Movies provide a home even when home is absent… or merely displaced.
After I moved from a small farming community outside Kalamazoo, MI to Detroit, MI in August of 1990, I began the tradition of going to a movie on my birthday. This became a yearly ritual for a couple of reasons. The easy answer was that for the first time, we lived mere minutes away from a theater. Hitting up a last-minute movie finally wasn’t an ordeal.
That little farm community in southwest Michigan resided 20 minutes from the nearest theater, a single-screen second-run movie house in Paw Paw. Detroit, meanwhile, offered theaters around every corner. It felt that way to me, anyway. I lived within walking distance of the Woods 6 on Mack Ave. and slightly beyond walking distance to the mall multiplex in Harper Woods. Most immediately, however, the tradition began in 1990 because — to borrow some fresh lines from the Prince of Bel-Air — my whole world got flip turned upside down.
In my first weeks attending this new Grosse Pointe prep-school, I wasn’t just known as “the new kid.” That would have been blissfully prosaic because I just wanted to disappear. Instead I was known as “the new kid… from Kalamazoo who lived in a motel.” Kids wouldn’t know my name, but they knew my place of origin and current, unfortunate residence. Yes, my parents and I lived in a motel. I had danishes and orange juice every morning from the motel bar/restaurant. I supposed I should just be grateful it wasn’t a Continental Breakfast. After this motel, we would move into a rectory for another month before our legitimate home was made ready for inhabitance. (Remind me to tell you the story about the time a woman started screaming at my mom using all sorts of colorful holier-than-thou language outside the church because she assumed we were the priest’s mistress and illegitimate son. Actually, I guess I just did.)
Back to that very prestigious private school in Grosse Pointe. I got in, despite my humble origins, because my dad knew someone who knew someone and apparently I aced the entrance exam. Gargantuan white columns, marble steps, and blue-bloods in pastel shirts graced with ponies as far as the eye could see. We certainly didn’t have prep-school kind of money — it wasn’t until later that I recognized the sacrifices my parents made so I could go to a school that didn’t have shootings. (My dad managed the Detroit Zoo and therefore had to live within the city limits). At the Detroit Public School I would have attended, gunmen walked in off the street and starting shooting kids in the hallway in 1992.
Suffice to say, with my 12th birthday falling on September 13th, 1990, only the second week into my new school nightmare, I felt completely and totally alone. Every day for at least a week, I begged not to go to school and cried in the car at drop-off. I was not, as they say, “pulling it together” exactly, but my mother knew how difficult the whole move had been for me. I’d even been excited about it. I desperately wanted to live in a real city and leave Marcellus (population around 2000) in my rear-view, but the overall experience had been more inviting in theory.
I came home that birthday Thursday and my mom told me to pick a movie from the paper. (Darkman, obviously.) I’d never been exposed to such spontaneity! Such flaunting of the expected homework duties! For those 100 minutes tucked away in a darkened theater, I was exactly where I needed to be. I can’t say that the movie fixed all that ailed me, because I was, after all, now 12 years old. Everything seems broken at 12, no matter where or who you are, but that movie put me in the right direction. Each subsequent day seemed a little bit brighter than the one before.
The theater had always been my safe space and when I was younger, it really didn’t matter what was in theaters — there were always marginally comfortable seats and popcorn and light and shadow projected onto a big silver screen. The tradition of the birthday movie endured without interruption until 2004 — after a 2003 birthday movie finally broke my spirits.
In celebration of this tradition, I’ve ranked every one of my birthday movies from 1990 until 2003. It’s entirely solipsistic (but it’s my birthday and I can wax nostalgic if I want to) and the listed movies are really only connected because of their general mid-September release dates — but then again, this list will still seem more relevant than whatever Buzzfeed slopped on the table today like Tuesday’s green bean casserole.
Going to the theater isn’t just a frivolous activity. The theatrical experience provides a respite from anything and everything that prevents you from enjoying your current lot in life. For just a moment, the rest of the world melts away and all that’s left are those flickering images projected three-stories high. Especially in 2019 with our constant connectivity, there are so few respites from the everyday cacophony. Embrace the experience as the curation of mental health. Even the worst movies (especially the worst movies?) contribute to the necessary understanding that this too shall pass, but there will always be another movie.
14. Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002)
Right out of college, I wrote movie reviews for a tabloid publication in Atlanta. As the newest movie critic in a team of three, I often received the worst assignments and no assignment during this tenure was worse than a press screening of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever on my birthday. Among the dozens of reviews I wrote for InSite Magazine, it stands as my only “F” graded film. When anyone asks about the worst film I’ve ever seen, my mind immediately recalls this torturous experience. Roger Ebert thought so, too.
13. Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Thanks to Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, this, the movie that broke the birthday tradition didn’t even rank as the worst. Allow me to set this scene. For months I’d looked forward to the release of Once Upon a Time in Mexico. My love of El Mariachi and Desperado fueled all kinds of desperation for this movie. My wife and I had just moved to Cambridge, MA. In the move, we’d lost some shelves or shelving brackets — honestly I have no idea what we needed anymore. The movers screwed up and we were in need of some pieces to pieces of furniture. The store at which we needed to procure said components was somewhere near Braintree, MA. The plan: we’d hit up the store and then head to the theater to catch OUATIM because birthday movie. Our Mapquest-printed directions got us lost on our way to the furniture store and then we couldn’t find the theater. We stopped to ask three or four different people who gave us contradictory directions. We missed the movie, returned home, ate Thai food, and went to a late show around Cambridge. The food stunk (we never at there again) and the movie lacked any of the showmanship or tone of its predecessors. The whole day turned out to be a fracas I’ll never forget. How could this movie have been so bad?
12. Rock Star (2001)
Silly and forgettable beats “worst movie I’ve maybe ever seen” and “crushing disappointment.” Marky Mark’s hair, however, remains a monumental achievement.
11. Stigmata (1999)
This Jerry Bruckheimer-produced thriller about a Pittsburgh hairdresser (Patricia Arquette) who becomes afflicted with a stigmata after getting her hands on a cursed rosary gave me the giggles in 1999 and I’m entirely confused about how it earned $50million in domestic box office. I got shushed for laughing at the “serious” bits about Catholicism and I still worry about the people who try to appreciate this film without irony.
10. Maximum Risk (1996)
Jean-Claude Van Damme made a fine living releasing movies in September during the 1990s. Maximum Risk co-starred Species‘s Natasha Henstridge and fell at the tail end of peak-JCVD actioners. Directed by Hong Kong action maestro Ringo Lam, Maximum Risk delivered on a few gonzo set-pieces, but relied too much on car chases and not enough on the physical prowess of the Muscles from Brussels.
9. Doc Hollywood (1991)
Amiable+ Michael J. Fox rom-com-dram in which the titular Doc is headed to Beverly Hills to become a plastic surgeon for the stars but finds himself waylaid in rural North Carolina when his Porsche swerves to avoid a car and hits a fence. I expected more laughs out of this movie at 13, but while I was disappointed in the moment, I grew to enjoy the film more on home video once I didn’t feel like the victim of a vicious bait-and-switch.
8. Rounders (1998)
Janet Maslin called John Dahl’s Rounders “mischievously entertaining” and I can’t do better than that in a short blurb. In 1998 we were on the cusp of the fairly bizarre poker boom. Everyone tried to play poker and the television broadcast poker, shows about poker, celebrity poker tournaments. Matt Damon and Edward Norton brought solid poker faces, but it’s really Malkovich’s movie. Even in a supporting role as Teddy KGB, he steals the show.
7. The Game (1997)
People love The Game. I love Michael Douglas and David Fincher, but I just don’t love The Game. I saw this during the first month of my first semester in college. Again I struggled with identity in a foreign land, aka Atlanta. I dragged friends in my hall to all manner of movies during Freshman year. If I’m not mistaken The Game was the first such off-campus sojourns via public bus transportation. Though I’m not convinced that the tangled machinations of Fincher’s plot hold up upon repeat viewings, I remember vividly that The Game, like that first birthday movie seven years prior, helped establish steps toward normalcy as I started to explore the city and realize that life still existed outside the campus bubble.
6. Timecop (1994)
High-concept time-traveling Jean-Claude Van Damme might be the best Jean-Claude Van Damme. Plus Mia Sara! That this movie isn’t more highly ranked on this list speaks to the quality and lasting appeal of my other birthday movies rather than any particular failing on Timecop‘s part. I would return to see this one more time in theater.
5. Almost Famous (2000)
I was not able to attend Almost Famous on my birthday night, but managed a trip during the following weekend. The film was still in limited release and I put a hold on my birthday movie trip because I was absolutely 100% positive that Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous would speak to me in the same way that Say Anything… had caused me to model my teenage personality around Lloyd Dobbler. I was not wrong, but the movie required some gestation. I came to love Almost Famous, which explains, perhaps, why it ranks merely 5th on the birthday movies countdown. That original theatrical experience doesn’t resonate like any of the Top 4.
4. Hackers (1995)
I challenge anyone to name a movie that is more 90s than Hackers. Electronic music. Wall-to-wall computer jargon and computer-generated representations of bits and bytes flowing through the tunnels of technology. Johnny Lee Miller. The clothes. The hair. The sunglasses. The swimming pool on the roof. Still, real hackers love Hackers, so I feel like that’s a legit seal of approval. Hackers remains one of the purest cinematic experience of my life, a movie so rooted in artificiality that the experience of plugging into the movie severs connection with the outside world. Hackers might not a great movie, but it is pure joy, pure nonsense, pure escapism. What more could I want on the day I turned 17?
3. Darkman (1990)
September 13th, 1990. The movie that provided a measure of belonging in my strange new world was, fittingly, a Sam Raimi superhero movie about a scarred and bandaged man who gains super-human abilities alongside psychotic episodes. Could have been me, minus the bandages and special abilities. It was the ultimate outsider-looking-in movie. Having failed to acquire the rights to adapt The Shadow, Sam Raimi (also, famously, a Michigander) developed a new superhero based on themes and images culled from the Universal horror movies.
It was Raimi’s first big-budget Hollywood feature after working for a decade on the furthest fringes of the independent landscape. I believed at the time that Raimi must have felt alien, just like me, taking that Hollywood plunge into a big budget $16 million action movie. For a short time, Darkman became the most important movie in my life — and no small part of it was because I identified with the film and the filmmaker and already had an original Evil Dead poster on my wall.
2. Sneakers (1992)
If you saw Sneakers in the theater in 1992, you shared a singular experience with dozens of other humans. I can almost 100% guarantee that no one walked out of Phil Alden Robinson’s (Field of Dreams) caper comedy feeling blue. It’s the kind of twisty movie that entertains so thoroughly that you’re unwilling or unable to see where the story will go next. I’d forgotten that this had been a birthday movie until I put together the pieces of this list. I don’t know if I should write that off as the failings of memory or a result of watching this VHS on a loop.
1. True Romance (1993)
Movies didn’t look like this, talk like this, or sound like this in 1993. Quentin Tarantino’s voice filtered through Tony Scott’s lens. True Romance represents an extraordinary confluence of style and substance. It also took just the right actors at just the right time to bring True Romance to life. Beyond Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette and the unworldly Gary Oldman villainy, the cast list reads like an All-Star cast of the mid-90s. Even though Reservoir Dogs had initiated a tonal shift, True Romance brought that independent spirit to big budget entertainment. It’s easy to point to Pulp Fiction as a movie that changed the course of cinema — but True Romance opened the gates. It’s a movie that feels just as fresh and offbeat as it did in 1993.