The movies I'm thankful for.
These movies make my life better.
Before I jump into this, I just want to say that I hope everyone reading has a wonderful Thanksgiving. After last year’s holiday was markedly different than the ones in years past, I hope this year holds a bit more normalcy. On our end, I know we’re looking forward to hosting a family dinner after having to cancel last year’s feast, and I can’t wait for a weekend full of overeating, decorating the Christmas tree and getting a jump on our holiday traditions.
There are many new releases out there to tackle, including King Richard, Encanto and Tick…Tick…BOOM. And we’ll get to those soon. But the next few emails you get were written well in advance so that I could take the holiday week off writing in the evenings and focus on time with family. In two days, Franchise Friday will return with a delve into the first Matrix movie, and on Sunday I’ll kick off the Advent season and launch into some of what’s coming during the holidays.
For today, rather than write about a new movie, I wanted to focus on some old ones. Specifically, movies that I’m grateful to have seen. These aren’t necessarily my favorite movies of all time, although some would appear on such a list. Rather, these are 10 films that have changed my perspective, given me joy and, in general, just made my life better. I hope you enjoy this list. And I’d love to hear your selections. Share them in the comments!
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The Muppet Movie: I’ve written about this elsewhere at length, but the Muppets’ big-screen debut came back into my life at exactly the right time, giving me an infusion of wonder and optimism when I was wrestling with cynicism and despair. Jim Henson’s creations have always walked a tightrope between anarchy and earnestness, and that’s never been more on display. Heart-aching songs about rainbows and stars butt up against fourth wall-breaking jokes and atrocious puns. It’s a reminder that you can be silly without retreating to cold irony, that you can dream big and write your own ending, and that the journey is not worth taking without friends. No other movie makes me as happy as The Muppet Movie, and no other movie is as hard-wired into my life.
E.T. The Extra-terrestrial: E.T. is the first movie I ever saw. I’m sure if it hadn’t been this, some other movie would have taken its place. But I don’t know if any other movie would have impressed on me the sheer magic of cinema. This movie works on a near-chemical level, with Spielberg at the height of his powers of manipulation — and I mean that in the best way possible. Watching this with my son recently, I was deeply impressed how the director commands our attention and works our emotion, from the humor of E.T. getting drunk to the awesome sight of bikes taking flight. This is magical storytelling, and it works as well today as it did when I was 3. It’s not my favorite film by Spielberg, but it might be the most special. It’s a reminder that the right movies never lose their magic with age; if anything, the spell grows stronger.
Boyhood: I could just fill the list with Richard Linklater films, so grateful am I for the empathy and intelligence he brings to the screen every time out. And while the Before series is probably the pinnacle of his career, Boyhood is something remarkable. A 12-year project capturing nothing less than the development of a human being, it’s a film that avoids big moments and yet feels like an emotional epic. It reminds me to pay attention to the seemingly insignificant days, because those are the ones that form you. How you behave on a given day is what shapes your habits and personality. As a father, this movie is also a reminder of how quickly it all moves. One day, you turn around, your children are older and you’ll wish there were more moments. Like the best Linklater films, it’s not full of big plot developments or dramatic revelations, but rather a celebration of looks, conversations and relationships. It’s something special that I don’t know we can ever see duplicated.
The Last Temptation of Christ: I’ve called this the most important film in my life. It was an important movie years before I even saw it. My mother’s warning to me about it at age 10 provided my first inklings that the movies could be dangerous. When I finally saw it, it took me two tries to finish it. I’ve returned to it several times over the last few years, and I still waver on whether it’s heretical or whether it’s the best-ever artistic depiction of Christ’s dual nature. Dealing with this movie taught me the importance of engaging with dangerous cinema and the growth that comes from wrestling over hard images. l don’t know that I’ll ever come to a conclusion about what I believe this movie is saying, but I look forward to revisiting it over the years to try and find out.
Babette’s Feast: Is there a better Thanksgiving movie than Gabriel Axel’s sumptuous 1987 story about legalism and grace? Having grown up in strict Baptist culture, the film’s depiction of a community in which everything is off-limits resonates with me, as does the freedom found in gathering around a feast of “dangerous” foods and glasses of wine. The film’s not simply an attack on legalism. It’s a beautiful celebration of community and fellowship, of the price of lavishly giving out grace. It’s a funny, warm-hearted movie, one of the most purely delightful and sensual cinematic experiences I’ve had. To echo the dinner-goer at the end of the film, this is a movie that makes me cry out, “Hallelujah.”
It’s a Wonderful Life: It’s possible that no cinematic character feels more familiar to me than George Bailey. A man who never achieved his dreams, who had to sacrifice for his family and town, who gave of himself even though it tore him apart. It’s so easy to think of this film and boil it down to angels, magic and Christmas. We forget how dark Frank Capra’s story gets, the desperation that seeps out of every pore as George prays in that bar. But we rightfully remember that ending, in which nothing changes and yet everything does. George will likely never leave Bedford Falls, his drafty house, or the savings and loan. But he ends the film the richest man in town, surrounded by the people he’s helped and the family he loves. Every year, this movie reminds me of the nobleness of sacrifice, the goodness of giving of yourself, and the humble heroes who surrounded me all my life.
Rocky: Rocky Balboa is my favorite movie character. Few heroes have such an arc, from the struggling startup through worldwide acclaim and back to his roots as a mentor with nothing to his name. And it all starts in John G. Avildsen’s 1976 drama, not so much a sports movie as a character piece about a lonely man given his one shot. Rocky strikes a chord 40 years later because there will always be underdogs; there will always be people with big dreams toiling away and wondering “what if.” No other movie paints the struggle and loneliness of that pursuit so vividly. No other movie so ably captures the point that winning or losing isn’t the goal; going the distance is. This movie is my motivator. It’s what compels me to write, podcast and push ahead when I’m worried I’ll never measure up. Rocky is one of the great American movies.
Take This Waltz: Sarah Polley’s little-seen 2012 drama knocked me for a loop when I saw it. I’d been married barely a year, and her story about a woman (Michelle Williams) wrestling with whether to stay with her loving but boring marriage or embark on an affair with a smoldering stranger devastated me. Polley is a great director who doesn’t work often enough. She so vividly paints this woman’s struggle that you feel every yearning, every pull. Its ending haunted me for a week. But I’m thankful for it because it was a reminder to me that sometimes excitement isn’t worth it. Sometimes the boring and consistent is better than exciting and new because, as one character puts it, “everything new gets old.” Few movies empathize with a character so fully while also painting such a true picture of the cost of our impetuousness.
The Incredibles: Again, not even my favorite Pixar movie (that would be Wall-E). But it’s pure joy. Part of me is thankful for Brad Bird’s 2004 adventure just for existing. It’s glee from start to final act. It zips along, creating one of the best superhero films, animated or not. But as a father, this movie’s such a good anchor back to earth. I’m no superhero, but I long for excitement and big things like Mr. Incredible does. I want to dash off and be part of the excitement. Domesticity? It’s fine, but it’s no adventure. And yet, The Incredibles tells us deep truth that the best adventures bring the family along. No accomplishment can match the joy of creating life, sharing experiences with the one you love and training your children to take these journeys with you. “You are my greatest adventure,” Mr. Incredible tells his family in a moment that still brings tears to my eyes. For all its energy and excitement, The Incredibles works best as a celebration of family and a reminder that domestic life doesn’t have to be dull or predictable.
Step Brothers: I’m thankful for Adam McKay’s 2008 movie because it’s the rare film that makes me laugh as hard on every subsequent viewing as I did on my first. That’s a simple thing, but to know that something is that consistently funny, that it will reliably reduce me to fits of laughter and tears (because of the laughter) is a great gift. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are unhinged in this movie, and there’s a livewire energy to their interaction that you rarely see in movies. There’s not much depth here, no real subtext. But a movie that can still make me scream by mentioning “fancy sauce,” “boats n’ hoes” or the Catalina Wine Mixer (Pow!) deserves my gratitude.
I would love to hear what movies fill you with gratitude.
Again, I hope you enjoyed this list. Before I sign off for the holiday, I wanted to convey my deep gratitude for everyone who has subscribed to this newsletter, commented, shared with friends or supported in any way. This is one of the most fulfilling and satisfying projects I’ve done in my long pseudo career of film writing, and a large part of that comes from knowing that this is about as direct a connection as you can get between writer and audience. I appreciate your support more than you can know. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone!
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