A College Education in 50 Films

Everyone knows me by now as the resident movie expert, so it will come as a surprise to many of you to learn that just four years ago I was a total film philistine. Were it not for the devious Mr. Alan, Sophomore Honors English and Creative Writing teacher, who forcibly transferred me into his second-semester film class to work on a short screenplay I had written for a final, Tim's love affair with cinema would have remained unconsummated to this day. 

In my second week at Georgetown, after the dust from New Student Orientation and the start of classes had settled, I decided to start taking advantage of our library's vast DVD reserves to start catching up on all the movies Mr. Alan and others had been insisting I see. I simultaneously started keeping a journal of every film I watched from that day out, and before long I was in the grips of mankind's primal cataloguing urge, searching out films both near and far, old and new to fill my lazy hours.

My Georgetown education happened in a number of places, the classroom being only one of them. In honor of the 300 or so films I devoured throughout my collegiate years, I've picked out 50 pivotal films that will forever define my time here. Some of these movies are good, others atrocious; quality is not the primary criterion for selection so much as capacity for creating fond memories. I deliberately limited myself to movies I watched during the academic calendar year, so while vacation hits like Margaret, Mysteries of LisbonRosetta, and Laurence Anyways (to name a few) made their own indelible marks on my impressionable psyche, this is not the space to speak of those. Part of what makes a moviegoing experience memorable for me is the company I share it with; as you'll see with most of these selections, it's the people you freak out with while leaving the theater who make the endeavor worthwhile.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: I kicked things off with the zany, backwards romcom from Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. An inspired opener, and one of my favorite movies from this century still to this day. Thinking about it now reminds me it's due time for a rewatch.

2. Vertigo: Alfred Hitchcock became my go-to director early on—I've seen more of his movies than of any other director—and Vertigo proved, as so many have contested before me, his masterpiece. I first watched it in the common room of my freshman dorm and remembered being struck by it despite only half paying attention. A year later I watched it again with friends for a class screening (as Katherine, the other resident movie expert at Georgetown, would tell me, "Your second time watching Vertigo is the best") and arrived at a better understanding of all the complexities wrapped up in Hitch's perfectly-directed thriller. Hermmann's score ended up being a frequent guest star on my study playlists and even featured as the subject of a paper I wrote last semester. 

3. A Serious Man: While my floormates were busy watching the Russian adaptation of 12 Angry Men and chowing down on blini beside me (Oh, Georgetown), I was getting swept up in the Coen brothers' brilliantly acidic rendition of the Book of Job. One of those films that had been on my must-see list for a long time—as far back as my sophomore year of high school, where the aforementioned Mr. Alan was gung-ho on making a parody of the trailer), it delivered on the long-held expectations. I still remember pausing after the hilariously abstruse prologue cuts into Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" and giddily explaining to the nearest set of ears how wonderful this movie was, before I had even gotten 7 minutes into it.

4. The Tree of Life: I distinctly recall fearing that Terrence Malick's long-gestating epic was going to rub me the wrong way; it didn't. Despite my protestations to the contrary, my parents watched it too (TWICE) and we're still talking about it to this day. It's also been a pivotal influence on a lot of my filmmaking friends at Georgetown, and with its sternly uncynical approach to life one can easily see why.

5. The Iron Lady: You see, not every movie I saw was good. "Let's go see The Iron Lady! It's supposed to be a great political thriller!" Famous last words. Despite knowing already what sort of mess we were getting ourselves into, I tagged along with my floormates. By the time we were about 2/3 of the way through, I was nearly prostrate on the floor with inappropriate snickering. God, how I ever sat through this thing without getting thrown out for disturbing the peace is beyond me.

6. Drive: This is it. The definitive college film experience. Nothing else even comes close (although senior year offered a commendable second—more on that later). My friends and I will forever reminisce about the time Georgetown screened Drive late on a Friday night in the ICC auditorium; how we went, Tim already knowing the movie's hook but everyone else left in the dark; how the first half of the night consisted of a lot of ponderous close-ups of Ryan Gosling's handsome visage and girls in the audience squeaking out the occasional "You're so hot!"; how everything went to smithereens the moment Christina Hendricks' brain matter hits the motel bathroom mirror and the whole audience, as though an entire vat of laughing gas had just been emptied out through the air vents, spent the entirety of the film's second half in hysterical laughter—because how else could you possibly respond? And then of course the afterparty: a good two hours of the four of us spazzing out in the common room and lecturing everyone unfortunate enough to walk by about HOW DAMN AMAZING THIS MOVIE WAS.

7. L.A. Confidential: Mr. Alan was right about this one too. The dialogue? The huge plot twists? The sound design of that final shootout? Phenomenal.

8. A Separation: Otherwise known as the movie over which Tim threatened to defenestrate his computer if it lost the Oscar for Foreign Film. It didn't. Thank goodness.

9. The Hunger Games: Also the name of the three hours prior to the film, spent waiting in a theater full of eager book fans (and John, who binge read the whole thing in four hours the weekend before) from 9–midnight. I never saw the sequels, so it's funny to think back on how big a deal this franchise was (and in some cases continues to be) for me and my friends back in the day.

10. The Royal Tenenbaums: My first venture into the world of Wes Anderson will forever be remembered by the way I yelled excitedly about the rapturous use of "Hey Jude" in the prelude to the main story. It was, of course, after midnight, and John promptly put my enthusiasm in its place for waking up our neighbors. (Oh come on, like anyone goes to bed that early in college anyway.)

11. Sound of My Voice: Georgetown filmmakers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij are on to something, even if they haven't struck gold just yet. I got to see their big debut at an advance screening in Gerogetown, followed by a Q&A with Zal, Brit, and fellow Hoya moviemaker Mike Cahill. I still have a picture of me and Katherine with Brit on my phone, so someday when she's mega-famous I can tote it out and brag about the time I bonded with her over how we had both led Georgetown's student-run film and TV studio.

12/12.1/12.2. Three Colors: Blue, White Red: Technically three movies, but whatever. At the urging of Guy Lodge, my favorite working film critic, I decided to cover Kieslowski's Tricouleur trilogy one weekend early in my sophomore year. Red remains to this day one of my favorite films (and also one of my parents' faves; this is perhaps my proudest accomplishment in college, next to dragging them to Mommy last February and getting my dad to admit that it was really good), while the electrifying emotional intensity and Frenchiness of Blue have left a lingering mark as well. 

13. The Master: I didn't get to see it in 70mm, but I doubt that would have changed my opinion of it. I went with a group of Film and Media Studies students and we all decided on the walk home that the movie we had just watched was somehow not as great as the critics all around us had been toting it as. For some of them, it was a matter of PTA's visually and aurally pornographic vulgarity; for me, it was more a matter of the director trying to tackle a story airlifted out of the trenches of postwar French literature and mishandling the times, people, and places by mapping distinctly 21st-century anxieties onto them. Or at least that's how the argument sort of went at the time; I might think differently upon rewatching.

14. Breathless: My long and arduous quest to find a French New Wave director I actually like begins. I'm still looking.

15. Skyfall: I somehow managed to bungle buying a ticket for the premiere and was too chicken to just buy a ticket for another movie and sneak in with my friends, so I had to put off seeing this until it had already been in theaters for like 5 months. Roger Deakins' excellent photography made it totally worth the wait.

16. Amour: Okay, I retract what I said earlier: my REAL proudest accomplishment in college is that I managed to convince 8 friends to go see this with me. Two guys behind us in the theater asked us beforehand why a bunch of kids like us had come out to see a Michael Haneke movie about a dying octogenarian ("Either you guys really love movies or you're studying gerontology."). The answer of course is that Tim really loves movies, but he loves sharing movies with the people he loves even more. We entered the theater in high spirits and left in a somber melancholy, yet we knew that what we had just witnessed was important. Certainly not one of the brightest moments on this list, but without question one of the movie moments most worth remembering.

17. Certified Copy: Ah, the joy of discovering your first Abbas Kiarostami film. To understand how I felt watching this tricky deconstruction of relationships unfold, I can only suggest that you go watch it yourself.

18. Spartacus: Naturally I would make Stanley Kubrick's only disowned film the second of his oeuvre I watch. I wrote a bang-up paper on how his rendition of ancient Rome holds up against actual historical documentation of the Spartacus slave revolts (not too shabbily), and that wonderful love theme was stuck in my head for months.

19. The Player: To quote from Facebook, and this is before I had even seen Orson Welles's Touch of Evil: "I just started watching Robert Altman's The Player and had to stop after the opening 8-minute long tracking shot to catch my breath and wipe the tears from my eyes. ...I am such a geek."

20. Bicycle Thieves: I made it my mission the fall of my junior year to watch a different foreign film every weekend so as to bulk up on my knowledge of international cinema through the ages. Vittorio De Sica's simple yet devastating portrait of a struggling-to-get-by working-class family in Rome after World War II hit me with an emotional sucker punch at the end. My parents weren't converts to Italian Neorealism when I showed it to them a few months later, but this one will always have a place in my heart.

21. Taxi Driver: Newsflash: Martin Scorsese is a pretty damned excellent director. It took me a while to get around to his older works (I had started with his 21st century output), but when I did finally convince myself to try his Palme d'Or winner on for size, BAM! His genius hit me full-force, aided once again by the forever memorable saxophone swoonings of Bernard Herrmann, Lord of the Movie Soundtrack.

22. Charulata: "Oh this looks interesting," Tim said to himself one day while browsing the library's newest film acquisitions. Now I know better than to bite off an Indian film steeped in highly specific contemporary and cultural literary references from the 1960s. And not to invite a friend to join me for the experience.


24. Wadjda: One of those Catherine Addington recommendations I just had to go see. It turns out that the only day I had the time to go see it was the Saturday before my huge ancient Greek midterm. 30 minutes into sitting down in the library to study, I panicked at the thought that Saudi Arabia's first female-directed film would be leaving theaters before I had the chance to see it, so like all responsible college students I ditched the studying thing to go live my dreams, hopped the metro up to Bethesda to watch it all by myself, return home refreshed but also slightly terrified at what I had wrought to my GPA, and still managed to pull an A- on the test. Further proof that studying is overrated.

25. 12 Years a Slave: In the vein of Amour, I went and saw Steve McQueen's unflinching study of the horrors of slavery with a group of close friends with whom I proceeded to grow closer after leaving the theater. Solomon Northup's story is filled to the brim with unspeakable evil—all the more ineffable because of its blood-curdlingly familiar perpetrators: Americans not too far removed from you and me—as well as with heartbreakingly human performances from its stellar cast. I was abroad the following spring when it justly claimed its Oscar for Best Picture, and I remember going to bed that night holding my breath and hoping that I would awake the next morning to read the news of its victory.

26. Army of Shadows: Many of the best films I ever see were recommended to me by casual moviegoers, and this personal favorite of my French literature professor stands up there with Raise the Red Lantern as one of the best films I never would have seen if someone else hadn't brought it up first. 

27. Tokyo Story: "We'll always have Tokyo Story," a friend recently quipped on Twitter. At the start of study days the fall of my junior year, I rounded up three friends for a viewing of Yasujiro Ozu's masterpiece to put our finals-induced stress into perspective by forcing us to confront the inevitability of the distance between parents and children that comes with time. It speaks volumes about our friendship that we're still best friends today.

28. Under the Skin: I had been going through movie withdrawals in Italy, so when I found out that Jonathan Glazer's experimental sci-fi...thing was premiering in London the day I got there, I did what any self-respecting cinéaste would do and dropped $24 (!!!) to go see it at Curzon Soho (which, apparently, is ON THE BRINK OF GETTING DEMOLISHED BY A RAIL DEVELOPMENT. This is totally inadmissible.). Totally worth the admission, mostly for the great story I get to tell forevermore about the time I went to a movie theater in London that was way too cool for me (it's literally just a box two stories underneath a night club). Could have done without the tastelessly freaky trailer for The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears (mmhmm) before, though.

29. Journey to Italy: I timed this one well: the week following my study abroad program's trip to Campania, I relived the experience through the eyes of Ingrid Bergman, who travels to all the same places we went on our own voyage while dealing with a crumbling marriage. Unlike the vast majority of marital discontent dramas I've watched over the last four years (read: too many to count), this one ends on a happy note; blink and you won't understand why it does so, but happy it is nonetheless.

30. The Grand Budapest Hotel: Right before the end of my semester in Italy, I rounded up a dozen classmates to go watch Wes Anderson's most recent flick in the lovely Cinema Alactraz. It was an original-language presentation, just the way we Americans like it, and the theater itself was one of those magnificent single-screen movie halls with plush red velvet seats and a curtain that pulls back to reveal the screen at the start of the movie. I can't imagine Wes would have wanted us to see it any other way.

31. Simon of the Desert: Did your Byzantine Literature professor make you watch this 45-minute slice of perfection from surrealist mastermind Luis Buñuel? No? Well, then, clearly you need to go back to college and take Byzantine Literature and watch this movie in class and dance the Radioactive Flesh with your classmates as you file out at the end.

32. Blue Velvet: John and I advertised that fateful Saturday night to our friends as "Blue Velvet and Blondies". We wisely failed to mention that it would also be a night of discomforting sadomasochism and abject horror.

33. Gone Girl: Every new David Fincher movie is cause for celebration, even if only half of them end up delivering the goods. This is the closest thing to an event movie we had last year: it seems nearly everyone I know, movie lover or not, saw it and was talking about it from October through December. While Gone Girl has its fair share of problems, its score—the best yet from regular Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—isn't one of them.

34. Whiplash: As everyone who had the misfortune of crossing my path between October 2014 and April 2015 knows, Whiplash is the best movie of 2014 you didn't see until Tim talked your ear off about how good it was and how you needed to drop everything and go see it at your earliest convenience. Magically, most of my friends (and family!) listened; none were disappointed.

35. Rashomon: Akira Kurosawa's multiple-sides-of-the-same-story drama was my first real foray into foreign film my freshman year. I revisited it the fall of my senior year for a Film Festival Studies class and had a blast picking apart Kurosawa's adept filmmaking and storytelling with classmates and fellow film lovers/appreciators. To date it's still the most famous Kurosawa I've seen (I'm saving Seven Samurai for a rainy day).


36. Nightcrawler: I knew something was up when I went to this advance screening (where director Dan Gilroy was advertised as being in attendance for a post-show Q&A). I mean, when was the last time such a huge paparazzi came out to DC for a showing of a first-timer director's debut? Oh, right, when Jake Gyllenhaal was also in attendance.

37. I Killed My Mother: One of those movies I recommended to a classmate before I had even seen it myself—Xavier Dolan's reputation as the queer filmmaker of the moment precedes him with cymbals and fabulously histrionic flourishes. I got around to this, his debut film (which he made when he was 19!), eventually, and while I found it mostly a cute exercise in earnest student filmmaking, I was struck by the surprising empathy he had waiting in store at the end. I followed this up with Laurence Anyways and Mommy later in the year. You could now say I've drunk the Kool-Aid; wherever Dolan goes next, I'll eagerly follow.

38. Snowpiercer: The worthy runner-up to Drive. The Original Four who went out to see that masterpiece our freshman year relived the experience of a late-night OMIGOD WHAT ARE WE WATCHING action flick in a Georgetown auditorium our senior year. This time the audience was smaller (but not small enough; we were hoping for a private screening so we could just openly emote and freak out as we watched) and our post-screening debriefing took place at a bar, but just like the Ryan Gosling moodsterpiece before it, Snowpiercer provided us with plenty to gawk and geek about.

39. Silverlake Life: The View from Here: Nobody in my film class was expecting this one, a largely forgotten 90s documentary about a gay couple's joint struggle with AIDS. Silverlake Life goes to dark places not unlike the depths Haneke explores in Amour, but here the drama is even more powerful because it isn't scripted. The impending and eventual death depicted onscreen is the real deal, as is the love—with all its joys and frustrations—between the protagonists. It hit us like a ton of bricks, as it will you should you ever figure out a way to watch it.

40. The Imitation Game: Benedict Cumberbatch fever was in full swing when the Freshman Five went out one frigid night in December to go see the DC-area premiere of his highly hyped new film. Naturally we got to the theater at 6:45 for a sold-out 7:20 show and decided to hoof it around downtown aimlessly for two hours while we waited for the 9:30pm show to start. The wait was not worth it. The Imitation Game is a terrible blight upon moviedom, no matter what your Cumbersenses tell you. John and I spent the better part of that winter arguing with everyone around us about the film's lack of merits and overall awfulness. In the end we got everyone else to watch Whiplash so I guess things all worked out.

41. Only Lovers Left Alive: Tilda Swinton has long been a favorite of John's and mine, and we were both pleased with the full-bodied ~Tildaness~ of her performance in Jim Jarmusch's hip take on the vampire genre. "Excusez-moi" is still one of the best final lines of a film I've yet seen. 

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42. Mr. Turner: After a horrendous travel experience flying back to DC from Boston at the end of winter break, I deposited my luggage at home and promptly ubered off to Arlington to go sit in an empty theater for three hours on a Monday night to watch a sluggish British biopic Catherine had already declared to be the moldiest thing since the first loaf of uneaten sliced bread. Contrary to her strong opinions, I actually found a lot of merit in Mike Leigh's period playhouse, a meticulous recreation and exploration of the life and times that produced J.M.W. Turner's masterworks. To give credit where credit is due, though: the last 15 minutes are torture of the sort I haven't experienced since I had to forcibly restrain myself from publicly vilifying The Iron Lady in a theater full of presumably-rapt Meryl Streep adulators.

43. Le Fils: After I stumbled upon Rosetta last summer, the Dardenne brothers quickly became my favorite working filmmakers. Their follow-up to that 1999 masterpiece is an equally stunning masterwork about filial bonds and forgiveness with an abrasive edge befitting the hard-knock reality of blue-collar Belgium.

44. Inherent Vice: Although almost everyone else at Georgetown who saw it seemed to hate it, my roommates and I were surprisingly warm on PTA's follow-up to The Master. Sure, the plot is meandering and hard to follow, but if you just let the film lapse over you it's much easier to love. The loose performances from the stellar ensemble cast, the knockout soundtrack—which I'm still listening to even to this day—and the lush film photography make Inherent Vice a movie for the ages. That is, the bygone ages of Hollywood's heyday; it's unlikely we'll see another film quite like this for quite some time in this day and age. The more you learn about how hard it is to get movies like this financed and out the door, the more you feel responsible for making sure you do your part to contribute to the box office returns.

45. Singin' in the Rain: I'm generally not one for musicals, but I'll eat my hat (I don't wear hats. I need to come up with another stock phrase for situations like this) if this isn't the best movie musical ever made. I choose to analyze it through a genre lens; besides Simon of the Desert, one of my biggest takeaways from the aforementioned Byzantine Literature class was an understanding of ancient rhetoric that has sinced shaped my still-nascent Universal Genre Theory of Film. Singin' in the Rain sets out to be the most outlandishly allusive movie musical to grace the big screen and succeeds spectacularly. 

46. The Sacrifice: Speaking of worthwhile hours in Tim's life, the invigorating Andrei Tarkovsky set my soul on fire with his final film, the combustible outpouring of a dying man's hopes and blessings for a dying world. Filmmakers who aspire to the same species of literary and spiritual greatness that Tarkovsky achieves here are humbled by comparison to this masterpiece, an arresting work of art that gets to modernism's toxic heart and places it in plain view for all to see. I watched this with a group of Catholic friends one Friday night before running off to a Greek party, an odd juxtaposition of events if I've ever experienced one. I distinctly remember the night air feeling somehow crisper, myself feeling more alive as I marched from Tarkovsky's vision of the end of the world ready to carry the torch he entrusts his viewers. I probably haven't lived up to his call to arms, but his fierce renunciation of the emptiness of materialism sticks with me still.

47. My Neighbor Totoro: "How have you never seen Totoro?!" has long been the refrain of every Miyazaki-related conversation I've had at Georgetown. When it came to E Street this past spring, I deliberately planned my spring break such that I would be in DC long enough to catch it and complete my childhood. As the case always seems to be with Miyazaki's works, My Neighbor Totoro is heartfelt and playful at the same time that it packs a wallop of an emotional punch. Better than seeing it on the big screen, however, was seeing it in the company of fans of all ages, ranging from toddlers experiencing the magic of Miyazaki's imagination for the first time to adult couples reminiscing with fondness on a film that has meant so much to them as time has gone by.

48. Wild Tales: The perfect night out at the movies: a hilarious and thoughtful satire of Argentina's current political mess. The two movie-loving K(C)atherines in my life gave me their highest recommendations on this one, and boy did it deliver. I haven't seen an audience howl with that much "did-that-actually-just-happen?" laughter in years.

49. House: Oh, House. Nothing I could say here could top the livetweet session I had during the screening of this gem at 3710 S Street, so I direct you there instead.

50. 2001: A Space Odyssey: I had been deliberately putting this one off until I could see it on the biggest screen possible, but my professors and roommates had other plans for me. Kubrick's most famous and most masterful film is indeed a triumph, from its prehuman beginnings to its posthuman end. So many other movies make so much more sense having finally seen this; small wonder I even understood some of them at all in the first place.

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention The Island (or as it's more affectionately known around these parts, OCTPOB), a charming(?) little film about a batty old monk living in the Siberian hinterlands. I'll admit to having dozed off for a bit in the middle, hence why I chose not to include it in the main list above.