Films are a major part of my life. I've spent a fair chunk of my journalism years reviewing movies and interviewing actors and directors. There was a time in my younger life when I barricaded myself in the house during summer vacation absorbing films until one of my friends came for me. Usually I'd park him or her in the living room with me in front of a film, I was that absorbed. Later in my teens, I was outside more than in, but I always stayed up late watching movies, studying them, refining the craft of storytelling in my mind.
Nowadays I'm writing and attending to my personal obligations far more than I'm watching the tube. For a long while, I was on the road and out at clubs covering shows more than I was reviewing films. Still, I've never lost my passion for movies and having had a taste of working on independent film sites, I'm more stoked about the art of the celluloid than ever. There are so many movies that have imprinted themselves on my thought process and my writing style and I revisit them frequently while working on a story. Some movies are just so powerful in their narratives I draw strength and inspiration. Some are just popcorn thrill rides that still teach the art of brevity in their storytelling you have to admire their will to serve as quasi-literature as well as blockbluster entertainment.
Over the next three posts, I'd like to share 30 films which I will likely hang out with as I begin my next big project and certainly all of those beyond. There's no rank or reasoning to these selections. They just are and I love them for feeding my need to create...
1. American Beauty
Geoffrey Eugenides penned an incredible first-person narration of a sexually-frustrated middle ager who struggles to find his self-worth. A sudden burst of juvenile erraticism sends his wife into bed with another man, his daughter into the arms of the school weirdo and nearly his manhood between the legs of a popular, snotty teenager. I don't condone hunting San Quentin quail whatsoever, but the characterization of American Beauty is magnificent and spot-on from all perspectives. The punchline of the film is a whopper. This film had a tremendous impact on how I approached the first person recount in my novel, "Saved by Zero." Every time I watch American Beauty, I look like I have the "art pose" in a gallery, thumb and forefinger pinching my chin, eyes squinting attentively, soaking it all up in its glory.
2. The Virgin Suicides
Once again I draw upon Geoffrey Eugenides and his debut story, The Virgin Suicides. Sofia Coppola was the logical choice to direct this intense tale about a fivesome of blossoming young ladies trapped under the confines of their authoritative zealot parents. Moreover, it's told from the perspective of a neighborhood boy who held a crush on the teen girls. The dual interchange of vantages between the boys and the girls held under close watch would be confusing under less-skilled hands, but this very dark lore about suburban hell just compels me. The score by Air is otherworldly and the seventies' pop rock selections are so well-timed they breathe life into a story obsessed with death. The scene where the boys and girls play records over the phone to each other in order to communicate is heart-wrenching stuff. The more the Lisbon girls are suppressed from growing as the flowers they are, the quicker they wilt. Save for the immortal kiss in Spiderman, Kirsten Dunst has never exhibited such devastating fragility as a would-be badass than she does in this film. The Virgin Suicides socks me in the gut every single time.
3. Almost Famous
Aside from "Ray Ray," my wife's nickname for me is "Almost Famous." I've interviewed more than 300 musicians, directors, actors, artists and authors and my ascension to the upper tier of guests has shown my wife a ceaseless obsession to make it to the top. Like Geoffrey Eugendies, Cameron Crowe is one of my personal writing idols and I related to a good bit of Almost Famous, even if Crowe delved deeper into the abyss of rock 'n roll purgatory than I. Today's artists hardly flaunt their excesses as they did in Crowe's time and especially the eighties. My unyielding barrage of interviews in the interest of gaining Rolling Stone, Spin and Village Voice's attention has always made my wife smile. "Ray, you're so Almost Famous," she's said often, and it's this story which allowed me to go for the gusto with my novel, "Saved by Zero." Thanks heaps, Cameron. I owe you.
4. A Clockwork Orange
One of the most revered stories about a nihilistic subculture that ever was. To read Anthony Burgess' novel is hardly the same experience as Stanley Kubrick's masterful ode to teen degeneracy in the midst of a near-apocalyptic England. I don't need to rehash what the novel or this film is about since everyone knows. What I draw from the story and Kubrick's incredible visualization is something people hardly discuss. Alex (the illustrious Malcolm McDowell, one of my favorite actors of all-time) must atone for his sins in what becomes a gruelling spin through the karma wheel. All of Alex's sins revisit him after his "rehabilitation" and you suddenly feel remorse for the little bastard. I refer to this intangible malady of life as the "Clockwork Orange syndrome" and you'd better believe it affected me greatly in "Saved by Zero," once my lead character must pay the check, as you will, for his own self-serving choices.
5. Lust, Caution
A prime example of erotica as engaging art and espionage. Ang Lee's daring sex scenes in this film are explicit and they command a central focus of this Chinese film about a young collegiate woman seducing a high ranking mock government official in the midst of Japanese occupation in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Her task is intended to lead "Mr. Yee" into a comfort zone where he will be assassinated. The catch is she becomes more than attached to him. I don't want to spoil the ending if you haven't seen this film, but Lust, Caution is a must-see for its provacative nature and its intelligent story that you actually believe is possible.
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
In the league of Captains Courageous and Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the perfect action movie. Breathless, relentless pacing, over-the-edge stunts, lush locales, random humor, a hero with both a nerd and stud persona, a triumphant score by John Williams and just enough good vs. evil dogma to keep its intent legit. They really don't make action flicks like this anymore.
7. Dawn of the Dead
Zombie mania is running wild these days and AMC's The Walking Dead series is the best of the best right now. Still, the mark to beat in zombie lore will always be George Romero's vintage Dawn of the Dead. Never has Hell on Earth been so savage and so natural. This is a cast you care about as they hole themselves up in a mall while the world gnaws itself to death. There's always been an appeal to having an entire mall to yourself with everything available for free. That is, until a biker gang invades your self-created nirvana and zombies tear everyone to pieces. That's the core of the original Dawn, but it's much more than that. As society crumbles beneath the gut-tearing whims of the undead, it's Romero's shrewd eye for human nature which resonates the most in his film. The remake was gallant and a rare diamond in the rough, yet, Romero's will never be topped.
I'm not sure there's a film I admire more for its outstanding characterization and intertwined sub-stories than Crash. Can you honestly pick a movie that evolves from one central action and shows all the different people affected by one singular event and ultimately spins full-circle by film's end? If you want to be a writer, watch this at least ten times.
9. High Fidelity
Those who know me know I champion the indie record store. There is no greater safe haven for me on a personal level than a music shop. Sometimes I venture in willing to talk to the employees and maybe another shopper or two. Often I just want to be left in silence because scouring for music is a deeply personal thing. On the other hand, I really savor tripping across people who know music intimately and those who would die for music. That's what you have in High Fidelity. I have two friends whose personalities plus mine mike up the core trio in this film. Personality-wise, I'm Cusack, while my two buddies exhibit Jack Black's opinionated voraciousness and Todd Louiso's encyclopedic elitism to a tee. I adore this film's openness, dead-on capturability and especially's Cusasck's hilarious recount of his bizarre relationships. I wanted to open my own record store once and yup, I've had my share of strange women too...
10. The Breakfast Club
Admittedly I was too cool, too metal in 1985 to give The Breakfast Club any time of day. Even when it landed on VHS and I had a number of schoolmates offering to let me watch it, I refused. Eventually I did in the company of a former girlfriend and she took it as a personal triumph I was so won over by the film. Truly, this film and Fast Times at Ridgemont High are the quintessential time capsules of my generation. I became jealous of Shermer High's atmospheric library. The point is, I finally gave Molly Ringwald a chance (though I secretly thought she ruled in Sixeen Candles) and there came a time after the break-up with said girlfriend where I wanted to woo Ringwald's proverbial character, Claire Standish like Judd Nelson did. His fractured rebel persona was ripe for the picking by the right girl--as was mine. Yeah, there's a lot of blubbering in The Breakfast Club, but John Hughes struck gold by putting diverse personalities into a forced alliance via detention and the end results are more on the money than you might expect.
Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.
He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.
Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.