I‘m a systematic thinker. I use rubrics and metrics and, if they aren’t available, I make one up. For this list I had a hard time thinking of a system. Do I go with the most cinematically influential? The most nostalgic? One from each genre? Each decade? I then caught myself overthinking the whole process. So I just decided to pick five films spread out across their connection to people or moments in my life. In no particular order, here are a few films I can always come back to and are important to my cinema sensibilities.
The Princess Bride
(Rob Reiner, 1987)
The Princess Bride is the ultimate childhood movie. Not only is the script by William Goldman ridiculously funny, but the story never takes itself too seriously. It’s got the satirical basis of some films like Deadpool or History of the World Part 1 that works really well for more mature audiences except this is not nearly as R rated. It’s quite wholesome and simple. There are obvious good and bad guys and obvious objectives. It gives you some fantastic moments, quotes and reversals and betrayals that make you gasp or cheer or cry, but a lot of them are outrageously romantic.
Yet, with the framing device of a grandpa reading a fairytale to his grandson, we let ourselves believe the whimsical fairytale. It’s made all the more magical by the zany cast of characters, all memorably acted. There’s plenty to love about each character, and you could never imagine another actor doing as good of a job. The score is simplistic in mood and storytelling, only really enhancing the scene rather than trying to pull some storytelling subtleties that more adult films favor. The synthesized noise of it also gives a certain nostalgia to the entire film. And that nostalgia is where the film takes the audience. Not to the fantasy kingdoms of Guilder and Florin, or even the 80s childhood bedroom of Fred Savage, but to the memory of being told a story. You feel just like a kid watching this movie.
(John Carpenter, 1982)
The summer before high school I had an operation done to my feet. In recovery I could barely walk, so I was virtually tethered to my couch. My dad came by and dropped off some movies to keep me company. At this point I was just a casual moviegoer. I ended up marathoning countless movies. This is the one that suckered me into film for good. I adore the story, an Agatha Christie novel with a sci-fi twist. The ending gives the spectacular climax of a blockbuster yet the uncertain fate of a more lowkey drama film. The film feels so much bigger than the budget and production actually were. But the human drama is there, the characters all have the same intense motive: survive. This could so easily be homogeneous and boring, but each character feels distinct.
The actors bring their characters to life but also keep this movie grounded, making the experience much more intense than a regular genre piece, like some of Carpenter’s other work. The cinematography and music all serve the atmosphere well. The use of smoke and shadows emphasizes a feeling of mystery while the droning score adds some more tension but also maintains the pulpy feel of the film. And the best part, the pièce de résistance, the effects. Whatever Faustian deal Carpenter had to make to get effects to look that good and complicated, totally worth it. At the risk of sounding psychotic, I witnessed things I could never even dream of happening to a human body and I loved it. Each special effects sequence just showed me how bizarre a film could be but still work, even excel, cinematically. I come back to it to experience the bizarre and thank my lucky stars I am not the one who has to make a fateful decision via flamethrower.
The Motorcycle Diaries
(2004, Walter Salles)
Bio dramas are usually centered around a certain historical figure; the plot centers around their most well known exploits, and the climax is their most iconic moment. Watching often feels like checking a checklist in your head for the moments they include. Movies about Che Guevara would probably follow Che as a guerilla fighter and then revolutionary in Cuba. This movie follows Che Guevara before that. He’s just Ernesto, a medical student traveling with his best friend, Alberto, across South America. Taking a peek at the moments on a road trip that would become the foundation of Che Guevara is an invaluable experience.
The script and acting is the strongest part of this film. Watching these two guys laugh with each other, fight with each other, and mess with each other allowed me to vicariously live their road trip. I first watched it right around when the first Avengers came out. I saw The Avengers in a packed theater with some of my best friends on opening night. We were hooting and hollering on the edge of our seats. It was awesome. I then saw The Motorcycle Diaries with my mom, at home, some Sunday afternoon. I laughed with these guys. I worried for these guys. I was touched. Ernesto and Alberto’s stories were so human. All the people they meet on the way are just as human. “Sonder” is a noun defined as the realization that everyone has a life as complex and vivid as yours. I saw this movie and had that realization. I put it in my Top Five because this film showed me the power of human stories in cinema and in real life.
Dazed and Confused
(1993, Richard Linklater)
This movie takes the Animal House or Caddyshack approach to making a teen movie. You follow a group of students—fractured into different cliques—trying to have some fun. Except Linklater doesn’t it play it for laughs. Entirely. These kids are real, just wanting to do something the last day of school. This movie is the breakout role for so many actors, and they all put in excellent performances. The soundtrack is killer. Soundtracks annoy me often times because they just don’t work with the visuals, they’re only in it for the name recognition. But from the opening shot of the GTO rolling into the school parking lot all the way to the Chevy Chevelle driving on the highway, the music adds so much zeitgeist to the film.
There’s great fun to be had when a gang of dudes are racing down the street destroying mailboxes. Moments of genuine fear when the freshmen are being pursued by a madman with a paddle aiming straight for their butts. And moments of relatability when some upperclassmen are on the football field smoking weed and professing their high school angst to each other. Linklater treats the high schoolers as people, not as vessels for crude sex and drug jokes. Although that’s in this movie too. And they’re hilarious. The main criticism I hear for this movie is the lack of plot. The nature of this film is not to watch high school hijinks take twists and turns. It’s to spend some time and get to know these people. It’s one of the first movies that made me focus on the “experience” part of the phrase “cinematic experience.”
La La Land
(2016, Damien Chazelle)
This movie is just a delight. There’s no other way to articulate it. The score, direction, and story have so much contagious youthful energy you can’t help but smile for a lot of it. Chazelle was greatly inspired by movies like Young Girls of Rochefort and An American in Paris. You can see he brings their bright fun presentation and musical theatre flamboyance and updates it with a more interesting story than those older musicals often billed. The story of Mia and Sebastian is a fight between loves and dreams. It’s a relatable crux to rest a story on, and boy did it get me. The music personifies the romantic and uncertain nature of the Hollywood lifestyle. It’s a bit simple compared to some other musicals, but it makes for some adorable chemistry numbers that make my heart melt. “A Lovely Night” in particular shows off how well Stone and Gosling work with each other, with their back and forth looks and tap dancing.
Even when they’re fighting, they have such great chemistry. The little scoffs and jabs feel deeply personal. They’re great together, but Stone, whom we follow for most of the film, kills her solo scenes. This movie swept me up with it’s believable love story then punctuates it with Mia’s audition, delivered straight ahead, one spotlight and stationary with every bit of emotion that choreography and color would not be able to match. It showed me the power of a great actress. I didn’t blink in that entire sequence. From its bombastic first number to its tearful last one, I was sold on this updated version of a genre that hadn’t been seen in a while in the mainstream. Now I’m hoping for more just like it.
I’m Jacob Watson, I’m an 18 year old from Austin, Texas. I’m half-Mexican and half-white. Film has brought me close to my family and friends. I have a passion for creating and experiencing film to its fullest potential. Hopefully, these films say something about how and what I look for in films. Hopefully, my biography informs my list a bit as well. I’m awfully excited to be writing for FilmEra and to see what great stuff we come out with. So, here’s to great films of the past and even better ones of the future.