For those who have read this blog for a while (or who have read it very thoroughly in a minute passage of time), my interest in defining films that are personal and unique to my individual identity and perspective as a cineaste should be well known from my (admittedly minimal) Movies That Matter series to my top ten “of all time” list, the aim of both being to hold up movies that have impacted me and influenced my tastes profoundly rather than simply cherry-pick the titles which unimaginative cultural elitists believe one must cherish to be taken seriously. Speaking further to your particular levels of familiarity with this blog, you also may be aware that I’m not usually one for blog memes, except for those that represent exercises in the aforementioned pursuit.
So it’s with nothing but the highest admiration that I tip my hat to one Andy Hart, a special person not just because we share the same completely awesome name but because he’s incredibly enthusiastic about bringing online movie communities together to participate in some good old fashioned back and forth discussion about the movies we all love. The basic conceit here is elegant– consider, for each year of your life, the movies that have been released year after year, and pick one from each three hundred and sixty five day cycle of your time on this planet, up to 2010. How can I resist? Many thanks to Andy for spearheading this blogathon (check out the master post here!), and to Meredith Carter for taking the initiative and showing everybody how it’s done; if you’re ready, then, take a walk with me to twenty six years ago, when a certain movie lover was born:
1984, Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone: This came up recently in my Cinematic Alphabet post, and while it’s maybe not quite my favorite movie that begins with “once upon a time” (that honor must go to Once Upon a Time in China), it goes without saying that it’s kind of great nonetheless. An epic crime saga spanning half a century, Once Upon a Time in America holds the distinction of being director Leone’s last film, and in my opinion stands out as one of his most distinguished.
1985, Brazil, Terry Gilliam: A favorite of mine. I promise that this list is largely devoid of movies present on my top 10 list, but for some of them, the other contenders in their respective release years just don’t compare. Is it a movie about the dangers of flights of fancy, or about the triumph of human imagination over the soul-peeling grind of bureaucracy? Brazil is so delightfully multi-layered and tongue-in-cheek that it’s anyone’s guess, but I’ll always view Sam’s resolution as his individual victory against the glacial advance of industry.
1986, Aliens, James Cameron: I was only two years old when Cameron released his sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror masterwork, so it took a few years for Aliens— the first film in the series I experienced– to find a place in my heart. But once I finally sat down to watch it, find a place it did, with space marines, flamethrowers, pulse rifles, grenades, and the chitinous, gothic, impossible biological advance of H.R. Giger’s iconic xenomorph.
1987, Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick: Is it only half of a good movie? Pessimists seem to think so, and maybe in total Full Metal Jacket doesn’t quite stack up against Kubrick’s finer works, it stands on its own two feet even if the second half, bereft of R. Lee Ermy’s legendarily abusive U.S. Marine Corp Gunnery Sergeant, doesn’t match the promise of the first. But frankly, that first half makes the movie; it echoes over the events of the rest of the film, and in fact informs much of what happens as Joker (Matthew Modine) leaves the relative safety of boot camp and sets foot into the untamed and harsh landscape of the Vietnam war.
1988, Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata: Any movie about war, in any capacity, is inherently anti-war, so discussing Grave of the Fireflies‘ leanings as an anti-war picture feels like stating the obvious. But among the volume of anti-war pictures released in the history of cinema, Grave of the Fireflies— an hour and twenty minute animated picture from Japan’s Studio Ghibli– ranks among the greatest and most influential.
1989, Violent Cop, Takeshi Kitano: Japanese maestro Takeshi Kitano at his most unapologetically bleak. Violent Cop— which is not, in case you had any confusion, about a kindly police officer who walks old ladies across the street and teaches drug education to children at the local middle school– is completely muted, and maybe if it had a little bit of flair here and there it might be taken as a bit more tongue-in-cheek. But no such stylistic touches come up– this is as nihilistic as Kitano gets.
1990, Jacob’s Ladder, Adrian Lyne: If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching this movie, you’re missing out on one of the best psychological horror movies ever made. Anchored by two great performances from Tim Robbins and Danny Aiello and filled with harsh commentary on the Vietnam war, Jacob’s Ladder will one hundred percent screw around with your head and get your heart racing as the eponymous Jacob tries to discover the source of his waking nightmares and hallucinations.
1991, The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston: Good old fashioned pulp adventure from the early 90s. “Pulp” is a term that gets thrown around a lot as a kind of catch-all for campy B-movies, but Johnston’s The Rocketeer has clear roots in pulp literature (being based on a 1980s comic title that recalls the 1930s/40s matinee heroes). Even ignoring any arguments over the legitimacy of its pulp claims, The Rocketeer is an enormously fun movie that understands completely what it’s supposed to be and allows itself to be an unabashedly good time at the cinema.
1992, Shakes the Clown, Bobcat Goldthwaite: Bobcat Goldthwaite doesn’t get a whole lot of credit for his work as a filmmaker, and maybe for good reason. Well, not a good reason, but a reason that I can understand even if I don’t agree with it. Goldthwaite’s oeuvre is the definition of “acquired taste” and then some, vulgar, offensive, apparently amoral, and frequently in terrible taste, but I often find his cocktail recipe for veiled commentary and humor quite to my liking. It’s tough choosing between World’s Greatest Dad and Shakes the Clown, but Goldthwaite has never been better as he uses the story of a down-on-his-luck alcoholic clown to critique the insular nature of the stand-up comic circuit.
1993, Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg: What can I say? This was a huge movie for me. What young boy wouldn’t go bananas over a movie about dinosaurs rampaging across a remote island while humans fear for their lives and occasionally get eaten? I mean come on, they had a T-Rex!
1994, Leon, Luc Besson: Another entry on my top ten, and I promise the last one that will appear here, this is Luc Besson and Jean Reno together at their absolute best and also one of the best roles Natalie Portman has ever taken. Mixing a little bit of Lolita together with the story of a lethally skilled hitman with an almost childlike persona, the joy of Leon is watching the rapport that develops between the teenage Portman and Reno; they make an endlessly watchable duo in between the film’s interspersed moments of crisp, ruthless violence.
1995, Heat, Michael Mann: Mann’s crime thriller masterpiece, massively influential and impressive in its scope and scale and treatment of the genre. Heat scores on the back of some outstanding chase scenes and pieces of gun violence, but what makes it special is how natural and genuine the characters feel. Mann just lets them be, choosing not to burden them with recycled character tropes or treating them like archetypes; the result is a very human crime film in which the line between right and wrong is clear but we’re invested with the people on both sides of that divider.
1996, Muppet Treasure Island, Brian Henson: It’s hard to go wrong with Muppets, but when you put Kermit, Fozzy, Sam the Eagle, Rizzo, Gonzo, and every other Muppet under the sun on a boat with Tim Curry, it’s downright impossible. Treasure Island filtered through the Henson lens makes for an endearing and hilarious adventure, but all I need to do is emphasize “Muppets” and “Tim Curry”, and hell, why not, “Billy Connolly”; if that doesn’t do anything for you, then, well, enjoy life disliking things that are awesome. I can’t do much to help you.
1997, L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson: Maybe the m0st impressive feat of a truly great neo-noir is how handily director Hanson and his co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland balance multiple stories without tripping over their own narrative or excising the intricacies of the film’s numerous plot lines.
1998, Gods and Monsters, Bill Condon: Ian McKellen starring as James Whale could be described as too on-the-nose, but that’s a cynical perspective. The truth is that McKellen can star as whoever he damn well pleases, from powerful wizards to superhuman villains with powers of magnetism to homosexual film directors who lived their lives out in the open, so to speak, even at the risk of their careers. McKellen knows how to disappear into a role and can become his characters with an ease that many actors never quite obtain for themselves; he does so in Gods and Monsters with incredible effect and impact as he plays out the end of the great filmmaker’s life.
1999, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, George Lucas: Do you remember the first time you saw a filmmaker you truly admired and respected go careening off the rails and crash in shameful failure? It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a decade since the revered George Lucas bastardized the very films that made him such an icon among geeks (though maybe it’s harder to believe that for some, that wound hasn’t healed up yet). As hateful as I am toward the film, The Phantom Menace is still one of the biggest landmarks in cinema released since I’ve been alive, if only due to its prominence and visibility.
2000, Yi Yi, Edward Yang: A three-hour movie about the struggles of the middle class in Taipei probably sounds like a pretentious slog to casual movie watchers, and I can sympathize as even I had the expectation of growing bored at some point during Edward Yang’s epic family drama, Yi Yi. But Yang so ably mines rich material from the every day of family life, celebrating the ordinary rather than pointlessly wallowing in it, that there’s never a point in Yi Yi‘s one hundred and eighty (thereabouts) minutes run time that the film slackens and forfeits your attention.
2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson: I can’t really cheat the entire series onto this particular list, so I’ll go with the first entry– which I consider the best. Jackson wasted no time with his adaptation of Tolkien’s essential trilogy and proved right out the gate his dedication to building the world of Middle Earth to perfection, right down to the last house in Hobbiton. Movies like this are in the details, and in the casting, and Jackson hit home runs in both categories and all others in between, captivating the world with his vision of one of the greatest fantasy worlds ever committed to paper.
2002, Bubba Ho-Tep, Don Coscarelli: Probably one of the top three most personally impacting movies released in my lifetime. There’s a story behind this one for me, and you can peruse that at your leisure, but suffice to say that this is the picture that really made me into a movie enthusiast.
2003, Tokyo Godfathers, Satoshi Kon: Ha! Made you look! You all expected Oldboy to worm its way into this entry, didn’t you? Well, I like to keep people on their toes, and as much as the urge to just drop my favorite all-time film here was quite strong, it wasn’t overpowering, and it’s time I wrote a list that didn’t include Oldboy despite the film being applicable. After all, other directors, notably the optimistic, cheerful, but never saccharine or disingenuous Satoshi Kon, whose films– ranging from Millennium Actress to Paprika— rarely get the recognition they deserve. Of all of his offerings, Tokyo Godfathers might have the strongest brew of alchemical magic up its sleeve; it is utterly impossibly not to fall for its charms as it regales us with its story of three bums who stumble upon an abandoned baby and take it upon themselves to do right by the child.
2004, Sideways, Alexander Payne: Paul Giamatti makes just about anything into a good time (sans Planet of the Apes), so it stands to reason that watching him pal around with Thomas Haden Church should be entertaining. Director Payne, adapting Rex Pickett’s novel, takes a buddy comedy and a road movie, mashes them together, and refines the results into something nuanced in its cheekiness as it portrays two middle-aged men behaving badly in wine country while balancing the pending wedding of one and the innumerable woes of the other.
2005, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, Chan-wook Park: What, you weren’t expecting me to forsake Park entirely, were you? Sympathy For Lady Vengeance might be my least favorite of the Korean auteur’s vengeance trilogy, but that’s not to say that I disdain it to any degree. Perhaps the most polished and refined film of the series, Lady Vengeance keeps in line with Park’s neo-noir explorations and further displays his undeniable flair for lush, beautiful color palettes and striking imagery amidst the ugliness of human conflict.
2006, Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón: I can’t really say which element of Cuarón’s ’06 science fiction masterpiece matters more to me– it’s high-concept socially conscious commentary, or the absolutely incredible cinematography and editing so brilliantly encapsulated in long, uninterrupted takes that in theory appear simple but prove enormously difficult in practice. Grimly dystopian yet possessing an indomitable byline of optimism and hope, Children of Men‘s referential imagery and politically charged themes and plot resonate like new with every repeat viewing; it’s timeless, a movie that will be likely be relevant even thirty years into the future.
2007, Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright: A movie that makes me ache a little bit for Britain every time I watch it, not just for the Cornettos either, but for the spirit of the place itself (but the Cornettos are up there, trust me). Because Britain isn’t actually comprised of sleepy little hamlets whose populations kill people who threaten to soil, stain, or otherwise sully the outward appearance of their beloved towns– in case you were wondering. It’s impossible not to love how Edgar Wright funnels his enthusiasm for genre films into actually trying his own hand at making them, instead of making carbon copies of the most recognizable among them and calling it homage; these are genuine films, ones which contain nods to his favorite genre works but which inevitably exist on their own merits and don’t succeed or fail depending on how well-versed you are in genre filmmaking. And of course it’s equally as outrageous to imagine disliking any movie that teams up Wright with English dynamic duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
2008, The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan: Even if I don’t love Nolan’s universally celebrated sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, I still respect it for changing superhero movies in one epic swoop. If nothing else, there’s an amazing performance by the regrettably late Heath Ledger as Batman’s eternal nemesis, the Joker; it’s literally so good that Ledger might years from now be thought of as the greatest Joker of all time. But as bloated as the movie is, there remains a massively influential superhero tale beneath unnecessary fat; like it or not, The Dark Knight‘s impact is already being felt in superhero cinema today.
2009, Up, Peter Docter: For my money, the best movie Pixar has ever made and one of the best animated films– and one of the best films period– of the 2000s. Meshing the heartbreak of reality, manifested in the death of the protagonist’s beloved wife and reason for living, with enthusiastic, retro-influenced adventure, Up perfectly exemplifies Pixar’s proclivities for making movies that appeal to adults and their children alike. Ed Asner completely owns this movie as the hero, the perpetually grumpy Carl Frederickson, but jaw-droppingly beautiful animation and a little help from his co-stars (Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, and director Peter Docter as a talking dog (a talking dog!)) go a long way toward making this movie pretty much perfect.
2010, The Social Network, David Fincher: A movie that gets better with subsequent viewings and certainly deserved all of the applause directed toward it during this past awards season. I never thought that even a man as talented as Fincher could make a courtroom drama Facebook, social networking personified, into something of interest, but rapid-fire banter crafted by none other than Aaron Sorkin, combined with clean, precise editing and inspiring, gorgeous cinematography elevate something so dull sounding into the movie of its year and probably what will end up being one of the truly iconic movies of this decade.