Lists · Movies

9 Things You Can Do To Make a Movie Listicle Not Suck

By  · Published on October 5th, 2016

An opening salvo in a new weekly list column.

For the first of what will hopefully be a long and fruitful series of high-traffic movie listicles, I wanted to begin with a combination mea culpa, statement of purpose, and promise of quality. A lot of people ‐ and good friends of mine, to boot ‐ regard listicles as a naked, cynical grab for traffic. And they’re right, that’s the whole point of the format. So part of me feels a slight twinge whenever I sign on to crank out listicles, but only a small part, and only a slight twinge, because I’m enough of quixotic asshole to want to try to make an art of this ill-regarded form. And so, while some of these listicles might be better than others, I will undertake them all with a desire to create something of genuine worth with each one.

That said, here are a few guiding principles, for anyone else who wants to tilt at this particular windmill:

Never use the word “overrated” for any reason

This is a particularly irritating tradition in lazy ragebait, not only because at least 20% of the movies on these lists are invariably legitimate masterpieces, a provocation intended specifically to yield thousands (at least) of pissed-off shares on social media. No, the reason “overrated” is bad is that the person strutting around declaring this and that to be so presupposes that they’re a lone truth teller in a world of lemmings who adopt others’ opinions as their own, incapable of such acts of bravery as the author of “10 Overrated Old Movies (Here’s Looking At You, Casablanca).” Similarly, it frames criticism as a monolith rather than a mosaic of individual assessments that, without the benefit of authorial direction, take on patterns over time. And it’s a personal insult to each person who took the time to watch the movie in question, form their own argument for its merit, and put it out in the world.

Conversely, “underrated” is, while less than idea phrasing, nowhere near as bad. It still falls into the critical monolith fallacy, but the intentions behind it ‐ building up the overlooked and forgotten, instead of tearing down ‐ are at least positive.

Don’t make the reader click 8000 times

As I’m only human, I’ll occasionally make the mistake of clicking on something like “22 Actors You Didn’t Know Were Bisexual” or “These 37 Celebrities Faked Their Own Death For Insurance Money” (not gonna lie, I’m mad the second one’s imaginary) only to find myself mired in a shoddily-coded slideshow where you have to click once to see the person’s name, a second time to see their photo, and a third to read two sentences that amount to “lol we don’t have any actual proof [closeted celeb] is bisexual but wouldn’t it be hot lol” and each page takes a minute to load, and it’s like, goddammit, I could be doing literally anything else on Earth.

The absolute limit to this is putting the first half of the list on one page and doing a “click here for part 2” thing. If it’s a top 5, maybe you can put each entry on its own page. Anything more than that is obnoxious.

Try to use more than the same five movies every time as examples

At this point, every single factoid from the original Star Wars trilogy is a widely-known matter of public record, so “7 Facts You Don’t Know”-type lists are rehashes of previous lists. Same with Back to the Future and the Batman movies. Fight Club and The Usual Suspects are not the only movies ever made with plot twists. Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick were not the only people making movies before 1977. Also, women filmmakers, queer filmmakers, and filmmakers of color exist. So do books with information about movies. The world is wide.


Avoid unnecessary limits on the pool of movies referenced

Reading most movie listicles, you’d be forgiven for assuming that movies were first invented sometime in the mid-1960s and only popularized about a decade later. Some take the even more severe stance that movies have only been good since about 1986. Get thee to TCM, listicleists. And if you don’t have cable, go here.

If the list is restricted to a specific time period, include some deep cuts

Checking release information is easy and not too time-consuming, so make sure everything on a list of movies from 15–20 years ago isn’t a big studio movie that played in thousands of theaters. Granted, with access being what it is, exhorting people to get out to art houses to see current releases alienates nearly everyone outside of a big city, but for your “Best Cop Movies Of The 90s” list, there’s no reason not include Bill Duke’s Deep Cover or Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield. So, do it.

Do not, on the other hand, refer to those deep cuts as “movies you’ve never heard of.”

This is malignantly condescending. You’re calling your reader ignorant. Your reader is someone with an internet connection who can read and who is interested enough in movies that they’re looking for movie listicles to read. Even if they’re looking for stuff they haven’t heard of, phrase it differently, because if a third of your list of “15 Great Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” are things your reader saw in theaters opening weekend, your reader is going to think you’re an asshole. And they’ll be right, no matter what your outlet’s inter-office memo “‘[x] You’ve Never Heard Of’ boosts traffic by [insignficant number]%” says.

Do not, on the third hand, make lists entirely out of deep cuts

Because then nobody’s going to read the damn thing, and that gets no one anywhere. Also, contextualizing the obscure with the (at least somewhat) familiar gives a reader the feeling of “hmm, ok, this thing I don’t know is enough similar to this thing I do know that seeking it out is less venturing out into the wilderness than it is trying a new restaurant.” When I make a list of “movies you should see,” my goal is for people reading the list to watch those movies. If I wanted to get rich, I wouldn’t be writing about movies. Half my paycheck is “wow, Bowes, I re/watched Deep Cover for the first time in twenty years/saw Deep Cover for the first time and that movie fucking owns. Thanks!” (Side note: you should re/watch Deep Cover. That movie fucking owns.)

Even if most people just scroll a listicle to see titles, write informative, entertaining captions

Because not everyone only scrolls a listicle to see titles. This one has layers, because it’s tied to the larger point that one should never assume one’s audience, for any form of creative work, is only looking for mindless entertainment. Sitting vacantly and letting something wash over the shores of your mind isn’t an inherently bad thing, unless it’s all you ever do. To use an example from (very) popular cinema, the reason the first Back to the Future picture works so well is that it’s a meticulously constructed mechanism with real dramatic (indeed, existential) importance to its characters, and it was made very deliberately by smart people who knew what they were doing. Of course the coup de grace was that they got lucky in several key ways, but the need to be lucky as well as good is true of everything in life.

Structure the list to reinforce its purpose

This can be as simple as going through a list in ascending order so that it concludes with what you deem best, or as labored as a meta-list/essay doubling as a personal manifesto of sorts. But what kind of conflicted, self-justifying, over-thinking liberal arts degree having wiseass would need to do something like that? Wait, don’t answer that.

(I’ll be back next week with a real movie listicle.)

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all