This are the films that had the strongest impact on me, going back to my early childhood. It’s not necessarily a list of “favorite” films, though they certainly are among my top favorites. It’s more a reflection of what changed me — my approach to film and sometimes even life itself.
Childhood/Teen Years (Age 8-17)
I saw my first three films when I was eight: Across the Great Divide (1977), a family western about two orphans trying to get to Oregon in 1876 with the help of a shady gambler; The Rescuers (1977) a Disney animation about which I forget almost everything except for Evinrude the dragonfly, who transported people by pushing them in river-boats to the point of exhaustion (my family and I got endless mileage out of Evinrude); and then Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), which blew everyone’s mind it seems except mine. These were my cinematic foundations — narratives of adventure, hope, and the triumph of good will — and I would see many more like them in my years growing up. But they were never my thing. I was drawn to darker material from a very early point.
1. The Exorcist, in 1979. I saw this unspeakable movie on TV, and it devastated my 11-year-old psyche. Groomed on family films like Across the Great Divide, I was unprepared for the most terrifying movie of all time — even the censored version for TV is the scariest thing you could ask for — and it’s a good thing I was staying over my best friend’s house that night. There’s no way I could have slept alone in a room right after watching The Exorcist, and I remember waking up and walking down the stairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and then walking back up — it was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in life up to that point. For years afterwards, images from The Exorcist would assault me at unexpected moments, the worst being at night, leaving me paralyzed and terrified of my own existence. It was a shameful, hideous secret I spoke to no one about because I couldn’t give it voice. Just thinking of The Exorcist upset me. Movies weren’t supposed to violate you like this. For the first time I felt the real power a film could have on its viewer (with a vengeance), and while it would eventually become my favorite film of all time, it left scars that I carry to this day.
2. Conan the Barbarian, in 1982. The film that made me fall in love with film was my first R-rated theatrical outing, and it did a number on my 13 year-old sensibilities. Between scenes of graphic sex — especially Conan’s coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm — and a deluge of blood and gore, I was for the first time immersed in the world of cinematic adulthood. (Not counting The Exorcist, which I was still trying to suppress memory of.) But Conan also felt like a real-life Dungeons and Dragons game come to life. This was high adventure in which thieves robbed the temples of evil priests, rescued their victims, battled giant snakes, and stumbled on forgotten swords held in the clutches of cobwebbed skeletons. I was seeing the hobby that defined my life, come to life. The score showed me how important music is in film. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme play at just the right moments; and the waltz for the orgy scene fits perfectly over the sex and cannibalism. By this point in my life, the first two Star Wars and Jaws films, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, had wowed most of the kids my age. Not me. Conan was my movie, and it holds up incredibly well today unlike other ’80s fantasies.
Early Adulthood (Age 18-30)
When I entered college in the fall of ’87, I thought that films like Scarface, The Terminator, and The Fly were top of the line. How naive. There was a whole world of film I would soon be exposed to, not least classics from the ’70s Golden Age, like The Godfather, Chinatown, and Taxi Driver. But the following two were my early adulthood years epiphanies .
3. Blue Velvet, in 1987. I didn’t see this on big screen, but even on VCR Blue Velvet was nothing less than a conversion experience. Until this point I watched movies mostly to be thrilled. Now I saw that I could be thrilled, stimulated, provoked, and awed on multiple levels. It was the critical controversy that drew me into it. Roger Ebert’s nasty review is still talked about today and contrasted with other critics proclaiming it one of the best films of all time. My best friend was firmly on Ebert’s side, so we experienced the joy of controversy in our own disagreements. I started to understand what critical analysis was, and the power of the independent film. Blue Velvet assaulted me with sadism, sadomasochism, and full-blown lunacy, but around all the depravity is worked a stunning beauty, and like all of David Lynch’s films (as I would later discover) made me feel like I was inside a dream. It’s not even my favorite Lynch film (Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Drive are the superior masterpieces), but it’s the one that most impacted me, and of all the milestones on this list, this is the one that showed me film’s almost limitless creative potential.
4. Eyes Wide Shut, in 1999. Kubrick’s final work proved to me that a snails-paced film could carry excitement in every frame, and it completed the process started by Blue Velvet twelve years before in turning me from a casual moviegoer into a cinephile. I can’t stress enough how it affected me and made me query my deepest, wildest desires. If David Lynch made me feel like I was inside a dream, Eyes Wide Shut accomplished the more ambitious task of making life itself seem like a dream. Every weird thing that happens to Dr. Bill on his night out — professions of love next to a patient’s corpse, a young girl’s seductions at a costume shop, and finally the orgy of masked performers — is real but hardly feels it. It struck me as an oblique Christmas Carol spin-off, as Dr. Bill wanders around New York encountering “ghosts” of sexual temptation, barely avoiding one disaster after the next, weighing the value of what he lusts for against the wedge that has come between him and his wife. (She had described a fantasy of cheating on him and he can’t stop imagining her fucking the man’s brains out.) There’s a Christmas tree in every other scene, and the aesthetic is gorgeous, surreal, and eerie. But there’s not a slice of artistic pretension, unlike the Kubrick copycats who have so desperately tried to crack his code to cinematic purity.
The New Millenium (Age 31-40)
By the turn of the millenium I had given up on blockbusters and was shunning mainstream films with a snobby superiority that I didn’t have much right to. I’d be reversing myself in short order. The Fellowship of the Ring came out in Christmas of 2001, and for the next five years I was consumed by everything Lord of the Rings. I reread Tolkien, dug out my Middle-Earth RPG modules, and saw each of Peter Jackson’s films in the theaters over ten times. When the extended DVD versions were released the following years, I obsessed those too, as well as the DVD extras and audio commentaries. Sometime after 2005 I came up for air again.
5a. The Fellowship of the Ring, in 2001. When I heard that my favorite story was being adapted for a blockbuster, I cursed Peter Jackson, whoever he was, sure that he would massacre Tolkien beyond repair. Five minutes into The Fellowship of the Ring I was eating crow and spellbound, and for the next three hours I forgot everything about my life as I was swept into this spectacular incarnation of Middle-Earth. The Shire, Rivendell, and Lothlorien were all perfectly realized. The Nazgul were fearsome in the extreme, and I was blown away by their assault on Weathertop and ferocious chase of Arwen — my adrenaline rush matched the flood she unleashed on them. I cried with Frodo when Gandalf fell to the Balrog, and shared his awe of Galadriel’s ethereal might. I thought Boromir’s death and the breaking of the fellowship were so moving that they surpassed the book. This is the film that taught me blockbusters can have soul when in good hands. I have never been so alive in a theater as when watching The Fellowship of the Ring (twelve times throughout Dec ’01 and Jan ’02) and for that reason I consider it the most profound cinematic experience of my life. Though the next one is mighty close…
5b. The Return of the King, in 2003. This is an even better film than Fellowship, because it’s tragic on a biblical level and so emotional that I cried through the last 45 minutes — from the point of Frodo’s collapse on Mount Doom (“Remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?”), to Aragorn leading the hopeless charge on the Black Gate, to Frodo and Sam resigned to dying before the eagles come, to the hobbit reunion in the Houses of Healing, to finally the aching departure at the Grey Havens. Even before all of this, The Return of the King is on another scale from the previous two films. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields remains the best war sequence ever filmed, and though it lasts for about an hour, it never fatigues (unlike Helm’s Deep), with catapult stones that look like they’re about to fly out of the screen and pulverize you, winged Nazgul swooping down and snatching people up, the charge of Theoden’s Rohirrim, and the incredible Oliphant attack. It’s really close as to whether Fellowship or Return is more precious to me, though I give the slight edge to Fellowship for the sheer wonder I wasn’t prepared for. Return of the King is the miracle that does lasting justice to Tolkien’s heroes, who are noble failures and inspire for that reason.
Midlife (Age 41+)
The past decade has been excellent for film. To name a few gems, the Coen Brothers remade True Grit; Quentin Tarantino gave the awesome westerns Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight; Abdellatif Kechiche portrayed a powerful love story between two girls in Blue is the Warmest Color; and Robert Zemeckis managed a visceral re-enactment of Philippe Petit’s wire-walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in The Walk. The following two were my milestones, one of which is a ’70s film.
6. Cries and Whispers, in 2010. Soon after my father died I began obsessing the films of Ingmar Bergman. They made me confront the worst in myself, but especially Cries and Whispers. It’s about a woman dying of cancer in her home, tended to by her maid and two sisters who loathe each other. When I saw it I was struck by two things. First is that I’ve never found a movie so painful to watch. The hurt on display is relentless; facial contortions, gasps, and screams so awful it doesn’t seem like acting. The use of red color permeates everything and accentuates the world of hurt. And there’s plenty of emotional trauma to match the physical assault of Agnes’ cancer: the sisters feed off each others faults with raging insecurity. Second is that this film is basically my first milestone, The Exorcist; it was released only a year before in 1972, and its influence on The Exorcist is hardly subtle. Except the demon is the disease of cancer from which there is no liberation; Agnes dies in the end. You can see how clearly Friedkin was inspired by Bergman — the clock imagery, house atmosphere, bed agony, and self-harm. Cries and Whispers was unsparing in how it forced me to face my mortality for the first real time.
7. Blade Runner 2049, in 2017. My latest milestone overawed me in every frame, and despite the long length I could have sat through double that. Blade Runner 2049 not only lives up to its predecessor, it supersedes it — an amazing feat given that the first Blade Runner practically redefined the sci-fic genre. The sequel has the same ambitious concepts, filtered through stunning visual aesthetics. The story proceeds at a pacing so at odds with the quickfire bombardments of modern blockbusters that it feels like a ’70s film processed through 21st-century production values. The film was an actual sacred experience for me, as odd as that may sound. It wrestles with what it means to be human (or close to it) in the cosmos, as for example when K is against giant statues and questioning his place in the world, or when a hologram steps off a billboard to remind him of what he has lost, or when his software-constructed girlfriend evinces empathy, love, and fear of death. Like the best films of this nature, it asks timeless questions while refusing to supply answers, and is a masterpiece that I will be revisiting many, many times.
In short, these films are milestones because…
The Exorcist, for its complete hold on me.
Conan the Barbarian, for its immersive world and making me love movies.
Blue Velvet, for showing me film’s limitless creative potential.
Eyes Wide Shut, for its undistilled artistry.
The Lord of the Rings, for bringing to life the best story ever told.
Cries and Whispers, for making me face my mortality.
Blade Runner 2049, for the overwhelming sacred experience.