Once upon a time, I watched a lot of films. A LOT of films. I no longer do, but some of the films I’ve watched had a major impact on me, and here are 25 of them, in (sort of) chronological order.
Please note that this is not a “Best of” type of thing or a list of recommendations. It’s just personal history. I have made no attempts to make the list more diverse or politically more sound than it is. It reflects the environment I was socialized in, with all its faults and shortcomings. This is, for better or worse, a personal blog.
Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970)
Not sure when I watched the film, but I was very young, maybe eight or nine. Never cried as much in my life, I believe.
Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) / Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
I’m stretching the rules here but I couldn’t decide which Italo-Western to list. I was a huge fan of the genre in my late teens and watched each single one I could find. These two to stand out. Django for its bare-bones interpretation of justice, revenge, and solidarity among outcasts, Once Upon a Time in the West because, well, it’s a masterpiece. Would deserve to be listed for the opening fifteen minutes and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack alone. There’s a chapter about Italo-Westerns in my book Jenseits von Staat und Individuum.
Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
Seems like a boring entry, but I watched the film over and over again while in high school, projecting myself into a time I thought was so much better than the late 1980s (and it probably was).
An Officer and a Gentleman (Taylor Hackford, 1982)
I have no idea how I first got to watch this, but probably because of Richard Gere who I had liked in Breathless. I don’t even think that An Officer and a Gentleman is a great movie, but somehow I fell for the love story. Watched it repeatedly on a shitty video copy of a rental (oh, those were the days).
Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)
I’m not proud to admit it, but this probably remains one of my favorite movies ever. The “Motorcycle Boy” represents pretty much everything that’s wrong with masculinity, but, truth be told, that’s probably what attracted me as a teen. Trick: if you try to find out what you like about it, you can learn a few things about yourself. This film also has its own chapter in Jenseits von Staat und Individuum.
My Life as a Dog (Lasse Hallström, 1985)
Very Swedish: subtle, pretty, nice. I really liked it the first time I saw it (I think in the late 1990s), and it took on special meaning when I moved to the country in 2007.
Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
I don’t know what to think of Woody Allen as a person, but as a filmmaker I’ve always found him brilliant. I don’t think I’ve missed a single one of his 60 plus releases and have only been disappointed once: Match Point I thought was terrible. It was alos one of his commercially most successful films. Might be a conincidence, might be not. I do understand why some people really dislike Woody Allen films, and, yes, they are predictable, very white and middle-class, and borderline misogynist. Yet, the depiction of the social circles they focus in is spot on, revealing, and very entertaining. I come from a family that belongs to these circlus, and Freud and psychoanalysis are never far away for an Austrian. Also, I really believe that Woody Allen is getting the best out of the actors and actresses he works with. Annie Hall was my introduction to Woody Allen and remains the most iconic of his films, alongside Manhattan, I suppose.
The Match Factory Girl (Aki Kaurismäki, 1990)
Woody Allen was the first of a few directors listed here who I’ve seen every film of. Aki Kaurismäki is another, and here we’re not dealing with the neurotic middle class of New York, but the proletariat of Finland. The Match Factory Girl is part of Kaurismäki’s “Proletarian Trilogy”, which also includes Shadows in Paradise and Ariel. The actress Margi Clarke, who worked with Kaurismäki on I Hired a Contract Killer, recalled that she presented all sorts of ideas for her role to him. Kaurismäki listened patiently, and finally replied: “I don’t like acting in my movies.”
Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)
Rain Dogs is the more entertaining of Jim Jarmusch’s early black-and-white films, but there’s a rawness about Stranger Than Paradise I find compelling. After those two, Jarmusch’s movies have been a bit of a rollercoaster; some very good, some not so. The ones I liked were Night on Earth, Ghost Dog, and Paterson.
Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)
Twin Peaks was the only TV series I ever followed, but TV series don’t qualify here. And the Twin Peaks movie was bad. Wild at Heart was much better. I also liked Lost Highway.
Cry-Baby (John Waters, 1990)
I’m not sure if I ever really liked John Waters films, or if I just thought I should like them, but I did end up watching Cry-Baby several times. I guess I did like it. I lived in the US in the early 1990s and John Waters’ movies were great commentary on the country.
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
So were Spike Lee’s movies, but in a much less ironic, more in-your-face, and deeper kind of way. If I was a film historian, I would say that he revolutionized cinema, but I am not, so I shouldn’t make such sweeping claims. But for an amateur like myself it feels that way. Among many fantastic films, Do the Right Thing might still be the standout.
Trust (Hal Hartley, 1990)
Hal Hartley is the last in the list of directors whose work I’ve been following very closely. I guess I felt that his films provided the visual soundtrack to the music I was listening to in the early 1990s. The “dancing scene” in Simple Men makes this esoteric assertion pretty tangible. Simple Men could, in fact, have been listed here, as it was hard to decide on a favorite, but in the end I went with Trust.
True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993)
If anyone asked me why they should watch this movie, I couldn’t give them a reason. But I was a big fan of Patricia Arquette’s and fell for the love story. There’s also witty dialogue, nice images, and Christopher Walken.
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
I kinda hate to include this, as few people irritate me more than Quentin Tarantino, but here’s the story: school in Arizona had just started, someone asked me if I wanted to come join them for a movie, I did join them having no idea of what we were going to watch – and was simply blown away. Went back to watch it again the next day, something I don’t think I have ever done otherwise. It simply wasn’t like any film I had ever seen; I had elements of plenty of films I had seen, but not in that particular combination. I’d be dishonest if I left it out of this list.
Once Were Warriors (Lee Tamahori, 1994)
Another film that made a huge instant impression. I was in New York, stepped into the cinema, and when I stepped out the world no longer looked the same. Once Were Warriors was a cultural and emotional revelation. Little did I know at the time that a couple of years later I would stay with a Samoan family in the Auckland suburb of Mangere, not far from the house where much of Once Were Warriors was filmed. My friends pointed out the tree on which Grace hung herself. In New Zealand, I also learned that lan Duff, the Maori author on whose book the film was based, had pretty conservative politics. Life’s complex.
Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994)
Clerks encompassed so much of the (youth) culture I encountered in the US in the early 1990s, it has to be included here. It’s a fascinating document of its time and deserves DIY credit. Most of Kevin Smith’s later work was just a bit too silly.
La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)
We’re entering the traveling years. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I significantly refreshed my French due to longer stays in, first, New Caledonia, and, then, West Africa. This entailed watching a bunch of French movies, and La Haine was by far the best of them.
The Pusher (Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996)
I’m not sure I would pay any attention to the Danish noir of the late 1990s if these films were released today. Well, maybe I would because I live in Sweden. In any case, I enjoyed them at the time, and The Pusher (the original one) remains my favorite. Memorable performance by Kim Bodnia.
In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute, 1997)
This is the kind of movie I no longer watch, because it gets you depressed, and I no longer see the point of getting depressed when you don’t have to. It might be worth it if you feel you learn a lot, but how much do you learn from watching a movie that tells you how fucked up the world is when you’ve already seen plenty such movies? Needless to say, some of them are great works of art, and you could include films by Austrian directors Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl here. But In the Company of Men is the one our of that category that left the strongest impression on me.
The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)
“That’s a boys film.” I’m sure the friend who told me this back in the day was right. If I wanted to make this list look better than it is, I should drop this flick, but that would be cheating. For simple entertainment, it never failed. Kinda like Spinal Tap.
Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)
We’re still in the traveling years. I saw this movie about thirty years after it was released and was mesmerized. It’s the simplest of stories, it often feels like a nature documentary, and I’m not sure if it held up to any post-colonial scrutiny, but I thought it was beautiful and touching.
Nordrand (Barbara Albert, 1991)
Shout-out to the motherland, this is probably the best Austrian feature film I’ve ever seen.
Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
I suppose this early Wes Anderson flick falls into the The Big Lebowski category. I wouldn’t know hot to counter criticism, I just know that I found it incredibly entertaining and Jason Schwartzman’s performance brilliant.
Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)
I realize that this is the only film I’ve included from the past 25 years. Goes to show when you’re most impressionable, I suppose. However, very few films have touched me as much as this one. Small-town life, a masterful performance by Casey Affleck, and no attempt to make a brutal personal experience appear any less brutal than it is. Wonderful.
(January 1, 2023)