Originally published in September 2014
There’s a popular game going around Facebook. Someone nominates you to name fifteen movies that will always stick with you, and then you nominate someone else for the same task. The hitch is that you only have fifteen minutes to make your selections. In other words, the goal is to provide your instinctual choices rather than overthinking it.
I was nominated for the game and found myself in a bit of a quandary. As a film critic, it’s not unusual for me to see 250+ movies a year. I’ve been going at this rate for more than twenty years. There are a lot of movies that I love and that will stick with me. How to choose just fifteen?
As I began typing my answers, I made a vow to myself: I wanted to include all kinds of genres. Sometimes critics can fall into the trap of picking things we’re “supposed” to like, things that befit our jobs as aficionados of art. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s borne out of a desire to celebrate that which is truly special – but I love all kinds of films, including exploitation fare. (Well, not all kinds. I have no affinity for porn.) I eventually made my picks, left off a lot of potential but equally worthy choices, and posted them.
And here are my reasons why:
STAR WARS – I saw it in 1977, at age nine, and my world was never the same again. My favorite movie of all time.
FLETCH – My second favorite movie of all time, and the funniest comedy I have ever seen. I know it by heart, but still laugh myself silly whenever I watch it.
DO THE RIGHT THING – Another all-time favorite. The best movie about race in America ever made. Funny, hard-hitting, and uncomfortably truthful about how far our society has – and, more importantly, hasn’t – come on race.
JFK – I’d always been taught in school that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone shooter who assassinated John F. Kennedy. After three hours in a movie theater in 1991, my mind was blown by the very plausible idea that this was a lie. Oliver Stone’s classic made me obsessed with the assassination, and I began reading everything I could get my hands on. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature, but I now firmly believe that we do not know what really happened in Dallas that fateful day, but it damn sure wasn’t what we were told.
STRANGER THAN PARADISE – Jim Jarmusch’s minimalist masterpiece is about three desperate souls who seek an escape from their glum NYC existence. They go to Florida, only to discover that not much is different. Something about the low-key style of this offbeat comedy really captured my fancy. It’s completely no-frills, but that’s entirely fitting to the story. I think this is a really beautiful film about how life is what you make it, no matter where you are.
SOMETHING WILD – Jonathan Demme’s kooky comedy was a favorite of mine in college. Since then, my appreciation has only grown. Funny in its first half, the film makes a dramatic tonal shift halfway through, when Ray Liotta’s violent ex-boyfriend comes to retrieve wild child Melanie Griffith from uptight Jeff Daniels. Very few movies can pull that off. This one does it masterfully, and meaningfully.
BLOOD BEACH – This schlock horror flick came out when I was a kid. I was absolutely obsessed with the poster image of a screaming beach bunny being sucked down into the sand. It seemed so terrifying. Heck, I’m still obsessed; I have a framed art print of that poster in my home. The movie itself – which has never been available on DVD – is terrible, but that poster? WOW.
CADDYSHACK – Another movie that never fails to make me laugh, Caddyshack has also meant different things to me at different times in my life. As a tween, I loved the raunchy humor. As a twentysomething adult, I appreciated the great performances (especially from the criminally-underrated Ted Knight). Today, I see it as a brilliant satire of elitism and bigotry, one that is smart yet takes the guise of a “dumb” comedy.
PURPLE RAIN – This made the list because it’s my current obsession. I recently rewatched Purple Rain for the occasion of its 30th anniversary, and was reminded of what an astonishing performer Prince was (and is). He’s magnetic and mesmerizing in his screen debut, which is also really fascinating in the way it allows the music to define his character. He doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, but the songs speak volumes.
THE THIRD MAN – I grew up listening to Roger Ebert repeatedly proclaim this one of the greatest films ever made. When I finally saw it as an adult, I realized that he was 100% correct.
MODERN TIMES – I’ve become a Chaplin devotee in recent years, and this is easily my favorite of his films. The comedian had an unprecedented – and, to this day, unmatched – ability to build upon jokes. Layer upon layer is added, so that you can never really predict how a scene is going to end. Modern Times has two particular classics: the automated lunch machine and the sequence in which a blindfolded Chaplin repeatedly roller-skates dangerously close to a precipitous drop.
HOUSE (a.k.a. HAUSU) – This Japanese cult favorite is one of the craziest, most out-there horror movies I’ve ever seen. I mean, it has one character getting eaten by a piano, and another getting attacked by mattresses. How awesome is that?
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER – I once wrote a whole blog piece on why I love this movie. Also, the Bee Gees rule.
JUNO – This movie came out just as my wife and I were embarking on our adoption journey, and we went through many experiences just like the ones Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner go through on screen. Some have knocked Juno for the quirky dialogue and/or what they perceive as an unrealistic depiction of a teenage girl. I can tell you that the movie contains a great deal of emotional truth. I feel as though I lived this film. Also, adopting our son is, hands down, the best, most gratifying thing we ever did, and Juno reminds me of that time. (I wrote a longer piece about this film, too.)
PAPER MOON – I used to watch this one on TV a lot as a kid. The impact was strong. Paper Moon is the movie that taught me kids can lie to or manipulate adults for their own gain. That was an eye-opener.
I could have made two dozen different versions of this list, but those are the movies that came to my mind on that particular day, at that particular moment. Movies stick with us for a variety of reasons, and when all is said and done, that resonance is probably what we cherish most about them. I know that’s true for me.