My Favorite Movies

Film criticism is far too subjective a genre to put these choices forward as a challenge to other would-be critics.  Many of these movies are favorites because of where I was in my life when I saw them.  But, looking at it as objectively as possible, I think it's a good list just the same.  Most of this text came out of an email discussion with my girlfriend.

  Warning: Spoilers abound! 

Empire Strikes Back

The bar was set so high by the original movie that, in addition to being an all around great movie, this one deserves special recognition as the most amazing sequel ever made.  It didn't fall into any of the typical sequel traps: inconsistencies (in character, story, etc.) with the original, it didn't repeat itself in any way (e.g. the characters were redistributed from the first movie, such that R2 and 3PO were separated as were Luke and Leia).  Similarly, the soundtrack not only didn't repeat itself from the first time with the exception of the main theme (which is a given), it is also the single best soundtrack of all time, introducing three of the most memorable and beautiful themes in all of music: the Imperial March, Yoda's Theme, and the Finale music (aka Love theme).  The film itself balances humor, adventure, suspense, sorrow, and romance more successfully than any other movie ever made and never manages to seem dated.  It is so carefully constructed, from the use of language to interesting plot devices like the inconspicuous and unexpected nature of Yoda before he reveals himself to be something more that a little swamp pest.

Personal anecdote: I remember at age 7 watching this movie sitting on the edge of my seat while Luke was hanging over the apparently bottomless pit inside Cloud City.  I was terrified that Luke was going to be killed by Darth Vader.  That was all I figured could happen at that point.  I thought this was how it would all end (I mean, those already froze Han and carted him off!).  Hey, I was 7, what did I know?  I had never heard the word "trilogy" before.

Link: Official site

Check out the greatest soundtrack of all time!


Contact

This is an incredibly complex story, and I think that probably hurt it at the box office (along with a fairly strong anti-Christian bias and the fact that "you didn't get to see any goddamned aliens"- a fact that was spoofed on South Park).  One of the things that really excited me about the movie was that it had a series of climaxes and I didn't know where it would be over.  Every time one was reached, I was always shocked to find that there was more.  The first of these was a negative one, where the first Machine is destroyed by the Jesus freak.  As with Empire, I had no idea what could happen next.  My mind was racing like mad trying to figure out how they were going to finish the movie.  Then Hadden says, "Tell me, Dr. Arroway, do you want to go for a ride?"  Wow!  But it could have ended with her just taking off on the Machine and fulfilling her dream, leaving the audience to wonder (which is all I thought there was time for). Instead, it takes us through her journey, gives us some answers (but not such much as to be a let-down), then returns her home.  Again, that could have been the end as well, but instead we have the interesting twist that she can't prove that she made the trip.  The book had a slightly better way of dealing with this, but it wasn't very cinematic, unfortunately.

This movie brought me out of something of a depression.  I saw myself as part of the universe after this.  I've heard astronomers say something to this effect, that studying how big everything is, rather than making them feel minuscule and insignificant, instead creates a sense of belonging.  I was very hopeful for the future after seeing this story because it implied that there is something larger on the other side of the short-sighted time we live in.

Link: Official site

Link: A good fan site

Check out the soundtrack by Alan Silvestri!


Fight Club

This is another incredibly unique and terrific film.  As with Contact, this was one where I was amazed at the constant and varied ways in which it upped the ante just when you thought you finally had a handle on things.  Like the Star Wars saga, there was a lot of variety throughout the picture; the story continued to develop and the settings kept getting more varied.  Still, I would have done things a little differently in a number of spots.  Particularly, Marla's character, while incredibly interesting onscreen, possesses no redeeming qualities as far as romance material; thus, her role as "Jack's" love interest is pretty far fetched after he renounces Tyler.  Which is the second (arguably the) major problem with the picture: Jack resolves back to being Jack in the end, for all intents and purposes.  Sure, he masterminded the destruction of the electronic economy, but now what?  Tyler was responsible for that and now he's gone.  The audience needs to know that Jack has changed in a few ways more than loosing a few teeth and putting a bullet hole in his cheek.  That being said, originality trumps the thematic flaws.  To date, I still look for Fight Club (i.e. Jack-Tyler) relationships in the protagonists.  For months after I first saw the movie, I used to dream Fight Club style plots and used the multiple character disorder plot device, sometimes in very interesting ways.  For example, I had one dream where I had a small army of experts in my head.  They would swap who was dominant as was necessary and fight Kung Fu style or whatever worked at the moment.

I saw this movie 5 times altogether.  And I'm a guy who never watches movies a second time, let alone in the theater.   The first time I saw it was at a dollar theater with my ex.  I had seen the trailer, but knew next to nothing else about it.  I went in and was completely blown away by it.  Within a couple days I ended up rounding up a couple friends and taking them to see at at the same theater.  Over the next few weeks I was telling everyone about it, so I ended up going to see it again when they picked it up as one of the midnight movies at the Inwood (the art theater here in Dallas).  A few weeks later I ended up going again.  Finally, after it had been playing at Inwood for somewhere over two months, I took some more friends to see it, and the theater had moved it from the little screens upstairs to the big one downstairs ---and it was packed!  It had really turned into a phenomenon.

I consider the critical success of American Beauty an oblique acknowledgment by the mainstream of how great Fight Club was.  I mean, weren't they the same movie on some level?  The scenes where the respective protagonists quit their jobs and blackmail their bosses are practically the same story.

Link: Official site

Link: Yahoo movie directory (more links)

Link: Jack and Tyler... Calvin and Hobbes (a great essay!)

Check out the amazing electronic soundtrack by the Dust Brothers!


Star Wars

Speaking of movie phenomenons, this is probably the single most influential movie in history.  It influenced me personally in countless ways and it influenced the movie industry in how movies were made, marketed, merchandised, etc.  But getting back to the movie itself, there's an uncharacteristic honesty about it that you don't find in almost any film, let alone a sci-fi "epic."  Most movies put scenes on the screen to have an effect on the audience. Star Wars concentrated on telling a story, and the fact that the material was very cinematic just happened to hold the audience's attention while the story developed.  It's a very seductive approach that I don't think many other films manage to accomplish; the emphasis is on either one or the other side of the filmmaking.

Link: Official site

Link: The Force.net

Check out the classic John Williams soundtrack!


Forrest Gump

This is yet another multiple-climax movie.  Almost any scene in this film could serve as the end of another film.  Picture this: Forrest, the war hero, finally gets his chance to speak in front of the crowd at the Washington Monument in DC.  His love, Jenny, has been missing for his entire tour in Nam, with few of his letters ever making it to the nomadic hippy girl.  She is the crowd, not aware that Forrest is to speak.  She spots him.  "Forrest!"  "Jenny?"  "Forrest!!!"  "Jenny!!!"  They run toward one another, stand embracing in the reflecting pool.  The crowd bursts into applause as the union represents the possibility of putting to rest the animosity between soldier and protester.  The music swells, the credits roll, The End.  But it isn't.  And that is what makes it a great movie.

Actually, it's far more than that.  There is an underlying thesis that drives the story.  Without the thematic significance (i.e. the feather), the entire movie would just be a string of clichés, but it is instead a collage of incidents in one man's life that illustrate the possible paths we all have.  As Forrest says at Jenny's graveside: "Jenny, I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan.  I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."  It's up to the audience to decide and it is a universal question that is worth pondering.

Link: IMDb page

Check out the unforgettable soundtrack by Alan Silvestri!


Adaptation

Charlie Kaufman again delivers an incredibly complex narrative told in a thoroughly nonlinear sequence.  Separate storylines are woven together while we simultaneously move haphazardly through time.  However, this is anything but random as Kaufman steadily reveals facets of this clever construction that casts light back on the whole.  Every scene recasts the earlier footage in a different

The layering is even evident in the title, which simultaneously refers to the storyline of Kaufman attempting to write a film adaptation of Susan Orlean's book and the underlying themes of adapting to change in the face of adversity... as the orchids have.  Similarly, the audience will face confounding moments through which they must maintain their equilibrium until further revelations further in the piece.

Link: Official site



Mulholland Drive

This is the first David Lynch movie (excepting the Twin Peak tv series) where I felt like I might actually figure it out.  This one is really a puzzle.  It is carefully constructed, and, uncharacteristically, Lynch focused on telling a story more than just throwing out a bunch of weirdness to shock and confuse the audience.  Not that most of them won't be shocked or confused in parts (indeed, there are a number of scenes Lynch acknowledges are "smokescreen," as he described them).

Previous Lynch projects such as Wild at Heart were largely spectacle.  Any semblance of a story was a mere framework on which to hang interesting scenes that typically did little to advance the plot (although they did much to garner Lynch notoriety and, inevitably, a cult following).  However, this time around, each scene in Mulholland Drive is a revelation that makes you revise your thinking about the previous few minutes of the film.  That is quite an achievement in any film, and it is a remarkable advancement for Lynch in particular, given that the typical outcome was that an uninitiated audience almost always walked away from the theater shaking their heads and wondering what it was all about.

Which isn't to say that this film wraps up as neatly as an Agatha Christie novel.  In fact, whereas films like The Sixth Sense give you all you need for your return trip, Lynch subsequently supplied a list of "10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller."  They are:

  • Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits.
  • Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
  • Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
  • An accident is a terrible event... notice the location of the accident.
  • Who gives a key, and why?
  • Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.
  • What is felt, realized and gathered at the club Silencio?
  • Did talent alone help Camilla?
  • Notice the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkies.
  • Where is Aunt Ruth?
  • Good luck!  If anyone gets their head around this one, please email me and let me in on the secret.

    Link: Official site

    Check out the Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack!


    Rocky Horror Picture Show

    The film it self is a near-hit.  It had all the right things on the screen, but missed out on a script with enough content.  But that unhappy accident (which initially made the movie a complete bomb) yielded the audience-participation phenomenon that we enjoy today.  The music is great, the story has all the right elements, and there is a synthesis of disparate influences (rock and roll, sci-fi/horror pictures of the '30s through the '50s, and sex in all its possible incarnations --virginity, gay, straight, lesbians, incest, midgets, whatever!).  There are great set designs and costumes that are faithfully imitated to this day by members of the resulting cult.

    Still, my initial reaction to the movie was disappointment and annoyance.  I saw it when it was first (finally!) released on it's 15th anniversary back in 1990.  The box cover was an enigmatic pair of the now-famous lips (or "Another Set of Jaws" as the classic '70s poster proclaimed).  The title and slightly pre-Halloween release implied it was a horror film .  Unfortunately, it was something a little different.  I didn't want to have anything to do with it when, a few months later, some friends of mine wanted to get together to have a party and go see it in New Orleans.  I said, sure, I'll go to the party, but forget about the movie.  They, of course, talked me into giving it a chance (some had actually seen it on the big screen and so had some credibility in claiming that it was a very different experience).  As you already know, seeing it with a audience is a totally different and much more meaningful experience.  As a result, I turned into the biggest Rocky fan after that.  I wish I had kept track more faithfully of how many times I have seen it, but I know it must be approaching a couple dozen each on tape and in the theater.

    Link: Official site

    Link: Yahoo movie directory (more links)

    Link: Revenge of the Old Queen (a proposed Rocky sequel by Richard O'Brien that was never made)

    Check out the ultimate version of the soundtrack!





    And so on...  I could keep going here, but I really don't have my favorites in a rigid order at this point.  Just for the hell of it but here are a few others I like.
     
    • Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
    • Annie Hall
    • The Best Years of Our Lives
    • Blade Runner
    • Dune (original)
    • eXistenZ
    • From Here to Eternity
    • Gandhi
    • Groundhog Day
    • Human Nature
    • Last Starfighter
    • Moulin Rouge
    • Phantom of the Paradise
    • Se7en
    • The Shawshank Redemption
    • The Thin Man
    • Time Bandits

    Note that you can click on the links above to purchase these films from Amazon.com.  Please feel free to do so to help me pay for this site.  Thanks!

    See also my collection of Movie Lists elsewhere on this site.

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