Recently I was tagged on a “Ten Day Film Challenge” on Facebook, in which I posted an image from a film that has impacted me but with no explanation (one movie for each of ten successive days). Not much of a challenge, really, and I have to confess that I didn’t give a lot of thought in most cases as to which movies to include. I rather went with my gut.
I decided in this post to list the films I went with and to force myself to think a bit more about why I did in fact include them. I now realize that—perhaps as to be expected—there are some glaring oversights here. But, nonetheless, I had fun doing the exercise.
Anyway, here are the ten films:
1) 8 ½, Federico Fellini.
I first saw this movie as a young Ph.D. student not all that long after I moved to Philadelphia. It’s one of the first movies I ever saw that was made outside the Hollywood film system (maybe the first). And, given that it’s Fellini at his best, and with the movie’s use of dream and fantasy sequences, the fractured narrative, all the great, weird and funky characters—I’d quite obviously never seen anything like it. It’s truly a masterpiece, and at that point in my life when I was being exposed to new ideas, the urban life of Philly, the challenges of philosophy grad school, I was really knocked out by it. If you’ve never seen it, well, what are you doing reading this? Get yourself in front of a screen and watch it.
2) Annie Hall, Woody Allen.
“Brooklyn is not expanding.”
I suppose it was my disposition and my offbeat and wacky sense of humor, but I fell in love with Woody Allen’s movies when I was a kid. I empathized with the neurotic main character, I loved his jokes, I adored the writing, and I just couldn’t get enough of his work. I also romanticized New York City largely through watching and re-watching his films, so it was a bit of karma perhaps that I ended up living here. In my own humble opinion, Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s greatest masterpiece.
One quick story. I was invited to give an informal talk about Woody Allen to a philosophy club on the upper east side one evening—this was six or seven years ago, I suppose. Anyway, as I was walking from the host’s apartment to the subway to go home, I passed Woody in the street. Yep, got to love New York.
3) Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino.
It’s hard for me to get my head around the fact that Pulp Fiction is almost 25 years old now. Part of the reason might be because the film seems timeless. My own opinion is that it’s a masterpiece and one of the most important movies made in the last quarter century. It’s not just clever; it’s smart. Everything about it is brilliantly executed.
In 2014 I was interviewed by Brian Turnof for his radio show “The Mind’s Eye” on the 20th anniversary of Pulp Fiction. You can listen to that interview here: My interview. Brian wanted to interview me because of an essay I wrote about the movie and the symbols it contains. You can read that essay: “Symbolism, Meaning, and Nihilism in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.”
4) Fight Club, David Fincher.
“I am Jack’s broken heart.”
This is one of those movies that I didn’t think too much about adding. Like many people, the film hit me like a sack of wet concrete. I think it’s brilliantly done, and it’s one of those movies I can watch over and over. One major impact that it did have on me that I can articulate is that it introduced me to Chuck Palahniuk’s books. That was a huge deal.
Another story. I heard Chuck Palahniuk read once. This was at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square in New York probably fourteen years ago or so. He was reading a story called “Guts.” He explained that he once heard that people would pass out when they first read chapters from Dickens’s works, so he set himself the task of writing a story that would make people faint. He said on that reading tour already so many people had passed out (I don’t recall the exact number–a dozen or so). The story is about more and more bizarre masturbatory practices. No joke: two people in the audience that night fainted, and I myself got rather woozy (and I don’t have a weak stomach).
5) The Maltese Falcon, John Huston.
I’ve loved noir films since I was a kid. Back in the 70s, on Saturdays and Sundays, the networks showed old movies, and I’d always be glued to the set. I adored those old black and white flicks, especially the ones starring Bogart. Later I did some scholarship on noir. You can read my essay on the definition of noir: “Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir.”
I could have chosen a lot of different classic films for this particular list: Out of the Past, The Killers, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, amongst others. The Maltese Falcon wasn’t one of the ones that I really went out of my way to watch when I was a kid. It took me a long time to really appreciate its greatness. I think that’s largely because Bogart’s utterly masterful performance is so subtle. He has such a laconic onscreen persona that you have to pay close attention to get the nuances.
The other reason to choose this movie is because it’s considered by most scholars to be the first classic noir film. The movie considered to be the last classic noir, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, would also certainly be worthy of this list.
6) Jaws, Steven Spielberg.
A couple of movies on the list are here because of the profound impact they had on me when I was a kid. Jaws came out in 1975. I was ten years old that year, and I still remember the whole family going to see it—which was something a bit unusual. In any event, the movie shocked me to my core, and I wouldn’t go swimming for quite a long time afterwards. It’s a very affecting film, a well-told story, and wildly entertaining. It’s one that I can break out every once in a while and still really enjoy.
With this movie, and Star Wars in 1977 (see #10 below), Steven Spielberg and George Lucas invented the summer Hollywood blockbuster and changed the course of movie-making forever.
7) Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese.
“You talking to me?”
Scorsese, DeNiro, Keitel, Foster. Need I say more?
8) Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick.
This was one of the movies I didn’t think too much about putting on this list. I find it very powerful, very affecting, and brilliantly done in that oh-so-cold Stanley Kubrick sort of way. There’s much here that’s unforgettable, and the structure of it is brilliant. The film is broken into two halves, each one culminating in a shooting death. The first half, set on Parris Island, shows the brutal training of the new Marine recruits and ends with Private Pyle murdering his drill instructor, Sergeant Hartman, and then committing suicide. The second half is set in Vietnam and ends with Private Joker killing a wounded sniper who’s been shooting his companions one by one.
I argued in an essay in The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick that the film is about chaos and order and their relationship to ethical values. In the first half, the Marines are attempting to impose an artificially strict order and control on the world of the recruits, and the senseless crimes at the end of that segment reveal the folly of that enterprise. In the second half, chaos rules and we’re witness to the true insanity of war. When Private Joker kills the wounded sniper, he puts her out of her misery—something his more callous fellow soldiers are unwilling to do. In this case, Joker restores the moral order of things by killing.
If I had to redo this list, I’d probably leave this film off here and include instead something by the Coen brothers. Their absence is a glaring omission.
9) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Sergio Leone.
This is another of those movies that I watched as a kid whenever it was on TV. I haven’t seen it for years. I’m probably due for a viewing. It’s epic in scope and one of the best of the “spaghetti westerns.”
10) Star Wars, George Lucas.
There are certain works of art and entertainment that change what’s possible in a particular medium. Some bend or break the rules of story-telling. Others push the boundaries of the medium itself, what’s possible in that form of art. Star Wars is one of those boundary-breakers. It’s hard or impossible to communicate to people who’ve grown up with big budget movies full of special effects what it was like to watch this movie for the first time. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was magical in an almost overwhelming way.
As I said above, for good or ill, after Spielberg and Lucas, movies were never the same.