The Films That Have Meant The Most To Me During My College Years

Two universities. Six degree changes. Two feature-film projects. Eleven festival rejections. Thirty-seven hundred cups of coffee (roughly). Freshman fifteen. Sophomore negative-forty. One-hundred and sixteen trips to the theater. Nearly one-thousand movies watched.

Five years.

And eleven films to sum the whole thing up.


The Tree of Life (2011)

June of '11, I was a fresh high-school grad, and one sunny afternoon, I strolled into the Angelika in downtown Dallas, unprepared for what was about to happen.

In a real hoity-toity way, 'The Tree of Life' was almost like steady preparation for the years about to hit me, giving me something of a picture of what lay beyond the approaching horizon-- it was scary because it felt so real, it was strange because I'd never seen anything like it before, it was confusing because memories often are, it was beautiful because it was alive, and it was exciting because it left me changed.

The only other people in the theater were two older women who sat directly behind me. When the credits began to silently roll, one turned to the other and murmured, 'What the hell was all that about?'. Trust me, ma'am- I've been thinking about that exact question for five years now, and I've had a hell of a time doing it.



Castle in the Sky (1986)

I hated living on campus my freshman year, but if I hadn't have lived there, then I would've never retreated to the library and claimed a specific desk, tucked away in a quiet corner in the maze-like first floor, as my own.

I spent way too many hours at that desk that year, but the two best were spent getting utterly and completely lost in Miyazaki's joyful world of sky pirates, ancient prophecies, magical spells, and unabashed adventure. I felt like a little kid in the absolute best, most innocent way- and I still do, whenever I watch this or any of Miyazaki's genius storybook tales.



Hud (1963)

In the summer of 2012, my friends and I shot a road movie all throughout God's country- Texas, for the uninitiated. Day after day, we piled into our lead actor's pickup and scoured old cowtown streets, hopping out at a moment's notice to grab shots at spots that looked atmospheric or cinematic or just cool.

One day, we did a long wide take where the pickup pulls off a road and into a dusty parking lot. Just on the other side of the road were railroad tracks, and by some great miracle, coincidence, or just sheer dumb luck, a train roared its way into the background of our shot halfway through the take. We held the shot for as long as we could and when the train passed, all of us stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at each other, and then- though we were dripping with sweat, exhausted from the 104°F temperature- jumped and shouted and danced for joy. It was the best shot in the movie, bar-none.

Every time I watch and think about 'Hud', I think about that day.


21 Up (1977)

Call me elitist, but Michael Apted's 'Up' series is the real 'Boyhood'. For obvious reasons (the closeness in age), I see a lot of myself in these folks. The same fears, the same frustrations, the same joys, the same twentysomething angst.

I've spent more than a handful of sleepless nights wondering if I'll make it to the places I want to get to, and in some small way, it's comforting to know that they did too-- these people that I'll never meet, who live thousands of miles away, who'll never read these words.

Bless you, Michael Apted. This is what cinema is for.



American Graffiti (1973)

There are only a couple of teenage films that I've really connected with, and I think that's because so many of them (including and especially you, John Hughes) just simply don't get what it means to be a teenager.

Richard Linklater once said this, about inspiration for 'Dazed and Confused' : "I don’t remember [it] being that dramatic. It was really rare when [you had] star-crossed lovers from the opposite side of the tracks, and the girl gets pregnant and there’s a car crash and somebody dies. That didn’t really happen much. But riding around and trying to look for something to do with the music cranked up, now that happened a lot!"

That, in a giant-size nutshell, is my memory of being seventeen. And 'American Graffiti' captures that in every way. It's a memory I've replayed far too many times, and will doubtless continue to for many more years to come.


Kagemusha (1980)

I started watching films outside the English language when I was sixteen, and in those early days of Bergman, Fellini, Herzog, and Malle, there were a lot of films I saw and respected, but didn't quite enjoy. That barrier of languages was still there, and continued to be there for several years.

Until Kurosawa.

Not enough people talk about 'Kagemusha' and I think that's kind of a shame. I've read that Kurosawa sometimes called it dress rehearsal for 'Ran', but that's just too much of a disservice- frankly I prefer this one. Long before Tony Zhou came along, I remember very clearly staying up far too late one summer night, gazing at the light and color streaming forth from my tiny eleven-inch television set, thinking over and over to myself, "every shot of this is a painting".

And for one reason or another, that wall of... whatever you want to call it- discomfort, or disconnect- disappeared that night.

And I'm so glad it did.


Gravity (2013)

'Gravity' was one of the brighter spot in a rough-'n-tumble, draining, headache year of my life that included deaths in the family, crappy medical diagnoses, friendship breakdowns, and a July 4th night which likely ranks as one of the loneliest moment of my life so far (wow, that got personal fast).

I dunno why, but 'Gravity' just hit me in the right spot. I spent the last ten minutes of it crying and I feel no shame in saying that.




Black Orpheus (1959)

I don't really have anything profound to say about this one other than the fact that it simply makes me happy.

Everybody's always dancing, and the summer heat is sweltering but that's okay cause you can grab a cold one, turn up the bossa-nova, and watch a Rio sunset with your buds, until you remember that death-incarnate is trying to steal your new girlfriend and you should probably do something about it.

This is my cup of tea.



Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953)

Step into any introductory film course and ask the mandatory-but-slightly-ridiculous, 'Who's your favorite filmmaker?' question, and you'll get a lot of undergrads shouting names like Tarantino, Scorsese, Nolan, Fincher, and if one of them's especially indie, then they'll say Kubrick.

I think a lot of kids at this age are, for some reason, naturally drawn to the darker, grittier, colder, hard-R fare. How many dorm rooms do you think have been plastered with posters of 'Fight Club' and 'Pulp Fiction' and 'American Psycho' over the years?

The older I get, and the more movies I watch, the more I think that we completely undervalue... well, joy. I use that word because 'comedy' is too broad and doesn't really capture what I mean. It may sound stupid, but it's true. We place so much importance on the grand, dramatic, tragic, dark, capital-letter Statements, and we enjoy but sweep aside the lighthearted romps.

You've already guessed it, and you're right- that's just not me.

'Monsieur Hulot's Holiday' is pleasant, through-and-through. It's merry and fun and simple and bouncy and just plain happy to exist. It's the kind of film I'm finding myself drawn to more and more every day.


Foxcatcher (2014)

This may sound like I'm slightly contradicting what I just said previously because boy, is this a dark cynical Statement-movie, but I don't think I've learned more about filmmaking from any other film in the last couple years than I have from 'Foxcatcher'.

I'll just give one example:

Early in the film, there's a scene where Channing Tatum's Mark and Mark Ruffalo's Dave train together. Not a word is said. All we see is the back-and-forth, attack-defense moves between two Olympian brothers.

Dave dives for Mark's leg and throws him down. They get back up and start over. Mark tries the same move, but Dave pushes him off easily. They get back and start over. Mark tries again, but Dave throws him to the ground. They get back up and start over. Mark switches it up, juking around and then going for Dave's neck. They tussle like little kids for a second, and then Mark headbutts his brother, giving him a bloody nose. Dave steps off the map, waits a second, then wipes the blood onto his shirt, spits, and they start over.

You see it all right there. All of Mark's rage. All of Dave's calm composure. Their entire relationship. It's all in the way they move and respond to each other- what they do, what they don't do. You don't need words, you don't need exposition or commentary or voiceover because it's all right there.

These are the kinds of scenes I dream about making.


Tomorrowland (2015)

I found the same joy that I talked about with 'Black Orpheus' and 'Monsieur Hulot's Holiday' in 'Tomorrowland' last year. I won't try and sway any wayward opinions, I'll just simply say that - like all of the movies I've listed, I saw it at exactly the right time. It was the very thing I needed in a very particular moment.

That moment was a Sunday night before the first day of shooting my second feature film. It left me with that lump you get in your throat- not because you're gonna cry, but because you want to scream and shout and jump for joy. It reminded me why I love films, and why I want to spend the rest of my life making them.

It was and is the perfect sentimental capstone to a perfect sentimental five years. I wouldn't change a thing about either of them.