I'm not saying these are the 10 most influential movies, or the most important or even best movies ever made. I'm saying that these 10 movies, in particular, had a strong hand in shaping how, why, and what movies I watch. In no particular order...
• Star Wars:
Why? Because I was 4, 7, and 10 when these movies came out. They dominated my childhood, and the childhood of every young boy—and many young girls—around me. Just about everybody had action figures, so everybody could play. But only a few kids were rich enough to own a Millennium Falcon. This was one of my first lessons in class distinctions. As entertainment, though, the series primed my generation to seek out sci fi/fantasy tales well into adulthood—what were previously “kids” films now belonged to all of us. That’s part of why the failure of the prequels was so badly received: George Lucas didn’t just make bad movies; he retroactively altered our collective sense of childhood.
Movies I watched because of Star Wars: The Hidden Fortress, The Last Starfighter, Alien, Tron, Planet of the Apes
• The Godfather:
Why? I avoided this movie for a long time, actually, because it was so praised as a classic movie that it took on the aura of doing cultural homework. Then, one weekend, I stayed home sick—and the movie showed on Cinemax. I was entranced. Went to the video store the next day and rented both sequels. One of them was good, the other … less so. Over the next few years, I read everything about The Godfather that I could get my hands on: the novel (which is really trashy) as well as behind-the-scenes making-of coffee table books. I didn’t bother buying a DVD player until the movies came out on disc: when they did, I burned through all the special features, repeatedly, in a day. The story behind the movies is about as interesting as the movies themselves.
Movies I watched because of The Godfather: The Conversation, Hearts of Darkness, Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, Heat
• Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Why? When this movie came out, I probably hadn’t seen a kung fu movie in 15 years or so—the badly dubbed chopsocky stuff they used to play on Saturday afternoons back when local television stations did that sort of thing. The first wire-enabled chase across the housetops riveted me: it was the first time I saw beauty in an action movie. And I developed a huge crush on Zhang Ziyi.
Movies I watched because of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Hero (Jet Li, not Dustin Hoffman), Once Upon A Time in China, House of Flying Daggers, Red Cliff, In The Mood For Love
• Infernal Affairs
Why? This is a movie best known in the states, if at all, for inspiring The Departed. Infernal Affairs—despite the laughably punny title—is a better, leaner, less tidy movie. After watching this Hong Kong flick, I realized the last great gangster movie made in the United States was probably Goodfellas...all the way back in 1990. Even if the Hong Kong scene isn’t quite as vibrant as it was in the John Woo/Chow-Yun Fat days of the 1990s, it’s still pretty awesome. I’ll watch any movie with Andy Lau, Tony Leung, or Anthony Wong.
Movies I watched because of Infernal Affairs: The Departed, Election (Simon Yam, not Reese Witherspoon), Triad Election, A World Without Thieves, The Warlords
• Three Extremes
Why? Because the first of the three short films in this anthology—”Dumplings,” directed by Fruit Chan—is probably the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen. So much so that I can’t actually recommend it to anybody. It’s the film I remember the most, but it’s the other two directors, Takashi Miike and Chan-Wook Park, whose movies I’ve followed since then. Frequently taboo-busting, always stylish, and sometimes—but not always—humane in the midst of the horror they depict: Miike and Park are too interesting to ignore.
Movies I watched because of Three Extremes: 13 Assassins, Ichi the Killer, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
• Full Metal Jacket
Why? Before Three Extremes, this was probably the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen. The ruthlessness of the drill sergeant, the look in Pyle’s eyes before he killed himself, the terrible decision Joker makes at the end of the film. When it came out, the Vietnam depicted in this movie looked a lot less than the actual Vietnam than the one in Platoon, which came out at the same and to much greater acclaim. But Platoon hasn’t aged well—it features Charlie Sheen, after all, and Oliver Stone at (almost) his most pedantic. Full Metal Jacket is merely relentless.
Movies I watched because of Full Metal Jacket: Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now, Restrepo, Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining
Why? Before this movie, I thought documentaries were boring eat-your-veggies viewing. Then I saw this flick, following competitors as they prepare for the National Spelling Bee, and was tremendously entertained. I still learn stuff from documentaries, but it’s OK to enjoy them as well.
Movies I watched because of Spellbound: Gunner Palace, The Fog of War, Winged Migration (I wasn’t even high!) Mad Hot Ballroom, A Perfect Candidate
• Pulp Fiction
Why? Nirvana’s Nevermind came out my freshman year of college, blasting the hair metal of my high school years into oblivion. When Pulp Fiction came out my senior year of college, it felt like the same thing was happening in movies—that crap like “The Bodyguard” was being stepped over for something both smarter and more visceral. The 1990s were going to be amazing! Only problem is, lots of filmmakers tried to do what Tarantino had done...and almost all of them failed. The second half of that decade was littered with really bad pulp noir movie attempts financed by credit cards, often starring Eric Stoltz. The only Tarantino-esque director who ever really succeeded was Robert Rodriguez—and that’s because he had his own, similar-but-not-same vision. He wasn’t an imitator. Tarantino, it seems, is almost impossible to duplicate.
Movies I watched because of Pulp Fiction: 2 Days in the Valley, El Mariachi, Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill I & II, Sin City
• Raising Arizona
Why? I saw this early in high school; my senses told me that it was funny, yes, but that it was also coming at the funny from about five-to-10-degrees off the angle that most movies did the funny. That intrigued me. And like every other pretentious movie lover of my generation, I started paying close attention to the Coen Brothers.
Movies I watched because of Raising Arizona: Every other Coen Brothers movie.
• The Fifth Element
Why? And so we come full circle: I could say I watched this movie because of Star Wars, and it would be true. But it came along when I was taking my movie watching a bit too seriously; I went along with some friends, expecting to find it puerile crap. And I kind of did. But I was tremendously entertained. If Tarantino makes art out of trash, director Luc Besson just makes trash. Splendid, entertaining trash. The Fifth Element helped me see that I didn’t need to be a pseudointellectual arthouse snob; that genre filmmaking could be a wonderful thing in its own right without necessarily having higher aspirations. (I’m unfortunately enough of a snob that sometimes genre tropes are easier for me to enjoy if they’re presented in another language.) It was, is, just plain fun. Michael Bay still sucks, however.
Movies I watched because of The Fifth Element: District 13, The Professional, Crank, The Transporter, La Femme Nikita.
• Honorable Mention: Liberty Hall
As easy as it is to get online and download a movie these days, it’s easy to forget there was a time not-so-far past when a rural Kansas boy like myself didn’t really have access to movies that were even slightly outside the mainstream. Liberty Hall, a theater and video store in Lawrence, Kan., really opened up my movie education—I either rented or viewed five of the 10 movies above from this list at Liberty Hall. My movie-viewing life has been immeasurably enriched by that association.