This weekend I turned 36 years old. According to the Dead At Your Age website this means I’ve outlived Ol’ Dirty Bastard by a couple of days; it was looking dicey for a little while there, but I beat Russell Jones in the end. This weekend I’ll be doing a couple of things to celebrate how fucking old I am, one of which will be watching movies. Hey, that’s what I love. And in that spirit I decided to share with you my ten favorite movies. These aren’t the best movies I’ve ever seen, these aren’t the coolest movies I’ve ever seen, these aren’t the most moving movies I’ve ever seen. Some of these aren’t even films that had a huge impact or influence on me besides the fact that I love them and can always watch them, any time, any day, from start to finish. This isn’t going to be a list that sends you scurrying to Netflix or that blows your mind with its obscurity. It’s a list of the ten movies that are imprinted on my brain in a very, very primitive way.
But before I share that list, I want to abuse my position here to thank some folks as I head into another year of life.
Thanks to Nick Nunziata, my boss and the owner of CHUD.com, the man who single handedly has allowed me to live my dream. Before CHUD I was on a very different life track, and I’ve been able to travel the globe, meet amazing people, and have a voice that reaches hundreds of thousands of people. Nick and I don’t always see eye to eye on movies but he has been unbelievably generous to allow me to have my voice on his site, even when he doesn’t agree with me (and he often doesn’t agree with me).
Thanks to my friends Rachel and Dave, who have helped me out every step of the way. I’d probably be dead in a gutter if it wasn’t for these two.
Thanks to my brother Derek, who always keeps my ego in check and who fucking moved out of LA just before my birthday, and thanks to my dad, my step-mom and my sister, who are the biggest cheering section in the world. You need a copy of me on Attack of the Show? I guarantee they have it archived.
Thanks to all the amazing people who I call colleagues and friends. I’m really lucky to have met some of the folks I have met and I’m even luckier that they call me friend. Thanks also to the really cool publicists, especially the ones who don’t act like the online press is a leper colony with keyboards. I won’t list people because I don’t want to leave anyone out, but they know who they are.
Thanks to the CHUD staff, past and present – especially present. Jeremy and Eileen are the unsung heroes of CHUD.com, and without them I think this place would fall apart in a matter of days.
Thanks to the people in the film world I’ve met and who have offered me advice, criticism and friendship. There are producers and directors and film festival programmers and people in the production offices and working behind the scenes who have reached out and made me a better critic and movie journalist. Some of them have even made me a better person.
Thanks to Lindsay, who has changed my life completely. She doesn’t realize what a horrible, cranky, drunken fool I was before she came into my life, and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that she saved me. And she bought me a cat for my birthday.
Finally, thanks to you guys who read every day. I know that you and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, and I know that I don’t always show how much I appreciate you, but I do. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you folks clicking over to this site, through thick and thin, through tirades and annoying pop up ads. It’s an amazing thing to realize that there are people you don’t know all across the world reading what you write and sometimes even taking it seriously, and I promise to you guys that I’m going to keep trying my best to bring cool, unique and amazing movies to your attention. You won’t always agree with me on these films, but I hope you know that I’m just trying to share my enthusiasm with you.
Okay, enough of that shit. On now to the playlist:
Dawn of the Dead. The original. It’s possible I’ve seen this movie more than any other movie besides Star Trek II. For years I used this as my default answer when I was asked my favorite movie. And it’s essentially perfect; what’s crazy is that the zombie genre became redundant the moment George Romero released this film way back in 1978, as nothing that has come since has been as good, as imaginative, as true and as amazing. There’s a whole generation who doesn’t get this movie – I talked to some girl at a party who said it wasn’t even a horror film – and poor color correction on the DVD releases has made it look schlocky. The new Anchor Bay Blu-Ray returns the film to its original colors so that the zombies are grey instead of Smurf blue and the blood, while still overly bright, no longer looks like poster paint.
Dawn is perfect because it fits almost everything I love into one film. I love allegory and social commentary, I love gore, I love great characters bouncing off of each other and I love Tom Savini’s assistant Tsavo. What’s great about Dawn is that it’s scary in such a deep, existentialist way and that it does the standard zombie movie ending – the humans are the real monsters! – better than any other zombie movie. You really want Flyboy and Francine and Roger and Peter to live happily in their new utopia. Roger’s end is still one of the cinematic deaths that hits me the hardest, and that’s just a prelude to the bikers ruining it all.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I grew up on Star Trek. As a toddler I was immersed in the adventures of the USS Enterprise and her brave crew, and as I grew up I religiously watched the reruns, cursing those nights when Star Trek, which ran at midnight on WPIX in New York, would get bumped because of late running football games.
My mother took my brother and I to see Wrath of Khan; probably my most vivid memory of the movie is having tear stained cheeks on the drive home in our red Toyota Corolla. Wrath of Khan hit me hard – it wasn’t just Star Trek, it was great Star Trek, and it did something I never imagined could be done in a movie like this: it killed one of the heroes. Kirk was always my boy, but his relationship with Spock moved me deeply growing up. I won’t get into the issues I dealt with as a kid, but I never believed that strongly in family and I always sensed that the Enterprise represented the best kind of family possible – one you chose. When Kirk has his last moments with Spock in that radiation chamber: “Ship… out of danger?” Man, that still gets to me!
Getting older I’m glad to look back and see that Wrath of Khan is actually a really, really good movie. Too many of the films I grew up on didn’t age well (or I outaged them), and the emotions that they once carried are lost forever. Khan, though – it still has it. And it it still has it through a hundred viewings, the first few in theaters, more on battered VHS tapes and now on DVD and Blu-Ray. Adventure, drama, action, humor, cool brain slugs, one of the best villains in film history – Wrath of Khan has it all.
Duck Soup. If this isn’t the funniest movie ever made, I don’t know what is. My experience with old movies is probably unique to a certain generation – I didn’t see these films in theaters, and I didn’t see them on home video when I chose to see them. I caught them on TV, usually very late at night. My strongest early memories of Marx Brothers films are me sitting in the living room of my apartment in Queens, New York, trying to stifle my giggles as these faded silver and black comedies played out on TV. I was trained to watch black and white by the Three Stooges and the Little Rascals, but my real taste in comedy was shaped by the Marx Brothers.
When I was a kid it was the sheer anarchy of Duck Soup that drew me in. The movie was crazy, and while I didn’t understand everything that didn’t seem like such a problem. The three Marx Brothers themselves are each like a gateway drug to the next – Harpo is who you get first, because he’s all broad mannerisms. Harpo leads you to Chico, who is stupid in just the perfect way that kids love. And then it’s Groucho, whose wordplay and sarcasm is like the sound of God’s voice to an angry thirteen year old.
When my parents split my dad left behind a bunch of books and records. My dad and I weren’t really close while I was growing up, so it’s amazing how these books and records impacted me and shaped me into the man I am today, a man who is very much like my father was. One of those books was Why A Duck? a wonderful illustrated trade paperback that had pictures and the texts of Marx Brothers routines. Why A Duck? was like a bible to me, and I’d sit with it on my lap while I watched those Marx Brother movies late at night or early on Sundays. And I had all the lines from Duck Soup memorized.
Do The Right Thing. I almost never saw this movie. I was living in New York when it came out, and it was the center of so much controversy. None of my friends wanted to see the film because everybody was convinced that the theaters showing it would be the epicenter of a huge black uprising, and we were little nerdy white kids.
But I did see it, and nobody got killed in my theater. And Spike Lee’s film changed my life in a major way. My relationship with film before then was pretty standard: I was a geeky kid who liked geeky movies and who would obsess over the geeky details of horror and scifi and other genre stuff. I was always a kid who dug allegory in my movies (see Dawn of the Dead above, which I probably saw for the first time when I was 8 or 9), but I had never been a kid who challenged himself with movies. Do the Right Thing challenged me.
It’s not challenging like von Trier’s Antichrist, but it’s a movie that demands your continuous engagement. You can’t just watch Do the Right Thing, you have to grapple with it, especially when you’re a 16 year old white kid whose grandparents live not far from Bed-Stuy (and whose neighborhood, City Line, had been getting blacker and more hispanic in recent years). Spike Lee is like George Romero in that he made his ultimate masterpiece so early in his career, but there’s no way that Spike can ever make a movie as good as Do the Right Thing. Few filmmakers ever make one half as good.
But beyond that it’s such a watchable movie. Lee weaves his characters throughout the story, capturing the spirit of the neighborhood while building tension that gets more and more unbearable, better than most thriller directors ever manage. And then it gets to that breaking point – cathartic and terrible at once.
Ghostbusters. I run an occasional series looking at what I call ‘perfect movies,’ and Ghostbusters might be the most perfect movie ever made as far as I’m concerned. It hits pretty much all of my sweet spots: it’s a terrific genre film with great effects, it’s a brilliant New York City film that captures my town in beauty and in spirit, and it’s a great, witty comedy filled with amazing characters.
What’s truly special about Ghostbusters is the way that it hasn’t weakened over the years; the jokes are just as sharp, the effects still effective and the story remains paced perfectly. The cast is a murderer’s row of actors each of whom seem born for their roles, and each of whom have, in some way, been defined by them since (except maybe Sigourney Weaver, who has a more iconic role on her resume). Even the movie’s goofy radio hit theme song remains utterly perfect and surprisingly intact despite years of overplaying. A true wonder.
Spider-Man 2. Everybody wants to claim that such and such is the best superhero movie ever, but as long as Spider-Man 2 exists they’re just pissing in the wind. Sam Raimi nailed it perfectly with this film, really capturing what made Spider-Man an integral part of my life growing up. And Raimi manages to take one of my least favorite Spidey villains – the only time I ever liked Doc Ock is when he married Aunt May; I thought that was some next level villainy – and make him impressive and tragic and threatening and incredible.
There’s a lot of backlash against the Spider-Man series now, much of it predicated on the flawed third installment, but fuck that noise. No filmmaker has truly understood what makes a superhero tick the way Raimi understands Peter Parker/Spider-Man. And since Spider-Man is the best superhero ever created – the most real, the most human, the most fun – that means Raimi was in a unique place to redefine the superhero film.
Spider-Man 2 has so much to love, from the amazing operating room sequence to the blistering train fight – and the transcendent scene within the train where the people of New York come to the aid of their own hero, a wonderful theme Raimi continues from the first film, and a delightful counterpoint to the J Jonah Jameson storyline (and by the way, the casting of JK Simmons as JJJ? Unreal) – mixed with wonderful character work and delightful effects that may no longer be state of the art but are still filled with magic and joy. It’s a film that’s bursting with passion and fun and pulp seriousness in all the right amounts.
Shaun of the Dead. Remember earlier when I said there was no point in making more zombie movies after Dawn of the Dead? I take it back. Shaun of the Dead is the movie that makes all the subpar Romero knock-offs completely worth it, and it’s a movie that works on so many cinematical levels that it feels simply like a great film and not a great horror or comedy film.
There are two things that make Shaun of the Dead so incredible: the characters are people you would like to know in real life and it’s a real zombie movie. Yeah, there’s a lot of comedy – this is one of the funniest films of the 21st century, no question about it – but it’s also a legitimate zombie movie, with all of the horror and tragedy that the genre demands. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg don’t pull back and avoid the standard zombie movie ending where everybody dies, they embrace it. And while they get laughs from it they don’t play it for laughs – it’s such a simple distinction but one too many filmmakers fail to grasp. The death of Ed is funny and heartbreaking at the exact same moment in the exact same measure.
I’ve found Shaun of the Dead helpful in life, as every person I have ever met who didn’t like the movie isn’t worth knowing. It’s an unbelievable litmus test and it’s never failed me.
Annie Hall. There are a lot of New York movies on this list, I’ve noticed. So it goes.
Woody Allens’ greatest triumph is a movie that speaks to me in so many ways. It’s a film that’s brutally honest about relationships and life without ever being brutal. It’s a movie that captures a certain American moment with a satirical clarity. It’s a movie that is casually playful with cinematic conventions. And it’s a movie that’s funny from beginning to ending.
BklynAlvySinger was my AIM name for a number of years, and I still think Alvy is the uber Woody character, the perfect distillation of Woody’s work from his stand-up days to the films he’s still cranking out like clockwork. Neurotic but confident, sexual but nebbishy, intelligent but crass, Alvy was everything I saw in myself (except I’m not Jewish. Then again, a Roman Catholic and a Jew share many important guilt issues, so we’re quite similar).
But even beyond identification (which is surely just wishful thinking on my part… although is Alvy Singer a character anyone should be emulating?), the film contains incredible truths that just keep opening themselves up to me as I get older. It’s a rare movie that stays fresh because every time I revisit it my life experience allows me to appreciate it on a new level, but Annie Hall is one of those movies.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes. For a long time this entry was Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but I had to be honest with myself. While I think Conquest is the best of the series – filled with amazing metaphor and unafraid to tackle the brutal side of race relations head on – it’s also a slow movie that can, at times, be a chore to sit through.
But Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the first sequel to the classic Planet of the Apes, is a firecracker from start to finish. The movie begins as a remake of the first – an astronaut who is looking for Charlton Heston ends up on the proverbial world of simians – but quickly goes in much weirder, pulpier places as newcomer Brent (James Franciscus) heads to the underground ruins of New York City and discovers a race of psychic mutants. The whole thing looks and feels like what a Star Trek movie would have been like if they had made a Star Trek movie back in the 60s.
In fact, the only thing that keeps Beneath from being perfect is the fact that Roddy McDowell couldn’t come back to play Cornelius and they had to draft a new actor. But everything else – from the opening speech by the gorilla general Ursus to the fucked up hallucinations the mutants give the apes (picture apes nailed to upside-down crucifixes and being burned alive!) to the wackily homoerotic forced fight between Brent and Taylor to the greatest ending in the history of movies (everybody is shot dead and then Charlton Heston blows up the whole Earth) – is pitch perfect Saturday afternoon viewing. And Beneath actually manages to change up the underlying metaphors of the series in truly interesting ways, playing with ideas of elitism, warmongering and propaganda as well as class and racial divisions. It’s like mixing a bowl of Special K with a bowl of Lucky Charms.
The Last Waltz. I had a lot of films vying for this last spot. The Apartment. An American Werewolf in London. Moulin Rouge (fuck you). Re-Animator. Goodfellas. But in the end it seemed right that a different Scorsese film make this spot.
I came to The Last Waltz late. I didn’t really see the film until it hit DVD, and I fell immediately in love with it. Scorsese’s documentary about the last performance by The Band, an influential but never wildly famous group, kept finding its way into my DVD player. Part of it was the music, which I came to late in life. Earlier I talked about stuff my father left behind when he moved out, and among those things were vinyl copies of Music From Big Pink and The Band, the group’s two seminal albums, but I never listened to those. Instead I found my way to The Band after getting kicked out of college, living in the small town of New Paltz, New York, not far from where Big Pink itself stood. I fell in love with those songs that mixed every kind of American music and I fell in love with The Band.
So the music in The Last Waltz is a huge draw for me, but every time I put the DVD on intending it to be background music I find myself drawn right into the filmmaking. Scorsese has so many cameras going on stage and his editing is so skillful that he picks up amazing tiny moments of performance, shots of Robbie Robertson catching the eye of bassist Rich Danko, of Levon Helm lost in his drums and his singing. The camera rarely acknowledges the audience and you don’t feel like you’re watching a performance, you feel like you’re in a performance.
And then there are the guest stars – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Staple Singers, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris – just a procession of greats coming up on stage and becoming part of The Band. That’s what sums it all up, a spirit of inclusiveness, of belonging, of standing together and creating something.
The film also includes funny interview moments, none of which feel like they add up to much but have this beautiful looseness as the very hyper, very speedy Scorsese chats it up with the laid back Canuck Robbie Robertson. The film is self-aware as a film – some of the interviews include segments where the subjects retell a story to get it better on film, and the camera swoops in on The Band in ways that mean there’s no way the audience can possibly see what’s happening.
It’s the ultimate performance movie, honest and personal and up close and full of the joy of performance, captured with a master’s eye by Scorsese. People say that King of Comedy is the underrated Scorsese gem, but I think The Last Waltz might really be that film.
So those are my ten. What are yours? Talk about these ten or your own ten on our messageboard in this thread.