200 movies I like more than you do*

*and 40 I hate more than you do


Great movies

For as long as I can remember, the movies has been the single happiest place I can be.

The formality, the hush, the darkness. The unique traditions: different foods that my siblings and I would preserve carefully, not devouring but pacing ourselves in our paternal shepherding of each sacred Goober or Whopper. Even the mad rush to get back from the bathroom before the spell could be broken.

The different way my parents would be: focused but relaxed. I never saw or heard them entertain themselves otherwise; they appreciated music but didn’t play it. I was incapable of consciously realizing at the time how unhappy they were, but that awareness seeped into me in ways I’m only beginning to understand.

I vividly recall stumbling out of E.T. circa 1985. (Note to my daughters: much-loved movies used to be revived periodically, in the years before video.) I could barely recall my life as I had lived it up until the point I entered the theater. Was I still that person? Had I been born anew?

My father’s favorite movie was John Sayles’s The Brother From Another Planet. When we got a VCR, we rented it a dozen times. It became my favorite, and still is. Last year I got the chance to meet John Sayles and Joe Morton at a truly reverant 30th anniversary screening in Brooklyn. I called my dad afterwards, still a few feet away from Joe Morton. I had come to know him, in so many ways, through this film.

At 14, on my way to see Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog, I ran into my friend Kwaku. Everyone my age from Cambridge knew him. You’re going to the movies alone? Yeah. I hadn’t really thought about it. He steered me back home and we hung out instead. Kwaku didn’t like to be alone. He wasn’t really welcome at his apartment, for reasons he tried never to explain. He was in pain and he wandered the city, looking for people to spend time with. He died a few years ago, of heart failure, which is what they say when it was something else.

I’ve fainted during movies. I’ve fallen in love during movies. As anyone who’s seen a movie with me knows, I’ve been the loudest laugh and the quickest tear in the theater as often as I could.

A great new film is a indescribable treat. It will never leave me. I will have its world, its logic and people and little revelations, forever.

Bad movies

The mood I’m in when I see a movie, my expectations, my readiness — these all contribute so heavily to my judgment of it. And movies, uniquely, seem to invite summary judgment. I’ve never seen a 3 1/2 star painting or read a 3 1/2 star book, but I know exactly what a 3 1/2 star movie is.

Yet when I see my old ratings, I second-guess everything. Did I really find so little in The Squid and the Whale? In The Last Waltz? In Dogville? Was I just too young? Too inattentive?

And that’s another great thing about movies: they’re always ready to take a crack at a second chance, with the same energy as they had on opening day.

Ben Wheeler is a programmer and teacher in Brooklyn. He can be found at techno-social.com .

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