My 30th birthday is approaching and I thought it might be fun to mark the occasion by sharing my favorite film from each year since I was born. I’m obviously not going to pick one from 2019, since this year in film is far from over. Not all of these are contenders for the “best” film of their respective years, but they are the ones I re-watch the most and they helped shape my tastes in some manner. Though my birthday is still two months away, September looks like it could be a busy month for this blog because of the Emmys and films like It: Chapter Two and Judy, and possibly a big post marking the 25th anniversary of the legendary NBC drama ER. Now seemed like a better time to do this.
1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
1989 had some really groundbreaking stuff, and I feel a little guilty for not picking something like Do The Right Thing! Or Born on the Fourth of July. That said, this is my favorite Indiana Jones film, and is probably the first film where the viewing experience changed as I got older. When watching this as a 10 or 11 year old, I liked the cool set-pieces. Crusade keeps the formula that worked for earlier Jones adventures, but really adds some fresh visuals to the series. As I got older, I appreciated the humor more, and realized that for a film often marketed to kids, this is pretty dirty. The reaction shot of Harrison Ford’s face after Connery utters the line “she talks in her sleep” is priceless.
I’m just gonna sidestep the whole debate over whether Dances with Wolves really should have won Best Picture over Goodfellas. They’re both fine. I watch each film every couple years and each time I enjoy them, despite their flaws. For me though, the most memorable film from 1990 is Misery. If you don’t enjoy watching Kathy Bates go all “cockadoody” on an author she’s imprisoned, then that’s your loss.
In my opinion this is Oliver Stone’s last great film, but also his best. I don’t buy into a lot of the conspiracy theories he pushes over JFK’s three-hour running time, but it’s still a fascinating account of a court case that did happen. From the standpoint that Jim Garrison did conduct this investigation and bring these theories to light in a court of law, the film is a mesmerizing account. The cinematography is still stunning nearly three decades later.
1992: Malcolm X
The first of two Spike Lee films on this list is among his most commercial efforts and also somewhat unfocused. That typically derails a docudrama, but each era of Malcolm X’s life is so interesting that it’s easy to overlook any structural or pacing issues with this epic.
1993: Schindler’s List
There’s no other film from 1993 that could even come close to being my pick. Some have criticized this one for having too optimistic of a conclusion, or even a happy ending, but I don’t see it that way. Every moment that the film focuses on the survivors is also drenched in an awareness that millions more were murdered.
1994: The Lion King
Yes, 94 also gave us Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Quiz Show and The Shawshank Redemption, but The Lion King was THE movie of my childhood, and one that still holds up a quarter century later. It’s unfortunate Disney felt the need to remake it. Some stories can only be told with animation.
1995: Toy Story
Competing with The Lion King for the award of most worn VHS tape of my childhood is Toy Story. To this day there’s not another film from 1995 that comes close to bringing me this much joy. I’m a bit of a dark soul though, so I’ll admit about half of the fun of this one for me is Sid.
I didn’t see Fargo until nearly 10 years after it was released, and it was my first exposure to the crazy resume of the Coen Brothers. It just gets funnier with age (and the more time I spend in Minnesota).
1997: As Good As It Gets
Not one of my favorite years in film by any measure. I don’t like L.A. Confidential and Titanic is an exquisitely rendered but incredibly cheesy disaster flick. Though it comes with many of its own flaws, I enjoy the performances and charisma provided by Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in this, at times, vicious dramedy.
1998: The Big Lebowski
I discovered this one much later than most other film nerds, but I still watch it at least a couple times a year and it never stops being funny.
1999: Office Space
Because we can all fucking relate.
2000: Almost Famous
Great music. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Nostalgia. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Coming of age story. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Tiny Dancer. Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
2001 is the first year in what I consider to be the dark ages of film during my lifetime. Each of these years only has a handful of films I watch anymore or even remember. It’s not just that the Oscar films were not my thing. It’s that in general I wasn’t into much of anything that came out. This may not be the case for you. We all have different opinions on what were great years for film and crappy ones. But for me, the beginning of the new millennium provided three duds in a row. That said, 2001 had Memento, which is solid but maybe not super re-watchable, and the endlessly re-watchable Shrek.
2002: Minority Report
One of two very solid Spielberg films that year, Minority Report is so much more than the trailers at the time presented it as. DreamWorks seemed to be selling an action movie, but this is more of sci-fi mystery, and a damn good one. I also want to give an honorable mention to Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. That bleak crime drama gets better each time I watch it.
That’s right 2003, I’m not picking from you. You provided some nostalgic favorites, such as Seabiscuit and Big fish, that I used to watch a lot but whose impact has faded over the years. This may be cheating, but if I had to pick the 30 best movies from my lifetime so far, I’d rather double up on 2007, 2012 or 2017. If I were to be objective about it and try to pick the best film of 2003, I would have to say Monster.
This is one that had to grow on me. I’ll spare you jokes about how it had to age, because I think I was the one who had to reach a certain point in my life to see its brilliance. Alexander Payne uses wine as a metaphor for mid-life crisis and the result is funny, honest and at times a bit sad. The Aviator, Hotel Rwanda and Spider-Man 2 were also excellent releases from 2004.
2005: Brokeback Mountain
Here’s a sweeping, epic love story that never seems to stretch believability. Hollywood likes to create tragic love stories that feature musical numbers, disasters and too many plot contrivances. Brokeback Mountain tells a simple story and is all the more powerful for it.
2006: Little Miss Sunshine
I’ll chalk what works for me about this one up to the cast, and to certain aspects of the script. I don’t think the writing holds together well in terms of making a clear thematic statement, but it does build to a hilarious finale. This is also a film that excels because of little moments here and there. Its parts are often better than the overall experience, and that’s okay when the performances are of this caliber.
2007: Into the Wild
2007 seems to be every millennial’s favorite year in film now and it’s hard not to see why. It was a year packed with future classics like Zodiac and There Will Be Blood. It should be difficult for me to pick a favorite, but this was the easiest year on the list. Into the Wild speaks to me. It has spoken to me since the first time I watched it. I know people who are just as fascinated by this story as I am, and just as many who can’t stand the reverential approach director Sean Penn takes with his subject. The cynics are quick to say Christopher McCandless was a fool who got what he deserved. I don’t agree. I think most of us have had moments where we would like to, smash our phones, tell our landlord to go to hell and just see if we could get by without all our materialistic crap. Most of us walk that notion off at a nearby prairie or forest preserve when necessary. McCandless didn’t. He went for it and did it for an admirable amount of time. It’s thrilling and inspiring, which makes the last 20 minutes so devastating. The conclusion most of us reach while wandering in a prairie, taking a couple days off from social media or eating dinner with our spouse, he didn’t reach until he was alone in a bus, in the middle of nowhere. “Happiness only real when shared.”
2008: The Dark Knight
Before the over corporate, formulaic and bland approach taken by most Marvel films dominated the box office year after year, Warner and DC (albeit briefly and only because of Christopher Nolan) threw out the kid gloves and made a truly dark, menacing and transcendent comic book adaptation. I honestly don’t care whether you think Marvel or DC is better. I’m indifferent to that debate as I am to many of the filmed video game sessions both now produce. For me this is the ultimate Batman film and the best big-screen comic book adaptation.
2009: Inglorious Basterds
As with all Quentin Tarantino films, this one is full of ideas. Some work, some don’t, but it’s fun to watch the inventiveness play out for nearly three hours. For me, this is the most cohesive entry in his canon. It’s also one I’ve come to like more over time. Two or three years ago, I probably would’ve said Up in the Air was my favorite film of 2009. Which leads me to the doubling up I hinted at in my comments about 2003. I choose to redeem my double up in year 2009, and I choose Up in the Air.
2010: The Social Network
2010 was a pretty solid year that brought us Toy Story 3 and Inception, but I have to go with David Fincher’s drama about the early days of Facebook. I’m not a big fan of sequels, but given some of the privacy issues the social media giant has been having lately, it might time for Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to re-team for part two.
Bennett Miller doesn’t make a lot of movies, but his relatively small canon is quite impressive. Moneyball is his first and best foray into the world of sports, though Foxcatcher is a haunting (and entirely different) masterpiece. This true story about how Oakland Athletics coach Billy Beane turned around his team’s fortunes by hiring a math whiz (Jonah Hill) is funny, touching and thought-provoking. It’s also my favorite sports film.
This is a tough year to pin down a favorite. There are probably more films from 2012 that I watch frequently than any other year on this list. Flight, Django Unchained, Moonrise Kingdom and Searching for Sugar Man are just a few of the highlights. Lincoln has the edge on my personal watch list though. Daniel Day-Lewis is an acting force as Abraham Lincoln, but Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as Thaddeus Stevens is equally impressive. This is the kind of focused biopic that doesn’t come along often enough. These are rich characters and by the end we feel like we’ve gotten to know every side of them, but the timeline only covers a few months.
2013: 12 Years A Slave
The most difficult to watch film on this list (along with Schindler’s List) but also one of the most important ones, 12 Years A Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African American musician who was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. While America’s history of slavery has been the subject of countless films and TV series, nothing that came before 12 Years A Slave depicted it in such an unflinching and honest manner, though Roots came close. Too often, in films like Gone with the Wind and limited TV shows like North & South, the issue of slavery was secondary to plotlines focused on love stories or other personal dramas affecting plantation owners and their families. 12 Years A Slave never loses focus. It doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality that was common practice among plantation owners, and it doesn’t romanticize the American south.
Richard Linklater’s three-hour masterpiece, which was filmed over 12 years to show characters aging naturally, packs a surprising punch. Some will watch it and say nothing happened, but for me it’s hard to imagine not being able to relate to these characters on some level. Their day to day lives are nothing out of the ordinary, yet every scene is compelling. This one also hit a nerve the first time I saw it, as I had just moved out of my parents’ house and started living on my own. A lot of what Mason experiences at the end of the film are things I was thinking or feeling at the time.
There have been some great movies about journalism, and this one is an instant classic. It briefly touches on the challenges facing newsrooms in the internet age, but also shows you the kind of investigative brilliance most social media “news” sites just aren’t capable of. The cast is great. The writing is great. The editing is perfect. Every single accolade this film won is deserved.
2016: Hell or High Water
By no means the best movie of 2016. If I were making an objective list of best films from each year, my pick for 2016 would either be Jackie or Moonlight. But this is the kind of exciting, thought-provoking, open-to-interpretation genre exercise (western, in this case) that just doesn’t break through the industry’s franchise obsession enough these days. I love it. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan followed this one up with his directorial debut, the even more impressive Wind River. Alas, that one is not my pick for 2017, because there were a couple better films, including…
You didn’t think I was done with Christopher Nolan, did you? Though it’s not quite as impressive on the small screen (and by that I’m including your 70 inch OLED), Nolan’s WWII epic is an unrelenting 100 minutes of suspense. It’s a historical drama that owes much more to Alfred Hitchcock than Steven Spielberg. This one should be re-released into IMAX every couple of years. I would show up every time.
Spike Lee takes on white supremacist groups in the U.S. with this true story about an African American Colorado Springs cop who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s. Lee is masterful about connecting the events of four decades ago with the activities of hate groups today. It’s a serious topic, but Lee’s film is also full of humor. John David Washington and Adam Driver gave two of the best performances of 2018, and if you’re a film buff, you can’t miss this one. Lee weaves the history of cinema into the story, showing how the medium has always played a role in perpetuating racial stereotypes.