than the next highest rated comedy in the list?” The answer is always yes.

The Favorite 50
Finally, there’s a question of how many films to list. For the past few years, I’ve gone through the trouble of sorting through about 300+ films, but especially as this started by looking at DVDs in my collection plus a bunch more favorite films, I didn’t think it would be comprehensive. After the first 200 films or so, I think a lot of the film rankings can get pretty fluid. Better to focus on the top picks, right?

But once I got done with the sort the first year, I realized I liked a lot of films and a lot of different types of films. I’d hardly scratch the surface if I only listed my top 10. 50 films seems to split the difference between a far-reaching list and not going on forever.

And I call it “Favorite” because, although I do feel I factor in quality, I also factor in personal resonance. I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is, in many ways, a better film than its sequel 2010. However, I enjoy watching 2010 far better, so I’m not going to place 2001 higher on my list. 2010 is well made, has some good performances, and still connects with me. It’s earned its place on my list.

I suspect you will find some films that fall into this category for you too. And that’s the fun of doing this list every couple years. Some films which I’ve revisited have fallen down in the rankings. Some new films have rocketed into my Favorite 50 (there’s one from 2016 and a couple from 2014).

It feels like I should close this with a film montage, so here’s a Chuck Workman’s 100 Years at the Movies.

One response to “How I Sort My Favorite Films

  1. Pingback: My 50 Favorite Films: Prep for the 2018 Edition | Bjorn Munson

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