Monday, November 22, 2010

Existential Exercise: 10 Favorite Movies

A while ago, I wrote here about how I had experienced an “existential moment” when someone asked me to list my ten favorite movies.  I couldn’t do it.  I started into the exercise, then almost immediately froze, realizing I had no idea what my ten favorite movies are. This realization helped me to see just how out of touch I was with myself.

I have spent the past 10 days thinking about this, watching some of the movies that are listed below, and thinking about why I ultimately chose each movie that is on my list.  I am now very pleased to say that I have successfully compiled a list of my ten favorite movies, and because this represents such an important step for me, I wanted to share that list.  They aren’t necessarily listed in order of how much I like them; they’re just there, on the list.

Dead Poets Society

This is definitely one of my favorite movies, if not at the top.  I have written elsewhere of my love for this movie and my wish that I had had a John Keating in my life as a youth.  Keating calls to the boys to discover who they are, to reject convention and conformity, to live deliberately, instead of in quiet desperation.  Their slumbering spirits awake for a brief time, until one boy flew too close to the sun and plummeted to the earth.  This film evokes in me a desire to be alive to my self

August Rush

I love this film because it is a story about rising above one’s apparent assigned existence, having faith that destiny has called you somewhere else, and then having faith to go seek out and meet that destiny, believing all the while that others are called to meet you on your path and that they will come.  It features great music and wonderful performances by, among others, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Robin Williams.


What can I say?  A movie directed by Clint Eastwood about Nelson Mandela, South Africa, rugby and my favorite poem, featuring a truly inspiring (true) story with an amazing performance by Morgan Freeman.  And did I mention that Matt Damon plays the captain of the Rugby team?  Definitely a favorite.

Ordinary People

Ordinary People is a 1980 American drama that tells the story of the disintegration of an upper-middle class family in Lake Forest, Illinois (wealthy suburb north of Chicago), following the death of the older son in a boating accident.  The film won that year's Academy Award for Best Picture, and Robert Redford (Best Director) and Timothy Hutton (Best Supporting Actor) also won Oscars.

I loved this movie when I first saw it, and I was wondering how I would feel about it upon watching it again.  Once I got past the hair-styles and the very dated cars used in the movie, I found the message of the movie to be as timeless as it was when it first came out in 1980. It addresses the conventions of (upper-) middle-class families; the lack of genuine communication and of authentic relationships; the absolute need to keep up appearances and never, ever go below the placid surface of a family life that is, at whatever cost, to be maintained.

Timothy Hutton plays the role of the son (Conrad) who survived a boating accident; his older brother did not.  The movie explores what happened to Conrad in the wake of the accident, as well as what happened to his parents.  Conrad goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsh), who helps Conrad work through his trauma. 

Some quotable lines from Dr. Berger:  “It takes more energy to hold things in than it does to let them out.”  “Let me give you a little advice about feeling:  don’t expect it to always tickle.”  “Feelings are scary and sometimes they’re painful.  But if you can’t feel pain, then you can’t feel anything else, either.” 

Like I said, this film deals with issues and asks questions that resonate with me as much or more today as they did when I first saw the film years ago.  Particularly relevant was the depiction of the chain of events that ultimately led to Conrad’s father (Donald Sutherland) deciding he could not go on living a false existence with his wife.

It’s a Wonderful Life

I believe any man who has sacrificed all or a part of himself for the good of his family and/or for the good of others, while at the same time feeling like life’s parade has passed him by, can strongly relate to this movie.  Even though it was made over 50 years ago and depicts events going back to soon after the turn of the last century, it is timeless in its message. 

I am not at all sure that I had seen this movie before my mission.  One of my missionary companions said it was his all-time favorite movie, and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t recall ever seeing it.  This was remedied upon my return, and I now faithfully watch it every December, preferably on a dark and snowy night.  I annually work through the catharsis with Jimmy Stewart from that of hopeful youth, to (overly) responsible young man, to lost dreamer, to responsible married man, to resentful cynic, to – ultimately – a man who sees as he is seen, who is blessed with the rare and wonderful gift of understanding that his life has truly made a difference.  What can I say?  It makes me tear up just thinking about it.


This is my favorite sports movie that goes far beyond being just a sports movie.  It tells the remarkable true story of the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team.  Inspirational, exciting, and nostalgic, capturing the mood of the country and the sense of the times.  Ordinary people – amateur hockey players – achieved something truly heroic and helped Americans renew their belief in themselves and in their nation.


This French film released in 2007 has become my favorite comedy.  It imagines what happened in a period that is undocumented in the famous French playwright Moliere's own biography: the years between his release from prison in 1645 at age 22 (because his theatre company went bankrupt and he could not pay his debts) and his return to Paris 13 years later after a triumphant career as a travelling playwright and actor.

Though in French (with English subtitles) and set in the middle of the 17th century, the film to me is very accessible, truly funny and extremely entertaining.  The story begins upon Molière’s release from debtor's prison by Monsieur Jourdain, a wealthy commoner with social pretensions, who agrees to pay the young actor's debts if Molière teaches him to act.  Jourdain, already a married man with two daughters, hopes to use this talent to ingratiate himself with Célimène, a recently widowed beauty with whom he has become obsessed, by performing a short play he has written for the occasion.

Molière, however, who has been presented to the family and staff of Monsieur Jourdain as Tartuffe, a priest who is supposedly to serve as tutor for the Jourdains' younger daughter (even though Jourdain is clearly Protestant), proceeds to fall in love with Jourdain's neglected wife, Elmire. The threads of the plot weave in and out, featuring true comedy and terrific acting. Many scenes follow actual scenes and text in Molière's plays (including Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope), and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, whose principal character is also named Jourdain), in a manner that implies that these "actual" events in his life inspired the plays of his maturity.

Romeo and Juliet (Zeffirelli)

This film, when it first came out in 1968, revolutionized the way Shakespeare’s play was taught in high schools across the country.  A beautiful Italian and English production, it depicted the star-crossed lovers as they actually would have been – teenagers – and beautiful ones at that.  The exquisite costumes and cast, together with the haunting soundtrack (and, of course, Shakespeare’s play), make this one of my favorite movies, even though it was made over 40 years ago.  It won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design and was also nominated for Best Director and Best Picture.  It holds special meaning to me because of what my freshman English class and teacher meant to me.

The Sound of Music

I started to write that nothing needs to be said about this movie.  But then, I thought I wanted to say this:  Apart from the wonderful music, apart from the themes of love, exploration of self, and resistance to tides of change – above all this for me is the story of ordinary people who did something extraordinary; who faced evil and chose to gamble everything on an opportunity to live free.  This is true courage, and this is ultimately why I love this movie.

Fiddler on the Roof

I selected this last choice because of the music and the story behind this musical.  Dealing as it does with being a people apart, endeavoring to maintain tradition and to find meaning in that tradition in the face of changing times.  Being swept up and carried away by changing times.  Attempting to love one’s children while at the same time feeling the pull of tradition, of belief.  Choosing between children and belief.  Loving.  Laughing.  Living. All between the gates of sunrise and sunset.  It may be brief, but it is our human experience – and I love movies that explore the meaning of that experience and celebrate it.

Honorable Mentions

I also love the Harry Potter movies, the Chronicles of Narnia movies and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I consider them in a class by themselves.

A new favorite is The Pianist – another one of those R-rated movies I never watched and have only recently seen.  (The only reason this movie has an R rating, by the way, is because of graphic brutality to humans, which one might expect in a movie about the Holocaust.) 

This movie is based on the autobiography of Polish (Jewish) pianist, Władysław Szpilman, and recounts what happened to him from the time of the German invasion to shortly after the liberation of Warsaw.  There is much in this film to write about, including the lovely music, and I hope to a post in the future about some of the aspects of this film that both touched and troubled me.  The film won Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay and was nominated for Best Film, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Film Editing.  The film also won Palme d'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and seven French Césars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Adrien Brody (who became and remains the only American actor to win one).

I also really liked the movie Defiance, based on the true story of Jews who went into hiding in the forests of Belarus during the Second World War, shielding women and children while carrying out guerilla attacks on German soldiers.  Of the same, but different, genre was Valkyrie.  This was a thriller, again based on a true story of German military men who tried to stand up to Hitler.

I haven’t seen enough gay-themed cinema yet to comment on this genre.  I loved Shelter.  I found A Single Man thought-provoking and interesting. 

Were the World Mine was whimsical and fun.  Next on my list are Latter Days, Brokeback Mountain (no I still haven’t seen that) and Milk.   Thanks to those who have offered their suggestions regarding this genre.


The result of this exercise:  I think, I feel, I AM.


  1. I've enjoyed reading your blogs this weekend about the labyrinth and the movies. I often think that the constructs we make in our mind of such a journey and what we will find along the way or in the center are far more terrifying than what we actually encounter.

    If I may, I would just encourage you to remember to not fear. Fear can cause us to do crazy things! Fear can filter our vision and cause us to go crawling back to the exit of the labyrinth with a diminished sense of self and trust in our abilities. With each step, remember that "O captain my captain", you are: the sizes of the monsters along the way will suddenly diminish and you may come to realize that your imaginations were worse than what was really out there ... and hopefully at the center of the maze, like an artichoke when you peal away its leaves, lies a beautiful heart: yours .... in which you can enjoy, live and rest peacefully.

    So nice to read your reviews. I saw a movie this weekend that I want to write about sometime this week: Ajami: a film in "Israel" and occupied Palestine about the vicious circle of hate and fear seen through the eyes of memory and portrayed from all the angles of reason and justification ... all pointing to the powerlessness and incomprehensible nature of hate and fear ... you as a spectator feel it and live that frustration that they live ... and realize that hate and fear provide no exits... Very powerful.

    Enjoy Milk. it's a powerful movie.

  2. Oh, and a BEAUTIFUL movie I think that you would enjoy is "Sophie Scholl", which is my favorite, along with "Life is beautiful", about WWII.

  3. I had forgotten about The Pianist. I love that film.

    The thing with movies for me is, my favorites change over time as do I, and as new ones come out that give me something new to appreciate. And the old ones lose their meaning over time. So listing just 10 would be really difficult.

    The other thing is that some of my favorite movies I can't bring myself to watch a second time as they were simply too brutal for me.

  4. Libellule - Thanks for the encouragement. You must have read something between the lines that I didn't realize was there. But you were correct. Fear does raise its ugly head quite regularly. I am now in a part of the labyrinth that I have never before seen, and the temptation to run back to familiar territory is sometimes strong. But, of course, I cannot go back, even if I wanted to.

    TGD - What you wrote is very true. We do change over time. One of the things I discovered with this exercise is that many of my favorite films either predate my marriage or are fairly recent movies. This in itself was illuminating. There was a period of over 10 years in my marriage where my wife and I never went to see a movie. And given what I have written elsewhere, I shouldn't have been too surprised to discover this "gap" in my favorites. I anticipate from this point forward that I will not experience that phenomenon.

  5. First gay-themed movie I ever watched was "Beautiful Thing." I highly recommend it! There's some very strong language, and sometimes the actors are hard to understand because of heavy British accents, but it's a wonderful movie.

  6. Congratulations on getting this list together. You said earlier that it was going to be a challenge.

    Would you say this list represents an integrated, unfiltered aspect of yourself? Was it easier to put together than you thought it would be? Is it a different list than you would have put together a few months ago? Could you tell your family members that these are your favorites? How about your work colleagues? Your fellow ward members? How would their opinion of you change if they knew that these were your favorites? (I'm excluding the gay-themed ones right now.)

    When I look at this list (and just the list, putting out of my head everthing else I know about you and your situation), I might imagine that the creator of the list is a middle-aged man who is idealistic and emotional, even sentimental. He is more family oriented than romantic (that is, being part of a family is more important than being half of a couple). I'd guess that creator of the list is someone who values excitement. I would read a bit of repression between the lines as well as a feeling of isolation and a desire for more love and acceptance from others. It's a very wholesome list.

    [I'm not talking about you, just what I think that list might mean taken on its own, with no other clues. My "cold reading" could be way off.]

    The internal Netflix recommendation engine in my head would say that the person who made this list would also like: Mr. Holland's Opus, To Sir With Love, A River Runs Through It, Stand by Me, The Blind Side, Good Will Hunting and A Room with a View.

    I hope my comment doesn't make you self-conscious. I offer it in a spirt of fun and friendship.

    Big hugs.

  7. MoHo Hawaii! This is ALL about being self-conscious! :) Thanks SO much for your comments. Are you, like, a professional therapist? Because I think your comments are pretty spot-on.

    I'd like to go through your questions because they are all *great* questions that should be answered.

    I do think this represents an integrated pictue of myself. It was challenging to put together, but therapeutic and revelatory, on several levels. For example, I realized the gap that I describe in an earlier comment, and I confirmed the difference in interests between my wife and me.

    As to sharing this list with others and whether their opinion of me might change, I wouldn't have any problem in sharing it (except, as you point out, the gay-themed ones). I don't *think* their opinion of me would change, but most people in my circle (even my immediately family to some degree) don't really know anything about me.

    Regarding your third paragraph, I feel like I've just been read with x-ray vision. :) I can't tell you how good it makes me feel to read what you've written, because that is pretty much how I('d like to) see myself, except that you've helped me see myself even more clearly. As to your second-to-last sentence in that paragraph, once again, you are spot on.

    Your "cold reading" is very warm. :)

    As to your list of recommendations(thank you!), I'm not sure I've seen Mr. Holland's Opus, though I recall it stars Richard Dreyfuss. I saw To Sir With Love many, many moons ago but haven't watched it recently. Never seen A River Runs Through It or Stand By Me or Good Will Hunting. I'll add those to my video store list. I liked The Blind Side, and I did like A Room With a View, though it's been a long time since I've seen it. Another to add to the list.

    Thanks for the hugs. ALWAYS appreciated!

  8. Are you, like, a professional therapist?

    No, but I compulsively give advice. Isn't that the same thing? :- )

  9. Your advice, compulsive or otherwise, is always welcome. :)

  10. I like your taste in movies, Invictus.

  11. Thanks, Gay LDS Actor; given your profession, I particularly appreciate the compliment:). And thanks for stopping by. I'm looking forward to reading through your blog.

  12. I just watched Defiance last night! On Netflix, I just watched the beginnings of a few movies until one stuck, and that was it. I liked it a lot.

  13. That's one of the few R-rated movies I watched before I decided I was big enough to decide which movies to watch. :) I really liked it, too.

  14. Latter days was a terrible movie. You should still probably see it, just to understand the perspective it has, and the many ways in which it falls short. Just don't have high hopes.

  15. Fantastic list that makes sense being a part of your sub-generation.

    @mohohawaii: your gift to interpret (and to make additional movie recommendations!) is truly extraordinary considering you only have text in front of you (rather than additional inputs when one meets someone live). Please share this obvious gift you have along the way!

  16. Wow, what a great collection! I put one that I hadn't viewed on my "to see" list. I think we have some similar tastes!