I know I do this every time but just in case I’ve picked up a few stragglers, here’s the skinny. I turn 40 on June 6, 2012. As a little challenge to myself, I’ve spent the past year writing 40 posts that say something about who I am or how I got here. Not always direct memories per se – just things that made me the guy I am today. So, now you’ll all know who and what to blame.
When I was around 10 or 11, I saw one movie that just tattooed itself to my brain. I’ll get into that in a minute but the point is, I walked into this movie – in the Summer of 1980 – not knowing one damn thing about it and walked out completely drunk on film. Sure, I’d seen plenty of movies before hand but always a bit passively. I saw a flick, I enjoyed it – and then I moved on. This time was different. From the first frame, I was transported… transformed. I had to know everything about it. That summer, as I devoured every scrap of info that a 10-year old of modest means could afford in the Age Before Internet, I fell full-on in love with the movies. I crushed on cinema hard and it’s a love that lingers long within me – likely to my dying day.
So, this post is dedicated to my heart’s desire. These may not be considered the best movies of all time but for me, these five flicks stop me in my tracks every damn time.
In no particular order, they are:
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark jockeys for top slot among my favorite movies with a close cousin. Jaws is always there and when Jaws isn’t in first place, its nipping at Indy’s heels. So, there’s a little spoiler for another flick on this list.
These two films consistently shift because they are so tied to my childhood. It’s these films and others like ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that teased my imagination and set fire to this love affair with celluloid that I’ve had since I was a little boy. Hell, I was dubbed Movie Man by my Aunt and Uncle at a very young age. Spielberg had a hand in that.
This is THE MOVIE that changed my life. In the Summer of 1980, when the Internet was barely a blip in Al Gore’s neural processors, my next door neighbor – an older kid named Jay – wandered over and asked my Mom if I could go to the movies with him. There was this awesome new adventure flick that he was dying to see. He had sweet-talked his Mom into dropping him off at the theater and could bring one friend. She would shop at the neighboring Sears while we took in the movie. So, my Mom asked me if I wanted to go – and although I had no idea what the movie was about, I signed on. And talk about a different time. A 12 year-old and an 8-year old were parked at the movie theater for 2 hours, with no parental guidance, and nobody blinked an eye. My kingdom for Department of Social Services.
Fortunately for me, the Feds never swooped in and I walked into Raiders of the Lost Ark stone cold on the cold, hard facts. I knew nothing. Hadn’t seen a trailer. Never read a description. Knew Harrison as Han Solo.
In this day and age where you can practically stream the reboot of a new movie before the original is even released, it seems unheard of to walk into a major summer blockbuster with not one single story thread to hang onto. But – that’s how I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. A total virgin.
And I was never the same again.
I walked out of the film bowled over – punch-drunk in love with both the movie and the process. At 8, I was already reading well above my pay grade so that Summer I begged my mother, at every chance, to bring me to the mall to hunt down any “literature” I could find on the film. There were the usual children’s storybook adaptations and official novelizations which I poured through then shrugged off. Then, in some dusty corner of Paperback Booksmith, I found an industry genre magazine, a precursor to Starlog, that gave you full back-stage access to Raiders – with features on the stunts, the effects – and most importantly – Spielberg. And once I had the name and knew which guy called the shots and made this all possible – I filled him with such great power. Here was someone to watch. Someone to look up to at such a young, impressionable age.
At the age of 8, I started focusing on directors – something that would guide my film choices the older I got. Spielberg to Cameron to Raimi and later the Coen Brothers and Woo and so on and so on. As my tastes matured, my favorite directors shifted in and out of rotation. I started collecting director names like baseball cards – mentally flipping them over and running through their filmographies like RBIs and Slugging Percentage.
But above, what always mattered most, was the movie.
And for me, Raiders is perfect. Beginning at the opening dissolve of the Paramount logo into a Peruvian mountain peak to the iconic ending – that pitch-perfect final shot; this film had me in its grip.
Following Indy’s inquisition with federal agents who have secured the Ark of the Covenant, Indy meets up with Karen Allen’s Marion on the marble steps of a government building. Indy looks downtrodden and Marion offers to buy him a drink. “You know, a drink?” Indy perks up a bit, but is haunted by the agent’s words:
Major Eaton: “We have top men looking at it.” “…Top men.”
We then cut to a massive warehouse dotted with crates which seemingly stretch for miles. Down a center aisle, a lone forklift travels the length of this structure. The forklift arrives at a destination buried in the heart of this cavernous catalog and deposits a crate containing the Ark. The camera pulls back and we realize very quickly that the Ark is once again lost for the centuries.
There’s just something about that final shot that gets me. I’m a sucker for conspiracy flicks and the fact that somewhere in the US lies evidence of the Ark AND the Roswell space crash AND the faked moon landing 😉 just gives me such a great charge. Hell, it’s a common fact that Jimmy Hoffa is laboring away in the bowels of the Social Security Administration.
The moment that Ark was secreted away, one of my great true loves was found.
Here’s a perfect example why I don’t consider this a list of the best films of all time. Some of our most favorite films can meet scorn and ridicule when scrutinized by others eyes. But that’s the beauty of a favorite flick. You’d defend it with all your might.
Rudy is one those flicks that stops me in my tracks every damn time I catch it – usually on TNT near Thanksgiving. That station apparently holds the broadcast rights to 3 or 4 flicks tops (two of which appear on this list). Ted Turner must be doing something right. It also rates highly on my list of the Top 5 Flicks that Made This Grown Man Cry.
While this film follows the same footprint established by other underdog tales – from Rocky to The Mighty Ducks – Rudy is buoyed by a great performance from Sean Astin, some solid local color and a wonderfully manipulative Jerry Goldsmith score that sweetly underscores Rudy’s trials and triumphs. (BTW This is the film where Vince Vaughn befriended John Favreau – so you Swingers fans ought to be crying tears of joy).
Now, as emotional as Rudy’s big score is – where he finally makes it onto the field and plays a series of downs in his last game in his last year of eligibility – my tears drop earlier. After watching Rudy work his blue-collar ass off to pump his grade northward at a local community college – and seeing him receive rejection letter after rejection letter – Rudy’s first major milestone is finally realized. Grabbing another letter from the campus mail room – Rudy heads to a bench beside a nearby river (the trees decked out in their late autumnal glory) and begins to read what he thinks is the same old story. As Goldsmith’s score kicks in – the tears flow – and Rudy chokes over every last syllable of “You have been officially accepted at…” – and right there, my boy Rudy makes me so proud. Oh sure, the ‘slow clap’ that occurs later in the film may get some in their soft spot (you know the sequence where one beefy lineman intones – RUUU-DEEEE, RUUUU-DEEEE – and is soon joined by the entire collegiate chorus) but for me – it’s Rudy’s simple acceptance letter, the culmination of all that hard work, that makes me so damn proud.
He did it. THAT LITTLE HOBBIT FINALLY DID IT!!! (*sniff)
3. The Thing
Once upon a time I thought John Carpenter was the ‘man’. Escape from New York. Halloween. Big Trouble in Little China. The man could do no wrong. But time moved on and Carpenter grew lazy – continuing to lay down cheesy synth tracks over aimless genre schlock (Prince of Darkness, Vampires) and he lost me.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is the master at the top of his game. This is his magnum opus and a remake that is superior in every facet to the original. I don’t know if Carpenter would say the same – as the film he remade, The Thing From Another World, was supposedly ghost-directed by his hero, Howard Hawkes. Carpenter even tips his cap in Halloween, as Laurie Strode whiles away a scary Halloween night viewing Hawkes’ original version.
Carpenter’s version is timeless. For starters, he laid off the Casio and turned the reigns over to veteran composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, The Untouchables) who contributes a moody, evocative score that amplifies the loneliness of the surrounding Arctic environs that isolate a group of researchers and their alien quarry.
That Arctic setting – a barren, alien environment in our own backyard, contributes to the film immeasurably – by escalating the claustrophobia that envelopes the researchers (and the viewer) as well as locking the film into a place that doesn’t belong to any specific time. Catch this flick on Blu-Ray and you’d be hard pressed to deduce it was released in 1982. The imagery is so crisp.
Without spoiling too much – there are a handful of sequences that get under your skin (no pun intended). The ‘blood test’ sequence – with the survivors applying a hot needle to vials of their blood in order to flush out the ‘imposter’ is one of those sequences that has you grabbing your cushions and giggling nervously as it escalates. Also, the Thing’s first ‘transformation’ is an image of grisly beauty that will thrill you gore hounds.
And then there’s the ending. Carpenter is a fan of the open ended denouement – often leaving viewers to intuit what happens next. Here he closes out The Thing with one of two possibilities – equally tragic. It’s a quiet moment between two great character actors (Kurt Russell, Keith David) that truly haunts.
The Thing transcends all genres – sci-fi, horror, action adventure – to become that rare breed.
A film for all time. In my mind, at least.
2. The Shawshank Redemption
I absolutely adore this film. The dialogue sings and the friendship between Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman’s Red works my sentimental bone like nobody’s business.This is also one of those flicks that TNT runs on almost constant rotation and again, glues my ass to the seat every single damn time. And I admit it – another flick that gets me a little misty.
The Shawshank Redemption is one of those great movies that didn’t get a fair shake when it was released. Redemption – like The Hudsucker Proxy – was maligned for having an unwieldy title. Audiences wouldn’t flock to see a film they couldn’t pronounce. I can’t help but think that it hit at the wrong time and place. In the early 90’s, people lined up in droves to see Speed but turned up their noses at a shot at Redemption. Looking at the poor reception event pics such as John Carter have drawn lately – and the box office tally that indies such as Sideways, Million Dollar Baby and others have enjoyed in the past several years – Shawshank may have done well to wait a decade.
Regardless, this film became the little engine that could, and ultimately found its audience on video. It is, without a doubt, a classic whose power cannot be diminished no matter how many times TNT opts to air it each weekend.
My favorite scene in this movie comes near the end when Andy Dufresne mysteriously disappears from his cell. The warden is furious and demands a lockdown. Finding nothing, the warden and his cabal of sinister guards turn up Dufresne’s cell seeking to resolve the mystery. As one bounces a ball off a wall, the warden bellows on and on about how Dufresne needs to be found. Finally, the guard tosses the ball to the wall one last time and something curious happens. It doesn’t bound back. Instead, the camera retreats through a hole carved in a poster and pulls back through a massive tunnel dug in the foundation as the warden and his posse peer in incredulously. We then get Morgan Freeman’s knowing narration explaining how Andy Dufresne became the only person to ever escape from the Shawshank Redemption.
Red: [narrating] In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank prison. All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer, damn near worn down to the nub. I used to think it would take six-hundred years to tunnel under the wall with it. Old Andy did it in less than twenty. Oh, Andy loved Geology, I guess it appealed to his meticulous nature. An ice age here, million years of mountain building there. Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really, pressure, and time. That, and a big god-damned poster.
And let it be known here that if someone doesn’t stand up and recite the following at my funeral, I’m haunting every last one of you.
“Sometimes it makes me sad, though… Andy being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”
Jaws is timeless. It is easily Spielberg’s best pure entertainment (yes it inches past Raiders of the Lost Ark – Sometimes. Depends on the day.). It’s also a tough film to classify – meaning if I get around to cataloging my Top 5 Adventure, Top 5 Horror, Top 5 Thriller – you may start seeing a repeat customer.
I’d also classify this film as a classic character drama. The trio of Hooper, Brody and Quint – who take to the seas in Quint’s ramshackle Orca in a bid to land that big fishy – creates a fascinating dynamic – and their quiet conversational scenes on the open ocean – where they reveal their scars (both physical and emotional) are as compelling as the shark attack set pieces.
Hands down – the most riveting scene is the sequence in the ship’s hold, where the men compare scars. This leads to some playful banter (“All right, we drink to our legs.”) before Quint reveals his role in the war.
Hooper: You were on the Indianapolis?
Brody: What happened?
Quint: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte… just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Chief? You tell by looking from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know, was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know, it was kinda like old squares in the battle like you see in the calendar named “The Battle of Waterloo” and the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark go away… but sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark… he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be living… until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and they… rip you to pieces. You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand. I know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday morning, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boatswain’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up, down in the water just like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon, the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us. He swung in low and he saw us… he was a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper. Anyway, he saw us and he come in low and three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and starts to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened… waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water; 316 men come out and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.
You know what. I’ll just end right there.