40 movie moments that galvanized and shaped me

Posted by · 9:37 am · October 19th, 2008

Judy Garland and Bert Lahr in The Wizard of OzOn the weekend here I thought I’d offer a vast list of movie moments and particulars that have forged the guy who hammers out these columns week to week.  Lists such as these are bound to differ from person to person, but I’m sure we all share plenty of them as well.

1. The Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”
At six-years-old that witch was terrifying as my family watched this in black and white for the first time (that I recall) — nightmares ensued.

2. John Wayne in “True Grit”
With a twirl of the rifle he marches boldly ahead to do battle outnumbered four to one by men half his age. Putting the reins between his teeth, he draws a weapon in each hand and charges…true grit indeed.

3. That searing ending of “Planet of the Apes”
I still get shivers watching Heston find Lady Liberty up to her armpit in the sand, his world gone forever.

4. The parting of the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments”
THE moment that forever addicted me to movies. And I expected so little of the film. The sheer scope and spectacle took my breath away and when Moses parted the water? Hooked like a junkie to his junk1

5. “The Godfather”
In its entirety.  Such beauty and brilliance…family…murder…wow.

6. Feeding on the work of Brando
After seeing “The Godfather” I sought out everything I could fine on him and watched many a Brando film at two in the morning.

7. A double bill of “American Graffiti” and “Cabaret”
That bittersweet ending to “Graffiti” gave a glimpse into the future that said life will get in the way of youth, and “Cabaret” was the darkest musical I had ever seen, brilliantly so, and remains as much to this day…utterly ageless.

8. Seeing Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind”
I saw this at a re-release (in the days before VCRs) and was stunned by Leigh’s performance — never had I thought (as a young male) that a woman could so entirely dominate a film with such a mesmerizing performance.

9. “The Godfather Part II”
Again, in its entirety.  I knew then at age 15 I was watching something miraculous — and today it is still the greatest film I have ever seen.

10. “Jaws”
I saw it 22 times the summer of ’75, no kidding, and to this day I never tire of it.  Steven Spielberg proved himself a director for the ages with and spent much of his career trying to prove himself.  Robert Shaw was Oscar-worthy — a masterpiece.

11. Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
Acting at its greatest, and the emergence of a brilliant artist beloved by all.

12. De Niro, Scorsese and “Taxi Driver”
On a hot summer’s day I watched in rapt fascination the Travis Bickle’s descent into madness, and then watched as the film became legend. De Niro arrived with this one, as did Scorsese and a new level of screen violence.

13. The brilliance of “All the President’s Men”
As a Canadian I knew about Watergate, though the details seemed too enormous to sift through. This film made sense of the entire scandal with perfect writing, excellent direction and fine acting. Alan J. Pakula made a detective story with great suspense — a great feat when the world knows the outcome.

14. Discovering John Ford and “The Searchers”
There was a John Ford festival on TV — I watched them all, but was blown away by “The Searchers.”  I had never before seen Wayne so ruthless, so mad, so astounding on the big screen — the greatest western and Duke’s best work.

15. The end of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
To quote a woman I overheard, “it was like seeing God.” Breathtaking.  Left me in awe.

16. “Citizen Kane”
I saw it for the first time at a library screening, an old 16mm print — even then I knew it was amazing and over the years have come to love the film.  I do not share the belief it is the best American film ever made, but it certainly was the most innovative.

17. “Superman”
I believed a man could fly.  He caught the girl, caught the chopper, I believed.

18. “Apocalypse Now”
Mind blowing — leaving the theater I knew I had been changed in some way.  Coppola had created a work of art that challenged his audiences.  Surrealistic, haunting and powerful, I have never forgotten that first time.  And Duvall, my God, is he terrifying? Like a hallucination gone bad.

19. Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull”
As a young acting student I saw this with Kevin McDonald, in years to come one of the “Kids in the Hall,” and we left exhausted by De Niro’s performance.  We knew then we were never going to be actors like that — simply on a different plane than us.

20. Discovering Jane Fonda
I loved her…plain and simple. Intelligent and sexy she was my fantasy girl for the 1970s and 1980s.  It certainly helped that she was among the greatest living actors: “Klute,” “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?,” “Julia” and “Coming Home” are superb.

21. “Reds”
I left humming the Internationale and believing — no, knowing — that Warren Beatty was a genius.

22. Studying “The Searchers”
Frame by frame in college we studied this soaring work of art, which left me even more astounded by John Ford’s work.

23. Realizing Charlie Chaplin’s genius in college: “City Lights”
The same, a frame by frame study of this and his other great films left me stunned by his genius and ashamed I did not know more about him (which I remedied). That final beautiful, heart-stopping smile at the end, such power.

24. “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”
I wept then when they said goodbye and I weep now. Hard to believe the leading man is special effect.

25. “Sophie’s Choice” and Meryl Streep
I knew leaving the theater that I had just seen the greatest female performance ever given and know it still 26 years later.

26. Dustin Hoffman astounding me in “Tootsie”
The greatest American comedy ever made and the finest film about the art and craft of acting.  Hoffman was never better and there is a moment when he ceases to be a man and actually becomes Dorothy…unbelievable.

27. “Platoon”
With this film Vietnam stopped being a comic book war fought by Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris and became grounded in realism…mercifully.

28. “Empire of the Sun”
Jim closes those now aged and tired eyes at the film’s conclusion, reunited with his parents, and I wept openly in the theater as did the other hardened critics — Spielberg’s most under valued masterpiece.

29. “The Last Temptation of Christ”
For the first time on film, Christ was a man, not a thing, not a being, not an “it,” but a flesh and blood man afraid of what lies ahead for him. For a non-religious man this was the most extraordinary religious experience I had ever had.

30. “JFK”
The scene between Donald Sutherland and Kevin Costner electrifies in its summation. Stunning filmmaking.

31. “Unforgiven”
Clint Eastwood arrives as a major American director with this masterful western as dark as the soul of William Munney.

32. “Schindler’s List”
What is there to say? I had always believed Steven Spielberg to be a genius, and finally the academic critics agreed.

33. Quentin Tarantino and “Pulp Fiction”
The jauntiest, wildest, most profane and violent two and a half hours I had had in years of movie-going — it was as though Tarantino had re-invented the art form. Like listening to a great rock and roll song with people you love.

34. “The Sweet Hereafter”
My daughter’s first day of school, she waves through the bus window, I fly into Toronto to the film fest to see children doing the same, the bus veers off the road and onto a lake, where it sits as the ice breaks underneath and the children, all but one, perish.  I could not speak when the film ended and I had to call home to hear her voice. Grief has never been so superbly portrayed.

35. Robert Duvall in “The Apostle”
Duvall’s volcanic performance was thrilling to see.  A great actor at the peak of his talents and knowing it.

36. “Saving Private Ryan” at dawn
At 8:00 in the morning the press screening started and at 11:00 our lives had forever been altered.  It is the greatest war film ever made. There was no doubt this one would win the Oscar…and then…

37. “For Frodo” and a charge
“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” — swept me away.  I was there from the first right through to the final and would have sat through more.  When 2004 began the great disappointment was that there would not be another installment. Thrilling, moving, heart breaking, powerful and astounding.

38. “The Passion of the Christ”
All that punishment and he just keeps going…that’s faith. People forget the film is not about his life, but his death, and in his death his life force is celebrated. Mel Gibson’s direction is sublime.

39. “Brokeback Mountain”
Two people, who happen to be men, meet and fall in love, complicating their lives forever. Not a “gay western,” just a heartfelt love story about two clear soul mates. Ledger was never better than he was here.

40. Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”
The greatest performance I have ever seen…period.

Have your say.  What are some defining movie moments that have shaped you as a movie-goer?




→ 27 Comments Tags: | Filed in: Daily · Featured

27 responses so far

  • 1 10-19-2008 at 9:49 am

    Chris said...

    It’s quite sad that you didn’t find any space for anything foreign or animated. As I’m only 20 years old, I would certainly include “The Lion King” and “Toy Story”, as well as “The Royal Tenenbaums”, because I feel like that film made me change my idea of what a good film needs to be like.

  • 2 10-19-2008 at 10:12 am

    eric said...

    So weird. I had just done a list like this last week as well, but I included TV moments. It’s interesting to come up with these; quite a bit of personal insight when creating one. I’ve never been a huge advocate “Passion of the Christ”, but I am passionate about “Passion of Joan of Arc.”

  • 3 10-19-2008 at 10:23 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’d have more foreign content in my own list too, but the point of this list is that it’s wholly personal, so you can’t really argue with it. The heart wants what it wants, and all that.

    For my part, “The Little Mermaid” was probably the first film I became properly obsessed with. (Hey, I was five.) It’s certainly the first film I went to see twice in the cinema.

    Also, when I was 11 years old, my parents took me to see “Three Colours: Red,” and that opening shot (the one that travels between two phones in the UK and Switzerland) absolutely blew my mind. I had no idea film could do that.

  • 4 10-19-2008 at 11:41 am

    Speaking English said...

    Bravo to mentioning “Empire of the Sun,” a true masterpiece indeed and absolutely one of Spielberg’s best films. It’s too bad it (as well as “A.I.”) have gone so under-appreciated. I’ve never cried so truly at a movie.

    And for me “The Lord of the Rings” is simply the film that did it for me. Exactly what you wrote, but place that spectacle at #1. I’m a young guy, and when I saw that movie I was awoken to film in all its wonder, the emotions the craft could convey, the worlds it could transport you to, its ability to immerse and absorb you in magical landscapes and mythic creatures. I’ll forever owe my heart and my love for cinema to “The Lord of the Rings.”

  • 5 10-19-2008 at 12:46 pm

    The InSneider said...

    Interesting list but there’s nothing quirky on there. I see a bunch of moments that most everyone would say. I want to know more about your taste, man. Like for me, if I was making a list of defining movie moments, one would have to be Copycat, the first R-rated movie I saw alone in a theater. I was 11. It rocked.

  • 6 10-19-2008 at 1:53 pm

    colby said...

    i agree with a lot of what you have.
    JFK was huge for me and i just saw it last year. it’s still changing me. i watched it two more times immediately after i finished it.

    another john wayne moment for me was in The Cowboys, the showdown between wayne and bruce dern.

    the ending of big fish.

    the tuman show as a whole. my favorite movie of all-time.

    then last half hour of children of men.

    the battle scenes in gladiator.

    tom hanks in philadelphia.

    the burning bush scene in The Prince of Egypt. I thought it captured God in the way that makes the most since to me. from zimmer’s music to the idea of God’s voice being the same as Moses’.

    cary grant in arsenic and old lace.

    the trial in to kill a mockingbird.

    heath ledger in monster’s ball.

    i could keep going, but i’ll stop

  • 7 10-19-2008 at 2:38 pm

    Patrick said...

    What a great selection. I agree especially with your assessment of Streep in “Sophie’s Choice,” but I think Brando’s Stanley is just ahead of DDL in “There Will Be .” And Heath is right up there too in “Brokeback.”

  • 8 10-19-2008 at 2:44 pm

    John Foote said...

    You know what — let me say it and kill me — foreign language cinema has never impacted like North American cinema — ever — that is not to say I do not appreciate great films from other countries, I do, but I have rarely come out of a theatre galvanized by a foreign language picture — that said I have fond memories of discovering Lina Wertmuller in the seventies, with “Swept Away” and ‘Seven Beauties” and admiring everyhting Bertolucci has ever done — I like thw rok of Wong Kar Gai, Truffaut, Bergman (sometimes), Troell (sometimes) and Fellini. And while the great foreign langauge films impress and move me, they have never impacted me the way North American cinema has…sorry.
    As for animated films…as a child I always preferred live action, when kids went to see “Sword in the Stone” I went to see “Ben Hur”…love “Wall-E” and admire animated work, but do not leave the theatre breathless…as Guy stated the list is very personal, neither right or wrong…

  • 9 10-19-2008 at 3:25 pm

    N8 said...

    I’m surprised somebody hasn’t already mentioned the onpenning sequence of Star Wars. When it was rereleased in 1997 I was nine years old and had no idea what to expect. Then John Williams music started up and I could feel my hairs stand on end. When Princess Leia’s ship soared overhead I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s pretty impressive.” Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next: that ENORMOUS Emperial Stardestroyer just swallowed up the whole screen. The floor of the theatre vibrated from the sound, and I was sucked back into my seat as though by some invisible force (no pun intended) and I stayed like that for the entire movie. Never since have I seen a film that hooked me so instantly and so unforgetabley.

  • 10 10-19-2008 at 4:04 pm

    Chris said...

    Well I didn’t mean you were wrong by not putting an animated film on the list, but it left me surprised you wouldn’t even consider some animated pic as having blown you away as a child. If you were never that much into animated though, then that’s fair enough I guess.

  • 11 10-19-2008 at 6:28 pm

    Rafael said...

    great great list!
    makes me cry just and cheer just remembering all this!
    long live the art of cinema!

  • 12 10-19-2008 at 6:38 pm

    Seany P said...

    I think one of my favorite movie moments has to be the filibuster scene from Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Never has a movie scene raised me to my feet like that one did.

  • 13 10-19-2008 at 7:33 pm

    Kokushi said...

    I became the so called ‘movie buff’ two years ago and some moments are:

    – Watching Batman (the same year) for the first time make me a fan of batman character, his world and burton movies.

    – Lion King , awesome animation and a great theater experience.

    – Watching Pulp Fiction 2 years ago was one of the best movies i have seen ever and became my favorite movie ever.

    – Watching Taxi Driver, De Niro became my favorite actor ever along with Pacino.

    – LORT trilogy movies.

    – Watching The Godfather 2, it became my favorite from the trilogy and a Pacino fan.

  • 14 10-19-2008 at 8:16 pm

    Terry said...

    AFI called. They want their crappy taste back.

  • 15 10-19-2008 at 9:50 pm

    Sound Designer Dan said...

    – Watching the last 15-20 minutes of Hard Boiled. Never has violence been so beautiful.

    – The ending of Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder. No ending has haunted me more than this one.

    – The one-shot fight in Oldboy. Brilliant.

  • 16 10-20-2008 at 1:14 am

    pieterk said...

    Good list. The LOTR trilogy definitely. I would also throw in Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, for telling a love story in such a unique and captivating way. Also the spectacle that was The Dark Knight. Being a fan of comic books, this movie blew my socks off. Heath Ledger was absultely superb.

  • 17 10-20-2008 at 1:48 am

    Glenn said...

    This list was going fine until “There was no doubt this one would win the Oscar…and then…”

    Really. REALLY. Jesus Christ. People need to get over that. People actually like “Shakespeare in Love” more than “Saving Private Ryan”, deal with it.

    The one I do agree the most #20. That was quite a moment for me too. I saw “Klute” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” in the same weekend and was forever entranced.

  • 18 10-20-2008 at 3:03 am

    Jamie said...

    I’m with Glenn. While I think that Saving Private Ryan is a good movie and great in parts, it has its fair share of problems. The Film Experience did a a piece on it a few weeks ago that reminded me that there is nothing wrong with thinking Shakespeare in Love is simply a better movie. At the very least, the discussion is not as simplistic as Harvey Weinstein buying an Oscar.

  • 19 10-20-2008 at 5:07 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Surprisingly so many of that list are my favorites too John. Especially LOTR, it changed my life, really made me feel interested in film. It’s my generation’s Star Wars, only with added Oscars :D.

    I watched JFK again too last week and it is still a masterpiece. It’s a little similar to TDK in that it is not flawless but the shee audacity and overwhelmingness of that film make it timeless and poignant. And that Sutherland scene is amongst the finest scenes ever. Period.

    Discovering The Searchers only a year or two ago was also stunning to me, together with The Wild Bunch. The Western instantly became my favorite genre with just those 2 films.
    I can go on, but we’re so very alike John ;)

    Oh and I would like to add the acting trio in Million Dollar Baby as some of the best performances ever.

  • 20 10-20-2008 at 5:09 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Oh, and about foreign films. Downfall unsettled me for weeks, and Bicycle Thieves blew me away when I first (and finally) saw it at film school last year.

  • 21 10-20-2008 at 5:35 am

    John Foote said...

    To Terry…with all the insults in the English (and foreign languages) that is the bets you can do?? Are you missing the part that says MY list and personal????

  • 22 10-20-2008 at 9:19 am

    red_wine said...

    I know its your opinion, but the reason why I think European films don’t have that huge emotional impact that perhaps a film like E.T. can have is that they are much more intellectual and cerebral in nature. And they are satisfying in that way. They endlessly trouble my mind with their implications and have an intellectual depth that American films seldom reach.

    Take John Ford, a great director if ever there was one but his films could never be as intellectually stimulating as perhaps Antonioni or Fellini.

  • 23 10-20-2008 at 9:33 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Flawed argument, red_wine. I find a lot of Ford’s work stimulating anyway, but even going by your criteria, if you substitute his name with, say, David Lynch’s, your last sentence looks very shaky.

    I love world cinema too. It’d take up a good chunk of my own list. But you’re making a wild generalisation about American film that you simply can’t support.

  • 24 10-20-2008 at 11:33 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    red_wine, you’d be surprised to see howmuch Hollywood wannabe’s there are made in Europe. Also, we tend to compare them to American films anyway so there’s frequently different nuances simply because of cultural reasons.

  • 25 10-21-2008 at 9:30 am

    Silencio said...

    I still remember watching Amadeus by myself at 11 years old. The Don Giovanni scene and the death/funeral scene, I watched them over and over and over again, mesmerized.

  • 26 10-25-2008 at 7:01 am

    Loveantinoo said...

    I will always be impressed with some scenes in “Rocco ei suoi fratelli” (L. Visconti), murders, rapes… in 1960, and that feeling about everything going so wrong. And two french actors doing as italians!

    Another favourite film moment, the end of the trilogy “Three colors”, The “Red” film, by K. Kieslowski. Magic.