Can you name 10 films that changed your life?

The end of the year is just about on us. Some movie lovers are considering the best or their favorites films of this year. A lot of people ask year-end questions (i.e., which of this year’s movies were the “best;” which of this year’s movies made the most money; which of those movies were your favorites?) but I find the less routine, less annual, and less common ones the most interesting. I mean everyone has their list of the favorite ___________ of the year. While I suppose it has to be done in order to satisfy the typical reader, I find it banal.

With the list I’ve compiled of almost 400 favorite films, it’s child’s play to choose a portable list of titles (Hint: start with a decade, a genre, and a country, and your notion of what makes a movie best…)

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On IndieWire I saw a different and more difficult take on the “what’re your favorite films” question: “Name 10 films that changed your life”.

That’s a daunting and off-putting question; one for an introspective film lover. And still, that’s a heavy question! Everyone has formative years when you’re trying to figure stuff out; to tie those to film experiences is a novel challenge. A movie means one thing at one age and something else 10 years later. So it’s hard to look back on them with any accuracy. It’s one thing to live the examined life, as Socrates espoused. It’s another (and maybe off-the-charts geeky) to apply that to films.

What’s more, the movies that changed me expressed a clear and sure voice, and posed questions that no others did. Almost no movies bother to ask questions of viewers, or even to wield a voice. And experience shows that I’m one of the few people that approaches cinema in that discriminating & cerebral manner.

In the 1980s I just wanted to fit in at my high school. For some reason, even though most people consider me black, that meant seeing myself as more non-descript racially or even more white than black; gravitating to and identifying (trying to) with the white kids.

Comedian and actor Franklyn Ajaye, who’s often called the Conscious Comic has a funny bit where he says he was a black studies major; “now, I’m qualified to be black all over the world”. No matter how much studying I did about my background, in school or out, it would be a while before I felt qualified to be black. But if I contintue on that tangent then that’ll be a turn onto the on ramp of the book How to be Black. That’s not why we’re here. Even though being or finding out that you’re black will change your life, that’s a disparate kind of life change.

Being introspective Dead Poets Society from 1989 caught my attention. Even though none of those boys would have related to or understood my origins or color, I understood their introspective natures and needs. The ideas were provocative. Heck, they were iconoclastic.

When I studied film history during the 1990s the provocatism and polemics of Spike Lee and Oliver Stone’s films had my attention. Still I won’t say that Do The Right Thing or Platoon or Talk Radio or When the Levees Broke changed me. It was more Messrs Lee and Stone’s ways of thinking, and their approaches to art and politics, and their ideas and questions about them that did that. Martin Scorsese’s art and straight-shooting point of view affected me too.

Now if you’re a typical college student, then all of this is just bull; over-thought and overwrought. You want to see the fun, carefree and bawdy movies over everything else; nothing that’d make you think. You already dropped this.

I remember something that Martin Scorsese, one of America’s undisputed film art icons, whose Goodfellas, from 1990, put him in the zeitgeist then, said: when watching movies “…just maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe you’ll learn something about yourself”.

So far Dead Poet’s Society changed me. Do the Right Thing, Platoon, Talk Radio or When the Levees Broke? No. None of them did.

Nonetheless, after my dad died in 1991 I saw the movie Dad, from 1989, which surely had no brown people in it. But it helped me to accept and make peace with the loss. Later in 1992 The Prince of Tides connected with me in ways that I didn’t understand, and to some extent I still don’t. I related to the psychological torment that the lead character, Tom Wingo, had to escape from.

On a totally different side of my mind, I was curious about blackness. My blackness. I was trying to grasp the facets of blackness in America and their complexity while dealing with the realities that “nobody” cares about the complexities of anything unless they have to or are paid to. And I only look black if you’ve never left the US. Investigating my blackness, I saw nothing of myself or for myself in any of those stories of ghettos, struggles, thugs or grit from the black movie boom came that in 1991. None of them reflected my passion for words, ideas or troubling questions about society and conformity…

Many years later when Akeelah and the Bee came in 2006 and while finishing my degree that didn’t change me. But it affirmed my passion for words and ideas, and my concerns about conformity. A few years later, a different independent film, Winter’s Bone, affected me. While Akeelah was a junior high school student whose wit seemed to be a thorn in her side, the lead character from Winter Bone, a high school girl had to rely on her wits to come out the other end of a brief Odyssey.

Both of those films are novel, remarkable, and only in part because they offer varying degrees of fully faceted female lead characters. At least one of them changed me.

So of the 400 favorite films I can name only a handful changed me. That almost surprises me.

Does this question appeal to you?