19 Years, 19 Films
Works That Were Influential To Me As a Person and a Filmmaker
1997) Hercules (Wonder)
I remember wondering if there really were a bunch of colorful Gods and Goddesses above us after watching “Hercules.” At the time, I was not aware of Greek Mythology at all - and did not really become acquainted with it until high school. It made me more curious about the rest of the world, both on the ground and above it. Some of the most memorable films will always stick with us because they awaken a sense of wonder. Audiences tend to want or even need a fantasy to escape into. This amazement may in turn give them a more positive outlook on reality, or become a way to pique their interest in things they had never thought of before.
1998) Antz (Personification)
“Antz” took me a few years to really grasp in its entirety because though it was presented as a fictional interpretation of how ants lived, it was replicating how our human society functions - maybe to suggest that people and insects share commonalities in terms of survival, or even to highlight how injustice can be wrong even in cartoon form. Even though the oppressed subjects were not human, that thought really rested in the back burner of my mind throughout the film. I saw the characters as relatable since they behaved and communicated like people actually do, which even involved causing pain to others. “Antz” really made me see how life can be unfair to many, but that it offers many opportunities for you to take control of your own destiny.
1999) 10 Things I Hate About You (Emotion)
I was relatively young when I first saw “10 Things I Hate About You” so I didn’t necessarily understand all the mature content that accompanied some of the scenes, but I was able to understand the feelings of the characters very well - and not just in the basic sense like when they were happy, sad or mad, but in the more complicated sense when they were feeling vulnerable, hurt, joy, etc. From this film, I gathered that trusting people can be one of the hardest things for a person to do. Like Kat, I considered myself very antisocial, but because of a lack of faith in people, not just for the point of being rebellious. Like most viewers, that simple scene where Kat is reading the poem aloud made me tear up. The language was simple but it was what was going on behind the words that really struck me. This film definitely demonstrated how vast the spectrum of emotions really is. Sometimes we can’t always find ways to explain feelings, but people may understand what we’re talking about just by the way we show them.
2000) Bring It On (Image)
Most would probably consider this film inappropriate for a ten year old to watch, but I was more than capable of handling its content. At first, I thought that “Bring It On” was just a comedy about cheerleading. Then it became clear that there were parts where the movie was mocking the celebration of arrogance, which made the film seem pretty deep. I had no idea during my first watch that what Gabrielle Union’s character was saying about the way the other team steals from her team had to do with how white people have historically taken things originally presented by people of color as their own. This image of women of darker shades being powerful, fierce and strong without any incorporation of stereotypes in their characters was nice to see. Winning the tournament wasn’t just about bragging rights, but also about making an example of those who steal other people’s moves and cultures as their own.
2001) Training Day (Characterization)
Denzel Washington is a very influential actor in general, but I learned a lot in particular from his character Alonzo Harris in Training Day. Throughout the course of the film, Alonzo is training his protege Jake on how to handle unsavory characters of the world, only to later reveal that he is one of them. It’s not the easiest thing to create a character which manipulates the audience as much as the protagonist and that is what I admire most about this film. Many characters are shown as archetypes and are meant to have one distinct purpose to convey in the film, but the more impressionable characters are ones that play for two or more sides, since people cannot always be categorized as good and bad - most are in that grey area between the two. There is nothing wrong with making a likable antagonist.
2002) Frida (Experiment)
Films based on real people in general can be a very challenging field to play on. In the case of the film “Frida,” I think it was a genius decision to use her background as an artist to help tell the story. Some would say that every film in a sense is experimental. I found this film to be such a wonderful blend of abstract and concrete scenes of Frida’s life. When dealing with the story of an actual person, keeping it factual is very important, but it would also benefit the story if you twist some of the events into something that is widely interpretable. It seems easier to do this when your subject is a very complex artist but I believe this can also apply to people who seem very straightforward. Play around with the fragments of details you are using to create a bigger picture. It is alright if not all things you include are clear right away or even at all. Human beings are messy, therefore their lives shouldn’t be painted so clean.
2003) The Haunted Mansion (Representation)
Horror films of the recent past seemed to fall into a predictable mold for me, even the light scream ‘horror’ works produced by Disney. Though I never really liked movies based around frightening situations, I always felt that I would watch more of them if they featured characters that looked like me or anything different than the typical “supernatural disturbance in white suburbia” display. I watched “The Haunted Mansion” with my father many years ago. I wasn’t brave enough watch anything supposedly scary without my father’s presence nearby. Watching black people on screen without being too enhanced or stereotyped, facing situations they aren’t normally found in was very refreshing. Films starring black individuals don’t need to always revolve around the color of their skin, or the dangers of being black in a prejudiced environment. I loved that I could easily picture myself and even my family in this movie.
2004) Mean Girls (Message)
During my first watch of “Mean Girls” many years ago, I can honestly admit that the deeper meaning behind this comedy wasn’t all that clear. Many films do have very deep messages hidden below the surface level, even those that were purposely meant not to be taken so seriously. After watching this film the second and even third time around throughout the years, I realized that this was such a creative social commentary. As a writer in various mediums, I am always tempted to wrap a serious topic in something a bit silly, not necessarily because I’m afraid to directly talk about an issue, but because sometimes it just makes the information more obtainable to people. I’ve noticed that a lot of screenwriters hesitate to write straightforward dramas because it may be overwhelming for an audience and they may not want the viewers to be completely sad or upset after watching the film. A comedy can be just as effective when it comes to bringing awareness and attention to many on a specific controversial issue - the bonus is just that people will laugh more while taking it in.
2005) The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (Imagination)
I remember being super excited to watch this movie because it mirrored my desire to explore my dream world while I was awake. I even created and kept a dream journal after I saw this film so I could try to see if any of my random dreams had any common themes, traits or recurrences. Imagination is where most stories come from, even the ones that are true. This movie taught me that I have more power over what goes on while I sleep than I thought. There have been many occasions where the cure for my writer’s block was found within my dreams. Imagination is usually associated with kids, but it benefits us even as we get older. Your imagination is an unlimited world waiting to be visualized physically. Using mine to help create better stories has benefited me tremendously, especially with filmmaking.
2006) Dreamgirls (Music)
One of the most influential films for me growing up was “Dreamgirls.” It inspired me to put deeper meaning into simple words the way people do when they sing them in a song. Music was a huge part of this plot, but even when music isn’t the main focus, it enhances everything about a particular scene or moment, especially when a character is in direct contact with a song or melody. Musicals make the audience very hyper aware of emotion. The moment you hear a song, you start making connections between it and everything that you see. Music is a character that plays a supporting role, and it wants to help the audience piece together these visuals and understand why that specific moment is significant. Overuse of music can take away from its impact in the film, so it is best to only have music come in when the moment calls for it. Is the silence creating a barrier between the audience and the scene? That’s when some music can form a connection between the real world and the one within a particular film.
2007) Juno (Language)
I’m often overly aware of the language I use in my stories, because I worry that the audience might be thrown off if I go by exactly what feels natural, or what feels very abstract, but is done so for the purpose of creating emphasis on a subject. What I loved the most about “Juno” is that the language (passive aggressive yet bubbly) causes the audience at times to have to translate the dialogue in order to reveal what the character is actually feeling. When you don’t want or even don’t know how to visually show a certain feeling or thought, it’s best to have the character(s) come to it with words. Not only does this approach make the film more interesting to watch - it also adds a layer of aesthetic that will make the film stand out. Many classic films are unique because they have a trait that separates them from other movies, such as the way in which they manipulate language.
2008) Slumdog Millionaire (Journey)
There is a common expression about the journey being more important than language and I find this very true, especially in the world of films. Once a destination is reached, not much else seems to stem from this except maybe that your character(s) might not exactly have found what they are looking for. Journeys are meant to be a period of tests and figuring out things that can’t be learned unless you have explored. In “Slumdog Millionaire” it’s shown from the beginning where he is, so the question becomes, how did he get there? Many people dislike the use of flashbacks in films but I feel that flashbacks are most effective when they increase a build up, or reveal something about the character you didn’t quite expect. When retracing the steps a character took, it is essential that you highlight only the moments that fill in large gaps and are hard to introduce into the plot any other way. Over time, the audience shouldn’t be able to see the character or characters, the same way they saw them in the beginning.
2009) Precious (Raw)
“Precious” is the movie I’ve watched the most times in my life, more than any other. What keeps drawing me back is how it creates so much beauty out of so many ugly things that surround this character. We root for Precious not only because she is a dreamer, but because she survives her reality by reimagining it. I’ve learned so much from this film and I always discover something different during each watch, but one of the most valuable things I’ve learned is that rawness can be portrayed by more than just pain or extreme pressure. A raw depiction comes in the form of a strongly accurate feeling rather than a strongly accurate action. Precious is filled with a lot of hard moments as the audience grows to love her fighting spirit, but it is the moments where her spirit breaks that you find yourself forced to grapple with the same reality that she’s been trying to ignore. Occasionally you will have to let go of the safety net in a story. It keeps the character from falling and if we don’t seen the character at their worst, or most vulnerable, we cannot root for them to get back up or break free in some way. There are going to be times you need your character to have no control over themselves, have them be swept by the moment without trying to modify it in a way that makes it less unpleasant for both the character and the audience. Allow the rawness take over once in awhile.
2010) Kick-Ass (Adrenaline)
Many viewers want to feel like they are moving even though they’ll most likely be sitting down the whole time. Excitement in the form of a mental adrenaline rush often happens in action movies where the audience is following characters in extremely and quickly escalating situations. People should not only feel like they are on the edge of their seats while they are watching, but also feel like they have joined in on the action. “Kick Ass” was a movie that made me feel as though I was being pulled into action with the characters. It is funny enough without being fake and serious enough without seeming too grounded in reality. Like many superhero films, these characters give us something to aspire to in terms of what could happen if we had super abilities. The characters are also relying on their own strength and that of other people without external powers. Not all movies with this content need to have lots of special effects in order to be effective at portraying very exciting fight scenes or other moments. Imagine that all you can use to help get your character out of a dangerous situation is what is on and around them - this will encourage them to use creative combat that can make an audience of average people think they would be able to overcome that obstacle as well. The viewers should stay energized even when the action simmers down for a moment. Leave the people watching anticipating the next chance they get to mentally join the battle.
2011) The Help (Adaptation)
I hope to one day adapt a book or play into a film. My biggest concern with that has always been, how exactly do I write and show a piece that has already been published and do it justice cinematically? With the film “The Help,” I saw that one thing that makes this problem more manageable is to find the story within the story. Break apart the original source in a way that keeps the overall vision intact but adds an interesting perspective and/or twist to it. I appreciated that in this film, the main focus was on the events leading up to the making of the novel. When it comes to adapting any story that has already been fleshed out, I feel that it is up to you to retell it from a different angle, so it feels new even to the people who know the story well.
2012) Beasts of the Southern Wild (Performance)
I remember watching “Beasts of the Southern Wild” for the first time and being so incredibly proud of Quvenzhané Wallis. Her performance as Hushpuppy was exhilarating to watch, especially knowing that this was her first major film. She is certainly a natural performer when it comes to portraying a child who has very little to hold onto except her imagination, which becomes our bridge into her vast world. Many directors may find that working with young children can come with many issues, but I would say that it is worth dealing with in the end when a child can so effortlessly show how to be imaginative in even the most dreary of circumstances. If you are patient enough with a child actor, especially one who has never acted in anything before, they may surprise you with a brilliant performance that not even you could’ve imagined.
2013) Short Term 12 (Ensemble)
In my experience as a film watcher, most films have a clear star that either steals the show, or carries the whole film in a way that’s most engaging. It is not often where I find a film that has a group of actors which not only enhance the intrigue of the film but also equally carry its weight throughout the story. In “Short Term 12,” there is no doubt that Brie Larson delivers a strong lead, but without the assistance of the other characters (both supporting and minor), her characterization wouldn’t really keep us fixated on her for long. The film dives into the various relationships that caretakers share with the kids who enter the home and among themselves. There are clear moments where each character given a background story shines and where they share the spotlight. People tend to knowingly and unknowingly pick favorite characters in movies, especially when they see one they can relate to. For me, I adored some characters more than others, such as Marcus, a teen who was aging out and would soon be in the world on his own, but I couldn’t really bring myself to favor one over the other. It was like being given a package deal. Having a strong ensemble (with a wide range of different types of characters) is one of the many ways a film could make a longer lasting impression on audiences, especially those that are very diverse.
2014) The Grand Budapest Hotel (Complexity)
I’ve recently started looking into more of Wes Anderson’s films after I saw “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I was really shocked with how much I actually enjoyed this film. So much going on, especially within each scene, the whole film can be a lot to take in or enjoy. I’ve noticed that the key to pulling this off, at least in the case of this film, is having some sort of structure align all the commotion. It’s basically like having controlled chaos. The main actions in the scene are pulled into focus by smaller (but still relevant) actions which help build to a climax without looking abrupt or random. In this hotel, so much is going on (as a typical hotel) but as the main characters trickle in and out the frame, our attention goes from the seemingly mundane to something quite hectic. The quirkiness of all the characters becomes normalized almost instantly in comparison to the situation they find themselves in. The important thing in a situation like this if you want to go crazy with the set design and other elements, go all out, but do it in a way that cleverly serves as a guide into each scene that way the audience isn’t too overwhelmed with so much occurring at one time.
2015) Room (Simplicity)
Most people like myself, have a hard time watching anything that takes place in one particular area for a while with no dramatic interruptions. It doesn't just have to do with attention span but also with expectation. Once we think we have figured out the next move in a plot, we gradually lose interest in seeing the reveal. With “Room” they are in a shed for a majority, or at least half the film. I believe that this stays interesting for that long because we are mostly looking at it from the perspective of Jack, a little boy stuck in there with his mom. To him, the shed takes on a whole universe so to us as the audience, we are looking at this universe in so many ways, trying to imagine what Jack sees. A lesson from this film is that capturing reality isn’t always focusing on what’s real and accurate, it can also be about how the characters within the world interpret the same place differently from others. The contrast and similarities between the perspectives can spark further intrigued while watching the film. So much is possible even with a simple setup.
2016) Moonlight (Story)
Traditional Hollywood movies for the most part, have very clear messages. If a character doesn’t directly mention it in some way, we are shown what it is through a climax or resolving action before the end of the film. What stressed many people out about “Moonlight” was that throughout the film, we have watched this metaphoric water boil as Chiron’s life escalates with each given persona he takes on, but then we are left with no over flooding, or even a simmered result. His life when we last see him has gotten more closure, but it very unclear what the result of his newfound comfort would be, unless the audience were to interpret it themselves. I actually love this about the film. Sometimes a story isn’t meaningful because it gives us clarity, but because it gives us obscurity. “Moonlight” is a story that reflects human nature. Most of the questions you may ask yourself about the film probably have existential answers. Instead of dwelling so much on films having a specific purpose for being made, it is probably better to appreciate them for providing another way to interpret our own reality.
2017) Get Out (Plot)
I have never been the biggest fan of movies in the horror genre. It’s usually the overuse of jump scares and gore that turns me away, along with the lack of POC playing important parts in the film. However, I’ve recently discovered that psychological thrillers might be a rising guilty pleasure of mine, since I saw “Get Out.” It’s a narrative that goes along with audience expectation, but also breaks it. This film incorporates the issue of race as a plot device. Blackness in itself becomes a character that we are following along with Chris. We assume only the worst automatically and are right to think so, but what I appreciated most about the role of blackness in this film was that it achieved a dynamic arch, meaning that it changed throughout the course of the film due to growth and newfound strength. The plot encouraged not only Chris, but his blackness to fight back. Even the other black characters who were taken captive were actively given opportunities to resist white supremacy from very subtle to extreme ways.