The following is a sequel of sorts to this post from the ancient past.
If there’s one thing that has always been central to my life it’s movies. My relationship with family, friends, my wife, our daughter, the countries I’ve lived in, the schools I’ve attended, and even my personal journey of faith are all intimately tangled with my time at the movies.
The first movie I ever saw in the cinema was LADY AND THE TRAMP. I remember that my dad brought us to some far away theater to see it because going to movies in our 1980’s Christian community was still pretty scandalous. That movie is not on this list because I don’t remember anything about it. I have never re-watched LADY AND THE TRAMP but I’m sure when I do I’ll be flooded with overwhelming childhood memories. I thought it only fair to mention it. Onwards and upwards.
1) SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)
One of the first movies I ever loved was SLEEPING BEAUTY. I was really young and it terrified me. Maleficent (recently dragged through the remake mud by Disney) was and is my all-time favorite movie villain. My dad sat my brother and I down before SLEEPING BEAUTY and told us that it was scary, but he wanted us to watch it anyway. “In this movie,” he said, “The prince will be given a Sword of Truth and a Shield of Righteousness. That sword and shield are real.” Then he read us the book of Ephesians. I’ll never forget it.
2) AN AMERICAN TAIL (1986)
AN AMERICAN TAIL is my first memory of a big theater. I was in awe of the bigness and loudness of it. My greatest fear as a kid was always losing my family. The thematic setting of immigrant America was completely lost on me. I didn’t know about all that and I didn’t need to know. I wanted Fievel to stay safe and find his family, and I was on the edge of my big movie theater seat.
3) ERNEST GOES TO CAMP (1987)
When I was five years old, nobody made me laugh more than Jim Varney’s bumbling, means-well, one outfit wearing Ernest. ERNEST GOES TO CAMP in particular, taught me some really important life lessons. Ernest showed me that courage has power. He taught me that love can change things, especially when you love people that no one else loves. He showed me that real strength usually has nothing to do with muscles. And he made me laugh so hard that food came out my nose.
4) HOOK (1991)
After I saw HOOK I was obsessed with collecting the toys. I had amassed an obscene collection but there was one doll that I just couldn’t find. It was Hook in his purple fighting suit. My dad and I went from store to store but everywhere we looked it was sold out. One day I came home and there it was, sitting on my bed. My dad had scavenged all of Hong Kong to find it. I remember thanking him before he died for finding that Hook doll even though it was so trivial. I told him the Hook doll was a perfect example of the way he was always pouring himself out for us, even though we were never very grateful. He just laughed it off and said it was nothing. But it wasn’t nothing. It was everything. I still have that hook doll.
5) STAR WARS EPISODE VI: THE RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
The first time I saw a Star Wars movie I was laying on the floor of some rich kids’ bedroom on the Hong Kong island. They were one of the numerous nameless, faceless kids who fill my memories of being a kid in Hong Kong. My parents were always dragging us with them to this or that person’s house for dinner and then throwing us into a room with some kids and expecting us to play. My dad was aghast when he found out we were watching JEDI. He rambled on about how important it was for us to watch “the first one” first but there was no stopping us. It’s funny to think that even before all the prequel controversy there were still kids like me watching the Star Wars movies out of order. I’m sure there always will be.
6) ALADDIN (1992)
I must have seen ALADDIN seven times in the cinema. I remember watching it so many times that my parents just plain refused to let me go again. ALADDIN makes my list because it marks the first time that I took an active interest in the behind-the-scenes aspect of movies. I watched everything I could find about the making of ALADDIN. I remember loving it not just as a story, but also as a movie made by artists! I was only ten years old but from then on I started paying closer attention to movies, not just who was in them but, more importantly, who was making them.
7) JURASSIC PARK (1993)
When I was eleven years old when I flew by myself for the first time to meet my parents in the Philippines. The whole trip was a blur of exciting adventures. I shot a gun, I picked up starfish out of the low tide, and I watched JURASSIC PARK three times in a row. The cinema looked like an old church. We arrived late and climbed up into the balcony, taking our seats just in time to hear Richard Attenborough have a conversation with himself about DNA. The movie was astounding. Even my parents were impressed. Special effects had reached an exciting new chapter and there was no looking back. The world of movies was about to change.
8) BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)
At some point, my dad showed me his favorite movie. I must have been 12 or 13. I was finally (barely) mature enough to sit still and watch an “old” movie. I love BUTCH CASSIDY now but as a kid I was bored. Spoiler alert: Butch and Sundance don’t make it. During their last stand they take turns shooting at the bad guys and covering each other as they move from hopeless shelter to hopeless shelter. “Prayer is like that,” dad said. “When you pray for someone it’s like you’re covering them with protection.” I always think of that when I pray for someone, or when I think of my parents praying for me.
9) BRAVEHEART (1995)
I watched this movie for the first time with my whole family on a little TV in the basement. By the end everyone was weeping. BRAVEHEART was my favorite movie for a long time. It is endlessly quotable and it set the bar so high for epic battle sequences that it’s still being copied today. I never saw BRAVEHEART on the big screen and I have my dad to thank for that. We tried to see it in 1995 and when buying the tickets dad says, “I know this is rated R, but do you mind if I bring my 13 and 15 year old sons in to see it?” Of course they did and so we had to see Dragonheart instead. Way to go dad.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. I saw this movie for the first time at (fellow Collective member) Suhail‘s house with a handful of classmates. We sat in awe as the twisty plot unfolded and when it was over our ninth-grade minds were blown. SUSPECTS is one of a very few “twist ending” movies that withstands and even benefits from multiple viewings. The cast is terrific, the dialogue and set pieces are razor sharp, and the plot is brilliantly simple. There is no cheating, no glaring plot holes, and no dodgy gimmicks to wrap everything up – just a solid story told in a way that gets better the more you think about it.
11) TITANIC (1997)
My first date, like many first dates, was a group date. I didn’t like Titanic the first time I saw it. It could have been the fact that I had to leave four times to throw up, returning each time WITHOUT gum to sit next to my mortified date. It could have been that eventually I went and sat on the floor at the back because I was too nauseous and embarrassed to return to my friends. Or it could be that the exit at the front left side, where I had spent two and a half hours vomiting onto the sidewalk, was the door that the packed, sold-out cinema used on the way out.
12) THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (1998)
In 1998, a good friend asked me if maybe I loved movies too much. A good test, he said, was to see if I could stop watching them for a while. “Let’s see if you can stop watching movies for a whole year.” Reluctantly I accepted the challenge and from January of 1999 until January of 2000 I didn’t watch any TV or movies except for one. I made an exception for Dreamworks’ Moses adaptation THE PRINCE OF EGYPT. The rest of the year I tried to redirect my life towards God and refocus my priorities. It was long. It was difficult. It was boring. But it was also life changing. It changed the way I watched movies, and the type of movies I watched, forever. In hindsight, I don’t think I could have picked a more difficult year. If you know anything about movie history, you’ll remember that 1999 was a banner year for cinema.
13) AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)
My first job was working customer service at Blinds To Go. I unloaded trucks, dealt with customer complaints and made minimum wage. Bizarrely, the company sent me for a paid, week-long training session. They put me in a hotel and paid for my meals. It was like a lonely vacation. After a particularly boring day of training I came back to the hotel and watched AMERICAN BEAUTY on the movie channel. The movie struck a real chord with me. It ended up being the first movie I ever bought on DVD and it was after watching the director’s commentary that I decided to go to film school and pursue a career making movies.
14) LIFE AS A HOUSE (2001)
Ali and I broke up a lot before we got married. We were one of those couples that was always getting back together. In 2001, during one of our “breaks”, I got an email from my dad telling me that The Lord of the Rings had just wrapped filming in New Zealand and was about to hold an exhibit at Casa Loma in Toronto. This exhibit was a unique opportunity to glimpse some of the costumes and props used in the movie and to see little pieces of Middle Earth brought to life. I called Ali, who knew that no one else would want to come and see that stuff, and asked if she would come with me. Maybe we could get some lunch after and see a movie. That day at Casa Loma became a special moment in our history together, and is one of the highlights in our collection of great memories. The movie we ended up seeing was the mediocre (but charming) LIFE AS A HOUSE. By the end of the day we were back together, but not for the last time.
15) THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)
I’ve written extensively about my first time watching FELLOWSHIP in a previous issue. I hated the movie. It’s strange to look back on popular culture before and after THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Before RINGS came out Tolkien was very personal to me. The characters, settings and moments were uniquely fixed in my imagination. After the movies came out I shared those things with everyone. Eventually New Zealand, Weta and Peter Jackson started to blur and then erase my own impressions. In 2001 my parents were living in Hong Kong, my brother was in California and I was in Canada. That Christmas, for the first time in a long time, all four members of my family sat together in a cinema and for three hours we watched Middle Earth come to life. We didn’t know it but that was the last time we would all watch a movie together again.
16) KILL BILL VOL. 1 (2003)
My year at film school was incredible. I made new friends, I made a few movies, I wrote a few scripts, and I came to the slow, painful and embarrassing realization that I was probably more interested in watching movies than I was in making them. It’s hard to regret a year that was as life changing and formative as that one. In a lot of ways it was the closest I would ever come to the “college experience” and I’m glad I got the chance to spread my wings in that way. One highlight of my film school year was getting tickets to an early press screening of Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL VOL. 1. It was an awesome cinematic experience, made even sweeter by the fact that I was seeing the movie months before anyone else would.
17) HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)
I hated Harry Potter. I resented every dollar and bit of thunder it was taking from THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I had never read it but, obligated by the burden of pop culture, I had seen the first two movies and written them off as derivative nonsense. On June 2nd, 2004, I suddenly decided to leave BC forever and travel (by myself) the 3000 miles back to Ali. On my way out of town I stopped at a bookstore and bought Rowling’s third book, finally deciding to give the story a chance. I devoured the book at each stop along the way, sometimes even reading it on the steering wheel as I meandered along Canada’s endless highways. By the time I got home I had bought the next two books and tickets to see the movie. AZKABAN opened the night I arrived. It’s still my favorite of the Potter films.
18) THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Dad died in 2005. Life didn’t change much on the surface. I went to work. I went to church. I went to a ton of movies. I felt numb. I wanted to talk to my dad about the sixth Potter book, which he would have loved, and the fact that there were rumors of a Hobbit movie, which he would have hated. My dad got me into Batman, raising me on the 1960’s TV show, comics, Jack Nicholson’s joker and Batman the Animated Series. THE DARK KNIGHT knocked my socks off. The movie was bursting with magic moments that my dad would have loved and even featured Hong Kong in a main action sequence! He might not have loved it as much as I do but the tragedy is that he missed it and now I’ll never know for sure.
19) LIFE OF PI (2012)
God is not afraid of tough questions, ethical dilemmas or honest soul searching. It seems to me that God wants us to be honest more than anything. Be hot or cold, he says, just don’t be lukewarm. I came close to walking away from Christianity because of a realization I had during my Critical History of the Bible class in my last year of university. I looked around me life and saw that none of my church friends knew or cared anything about how the Bible became the Bible. We were just swallowing things we got from the great telephone game of history. We were victims of a shrugging, my-parents-believe-it-and-so-do-I Christianity. Well not me. Not anymore. Ali and I were grown adults, and if we had the courage to admit that none of this made sense then we were going to stand up and say it. And then, in a moment, everything changed. Sitting alone in a dark empty theater watching LIFE OF PI, I had the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience. At the end of the movie, during the pitch perfect denouement, the elder Pi, framed in close-up, states the movies’ thesis. “Which story do you prefer?” I was stunned. It’s hard to explain how a movie could move me into a weeping religious crisis, but there I was – in pieces.
20) WHIPLASH (2014)
Do you want to be one of the greats? Imagine what it must have taken to become Michael Jordan, or Steve Jobs, or Beyonce! It’s an up at dawn, pride swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, okay!? It’s not easy. Those people famously dragged themselves over the coals of ambition to get where they got – years of practice, years of thankless performances, years of failure, years of climbing inch by inch to the top. WHIPLASH is about the cost of being great. It won me over instantly – leaping to the top of my year-end movie list after the opening scene. I’m still thinking about the movie months later, turning its themes over and over in my mind. Do I want my daughter to be one of the greats? Do I want her to be the best in the world at something? Every loving parent wants their kid to do whatever makes them happy, and to always do their best. But sometimes in order to do our best we need to be pushed. Like Aravis and Shasta in C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Horse and His Boy’, sometimes we need to be chased and clawed and terrified to really go as fast as we can.