Headline Blog #4 – My Favorite Movies

Lists of favorites are always so hard to pin down—I really love X, but do I love it more than Y? Do I need to? It’s hard (and probably meaningless) to really start ranking movies in terms of absolute favoriteness, but there are some movies I love so much that I feel comfortable putting them in an unranked top five. This list will probably change multiple times throughout my life, but for now these are my favorite movies:

Jaws, Steven Spielberg
Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock
Annie Hall, Woody Allen
Mary Poppins, Robert Stevenson
The Searchers, John Ford

Jaws, Steven Spielberg
I say these are in no particular order, but this one is my favorite. A few years ago I realized that I’d seen Jaws more times than I’d seen any other movie, and being curious and over-analytical I started to wonder why I sought it out so much, and so subconsciously. The conclusion I came to is that it is simply some of the best storytelling and characterization I have ever seen anywhere. When people ask me how to build suspense, I point them at Jaws; when people ask me how to make human characters, I point them at Jaws; when people ask me how to blend drama and humor and terror and triumph, I point them at Jaws. I could write pages and pages on all the things I love about that movie, but just trust me: go out and watch it.

Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock
When I set out to write I Am Not a Serial Killer, a friend told me “the hardest part is going to be your main character—readers will have to identify with him even when he does bad things.” He was absolutely right, and the problem of anti-hero empathy became the core of the book. When I set out to solve that problem, I went straight to the master: Psycho. Today most of us know that this is a movie about a crazy killer, but back when it first came out that was a secret, and Hitchcock took his sweet time revealing that. Instead he started with a different story altogether, showing a woman caught up in a crime; you get invested in her and in her story, and you follow her as she tries to hide, and it goes on for a long, long time, and then all of a sudden she’s dead, and poor Norman Bates has to clean up his mother’s mess. He doesn’t want the police to come after his mother, so he decides to hide her crime instead by putting the body in a car and sinking it in a swamp. He pushes it in, watches it sink, and it stops halfway; he watches it nervously, scared to death of being discovered, and then with a groan it sinks in the rest of the way. Instantly, in that one scene—in that one look of fear—you in the audience have switched gears: you’re completely invested in Norman now, and from that moment on the movie is completely his. There are tons of other things to love about the movie, but that one scene has taught me so much about fear, emotion, and identification. One warning: Psycho is nothing at all like modern scary movies, so if you watch expecting a thriller you will be disappointed. Watch it as a character movie, and you’ll love it.

Annie Hall, Woody Allen
Yeah, I know: two scary movies and then Annie Hall? What kind of crazy list is this? Hey, if you don’t like it you can make your own list. These are my favorites. For me, Annie Hall is about two things: it’s about loving people in spite of (and perhaps because of) their flaws, and it’s about talking. The people in this movie talk about everything, no matter where they are or what they’re doing, and sometimes they even step into voiceover and talk about their talking WHILE they’re talking. If you hate talking, this is not the movie for you. The thing is, the people talking are so funny, and so interesting, and so layered with good and bad that they are endlessly fascinating to listen to. So many love stories are about people who are destined to be together, and after one or two obligatory plot problems they live happily after, but Annie Hall shows us real people who try, and fail, and screw up, and change, and stay the same, and fall down, and get up and try again.

Mary Poppins, Robert Stevenson
This one would look a lot weirder on this list without Annie Hall to soften the blow. Why do I love Mary Poppins? For some of the same reasons I love these other movies, actually: because it’s funny, because I love the characters, and because it combines humor and sadness in some wonderful ways. It also pulls a Psycho-ish twist toward the end, where you suddenly realize (though it’s been there all along) that the movie is not really about what you thought it was about, and it pulls back the curtain and you realize that what you thought was a wacky kids movie is actually one of the most touching movies about fatherhood ever made. And yes, I know that Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent is terrible, but seriously—get over it. It’s completely overshadowed by all the awesomeness. If you’ve never seen it, go watch it, and if you’ve seen it innumerable times here’s a neat trick: imagine that singing is a metaphor for emotional connection, and watch it again with new eyes; pay attention to who sings to who, and why, and how. This old Disney musical is so much more layered than people expect.

The Searchers, John Ford
I just saw this one a few years ago, but it leapt to the top five almost instantly. The Searchers is so much more than just cowboys and Indians: it’s about hatred, racism, obsession, and love. It’s about the painful borders between community and solitude; between doing what you want and doing what has to be done. And holy crap is it beautiful to look at. In some ways, it’s the perfect representation of my favorite archetype: the outsider who tries to help a group of people even though he knows that he will never truly belong; when you think about it, that’s the subtext of every movie on this list (Psycho is kind of a stretch, but it still works). The Searchers is wonderful and heart-wrenching movie, and it’s no mistake that the hero of my book is named John Wayne.

Next week I’m going to change course a bit and talk about the final piece of the “my literary influences” puzzle: poetry.

One Response to “Headline Blog #4 – My Favorite Movies”

  1. Arlene says:

    Dan!

    I love your list! And i’m mildly surprised that Mary Poppins made it, although I absolutely agree. My UK copy of “serial killer” is going to be here on Friday. I can’t wait!

    Arlene

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