10 movies that define me
This isn’t a list that is about the best movies or anything like that. These are just films I love. Or I have friends where a lot of our friendship is built around it. Or a film I quote incessantly. This is a group of movies that I didn’t have to really think about. Maybe they were just seen at a really important time in my life. I had an original list of 27 that I whittled down to 13, then had to have a couple of difficult discussions with myself, some of which happened on the keyboard.
Star Wars, Original Trilogy
I mean, come on, it’s “Star Wars.” My father says that he took me to “Empire” and “Return of the Jedi” is the second movie I remember seeing in the theatre (“E.T.” being the first). These three movies did such a great job at making me into a “Star Wars” nerd that it made me see past all the obvious, GLARING deficiencies of the prequel trilogy, particularly the first two movies. But my love of these movies brought me one of my best friends and numerous great memories with him as we’ve brought our sons to see the new movies that have been release. And I realize this is a cheat as I’m selecting three movies here, but these are the movies I was sure to make sure my son saw when he was around the same age I did. These are movies that are in the fiber of my being, in my DNA. It got to the point that when he was sick and I was the one who would stay home from school with him, it wasn’t a matter of what we were going to watch, it was which of the first six films would we watch. On one of the last times I stayed home with him, I firmly recall him asking me “Wanna watch five, daddy?” Any time, son. Any time.
This 2001 classic became a part of my life as I was between marriages and living with my brother. This was a movie we would just pop on and watch and watch. Tons of great, quotable lines that I still use almost every day, from “One … two … three … do it” that commences the syrup chugging contest, to the riff on shenanigans, to “Littering and … littering and…” to “Enhance” as Thorny sits at the computer. It’s just stupid, silly fun that I can watch and watch and watch and watch. It’s ridiculous, but goddammit if it’s not one of the funniest movies of the last 20+ years.
“The Breakfast Club”
I’ve spent just about half of my life in high school. Obviously, four as a student, but the past 17 as a teacher. This movie still resonates and connects with audiences because it is, beneath all the bluster of Jon Bender and facades put up by the other characters, still very true to life. The insecurities, the relationships, all of those things still happen every day in the halls of America’s high schools. For me, I probably wished I was a bit more like Bender (for always having some great retort) or Claire (the popularity) or Andrew (his athletic skill, though I was a varsity soccer player) or Brian (the brains, though I was a very solid student), but I probably most closely identified with Ally Sheedy’s Allison. Certainly not because I had her artistic skill (or dandruff), but because she operated outside of the normal social circles. In high school I tended to drift between friend groups, which meant that I knew a ton of people, but didn’t really make any really long-lasting friendships. I didn’t have a reliable crew of people I could hang out with on weekends or a group of people I’d go to a dance with. I don’t think I was socially awkward, but I wasn’t a social butterfly. Of all the films on this list, I think this one is the most real.
“Grosse Pointe Blank”
This is when I fell in love with Debi Newberry. Remember that episode of “Friends” where Ross made a list of freebies? Yeah, Debi Newberry is on that for me. Do I realize she’s a fictional character? Yes. Do I think Minnie Driver is amazing in every way, especially that accent, ohhhhhhh yes. But man, for college-aged Matt, Debi Newberry gave me the vapors. Effortlessly beautiful, effortlessly cutting and beguiling to Martin Blank (a never better John Cusack), effortlessly bewitching to watch up on the screen. I saw this movie with a couple of buddies toward the end of my college years and we didn’t stop quoting it until we graduated. And while the cast is amazing in this—this is the movie that introduced me to Alan Arkin—I think the dialogue is what got me. The actors deliver it perfectly, with great rhythm and patter. And Dan Aykroyd, cast against type, is just “bing bing bang, popcorn!” perfect as the villain. Another film where I use the dialogue in my real life far too frequently, especially “Tell me about it” from the diner scene between Cusack and Aykroyd. I’m still waiting for someone, anyone, to respond with anything near as funny as what Grocer says in response.
“Out of Sight”
This was the most difficult decision of the lot. I actually wrote a graf for this for the other movie in this slot about bowling shirts and beautiful babies and “You’re a big, fuckin’ bear, man!” But the more I thought about Steven Soderbergh’s best film, the more it put “Swingers” to the sword. The first time I saw this, when Jennifer Lopez appeared on the screen, someone in the theatre said “Damn” aloud. I think it was meant to be a sort of whispered under your breath sort of thing, but it definitely carried through theatre, much like this film has carried throughout my film-watching life. But more than J-Lo (who hasn’t ever been better in any film of hers I’ve seen), this movie is smoothness set to celluloid. I wish I was a tenth as charismatic as the least charismatic player in this movie (probably Michael Keaton, in a killer cameo). You’ve got George Clooney doing George Clooney things at his absolute zenith. Don Cheadle just stealing every damn scene he’s in when the film is chock full of scene-stealers like Albert Brooks, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Michael Keaton, White Boy Bob, Luis Freaking Guzman and Dennis Fucking Farina. Three great scenes: the hotel room, when Chino goes to see Adele and, of course, the trunk scene. I see this film on and I’m in. Doesn’t matter what scene it is, I’m finishing the film.
“All the President’s Men”
If we’re on the record, I think “Broadcast News” and “Spotlight” are better journalism films than ATPM. And if you were asking me for a top 10 favorite/best movies, I think Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig would get this film on the list through sheer force of her will. But “All the President’s Men” is probably the film on this list I’ve seen the most, due to the fact I show it in my introductory journalism class, which usually means I’m watching it twice per year, minimum. And while, to a person, the cast is excellent, there’s a reason Jason Robards won the Oscar for this film for his portrayal of Ben Bradlee. Both titans of their industries, I want to be Bradlee when I watch this movie, more than Woodward or Bernstein by far. In my newsroom at school, I know I’ve quoted Bradlee, usually to myself while interacting with kids. I’ve put up my feet on the desk like in the shot above, I stared at a student like in the shot above, I’ve used the “I have to trust my reporters and I hate trusting anybody” line with editors when discussing anonymous sources. Most of my students tolerate this movie, but much like being a reporter, it’s a film that requires patience. There’s no explosions or stunts. Just lots of swearing, a pretty accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a reporter (if you take away the technology issues) or editor and a movie that came out just years after its target was resigned from his office.
“Toy Story 3"
I wept at the end of “Toy Story 3.” My son and daughter either side of me. And when the toys joined hands as they slowly slid toward their fate in the incinerator. There are only a couple of movies that when I revisit them can still make the waterworks turn on. “Field of Dreams.” “Forest Gump (the scene where he realizes Jenny’s had his son and he’s worried his condition has been passed on).” “E.T.” It may be one of the bravest moments in cinema. The accepting of one’s fate has never been done better on screen. The closing scene with Andy bequeathing his toys is quite affecting as well, but I can’t remember a recent movie that’s got right to the heart strings quite so effectively.
The opener to a great trilogy, with each film being able to stand on it’s own as a great movie. And while “Before Sunset” — the second film— has perhaps my favorite closing line to a film ever (“Baby, you are going to miss that plane”), the opener to Richard Linklater’s trio of films best defines me. “Sunrise” came out in 1995, but I don’t think I saw it until sometime around 2001, when I was dating my wife and we were living in two different cities. My wife gave me a cell phone she’d gotten as part of her plan and gave it to me, so we could talk between those two lines for free and there were definitely nights that felt like the one Jesse and Celine have here, talking about music and other relationships and anything thing that came into your head. Also, as a person without his fair share of hair, I lust after Ethan Hawke’s hair in this movie. The scene in the record shop when they’re listening to “Come Here” by Kath Bloom perfectly encapsulates those beginning phases of a relationship where you’re trying to figure out if you really like this person and it’s all weird glances and funky spaces. It’s one of my favorite scenes in a movie filled with great scenes.
I love soccer. I watch it more than any other sport and it’s not even close. I subscribe to Paramount Plus and Peacock simply for the soccer. I’m such a big soccer fan that I’ve gotten to the point where I’m calling it football when I talk about it because I watch so much of it and all the commentators in the leagues I watch (exclusively European) call it football that it’s become a fiber of my being. I think my love of this begins with “Victory.” It stars Pele and Bobby Moore. It came out in 1981, but I’d probably guess I saw it around 1985, probably on VHS with my dad. It’s not a great film, but I think for me it was about sport representation in film. This was the ONLY soccer movie when I was growing up and falling in love with playing soccer. A couple of others have come along, but none of them have been very good. And while there are some moments where the soccer is ridiculous, a lot of the scenes you can tell the players are actually doing what you’re seeing. You know Pele’s done that bike. Osvaldo Ardilles does that rainbow kick. I’m pretty sure I watched the bicycle kick about 20 times after I saw it and then went into the backyard to try doing it.
“The Shawshank Redemption”
“I hope.” Much like “All the President’s Men” this movie shouldn’t be so loved. There’s no action set pieces. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are great actors but were by no means huge stars. There are a couple of fights, but other than that it’s just … dialogue. But goodness, does this movie soar. Like the scene pictured above, there are parts of this movie that just soar to such heights. These characters feel lived in, and not just Red and Andy. Brooks and Heywood and Floyd. And Bob Gunton and Clancy Brown absolutely embody the warden and Captain Hadley, as well as just embody evil. I can’t see them in any other production and not think of Norton and Hadley. This movie speaks to perseverance and the power of friendship, and of course, the power of hope. Which in these past two years, despite all the god-awful shit that’s happened during the pandemic, watching “The Shawshank Redemption” always reminds me that, despite the presence of our demons, our better angels will often win out. Just so long as we hope.