Just to be clear, favorite movie “experiences” is different than my favorite films of 2019. These are the films that represent specific memories, events, moments, or inspiration. It could be a theater experience or something different. I could be something I saw with others or something I saw myself. It can be a film I loved or a film I didn’t love as much. The only prerequisite for making this list is that there is something specific that I can attach to that film or movie going experience that makes it stand out as relevant, important, meaningful, fun, sad, transformative.
What I decided to do is break these favorite movie experiences down into chronological order. That way I can contextualize these experiences into a larger story.
1. Franchise Films and Childhood Memories (RAMBO)
Every year around this time I end up putting together lists of reflections on year past and hopefuls for the new year. This includes putting together a list of most anticipated films, and last year there was one title that had me particularly excited- RAMBO was coming back.
Given the number of franchise films that were releasing in 2019, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and start to engage in some rewatches as a means of preparing. So I dug out my old copy of the series from my closet, dusted it off and decided to invite my 17 year old son in on the endeavor. He agreed and I popped in FIRST BLOOD, my official first viewing of 2019.
That’s when I realized how much of a non-action action film FIRST BLOOD actually was. I mean it wouldn’t be out of the question to suggest it is kind of an arthouse film, and about halfway through I started to think man, Sasha (our son) is not going to like this. That’s when I look over and find him engaged and enthralled. Curious to unpack this unexpected response, I asked him after the film finished what it is that he enjoyed about Rambo. A slew of words came out, but the one thing I picked up on in his answer is that he RELATED to the character. As we continued through the series I started to pay attention to those character beats and soon came to realize why he connected to Rambo- it reminded him of his own upbringing. Adopted from an orphanage, he was raised to fend for himself and without a family home. Growing up in Ukraine, he was also immersed in a particular militaristic environment (largely concerned with Russia) which framed his idea of nationalist pride around the image of Rambo. This is how he saw himself mattering and belonging in a world that seemed to mirror his own.
I know it sounds odd, but this connective tissue between my childhood and his more recent upbringing that emerged around this unlikely and seemingly antiquated hero was a joy to discover. Equally joyous was the chance to build up anticipation for the new theatrical release (LAST BLOOD) by getting him familiar with the story and seeing it finish together. Regardless of what you or I think about the film (he loved it for what it’s worth… brought the story back to FIRST BLOOD), this was one of my most memorable viewing experience because of this.
2. COLD, ATMOSPHERE, CULTURE AND ISOLATION (COLD WAR AND ARCTIC)
It was around the time of the Oscars that my local theater was finally screening an Oscar hopeful I had been desperate to check of my list, COLD WAR. The weather was a good deal below freezing, and our Northern locale was long since blanketed in snow. Unfortunately the only time I could find to head out was on one of the coldest nights, and it happened to be playing in the theater farthest from me.
Because of the trek I decided to squeeze in a double future to make it worthwhile. Fittingly the other film playing was ARCTIC, helping to really emphasize the temperature factor.
The double feature was great, and COLD WAR ended up being one of my favorite of the International nominated films. What made this experience special though was the environment in which I saw it. Cold War was up first, and the only other ones in my theater were a group of older Polish ladies who came in bundled up and excited about a film they had clearly been looking forward to. During the film I could hear and see them continue to chat excitedly in their language about the film and the story. I have no idea what they were saying, but I certainly was able to observe what the film meant to them as they pointed at the screen and informed each other of details that were foreign to me. It was in this moment that I felt the joy of being there in their midst, experiencing this film through them and with them. Even without the details, this was something I would have missed out on otherwise, and it reminded me of how film expands our world in amazing ways.
Contrast this with my second feature, ARCTIC. I was the only one in the theater watching a movie about a man isolated from the world. The irony was not lost on me 🙂
3. WORLD BUILDING, STORIES AND THE JOY OF CINEMA (ALITA)
Coming back to the story of RAMBO, one of the things I have tried to do in the years since Sasha joined our family is instill in him a love for movies and invest in this as a way to grow it. Which initially wasn’t hard, because when he first arrived to Canada he was thrilled and fascinated by the theater. He loved going, and we went a lot.
The older he gets the less we go unfortunately. It’s the sad reality of the youtube culture that has absorbed him. And so I have to be extra aware of films that catch his eye and films that he might respond to. In 2018 one of his most anticipated was Ready Player One, and it is a film he still talks about to this day. This year the one that seemed to have his attention was ALITA. So I spent a lot of time making sure to replay the trailer when I could, talking about when it was releasing and anticipating plans.
We got to go to ALITA as a family, and it was one of the most joy filled theatrical experiences of the year for me seeing him respond to it with such passion. In conversation afterwards I realized once again that what mattered to him along with the big spectacle and the incredible visuals was the story, and this was a character he connected to because of some auxiliary adoption themes. I wrote about these themes in my Letterboxd review, having these types of stories and characters that are able to speak across our differing experiences and cultural divides is something I know both my wife and I cherish. Now hopefully they’ll find a way to get that sequel done, cause I would love to build on that memorable experience 🙂
4. LITERARY HEROES AND INSPIRATIONAL MOMENTS (TOLKIEN)
If you spent any time with me in 2019, it was likely you were going to pick up on my anticipation for this new biopic called TOLKIEN. I was counting the days, and when it released I was desperate to find my way to it.
Once again, it was playing in the theater farthest from me, and once again I planned out a double feature, TOLKIEN and another biopic AMAZING GRACE. It was a quiet night, and I had settled in for the film, the lights go down and the music and opening visuals begin. I was taken with this film in a matter of seconds, and settled in for what I knew was going to be a meaningful couple hours.
What floored me was how meaningful the film was going to be. This never happens to me, but the film affected me so deeply that I couldn’t do the double feature. Instead of going to Amazing Grace I decided to download the soundtrack and go for a ride just to let it absorb. I didn’t want to lose the moment. It’s one of the few solitary viewing experiences that stands out for me in this way just by nature of being the film that it is (the other being IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, a film that evoked a very similar experience).
5. THE POWER OF MUSIC AND THE JOY OF COMMUNITY (AMAZING GRACE)
And it’s a good thing I missed out on that double feature, because the next time I had a chance to see AMAZING GRACE is when it released in my local arthouse theater. It took me two tries (the first was sold out), but I finally got to see this biopic on screen. What makes this such a memorable experience was the people I was able to see it with. I have never in my life been to a film where people were dancing, singing, praying along. All of that was present during my screening, and it was a truly beautiful thing to behold. People were swept away in the music and the musician and the moment.
I am so glad I made that decision. It allowed me the chance to savor and cherish two of my favorite movie going experiences of 2019.
6. RECOMMENDS AND SOCIAL CONNECTIONS (A TAXI DRIVER and THE HOLLY AND THE IVY)
I have two stories of recommendations that led to special viewing experiences in their own way.
The first comes by way of a Korean family from my Church with whom I happened to one day strike up a conversation about film. Given how much international film I was watching in 2019, I was elated to find out that I was able to share some cultural touchpoints with them through films I had seen.
This led to a recommend of a film that was special to them, one that helped tell the story of Korea’s particular social struggle. It was called A TAXI DRIVER, which they invited me to watch (and that I absolutely loved). There is little that I love more than getting recommends, and the fact that this was one that was offering a little piece of them in an effort to build community made this one of my most memorable viewing experiences of 2019.
A second recommendation that I got this year was for a film called THE HOLLY AND THE IVY. This recommendation excited me because of the way it was given. This individual saw this film, thought of me and felt it would be a great fit with my sensibilities. And they were right on the money. It is a Christmas film that I had never heard of, and it is one that has gone on to become one of my new favorite classics. I watched it on an evening when I was feeling particularly down surrounded by the glow of candlelight, and its message and story resonated with me in a big way.
7. THE PARTICIPATORY AND COLLECTIVE NATURE OF VIEWING FILM TOGETHER (PARASITE AND A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD)
These two stories are simply and yet equally powerful in their own right. They are two films from this year which truly invited the audience into the story they were telling as participants. And it is the way they did this and the act of experiencing this with a collective audience that made them both so memorable for me. They are films that made my top 5, one of them my #1 of the year, for this reason. They are PARASITE and A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.
In the case of PARASITE, the film’s films central premise leads us as viewers to a moment where what is a humorous and entertaining ride suddenly takes a shift. It happens so subtly and so powerfully that it caught me and the audience I was seeing it with off guard. The moment takes such a sharp turn that it moves us from laughing to an uncomfortable silence, and the presence of this silence was palpable. Through the silence the film then invites us as viewers to consider how we are to respond to the social commentary being presented to us in such a stark fashion. It’s a moment that shook me and challenged me big time.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD also has a scene in which silence becomes the tool through which to reach its audience. It comes in a diner, and for anyone who knows the story of Rogers it shouldn’t come as a surprise. He was known to evoke silence as a means of connecting with those he is talking to.
And yet, through a brilliant choice of direction the film uses this moment to break the fourth wall in a way I have never experienced before. It turns this from a story we are experiencing to a story that is teaching us directly. It takes the conversation and puts us in the center of it. It is the single most powerful cinematic moment I encountered in 2019, and it left me absolutely humbled and inspired. A true gift.
8. WHERE ART MIRRORS LIFE (ALMOST HOLY)
I think its fitting this late into the story of my year to come to a film I only recently saw this past December. It’s a film called ALMOST HOLY. I knew it was a documentary about a Ukrainian Pastor. What I didn’t know is the personal connection this film was going to evoke. I wrote about it here at length:
But suffice to say that what I did not expect was a film that was essentially going to document Ukrainian’s history from the year that our adopted son was born to the year he arrived home with us in Canada. Because of this time frame, this documentary essentially told the story of the Country in which Sasha was born, the Country he grew up in, and the challenging times it faced leading up our adoption, our own travels and our return. When I realized what was happening I was dumb struck, because where it takes place is not far from our son grew up. And so we were offered something of a peek behind the curtain, some context to his story that we never had before. Amazing, and a real gift.
9. WHEN ART INSPIRES LIFE (UNCUT GEMS)
I’m going to leave this final story here since it is so recent and I wrote about it at length in my review.
Suffice to say though, I never thought that UNCUT GEMS would be a film that would offer me needed inspiration. It turns out, as cinema can do, it couldn’t have been more timely in my own life.