Posted Jan 2nd 2010, 11:21 PM
Has it really been ten years?
Not quite, perhaps. The earliest roots of Decent Films go back earlier, to some film scribblings I did in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until about mid-2000 that I launched the very first version of the Decent Films Guide, a modest collection of some 35 capsule reviews that provided the occasion and excuse for me to take my first baby steps into HTML. A whimsical graphical interface provided a fig leaf to the paucity of the content — the design probably called for almost as many images as there were reviews — but it made the site fun, I think. Anyway, I enjoyed the challenge of building it, and the challenge, in the ensuing months, of enriching the content behind the interface.
By mid-2001 I had outgrown the original site, both in terms of volume and Web development skills, and in September I launched a more robust redesign that served fairly well for the next few years. Eventually, my content outgrew my ability to manage it from a technical perspective — permanently. About five years ago, I sought — and received — help from a generous reader and Web developer named Simeon with more back-end chops than I. He did the back-end magic, I did the front-end design, and Decent Films was reborn, in more or less the form it’s been until now.
The 2010 edition Decent Films Guide is the most ambitious yet. In some ways, it fulfills the promise of what I had hoped to do in 2005 but wasn’t initially able to. As always, I did the design myself, and coded the HTML and CSS by hand, and piled Simeon’s plate high with wish-list items and proposed enhancements, which he has labored mightily in bringing to fruition.
The site as it is now is still a work in progress, with a few bugs in the process of being worked out, but enough of the pieces are in place to make it a major advance over the previous iteration of the site that has now been retired. What’s new about the new Decent Films? Here are some highlights:
- Design. In my opinion, the new site just looks about a thousand percent sweeter than the old site. Layout, fonts, colors, everything looks better — so much so that I have to admit for weeks I’ve found it hard to look at the “old” site. (More about this later.)
- Navigation and options. The new site offers two top nav bars, one for global site content (Home, Search, About, Links, Contact) and another for filtering content (Recent, In Theaters, DVD, Reviews, Blog, Mail). In Theaters is a new page offering blurbs and ratings for all reviewed titles currently in theaters.
- Blog. There is now a Decent Films Blog, and you’re reading the inaugural post. More to come! (No blog comments, yet. I’ll keep you, um, posted.)
- RSS feed. It’s been a long time coming! Really there was no excuse for not leveraging RSS back in 2005. Simeon set up the site for it, and I always meant to take advantage of it, but somehow or other I never got around to it. With apologies to those who asked about it for so long, it’s finally here.
- Content groups. This is the update I’m most excited about. For a look at how it works, scroll down to the bottom of the review of Angels & Demons. Right there on the page are related mail items from Decent Films Mail as well as previews of related reviews and articles.
This is a major advance over the old “See also” links, both because there is richer content and because it’s semi-dynamic so I don’t have to add all the links manually. (I say “semi-dynamic” because the connections are made by me, not by software — a very good thing in my opinion. It means I’ve put in a lot of work creating content groups, and will continue to spend time managing it, but with a lot less effort and a lot more payoff than was possible before.)
- More dynamic content. For those interested in back-end stuff, the Mail section, previously a collection of flat files, is now dynamic (a prerequisite to being able to call mail items from related reviews). The DVD section, often sadly neglected in the past because it was a hard-to-maintain flat file, is now dynamic content that should be easier to keep up to date (once a few technical details are worked out; it’s still a work in progress).
Readers who have often written to me to alert me to linking errors on the homepage will be glad to know that these, too, will no longer be coded by hand. No more clicking on The Princess and the Frog and wondering whether you might find yourself reading the review for 2012!
- Improved Amazon links. Obviously, I want the Amazon links to be as helpful as possible, in part because every Amazon purchase made via links on this site helps support Decent Films. In the past, through, my Amazon linkage has been spotty. So far I’ve gone through every single A-range review (A-plus to A-minus) and made sure that there are up-to-date Amazon links for every highly recommended movie. (I’ll work on the B’s next, and maybe hit some of the C-pluses. I don’t put Amazon links for anything rated C or below, since if I can’t even lean slightly positive on a movie, I don’t want to help you buy it or to profit from your doing so.)
In most cases, Amazon links (for movies in the A range) are dynamic, meaning that you’ll get all editions of a given film — DVD, Blu-ray, single disc, special edition, etc. In some cases I target a single edition that is (I think) the one right edition to get.
- New review ratings/info sidebar. Ratings, content advisory and filmmaker/studio info are now presented in a sidebar that I hope offers various advantages over previous ways of organizing this information, which in the earliest designs had a tendency to take over the review and more recently has been a bit sprawled out and scattered. Now it’s compact and organized, prominent but not obstructive. It’s the best solution yet, I think.
- Lots of corrections. Over the last month or two I’ve gone over my content and made innumerable small corrections — nothing huge, but hopefully it will make a difference. (I still want to hear from you if you catch anything that needs to be fixed! (Disagreeing with my review of 3:10 to Yuma or Where the Wild Things Are does not count as catching something that needs to be fixed. Not that I don’t want to hear from you anyway!)
Design and other enhancements include:
- A true three-column layout with right and left columns that actually go to the footer (easier on the eye for long pieces).
- A four-column home page with feeds for Recently Added and DVD & Blu-ray as well as a dedicated Spotlight feature.
- Improved color scheme. Frankly, I agree with the reader who wrote some five years back to object (mildly) that the 2005 color scheme was too chilly. The new palatte is more in line with Decent Films’ previous color schemes, and makes the whole site nicer to look at. I’m particularly happy with the new sepia duotone version of the banner collage, which is not only visually clearer than its blue predecessor, but warmer, more natural-looking and sort of old-movie-ish.
- Single-match search defaulting. Type “Ponyo” in the search field and you go right to the review — no need to click the one resulting match and confirm that, yes, you wanted Ponyo.
- Improved HTML and CSS. This may not mean much to anyone but me, but it makes me happy that my markup is cleaner and more semantic than it used to be.
There’s probably more, but that’s what I’m thinking of at the moment. Like I said, it’s still a work in progress, and I hope that Simeon and I will continue to roll out small enhancements over the next few weeks and months. In the meantime, I’d like to know what you think of our efforts so far.
This latest exercise in site renovation has been an enormously invigorating and exciting; it’s also been humbling. Looking over ten years’ worth of writing has left me at turns pleased and dissatisfied, sometimes delighted, too often chagrined. There is so much room for improvement, so much to be done.
Every revamping of Decent Films has been a renewed impetus to write more and (hopefully) better — not least because my productivity always dips while I'm knee-deep in the renovation process, and I feel the need to make up for lost time. In particular, I hope that the new blog will offer me an opportunity to update more, to write more freely, and in particular to write frequent shorter pieces rather than always laboring long over one lengthy one. (Not that I will ever stop writing long, long pieces … y’all know me better than that by now.)
Obviously, I owe Simeon an immense debt of thanks — as does every reader who enjoys the site for what it has been over the last five years and is now becoming. I’ve done what I can to make Decent Films interesting to read and pretty to look at, but Simeon breathed the breath of content-management life into my empty templates, fielding my ever more-demanding wish list of proposed enhancements, bells and whistles, and making it all happen. Now, once again, Decent Films feels like too much site for what could be more and better content. If in the coming months and years I succeed in altering that equation, no small part of the credit will belong to Simeon.
While I’m on the subject, we are also deeply indebted to Mrs. Decent Films, the amazing and heroic Suzanne, homeschooling mother of six and the rock of support without which this site would not be possible. For her active support, encouragement and enthusiasm for my work, for offering a first response to nearly every word I write, for giving me up to regular screenings and allowing my stack of year-end screeners and DVDs to dominate our evenings every December and January, she deserves the gratitude of anyone who appreciates my work. Not incidentally, she also holds the world together while I watch movies and write. (On rare occasions she’s even written or co-written a few reviews; check them out.)
Finally, I want to extend my deepest gratitude to you, my readers over the last ten years or any subset thereof: Catholics and Protestants, Christians and non-Christians, agnostics and atheists. Thanks for reading, for caring, for thinking it over, for agreeing and disagreeing. I am humbled and honored by your interest and engagement, your thoughtful criticism and moral support, your just being out there reading. I hope to continue to repay your interest for years to come, and, God willing, to do better in the next ten years than I have in the last. Take a look around and let me know what you think.
The beginning, again.
I’m a fan of the site, a regular reader, and enjoy your monthly appearances on Catholic Answers and other Catholic radio programs. Congratulations to you on your beautiful new site! It’s a huge improvement in terms of ease of navigation and logical user interfacing, and even though the graphic design changes are relatively subtle, they are a welcome sight and look great. Keep up the great work and apostolate you are doing here — I recommend your reviews to family and friends quite often. God bless!
Your encouraging feedback on the new site and on my work is much appreciated. I’m gratified that you find my work helpful and worth recommending. Thanks for writing.
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I take it from the “Coming Soon” announcement “The New Decent Films” in the “Coming Soon” box that you are redesigning the website. I realize it is taking a liberty, and probably an unhelpful one, to make comments about this, but I beg you to be careful. I enjoy reading movie reviews, but the reason I spend more time on your site than any other isn’t just that your reviews are better written and more insightful. It’s also because yours is one of the only sites I know where the pleasure of reading the reviews doesn’t have to compete with the pain of looking at them.
Your current design is simple but effective, attractive to the eye and soothing to the smell, and easy to understand and use. I can always rely on it to load quickly and not give me computer problems. It has everything logically arranged and free from distractions. It has very interesting exchanges in the mail column, but it doesn’t weigh down every page with dozens of vacuous comments.
How different is the common run of online movie criticism - and not just in cases where the review is on the website of some periodical or publication and has to follow its format. Almost always, the pages are busy, cluttered, and ugly, with links, search boxes, sidebars, and so on thrown in any which way with equal disregard for taste and convenience. That background on Roger Ebert’s site that vibrates when you scroll up or down is abominable. The pictures that everyone else feels the need to put in are usually counterproductive, either useless in showing you what the movie looks like, boring, or providing a regrettable spoiler.
Please, please, please be careful. Remember that when I want to see publicity stills, frame blow-ups, advertisements, or bloated comments boxes, and when I want to sit and wait while my computer struggles to load horrifically over-designed web pages, I have the entire internet at my fingertips. When I visit your site, I want a clean, simple design that will allow me to enjoy the work of the greatest movie critic I know in peace.
Of course, this is really a complaint about the web in general, not just movie reviews, but it seems to me it’s movie review sites out of all others that ought to look good. For a beautiful movie to be reviewed on an ugly web page seems a sort of blasphemy. Forgive the perhaps too impassioned tone of this email; it’s because I care. Merry Christmas and pax tecum.
My sincere gratitude for your concern, for your kind comments about the current (soon to be the old) site — and for your interest in my work. (Actually, it’s all my work … I’ve done all the front-end design for Decent Films (all hand-coded html and css, Photoshop and Illustrator) from the very beginning — nearly 10 years ago now! — although I’m deeply indebted to my volunteer back-end developer for breathing the breath of content-management and database life into my design work.)
Fear not! I’m confident that the new site retains everything that is good about the current site, and that every change is an enhancement. It’s recognizably the same site, same general layout strategy, only better. Better-looking, easier on the eyes (“soothing to the smell” I leave to the movies at the lower end of my ratings spectrum … movies with poison in them, now they’ll sleep!). Cleaner, and no comments at this time — although the best new feature (in my opinion), content integration, will join mail items with associated reviews and articles. Snazzy new features. Trust me. It’s all good!
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