Over this last week, a trending concept on Twitter presented film buffs with a unique challenge: Pick your favorite movie from each year that you’ve been alive. This piqued my interest immediately. After all, many of my favorite films came out before I was born and there would certainly be years with multiple good titles and others where I’d have to get creative. Ultimately, I came up with a list that represented a variety of genres (and quality, for that matter) and I think it presents a unique opportunity to see what these movies meant for me at different points in my life—whether it showed my developing tastes in cinema or spoke to me personally. So, to tell my film timeline story, I’m going to have to tell this one a little out of order:
The Lion King (1994)
I don’t remember the first time I saw Lion King, as I was still in a crib. My parents brought me to the theater and I fell asleep. What I do remember, however, are the next 20 or so times I sat through this wonderful film. Like many ’90s kids, I am still in love with Lion King. It is an impeccable achievement in visual design, voice acting, and that soundtrack is legendary. It takes a truly special movie to garner multiple nominations in one Oscar category, but rare is the film that gets THREE. Lion King had three nominations for Best Original Song: “The Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the latter of which took home the award. Anyway, I would watch that Disney classic on repeat and clocked in many hours on the CD game too. I think I’m overdue to rewatch this movie, actually…
Toy Story (1995)
Nothing brings a smile to my face faster than hearing “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” I have to tell you, that movie is not only a technical marvel for its time, but Pixar painstakingly made that story vibrant and resonant with audiences everywhere. Sid was an amazing villain because he really impacted me, I mean, he embodied disrespect and bad choices. My favorite shirt at the time had Buzz and Woody atop the racecar with the firework taking off. If Pixar bungles this new Toy Story chapter, SO help me…
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Like most boys in the early 2000s, I adored the Lord of the Rings. I had seen the animated Hobbit movie growing up, but for the first time, I was seeing something on the big screen that was comparable to Star Wars, and it looked nothing alike! The series escalated quickly in their intensity and scale of the battles, so I probably valued that the most as a kid, but looking back on it, nothing, and I repeat NOTHING compares to the amazement and visual splendor of watching the Fellowship venture through Middle Earth. I see Fellowship as Peter Jackson’s greatest career triumph as he captured the aesthetic and feel of Middle Earth, and although there are many characters, they are the heartbeat of the story. I certainly love the sequels and watch them religiously, but there is simply something lost in the adaptation of having to tell a vast plot in an ensemble style, and with the incredible success of Game of Thrones, I wonder if a longer televised series of Lord of the Rings could take the series to new heights. Someone make that happen!
Princess Mononoke (1997)
When I was a Boy Scout, one of my favorite places to go was a campsite in Holmes, NY called Conron. What made Conron so special was that, unlike most campouts, the whole troop would sleep inside a building in one big room together… and with no supervision! For my troop, that was a huge shift since most kids would share tents with others in their age group. Want to hang out with the cool older kids? Forget about it! So this was a big deal. One night, around 2004, we were all huddled in this big room and after the adults called “Lights out!” there was a predictable amount of talking and laughter, when suddenly, members of the senior patrol pulled out a projector we were using for a slideshow earlier and popped in none other than Princess Mononoke. I could write an entire article about how amazing that film is — but what was evident to me at age 11 was that this was one incredible world and the whole storytelling style was as epic as Lord of the Rings. Not bad for anime. Princess Mononoke holds a special place in my heart because kids I admired chose to share it with me.
Big Fish (2003)
Big Fish is a personal favorite of mine for a number of reasons. For one, I see it as a turning point in how I watched movies. I saw it around the time I was in 6th grade and, until that point, I only liked films with lots of action or were just plain ridiculous. This was a story that was strange at first, but eventually resonated with me in ways I never felt in a movie before. I connected so much to the main character, specifically his love of storytelling. His whole world was fantastical, perhaps in ways that were inaccurate in a literal sense, but it captured greater truths about people and pinned down beauty in so many unexpected places. And in spite of being a flawed man, he makes a difference. The ending made me cry, which I would say was a rarity for me. I haven’t watched any films the same way since.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Time to jump ahead a few years. When I was in high school, I really liked Life is Beautiful. It’s not the best movie, but it’s a sweet one and I also hadn’t seen too many movies about the Holocaust. One night, my dad asked me if I wanted to watch a new one. He warned me that it was heavy, but I felt ready. Well, I was wrong. It is simply the most powerful storytelling I’ve ever seen and Spielberg was able to get rapturous performances out his actors. Liam Neeson is incredible. Ralph Fiennes is horrifying. Every person in every frame of that film hits every note. It is a movie that reminds us of one of the darkest moments in history and its call for humanity in inhumane conditions is timeless.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
I tried to sit through Pulp Fiction after my drama teacher recommended it. Maybe it was because I was tired, or maybe the dialogue was too farfetched for me, but I didn’t like it. Kill Bill was ok, but I just didn’t get the love for Quentin Tarantino. I think I was also just fed up with people asking me if I was named after him. Anyway, one night, I went to the theater with a friend to see District 9, but it was sold out, so our only option was to take the dive and watch the new Tarantino movie. I had never seen a film with so much tension, intensity, and unpredictability before. And it was just FUN. This made me excited to give Tarantino’s work a second chance, and I am sure glad I did.
My first exposure to the Coen brothers was Raising Arizona, one of my mom’s favorites. I then saw No Country for Old Men when it first came out and I thought it was cool, but I didn’t quite follow the themes. Fargo, on the other hand, had me intrigued and in hysterics. Fans of the Coen brothers know to expect quirky characters and hyperreal scenarios, but it just doesn’t speak to everyone… but if it does, it is going to be a pure gem. That’s what Fargo is, just an amazing story that knows exactly what it is and is trying to be.
In Bruges (2008)
I watched In Bruges during welcome week my Freshman year of college. This guy Brian told us that this was one of his favorite movies, but clearly it went over people’s heads. I put myself in that category, but in my defense, there was some serious flirtation going on between the guys and girls on my floor. ANYWAY, I heard this title again years later from my mom of all people. “I just brought this home from the library, it’s called In Bruges.” I was confused why my sweet mom would bring home such a dark crime drama, but I realized that it was because I was studying abroad in Belgium and she wanted to see what it looked like. I had a good laugh and said “Do you realize that this would be like watching Goodfellas to see what New York looks like?” Suffice it to say, she was mortified throughout the movie, but I was shocked to realize how much I had misjudged it the first time. It was as if Colin Farrell and Brandon Gleeson were weaving a tapestry of vulgarity to rival the treasured art in that city… and what an incredible distraction from just how deep it is from start to finish. Funnily enough, In Bruges is the one movie set in Europe I can watch that reminds me of how I felt when I lived there and traveled.
The Social Network (2010)
I had a Communications professor tell us to go watch “that new Facebook movie” for extra credit, so I went with some friends and we gave it a shot. That was my first exposure to Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and I remember at one point almost two hours in, realizing that I wasn’t zoning out — even for a second — throughout this unrelenting movie. It was hypnotic. Sure, it says a lot about the toxic mentality of cutthroat elitists and why social networking is so narcissistic, but it is also oddly motivational. I say that because I sure aced those next few tests that semester.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
I have heard Requiem described as “The best movie you’ll never want to rewatch.” They’re half right. Emotionally, this movie is very difficult to sit through. The self-destructive cycles on screen are depressing and you just want to give them all a hug. Stylistically, however, I find myself revisiting this movie every few years because Aronofsky is a brilliant auteur and this is one of the best uses of editing I’ve ever seen. While this is an ensemble film, the true star is Ellyn Burstyn, who, unlike the other characters, is more of a victim of naiveté and loneliness, not selfishness. Seeing a mother have such a tragic downfall was a sobering reminder to me that I had a responsibility to grow up and play a more meaningful role in my mom’s life, not just take.
Children of Men (2006)
I first watched Children of Men because it was mentioned on Peter Travers’ “Top 10 Films of the 2000s” list. I remembered seeing a trailer for it and being intrigued, but I had never gotten around to seeing it. Surprisingly, it didn’t leave much of an impact on me the first time I saw it. I didn’t quite grasp the full technical achievements happening in front of me and I was missing a lot of subtext. Oh, and I was also playing Civilization V at the same time. Well, I wised up and gave it a second chance and I could not be happier, because I realized the full scale of the story and how timely it really was. Now I refuse to multi-task when watching good movies.
The interesting thing about Wes Anderson’s movies is that the characters always seem to be unrealistic, but the more you watch, there’s something deeply evocative in their extremity — in many ways, they capture more truths than traditional characters. And more than that, the children act like adults while the adults act like children. In the case of the protagonist Max Fischer, you have a guy who fancies himself an earth shaker and doesn’t believe the rules apply to him. Ultimately, though, his refusal to conform doesn’t expose the Rushmore Academy, but instead shows that he has a bit of an Icarus complex from a self-created chip on his shoulder. I saw this film as an important reminder that you’re not defined by where you come from and how you’re perceived, but what you do and how you treat others.
The Pianist (2002)
Just when I thought Schindler’s List made most Holocaust films unnecessary, I saw Polanski’s The Pianist. An ensemble movie is often praised if “it feels like you’re there,” which is to say it feels like an immersive play. Polanski is one of the only people who can achieve that through just one person’s lens. When you’re watching The Pianist, you don’t just feel like you’re witnessing the plight of Polish Jews and the horror of Nazism — you feel like you’re inside Władysław Szpilman’s head. How? Because everyone in a Polanski movie, whether the star or an extra, seeps with authenticity. The point-of-view can shift from first to third person, and the camera can be a character of its own. Szpilman’s experience could have been a worthwhile biopic even in the hands of a lesser director, but with Polanski, it cried even deeper.
Grizzly Man (2004)
I love a good documentary, but Werner Herzog always finds a way to turn a strange story into something existential. Watching Grizzly Man was both fascinating and creepy to me. The story of Timothy Treadwell is a tale of chaos, because he was both admirable and just plain unstable. His love of nature was commendable, but naive to the point of insanity at times. It forced me to ask the question: If nature is just as brutal as it is beautiful, are we choosing to project our own qualities on it? And if so, does that follow us into everyday life?
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Reservoir Dogs is probably the most successful independent film ever made, at least in the sense that it single-handedly launched the career of a mainstream director. With this entry, Tarantino proved that he could take a million unoriginal ideas and create a genre piece that is anything but predictable. Seeing this unfettered creativity and willingness to display and recycle his interests was and continues to be an inspiration to me as writer.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
This was a rare title that I jumped into knowing nothing about. I had heard it referenced by name many times throughout the years, so I dove into this only expecting that actor John Malkovich would likely be involved. For one, it is a movie that evokes both sidesplitting laughter and tragic sadness. It succeeds at throwing out dense philosophical musings and it actually works. It’s also the most unpredictable movie I’ve seen that actually has a coherent plot and that is quite an accomplishment. Being John Malkovich kickstarted my interest in arthouse film and proved that with enough humor, you can earn just about any story.
Let’s drop the humor for a second. In the words of director Lars Von Trier, Melancholia is a beautiful movie about the end of the world. You know from the opening sequence that it is a done deal, and yet, you can’t help but be invested in the story. How do they pull that one off? Because it’s one big metaphor for depression. Kirsten Dunst gives a tour-de-force performance that cuts a little close to home. In the first half, you pity her, but you can’t help feeling that she’s causing all this grief for everybody involved, but in the second half, her condition becomes a strength and she is somehow exposed as the most rational person in an apocalypse. It is a paradoxical look into how depression can weigh you down, yet finds a haunting beauty in the process. Suffice it to say, it isn’t leaving my head any time soon.
The Hunt (2012)
If there’s been one timeless trend through Western civilization the past few hundred years, it’s that we all love a good witch hunt. The Hunt plays this out to the worst case scenario, where a crazy coincidence leads to an innocent man getting framed for sexually assaulting a kindergartener. Every person involved fails at every chance at human decency and the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind. After all, a young child wouldn’t lie like that, right? I don’t think I’ve ever felt so bad for one person than I did for the victim in this story, but somehow, it also has some incredibly moving moments of camaraderie and forgiveness.
I’ve written about this film at length and I’ll be the first to admit that it has its flaws, but I cannot stress just how suspenseful this movie was to watch for the first time. I judge a movie’s greatness by how it makes you feel, if it gives you lots to think about, and whether you want to watch it again, so Sunshine passes all of those with flying colors. It gets a bad wrap for its ending, but if even a few things were changed, it would be remembered as a classic, especially since it provides a meaningful template to debate faith versus reason that actually sticks with you.
To me, Her is like looking in a mirror. It is insightful about the trajectory of technology, but also offers a visceral and vulnerable look at how it is warping love and romance. I saw a lot of myself in Joaquin Phoenix (nothing good ever follows that statement). The isolation, the need to connect, and the inability to escape self-centeredness at times. And above all, this man was actively trying to figure out life in a passive manner. He was in a constant state of introspection and in doing so, he was avoiding direction and taking on other risks in life. This costs him relationships. I saw a man gravitating towards his own habits, whether out of comfort or hoping to be authentic, but regardless, he’s going to be lonely. And the paradox? He ghostwrites love letters, so there is nothing he loves more than other people. Yeah, this movie gave me a lot of feels.
When I was in high school, I was preparing a solo for a state competition and I had to work with a piano accompanist. I wanted to do well, but it wouldn’t have killed me if I didn’t get a perfect score. Well, this guy was from a different mold. He shook my hand and made me start playing through the solo. I made it through two pages and then missed a note. This guy immediately slammed his piano and started scolding me. Excuse me? I felt drained and by the end of the session I refused to work with him again. After that whole experience, I left the trumpet behind and became a drummer. As you can imagine, Whiplash resonates me on many levels. It’s a great story about ambition and the sacrifice that comes with greatness, but it also exposes how self-destructive it can be.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
When I first saw the trailer for Fury Road, I was skeptical. “Great, another mediocre franchise reboot.” Then I saw it, that glorious, uncompromising, unrelenting thrill ride. Hard to say much about this movie that hasn’t been said already, but I think it’s a testament to George Miller that if you read the actual script to the movie, you realize that 90% of the action and plot that you see on the screen had no outline other than Miller’s imagination. Are you kidding me?
OJ: Made in America (2016)
I love this movie… and yes, it is, in fact, a movie, since it was made as one and broken up into a mini series- don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And it’s a masterwork of documentary storytelling, one that captivated me from start to finish and I don’t expect to see another film like this that is so sprawling, yet interesting and, dare I say, essential, for a long, long time.