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The Most Influential Films (To Me, Anyway) Of All Time

I’m normally not the kind of guy to make endless amounts of lists, but the last one I put together (Top 25 albums) really got my creative juices flowing. It reminded me of why I’m a musician and a songwriter. And throughout the years, films have had a major impact on me as well, although I didn’t realize why until I began writing and directing short films and promotional videos at my church.

By the way, if you’d like to see some of my work, check out my YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/TheTuneHead. End plug.

I’ve discovered over the last few years that all the movies that have gripped me in a profound way have prepared me to be a director, which is something I didn’t see coming. So, in the spirit of my last list, here are the Most Influential Movies (To Me, Anyway) Of All Time. Again, these are in no particular order.

MEMENTO
2000, Newmarket Capital Group
Directed by Christopher Nolan

If you haven’t been hooked within the first 10 minutes of Memento, or if you simply can’t figure out what’s going on, you need to shut the movie off and reach for your nearest Disney classic or predictable romantic comedy. A thriller told almost entirely in reverse order, the film plays on the certainties of life that we take for granted because our memories aren’t always as solid indestructible as we think they are. Guy Pearce’s performance of the crippled yet driven Leonard Shelby shows an unapologetic conviction that he is right in pursuing his course of action, but allows a few momentary glimpses of self-doubt to permeate his callous demeanor. One of the smartest and most clever films ever made, if not one of the most intelligent. This movie showed me that while the story and all its factors –characterization, plot, conflict, resolution – are central to the film, the editing room is where the film is truly made. Enter Zach’s new career.

BATMAN
1989, Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Tim Burton

Go ahead, laugh. Now that master storyteller Christopher Nolan has raised Batman’s middle finger at the previous Batman franchise, people often look at the 4 films of the 1990s as overwrought, bloated, or simply not good enough. And while I’d agree with that on the 3rd and 4th installments, Tim Burton’s double takes on the Caped Crusader have more in common with Nolan’s treatment than you’d think. Batman’s world is gothic, classically dreary and as close to noir as beloved comic book heroes dared to be, and yet it still maintained a sense of humor. When I was younger, Batman was my favorite comic book character, and to see his visage on the screen as a 13 year old boy brought to life for me the magic and mystery that a film can generate. I actually believed that a place like Gotham City and its inhabitants could exist, and in some masochistic way, I wanted to go there on vacation. The dark humor, Nicholson’s overacting, the nihilistic subtext that the city of Gotham generated kept me interested; but musical genius Danny Elfman’s majestic score kept me there.

AMERICAN HISTORY X
1998, New Line Cinema
Directed by Tony Kaye

Some of the best stories are tragedies, and this is no exception. Going back and forth between color and black and white, this is a harsh look at the family of a young neo-nazi living in southern California. While Edward Norton’s performance is the center of the story, the real meat and potatoes is what happens to his family as a result of his actions, and Edward Furlong plays it convincingly as the younger brother following in his brother-idol’s footsteps. There is more disturbing content in this film than I think people are comfortable seeing in 10 films, and it opened my eyes to the amount of hatred that some people in this country live their lives by. And since most of those disturbing moments are shot in black and white, they’re somehow more visceral. In the end, this is a morality tale that you don’t see coming, as Norton’s Derek Vinyard must come to terms with what his actions over the years have finally cost him.

HARD CANDY
2005, Lions Gate Films
Directed by David Slade

It’s amazing what a bare-bones cast can do, especially when the 2 principles in that cast pull off the amazing performances that Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson did in this film. In terms of quality, this is a very well-made film that features excellent cinematography (considering nearly all the action takes place inside of a house), pacing you could set an artificial heart to, and a unique story. Aside from the quality of the film, this is by far one of the most difficult, disturbing, and starkly malicious films I’ve ever sat through. It seriously made me want to kick my TV in. These is the only movie that I would ever recommend as required viewing for every man over the age of 18, and at the same time warn every woman to stay away from, lest you get any ideas.

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
1992, Artisan Entertainment
Directed by James Foley

David Mamet’s masterpiece of a play comes to the big screen, and here’s what happens when you put legends together. Kevin Spacey, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin all are convincing in their characters, and you never once think of them as any other character they’ve ever played. Spacey, Arkin, and Harris handle their roles effectively well, but it’s Baldwin, Lemmon, and Pacino who shine in this profanity-laden work dedicated to making you never want to work anywhere again. Ever. Everyone points to Baldwin’s scant 7 minutes of screen time as one of the best performances, but what really struck me is Pacino’s moment of restraint. Pacino’s Ricky Roma swaggers about the office, talks up a huge sale from Jonathan Pryce, and loudly insists on being the first in the sales contest. But when Spacey’s office assistant John Williamson blows a huge deal for Roma, Pacino handles the task of berating and belittling Williamson in as calm a manner as you can imagine him being capable of. Some people might say it’s just Pacino showing off, but this is what you do when you’re a master.

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS
1994, Trimark Pictures
Directed by George Huang

Before Kevin Spacey won his first Academy Award, he starred in this independent picture which has received more notoriety as time has worn on, due in part to his impassioned performance. The premise is simple – big time producer is cruel, intimidating, and berating to his personal assistant (also a wannabe screenwriter), who takes the abuse for a year before deciding to fight back. Assistant takes producer hostage in his own home and tortures him . . . but it seems that’s as far as the plan goes, and when captive producer presses his assistant to tell him what he wants, the assistant can’t figure it out. The story of Buddy and Guy (no really, those are their names) unfolds primarily in flashback sequences, but always returning to the present-day center, the driving force behind the storyline. While Spacey’s performance here is flawless, it’s not what stuck with me. The writing of this story presents the hostage situation with the right amount of tension and menace in what was otherwise billed as a comedy, and you will NOT see the ending coming.

L.A. STORY
1991, TriStar Pictures
Directed by Mick Jackson

Those who remember Steve Martin in his funny days may not have seen this underrated film, and that’s a shame. Martin, who penned the story, is an incredibly droll, charmed, insightful comic, and his talent for satire and romance shine through in this film. You have to watch it several times to catch all the jokes because they fly by so fast, as do the cameos from the likes of Woody Harrelson, Larry Miller, and Patrick Stewart. Much more along the lines of his collection of essays for New Yorker Magazine, Pure Drivel, this film takes the absurdity of Los Angeles in the early 1990s and embellishes it beautifully. We see the exit of the decade of decadence, and the pure joy and obliviousness of those in L.A., living as though they reside on a separate planet. As a 15-year old, I thought the movie was adoringly tongue-in-cheek, as though everyone was in on the joke, but still thought the joke was based 90% on truth. However, the most striking thing about this film is that this is 2 romantic love stories in one – Harris Telemacher’s falling in love with a British journalist, and Martin’s own love affair with the City of Angels. We get to see a Martin character eschewing all nonsense (well, not all nonsense) to express his newfound love, and I believe this movie broke ground for Steve Martin the dramatic actor, who really, really needs to make his way back into film. If you don’t feel like falling in love with something or someone after watching this film, you probably need to borrow a soul from someone else.

THE CROW
1994, Dimension Films
Directed by Alex Proyas

Taking in a fairly hefty sum at the box office upon its release, mostly due to the hype generated by Brandon Lee’s tragic death just days before principal shooting was scheduled to end, this film set the tone for future comic book movies to be successfully transformed for the screen. If The Crow had not been a success, we would not have seen V for Vendetta or The Dark Knight become a reality, and much is owed both to Brandon Lee’s most brilliant performance and Alex Proyas’ masterful directing. Surrounding itself in darkness, the celluloid version of James O’Barr’s comic strip still lets plenty of light in. Brandon Lee said in his final on-camera interview that no one knows what a person that has come back from the dead is supposed to act like, and he used that methodology in crafting the choices of the character. A revenge film, a buddy film, a romantic tragedy, and an actioner all in one, The Crow explodes off the screen with the darkest of textures. Graeme Revell’s score sucks you into the world of inner city exploits and self-destructive tendencies, and the set pieces and cinematography help to make you feel the lack of hope in a world shrouded in darkness. Yet in that darkness, love can exist and fight through every shadow. You almost can’t believe what you’re seeing take place on screen, but you can fully believe that people live their lives on the edge of chaos and somehow survive . . . barely. Every ounce of pain, misery, and hopelessness is felt by someone, and the resurrected Eric Draven discovers how much pain those feelings can carry. Not an easy film to watch, especially due to the violent sequences, but Brandon Lee did everything to make his character film’s definitive vigilante.

THE DARK KNIGHT
2008, Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Christopher Nolan

One of 2 Batman pictures on this list, I almost feel like it’s cheating to include this movie, but after looking at my list and revising it, I feel it really must be on here. Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker obliterated any other renditions of the character put to film, but what struck me the most was the realism of the script. Just like the best of movies, I felt these events could happen in real life. I know people exist that could put experimental technology to work in such a way as to fight crime, although I may not know who they are or whether they would be successful, but the state of affairs in Gotham City were real enough to call for someone to take those extreme measures. And The Joker doesn’t seem too far off from some of the most notorious serial killers and psychopaths we have seen in the media. All it takes is for someone to choose to step off the edge of the cliffs of sanity, and the darkness can envelop them in an instant. Take a psychopath, a vigilante, a corrupt police force, a compassionate yet determined attorney, and a lawman desperate for change, and mix them in a blender, and this is what you could come up with. This wasn’t a comic book film – it was a full-on crime drama, a classic of modern filmmaking, and one of the best of its kind since The Godfather.

A SIMPLE PLAN
1998, Paramount Pictures
Directed by Sam Raimi

After The Evil Dead 2 made him a fan among the gorehounds and fanboys, and before Spider-Man made him a household name, director Sam Raimi proved his worth as a director with this adaptation of Scott B. Smith’s novel of the same name. Three friends find a downed plane in the northern Midwest with a corpse and over 4 million dollars inside, and they decide to keep the money, but with some stipulations on the part of Hank, the most well-off of the trio. Trusts are broken, paranoia sets in, and an unfortunate turn of events turns even the most well-intentioned people into evildoers. Raimi shows some restraint here, not turning fast and loose with his cinematography or editing style, yet keeping the pace tense and brisk enough to grip you tightly. By the time the final confrontation had come around, I was so invested in the characters (played seemingly effortlessly by Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton) that the shock of what happened rattled my emotional core. This is the first movie that ever made me cry – check that, weep – in the theater. I don’t watch this movie very often, but when I do, I make sure I can sit through the whole running time uninterrupted. One of the best films of the 1990s.

FIGHT CLUB
1999, Twentieth Century Fox
Directed by David Fincher

I’ll admit it. I LIKED Alien3. Sorry, Fincher haters, I liked it. I thought it worked on a level different than that of Ridley Scott’s Alien or James Cameron’s exciting Aliens, and to me, that made the difference. Fincher’s style became a method through which the story was told, and it was effective. By the time Se7en was in the can, that style took a back seat to the substance and mood, so Fight Club was a welcome return to the flash that was mostly missing from Fincher’s previous film. One of the friends I was doing improv with at the time told me that this movie had absolutely everything a movie was supposed to have – humor, action, violence, sex, a great plot, great pacing and styling, and superb editing. Taking his advice (I otherwise wouldn’t have seen the film), I went, and the movie absolutely floored me. At the time the film hit theaters, I had been really pondering my propensity for the duality of my own self, how I could at times be two men in the same body, and this movie smacked me right in the face. Forget the ultraviolence of the basement fight sequences, forget the facist regime built by the fight club mastermind, forget the nihilistic, you-are-not-special proselytizing in the 3rd act. We all have personalities that can split right down the center if we’re not careful, and while some movies might use it as a gimmick or major plot device, this film only used it as a means to and end, and it didn’t feel like a cheat. You believe Edward Norton’s character just as much as you believe Brad Pitt’s character, and you can’t help but hope that both of them come out of their circumstances unscathed. At a time when I was really wrestling with my own inner demons, this movie was like a slap across the face. And while the source book is outstanding in its own right, it would not have driven the point quite so hard as the film did.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT
1997, Columbia Pictures
Directed by Luc Besson

Those French guys have come a long way in filmmaking. Sure, there’s an overbearing, almost unnecessary montage in the last 30 minutes on the cost and effects of war that seems so melodramatic that it’s almost as funny as the rest of the film. I mean, that scene tries so hard to be serious, but . . . just, no. Now, look at everything else . . . you have a Gary Oldman as a great villain, one who obviously is as sinister as his sneer would have you believe, but who also speaks with a down-home hillbilly accent that is just too funny to ignore. A Chris Tucker as a flamboyant radio show host, and probably his greatest film role EVER. A Milla Jovovich as a gibberish-speaking divine being unfamiliar with humanity and its ways. A group of villains whose heads and bodies rival the best in Henson puppetry. A blue diva. A priest with an inferiority complex and a need to prove himself. And Bruce Willis as the future’s John McClane. With a massively caffeinated score, New York City traffic patterns stacked as high as the skyscrapers, huge, gaudy costumes, and some of the best and silliest fight scenes ever choreographed, this movie didn’t shatter any expectations, and it didn’t do huge at the box office. But it did kick some major ass, and it proved that science fiction could be just a big, fat, buttload of fun.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
2001, New Line Cinema
Directed by Peter Jackson

Yes, the 2nd was more exciting, and the 3rd in the series swept the Oscars and gave the Academy it much-overdue fantasy Best Picture, but every story needs to start somewhere. Here is where the heart, the soul, and the emotion of the fellowship of nine really take root and give you the impetus for all of the events to come. To me, this film really embodies what the true spirit of love is – that all were willing to sacrifice themselves in order to protect Frodo. Yes, it was initially for a higher purpose of the defeat of evil, but through the film, you can see love permeating through everything that each member of the fellowship does, and that love continues through each installment of the trilogy. But because it started here, this film has the greatest emotional impact of the three.

SILVERADO
1985, Columbia Pictures
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

This one got me interested in westerns, and it does so with a lot of flash, even if it’s lacking a little on substance. It may not be the dark, gritty westerns of Sergio Leone, or the masterful storytelling that Unforgiven was for Eastwood, but it features a CRAPLOAD of people, all doing some of their best stuff in roles in which no one really takes center stage. Scott Glenn, Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover, Linda Hunt, Jeff Goldblum, Kevin Costner, Kevin Kline, Jeff Fahey, John Cleese, Rosanna Arquette, Lynn Whitfield, Richard Jenkins, and Brion James all lend a hand to fill out an outstanding cast. Even Earl Hindman, who played Wilson on the Tim Allen sitcom “Home Improvement,” got in on the act, although in a sort of foreshadowing of his role on the TV show, as nearly half the time he’s on screen has the bottom half of his face hidden by a handkerchief. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Anyway, this movie is just plain fun, and makes a great group movie night flick.

ALIENS
1986, Twentieth Century Fox
Directed by James Cameron

Catapulting the phrase, “Game over, man” into popular culture, this is what big action is all about. You’ve got the sci-fi angle covered automatically by making it a sequel to the spectacular sci-fi/horror gem Alien, but you also throw in some marines on a mission to rescue people that have become food for the xenomorphs on LD-426, a little girl in need of rescuing, and Michael Biehn, and you’ve got the action angles covered. Sigourney Weaver is excellent as Ellen Ripley, a role for which she received an Academy Award nomination, and you get to see plenty of depth all throughout the film. Oh yeah, you also get to hear one of the best quotable lines of movie dialogue . . . ever.

EYES WIDE SHUT
1999, Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Many people blasted Kubrick’s final film, the final cut of which was delivered to Warner Bros. four days before the director’s death, for being too long, too convoluted, and just plain not interesting enough. I begged to differ. Sure, ten years ago, my interest in seeing the film wasn’t just that I was a fan of Kubrick’s work, but that I heard about the sex scenes. And I’m sure the multitude of guys that were interested in seeing Nicole Kidman in any state of undress was what caused this movie to open at #1 at the box office, making it the only one of his films to do so. And to be fair, I haven’t seen this movie since, and I don’t plan on seeing it again, but what struck me about this film was how deliberately everything was shot. Each action, each pan and zoom, every sequence was thoughtfully and painstakingly played out at a pace some would consider to be crawling. For instance, one of the scenes feature Tom Cruise walking down a street, looking back to see if someone is following him, and you catch every single move, every slow step. No detail is left out. The process by which this the action was captured drew me into every frame, building an underlying veneer of light suspense throughout the film. Add to that the psychological aspects of human sexuality that are so often ignored in modern cinema, and you have a deep, layered film any aspiring filmmaker should study.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD
2007, Miramax Films/Paramount Vantage
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Since his Academy Award winning turn in My Left Foot, I’d always been interested to see what Daniel Day-Lewis had been up to. And truly, had anyone else been cast as Daniel Plainview, this film probably wouldn’t have interested me as much. Even my wife became interested when he was interviewed on Oprah (don’t hold that against her), so we went to see this on the big screen, which is truly the only way to take in the spectacle of the early 20th century. This is one of the few films I’ve seen where the main character isn’t a protagonist in the traditional sense. Plainview spends every waking moment trying to turn his world to his advantage, alienating those that he loves, those he could help, and those who could help him. A fascinating character study that sends chills down the spine.

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE
1995, Twentieth Century Fox
Directed by John McTiernan

While the first in the Die Hard series might be the benchmark by which all underdog action movies are compared, this one blew my mind. John McTiernan returns to the storyline after Renny Harlin’s attempt at bastardization with Die Hard 2, and his touch is gold in this film. His raw shooting style, combined with a smart script and additional characters, bring new life to this film. You also get to see a few sides of John McClane that you never got to see in the first two films, as he and Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus Carver spar with each other while simultaneously trying to stop a terrorist from wreaking havoc all over Manhattan. As much an homage to the city in which the film is based, DHWAV chugs along at a brisk enough pace to never let things get boring, yet keeps you guessing along with the main characters. As far as sequels go, this takes the premise of the original and adds layers to the already brewing cacophony of danger, making for a very interesting thrill ride that few have come close to matching.

KILL BILL: VOL. 2
2004, Miramax Films
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Usually branded as a master of excess, Tarantino did himself and the rest of the film industry a great service by cooking up a different approach to the 2nd half of the Kill Bill story. While the first was a throwback to martial arts films, this one smacks more of a cowboy story, if not a full-blown western. Yes, some of the lines of dialogue are still too wordy, but the action and cinematography are spot on, and you actually can see some traces of romance and genuine love in Uma Thurman’s performance. It’s not enough that Tarantino amped up the carnage in the previous film; in this one, he reigns himself in, allowing only those sequences that are necessary for the story to unfold to be shown. This is the mark of true storytelling, and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is a buster of a great film. The director tapped in to a genius part of his brain one this one, and even if it may seem derivative, it’s done so well it’s easy not to care about that part.

TRAINSPOTTING
1996, Channel Four Films
Directed by Danny Boyle

I never once thought about doing drugs. I didn’t have any friends who did, and it just didn’t seem appealing to me. But if I were to ever think that doing any kind of drug would lead me to a glamorous lifestyle, this film obliterated that notion completely. Here we get to see the slums of Scotland, a filth-ridden tour guided by some of the young life that happened to be junkies and criminals. You got to see the lowest of the low, or at least what appeared to be that way in the sanitized style that celluloid can offer (only AMC’s series “Breaking Bad” gets it closer to reality). In such a way that someone’s life can spiral out of control, the part of the film that did me in was Renton’s withdrawal/hallucination sequence. I’d never been more scared of something I knew I’d never personally experience.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM
2000, Artisan Entertainment
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

This one reminded me of the decision I’d made to never do drugs as a result of watching Trainspotting, and enforced that decision in cement. Following the lives of four people, superbly played by Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans (yes, that one), and Ellen Burstyn, this film is a bleak look at addiction in general. These are characters you know, people you believe in, and the scary part about this film is that you KNOW it could happen to you if you only make one too many bad decisions. The creativity in Darren Aronofsky’s filmmaking took the visuals to a level that few directors have the guts to aim for, and the images last with you for a very, very, very long time. If you don’t believe me just on that, check out the trailer for yourself (http://www.traileraddict.com/trailer/requiem-for-a-dream/trailer) and tell me it doesn’t grab you.

CHASING AMY
2000, Miramax Films
Directed by Kevin Smith

Most people would consider Kevin Smith to be a hack, adept only at quick, intelligent dialogue about comic book characters, but this film really held my interest. I knew what it was like to be in love with someone and not have that affection returned at first, so I could relate to some of what Ben Affleck’s character dealt with. Having not stumbled into the territory revealed in the latter half of the movie, my eyes were opened to the kind of dynamic that two people can create with just the right amount of emotional and sexual baggage. This was ultimately a film about relationships, and a tragedy at that, especially since you really want all the characters to come out all right in the end.

187
1997, Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Kevin Reynolds

You know, Samuel L. Jackson has had a habit of picking some bad roles, but two roles he got right were of Coach Carter in the movie of the same name, and Trevor Garfield in 187. Trevor Garfield is a teacher in a New York City school that gets shanked by a known gangster student whom he failed. 18 months later, he’s living in L.A. as a substitute teacher, given an assignment to take over for a teacher who was suspended for kicking a student that was assaulting her. Scott Yagemann, who wrote the script, was also a teacher, and he brought a lot of the inner turmoil and idealism that comes with being a teacher to the front of the story. You get to see Jackson’s slow burn in this film, a man who loses control despite his best efforts to try and help the students in his charge. The final confrontation scene is a true example of a man willing to do anything if it would just help someone learn something. Forget Dangerous Minds – GO RENT THIS FILM.

There Is No Box.
Zach

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