With this post I will pass a semi-decent milestone of making 50 posts. I promised myself when I started this blog that I would at least do 50 posts (before presumably giving up) in order to give the venture of writing about the movies the good college try. And in that intervening period, I’ve come to know the horrible pain that it is to write on a schedule (to all those who write for an actual living, I salute you), but it has also been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It has been heartwarming and humbling to see you, the reader, come and check out this thing that I love while tolerating my overly excessive and unnecessary propensity for verbosity (see what I did there?). But more selfishly, this process of writing about movies has only helped to sharpen my thinking about them and made me fall in love with movies all over again. So truly dear reader, thank you. And rest assured, making it to post number 50 does not mean the end of this blog as I will be pushing hard to make post 100 and beyond.
But I also recently passed another milestone recently according to of watching 2,500 unique movies (not counting rewatches). I completely missed this milestone because I was busy dealing with a newborn and three-year old but according to my rough math that movie was Spider-Man: Homecoming which is as appropriate a movie as any to mark the occasion.
Still these two milestones have me in a reflective mood and so I thought I’d go down memory lane and single out the movies that were instrumental in making me love the movies. I only had one rule when coming up with this list and it was that I had to be honest. That meant no to only picking the prestige art films just because it would make my movie journey seem more significant. But that also meant no to leaving out embarrassing and/or cliche picks just because they make me lose whatever semblance of cool cred I may have left. But I had to pick the movies that for better or worse, set me on the path of becoming a cinephile. I present them to you here, more or less in the chronological order in which I experienced it. I hope you enjoy reading, but at the very least thanks for indulging me. Here we go.
ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS (1961) dirs. Clyde Geronimi et al.
I didn’t have any clue then, but I realize now that growing up in the 80s made me part of the VHS generation and thus the first generation that could simply assume that you could watch a movie again after it left the cinemas. And being a child of the late 80s and early 90s also meant that I was part of the first generation that was able to see all the classic Disney movies on VHS as they were let out of the fabled “vault”. In fact between the release of the classic Disney canon on VHS and the Disney renaissance of the 90s, one can easily see that from the offset I was doomed to becoming huge fan of all things Disney. My early penchant for collecting was fuelled by the ever growing and unmanageable stack of Disney VHS tapes that surrounded our television and was a precursor for the insanity to come. In a sense One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a stand-in for the ways Disney made me a fan of movies, but this has also been the Disney movie that I have come to love the most, with its highly stylized design, jazzy score, modern sensibilities, and a truly terrifying villain who together created a vibrant and kinetic movie that hasn’t really been done in any other Disney movie.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1990) dir. Steve Barron
It should come as no surprise that I was a big Ninja Turtles fan. As I was growing up there was many the Sunday evenings when my parents were sent into a mild panic trying to get me home by 5:30 pm so that I could watch my show on time and many a minor meltdown was had when that didn’t happen. In fact the show was basically the impetus for my my dad to learn how to schedule our VCR to tape the show. I’m pretty sure I got sent into a mild depression the day I found out it wasn’t on TV anymore. So when I heard that they were making a movie about Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello needless to say I was more than elated. But I was also equally skeptical because I just assumed that it was going to be an animated movie, and my little six-year old mind couldn’t conceive of how they would make a human-sized turtles look remotely believable in a live-action format. Well thanks to the magic of Jim Henson they did and as a result, this became the first movie in which I was completely blown away by what I saw on the screen as the seemingly impossible came to life before my very eyes and four human-sized turtles of the ninja persuasion believably kicked some ninja-butt. It made me believe that there was nothing that couldn’t be brought to life in the movies.
JURASSIC PARK (1993) dir. Steven Spielberg
Naturally if they could figure out how to bring the Ninja Turtles to life, then dinosaurs were not far behind and so it proved true with Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. So the reason this film ends up on this list is not so much because it induced wonder and awe, even though it did do those things. I was expecting to be blown away by the visuals and to see dinosaurs come to life and was not disappointed by that. What I wasn’t anticipating however was to be utterly terrified by the chaos that reigned once park operations went south and the carnivores were let loose on the people (because naively I assumed that the entire plot of the movie revolved around an orderly tour of this magical park). And so that is how I found myself white-knuckled with my heart pounding in my theatre seat and so on edge that at the climax I jumped out my seat and screamed in the middle of a packed showing for the kids to keep running for their lives, only to be hauled down by my mother and told to keep quiet. As you can imagine, this story has been re-told to me and the rest of my family many times to their gleeful amusement and my mild embarrassment. But no matter. Because that moment was the definitive moment that I officially, to quote Pauline Kael, “lost it at the movies”. And I haven’t looked back since.
STAR WARS (1977) dir. George Lucas
Due to a fluke confluence of TV programming, I somehow managed to see The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi before I saw the original movie that started it all. In fact I’m pretty sure I went a couple of years before actually seeing the movie that started it all. But rather than being resentful of this out-of-order experience of the classic trilogy, this is an accident that I’m weirdly grateful for because it caused my anticipation for seeing Star Wars to reach sky high limits. This is the first movie that I sought to find, as I scoured video store after video store desperate to nail a copy of the movie (it is evidence of the sorry state of movie watching in Malaysia that it literally took me months to locate it). So it was with great joy the day I spotted it in a mall video store one Sunday, bought it in a heartbeat and rushed home to watch it. And then I immediately watched it again. And then rewound the tape to right before the Battle of Yavin and watched it again. And for the next few months, it was my weekly ritual to watch it on Sunday afternoon. I memorized whole scenes and reenacted them with my action figures. I literally wore the tape out on this thing. It became the first film that I obsessed about and talked about constantly. As cliche as it is for a teenage boy to say, Star Wars became the first film I truly loved.
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001) dir. Peter Jackson
Tolkien was another frequent companion of mine in my teenage years so I was excited if a bit trepidatious about the prospect of a film adaptation of his opus. To say that Peter Jackson’s trilogy was a masterpiece might be a bit hyperbolic, especially as the second and third instalments had a propensity for bloatedness (a trend that would become a full-blown epidemic in the unnecessarily drawn out Hobbit trilogy). But there is no question that he knocked it out of the park with this first movie, effectively building enough goodwill that would last until the release of the last Hobbit movie. The first half of Fellowship gave me the joy of seeing worlds like the Shire and Rivendell that I had imagined for so long on the page be brought to life. But when the first battle of the Fellowship took place in the depths of the Mines of Moria, it genuinely took my breath away because all of a sudden it turned into a propulsive and kinetic battle scene in which suddenly all of the Fellowship turned into quasi-superheroes with cheer-worthy takedowns and kills. While purists may argue that this sudden departure into bloody battle is precisely what was wrong with the trilogy, it simply made Middle Earth become viscerally more alive than Tolkien’s words ever made it seem. The movie thus was the clearest example of the changes that can happen when you translate something from page to screen, and for me the prospect of that kind of change was invigorating.
SPIRITED AWAY (2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
It is with some slight shame that I say that it took until I was well into my teenage years to finally watch a movie that wasn’t in English (despite living in Malaysia until I was 21). Call it xenophobia or laziness, but I never sought out anything that didn’t come out of a Hollywood studio. That changed dramatically the moment I got introduced to the work of Hayao Miyazaki in his international breakout hit Spirited Away. Although multiple rewatches of this film have helped me appreciate the intricate Alice-in-Wonderland-like quality to the storytelling on display, the thing I remember the most the first time I saw it was just staring and gawking at how incredibly beautiful this movie was. Every background frame in this movie has an almost gallery-like quality to it and the attention to detail on display is astonishing. And moreover, everything from the score to the storytelling instincts of this movie screamed “not Hollywood” and it was a thoroughly eye-opening and exhilarating discovery. It led me down a path of first devouring the rest of Miyazaki’s movies and then to the rest of Studio Ghibli’s canon, which set me down a path of discovering more Japanese movies which led me to Akira Kurosawa, who then made me want to check out the other foreign art masters of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, which then got me on to the French New Wave, which set me further and further down the rabbit hole of world cinema that now it seems weird if I don’t go a week without seeing something that wasn’t made in Hollywood. And like Chihiro’s journey in Spirited Away, it has been a strange and beautiful and life affirming journey of discovery. But you never forget the thing that sent you down the rabbit hole in the first place.
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) dir. Billy Wilder
The arrival of Netflix in my life was a boon to my film education especially once they moved into streaming because all of a sudden for a small fee I was given the absolute freedom to explore movies and find the genres, directors, actors, and eras that I found interesting at the click of a button. And especially in those early days of Netflix streaming, it was filled with a plethora of older movies (presumably because they were cheaper to acquire) that served as a wonderful gateway to classic cinema at the literal click of a button. I remember one night after my wife went to bed and I was wide awake stumbling upon Billy Wilder’s noir masterpiece Sunset Boulevard and like all of my great movie experiences I was transported to a different era and place and, like the narrator Joe Gills, hypnotized by the forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond as she manipulated and wooed those willing to be ensnared by her into maintaining a spectre of her lost glory. And like Gills, she had me hook, line, and sinker.
CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994) dir. Wong Kar-Wai
I’ve mentioned this before, but Chungking Express makes me smile. The story of two lovesick policemen and the women they find themselves drawn to could not be more tonally different and only briefly intersect at the eating establishment from which the movie derives its name. One is a neo-noir set in the heart of Hong Kong’s underworld while the other plays like a breezy romantic comedy but what ties this movie together is the undeniable zest for life that permeates the movie. It is made all the more clear due to the desperate plight of all those involved and the theme of the impermanence of life that is carried throughout. The result is a vibrantly poetic and lyrical ode to seizing life and sucking the marrow out of it. Every time I think about this movie, let alone write about it, I get this stupid giddy smile on my face. It’s just fantastic.
THE RED SHOES (1948) dirs. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
This movie is proof-positive that it really doesn’t matter what the viewing conditions are for when you encounter a great movie, because a great movie will always rise above it. I discovered this movie on a long flight home to Malaysia, completely sleep-deprived, on a tiny little screen with highly saturated colours in my too-cramped economy seat, as I listened through tiny headphones at the horribly tinny sound coming through. And yet despite all that I was transfixed by this movie’s hypnotic power. For the next two hours, I wasn’t on a plane in the middle of the Pacific, but transported to the travails of the Ballet Lermotov and the plight of those who were a part of it. The 30-minute performance of the ballet “The Red Shoes” at the heart of this movie remains one of my most transcendent film watching experiences I’ve ever had. Naturally I’ve returned to this movie several times since then, and it has become the movie I’ve come to love the most, but nothing compares to the absolute joy I had when I discovered this gem for the first time. (This is also my current default answer when people ask me what my all-time favourite movie is).
PATHER PANCHALI (1955) dir. Satyajit Ray
I heard of Satyajit Ray’s humanist drama and read about it long before I managed to see it. For so long the movie had been unavailable due to the fact that the last known print had been tragically damaged badly in a studio fire. I was desperately curious to see the movie because so many film critics and filmmakers that I had loved spoke so highly of the movie. I managed to snag a bootleg copy once, but the print transfer was so bad and the sound so grainy that I stopped after ten minutes and presumed that that was that, and I would never get to see the film that I had heard so many admire profusely. Then one day I heard rumblings that the people behind the Criterion Collection had developed the technology that would allow them to restore the damaged print. Soon word came through that they had successfully restored the film and were releasing it in theatres. With a newborn in hand I jealously heard the rapturous reviews again as showings went on without me. And two years after first hearing those first rumblings I finally had the Blu-ray copy in my hand, and it brought me back to that joy I had when I hunted and finally found my copy of Star Wars all those years ago. And fortunately, the actual watching of Pather Panchali was similarly worth the wait and a pleasant reminder that even after all my years of movie watching its still possible for a movie to make me love the movies more.