Thursday, April 25, 2019

Top Ten Things: "Acquired Taste" Films

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

Today I'll be talking about films that, at least for me, have required numerous viewings to fully appreciate and enjoy; films that, like the best music, become better with familiarity.  Sometimes a single watch doesn't allow you to process every nuance of the script or performances, or fully take in the visual composition at work, or nail down the subtext of what the director was trying to say.  And sometimes appreciation of a film just comes to you with age.  Something I wasn't interested in or couldn't relate to in my teens or 20s might be fascinating to me in my 30s or 40s.

I'm reminded of a Stanley Kubrick quote: The idea that a movie should be seen only once is an extension of our traditional conception of film as an ephemeral entertainment rather than as a visual work of art.

You said it Stanley.  Here are ten such films.....

1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

I first watched Bride of Frankenstein in college and my original assessment was that it strayed so far from the book and was so unabashedly weird that I hated it.  I'd become such a fan of the novel and Mary Shelley's complex depiction of the creature that the Universal film versions frustrated me to no end.  But upon later viewings I developed an appreciation for the film's uncompromisingly bizarre tone and for how ballsy its anti-religious and sexual undertones were for 1935.  Despite the simplicity of his speech in this film Karloff's monster is completely sympathetic and by this point in the story he's become the clear protagonist moreso than Dr. Frankenstein.  The performances by Ernest Thesinger as the sinister, rather flamboyant Dr. Pretorious, and Elsa Lanchester as The Bride are also iconic in the pantheon of classic monster films.  The Bride's "birth" is obviously the most film's famous scene; that this was such a memorable character is even more amazing considering how brief her appearance is.  What really sticks out about Bride after multiple viewings though are the Expressionist visuals; the use of light and shadow, the multi-plane shot composition, the use of wide-angle lenses.  What began for me as a goofy, over-the-top sequel has become my favorite of the Universal Monster films.

2. Citizen Kane (1941)

Kane is another film I first watched in college.  My English Literature class covered this film for some reason, and our professor had us watch parts of it to illustrate the artistry of some of the visuals and the narrative style.  What I saw piqued my interest enough to buy the VHS tape and I sat down and watched the whole thing.  And while I did appreciate the visuals to a certain extent I'd be lying if I said the story jumped out at 18-year-old Justin.  For a teenager raised largely on action films this rise-and-fall tale about a newspaper tycoon wasn't exactly the most exciting thing I'd ever seen.  But the imagery kept me enough of a fan that I rewatched it several times, and much later as an adult who'd actually tasted life, my appreciation of the story grew considerably.  One day about five years ago I decided to pop in the DVD after not having viewed the film in several years, and suddenly it all clicked for me.  The shot composition, the performances, the circular story structure, it was all ingenious, game-changing stuff.  Citizen Kane is now one of my all-time favorite films, and it only took me about two decades to realize it.

3. The Godfather (1972)

Francis Ford Coppola's mafia masterpiece stands now as an all-time Top 20 film for me, but it wasn't always so.  For one thing I didn't get around to watching this until 2001.  Ten years earlier my parents tried to rent it for us to watch, but it was unavailable, so we watched Part 2 instead.  And since I had no idea what was going on, and since Part 2 is almost three-and-a-half hours, and since I was 15 years old, I thought it pretty goddamn boring.  Then at 25 I finally watched the first one.  Granted this was a VHS copy wherein the colors and contrast had been more or less ruined to make it more palatable for CRT televisions, but I was not blown away by this film.  I chalked it up to waiting too long to see it, the numerous imitations and parodies having wrecked some of the film's iconic moments for me.  It wasn't until 2010, when Paramount and Coppola had meticulously restored the trilogy for BluRay that I gave it another shot.  And this gorgeous presentation combined with my own maturity allowed me to become fully drawn into this story of the inner workings of a powerful crime family.  It's simply one of the most extraordinary films ever made, and in my house it's become a special occasion when we pop The Godfather in the ol' Playstation.

4. Barry Lyndon (1975)

Probably the most visually stunning of Stanley Kubrick's films, Barry Lyndon is an 18th century period piece chronicling the rise and fall of an Irish aristocrat in English society.  Starring Ryan O'Neal as the title character, this is a slow-moving epic wherein Kubrick made use of specially-designed cameras to allow him to shoot only in natural light, thus giving the film an authenticity most other period dramas lack.  I first saw this in 2001 as part of the Kubrick DVD set released a couple years earlier - I'd owned it for roughly 18 months but finally got around to watching it after seeing the Kubrick: A Life in Pictures documentary.  Lyndon is a bit of a tough slog on the first viewing.  Its pace is very methodical and its narration emotionally detached.  But the picturesque cinematography and fascinatingly self-destructive nature of the title character kept my interest enough to rewatch it later, and after two or three viewings I was able to fully absorb it.  Now it's one of my favorite Kubrick films and one of several examples where he took a genre picture and turned it on its ear.

5. Apocalypse Now (1979)

As a sophomore in college I had a strange, haunting dream about being in the Vietnam War and it inspired me to rent the big trio of Vietnam films - Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now.  I enjoyed them all on a certain level, but for years FMJ was the only one that stuck with me.  Four years later I was gifted a DVD of Apocalypse Now, and for some reason it took three viewings of that copy over ten years for the film to graft itself onto my brain.  Now I have it on BluRay and it's not only a once-a-year watch for me, but it's my favorite war film ever made.  The intense method acting, the brutal jungle locations, the bleak showdown between Willard and Kurtz, and most poignantly the subtext concerning the evil inside all of us combine to form an iconic cinematic journey into the tortured soul of humanity.  It took me four watches to figure it out, but Apocalypse Now is one of the greatest films of all time.

6. Blade Runner (1982)

Of the films on this list, Blade Runner probably took me the longest to fully come around to after the initial viewing.  I first saw Blade Runner on VHS in the late 80s, and it was the dreaded original cut, with Harrison Ford's ill-conceived "private dick" voiceover narration.  I didn't watch it again until 1999, when I bought my first DVD player and chose the '92 Director's Cut as one of my first purchases in this new medium.  I liked this version better but still found it overly ponderous and slow-moving.  I watched it a few more times and still mostly just appreciated it for the visuals and Harrison Ford's performance.  Then in 2007 the Final Cut was released on BluRay, which I didn't rent from Netflix until probably three years later.  And for some reason this version really did it for me.  The changes were all subtle, and perhaps the HD format allowed me to fully take in the splendor of the film, but I was suddenly a big fan of Ridley Scott's sci-fi benchmark.  Blade Runner is now my favorite of his films (just slightly over Alien) and I watch it pretty regularly.

7. Goodfellas (1990)

When it comes to gangster movies, there's The Godfather and there's Goodfellas, and then there's everything else.  I saw Goodfellas in the theater at age 15 and I'd be lying if I said I loved it.  My attention span then wasn't what it is now; I found the film too long and had a tough time sitting through it.  I didn't see it again until 17 years later when I picked up a cheap DVD copy, and apparently on this occasion the time just happened to be right.  Martin Scorsese's energetic, brutally frank depiction of Henry Hill's experiences as a mobster is an absolute masterpiece of the genre and easily one of his best two or three films.  I also sorta credit this film with opening my eyes to my perception of a movie potentially improving with age.

8. Unforgiven (1992)

Here's another one I saw in the theaters in high school.  At the time I thought Clint Eastwood's eulogy to the classic Western genre was just okay; I had issues with the length  and it felt a little cold to me.  I probably watched it twice more in its entirety during my high school and college years but felt the Academy vastly overrated it (I still wouldn't call Unforgiven my favorite film of 1992 but it's up there).  I'd say a decade went by before I saw it again, and felt it was time to give Unforgiven another day in court.  And this time it completely worked for me.  I loved the themes of aging, moral ambiguity, and most of all the deconstruction of the Western mythos, touched upon mostly during the English Bob sequences.  Unforgiven strips away the heroism and adventure of the genre and instead presents an honest look at this violent era in US history.

9. The Big Lebowski (1998)

The first time I saw the Coens' wacky comedy about a stoner layabout who gets mixed up in a kidnapping case I found it very amusing but didn't anticipate rewatching it much, if ever.  I figured it was a solid way to spend a couple hours, it made me laugh a buncha times, and that was that.  Then I happened to record it on cable a year or so later and watched it a second time.  And its hilarity blew my mind.  From then it became a film my friends and I watched at least parts of, multiple times a week.  We fell in love with the music of the Coens' dialogue, the delivery of the swear words, and how similar the characters were to us in the way they related to each other.  Since that time Lebowski has become not only my favorite Coen Brothers film but my favorite comedy and one of my favorite films, period.  Simply genius.

10. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Mine has been a long, strange journey in fully appreciating Kubrick's polarizing final film.  My initial reaction to it was one of completely underwhelmed bewilderment.  I literally wasn't sure what to take away from it.  I enjoyed Kubrick's usual visual elegance but found the story impersonal and the performances stilted.  Then I read Tim Kreider's analysis of the film entitled "Introducing Sociology," ( and it all came together for me.  Eyes Wide Shut is not really about the trials and tribulations of marriage and fidelity, it's about how the wealthy and powerful use other people as mere commodities, be they servants, sales clerks, musicians, doctors, prostitutes; to the ruling class everyone is expendable.  Really the decadence of this small circle of power brokers is staggering.  Tom Cruise's Bill Harford tries to get a taste of this lifestyle before being slapped back down to his own level in the third act.  When viewing the film from this perspective it becomes absolutely captivating; I daresay it's Kubrick's most complex social commentary.  To anyone unimpressed with Eyes Wide Shut, I highly recommend reading the essay cited above and then rewatching the film.  It's a whole new experience.

Thanks for reading!  Comment below with some of your Acquired Taste Films!

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