When I decided to undertake the Film 5000 Project, my goal was not to prove that any film is better than any other, or that any filmmaker, year, decade, cinematic trend, movement, or school of thought is inherently superior. I intend to see so many films over such a long period of time that I will eventually overcome my natural biases towards the movies that made early impressions on me, and be able to view all films with a balance of passion and objectivity. By the time I complete the project, I hope that I'll be able to generate an authoritative list of the 5000 best pictures released between 1930 and 2029.
It might be an impossible task. I firmly believe that when and where you see a film, as well as who you see it with and the character and quality of its presentation, has a major effect on your appreciation of the picture. I have no intention to deny my predisposition towards certain types of films, but I also hope to expand my taste over the next forty years so that those predilections become less relevant. I was a child of the VHS generation, and there are dozens of formative movies that I watched at home over and over again as a kid, but the films I saw in theaters were the ones that truly shaped my love for cinema. While I’m not great at remembering exact release dates, or even what year a movie came out, I have a Rain Man-like ability to recall precise details about almost every film I've ever seen, including where and what time of day I watched it, the format in which it screened, and who, if anyone, accompanied me.
And so, in an attempt to communicate some of my cinematic DNA to readers of this blog, I've compiled a list of my top ten theater-going experiences. All of these films affected me profoundly, and many of them are still among my favorites, while others gave me an appreciation for a genre or style of cinema I had not previously been aware of or open to.
These films are presented in chronological order, not ranked in any sort of preference. The dates are the years I saw them, not when they were first released.
# 1. CINDERELLA (1973, theater unknown)
According to my mother, the first film I ever saw in a movie theater was the Walt Disney animated classic Cinderella (1950), and I can only assume she took me when it was re-released in 1973, when I was two years old. I have no memory of this screening, and I would NEVER take a two-year-old to a movie theater, where he might disturb the rest of the audience, but according to my mother I watched the entire film in silent fascination, and when it was over I screamed and cried begging her not to take me away from the theater. She had to swear that we would return the next day and see it again, but neither of us remembers if she kept her promise.
# 2. SUPERMAN (1978, North Dartmouth Mall, Dartmouth MA)
The first film I have a conscious memory of seeing was 1978’s Superman. I can't remember what I thought of the film itself, but I do recall the thrill of watching the opening credits. I was too young to understand what a director or an executive producer or a creative consultant did, nor the behind the scenes arbitration that lead to those titles. But I can vividly recall my excitement at hearing John Williams's exultant score and watching a seemingly endless list of names blaze onto the screen one by one, leaving streaming, glowing trails as they flew off. Superman did not engender in me a love of comic book movies, but it did foster a lifelong enthusiasm for titles and credit sequences. Ever since seeing this film I have been uniquely obsessed with special titles, title designers and trends in how credits are presented. I look forward to making that list of favorites in the future.
For critics, this film, along with Jaws and Star Wars, represents the beginning of the end for the great auteur period of the 1970s, and the move into the more commercial, less cerebral era of the blockbuster. For me, though, Superman stands as part of the grand cinematic tradition of putting something onscreen that has never been seen before. It was the first film of its kind in many important ways, and it remains one of my fifty favorite films of all time; while it may not achieve such a high rank by the time I finish this project, I'm confident it will have a place on the list.
# 3. POLTERGEIST (1982, The Cinema 140, Dartmouth MA)
Poltergeist was the first horror movie I ever saw, at age eleven, and it scared the living hell out of me. My babysitter at the time was very excited to see the movie, and I had a big crush on her, so I wanted to see it thinking it would be a way for us to connect. One night, I convinced my mother to take me (and why not—it was rated PG, after all) and we sat there together as every single frame of the film imprinted itself onto my brain. It's an understatement to say that I was too young and unprepared for so intense an experience; it took me more than six months before I was able to sleep in my own bed with the lights off. I never saw any of the sequels and, even though I purchased the film for my collection on both laserdisc and DVD, it would be thirty years before I finally revisited Poltergeist again.
In 2011, I hosted a film festival called “The Greatest Summer of Movies…Ever!” I borrowed the moniker from the Alamo Draft House cinema in Austin Texas who coined it to describe the amazing crop of sci-fi and fantasy films that came out in the summer of 1982. My own festival featured dozens of films from that memorable time, but by far the most enjoyable screening was a double header of E.T. (a movie I disliked as a child and still don't care for as an adult) and Poltergeist. It amazed me how well I remembered the movie, and how clearly it was all seared into my brain: the compositions, the characters, Spielberg's distinctive ‘80s visual effects, and the tag line, "They're here," that little Heather O'Rourke utters at the beginning of the picture (and in every commercial for the film, which used to send chills up my spine whenever I heard it as a kid). Seeing the film as an adult wasn't the least bit terrifying; I suppose that a film like Poltergeist just works differently on the mind of a 41-year-old man than an 11-year-old boy. Nevertheless, I found the film riveting. It was every bit as good as I thought it was, and all the friends who attended the screening agreed that the film really held up after thirty years. It is a wonderful portrait of, and a sharp commentary on, life in 1980s American suburbia, and a terrific ghost story for the ages.
# 4. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989, Lowes 34th St. Showplace, NYC)
I moved to New York City in 1989 to study film at the School of Visual Arts. The first movie I saw upon arriving was, appropriately enough, New York Stories, the unexceptional anthology film by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen. By then I was a longtime fan of each of these directors and I always went to see their new films the week they opened. Woody Allen was especially prolific at this point, and in addition to his whimsically lightweight segment in New York Stories, he released Crimes and Misdemeanors, arguably his best picture of the 1980s, or maybe ever. It certainly represents the most accomplished blending of his signature and seemingly disparate moviemaking styles, combining the farcical slapstick gag-based comedies that hearken back to the golden age of Hollywood with the bleak existential morality tales that emulate European art-house cinema.
I saw the film with an old friend from high school who shares my love of Woody Allen movies and is one of the few people I knew before moving to New York who sought out interesting cinema pre-collage. We had our traditional Chinese feast and then went to see the movie. I was a big fan of Woody Allen (and Chinese food) before I moved to New York, but it wasn’t until this night that my enjoyment of both crossed over to devotion. The combination of a close friend, a delicious meal, and a packed audience in a impeccable environment (at the time, the Lowes 34th St. Showplace had great projection and sound, and midtown New York audiences neither talked during movies nor had mobile devises to light up) made this experience transcendent. It was one of many formative events in a year that was both seminal for me personally and wonderful for cinema in general. Crimes and Misdemeanors and Do the Right Thing—in my view the two best pictures of ’89—are both New York stories that had a real influence on me. While I never developed much affection for the real New York City, I did fall in love with the version of it presented by filmmakers whose passion for the city is unmistakable.
# 5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and PAT GARRET & BILLY THE KID
(1989, The Cinema Village, NYC)
Like many people, I didn’t like Westerns when I was a kid. The ones I had seen were almost entirely black-and-white or badly transferred John Wayne films on TV with commercial breaks, and very often I hadn't even seen the film from the beginning. I didn’t feel then what I now truly believe is true: you can’t love movies but not like Westerns. They're the purest form of cinema, even more so than silent films. Through their familiar and easily understood stories, Westerns are capable of conveying some of the most powerful themes and concepts in all of film. (Don’t agree? Check out my list of 25 Westerns that will make you love Westerns coming soon)
The screening that made me question my dislike of the Western genre, and caused me to go back and really study the form, was a double feature that I saw on a rainy Saturday afternoon while enduring a terrible headache. The first year I lived in New York I practically lived at The Cinema Village; a decent if unexceptionally designed revival house that showed a new double feature every two days for just $6 for both movies.
I had never seen a Western on a big screen before, and Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) was a hell of a film to start with. It's essentially a love letter to, and a master class in, the history of the Hollywood Western. I was immediately transfixed by its compositional imagery and sedate pacing, and by Ennio Morricone's score that was so astonishingly integral to the narrative. By the time the movie ended, I was determined to see every one of the films that had inspired director Sergio Leone to make this one. I was aware that Leone was referencing the entire history of the American Western, but I didn’t know much about that history and wasn’t able to fully appreciate what he was doing. I think that actually added to my enjoyment of the movie (now that I have seen so many other great westerns my high opinion of this picture has diminished a bit).
Despite my enchantment by the movie, my head still ached and I considered skipping the second feature, which at two and a half hours was almost as long as Once Upon a Time in the West. But I decided to stay, and seeing this double feature permanently converted me into a life long lover of Westerns. Sam Peckinpah’s original cut of Pat Garret & Billy The Kid (1973) is an entirely different but equally sweeping Western, also with a distinctively evocative score (this one by Bob Dylan, of whom I was also not yet the devout fan I would later become). Pat Garret & Billy The Kid is a movie you can get lost in. It never feels too long, yet seems to go on for an entire afternoon. If you can accept Peckinpah’s violent and misogynistic style on its own terms, this is a film that can transport you to another place and another time.
I left the Cinema Village with a headache now approaching migraine levels but it felt like a fair price to pay for this day of cinematic indulgence. I soon realized I had lost my watch sometime during the screening. This was a common occurrence, as I fiddled with my wristbands incessantly, but until then I had always worn a watch. After spending those transformative six hours inside an idealized American West, though, away from every worldly concern (including my terrible headache), I decided that watches were pointless and I haven't worn one since. Regardless, I'm never late for a movie.
# 6. LA FEMME NIKITA (1990, Carnegie Hall Cinema, NYC)
I saw Luc Besson's Nikita during it's initial American release. I went with a fellow film student who I was collaborating with on some insignificant project that seemed very important to us at the time. Perhaps seeing the film at the then-resplendent Carnegie Hall Cinema was what made this screening so significant to me, or maybe all the European locations, especially the sequence in Venice, made the world outside of New York seem like a great big Christmas present waiting for me to open it. It could have been the exciting and visceral nature of Besson’s stylistic direction, or it maybe it was the attraction I had to my fellow film student—this was beginning of one of the more memorable nights she and I spent together. It was probably all of the above, but something inside me clicked while watching this movie. It is at once a simple, James-Bond-like action picture, and a distinctly French musing on how men view women. I was in just the right point in my life to discover this movie, and it still makes me feel like a naïve twenty-one year-old whenever I watch it.
# 7. CHINATOWN (1992, Coolidge Corner Movie House, Brookline MA)
The 1992 documentary Visions of Light, is a series of interviews with famous and well-regarded cinematographers talking about the art of cinematography and paying homage to the pioneers of the craft. It is one of the worst films about film ever made. Not only is there very little to say about cinematography, which is a rather technical medium, the movie is shot in HDV, a video format totally unacceptable for 35mm conversion at the time. Even worse than failing to honor the subject of the documentary by videotaping the interviews rather than shooting them on celluloid, though, is the terrible condition of virtually every movie clip used to illustrate the interviewees' various points. As far as I'm concerned, unless you're already intimately familiar with the films being discussed, this contemptible documentary should bewilder you. But contrary to my opinion, the movie was a big hit with cinephiles, and many revival theaters went so far as to create programs around the picture’s theatrical run featuring several of the movies it references.
The Coolidge Corner Movie House, home of Boston’s largest movie screen, was one such theater. I had just moved back to Boston from New York with the one really good friend I’d made at film school, and the two of us went to see both Visions of Light itself and many of the films the Coolidge screened as part of their Visions-inspired series. We had never seen some of these pictures, and I was pleased that the Coolidge programmers seemed to be better than the Visions of Light filmmakers at obtaining high-quality prints.
One of the films was Chinatown (1974), the great Roman Polanski / Robert Towne / Robert Evans / Jack Nicholson picture. I had seen the film on at least five previous occasions, first on VHS and then twice on laserdisc, the high-resolution analog home video format I had been turned on to by my favorite professor at film school. The laserdisc medium was designed to give a far more accurate representation of a filmmaker’s intention than VHS could offer, and I owe my love of many films (including Jaws, The Thing, 2001, Alien, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, From Russia with Love, Midnight Cowboy, and The Rules of the Game) to rediscovering them and watching them over and over on laserdisc. But sitting in the third row of the Coolidge and watching a 35mm print of Chinatown on the giant screen was like seeing a movie that was entirely different from the one I thought I already knew well.
I had adored Chinatown for both the intricacies of its screenplay and its singularly retro/contemporary visual style. But from the first image of Burt Young’s hands flipping through black and white photographs of his unfaithful wife to the final long shot that cranes up and fixes its gaze on the dark streets of the titular district, viewing Chinatown that day was less like watching a movie and more like being inside a story. It was as if we were walking with Jack Nicholson around turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, trying to help him get to the bottom of the mystery. I felt I could feel the heat of the afternoon sun, smell the smoky air in the unventilated rooms, touch the fabric of the furniture and the grain of the wood. I was aware of hundreds of other details but, rather than distracting me from the story, they made it come all the more alive.
It was this screening that made me decide to stop renting videos of the classic movies I’d always wanted to see, and to wait instead until prints of them eventually came around to a theater. Home video is great, but it can never duplicate the details, color, mood, and, most of all, the intimate proximity you experience with characters when watching a pristine 35mm print that's properly focused in a huge 2.35:1 screen.
# 8. GROUNDHOG DAY (1993, The Ziegfeld Theater, NYC)
My favorite movie theater was the Ziegfeld Theater on 54th Street in Manhattan. With 1,131 seats, a 52-foot screen, and 70mm projection, it was New York’s largest single screen theater. A picture of me alone in the dark of its grand auditorium graces the ABOUT page on this site. During its last decade of existence it rarely drew big crowds except for major movie premiers and it was constantly in danger of getting torn down, situated as it is in non-residential midtown Manhattan where the real estate was infinitely more valuable as a hotel or office building (it closed it doors January 29th 2016). When I lived in New York, I loved to go watch films there in the middle of the day, when I usually had the place almost to myself. I made it a point to arrive early just to enjoy the serenity of the environment. There was something magical about being in a huge, empty and near-silent public space, especially one that is located directly in the heart of one of the most crowded and noisy parts of one of the world's most crowded and noisy cities.
By 1993, I no longer resided in New York, but I did spend lots of time there working on small films. For the second half of the year, I lived on the sofa of my best friend’s apartment on Avenue B; a tiny studio with no air conditioner that we shared with his cat and the ancient 16mm six-plate Stienbeck editing table on which we were cutting his senior thesis film. Quarters were tight, especially during the peak heat of the afternoon, which made the frequent escapes to the movies we took during lunch all the more welcome. On one especially hot day, we took off for the Ziegfeld, grabbing some sandwiches on the way, and settled in for the latest Bill Murray comedy, directed by Harold Ramis. As we sat down in our favorite seats a good half hour before the show, we figured Groundhog Day would be a pleasant enough distraction from work. We listened to the quiet Muzak playing through the cinema sound system as we ate our sandwiches, and I remember thinking that this was the perfect lunch. No restaurant, dining room, or BBQ experience could beat sharing a sandwich with a good friend in the cocoonlike comfort of the Ziegfeld cinema.
The lights dimmed and the film began. We expected a mildly amusing, mid-level entertainment, but Groundhog Day turned out to be one of the most inspired and surprisingly profound comedies I had ever seen. This was certainly one of the most perfect experiences I've ever had at the movies, and if I could choose a day to relive over and over again, as Murray's character is forced to do in this movie, this very well might be it.
# 9. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, SABRINA, FUNNY FACE and ROMAN HOLIDAY
(1995, The Gramercy Theater, NYC)
I love double features. They give film programmers an opportunity to pair movies together in entertaining and eye-opening ways, and they provide audiences with a throwback to a slower time in American life, when films were often shorter but people spent more time at movie theaters. Also, if you have never seen either film in a given double feature, you double your chances of discovering a great movie.
For a brief time in 1995, the Gramercy in New York, which until then had been a first-run theater, turned itself into a revival house, and one of their first programs was an Audrey Hepburn retrospective. Hepburn is a movie star whose films I somehow missed during all my early years of video rentals and my brief stint at film school. I had seen plenty of clips and images from several of her films, like My Fair Lady and Charade, but prior to ’95, the only picture I’d actually seen her in was Always, Stephen Spielberg's dismal remake of A Guy Named Joe—her last film where her role is essentially a cameo, and it failed to make a significant impression.
Two of the films playing as part of the Gramercy series were pictures I’d always heard were classics: Blake Edwards's Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957). My best friend and I made plans to see them both and, perhaps, to stay for the films paired with them. The first to screen was Breakfast at Tiffany's. It was the movie we were most curious about, but it was decidedly not the enchanting gem we expected. In fact, I strongly disliked the picture, and I still do. It's a shallow movie that succeeds neither as either a dark drama about damaged souls nor as a bright comedy about fashionable loners. I loved seeing Hepburn sing “Moon River,” but other than that I did not succumb to her onscreen charms.
Afterwards we debated staying for the second feature. I had never heard of Sabrina (1953), but it was a Billy Wilder movie so we figured it had to be at least worth seeing. In the event, “worth seeing” does not begin to describe this consummate concoction of late studio-era Hollywood ingredients. Sabrina easily tops all of Wilder’s other films in my estimation, but what really knocked me out was Hepburn's performance as the lovesick innocent young chauffeur’s daughter who transforms herself into a glamorous and worldly sophisticate. This is the same basic arc Hepburn plays in most of her pictures, but Sabrina is the film that best demonstrates the fullness of her rather limited range as an actress. I fell hard for Hepburn as Sabrina and, to this day, I consider it her finest role.
The next evening we returned to see the much-loved '50s musical Funny Face, and we were disappointed once again by this stiff, woefully dated pseudo-hip musical in which an elderly Fred Astaire romanced a young Hepburn. Hepburn was usually cast opposite leading men that were 10 to 30 years older than her. In only a few films does this age difference feel awkward or wrong, but this is certainly one of them. Despite a few enjoyable scenes and songs, the film failed to turn either of us into a devotee of either Hepburn or the movie musical form in general.
Again, we debated whether we should stay for the second feature. This time it was Roman Holiday (1953), and, like Sabrina, we knew barely anything about it. But it was Hepburn’s first American movie, and she had won the Best Actress Oscar for it, so we figured it was worth a look. I’ll never forget that screening. Before the picture began, a theater usher explained that due to a defect in the print they had received, the picture and sound in the last scene would be one full second out of sync. He hoped this delay would not be too distracting and wanted to warn us in advance that it was coming.
By the time that final scene arrived, the picture had completely taken me over. I was transfixed by the film and by Hepburn. Roman Holiday was everything I wanted from a romantic comedy, and furnished almost everything I love about old Hollywood movies. There are dozens of reason for this, most of them enumerated in my 100 Favorite Films essay, but I know that part of what made that particular screening so memorable was the defect in the print. Since there is very little dialogue in the last reel of Roman Holiday, the sync issue did not diminish the power of the picture very much. Apart from that one flaw, we were watching an immaculate 35mm archive print viewed in an ideal-sized single cinema theater with an exemplary audience. We all knew ahead of time that the sound would drift a bit at the end, so no one snickered or complained or tensed up or shouted out. We all silently accepted that there are sometimes imperfections in 35mm projection and that, on some occasions, those idiosyncrasies are part of what add to the collective experience and make seeing a film in a theater a far more memorable experience than watching one at home. Of course I would never intentionally seek out a compromised version of any movie, but somehow the one second sync issue in the final reel of that print—a defect I’ve never encountered at any other screening of any other film before or since—marked this movie-going experience forever in my mind. People who complain about the inconsistencies of 35mm projection should remember what Henry Miller said, “Certainly paradise, whatever, wherever it be, contains flaws. If it did not, it would be incapable of drawing the hearts of men or angels.”
#10. BLADE RUNNER, THE FINAL CUT (2007, The Ziegfeld Theater, NYC)
This screening gave me hope for digital cinema and my ability to enjoy it, and confirmed for me that I’m not as much of a stick-in-the-mud as I feared. The Ziegfeld, you may remember, is my favorite place to see a movie, but ever since the theater converted to primarily digital projection, much of the bloom is off the rose. The great pleasure of seeing movies at this old-school picture palace was not just the giant screen and cavernous tranquility. There was also that the projectionists really seemed on top of their game, and the prints were always unblemished and in perfect focus. My vivid memories of seeing Spartacus and Vertigo in 70mm, as well as countless 35mm films weeks into their theatrical runs, made watching digitally projected movies at the Ziegfeld a much bigger disappointment than when the Film Forum and other, lesser theaters switched over. One screening of Goldfinger at the Ziegfeld was clearly a projected BluRay or possibly even a DVD, and it was such a letdown that I felt embarrassed for dragging a friend there to see his first James Bond film. But in 2007, when two of my best and most like-minded friends and I went to see Ridley Scott’s “final cut” reissue of Blade Runner during its theatrical run at the Ziegfeld, it was the first time a digital projection experience thrilled me as much as an impeccable film print.
Blade Runner (1982) has never been one of my favorite films, but it is a unique movie that I enjoy very much, and I've seen it dozens of times in its five different versions in at least six different formats. Here, though, it looked as good as I've ever seen it. I was thoroughly immersed in the sumptuous blacks, rich detail and rock-steady image of the digital projection. Best of all, I found myself experiencing the movie anew, almost as I did with Chinatown during that screening at the Coolidge Corner in 1992. All my biases and negative preconceived notions about DLP, voice over narration, and directorial meddling with films decades after their release (which I’m still fervently opposed to) melted away for two hours, and I enjoyed Blade Runner far more than I ever had before.
Since then I have seen hundreds of digital screenings, both of new releases and of older films that have been transferred and/or restored to HD files. While I can’t say that I’ve had any digital experiences as positive as the Blade Runner screening, and I certainly haven’t reversed my preference for prints over DLP, I no longer feel that I have a dog in this fight. That said, I’m still far more inclined to support a theater that makes the effort to show films on film, and I’m also much more likely to make a special effort to go out and see a movie that is being presented on film, because of the physical connection that celluloid has with the actual production of the movie. A print of a film made before the advent of digital projection is an actual piece of cinema history, whereas a digital file of that same film, no matter how much it has been cleaned up and restored, is only a record of that history.