As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a writer. Since the first grade, when my teacher suggested that I recount my family’s recent cross country vacation to California, I was bitten by the writing bug. In the years that followed, if I wasn’t in our basement listening to rock music, I was down there pounding away on our old manual typewriter writing short stories, all of them in the horror or mystery genres. Among my more accomplished works at that age were the serial killer thriller I wrote in the 4th grade and the buddy cop mystery (inspired by my love of Starsky & Hutch) that I turned in for a 7th grade English assignment.
In the early 80’s, life in the Malchus household changed drastically when my mother won a video cassette recorder at a local home and garden show. She was unsure whether to claim her prize. Watching me run through the house screaming and cheering indicated that she should. This was a good full year before the VCR boom swept through every American household, so ours was one of the few that had a high end, top loading VCR that played VHS tapes. I didn’t care if having the machine made us cool or not; I was just excited that we’d get to watch movies.
My family didn’t take in many theatrical movies. We saw the occasional blockbuster like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or whatever critical darling won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. However, we mostly went to live theater or band concerts, and we traveled in the summer. When that VCR came into our home, a new world opened up to me. I know you read that a lot, but in this case it was the truth. If we’d never had that flip top VCR in our family room, I would have never fallen in love with moving pictures and I know I would never have pursued a life as a filmmaker.
We soon became regulars at First Run Video, one of two video stores in North Olmsted, Ohio. At the time (which was the summer between 7th and 8th grade) my best friend, Matt, and I were avid readers of Fangoria, that monthly magazine devoted to horror movies, and devoted followers of Stephen King. Nearly every Saturday night, Matt and I would peruse the aisles of First Run Video searching for one of the gruesome titles we’d seen mentioned in Fangoria, or better, endorsed by King. Then, we’d return to my house, gorge on popcorn and bottle Cokes, and watch wide eyed as some poor fool lost an arm, his intestines or his head!
You may think that my parents were crazy to let us watch Halloween, The Howling, An American Werewolf in London or Dawn of the Dead, but they saw some artistic merit in the special effects that went into those films thanks to a family friendship with Tony Gardner. Tony was a local kid who moved to Los Angeles and started making a name for himself in makeup effects industry. For nearly a year, Matt and I got our fill of severed heads, gaping chest wounds and hairy monsters.
But there was a catch.
An unspoken agreement between my father and I meant that I would also watch one of the classic films he began renting from First Run. This is when my film education began. After I got done watching something by Sam Raimi, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper or George Romero, dad and I watched classics by Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart, the Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire, as well as many of the seminal films from the 70’s directed by Sidney Lumet, Bob Fosse, Sydney Pollack and Alan J. Pakula.
When I entered high school and began dating, Saturday nights soon turned into date nights. Like every typical American teen, most dates involved sitting in a darkened theater and watching the newest released film. I still recall being scared shitless watching the original Nightmare on Elm Street, unconcerned about the girl sitting next to me. I became consumed with movies and by the end of the 9th grade I knew what I kind of writer I wanted to be: I wanted to write movies.
High school graduation led to film school, focusing on film history and criticism. I was exposed to foreign films by Francois Truffaut and Luis Bunuel, fell in love with classic gems by Harold Lloyd and D.W. Griffith, discovered the western classics of John Ford, and became a devoted fan of gangster films. Throughout my four years of college, I never lost faith that someday I would become a screenwriter and possibly a director.
After college I met Julie and got married soon thereafter. She agreed to join me on my ambitious journey and we moved to California. The 90’s were a period of hard work and self discovery. Years were spent learning the way the film industry operated. Meanwhile, my nights and weekends consisted of writing and rewriting screenplays in hopes that one of my original scripts my perk the interest of an agent or a producer. I was blessed to have Julie in my corner, to be my loudest supporter and the one to boost me up when rejections arrived.
By the turn of the century, the future was bright. Our daughter, Sophie, joined us in ’99 and a couple years later I was asked to direct a mircobudgeted feature from one of my scripts. That movie, King’s Highway, finished shooting just before Sophie’s brother, Jacob, was born in late 2001. However, the excitement of achieving one of my lifelong dreams was dulled. Jacob was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and whatever dreams I may have had were replaced with another: to find a cure. I have an enormous amount of pride in King’s Highway, despite many of the negative comments about it on Netflix. For $5000, we did a hell of a job.
Still, after the completion of King’s Highway, as I began writing new scripts in hopes of seeing them come to fruition on screen, I found my appreciation of movies beginning to wane. I hate to say that cynicism began to slip in, but the thrill I once had as a teenager seemed to be missing whenever I sat down to watch a movie.
Could it be because anything that comes to our local Cineplex is an Imax THX surround sound 3D “googlevision” spectacle that requires that I shovel over more money I can spare? Or maybe it’s because the only time I have to watch any of the indie darlings that arrive through Netflix, it’s nearly 11:00 PM and I’m downing coffee just to keep my eyes open?
In an effort to answer these questions I compiled a list of my top 50 favorite films. These are the movies that have stuck with me and brought me the most joy and excitement for nearly 25 years. 1999, the year I became a father for the first time, was chosen as a cutoff date, as that seemed to be the period when I began seeing less movies due to responsibilities and the economy. My editors here at Popdose have always given me free reign of the Basement Songs, so I felt this was a good opportunity to shift gears for a year and explore another aspect of my life.
Throughout 2011, I plan to watch my top 50 movies, plus two holiday favorites, and write about them. If I’m lucky, I’ll find new meaning or rediscover what it was that I loved about the movies in general. I hope that you’ll come along for the ride and possibly share your own opinions on the films I’ve chosen to write about, as I spend the next 52 Saturday nights at the movies.
In the tradition of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the two legendary critics whose show, Sneak Previews, was essential to my film upbringing, each week I’ll offer a preview of next week’s column. Here you go.