I wanted to make a list of the most memorable and formative films I’ve seen in theaters – I’ve seen better films than some on this list, and more influential films as well, but not in the unique environment of a movie theater. I’ll go in reverse chronological order, by the date on which I saw them.
9. Napoleon (March 26, 2012) This screening was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – there were only four screenings of the new restored print in all of North America, all part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, at the gorgeous Paramount Theater in Oakland. Many thanks go to my friend Pat in Chicago for bringing it to my attention. The film was accompanied by a live orchestra, with a new score. I sat in the front row, and could see over the pit before the film started and during intermissions. There were a few intermissions, including a dinner break – it was an all day event. I knew next-to-nothing about the film, so I thought all of it was amazing. The climactic triptych sequence, with the curtain drawing back to reveal two more screens, was unprecedented. Nothing I could write could do the experience justice, easily the most significant time I’ve spent watching a film.
8. The Tree of Life (June 3, 2011) I had been looking forward to this film for years, literally. I have a proper review on this site, but what I didn’t mention is that I went on crutches while I was still healing from an ankle injury. I took a train to see it at the Embarcadero Cinemas on the day it opened in San Francisco. This film met and exceeded my expectations, and I had been hoping for a lot, for a long time. It didn’t seem to affect the few others in the theater as much, but I had no problem in quietly weeping at the end. I saw it twice more in theaters, and it was the first film I watched when I got an HDTV for the first time.
7. Inception (July 16, 2010) This deserves an entry if only because I’ve never experienced the type of collective bated breath that there was during the last moments of this film, at the sold-out midnight premiere at the IMAX theater of the Metreon in San Francisco. This was the first film that I actively avoided any marketing for, as I knew I wanted to see it and didn’t want to be spoiled. (This paid off, as an entire act of the movie was completely unknown to me until I saw it in the largest venue possible.) One of the giddiest feelings I’ve had watching a film, especially among hundreds of others. When the title card dropped at the end, there was a brief, completely silent pause, and then some dude in the back said “YEEAHHHH!” and we all clapped. (For those that don’t understand why people clap at a movie, it’s from sheer enjoyment.)
6. Magnolia (January 7, 2000) My favorite film. Before that, my favorite had been The Graduate, which my English teacher in my junior year of high school had broken down for the class, scene-by-scene, in a special film segment in order to provide a different approach to critical thinking. I saw it at the Hub Theater in Fremont (which later became a Middle Eastern theater, and then was torn down – I think a pet store is there now) by myself – this is also the earliest film I remember seeing by myself, because my friends and family weren’t interested in it, and I didn’t want to miss it; I’ve since seen the majority of films since by myself – and by the time I got to my car afterwards, I knew it was my favorite film. Not only was it different and bold (I admire ambition in film), but I connected with many of the characters, for better or worse. There’s more to it than that, but this list is extremely informal, and I don’t want to analyze this film too much.
5. Pulp Fiction (Late December, 1994) This was to film what Nirvana had been to music – it reset and invigorated the landscape for a new generation. I had heard about it while I was away during my freshman year, but I couldn’t find a theater that was playing it. When I came back home during winter break, I saw it with a friend I’d known throughout junior high and high school (at the Cinedome 7 in Newark), and we didn’t really know how to process what it was we just experienced. At the time, I was struggling with my environmental engineering major, and here was something that made me reconsider what it was I might want to do. Of course, that is now half a lifetime ago, and I’m only writing some amateur reviews. I did change my major and my life – after foolishly attempting another semester in engineering – largely because of Pulp Fiction, though. I’m five years older now than Tarantino was when the film was released, but after squandering my twenties (in a completely boring and unromantic way), I’m a happier person for embracing films again in some critical capacity, and this film sparked all of that.
4. Jurassic Park (June 11, 1993) Released in the last days of my junior year of high school, this movie was a “first” for many things: my first midnight premiere; my first film in digital sound (I can still remember the effect of hearing the raptors); the first time CGI was immersive and awesome. I saw it at the Hub Theater. It was also the first film I wrote a review for. In the English class I was in (the same class that the teacher taught The Graduate in), students took turns with a “class log” of sorts: notes on the previous day’s teachings, and anything we wanted to share. (The creative aspects of these logs ranged from poetry to drawings to video bits.) So my turn came on the Friday that Jurassic Park was released, and I knew a lot of my classmates had read the Michael Crichton book and were looking forward to the movie. I don’t remember the review itself, but I’m sure I talked about the effects and how faithful it was to the book.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Summer, 1990) This was the first old movie I saw in a theater, and I’m pretty sure it was a 70mm print. I think I was about 14 years old. It was at the Hub Theater. Seeing 2001 on the big screen, for the first time, was mind-boggling. I had never seen a film that experimented with narrative and visuals like that (not that I knew what narrative was at the time). I mean, if you’ve seen it – YOU’VE SEEN IT, RIGHT – you can probably imagine what it would do to a 14 year old kid seeing it in 70mm in an at-the-time state-of-the-art theater. It became a marker by which pretty much all other films since were judged. This was probably the first film that prompted me to spend time thinking about what goes into making a film, and how any of the stuff that was done was possible – not only the special effects, but how it was produced and marketed.
2. The Big Chill ( ~ September 29, 1983) This was the first R-rated movie that I was taken to, and also the first exposure to mature themes that I “got,” if only instinctively. I couldn’t properly articulate it then, so I won’t try to now, but at seven years old, I sensed both the sorrow and joy from the characters. After, as my parents walked out with me into the lobby of the Cinedome 8 in Fremont, I asked if we could play some of the music from the movie, and I probably hoped that my parents would be happy because of it. This was likely the last movie that we saw together as a family, as my parents had a, shall we say, contentious separation and divorce soon after. You can’t always get what you want.
1. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (May 22, 1980) This is the first movie that I remember seeing, and that I was excited to go see. It is still one of my favorites, despite Lucas’s best efforts. I saw it on my fourth birthday, on a bright Saturday afternoon at the Century Theater 21 in San Jose. I still have a memory, both an image and a feeling, from atop my dad’s shoulders, of the sea of people in the theater parking lot (that didn’t have any cars in it). The movie had only been released the day before, and anticipation must have been incredible. I remember that people dressed as some of the characters came out and performed a little skit in front of the screen, and then… well, then the 20th Century Fox fanfare and that crawl – which I could almost read all the way through. Empire was my first taste of cinematic action and adventure, science fiction, romance, heroism, fate, will, and darkness.
Also viewable on Letterboxd
Also viewable on Letterboxd