I don’t have many things to brag about my life, but one thing I can boast about is that I’ve seen a lot of good fucking films. In my late teens and early twenties—formative, formative years—I was blessed to have a couple of friends in my lifeless, pedestrian, suburban hometown of Fremont, CA who had wicked-good taste in films. They opened my impressionable eyes to a slew of gnarly movies. Before I could legally drink, I was an undergraduate film student at San Francisco State and pulling a Tarantino by working at a local video store (which back then was this corporation known as Blockbuster Video). During my two years of film studies—especially the first year—I saw (and slept!) through a parade of fantastic films during my 9 a.m. classes when my night-owl ass would stagger through the early morning hours to commute from my parents’ house to the fog-veiled westerly end of San Pancho.
In compiling this list, I was surprised that none of my all-time favorite movie-going experiences happened at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, the exquisite Castro Theatre (Eddie Muller’s annual Film Noir Festival is always fucking awesome), or Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. I’ve seen a lot of movies at these film houses, especially the Embarcadero Center Cinema, while I was a substandard film student.
This list was originally meant to be five deep with a few honorable mentions, but the longer I sat and rifled through my memories the more my honorable mention list ballooned (much like the budget of a James Cameron film).
But without further ado, here are the top ten I’ve been graced with.
10. The Big Lebowski
Red Vic Theater – San Francisco, CA
April 20, 2008(?)
The Red Vic was a small, eclectic art house theater in the Upper Haight. Every year, they used to show the Coen Brothers’ stoner-friendly cult classic on 4/20 at 4:20 p.m. It was the kind of happening that went down in San Francisco [coughing under my breath:] before the city sold its soul and character for greed and profit. For years, I resisted this annual happening until an old high school classmate, Jesse, asked if I wanted to go, so we did. Long before recreational marijuana was passed into law in the Golden State, Red Vic management encouraged Big Lebowski moviegoers to toke up before and during the film screening. Though I had seen parts of the film stoned many times before, it was thrillingly liberating to light up in a movie theater and watch it on the big screen with a bunch of stoners who also knew so many classic lines (“I said we’ll cut off your johnson!”) from the film.
9. Top Hat
Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum – Fremont, CA
Long ago, Charlie Chaplin shot five of his early films in my old suburban hometown, Fremont. Since 2004, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum has screened an impressive selection of silent films in their theater. My wife, Maria and I had our second date at their theater to watch this 1935 musical starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. This was pretty remarkable because 1. I generally detest musicals (most classic musicals are so cheerful that I find them disturbing) and 2. back then, after living in a lively cosmopolitan city like San Francisco for seven years, my hometown felt so dull and stale to visit.
But Top Hat was incredible. I must have assuredly seen Fred Astaire on the big screen in one of my film classes at SF State (I probably slept through most of the film), but that night I finally understood the charm and magic that man spun on celluloid with his smile, wit, and virtuoso dancing. And it was doubly fun to discover Astaire and Rogers on the big screen with a capacity crowd full of fellow film dorks, including my sweetheart.
This film cracks my top-1o movie-going experiences ever because I left that theater sensing, for the first time, that Maria and I had something special. And my intuition turned out to be right.
8. My Life Without Me
In the summer of 2003, I backpacked through Western Europe. It was a life-altering experience: the first time I traveled and lived on my own; the first time I viscerally grasped just how vast and complex and unbelievably beautiful this planet is. That summer, I fell hard for my then-girlfriend, Janel. Committed relationships were still new for me then, and that one undoubtedly brought out the best in me.
On my last night in Europe, after being on my own for forty days in a foreign continent, I decided to spend it by watching an American film starring Sarah Polley. While in Madrid, a city I loved and hope to see again, I was fortunate to stay in the apartment of a beautiful young woman named Laura, who my mother befriended while they were both playing tourists in Perú. It was my fourth night in Madrid, and I left Laura’s apartment without referring to my Lonely Planet guide and navigated their metro to one of their downtown neighborhoods as though it were second nature.
My Life Without Me was a sobering film that managed to be melancholic yet sort of uplifting, if I remember correctly. (And this was long before I became a cancer survivor.) I remember leaving the theater and anonymously merging back with all the Spaniards out and about on a weeknight. I was thinking of how it was my final seconds and minutes and hours in Madrid, in Spain, in Europe. I had this foreboding sense that much was going to change once I returned home. After savoring such freedom and overcoming any fear of living on my own, I knew my days living at my parents’ house were numbered. But I also felt quiet inside because Janel had already moved to Portland, OR to attend graduate school. The beautiful, magical spring and summer we had together was gone and I didn’t know if we would continue on. All of that was there as I sat in the small, dark theater by myself and took that film in.
A few days later, back at home, I would find out that our run was over and that I wasn’t going to move to Portland. (Before I left for Europe, she had invited me to follow her to Stumptown.) Then months later, after saving up money, I moved out of the nest for good.
Coppola Theater, San Francisco State University – San Francisco, CA
In my second year of formal film studies, I took a documentary class with Caveh Zahedi. One night, he screened two documentaries for our class. The first was Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog. If you haven’t seen the 32-minute film before—which I humbly think every human being should see—it splices picturesque, then-present-day color footage of the Auschwitz and Majdanek concentration camps with archival black-and-white stock footage the Nazis shot to document their operations at the concentration camps when they were slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jewish prisoners. I still remember seeing archival footage of a bulldozer pushing an enormous pile of corpses into a hole in the ground as if they were just twigs.
I remember when the film finished and the overhead lights went on. In a theater packed with over a hundred students, I remember how uncomfortably quiet we all were. Caveh broke the ice by standing in front of the class and saying, “That was heavy. Let’s take a break” before a horde of us quietly filed out of the theater, hanging our heads, to step out for a smoke.
Back then, I smoked about a pack of cigarettes once a week. I still remember how my hands trembled as I held one to my lips and tried to light it after watching that film. That’s when I truly realized how powerful documentaries can be, and I still hope to shoot and edit one of my own someday before I die.
6. Fruitvale Station
Grand Lake Theater – Oakland, CA
No matter how long humans will manage to exist, I am confident that Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station will always be one of the most Oakland films ever made, and I watched it at the most Oakland film theater the town will ever know. The biographical film based on Oscar Grant’s death at the hands of the BART police is a cinematic masterpiece. Maria and I caught Fruitvale Station toward the end of its summer run so the theater wasn’t packed but by the end there wasn’t one fucking dry eye. (No exaggeration. I looked.) Watching Fruitvale Station at the Grand Lake Theater at night with a small, intimate crowd felt like the ultimate way to experience it.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Grand Lake Theater – Oakland, CA
Stanley Kubrick is and will probably always be my favorite film director, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is among my top-5 favorite Kubrick films. In 2015, a 70 mm print was remastered and circulated and bequeathed to mankind and the Grand Lake Theater got dibs on a copy. I just about creamed my pants when I heard it was playing at my beloved neighborhood theater.
Uncharacteristically, I opted to heighten the film experience by smoking a little weed beforehand. (I am a big fan of watching films sober.) And it was a good choice on my part. 2001 screened in the Grand Lake’s primary theater and I was in sheer ecstasy before the film as the organ player played Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” and “Also sprach Zarathustra” on the mighty Wurlitzer.
And then the film: my god, it was glorious to see it projected on a big screen. Coupled with the film’s score, each languid outer space shot was a thing of beauty. It was my first time seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen, and hopefully not the last.
When we walked back home, Maria told me she enjoyed the film but didn’t understand what happened at the end. This made me laugh and made the post-film stroll back home a treat (for me at least) as I tried to explain my interpretation.
4. Contracorriente (Undertow)
Lumiere Theater (R.I.P.) – San Francisco, CA
This was a Peruvian affair; Contracorriente was the first movie filmed in Perú that I was watching on a big screen, and I was going to see it with my sister, Mariana. We both left the theater teary-eyed. It was a gorgeous, sad film—my favorite kind—and I was especially moved because the film centered on a gay male relationship. I found this remarkable. Being a largely Catholic country where men and women still have very clearly defined gendered roles from birth until death, machista and homophobic attitudes are still prevalent. And so, I left the movie theater feeling proud of my countrymen involved in the film, proud that my country had produced this beautiful film.
But the reason this movie-going experience cracks my top-10 is because it involves my sister. Over many years, our relationship has ebbed and flowed. Together, unfortunately, we’ve created ugly, awful moments that can never be taken back despite heartfelt apologies. As adults we grew apart but this is one of the last beautiful sister-and-brother moments we’ve had, which makes it all the sweeter.
3. Donnie Darko
Red Vic Theater – San Francisco, CA
I can count on one hand how many films I saw at the Red Vic, and here it is, cracking my top-10 again. I saw this one alone, and I think it’s one of the reasons why it was such an absorbing experience for me.
Like books, like songs, films can become a defining moment in our respective trajectories. Looking back now, I suspect Donnie Darko had such a mesmerizing effect on me because of where I was and what was going on in my life at the time I had it pore into my senses in the cavernous dark of the Red Vic. After the film finished, I remember stepping out into the foggy night with this deep, weighty veil of sadness consuming me. Although I was back out into the world, I was still in the realm of the film I had just experienced (if that makes any sense). I remember unlocking my bike and riding down Haight Street back toward my home in the Mission in a state of befuddlement. For a good minute or two, I cycled down the street with a completely distracted mind. A few films have had that effect on me, where I’m so moved and emotional and saddened and fragile that I (ideally) don’t want to talk to anyone for at least an hour while the film courses out of me. (Pan’s Labyrinth, Capote, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Lives of Others, In the Mood for Love, and Moonlight also come to mind.) But I think Donnie Darko might have weaved such a spell harder than any other film that night in my life.
2. Get Out
Regal Jack London – Oakland, CA
Ah, now this was a fun watch. A fucking thrilling watch. I saw it with a fellow cinephile I had befriended from Saint Mary’s. We were both hyped to watch this film. My Facebook feed had blown up the week or so before with a bunch of FB friends—mostly fellow writers of color—raving about it. And yet, Jordan Peele’s film managed to surpass my lofty expectations and a lot of it has to do with the fact that I saw this film in my beloved Oakland in a house packed with black folks and other people of color. It was undoubtedly the most righteous environment possible to watch Get Out. The audience laughed at all the uncomfortable moments when a more white, politically correct audience (in, say, Berkeley or present-day San Francisco) would have probably sat quietly because they were either unsure if it was meant to be funny or because they couldn’t understand that it is funny. Towards the end of the film, the crowd was like a single mass; we were all enraptured in the film’s spell, and I remember several audience members were loudly saying stuff like, “Kill that white girl!” or “You better not look in there!” Everything I was thinking as I sat and watched the film was being said aloud by others in real-time and it was exhilarating and borderline cathartic to go through all the motions and painful truths that film brilliantly unveils.
To boot, it’s a great feeling to step out of a theater knowing you were fortunate enough to have just witnessed a cinematic masterpiece on the big screen where films are meant to be seen.
1. A Clockwork Orange
Smith Rafael Film Center – San Rafael, CA
In 1999, I was just twenty years old. A mere pube. (In fact, I lost my virginity that year.) Endowed with the gusto of youth, I was at the height of my adoration for Stanley Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange was my favorite of his films. (And it probably still is.) At that time of my life I was beginning to more fully explore, which meant I was getting away from the doldrums of Tri-City suburbia and discovering places like downtown Berkeley (Telegraph Avenue!: Cody’s Books! Rasputin Music!) and San Francisco. Driving 50 miles and crossing a bridge I had never known before in order to see my favorite film at the time with a dear friend was exactly the type of thing I should have been doing at that juncture in my life.