“Wait. So… that’s it? That’s the movie that redefined cinema? That’s the movie that changed editing and structure? That proved that the only rule is that there are no rules? I guess I don’t see it. Maybe I just don’t get it. I mean, haven’t we seen this done before?”
Yep, we sure have. But only since.
I was too disturbed to appreciate it. Like many of my still-favorite films, I first saw The Deer Hunter when I was very young. Probably too young. And it did a number on me. It was so sad and lonely and hopeless, I couldn’t ever imagine saying I “liked” it. But then something strange happened: it never went away. I couldn’t get the film out of my mind. It was full of little moments that haunted me: De Niro picking a fight with a distraught soldier at a wedding, De Niro not recognizing his best friends in-country, the spilt wine, the rats, the most melancholic cover of “God Bless America” ever conceived. The Deer Hunter is still one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, which is why it took me a while to appreciate its full, raw beauty.
I’ve never seen a Stanley Kubrick film that I absolutely loved on first viewing. I love them all now, but it took multiple viewings of each. The Shining especially. Again, I was probably too young to appreciate why Kubrick used 146 long minutes to tell his story. Too young to understand the film’s slow build up, not to mention its fever dream obscurity. Now, I can’t make it through Halloween without watching it at least once.
When I was young, I resented Titanic’s success, which meant I disliked nearly other James Cameron film by proxy. Basically, I didn’t like The Abyss because I didn’t like Titanic (gotta love the rationalization skills of a 12 year old). But once I separated the two films, I quickly grew to admire The Abyss. In fact, I think it’s Cameron’s best film. Terminator 2 will always be my favorite, but I find the most cinematic value in The Abyss.
A funny thing happened a few years ago. I was having dinner with my friend and his girlfriend. He had just attempted to show her The Big Lebowski for the first time, and she said she turned it off because she couldn’t get into it.
Her: “I know it’s some sort of cult classic, but it wasn’t working for me.”
Me: “I was the same exact way the first time I watched it.”
Her: “Plus it’s so damn long, like two and a half hours.”
Me: “Nah, clocks in at just under two, but I get that it can feel long initially.”
Her: “It’s at least two and a half hours.”
So we made a bet. If I was right, she had to give the film another go. Needless to say, she loves the movie now.
I wanted to get it so badly. I wanted to open myself to the film’s obscure depiction of isolation, despair and worthlessness. But I just couldn’t. Nothing clicked. It ended and I didn’t have plans to look at it again. And then we lost him. We lost him and people talked, wrote tributes. Synecdoche, New York was mentioned often, occasionally capped with words like “crowning achievement.” So I went back. And, slowly but surely, the puzzle pieces started to fit. It began to work. And now, every time I watch it, it reveals itself more to me.
Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is the only film on this list that I actively disliked the first time I watched it. I found it to be a self-indulgent, vapid waste of time. But when I went back to the film for my Directors post on Baumbach, something kind of remarkable happened. I let the film wash over me, and I found myself seriously appreciating it. Age has a lot to do with this, as does an enhanced appreciation for editing and composition styles of European cinema. And really, how can you not like that final scene?
Moneyball was the victim of the cinematic sugar high I felt from Drive. I first saw Bennett Miller’s patient and calculating film about 30 seconds after I first saw Nicolas Winding Refn’s pulp electronica thrill ride. They were in the theater at the same time, the timing worked out, so I caught them both. Moneyball simply couldn’t hold my attention. I wanted to go back and be wowed by Drive again. I wanted that energy, that high. Today, Moneyball is one of the most compulsively rewatchable films I own. The film has its own unique energy, it just takes a little while to uncover it.
Warrior hit too close to home. It brought up so many feelings regarding my own family. It was so emotionally brutal, but also uncommonly vulnerable. After I first saw it, I denied its effect on me. But, much like The Deer Hunter, I knew I had to revisit Warrior. I caught it again the day before it left theaters, and by the end, I was a complete mess. Warrior is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about family, it just uses MMA as an outlet to facilitate its drama.
Preconceived notions are the worst possible thing you can take into a film. That’s why I ignore trailers, reviews, and marketing materials. I like to go in as blind as I can. But it was impossible to not have fixed thoughts on The Master before seeing it. I wanted the visceral power of There Will Be Blood. That was my one request. But, seeing as how There Will Be Blood is one of the most viscerally powerful films ever made, I was bound to let myself down. Instead, what I got was an experimental mind fuck; a meditation on isolation, rage, and control. I left the theater knowing I had witness greatness, yet I couldn’t hail it as great. Today… The Master is as great as great movies get.
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