Thursday, September 3, 2015

Building a Better Cinephile: Ten Films That Shaped My Love of Film

Today was a very special day for me. In case you missed the original announcement (I admittedly buried it in my "Sight & Sound Sunday" wrap-up), today was the day I begin graduate school, pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Film and Television Studies at Boston University. After spending the past seven years (seven! years!) writing about movies and television on this blog, it's time I finally backed it up with some actual knowledge, or at least a degree that suggests that I have actual knowledge about what I'm talking about.

(The truth is I ultimately want to pursue my doctorate and both teach film and television studies at the university level and conduct my own research in the field. Look out, academia, here I come!)

Me on my balcony

So to mark the occasion, I've put together a list of ten films that have shaped who I am as a passionate cinephile and have pushed me to pursue a career in this nascent field of academic study. These aren't necessarily my all-time favorite films (though make no mistake, I deeply love each and every one of them), but the films that have left the biggest impact on me. I've also organized them roughly in the order of when I first saw them, so that there's a sort-of natural flow to the list.

Anyway, the list is after the jump.

Beauty and the Beast

This is the first film that I became completely obsessed with, or at least, the first that I can remember being completely obsessed with. When I was very young, I would watch it over and over again (so I'm told). Maybe it was the film's luscious use of color, or maybe it was the catchy songs, or maybe it was the blustering magnetism of ostensible villain Gaston (voice of Richard White), but I was completely hooked on it. When I revisited it for a "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" entry four years ago, it was like hanging out with an old friend and appreciating them in a new light. A tale as old as time, sure, but for me, it will always be timeless.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) was the first movie character that I remember wanting to be. I was introduced to Raiders around the same time as I was Star Wars, and though I certainly enjoy George Lucas' space opera (the prequels, like most sane people, less so), I found Dr. Jones' adventures more thrilling than Luke Skywalker's. This may have foretold my love of history, and even today, I like to imagine that history had more Nazis-being-melted-by-the-wrath-of-God and invisible bridges than it actually did. On top of all that, it set a high bar for blockbusters for me; visual wit and zippy fun are musts, all others need not apply.

Singin' in the Rain

This is another film that I remember fondly from my childhood, and damn if it doesn't just about perfectly summarize everything that the Hollywood studio system could do right. Terrific song and dance sequences starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, the superb "Make 'Em Laugh" routine with human super-ball Donald O'Connor, excellent acting from all three plus Jean Hagan as a dim-witted silent-movie star, and a story that's simply amusing for a child but beautifully mines the tension of the sound age's advent for adults, the film has everything you could ever hope from a handsomely-mounted movie musical. When I was in high school, I did several musicals for the school and the community theatre. Many of those roles were comedic, and O'Connor was my spirit guide in crafting those performances. Make 'em laugh, indeed.

The Naked Prey

One day when I was in eighth grade, I was home sick from school with the flu or a stomach bug or something. I had just begun to really be interested in film thanks to Yahoo Movies, which I had constantly surfed and used as a gateway into my first Oscar race (the bizarre-in-retrospect 2003 one). Having had enough of watching morning talk, I started flipping through the channels and eventually landed on Turner Classic Movies. They were just introducing The Naked Prey, a film by Hollywood star Cornel Wilde in which he stars as a man seeking safety from being hunted by a tribe in colonial Africa. I was enthralled: the beautiful cinematography grabbed my attention, but it was the way that, after a first act setting up the action, the film is almost without dialogue for the rest of its running time that truly captivated me. This was the film that changed my perception of what a film could do in terms of visual storytelling; uncomfortable racial politics aside, it has stayed with me for that reason.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

If you asked me what a perfect movie is, this is the one that I would point to. Eternal Sunshine was my introduction to the brilliance of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whom I would write several papers about as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but it was also an introduction to the raw emotional power of an ambitious narrative paired with sublime acting. I didn't catch the film until it was on DVD (even then, I had to sneak it into my bedroom, since I wasn't allowed to see R-rated films at the time), but when I did my mind was thoroughly blown. There was so much richness to be found here, thematically and visually, and I soaked it all in. That I was pathetically romantic at the time made it all the more powerful for me. Whenever I'm feeling down, this is one of my two go-to films.

Moulin Rouge!

Moulin Rouge! is my second go-to film. Yes, the film's third act is tragic, and no, I'm not so heartless that it doesn't bring tears to my eyes every time. But Baz Luhrmann's frantic, marvelous movie musical about Parisian bohemians and diamond-eyed prostitutes is a joyous celebration of everything about film and musicals can be. I was completely enthralled the first time I saw it, every repurposed song a marvel of arranging and performance and context, and "Come What May" still gets stuck in my head from time to time. But it also gave me one of my lasting images of movie-glamor romance. Ask me what love is, and I'll tell you it's Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, standing on an elephant statue in the middle of Paris, singing their hearts out.


I remember going to see Juno over Christmas break in 2007, my senior year of high school. I didn't often go to see "teen" movies, so seeing a film in which the characters were roughly the same age as me was unusual for me. But I was suckered in by Michael Cera (via Arrested Development) and the twee advertising campaign, and ultimately loved the film so much that I placed it at the number-one spot on my year-end list (if I can ever find those old lists, I'll publish them). But I include Juno on this list because Ellen Page's brilliant performance as the title character was the first time I really noticed and began to understand what acting really was. That probably sounds silly, but before this film, I had never really considered the techniques and processes that go into creating a credible performance (this may explain why my community-theatre-level acting career never really took off). So I guess Page was my Brando. Who would have thought?


UNC-Chapel Hill didn't have a proper film department, or even a film major. Instead, they had a cinema minor, nestled within the nebulous Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, with the classes sorted under everything from the Communication Studies department to the English department to the Russian Studies department. The two classes you had to take for the minor were Global Cinema and Film Analysis, and it was in the latter that I saw Chinatown. This wasn't actually the first time I had seen the film - I had rented it from Blockbuster Video (RIP) once in high school - but this was the first time I really saw it. The film is often taught as a Rosetta Stone of cinematic technique, since director Roman Polanski uses just about every formal element in the book to craft his neo-noir. It's still my cornerstone in terms of film analysis; any time I need a solid example of some filmic element, I trust that I can find it in Chinatown.

The Battle of Algiers

By the same token, Global Cinema was my first introduction to Gillo Pontecorvo's revolutionary (in more than one sense) film. This was the film that changed my perception of what a "national" cinema is (it's an inherently Algerian story told by Italian filmmakers), as well as what a "political" film is. Watching it to this day still gives me chills: the phenomenal performances - most by amateur actors, the faux-documentary cinematography, the level of understanding given to both the French occupiers and the Algerian freedom fighters. Again, my love of history probably played a major role in why I was drawn to this film, but it taught me that film was a powerful tool for change.

Do the Right Thing

And by that same token I discovered Spike Lee's combustive 1989 masterstroke, this time in American Independent Cinema (both this class and Global Cinema were taught by Dr. Richard Cante, a man whom I hope to emulate in the classroom one day). I began my deep appreciation for Lee, one of the finest filmmakers working today (even in his misfires, there's some great stuff happening), here. I learned to appreciate his unique approach to filmmaking, and witnessed a film that was fit-to-burst with exhilaration, rage, passion, and questions. The only thing that was noticeably missing was answers, because Lee was too smart to pretend he had any. This film exposed me to another form of powerful, personal, political cinema. It was the film that truly synthesized everything that I had learned about the medium at that time, both in my academic and personal studies. And I'll even give it the credit as being the film that helped me decide to pursue the path I've chosen. Though really, it's thanks to all ten of these films - and many, many more - that I'm doing what I'm doing today.

1 comment:

Shane Slater said...

I love posts like this. I can definitely see how those great films would shape your cinephilia. 'The Naked Prey' sounds really interesting and I never even heard of it before!

Also, many congrats on grad school!! That's so exciting. I'm sure you're gonna kick ass. Wishing you all the best. :)