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Personal Milestone Movies

Not long ago I wrote a long-winded thing about how Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within crushed my movie-watching soul in the theater.  It was a pretty important movie-going experience for me, and one that all critics must share: the moment when you realize a movie can be truly disappointing.

It got me thinking, though.  There's plenty of other important milestones in the life of a movie-watcher.  And what better way to kill some time than to list ten of them at random, complete with a few anecdotes about my own experiences?

1.  The First Time You Realize a Movie Can Screw With Your Habits

It's all fun and games until you realize the power of a gripping story.  Suddenly, a movie that was supposed to just be some silly distraction is now real enough to change your day-to-day life - and not always for the better.

I saw (most of) A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was only five or six years old.  I don't believe I made my way through the whole movie, but clearly I saw a significant portion of it - the images of a dead girl being dragged through school in a body bag, leaving behind a putrid trail of body fluids, and the image of Johnny Depp being transformed into a blood fountain have been etched into my subconscious as far back as I can remember.

The core conceit of Nightmare was so terrifying to me that even now I can find myself unable to get to sleep for fear that Freddy Kreuger will come out and mutilate me.  It's quite a brilliant premise, actually:  Nobody can fight off sleep, no matter how hard they try.  When you're asleep, you're immobile and vulnerable.  And when you're a little kid, you already don't want to sleep, knowing that everybody older than you is probably having a party or something.

In short, if you really hate your kids, make them watch this movie before they're old enough for elementary school.

2.  The First Time You Hate a Movie

This is a little different than "First Disappointing Movie."  Disappointment doesn't necessarily need to be full of hate, and it requires some kind of build-up first.  No, hating a movie is different.  It just means that not only did you not like a movie, but it actually pisses you off in some way.

This could actually serve as a double-whammy as "First Time Repeated Exposure Made You Hate a Movie," because I quite enjoyed Ace Ventura when I first saw it in theaters as a tiny, dumb kid.  I think I even begged my parents to take me back to see it a second time.

Then suddenly it turned out that everybody had an Ace Ventura impression up their sleeve, and they just couldn't wait to show it off.  Even as a tiny, dumb ten year-old, I was smart enough to know that something that a professional actor did wasn't funny when random other people did it.  I can recall sitting in class in the fifth grade and complaining to the teacher that my classmates wouldn't shut up about that goddamn pet detective movie.  Only now do I realize how much worse it must have been for my teachers.

I didn't watch this movie again for over 15 years.  And you know what?  It's still a shitty movie.

3.  The First Time You Realize You're Smarter Than the Movie

For a long time, you have to concede that even though you may not have liked a movie, it was still a movie.  As in, something that you couldn't do on your own because you're not smart enough to put together a story on that level.  If you were, you'd get paid for it, right?

But as you watch more and more movies, you start to pick up on the core concepts of story-telling and literature.  You become more adept at recognizing good and bad character development, the three-act structure (as well as four-act and five-act structures), and all manner of cliches and tropes.  So eventually you're going to come to a point where you're in the middle of a movie and you realize that you could leave the room and still watch it in your head simply because you know exactly what's going to happen at any given moment.

Showtime was one of the last movies I remember seeing as part of a night out with the family.  That's a shame - I wish we could've gone out on a much higher note.

I remember that from the opening credits on to the very end, I was at least ten minutes ahead of the movie.  The very first scene opens with DeNiro talking incredibly gruff about how hard it is to be a cop while looking down slightly and standing in front of a nondescript background.  My immediate reaction, before he's even finished getting his first sentence out, is that he's talking to somebody young and innocent, probably somebody who's not a cop, and it's supposed to be a gag.  Sure enough, twenty seconds later the camera cuts away to reveal that he's talking to a class of second-graders.

At one point, I found that I was predicting the movie so flawlessly that I felt compelled to turn to my brother and share one of my Nostradamus-like visions.  "He hid his gun in the Slushee cup when he went undercover!"  And then my brother turned to me, his brow twisted in a "how dumb do you think I am?" curl, and he said, "Yeah, you think?"

This could also be a double-whammy.  The First Time You Realize Other People Also Think the Movie's A Piece of Shit.

4.  The First Time You Don't Get It

So now that you're well-schooled about literature and movies and you think you're hot shit, you start watching all the movies on Top Ten or Top 100 lists that you can, trying to make your way through the back catalog of Great Movies that are waiting for you.  And for the most part, you at least see some merit in them even if you didn't quite love them the way everybody else did.  But sooner or later, you're going to hit a wall.

For me, it was 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that I'm still not entirely sure that I get, but for which I at least have a bit more of an appreciation today.

It wasn't just that I didn't understand the movie on a narrative level.  It was that I didn't understand the movie's reception.  People were calling it the greatest science-fiction movie ever made.  They said that it was the most compelling exploration of man's role in the universe ever committed to film.  They said it effortlessly touched on themes of technology and humanity.  And all I saw was a plodding thing that occasionally had flashy colors with a halfway decent thirty minute short movie buried somewhere in the second half.

Today, I will still argue that 2001 doesn't even come close to being the best science fiction movie ever made.  Wall-E, Star Trek II, and A.I. all explore the concept of mankind, space exploration, and/or technology in far greater detail and with far better emotional impact than 2001, and they're all immensely entertaining movies on top of it.  All that being said, though:  2001 does have some nifty shots where the music and visuals match up pretty well, so good on ya for that, Stanley.

5.  The First Time You Understand Racism in a Movie

You're just about on your way to college now, and it's about time you start thinking about more important things.  Things like justice and strife and social inequity.  Things like racism.  Except that until this point in your life, you've never really seen racism depicted in movies as anything other than, "A fat white guy talks about how he hates black people, then probably screws a cow or something."

Then you see something that makes you truly, deeply uncomfortable.  And you're not sure why, exactly.  But you know you need to revisit it.

Every year (usually in February), I was always required to read a book about some disadvantaged black people, usually from the South, who tried to make their way in life but kept facing adversity from strong-willed white people who passed crappy laws to hold them back.  Those books taught me that racism was bad, but what they completely failed at was teaching me that racism is realDo The Right Thing gave me a quick and harsh lesson about how subtle, internalized racism builds gradually, even if you don't think it's there.  It should be required viewing in high school.

And you know what?  You should screen it in November, assholes.

This is a terrific movie that really showed me just how juvenile most depictions of racism are in film.  Not only racism - but any other kind of -ism.  Hate isn't spoken as much as movies suggest, and to try to reduce the complexities of our rapidly-changing and bizarre social structure down to caricatures of urban black gangstas and white Klansmen cowboys just comes off as an incredibly childish way to depict the world.

So, in conclusion, American History X is actually kind of a bad movie, you guys.

6.  The First Time You Say, "The Twist Ending Is That He's Crazy!" During the Opening Credits

Eventually this will give way to predicting this shocker of a twist just from seeing the preview.  But until then, you have to settle for watching a movie fail horribly at building up what it thinks is suspense, only to have you ruin everything for yourself right off the bat by saying to yourself, "He's just going to be insane at the end, isn't he?"

A serious question for all you Hollywood screenwriter types out there.  Do you actually think this is clever?  I don't mean to sound like a sarcastic douche - it's a real question, and I mean it sincerely.  I want to know if people think that the "He was crazy all along!" ending was actually a really good idea, and nobody's going to guess it, or if it's just a matter of being lazy.  I'd go with the lazy aspect, but what do I know?  I'm not a screenwriter.  For now.

7.  The First Time You Understand How Shamelessly Exploitable Racism Is

8.  The First Time You Do Get It

You know how I said earlier that you'll probably start watching Top Ten or Top 100 lists and trying to see more critically-acclaimed movies?  Well, you'll probably go through a bunch of the artsy type movies and dismiss them casually, saying that you didn't think they were all that great.  Eventually, one of those movies is going to pop up in your head and you'll think to yourself, "Actually, that was a pretty decent movie."

I plan to do a better write-up of this sometime in the future, as this was one of my Film Snob Experiment choices.  In fact, it was the very first FSE choice.  Appropriately, it was also the first movie that I retrospectively upgraded to a higher rating.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a pretty interesting little movie with some amazing visuals and a great sense of pacing, atmosphere, and tension.  It manages to take a very limited setting, a very small cast of characters, and a very simple story and turn it into something epic.

I actually went from waving my hand at this one and swearing I'd never watch it again to now looking forward to seeing it multiple times.  It was the first time I ever had such a dramatic up-swing in my opinion of a movie, and I have to say, it was quite a pleasant feeling.  Odd that I had it over such a bleak movie.

9.  The First Time You Feel Old

Every now and again, there's an Event Movie that gets released where it seems like it's your social obligation to go to the theater.  These movies will sweep the country by storm and make a couple of boatloads of cash.  Everybody's going to be talking about them and telling you that you just have to see this movie - it's amazing!  Then you finally watch it, and you find yourself just feeling kinda confused.  Not confused as in, "I didn't follow it," but confused as in, "Is this really what kids these days like?"

Suddenly, you're no longer a free-spirited movie-watcher, you're now some grumpy old curmudgeon who passes judgment on things that are popular.

I kinda don't care for The Avengers.  I don't hate it; I just don't love it.  But more to the point - I don't see how people can get into it.  Do kids really like Thor or the Hulk that much?  I can see the appeal of Iron Man, but that's really just because Robert Downey Jr. is so charismatic.  And people really find Scarlett Johansson talented?  Back in my day, a leading actress had to act, goddammit!

This movie makes me feel like I need to tear up the sidewalk in front of my house and plant a patch of grass, just so I can sit on my stoop and yell at people to get off my lawn.

10.  The First Time You Feel a Duty To Spread the Word About a Movie

I'm cheating a bit with this last one.  I was trying to do these in chronological order of how I saw the movies, but I don't want to end on The Avengers.  I want to end on a positive note, and the first example of this milestone happened many years ago.

If you watch enough movies long enough, you're eventually going to come to a point where you're watching things that nobody else around you has seen.  You're not going to be watching them for hipster cred (though it might not hurt).  You'll just happen to see something that was incredible and you realize that it only made a pittance during its run.  To avert the possible tragedy of the movie going unseen, you realize that you now have an obligation to tell everybody else about this movie.

You should find a copy of Bad Boy Bubby as soon as you can and give it a watch.  Then just try and tell me that you aren't floored afterward.

I have never before or since seen a movie that manages to take the viewer on such a ride as this.  It literally takes every emotional state you can possibly think of and gives you a chance to feel it to as extreme an extent as you can.  It is the movie equivalent of manic depression: no high from any other movie can approach Bubby's highs, and no low can approach its lows.  It is a stellar example of a movie that really earns its ending.  And it manages to do all of this in under two hours and with a very limited budget.

I don't want to talk too much about the plot, because so much of it works better if you encounter the story elements the same way that the protagonist does.  Suffice to say, it's the story of a man who has been kept locked up in a single room for his entire life, and what happens to him when he finally leaves.

One warning, though.  This is not a movie for the faint of heart.  I don't mean that in the braggart sense that gorehounds use, as there's not really any blood.  I mean it in the sense that this movie will test you and your patience to deal with depravity.  When it hits, it hits hard.  You will be repulsed.  But you will also laugh.  If you watch it the whole way through, you'll find that it's actually quite uplifting.

I remember hearing Roger Ebert say once that the point of a critic isn't to talk about how shitty popular movies are; it's to talk about how great the more obscure movies are.  What better way to close out this list than with an example of exactly that?