A friend of mine recently challenged me to list “12 movies” that have stayed with me ever since I’ve seen them. In “outing” my list, I realize that some of these flicks may not make most critics Year-End best lists but that’s not their fault – it’s mine. That’s why I always issue the disclaimer when choosing my personal bests. These may not be the “Best Movies” but they are my favorites. As long as that distinction is put in place, nobody can argue a film’s inclusion on the list.
In choosing my 12 films, I went with flicks that either hit me at the right time and place – or – never fail to stop my thumb dead in its tracks when channel surfing. These are the movies I hold near and dear ’til my dying day.
Here are mine (in no particular order):
12. The Thing (1982) – dir. John Carpenter
By setting this flick in the frigid, featureless snowscape of Antarctica and dressing the actors in giant parkas and bigger beards, Carpenter’s take on the classic sci-fi short-story Who Goes There remains timeless. This one is all mood and atmosphere. I saw it when I was in my early-teens, when my friends and I used to peddle our bikes 10 or more miles to this amazing video store that resided in the town next door. The 10-mile ride back home (and a return round trip the next day) did nothing to stop us from renting some favorites over-and-over. The Thing saw heavy replay in our rotation.
11. Say Anything (1989) – dir. Cameron Crowe
In 1989, I was slightly awkward, shy guy who one day did something so foolish by asking one of the prettiest and most popular girls in our grade to the Junior Prom. To my slight horror, she said “Yes”. This meant we had to get to know each other a little better so we chose a screening of Cameron Crowe’s ‘Say Anything’ as our icebreaker. Crowe’s tale of a slightly awkward, shy guy asking out one of the prettiest and most popular girls in his grade did not go unnoticed by me.
10. Aliens (1986) – dir. James Cameron
This was the first R-rated movie I saw in a theater. I saw this before screening Ridley Scott’s original Alien flick so I walked into this film with a bit of hesitation. All I knew was the aliens had a penchant for chest bursting and I wasn’t so sure I could stomach that. Two hours later – I emerged a survivor of James Cameron’s blitzkrieg of a flick and could not stop talking about it. I went back time and again that Summer and delighted in watching the film though my friends’ eyes. The Terminator may have put Cameron on the map BUT this was his calling card announcing just what the guy could do.
9. Miller’s Crossing (1990) – dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
I am a huge Coen Brothers fan – and am happy to say I’ve seen most of their films in the theater. When Miller’s Crossing opened, I was a freshman at UMASS Amherst. It was only shortly before this time that I really began paying attention to some of the indie auteurs that were lighting up both Hollywood and Cannes. I credit that to my summer job at a local newsstand where I would while away the hours reading every entertainment periodical we stocked. For some reason, the distributor always saw fit to send two copies of Variety (the Hollywood trade paper) to my sleepy little South Shore town. Nobody ever bought it and the distributor always received a dog-eared copy in our return package each week BUT that didn’t stop them from sending us the latest issue – meaning I was the recipient of this pipeline of Hollywood news direct from the source. In the pre-Internet era, this was a big deal. Just before hustling off to college, I read a piece on the Coens and their ode to film noir-gangster pics that was due for release that Fall. Miller’s Crossing became my must-see movie and to this day, it is my favorite of the Coen Brothers films. The script is twisted but tight. Gabriel Byrne gives good smoldering tough guy while John Turturro is his rat bastard best. Albert Finney commands the screen. Carter Burwell’s haunting, lyrical score layers the melancholia. This might be the reason I’ve never seen The Godfather. This is my mob movie.
8. About Time (2013) – dir. Richard Curtis
Talk about a movie that sneaks up and sucker punches you. Richard Curtis is the undisputed king of the British rom-com; from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Notting Hill on down to the perennial Christmas classic, Love Actually. Each of his films is a play on the same theme – a charming guy woos an adorable girl. The guy could draft thus stuff in his sleep – and admittedly, About Time has a whole bunch of that on display but then Curtis digs a little deeper – using his time travel novelty to say something simple but profound about the way all kinds of relationships enrich us. There are such lovely passages in this film – notably between Domnhall Gleeson’s Tim and his doting Dad played by the great Bill Nighy. This has been my “go to” movie whenever someone comes seeking a recommendation and, to date, they’ve all come back raving. It’s some kind of wonderful.
7. Pulp Fiction (1994) – dir. Quentin Tarantino
As I mentioned above, the weekly review of Variety was my Internet before there was Internet – so when Quentin Tarentino made a big splash at Sundance with his debut film, Reservoir Dogs, I knew I had to see it. My buddy Sean and I tracked it down the summer it hit video and just lost ourselves in it. That film is tightly contained – just two major scenes and locations filled with a rogue’s gallery of tough guys spitting out lyrical prose at each other. Quentin’s dialogue was so good, it underscored just how pedantic so many scripts are – with characters usually spewing useless exposition just to move the story to the next explosion. In comparison, Tarantino felt dangerous. When Pulp Fiction released during the Fall after my college graduation, Sean and I made a road trip back to Amherst so we could see that flick with some of our friends who remained in the area. They weren’t the movie buffs that we were so I recall a little hesitation over the title BUT we finally won them over. When that screening was over, we hit The Pub (yes – our favorite pub was actually named The Pub) and excitedly chewed over every delightful morsel we scarfed from that film.
6. The Breakfast Club (1984) – dir. John Hughes
I never saw this in the theater. In fact, I didn’t watch it straight through until AFTER I wrote a play that played sly homage to Hughes’ masterpiece. I’m a kid who grew up on his films. I was the exact right age for what Hughes was doing with his Chicago youth repertory group so Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful and the rest of his mid-80’s teen flicks just hit me right where I lived. The Breakfast Club was different. It felt a little like forbidden fruit. For starters, it was rated R, which meant it was secreted away to late-night cable (or very early morning if you possessed the sheer will of a 12-year old boy determined to wake early and sneak a peek at taboo TV in hopes of getting a gander of an exposed boob. The Breakfast Club doesn’t have any of that but that didn’t stop me from looking and each time I snuck a peek at the film, as it was running out its final moments before HBO would revert to early morning Fraggle Rock, I found exactly the words my shy, awkward pre-teen self needed to hear. Years later I wrote a play that played as much tribute to that film as it did my own formative years. We find inspiration in the strangest places. Mine was in the search for R-Rated cable – leading me to write the most mature thing I’ve ever crafted.
5. Boyhood (2014) – dir. Richard Linklater
I’m a son. And a father. And I’ve been a boy – from then ’til now. This 12-year experiment where a little boy ages to the moment where his whole wide world reveals itself to him completely sucker-punched me. It brought me back to my own childhood, as I played outside from dawn ’til dusk (and beyond) and only came home when my Mom’s voice would crest the night air. “Eddie – Time to come home.” I was always last to get called and was always in the same perch; hanging out with my friends Kyle and Steven at their house which just so happened to be situated at the exact apex of our elbow shaped street. This film also made me look at my son, Colin – who I have seen grow from a baby so new to this Earth, to an inquisitive toddler, to a courageous little boy surmounting tasks not many boys his age need to tackle, to a sharp young man who eye-line is a mere inch or two away from meeting mine. Needless to say, this movie was hardwired to do a number on me.
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – dir. Frank Darabont
I remember I had to badger my movie buddy Sean incessantly to get him to go see this movie. The Boston Herald had damned it with faint praise; describing it as a “feel good prison tale”. Sean wasn’t in the market for that type f flick; preferring his prison films of the Caged Heat variety. So, I offered to pay his way. Suddenly this was a date!!! Imagine my surprise when we exited the theaters and he slapped ten bucks back into my hands. “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen”, he said. So – thanks to my recommendation, I was no longer on the hook for his ticket. I read somewhere that Stephen King only charged Frank Darabont $5,000 for the rights to adapt the book into a film – and then after he read the completed screenplay – he never cashed the check. What goes around comes around.
3. Seven (1995) – dir. David Fincher
I’m not a huge serial killer or procedural fan so it takes something special to land a serial killer procedural on my all time favorites list. I chalk this up to that fantastic chemistry between Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, a creepy-crawly script from Andrew Kevin Walker that dares poke into some pitch black holes and nicely nuanced and restrained filmmaking from David Fincher (who followed up his Alien 3 debacle by coming out swinging in a huge way). This is a movie that is wholly engrossing and now matter how bleak things get, Freeman’s authoritative role comforts us. But as his character warns midway through – “This isn’t going to have a happy ending.”
2. Inception (2010) – dir. Christopher Nolan
I’m a huge fan of Christopher Nolan and I’ll take on all critics who dismiss his style as too cold and antiseptic. Yes, he’s a master of his technical craft. I applaud him for that. I also appreciate that as films get more artificial, he seems to go out of his way to film as much as practical in the camera – and uses the computer just when a shot proves impossible to replicate any other way. Inception is hard to like at first. You need to work at it as it opens en media res – in the midst of a dream. Then as we slowly get our bearings straight, it lays out the heady concept in a way that makes all the sense in the world. I’m a sucker for a good heist movie. Well, here we have the opposite – with something being planted where it shouldn’t be. The forty-five minute gravity defying climax is one for the ages. And despite what some may say, this film proves he has an emotional bone in his body as the remains of a shattered relationship are laid bare.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – dir. Steven Spielberg
While all the kids in my neighborhood grooved to Star Wars – Indiana Jones was my jam. In the Summer of 1981, 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.
Talk about a different time. A 12-year-old and an 9-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. That’s it!!!
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.
I was never the same again. The moment that Ark was secreted away, my first true love was found. It’s why to this day – no matter how old I get – I’m just as much a sucker for well-done mainstream adventure as I am year-ending Oscar bait. That seems to be the sweet spot for a boy; whatever he falls head over heels for between the ages of 8 and 12, he carries with him the rest of his life. That’s why to this day, I love, love, LOVE me some movies!!!
“Fortune and glory, kid.”