Top 10: My Landmark Movies
The following is a Top Ten list—not necessarily of the best films I've ever seen or my favourites, although many of them are—it is of the movies that have been the most influential on my growth as a filmmaker.
1. Ella Enchanted (2004)
I was about six when I became obsessed with this movie. I loved it so much that I learned how to operate the DVD player by myself so that I didn't have to ask my parents' permission to watch it for the hundredth time.
2. A Cinderella Story (2004)
This movie was a recurring classic on the local kids' TV channel. It had everything a preteen could ask for because its protagonist managed to be everything anyone could ask of a girl: she was funny, smart, had a strong work-ethic and best of all she was pretty. And the cherry on top of all that was her tragic backstory and deep, DEEP self-loathing.
3. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
This was not the first Marvel film I saw, but it must have been the one me and my siblings rewatched the most times—like a terrifying, record-breaking number of times. My dad really loved to point out the scenes that were shot on the University of Toronto campus and I got a kick out of being in on the joke too. This is definitely the most underrated film in the entire franchise. I'd be lying if I tried to credit anything other than those "Phase One" Marvel Studios' installments for making me seriously consider filmmaking as a thing real people do for a living and something that I could one day be a part of.
4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
I saw this either in eighth grade or freshman year of high school, with one of my childhood best friends. It was her idea to go see it because it had been pretty well received at the time. I remember after we saw it ourselves her saying that she thought it was pretty good but that she just didn't quite get it. I remember being surprised at how much I'd fallen in love with this movie that beforehand I was neither inclined or reluctant to watch. That day really changed how I'd watch movies going forward: not everyone's going to get it, and not everyone has to for it to be a good movie. Seems obvious now but at the time this was absolutely revolutionary to me.
5. Into The Wild (2007)
One of many movies belonging to a genre best described as the "Journey and Self Discovery" genre, or more simply put, travel movies. This film appeals to the dissatisfied and the non-conformists, and paints a dangerously enticing portrait of a man that is "truly free." The film incessantly tries to demonstrate his folly but the sheer beauty of the scenery and the appeal of the lifestyle makes it easy for these lessons to go right over the head of a young viewer. The film did effectively rock the foundations of my ego and had me rethinking priorities when I saw it mid-high school. Not long after though, I'd come to the realization that the protagonist was a total dick the whole time. Please be careful not to miss the counterpoint to young McCandless' stark individualism: "Happiness is only real when shared." Others I would recommend from this genre include Wild ( dir. Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014) starring Reese Witherspoon, Lost in Translation (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003) starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson and of course, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ( dir. Ben Stiller, 2013) in which the director himself plays the titular role.
6. Wish I Was Here (2014)
This film I saw in mid-to-late high school and it introduced me to the type of movie that can make you cry every type of tear between happy and sad from the outset to the very end of the story. This film was like a medieval torture device for my eyeballs. I might have only ever cried that much watching Les Misérables (2012) but that film is pure, unadulterated despair throughout. This is a family drama, it's funny and heart-wrenching: sad based on the potentiality of losing someone you love. Also, the soundtrack is just as spectacular as you'd expect from the director of Garden State (2004).
7. Blade Runner (1982)
My dad made it abundantly clear growing up that Star Wars (dir. George Lucas, 1977) is the best sci-fi film of all time, and probably the best film of all time in any genre. But when he introduced me to Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982) I knew: "This! This is my kind of sci-fi." I began to grasp how high-stakes issues greater than any single person could be explored sufficiently and often most effectively in small-scale, interpersonal relationship-based writing. It may sound preposterous to call a futurist film such as this "small scale" but it's this quality that makes a project like this possible. I've seen that Terrell Building miniature model up close and in person at the Museum of The Moving Image in New York city and let me tell you: for a model, the thing is massive and awe-inspiring. But the scaling down and optical trickery of miniatures is what made movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey ( dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Star Wars (1977) and Blade Runner (1982) possible. Not only possible, but I'd argue more convincing and more majestic than anything we've seen recently with green screens and CGI.
8. The Love Witch (2016)
I saw this either at the end of high school or the beginning of college, or maybe somewhere between the two. I swear, after this movie everything changed for me. I finally started to believe that there is nothing that I could not do. I saw Anna Biller, director, producer and craftswoman extraordinaire do only and everything that she wanted to do, and I saw her make it into a cohesive cinematic masterpiece. The production here is as intentional, nuanced and daring as the writing. I'd describe this work as belonging to the "Delicious" genre, and not just because the design is so decadent or because the technicolor is so juicy—it's because it suggests that even if you can't you should at least try to have your cake and eat it too.
9. Per Aspera Ad Astra (1981)
This rare gem I actually stumbled across as a fan-made music video for the band Future Islands, and like most of their other songs it's a total bop! But let's save that for what could potentially become a future post about "audio mood-boards" and OST prospects. It was this thumbnail for the video that caught my eye and the Soviet retro-futurist aesthetic of the video that held my gaze. Again I could say: "This is my kind of sci-fi!!" And beyond genre, it had a playfulness of writing and performing, and a boldness of production that spoke to me in the same way that The Love Witch (dir. Anna Biller, 2016) did. I couldn't imagine anything more magnificent than Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982) meets The Love Witch (dir. Anna Biller, 2016) meets The Fifth Element (dir. Luc Besson, 1997) and I managed to discover it by chance (and with english subtitles might I add). It truly seems as though certain events were put in a certain order so that this film could be made and so that I would find it when I did—it feels like something God made as a gift especially for me.
10. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
This film manages to make this town a microcosm for just about everything wrong with America today, and it still manages to have heart and humour and most of all compassion. I still believe that, for the screenplay at least, this is the best film made in the past three years and I've seen Midsommar (dir. Ari Aster, 2019) and The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers, 2019). This film I also discovered by accident, a couple days after New Year's 2018. A different childhood friend and I were visiting Toronto to spend the holidays with family and friends. Us two decided to go see Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017) which we both related to very much and enjoyed deeply. Now picture this: we're just sitting there through the end credits in our cushy red seats, delaying our inevitable return to the chilly night air and snowy outdoors. We're talking over what we just saw and reminiscing about the high school days it reminded us of when lo and behold another feature has started! We find ourselves entranced by the quiet, chirping image of a misty dawn over a field totally barren except for three weathered billboards. Next thing you know I've been swept up in the ruckus of shouting, doors slamming and police sirens. What really seems to drive this piece though, is having a lot of people, each in a great deal of pain cooped up together, wondering who's going to answer for each of their personal hardships. I said to myself "This! This is how I want to tell stories." This is how I want to write stories. This is how I want to picture stories. This is how I want to frame stories. It is so much more than what the facts are—because we have devastating stories told on the news every day and the over-saturation and emotional or physical distance has made us numb to each others' suffering. It is the proper structuring of a story that allows us to feel the weight of that story and to understand its implications. This is how I learned why it's important that I be a filmmaker at all.