Sean O’Neal: This week, yet another movie-based personality quiz overtook Twitter—specifically, Film Twitter, that loosely defined consortium of critics, industry types, and eager film buffs united by their love of movies and making others feel bad about the movies they love. The “FilmStruck4” challenge was issued by the recently minted FilmStruck streaming service, and the rules are both simple and impossible: Pick four films that “define you,” then tag four friends and ask them to do the same. The point, FilmStruck said, was to “celebrate the personal nature of cinema” by sharing the movies that have made you who you are today, or that best capture the facets of your personality.
FilmStruck4 combines several of Film Twitter’s favorite activities: waxing romantic over life-changing cinematic experiences, responding to list prompts, and agonizing. To that last point, there is the obvious performative aspect to it all—the desire to present the perfect balance of obscure arthouse films with, ideally, one populist but not too popular selection. So for example, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, La Strada, 3 Women, but then you gotta throw in Monty Python And The Holy Grail to show you also like to goof around.
How any of these films actually “define” you—as opposed to just being movies you like—is left open to interpretation. Certainly no one expects you to explain it. This has led to a few permutations that attempt to make it a little easier (“Four films that made me love movies,” “four films that define horror,” “four films that have Jeff Goldblum in them”). But for the most part, everyone that’s played along—from your lowliest film bloggers to blockbuster directors like Rian Johnson and Ron Howard—has stuck to the original question. Film Twitter has thus been awash in a lot of incredibly refined works of cinema that encapsulate the rich inner lives of their fans.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is bullshit. Far be it from me to scoff at someone’s insistence that, to really understand them, you just need to watch El Topo. But much as with that “Favorite Movie For Every Year You Were Born” challenge from last year—or any version of these virtual DVD shelves that come along—I find there’s this implicit need to impress that just makes me want to post “Police Academy 1-4” or “Man Getting Hit By Football” and ironically shrug it all off. Because if I’m being honest—really, truly, I-am-willing-to-be-ridiculed-by-a-community-that-probably-doesn’t-welcome-me-anyway honest—the four films that “define” me are not all that refined or impressive. They are, to borrow a phrase, pretty basic, at least by Film Twitter standards.
Because if I am being honest, Ghostbusters is a film that “defines” me. It is, next to The Simpsons, the biggest formative influence on my sense of humor, owing to the fact that I watched it approximately once per week between the ages of 6 and 8, and countless more times since. It’s certainly not a bad or embarrassing pick; Ghostbusters is beloved by many and, at worst, shrugged at by a few. Still, Ghostbusters hardly gave me a more profound understanding of myself or our place in the universe or bestowed upon me a deeper appreciation of film’s capacity for creating wonder, even the part where Dan Aykroyd gets a ghost blowjob. I just really liked the way these smartass dudes talked to each other—cool and detached, always ready with a glib one-liner, even in the face of apocalypse. Ghostbusters suggested that the whole world could be falling apart, but it was okay so long you could just hang out with your buddies, cracking jokes. Healthy or no, there’s a lot of my approach to life in there.
That’s pretty similar to Goodfellas, actually, another movie that I’ve probably spent cumulative months of my life watching. Henry Hill et al. may have been violent criminals, but what I most related to was their desire to do nothing but sit around, drinking and smoking, breakin’ each other’s balls. And while there are certainly more “cinematic” aspects of the film I could name to defend my choice—it is one of the most kinetically compelling films ever made, near impossible not to get sucked into at any entry point—how Goodfellas “defines” me is that I have a not-so-secret desire to live inside its world, minus the whackings, where the end goal is to spend every night at the bar laughing with my friends, preferably while wearing sharp-looking clothes.
And while I don’t necessarily want to live in a burned-out, perpetually drizzling Los Angeles (although… I kind of do), there is similarly something about the world of Blade Runner that has always spoken to my cynical, prematurely weary soul. Maybe it’s just that I, too, like to sip whiskey and gaze somberly at city lights while ambient electronic music drones in the background. Like the rest of these, Blade Runner isn’t really an embarrassing pick, though it’s slightly predictable, and I suspect it has a ring of middlebrow faux-pretension that I’m not entirely comfortable exposing to the Twitter jackals. But fuck it. Blade Runner is very much part of me, in a very intangible “mood board” sort of way.
Finally, there is Barton Fink—a movie that probably comes closest to capturing my actual middlebrow faux-pretensions, and the inflated self-importance of imagining myself to be a capital-W Writer living the “life of the mind,” so self-serious that I can’t even play a dumb Twitter game. The Coen brothers’ film has lots of aspects of my personality in it, I think: Fink’s self-aggrandizing/self-loathing, sure, but also Bill Mayhew’s romanticizing of his own alcohol-fueled apathy as a safeguard against phoniness, and the impatient, Occam’s razor, “Whaddaya need, a road map?” attitude of Tony Shalhoub’s producer character. I don’t feel especially great about any of these things being so closely tied to who I am, and I can think of nothing more clichéd than a writer strongly identifying with Barton Fink. Still, when I asked my wife what movie she would say “defines” me, she didn’t hesitate to name it. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or an insult, but it’s true, apparently.
Anyway, now I’m playing along and “tagging” four of you. What are the four movies that really, honestly “define” you?
Caitlin PenzeyMoog: I don’t have to think too hard for these “truly defining me” movies. I have little pretension about film; it’s just not my medium. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never see all the classics or keep up with modern releases, and my mindset is that when I do sit down to watch a movie, I want it to be one I’ll enjoy, not necessarily one I know I probably won’t like but should “respect.” I also stay off Film Twitter. From what I hear around the office and from my filmmaker partner, it sounds like the absolute worst.
I could go with a single film that defines me and my whole taste with the choice of Crank. If Jason Statham is in a movie, there’s a very good chance I’ll like it. He seems to choose roles in the exact kind of action movie I love: more concerned with action than cerebral plot, lots of chaotic fight sequences, and a level of cheesiness that still takes itself seriously. Statham is the man. Crank is exactly the kind of intense, goofy action ride I like to go on with my movies. I like how dumb and unrealistic it is. I like that the plot is really just scaffolding to hang sequences of Statham doing over-the-top things to keep his heart going. I saw Crank when it came out the fall of my senior year of high school, and I think it was the first time I saw an action movie and realized, yes, this is my genre. The film’s portrayal of women is bad, and the sex scene in Chinatown enters rape territory, so I’d hedge a lot around including Crank as one of my favorite films ever. And if I were active on Film Twitter, I wouldn’t include it in my top four because, yeah, it’s problematic. But honestly, I love that movie, and I overlook its shittier parts for the batshit ride it takes me on.
The Bourne Identity
is similar to Crank. You may remember it as a “smarter” action movie, but it’s really not. It has political pretenses and an ostensible message, but that’s not really the point, or why I’ve watched it again and again. I grew up with this franchise, just like I grew up with the Harry Potter books. And like those books, the Bourne series is comfort food, familiar and easy to eat. I like the overly long action sequences and herky-jerky camera work. The anti-government paranoia is fun. And I love that iconic scene at the end, where Jason Bourne is watching the government baddie from a nearby building. It’s all so over-the-top and safely ludicrous.
I have a soft spot for elaborate, some might say overworked, plot contrivances, and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 does it more stylishly than most. The whole burglary sequence is excellent, especially the part where George Clooney and Matt Damen go down the elevator shaft and the film goes from a clever update on The Killing/the original Ocean’s 11 and into downright Mission: Impossible territory. It gives me two things I want from my movies: elaborate heists and unbelievable action sequences. And unlike the first two films on my list, Ocean’s 11 holds up well today.
Speaking of Mission: Impossible, I’ll wrap up my list with Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation—though really, I enjoy the whole series. The latest in the franchise was, in my opinion, as close to a perfect bullshit actioner as you can get. The stunts alone make it worth it, and Rogue Nation gave the series a truly good female protagonist—which is nice but clearly not something that, when I’m honest with myself, really matters in my enjoyment of these macho man films. Just hearing the theme music gets me amped; I practically hovered out of my seat in excitement when the trailer for Fallout came on. (That trailer is spectacular, minus the shitty Imagine Dragons song. But the part where the theme matches up to the sound of punches in the bathroom? Incredible.)
I don’t know what it says about me the the four movies I think honestly “define” me are riddled with dudes and violence. I suppose it reveals that I really just like to enjoy myself at the movies, and I’m not going to pretend that I enjoy highbrow, artistic, or even thoughtful films as much as I enjoy seeing men hurt themselves.
Clayton Purdom: I asked my wife what movie defines me, and her immediate response was The Fast & The Furious. She then followed that up with There Will Be Blood. These are, generally speaking, the two poles from which all my taste is strung—either trashy, go-for-broke macho action horseshit, or highbrow, go-for-broke macho arty shit. I’ll disqualify The Fast & The Furious, because I actually celebrate the entire series. But sure, let’s start with There Will Be Blood—definitely the most recent, most widely celebrated pick I’ll be offering. It’s also the closest thing to a comedy on my list, and that’s part of its charm, the way Paul Thomas Anderson plays this grand tale of American avarice with such preposterous comic invention and depravity. I’m not much for comedies in general, so this’ll have to do.
If I were to make a list of, say, 20 other movies that helped define me, at least half of them would be action and sci-fi flicks from the ’80s and early ’90s. Only Terminator 2: Judgment Day combines all of those threads into one long, careening chase scene. It was also the first R-rated movie my dad rented for us on his weekly Sunday night trips to the video store, and so it is etched into my memory forever. The rest of the movies on this hypothetical list would be horror films of varying levels of highbrow intensity, and among them, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has always reigned high for me as the aesthetic ideal of a horror movie, at once visceral and tasteful and filmed with a grim eloquence. It’s also 84 minutes, a fact that has lead me to claim—repeatedly, and to the disdain of almost everyone I know—that all movies should be less than 90 minutes.
Is the slim, 88-minute runtime what drew me to Cool Dog, a straight-to-DVD adventure I found sitting in a massive bin of cut-rate DVDs five or six years ago? Or was it the title, which correctly and succinctly describes the extremely cool dog that stars in the movie? Hard to say. I was certainly high, and so I bought the film, which still holds a trusty place in my extremely small film collection. I pick it not because anyone should watch it—they should not—but for the way it represents me, and specifically the decade-plus portion of my life I devoted exclusively to watching the worst movies I could find: Christian dramas; softcore vampire erotica; computer-generated video-game adaptations; a large portion of the Uwe Boll filmography; dozens of Treat Williams films. My relationship with film is more often than not antagonistic—I either want it to kick the shit out of me or I want to make fun of it. My first three picks do the former, and I keep Cool Dog on retainer in case I need to do the latter.
William Hughes: As a kid who grew up obsessed with the idea that the only thing he had to offer the world was his intelligence, I’ve spent three decades trying to internalize the lesson Max Fischer picks up over the course of Rushmore’s 90 minutes: You might be smart, kid, but you ain’t that smart. I like all of Wes Anderson’s movies just fine, but Rushmore is the one that hits me where I live, a visually beautiful, verbally delightful portrait of a guy who gets knocked down over and over again, until he finally grasps that emotional intelligence is a far more important survival skill than ambition or the ability to hatch elaborate schemes. Plus, the soundtrack instantly lodged itself in my brain, which seems like a pretty safe definition of “defined” to me.
And, hey, let’s get me put on an FBI watch list, while we’re at it: I’d also say I’m defined by Chris Morris’ Four Lions, easily the best political farce ever written about a crew of wacky Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers and their hapless efforts to blow up a major London marathon. For whatever reason (I blame early Monty Python exposure) I readily respond to comedies so dark that some people wouldn’t even categorize them as humor—looking at you, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer—and Morris’ satire about dumb people making bad decisions falls right at that outside bound. No movie in my memory better balances the silly—jihadists attempting to coordinate their attack through a kids’ games site called Puffin Party, police snipers arguing about whether the costumed terrorist suspect they just shot was a “Wookiee” or a “bear”—with the painful, and that’s the sort of emotional whiplash that keeps me smiling while my fellow moviegoers always seem to be wincing at the shock.
Speaking of my love for niche bullshit, let’s also hear it for Richard Kelly’s instant cult classic Southland Tales. I get occasional flack for describing things as “dumb” or “stupid”—as though those were value judgments, rather than discrete qualities to be celebrated or enjoyed—but I consider it the highest compliment I can pay when I say Kelly’s grab bag of apocalyptic nonsense is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen (multiple times). Every time I watch it, I find myself awed and bewildered by the massive swings the Donnie Darko director takes, whether he’s casting The Rock as a frightened amnesiac, filling his cast of villains with former SNL and Mad TV stars, or just asking his audience to take characters with names like “Vaughn Smallhouse,” “Cyndi Pinziki,” or “The Wizard, Baron Von Westphalen” seriously. There’s something tremendously genuine about Kelly’s movie, and its mantra that “Pimps don’t commit suicide,” too, that honestly speaks to me; it’s always felt like an effort to sincerely communicate to people from a very strange and distant place.
And, finally, Clue. I don’t feel especially moved to justify this one: It’s Clue; several of the most gifted comic performers of their era rattling off great/dumb dialogue, all nested within a tricksy meta-narrative structure. What’s not to define myself by? I happily welcome Wadsworth into my soul, flames on the side of my face, Communism red herrings, and all.
Alex McLevy: Like a few of you, my immediate response to the FilmStruck4 challenge was to be a contrarian grump about it, perhaps because that’s my default when faced with people insisting they have nothing but great taste. Luckily, I have a significant other who was happy to do it for me. And when I asked which films best defined me, their IMed response was instantaneous and humbling:
deep blue sea
and then some boring subtitled movie
Let’s start with the one where I’d have to agree: The Avengers
not only captured most of my childhood dreams for what I wanted from a big-budget Hollywood film in one single work of city-smashing delight, but it also became my go-to for relaxing at the end of a long week. It’s the best fusion of my youthful obsessions (Marvel comics, action movies, nerdy humor) with my grown-up desires to be entertained by the grandest big-screen spectacles. None of that would’ve likely mattered were it not also a rousing, excellently constructed film. But as is, I was happy to be finally granted something I’d always wanted to see: Marvel’s Avengers, in a movie worthy of their folklore.
A big part of my 20s was overcoming my paralyzing fear of scary movies; my youth involved running away from them at sleepovers or family movie nights, so that a large part of my personality was “wimp who got made fun of a lot.” When I finally saw the American remake of The Grudge in theaters—overcoming my phobia solely because it starred Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar—it scared me so badly that I had to get out of bed at 5 a.m. and drive around for an hour until the coffee shops opened and I didn’t have to be alone. The experience shook me so much that I became resolved to conquer my lifelong fears. I went back and saw The Grudge about six more times until it finally had no power over me. And that did it: I became a horror addict. I’ve watched at least one scary movie per week since then (often one a day during October), and the genre has become a passion of mine. I almost never watch The Grudge any more—my list of horror rewatches is lengthy, but that’s not on it—yet it’ll remain a crucial aspect of making me who I am.
Like most Film Twitter people pretending their tastes were formed after adolescence, I’ve avoided my childhood films thus far. So let’s go back and acknowledge one that affected me deeply: The Goonies, a movie that I can still quote you just about every single scene. Like Sean said about Ghostbusters, I just loved how these friends interacted—the endless private jokes and good-natured taunting, and the way they had each other’s backs. It signaled to me what I should be looking for in friends, and while I never really cottoned to making fun of my friends very well (even now, when I try to zing someone, it’s immediately followed by an “Oh God, I’m sorry, that was awful”), I still can recollect the feeling of belonging the film created in my mind—that I, too, could be a Goonie.
Let’s end with something I always cite as my go-to response for “What’s your favorite movie?” since it’s not hard to prove your love for a film that you have tribute to tattooed on your arm. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is, to me, the director’s best and richest film, and one that I will continue to watch yearly, always discovering and learning new things about it. It’s full of exactly the kind of psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo that defines my intellectual interests, and when I saw it at an impressionable age, it became like a long-awaited mentor, teaching me about film, philosophy, and what it means to make art. It’s the one I least want to explain in terms of why—it’s like trying to explain why you love the color blue—but it’s the closest to me on a personal level.
There, I ended with something respectable. Do I make you proud now, Mother?!?