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Criticwire Survey: Family Movie Memories

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by Sam Adams
December 2, 2013 9:01 AM
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'A Christmas Story'

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: What's your favorite memory of watching a movie with your family?

Steve Dollar, The Wall Street Journal

Pretty much the opening night of every new James Bond movie that played during my Florida childhood. People used to line up around the block back then, as there were only two movie-houses (single-screen) in town and cable TV didn't exist yet. I'm sure our TV at home was still black-and-white. So imagine how it exciting it was to see a movie! Even more exciting for us was sitting through Goldfinger, or, even, in later, more technologically advanced years after uber-suave Sean Connery exited and winking clown Roger Moore heralded the franchise's decline towards untempered camp, Live and Let Die, and waiting for the end credit crawl. The audience flocked to the exits, but we sat rapt waiting for the name "John Tythe" to appear: My great uncle Johnny, an East End lad who in post-Blitz London had worked his way up through the ranks at Pinewood Studios to become chief electrician. He worked on all the 007 flicks, even after he retired, up through The Living Daylights. His visits to the US, often on the heels of a Caribbean shoot, were full of great stories from various sets. He was the first person I ever met who knew a Beatle personally, having worked with Ringo Starr on Caveman.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Movies By Bowes

The Metropolitan Theater in downtown Brooklyn was the site of many a fond movie memory, but none so fond as the afternoon bargain matinee of Double Impact my mom and I went to where the only other people in the theater were these two hung over (and probably also stoned) gentlemen in the row directly behind us who kept a very hazy commentary going throughout the picture. They seemed very concerned that Bolo Yeung would sneak up on Van Damme, and kept on softly (so as not to tip off Bolo, I suppose) calling out "Hey, yo, Jean-Claude! There goes Bolo! Behind you, motherfucker!" The best, though, was when Van Damme picked up a Desert Eagle, and one observed to the other, "Yo, my cousin got that gun. It's a good gun," in an approving manner. The best part about all this is that it was neither annoying nor the least bit scary: those guys were just there digging the movie like we were, and their enjoyment and manner of expressing it made for a really sublime Saturday morning vibe. All four of us had an absolute blast. Even now, twenty-some years later, I still get e-mails from my mom saying "Just watched Double Impact on DVD.... there goes Bolo!!!"

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

Plenty of people from my generational cohort have a Star Wars story, but I've yet to come across one quite like mine. Like every other school kid in 1977, I was frantically wanting to see this movie, but as a family we didn't tend to go out to the movies very often. On a Sunday after church, we stopped in at the shopping center where my mom did our grocery shopping -- and which also had the only multiplex in town showing Star Wars. She said she had to pick up a couple of things, and we went to the grocery store. After coming out and putting the few groceries in the car, my parents started walking towards the theater. My brother and I were befuddled. "Well, do you want to see Star Wars?" my mother asked. My parents are wonderful people, but there is no question that this was the single coolest thing they ever pulled over on us in our lives.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

Although I saw movies with my family now and then when I was a kid, no one experience really stands out from any other. My favorite moment might actually be seeing Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace with my dad on the same day I graduated from college. Clearly that was more due to the happy circumstances of the day than the quality of the movie.

Eric D. Snider, Film.com

When I was about 14, my whole family -- me, my five younger siblings, and our parents -- saw Disney's Sleeping Beauty at a private screening sponsored by our church. It was the first time I'd seen this movie, and I remember noticing the distinctive style of artwork, how everything was tall, vertical, and sharply defined. It's one of my earliest memories of paying attention to a film's visual style. But the reason this is one of my favorite family memories is that the popcorn and hot dogs at the screening were free and plentiful, and one of my brothers ate too much and vomited out the car window on the drive home. The act was preceded by a declaration of "Here it comes!," which itself caused us all to be overtaken by such hilarity that we were pulled over by a cop because Dad's laughter was making him drive erratically. "Drunk, officer? No, we're all just laughing really hard because my son said 'Here it comes!' before barfing out the window. I'm sure you understand."

Eric Kohn, Indiewire, USA Today

Watching Copacabana with my grandmother during the last year of her life. She was relatively uninterested in Groucho Marx's innuendos, smitten by the show tunes. It's my earliest memory of a movie providing a different access point than its most obvious one, perhaps the first indication of the limitless possibilities that movies can provide. My grandma died a year later and that was one of the last cozy moments we shared together. So I suppose it was also a seminal moment for me to experience the way that all movie viewing experiences can be personal.

Jeff Berg, ABQ Arts, Las Cruces Bulletin

I was rescued from the insanity of my childhood home by my maternal grandmother on occasion. It was during these times that she took me via public transportation from her Chicago home to the Chicago loop or to Wrigley Field a couple of times a year. One year -- must have been 1965 -- during Christmas break, I was staying at her apartment and I'm not sure how it came about, but we took the long trip to downtown Chicago and ended up at the McVickers Theater, which was the city's Cinerama palace. The Battle of the Bulge was playing, and she knew I loved playing with toy soldiers and watching war movies, and in we went. It was my first and only Cinerama experience, I'm sad to say, but it was magnificent. Some years ago, I was in a video store, saw a VHS copy of the film, rented it, and watched it and it became my tradition and an homage to her love and kindness. I of course bought a copy of it a few years back and it is now a personal holiday memory maker that I watch by myself every year.

Piers Marchant Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pop Matters 

Well, seeing as how I just recently lost my father and he's been very much on my mind, my first thought to this question was watching Wild Strawberries with my dad sometime in my adolescence. For my father, an English professor constantly working with younger generations of students who grew ever more removed from anything he had known growing up in London during the Blitz, I think Bergman's Dr. Borg became more and more of a kind of a touchstone for him on how not to approach one's impending mortality. Fortunately, my father was very little like him -- dad was sentimental to the core -- but he saw Dr. Borg as a kind of warning, a future ghost one must do everything possible to avoid becoming. It was one of my father's favorite films, and one I quickly gathered I, too, would have to routinely consult for insight and guidance.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

I don't stem from a particularly cine-literate family. My fondest memories of communal movie-watching during my youth probably read as fairly peculiar to unfamiliar eyes; my dad had a tendency to fall asleep whenever sat in a theatre for longer than 15 minutes, so any film, be it Jurassic Park, Arachnophobia or Duck Tales: The Movie would usually see him snoozing away within moments of the first reel rolling in to life. With time though I've come to value such idiosyncratic memories very highly. 

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

Honestly, I don't really have many family movie memories; my parents were never as into movies as I was growing up, so I discovered a lot of my favorite films/filmmakers on my own. So the closest I have to a "family" movie memory is one instance a few years ago when, while exploring the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien via whatever extant DVDs of his films were available on Netflix, my mother occasionally popped into the living room where I was watching (I forget the specific Hou film -- The Puppetmaster, possibly) and actually offered some observations and context on what she was overhearing/briefly glimpsing on the screen. She, by the way, is Taiwanese, so she grew up during some of the historical periods that Hou has chronicled in his films. I recall thinking that the background she offered was so valuable to helping me understand parts of the film -- as someone who was born here in the U.S. during the 1980s, and who has barely visited Taiwan all that much so far in my life -- that I kept thinking that, if she wasn't so indifferent to movies in general and was actually willing to take a chance and watch this particular (art-house) film with me, she might actually find something genuinely illuminating -- or at least find something to which she could relate -- beyond her usual entertainment diet of Law & Order reruns and news programs. As far as I know, she has still yet to see a Hou Hsiao-hsien in full.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?!

Growing up with immigrant parents and six older siblings, I have any number of moviegoing memories from my childhood: being allowed to put off my homework because Hitchcock's Notorious was coming on, all of us piling into the car and driving across town to a rep house to see William Wyler's Wuthering Heights, sitting through Ball of Fire and Young Frankenstein with my father and watching him laugh harder than I'd ever seen him do. Sometimes, my family had a sense of humor all its own: No one thinks of these comedies as classics, but we would drop everything or stay up late if We're No Angels (the Michael Curtiz original), Bedtime Story (later remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) or The Out-of-Towners (itself also remade) came on television in those pre-VCR days. My parents are no longer with us, but my brothers and sisters and I can always make each other laugh by quoting the waiter on the train from the latter film, telling the sensitive-stomached Jack Lemmon that all they have left is "peanut butter and crackers, and clam juice -- but it's not cold." Happy Thanksgiving.

Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger

The movies almost didn't matter. They could be pseudo-Hitchcock thrillers, like Charade or Arabesque; they could be Doris Day comedies like The Glass Bottom Boat or John Wayne westerns like True Grit. What mattered was the day -- getting up in the morning, getting the ferry over from Staten Island with my mother and grandmother, the subway ride up to midtown, and then walking into Radio City Music Hall, in the days when it still had stage shows (and ushers, and little ashtrays built into the seats). And then, afterwards, it was a late lunch -- maybe at Schrafft's, or Patricia Murphy's Candelight Restaurant, or some other place where the ladies wore white gloves and salisbury steak was considered a fancy treat. It wasn't just going to the movies, it was an event -- and a particular kind of event that's hard to recreate in the multiplex age. 

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

It says much about the often-overlooked genius of Freud that, from the moment this question appeared in my inbox, I took it as an invitation to share the worst viewing experience that I've had with family, which would be the time, as a naive teen-ager knowing only that it was a celebrated foreign film, that I shlepped my parents to the Bleecker Street Cinema to see Last Tango in Paris. Then I read the question. With our children, we practiced the policy of "One of Yours, One of Mine" -- from the time our daughters were old enough to ask for movies (i.e., VHS tapes) on the basis of what they'd heard of from friends or on television (which they didn't get to watch much of), we'd alternate between their choices (by and large, recent and Disneyfied) and ours, such as 42nd Street, Modern Times, The Pajama Game, Playtime, Singin' in the Rain, Monkey Business (Hawks), and A Letter to Three Wives. They got curious: then came Marnie and Scoop, Nosferatu and While the City Sleeps and Dragonwyck, all standard references in the household ever since. Which brings me to the specifics: MoMA, while under renovation a decade or so ago, had borrowed a movie theatre at 23rd and Park for their film screenings. Their Fourth of July afternoon screening was The Last Laugh, with live piano accompaniment. En route to friends nearby for dinner and rooftop fireworks viewing, we stopped at the movies, and, as I handed the usher our tickets, our daughters -- aged around ten and five -- dashed excitedly down the aisle of the near-empty theatre to the second row, left of center, and watched with wide-eyed intensity throughout. At the end, when the lights came up, they applauded the pianist -- and he applauded them. Reading the story over, it's clear that children will go to great lengths to win their parents' approval; but so much of childhood is a matter of habits, and growing up involves recognizing them as habits and perceiving the hand of authority behind their formation. It makes me ambivalent about education and about being anything like an educator -- except in the mode of utter sincerity, of sharing what I love with those I love.

Farran Nehme, Self-Styled Siren, The New York Post

Not sure anything can compare to the perfect joy of annual holiday viewings of The Wizard of Oz, back when the once-a-year TV airings were the only way I was going to see it. The commercials didn't matter, the aspect ratio didn't matter. I was a kid, my parents were sitting right behind me if the Wicked Witch got too scary, and my sister and I were way too close to the screen, both of us wishing we could jump in and join Dorothy.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go Go

Perhaps it was The Wizard of Oz, which our family would watch dutifully on TV at holiday time every year, causing me recurring nightmares about tornadoes and embedding a lingering dread of one day discovering that my life has been a dream, trauma only partially assuaged by becoming a film critic. Or it could be one of the movies my parents treated me to for my birthday, followed by dinner at the aptly named Falstaff Room. They ranged from The Sound of Music to The Gospel According to St. Matthew, accounting for my taste in movies, not to mention my taste for prime rib of beef.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene/Interface 2037

There's a lot of great moviegoing memories that I have with my family, but the two that resonate most strongly are A) going with my entire Ohio side of the family to see A Christmas Story the day after Thanksgiving, 1983, at The Dabel in Dayton, and B) when my mother woke 12-year-old me up early one Saturday morning to watch her favorite movie of all time: 1959's Imitation of Life. I was resistant at first, and ended up being won over. Such is the power of Douglas Sirk. 

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

The night my mom let me stay up late to watch Excalibur on TV (the BBC, uncut, with no commercials) was a highly formative experience; I'd always been annoyed that a movie so obviously in the fantasy realm was one the Irish censors said I couldn't see. I had to get fully ready for bed before the movie started, and I did; we both sat on her bed and watched the movie, with her occasionally explaining to me who was who. Funnily enough, she'd normally be aghast at movies full of sex and violence, but I think the classical pedigree and actors like Helen Mirren being in it made it a notable exception in the name of art. By the end, I truly felt I'd experienced an epic -- and that movies could do anything.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine

Ten minutes into Spirited Away my daughter Cora, then, five, and her friend Cece climbed into my lap, clutching my neck me when they got scared. They did not breathe for two hours. Cora was dazzled. When we got home she started drawing images from the movie. It inspired her lifelong love of anime, manga and, most of all, Hayao Miyazaki.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

By far, it would have to be my early childhood days of watching Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein with my entire family. Before too long, myself and my cousins could basically quote a handful of Mel Brooks movies basically from beginning to end. Probably not the most PC thing for a kid to know, but hey, I think I turned out okay...right? RIGHT?

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Cinephiled

I chronicled it, I guess, on my blog (not to make this an advertisement for my blog) -- it's when my mom asked me to watch The Haunting with her when I was a very little kid.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

When I started getting serious about film in early high school, my dad took it as an opportunity to watch edgier movies with me that my mom wasn't interested in seeing. One we kept talking about was Pulp Fiction, and after much procrastination we finally rented it halfway through my sophomore year. As most of you can attest, the first viewing of that film is a special one and going through it with one of my favorite people made it all the more meaningful. What really stands out about that experience, however, was late in "The Gold Watch" chapter when I said, "I thought Samuel L. Jackson was supposed to have a bigger part" and my dad said, "I was just thinking that." A few minutes later, "The Bonnie Situation" starts, the timeline flips, and our minds explode, not unlike Marvin's a few minutes after that.

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go See Talk

My favorite memory watching a movie with my family is a toss up between The Great Muppet Caper, whereby I learned the subtleties of self-aware humor, and the genius of Cary Grant's delivery in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Both films equally influenced my sense of humor and I got a joy out of watching my parents laugh trying to figure out why they laughed at the lines they did. But watching any movie meant getting to eat English Muffin Pizza! So Muppets on TV, home-made pizzas in the oven, and Colorado snow on the balcony... yeah, those were the good old days.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

My family and I have an odd relationship with moviegoing, because it's rare that my mother wants to see a film in theaters. When I was younger, my dad would take me to a movie and my mom would hear all about it via my feverish retelling once we got home. Also, before I reached double digits, I typically walked away from a movie so excited about the experience, no matter if the film was actually good or just good enough to keep a kid entertained for 2 hours, that I'd want to see it again. In those frequent cases, my parents would essentially hand me off to my aunt Mary, who lived nearby and was willing to watch whatever goofy kids' movie I liked just to spend time with me. One such occasion when I wanted to go back for seconds was with The Muppet Christmas Carol. I don't remember the first time I saw the film, but I've never forgotten the second time for one reason: my aunt and I were the only people in the theater. We sat in the moderately sized, drafty theater on a Monday evening in late December; Mary was marveling at being the only ones there, and I was eating Sno-Caps as fast as I could and loving that we were, in essence, getting a private screening. I've never had this happen since -- someone else always wanders into the theater before a film starts, which disappoints me. Thus, I'm fairly certain the memory of watching Michael Caine face off against all manner of Muppets, with a theater full of seats and my aunt at my side will stay with me, burrowed deep in my memory, for a very long time.

Sean Chavel, Flick Minute

The Fugitive. It was the big end of the summer blockbuster of 1993, and it was just one of those thrill-machines that was tasteful enough to satisfy the whole family, and satisfy it did. What's great about the movie is how sensational it is with different kinds of suspense scenarios and crafty camerawork. We all loved it so much we went back, altogether, a second time a week or two later.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I only had to think about this for a nanosecond. It was in August of 2012. My wife and I took our son Logan, then three-and-a-half, to his first movie. I'd been waiting for this moment for years, in part because I have tons of warm memories of my dad taking me to the movies when I was a kid. Because we weren't sure whether the darkness of the theater, the loudness of the sound, or the largeness of the screen would freak him out, we opted to go to one of the free family movies our local cinema offers on summer mornings. The film was a Thomas the Tank Engine picture called Hero of the Rails, and we chose it because Logan is a huge Thomas fan. (We once paid to take a ride on a real train that looked like Thomas, but that's another story.) Far from being freaked out, he was enthralled immediately. Then, about twenty minutes into the movie, Logan abruptly stood up, gave me a big hug, and said, "Thank you for bringing me here, Dada!" Words cannot describe the intensity of the warm, fuzzy feelings that filled me. Prior to his first theatrical experience, my son knew that my job involved going to the movies; having now done it himself, I felt that he knew me a little better than he had before. Apparently, the day was magical for him, too. Logan is now a regular moviegoer who always enjoys an outing to the theater. The family tradition will carry on.

Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting

I'll always remember watching Ghostbusters with my 10-year-old son a year ago and enjoying how much he cracked up at this exchange:

Dr. Ray Stantz: Symmetrical book stacking. Just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.

Dr. Peter Venkman: You're right, no human being would stack books like this.

Not one of the bigger laughs in the movie necessarily, but made hilarious by Bill Murray's sarcastic delivery. Something about my oldest reacting to that made me proud.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

Scene: The Lion King screening. Moment: Mufasa's tragic death. I reach for my 7 year old son's hand. "Mom", he whispers, shaking away my grasp, "I'm fine." "Good," I whisper back. "I'm not", grabbing his little hand again.

Alan Zilberman, Tiny Mix Tapes, The Atlantic

I made my mom take me to see Michael Mann's Heat in the theater. It was the first rated-R movie I saw in a theater, and we had a long, interesting conversation about good and evil afterward.

John Oursler, The Village Voice, L Magazine

I recently went home to visit my parents and my mother was sitting smack dab in the middle of the sofa watching The Parent Trap, the Hayley Mills original. My mom had watched it a lot when she was a kid and it's one of the few films she's ever really taken to, so I, in turn, watched it a lot when I was growing up. There was something quite beautiful about the comfort of returning to my childhood home, now as a 32-year-old who writes about film, and watching one of the films that undoubtedly, subconsciously informed my taste. It's a dynamite film in its own right, with Maureen O'Hara serving everything fierce and fabulous that I've ever loved, and I only with this viewing realized that the film also informed my taste in other ways; my first ever crush was Brian Keith's suave-talking Californian "father." Also, completely separately, perhaps serendipitously, I just for the first time caught a bit of the Lohan update, and, well, let's just say it's not as good. 

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

My earliest memory of seeing films with my family was my dad taking my twin and I to see Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Later that same decade, my mother, took us to see our first R-rated film, Animal House. These were wondrous experiences, for completely different reasons. But I can't say that I returned the film favor when I took my family to films. I once coaxed my father to go with me to see Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect in London. He walked out halfway through. I thought he was just going to the men's room, but when he didn't return, I later found him in the lobby, looking at me as if I'd done something horrible. My mother also once famously accompanied me to see My Beautiful Laundrette, a film that I've yet to be forgiven for making her see. "That was a comedy?!" she asked afterwords, looking incredulous. "A stinging social one," I kept to myself. We joke about it now, but at the time, it was no laughing matter. That said, I credit my parents for encouraging and tolerating my love of cinema during my formative years. Both mom and dad taught me, knowingly or not, how to read films. How highways informed characters in Paris, Texas, or the symbolism of a forgotten watch in Local Hero. I am forever grateful, even if they did not always appreciate my enthusiasm and taste. Then there are the films I saw alone with my twin. Like every member of my family, he sat through several films he probably did not want to to appease or humor me. He once agreed to go see Albert Brooks' Lost in America with me but only if I would stay around for the midnight show of Stop Making Sense. At the time I wasn't too keen on Talking Heads, but that screening of Stop Making Sense changed my life. By the third song, I was practically dancing in the aisles. I went back to see Stop Making Sense five more times that summer alone. I hate to give him credit for shaping my taste, but such is the power of family. Sometimes they know you better than you know yourself. For the record, my twin appreciated Lost in America but it also made him rather uncomfortable. Seems my family will now only let me take them to see films that won't make them squirm. 

Zac Oldenburg, Cinema Blend, Movie Mezzanine

Pixar has always played a major role in my relationship as our first date was going to see Cars. Every year the new Pixar film means a little bit more because of that special connection and it doesn't hurt that the studio makes pretty great films to help us celebrate.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

This sends me back to watching Jaws on TV when I was 5 or 6 or really I'm not sure how old I was. Both my mom and dad really loved the movie and were excited for me to see it for the first time. I remember being struck by that notion young people have of, "This is a movie that everyone likes." Now I have yet to meet a person who doesn't love or at very least like Jaws but this very young and wrong notion of a movie that is for everybody was first implanted by my dad, who loved John Wayne movies, and my Mom, who did not, both loving this one movie. It was a feeling that a culture could be connected by a shared singular entertainment experience. That's gone now. Thanks Internet. But of course this was a misreading of the phenomena on my part since even insanely popular films aren't loved by everyone, much like the most popular thing is rarely the best thing. But I'm still fond of that feeling of a shared cultural experience, a story that can be traced over the course of the 20th century, which is now gone thanks to the Internet. Film will die thanks to this end of the shared cultural experience, replaced like old-timey radio by convenience of accessibility. All is lost, despair despair my poor children. So yeah, watching Jaws or A Christmas Story.

Scott Weinberg, FEARnet

My mom's mom, who loved movies but never went to see them in theaters (opting instead for TV, VCRs, and early-era HBO), went with me to see a local screening of The Last Starfighter that was showing with a sneak peek of Cloak and Dagger, which was scheduled to open on the following Friday. It certainly helps that both were (and remain) very fun films, but mostly I just remember being excited by the novelty of going to the movies with my grandmother. I have dozens of great memories of seeing films with my mom, my dad, my sister, and my horror-addicted friends, but that 1984 double feature stands out in my mind as a very great night at the movies.

"The guy in '12 Years a Slave' -- I can never pronounce his name -- was just phenomenal."

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: 12 Years a Slave

Other movies receiving multiple votes: All Is LostNebraska

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1 Comment

  • Almostfilmcritic | December 2, 2013 2:38 PMReply

    My parents took my younger brother & me to see PEARL HARBOR on Memorial Day Sunday 2001. I spent most of the time in stunned silence as the incoherent & unpatriotic mess flashed across the screen. The entire drive home (20 minutes), I argued that it was as bad as I say it is. That movie opened my eyes to the idea that there are more than two types of movies: good & bad. I've loved the ride ever since.

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