i was recently challenged by a friend on facebook to do something that didn’t involve dumping a bucket of ice water on my head. this rather less-chilling challenge asked for 15 movies that influenced my life. as i am a large fan of list-making, i dug in. i soon found, however, that i wanted to say something about these life-influencers that doesn’t fit neatly into a comment box – so here we go:
1. Star Wars (dir. George Lucas) – i was two when my parents took me to this unsurprisingly included entry, but it’s here where it all started. while i couldn’t tell you what spoke to my 24-month old brain, i can tell you that i apparently sang the theme song the whole way home.
2. The Fox and the Hound (dir. Ted Berman, Richard Rich and Art Stevens) – the first time i remember a movie actively breaking my heart. i don’t think i’ve felt safe at the movies since.
3. 2001 (dir. Stanley Kubrick) – i love leaving a movie with more questions than i came in with. this one is rife with them, and its meaning has changed for me with each viewing. i can say that about many books but only a couple movies. this was the first and my gold-standard for what movies can do.
4. Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock) – though a special mention here goes to Suture (dir. Scott McGehee and David Siegel) and my college Film, Text and Culture professor – the first movies that really made me think about what we see and how we make meaning from it. this idea has influenced anything i’ve written or directed since then. and Vertigo is just about the most intricately constructed movie i ever did see.
5. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (dir. Peter Greenaway) – it’s so gorgeous and so disgusting and so seamless and so messy – how something this well-constructed can fit the performances of Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon without imploding is beyond me. my friend and i were so disturbed after the final scene (and all that came before) that we sat wordlessly through the credits, the [totally unnecessary by that point] reminder of the movie’s rating, the fuzzy white marks that told us the tape was over, and the blue screen that meant the VCR had ejected the tape. it was only when we turned off the television that the police shown their light into my living room window…but that’s a story for another time.
6. Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch) – because who needs a linear story when you have Jack Nance’s hair and a singing girl in a radiator? the answer certainly was not David Lynch. for better or worse, this is probably to blame for how i like to tell stories.
7. Fargo (dir. Ethan Coen) – while Barton Fink surprised me well more than this one, i was and remain struck by the way the Coens told this particular story – the bits they chose to include and not – the facades and the realities – amazing acting, a perfect score, an incredible sound design (Carter Burwell and Skip Lievsay are national treasures, dammit), and a script that says just enough, just right. i felt like this movie was made for where my brain and heart were at in 1996.
8. Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino) – my friend and i saw this on opening day, which i say not to brag but to explain why it’s possible that the showing was later than scheduled – the film had just recently arrived in canisters at the KOIN Center. by the time the film was spooled, the crowd was restless. we greeted the opening credits with applause, but then it all got ugly. they greeted the first act of violence, and each after that, with laughter. by the time we finished watching, i’d lost faith in the audience and despised the movie. while my feelings about the movie have mellowed (save the irredeemable gimp scene), i don’t think i’ve yet to recover from my feelings about the audience.
9. Magnolia (dir. PT Anderson) – i should call this entry “the power of the second chance.” on my first viewing, this three hour poetic multi-layered behemoth so bored my friends and i that the singalong to Aimee Mann’s [glorious] “Wise Up” (“it’s not…going to stop…”) seemed more a threat than a call to emotional action and no biblical plague could have ended it soon enough. some years later, i gave it another shot and fell in love with this messy, heart-on-everyone’s-sleeve-and-all-over-the-damn-place epic. it’s still completely overstuffed and outsized, but now, for me, it works. oh, how it works…
10. Schizopolis (dir. Steven Soderbergh) – another in the category of the “blame how james writes on this” – i was a fan of sex, lies and videotape, but Schizopolis blew me away. a twisted, nutty, nonsensical movie that knew just what it wanted to be and made no excuses. probably every directing choice i made in The Bad Infinity was somehow influenced by this movie.
11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry) – the importance of memory, the role of every relationship and every memory in making a person who they are – the importance of making magic out of everyday events and actions. i can’t say enough about this movie.
12. Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee) – so much energy, so much style, so much passion. the first movie i remember causing me to be outraged and not know what to do with that feeling. and a cast to die for. from the opening credits to Mookie and Sal’s final confrontation – i can’t stop this movie once i hit play. it’s just a non-stop suckerpunch of a movie. thank god for the Do the Right Thing.
13. Goodfellas (dir. Martin Scorsese) – and from here on, i wanted to score every moment of my life with a song. the final 30 minutes did just what Marty wanted to do – simulate drug paranoia for those who haven’t done the drugs. i’m watching for helicopters and finishing the tomato sauce right with him. bonus – Robert Deniro’s hands in this movie – just go back and watch him try to reason with Billy Bats.
14. Say Anything (dir. Cameron Crowe) – i wanted to be Lloyd Dobler. and i probably have inflated my own ego and made many mistakes by sometimes thinking of myself as Lloyd Dobler. so there’s that.
15. Wings of Desire (dir. Wim Wenders) – another right place, right time of a movie – on spring break early on in collegeland, at about midnight, (now filmmaker) Jeremy Holloway and i sat down to watch “a little” of this. we sat transfixed for the entire run of it. i didn’t expect a black and white German movie with Columbo in it to speak to me as forcefully as this one did. for me, it’s a poem on film, and i still feel the angels with me – especially in libraries or at Nick Cave concerts.
runners-ups: The Thin Blue Line for the real-life potential of movies, Koyaanisqatsi which i’d already found amazing, but a chance to hear Glass (etc) play the score live took a whole new level to a whole new level, the aforementioned Barton Fink for really pulling the rug out, Glengarry Glen Ross for showing how many variations on “Will you go to lunch?” a human being can do and still be fascinating, and The Ice Storm, which has changed how i look at Fall for years.