Emma Stevenson’s email signature includes her phone number, job title, website, and a line dedicated to what she is currently reading. The writer and co-Founder of the online film catalogue, Very Good Films, takes a unique pleasure in the art of the recommendation.
Very Good Films looks like an index but reads like a diary entry. The synopses on the list are often intimate: “In high school I had great difficulty shaving my knees without cutting them." And the litmus test for viewer-film compatibility is equally specific: “Watch if you like swiss lakes, Madonna, spying in on the neighbors, understanding what ordinary means in America.”
We caught up with Emma to talk Very Good Films, navigating the noise of endless streaming options, and what she’s watching tonight.
First, can you tell me what inspired the list?
Well I have always loved films— but I have 7000 different lists all over the place of things people have recommended to me, lists I’ve made for other people, master lists, comedy lists, short lists— you get the idea I love to make lists. I did a zoom call with a few girlfriends the first week of quarantine and they were asking what to watch. So I pulled a few favs and added it to a spreadsheet and then sent the link out. I decided while the country was on lockdown why not share the love so sent it to quite a few friends in the end, and told everyone to pass it along if they wanted to. Then my friend Beth from Australia emailed and asked if I would ever want to turn that spreadsheet into a website. Thus began Very Good Films. Beth runs Lindsay Magazine and Oak Park Studio in Melbourne and so we got on some early morning/ late night calls and started from scratch.
"Watch if you like: Occasional jealousy. Long distance friendships. Atlantic City boardwalk. Having a pen pal. [Beaches, Gary Marshall, 1988]"
We have a LOT of streaming choices right now. Why do you think people gravitate to a more concise list like VGF?
We wanted something very simple, something easy to navigate without all the noise. We still wanted to pay respect to the simplicity of a spreadsheet but look a little nicer! Beth designed the whole thing and I started writing about each of the films. We wanted the descriptions to be simple to read, something that made it easier to know if it was something you would be in the mood for or not. There’s a lot of noise out there in the film and television world but not a ton with a specific point of view. That was really important to us early on, more than just giving people something to watch, we wanted to have an opinion about it. After we launched we decided to open it up to the wider community and network, now one of my favorite things is to read the detailed descriptions people are writing about the films they love. Now it feels like a very communal site, a world of expanding tastes.
Sometimes, (and especially right now in a communal state of exhaustion) eating our cultural vegetables is not so appetizing. How do you toe the line between what we must see and what we want to see?
Totally, I think it’s really hard. I want to throw my laptop out the window every single day. I typically love to research cultural things, I send emails to my friends with stuff I’m listening to, books I’m reading, a weird radio station I listen to early, a poem I’ve read, or a longer essay I couldn’t put down. But with Coronavirus it seems that all of a sudden there is SO much noise about all this kind of stuff in my inbox I find I just delete everything. I think must doesn’t really apply anymore, there is too much pressure in that sentiment when just getting through the day is enough on its own. I think what I have been trying to do is watch things at random, I like moving away from the guilt and expectation of not seeing things and enjoying things that are new to me. I start with things I am interested in, directors I love, a subject I am interested in, I love to watch documentaries lately. I find them so soothing, actually the last film I saw in the theatres was The Times of Bill Cunningham at Angelika Theatre. I wept and also was moved by this very public figure living a very simple life, almost enjoying being behind the scenes.
"Watch if you like: Immaculate eyeliner. Perfectly restored 60s cinema. Observations on the complexity of sex. [Belle du Jour, Luis Buñuel]
There are descriptions within the site that feel really personal (i.e. shaving your knees) and like a friend recommending a film. Can you tell us some of the films recommended that feel the most personal to you?
I’ll preface this with something. I believe there truly are 2 kinds of people in the world, those who enjoy coming of age films and those who are deeply uncomfortable watching them. I am so moved by them— they feel personal to me, they give me validity and a sense of communal understanding that I rarely am able to find in the world. Almost like there is now a voice to the inner turmoil I feel inside and it’s on a large screen and that feels important. The Beginners is one of my favorite films of all time. An Unmarried Woman is remarkable, Wanda a shooting star, Mustang, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Ladybird, these all are deeply personal films for me. Anything that shows what being ‘lost’ feels like usually is what I gravitate towards, or first love because that can be so difficult to return to.
Lavender, on our team, was just telling me how she watched Contagion when the pandemic started and that it actually felt helpful. There is an interesting thing with film, we either want to sink into a feeling or escape from it completely. Which do you gravitate towards?
Interesting, my husband and I both watched it early on too. I can’t tell why— perhaps some navigation of the unknown path ahead is what we were looking for. It really depends there is a very melancholy part of my personality that wants to sync into a feeling— to get lost in it entirely— but there are occasions where I enjoy the idea of escape. Isn’t this why people are drawn so frequently to science fiction— to getting lost in another world so incomparable to our own that it offers a tiny bit of solace and relief from our own troubles, or perspective at least.
"Watch if you like: When Laura Dern plays a lawyer. [Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt, 2016]"
The film that always makes you laugh.
Drop Dead Gorgeous and Office Space
The film that always makes you cry.
The film you can’t stop thinking about, days later.
The slow burn, that sneaks up on you.
What are you watching tonight?
To the Ends of the Earth
"Watch if you like: Op shopping. DIY. Nature. Human idiosyncrasies. Tenderness. Potatoes. [The Gleaners & I, Agnés Varda, 2000]
Words by: AO Staff
Recommendations by: Very Good Films