Picking Favorites: My Changing Relationship with Movies
Just as film evolves, so do my attitudes toward it.
Along with Quentin, I joined in on a popular internet challenge and picked a favorite movie for each year of my lifetime. Examining trends in film history is fascinating, but adding a personal touch to the investigation is revealing. That’s one of the reasons why reflecting on the movies that were released during my lifetime was so surprising.
Calling this a “challenge” is certainly accurate. While there were a fair share of easy picks, some years had multiple contenders — and for a few, it was surprisingly difficult to pick any movies at all. Thus, I’ve grouped notable years into a few categories and included explanations of why they made the cut.
Although I adore thrillers, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer — here’s the list:
Let’s start at the beginning: 1991. This one was simple — Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is my favorite film of all time. There’s a reason why this movie won the Big Five at the Oscars (Picture, Directing, Actor, Actress, Screenplay), and it’s obviously because this crime thriller works on every level. The writing is smart, and the directing is taut. Demme knows how to build tension, orchestrate complex set pieces, and purposefully display dialogue and character interactions.
Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster turn in career-defining performances. Hopkins is simultaneously terrifying and charismatic as Hannibal Lecter — you trust, fear, and admire him. The unconventional way he blurs the lines between antagonist and friend is mesmerizing, and his interactions and insight into Clarice’s motivations are alarming. Foster conveys both vulnerability as well as intelligence and fortitude. Demme emphasizes how out of place Clarice Starling is in a male-dominated field where she’s frequently underestimated — but not by Lecter. Even though she’s manipulated by him, she also gets exactly what she needs to take down serial killer Buffalo Bill, which is something no one else could have accomplished.
This is simply the best movie of 1991, and one of the greatest of all time.
1992 is another easy one. Unforgiven is my favorite Western and another movie that falls into my top ten. The script is fantastic, especially as it conveys deep meaning from often very simple, sparse dialogue.
As a defining revisionist Western, Unforgiven deconstructs the longstanding tropes of the Western genre. Eastwood presented this movie as a tribute to Sergio Leone (the famed director of the “Dollars Trilogy”), but the movie also pushes back on Leone’s spaghetti westerns and John Wayne’s classic westerns. Maybe the “heroes” of the Wild Wild West aren’t as heroic as we think they are, and perhaps using violence as a tool for justice has less to do with what’s “deserved” than we’d like to think.
(1993, 1997, 2008)
While ’91 and ’92 were straightforward picks, ’93 was substantially tougher. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Jurassic Park, and — my choice — The Fugitive all vied for my selection. Gilbert Grape is one of the most compelling dramas I’ve ever seen, and Jurassic Park still boasts some of the most visually stunning CGI ever put to film. However, I ultimately had to give this one to Fugitive, since it was one of the most formative movies of my lifetime. I’m fairly certain it’s the first PG-13 movie I saw, and it holds up really well! The film — starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones — remains an intense and suspenseful thriller with exhilarating action scenes alongside genuinely compelling drama.
1997 was most definitely the hardest year to pick. Good Will Hunting is ridiculously enjoyable, yet heartbreaking. Donnie Brasco offers arguably Johnny Depp’s best performance of his career and shows a very different aspect of mafia life — that of struggling mid-level players rather than those at the very bottom or top. However, I went with Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. While he’s an incredibly skilled director and gifted writer, some of his films come across as excessive and self-indulgent. Being a well-written crime drama motivated by revenge, Jackie Brown shares many of the typical Tarantino film qualities, but it relies less on violence and more on deliberate pacing to drive the narrative. The excellent storytelling and nuanced characters make this an underrated entry in Tarantino’s filmography.
Moving out of the ’90s (finally), I had a challenging time choosing among the assortment from 2008. In Bruges is hilarious. It’s one of the best dark comedies of the 21st century with intriguing, thought-provoking thematic strands throughout. Ip Man is an excellent martial arts film that I thoroughly enjoy (along with its sequel). Nevertheless, I had to go with Gran Torino — the 2008 Clint Eastwood film. It tackles themes like prejudice, gang violence, aging, and growing up in a deeply personal way. It’s a micro-level drama that showcases Eastwood’s acting ability and skilled directing.
One pick where I may have bent the rules
(2002 / 2003)
City of God is such a vibrant, energy-filled film that it’s impossible to leave off my list. Honestly, this one might be the best movie so far of the 21st century. Every aspect works: a simultaneously comedic and serious tone; gorgeous cinematography; compelling performances (many from child actors); the intertemporal, scattered narrative pieced together with skilled editing. It really feels like Rocket (the main character) is telling the story just for you, making it impossible to not be engrossed in this coming-of-age tale. Plus, Portuguese is straight up beautiful to listen to.
Clear pick, right? But there’s a catch. See, IMDb can be a bit tricky at times when classifying the release date of movies. While the masterpiece came out in August 2002 for Brazil, its limited release in the USA didn’t come until January 2003. In other words, it was eligible for the Oscars alongside movies from the year 2003.
So, there’s an argument to be had that it’s more appropriate to consider City of God a 2003 film (for US audiences), but there’s not too many other movies from 2002 I wanted to pick — and I really wanted Mystic River (2003) to make my list.
Selections that may spark disagreement
(1998, 2007, 2011)
For 2007, I picked David Fincher’s Zodiac, which presents editorial cartoonist-turned-obsessive quasi-detective Robert Graysmith’s take on the horrific killings by the “Zodiac Killer” during the ’60s and ’70s. The movie is incredibly good, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Washington Post film critic Alyssa Rosenberg christened Zodiac “one of the greatest movies yet released this century.”
The catch? It’s up against two excellent films: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Also, dark horse competitor Hot Fuzz would be an acceptable pick in my book. TWBB and No Country are certainly exceptional, and both deservedly made the top ten of BBC’s “The 21st Century’s 100 greatest films” list (Zodiac was #12).
So why do I love Zodiac? Well, it’s a suspenseful mystery-crime-thriller with amazing performances, a dark tone, and a compelling narrative. As Rosenberg elaborates:
Fincher captures the uncertainty and loss of confidence that follow from a prolonged failure by institutions and people who are doing everything they’re supposed to, only to find that it doesn’t produce the correct results.
I find thematic commentary like that fascinating, yet disturbing. In a similar vein, I wrote last year how Chinatown (1974) “offers a dark, yet realistic, depiction of the repercussions of eroded political and legal institutions.” All this to say that Zodiac is not only an excellent film, but it also investigates important ideas that truly resonate with me, which is ultimately what I desire from cinema.
My pick for 1998 might not draw as much ire, but it’s worth discussing. The Truman Show is undoubtedly my favorite film of 1998, even though it was up against strong contenders (Saving Private Ryan), cult classics (The Big Lebowski), and the Psycho remake. But what sets Truman Show apart is that it’s eminently re-watchable. Hilarious, heartbreaking, harrowing, and hopeful — this movie’s got it all. I’m not normally a huge Jim Carrey fan, but he does a great job of translating his manic persona into a dramatic role, which adds levity to a premise that’s implausible but disturbing. The fact that this film is so accessible for families also increases its value in my book.
Finally, some may wonder why I picked X-Men: First Class for 2011. Now, I do really like that film. It’s one of the best franchise reboots I’ve seen as well as a fantastic comic book film. But the honest answer is that I just haven’t seen many movies from 2011. (Plus, it was a relatively weak year for film, especially when compared with the likes of 2007 or 2015).
My evolving relationship with movies
I’ve always loved watching movies, but my consumption of contemporary cinema has changed in recent years. In 2014, I decidedly shifted how I viewed film as a medium and an art form. In essence, I’ve moved from being a passive consumer to a more active, critical film watcher—and it’s only deepened my love of movies.
For example, after watching There Will Be Blood in 2014 (and beginning to listen to a number of film podcasts), I was talking with Quentin and he recommended I synthesize my thoughts into a written analysis. (It never quite took that form, but that’s beside the point.) This opened up new doors for me to approach film in a critical way. That same year, I also began following new movies to a greater extent rather than just focusing on educating myself in the classics. Ultimately, the result is I have both a fuller knowledge of where the film medium has been, the direction it’s going, and how past and present trends are connected.
But how did this evolution impact my favorite film selections?
Whiplash (2014) was unlike any movie I’d seen before. Director Damien Chazelle has clearly studied cinema both as art and entertainment. Whiplash is dark, yet exhilarating. Chazelle creates tension and disorientation in the most effective ways possible: shot selection, perfectly timed cutaways, small details. The violence in the movie certainly has a physical aspect but it’s primarily verbal and psychological. Many movies use harsh language to make a point or develop characters (e.g., Goodfellas), but the verbal assault from JK Simmons is unrelenting and even more frightening than him chucking a cymbal at your head. Finally, good movies masterfully portray the environment of what they’re depicting. The music in Whiplash is incredible, and it feels so real and authentic! Great films capture these elements, and Whiplash does so in an engrossing way.
Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario didn’t make a ton of top five lists from 2015, but I think it deserved to. This was a stacked year, but my in-theater viewing experience for Sicario stood apart. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been that locked into a movie before. Villeneuve crafted the perfect crime-thriller, combining engaging, mysterious characters with heart-pounding action sequences to create some of the best set pieces of the decade (so far). Furthermore, Sicario resonated with me because it shares certain thematic and structural elements to Silence of the Lambs. Emily Blunt plays a resourceful FBI agent who’s simultaneously vulnerable and capable — a challenging and sometimes paradoxical combination — and she pulls it off brilliantly. Additionally, for a “drug war” themed movie, Sicario imports a good deal of psychological conflict and subtext beneath the expected physically demanding surface. Brutal, surprising, and personal, Sicario offers a noir-tinged take on the crime-thriller genre.
La La Land remains my favorite movie of 2016. Watching it in theaters was an absolutely breathtaking experience. Yes, the film taps into nostalgia, but it’s not entirely reliant on it, and it sidesteps certain cliches by allowing things to end bittersweetly — just how real life often does. As I explained in an earlier Medium article:
It’s not bad to tap into nostalgia, but it can become problematic when the narrative is dependent on it. Think Stranger Things vs. The Force Awakens. But La La Land departs from typical Hollywood fare by really considering the trade offs we often face when pursuing our dreams.
Admittedly, I’ve only seen this movie once. Perhaps my opinion will change on repeat viewings, but I’m optimistic. As critic Owen Gleiberman argues, the experience only gets better:
La La Land isn’t just a stylized nostalgia trip of champagne montages and harmonizing hearts. It’s a filmmaking trifecta — it hooks the heart, the eye, and the mind. And once it snags you, it keeps getting better.
That’s what film is all about. It’s a multifaceted medium that’s visually striking, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally compelling. Here’s to continued evolution in cinema and my relationship to it.
I didn’t cover all of my picks for the sake of brevity, so leave a comment if there’s a specific one you’re interested in hearing about!