This is a personal chronicle of films that had the strongest impact on me, going back to my early childhood. It’s not necessarily a list of “favorite” films, though most of them obviously are. 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 and tragic 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 beyond 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 psychological 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.
3. Revenge of the Ninja, in 1983. Laugh it up. Yes, the ninja flicks of the ’80s haven’t aged well, and many of them were pretty bad to begin with. But Revenge of the Ninja was the godfather of ninja films, and despite the cheesy elements (which my 14-year old self was blind to), I would sooner watch it today than any of the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, and Jaws movies that were cherished back in the day. Not only are the martial-arts fight sequences amazing by ’80s standards, they are worked into a powerful story of redemption. Sho Kosugi plays a warrior who has come to America and given up fighting, but takes it up again of necessity when his mother is killed and his son’s life threatened. The street fight/road chase, and final duel between the two ninjas on top of the skyscraper — using every martial arts stunt in the book — blew my mind and set the bar for what I looked for in fights and showdowns. Not until the martial arts battle in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill would these scenes be surpassed. Revenge of the Ninja was a milestone for its non-stop action which never fatigues, and that’s no mean feat in a genre like this. When I bought the VHS a year later I got more re-watch out of it than any other film.
4. The Shining, in 1984. The reason I could survive The Exorcist and stay sane was my love for all things scary — Halloween dress-up, Edgar Allen Poe, and TV movies like This House Possessed. When I saw The Shining, my psyche was again put to the test. I was too young to critically analyze what made Kubrick’s film an effective piece of terror. On some level I took in the one-point perspectives gliding the viewer through hotel halls, around hedge-maze paths, and over mountain roads; Jack Nicholson’s ferocious performances, Shelly Duvall’s hysterical ones, and Danny Lloyd’s incredibly believable reactions as a child; the nihilistic tone that (unlike Stephen King’s novel) didn’t let me tell myself things would turn out okay. My heart stopped at many points: Danny’s vision of the hacked-up girls in the hallway, the look on Wendy’s face when she discovers Jack has been typing the same sentence over and over for weeks, and — especially this one — Jack’s face in the hotel painting at the end. That last frame is far more scary than King’s explosive climax. The film leaves no doubt that the “Caretaker” Jack Torrence lives on as the Overlook does. The Shining spoiled me (The Exorcist went beyond that; it broke me), and since then I’ve waited years for another film to come along and affect me on that level. In vain.
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 it was the following six that were my epiphanies in my early adulthood years.
5. 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, distressed, 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 it’s one of the most important. It showed me film’s almost limitless potential.
6. Pulp Fiction, in 1994. When I returned from Peace Corps service in Africa, I was starving to catch up on all the great cinema I’d missed since November ’91 — Unforgiven, Fire Walk With Me, Last of the Mohicans, to name a few gems. Then came this landmine no one expected, which my friend and I saw on a whim. I laughed so hard in the theater that day I was choking, hardly able to believe what Pulp Fiction‘s characters were saying and doing. Hilarious bickering sessions accompanied acts of overblown violence, scenes that were instant classics — the pounding of the adrenaline needle into Mia’s heart (image above); Vince accidentally blowing Marvin’s brains out in the car, which he and Jules proceed to argue about as if they’d just been inconvenienced by spilling milk; and the infamous Ezekiel 25:17 killing. Pulp Fiction taught me many things: that absurdist theater works in the hands of a good director; that non-linear storytelling can be a great technique; that anything can be funny (even rape) if handled right; and above all, that writer-directors like Tarantino have an easier time pushing envelopes and upping the ante without going off the cliff. Tarantino has done even better since Pulp Fiction, but this is his film that educated me and then some.
7. Seven, in 1995. Sue me for heresy, but I believe that Silence of the Lambs is overrated. (Especially compared to brilliant TV series Hannibal.) Seven is the serial-killer masterpiece which continues to impress me at the level it did at age twenty-seven. I felt like the film was written for me, as it fed my fascination with the seven deadly sins and the contrapasso punishments of Dante’s Inferno. What elevates Fincher’s film above greatness to masterpiece is the way John Doe wins in the end — “the box” has become an icon of our collective mindset like “Rosebud”. And even if the comparison seems absurd, Seven is pretty much perfect like Citizen Kane. There’s nothing to fault here: the atmosphere (always either dark or raining), the scoring (the prologue’s Nine Inch Nails song, and the library scene’s Air on the G-String in particular), the casting (I say Morgan Freeman’s and Kevin Spacey’s best roles), and above all for its dramatic tunnel into the depths of hell and the meticulously crafted climax, all of which combine to suggest a hopeless world, an ugly humanity, but with enough heroes like Somerset and Mills who for their flaws are willing to fight on regardless.
8. Casino, in 1995. Here’s another heresy on my part: Casino is superior to Goodfellas. It’s more epic in the characters’ rise and fall. As critic Natasha Varga-Cooper puts it: “In GoodFellas, the hoods, even with all their cheerful sociopathy, get progressively smaller and pettier as the movie progresses. It is, after all, about the grind of small timers. Casino, on the other hand, elevates Scorsese’s favorite themes — greed, hubris, the primal lure of violence — above the street corner and into the inner working’s of America’s Sodom.” When I saw Casino I was swept up in this dark vision of Las Vegas and people driving themselves to disaster. Sharon Stone’s portrayal of a hustler given to raging alcoholic tantrums is underrated, and Joe Pesci’s psychotic mob enforcer, though a repeat from Goodfellas, is less comical and more terrifying for it. The Godfather made gangsters sympathetic, and Goodfellas showed them despicable; Casino does both in depicting the tragedy of a man who had the keys to the kingdom but couldn’t hold them. It used the mob world to speak to our fallen state, and for the first time ever I felt like a true insider to that world — that I shared more in common with these thugs and pathetic people than I cared to admit.
9. Rope, in 1997. This was the year I went on a Hitchcock craze. Vertigo is easily his most cinematic effort, his ultimate masterpiece, and certainly my favorite. Rope, however, left a deeper imprint. Some have called it a dark mirror to Rear Window, which also features Jimmy Stewart in a city apartment, but instead of being a spying outsider, he’s an insider to the crime scene. For me it’s the reason I fell in love with bottle dramas. It’s set in real time and uses incredibly long (10 minute) camera takes, and milks all its tension from the hideous secret lying in the chest on which dinner is being served. Two college students have killed a classmate for the sheer thrill of it, and are hosting a party to celebrate their act while the corpse lies hidden under everyone’s noses. We feel its crushing presence every moment, especially when conversations turn morbid, and Brandon and Rupert espouse theories of intellectual superiority and the killing of stupid people, to the astonishment of the other guests. Rope is based on the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924, and it was ballsy of Hitchcock to portray a gay couple as lead characters in the ’40s, and make one of them sympathetic to boot. Jimmy Stewart’s final thundering indictment comes as nighttime descends, neon lights flash in from the outside, and makes me want to punch the air every time.
10. 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 effected 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 staggering. 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 three 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. By around 2005 I came up for air again. But before all of that came another stage of my childhood nightmare.
11. The Exorcist (Revisited), in 2000. News of the theatrical re-release made me wary. Of course, I had seen The Exorcist on VCR many times by now; I’d worked up the courage to tame my trauma back in ’85 when I was 16. But even at age 31, seeing this in a huge theater with deafening surround sound diminished me. I sat in my seat (all alone; I had the theater to myself, which was both good and bad) utterly petrified. In fact, I remember becoming so panic-stricken when the priests went up the stairs to begin the exorcism that I actually cried out. But while The Exorcist still scared the shit out of me, I could also process it as a film deserves and be awed by Friedkin’s flawless direction. It’s an artistic masterpiece in the style of an induced documentary, and a searing examination of the mystery of faith. It remains the mother of all horror films because it presents exactly what you imagine a demon to be as it pulverizes a girl from the inside out. Regan is saved in the end, but at the expense of the priests, and the power of good over evil is far from clear. I came out of the theater visibly shaken. Before going to my car I just stood for a minute and soaked in the sun, acutely aware of my limitations, grateful for my sanity.
12. 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…
13. 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 (“Do you 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.
14. Sunshine, in 2007. After seeing Sunshine I bought another ticket and saw it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any other film. It’s an underrated suspense masterpiece, and ten years later still hasn’t undergone any serious reassessment. It’s strange that of the zillions of outer-space films, none have bothered to focus on the sun — the most important and dangerous body in our solar system. Here the sun is dying, and so a space crew embarks on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into the core of the sun, which will hopefully reignite it. Right from the start the mission becomes one calamity after the next, and the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, even to the point of contemplating murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. There is also the subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. There are homages to Alien and outer space claustrophobia, but for my money, Sunshine is (yes) better than Alien, and I adore that masterpiece to begin with.
15. Juno, in 2007. This one might cause a double-take. It should be obvious by now that I’m no fan of comedies. But Juno is so good that I watched it three times when I rented it, and then bought the DVD the next day. I had a crush on Ellen Page anyway, and she was born to play this snarky teen who contemplates abortion but decides to have the baby despite her take-it-for-granted feminism, and give it to a wealthy couple. It’s not only the best comedy I’ve seen, but also the best film involving the abortion question, for the way it has confounded and misled people who think it promotes an anti-abortion agenda. It does nothing of the sort. Against the pro-choice objectors, Juno doesn’t glorify teen pregnancy; against the pro-life crowd it doesn’t present an exemplar in its lead character. It’s about a particular girl’s choice, clearly established, and how that choice affects others for better and worse. You can watch the film many times; there’s none of the cheesy sentimentality that mars most comedies like this. Even supporting characters like the stepmother (stepmothers are usually unsympathetic and awfully stereotyped) are genuinely likeable. It showed me that comedies can be endearing when they don’t try so damn hard.
16. Doubt, in 2008. When a film refuses certainty about anything and everything it runs the risk of copping out, but Doubt gains conviction the more it pushes its theme to every possible extreme. We never find out for sure if the priest had an affair with his altar boy. When things point alarmingly in that direction, we get smacked with a mother who thinks that isn’t so bad: through tears she insists to an inquisitorial nun that Father Flynn is a good refuge for her son, who seems to be gay and beaten for it at home by an abusive father. Scenes like that are upsetting and test hard ideas in a world that pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths. And we’re never sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest is a sympathetic character. He’s a progressive Vatican II thinker (the film is set in 1964), while the nun who thinks he’s a predator is antiquated and feared by the students for her disciplinary methods. The four pivotal scenes of extended dialogue are brilliant; every line of that dialogue earns its keep; and Doubt shows that a stage-play based film can produce more searing tension than the best action thrillers.
Midlife (Age 41+)
The current 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 (both of which surpass even Pulp Fiction, in my opinion); 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 four, however, were the milestones for me, two of which are older films.
17. 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 The Exorcist — it was released only a year before, and its influence on that film 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 resonated for me on these levels and helped me face my mortality for the first time.
18. The Tree of Life, in 2011. For years I’d wanted to see a cinematic meditation on the book of Job, and The Tree of Life gave me more than I bargained for. The 20-minute cosmos sequence accomplished what the text of Job 38:4 tried. I felt truly humbled by celestial mysteries. It didn’t exactly make me feel better about the problem of theodicy (why the innocent suffer), but the visual canvass with Lacrimosa playing over it triggers a perspective: our tragedies look admittedly small in the grand scheme of things. The film examines an American family of the ’50s within this macrocosm of evolution, and also within a dialectic of nature vs. grace: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself,” comes the mother’s voice-over at crucial juncture: “It accepts being slighted, insults, and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, and to get others to please it.” And yet graces emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it is its conceptual opposite), but rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. The final sequence is an afterlife vision — something that wasn’t available to Job’s author — a fantasy we cling to in order to cope with our losses, though not necessarily an unhealthy one. I felt God’s breath in The Tree of Life, and that’s no light praise from a secular agnostic.
19. Little Men, in 2016. Along with the TV series Stranger Things, this film was last year’s salutation to the freedom of youth. Stranger Things did this in a science-fiction/horror context; Little Men did it in a social parable. I have a strong attachment to Jake because he reminds me of my own friendship at that age with an uninhibited extrovert like Tony. When I moved out of town I never really saw him again, so the unpleasant separation of these two at the end hit close to home. Also, I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling rather suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was the movie I needed to see: a film that celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor, and their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies. In the end Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents, and I cried with Jake; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people. Taplitz and Barbieri are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people, and for me it’s a very special film.
20. Leon the Professional, in 2017. My latest milestone was actually released in the ’90s, but I’m glad that for whatever reason I missed it in the theaters. It took the child sidekick trope and had the nerve to turn it into a love story, but the American version removed the love-story part — 25 minutes worth of scenes that show a 12-year old girl lusting for a guy in his 40s — which is the whole damn point. The international version was later made available on DVD, and it’s an uncensored masterpiece. Obviously a film like this stands or falls on the child, and Natalie Portman nailed it in what I consider the best kid performance of all time. Her character, Mathilda, is a girl whose family gets gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with the hitman Leon in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t know how to handle it, but before long, he’s training her how to kill and taking her along on his hit jobs, while she takes every blatant opportunity to hit on him. This film showed me that even the wildest ideas can succeed under a good script and amazing acting talent. I love Leon to pieces.