Almost a year ago, I succumbed to one of those little blog memes that involves listing a bunch of your favourite stuff. In that case it was choosing an album for each year of your life. Silly but diverting, and a bit of fun. Albeit a geekish kind of fun. And prone to throwing up some bizarre mind-benders. Strangeways, Here We Come or Sign ‘O’ The Times…? The very idea of trying to compare those two albums! So when all’s said and done, you go for the one that reminds you of that summer in Greece. And you slip a different Smiths album in somewhere else.
Anyhoo, an email arrived recently from Mahalia. It appears to have taken a year for someone to make the radical imaginative leap of substituting the word “album” with “movie”.
There is a subtle but interesting difference with this list, however. You can’t really do the whole “sneak a different Smiths album in” trick here. Film makers (perhaps with one or two exceptions) tend not to inspire the same kind of loyalty from most of us. I feel protective about many of the musicians I listen to in a way that I rarely, if ever, feel about directors, producers or actors. It’s odd, and you can speculate endlessly about the reasons for it, but it’s just the way it is (I tend towards the psychoanalytical explanation — I identify with the music in some way because it is part of my emotional landscape in a way that films aren’t*, so I interpret criticism of that music as a personal attack). I recall overhearing someone — many years ago in the Prince of Wales pub in Kentish Town — say “Day in the Life is the only decent thing the Beatles ever did”. I wasn’t compelled to punch them, or even argue. The protectiveness we feel about music doesn’t extend quite into psychopathy. But I do recall scowling, and inwardly marking him out as a thoroughly bad egg.
Thanks to Wikipedia and IMDb, it’s not difficult to track down film listings by year, so without further ado…
1971 — The French Connection. To kick off with, kind of a lean year from my point of view. Plenty of worthy films — Harold and Maude, A Clockwork Orange and Get Carter to name but three, but none that are particularly important to me personally. The French Connection is the one that stands out most, I guess.
1972 — The Godfather. Pretty much chooses itself. Honourable mention to Silent Running though.
1973 — High Plains Drifter. First year in which there’s a real dilemma. Now, I know there’s a certain “maybe a bit right wing for comfort” thing going on with Mr. Clint Eastwood. But he’s a damn fine film-maker all the same. As much as I loved The Wicker Man at university, as astonishing a piece of art as The Holy Mountain might be, and as harrowing and affecting as Don’t Look Now most certainly is, I’ve got to go with Clint here.
1974 — Phase IV. No, I’m not being deliberately obscure. Yes, I do know that 1974 saw the release of Chinatown, The Conversation, Dark Star and The Godfather Part II. Each of those films would have easily garnered the 1971 nomination, for instance. But Phase IV is a strange little film that had a very big impact on me. And ultimately it means more to me than any of those others.
1975 — Jaws. From the leftfield straight back into the mainstream. And it doesn’t get much more mainstream than the movie Spielberg used to kickstart the Summer Blockbuster genre. All the same, it’s a near flawless film despite the famously flawed production.
1976 — Network. I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more! I remember seeing this movie on TV for the first time when I was living in Willesden Green in London. And even though it was the age of 250 channels, when I opened my window to shout, I could hear four or five others doing the same. It was sad and funny and thrilling all at once. It’s a truly great film. Honourable mentions to Taxi Driver and The Man Who Fell to Earth.
1977 — Star Wars. It’s obviously silly to compare a film like Star Wars with Annie Hall or, say, Eraserhead. But I’d be lying if I said any film released this year means half as much to me as the one set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
1978 — Superman. I recall seeing this when it first came out, and it’s one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. I saw it again about five years ago and was amazed by how well it stood the test of time (though perhaps that’s sheer nostalgia on my part).
1979 — Apocalypse Now. I only needed to take a cursory glance at the list of films from 1979. It’s unfortunate for Alien, Stalker and Manhattan that they were released the same year as ‘The Now’, but they were realistically never going to get a look in. “Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fucking program…”
1980 — Stardust Memories. Whereupon Woody Allen gets his revenge on George Lucas for 1977. And even though The Empire Strikes Back is a better film than Star Wars, this is my favourite of Woody Allen’s. Each scene is like a perfect self-contained statement, yet they all weave together to create a coherent whole, even greater than the sum of those wonderful parts. Honourable mention also to Raging Bull which I caught on TV again recently and which was as good as I remembered it being.
1981 — Raiders of The Lost Ark. Another year of choosing between several excellent and quite different films. My favourite horror film of all time, An American Werewolf in London. My favourite “good bad” film of all time, Escape From New York. And along with Snake Plissken’s first outing came a wealth of other so-called “cult classics”, the often low-quality (through overuse) videos of which were wheeled out on numerous occasions back at university, often while less than straight… Scanners, Mad Max 2, Time Bandits, The Evil Dead. It was a great year for low budget oddness. And yet I’m compelled to give Indy the nomination. It’s just so much fun!
1982 — Blade Runner. Just like ’72 and ’79, it wasn’t necessary to spend much time reading the list of others for this year. All those moments will be lost like tears in rain. Time to die. Note to self: must rewatch Blade Runner soon.
1983 — The Dead Zone. 1983 is shaping up to be 1971 of the 80s. Not in the sense of there being riots at Attica State or a failed coup in Egypt. But in the sense that there’s a few decent films released, but none that I really connect with. I’ve always been a little disappointed with Return of The Jedi and I think Scarface is a teensy bit over-rated despite a great performance from Pacino. Honourable mention to Zelig though, which was the only other serious contender.
1984 — Ghost Busters. A surprisingly difficult year for me. This was the first year that I started going to the cinema regularly on my own and it seems to have been a bumper year for movies guaranteed to leave a lasting impression on a 13 year old. The Karate Kid, Gremlins, The Last Starfighter, Terminator and so on (there are many more). I stand by none of them as Great Pieces of Cinema, but at some point I was a massive fan of each. Oh, and special mentions to Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo for one of the long-running in-jokes of my university days, and Footloose for just being what it is. Hard not to mention Stop Making Sense as well.
1985 — Ran. The golden age of Akira Kurosawa movies is undoubtedly the 50s and 60s, but this late masterpiece still overshadows anything else made this year. At the time, of course, Back To The Future would have been my film of the year. And there’s plenty of years in which Brazil would have got the nomination.
1986 — Down by Law. One of my all-time favourites. For me, in some ways, this did for film what reading Bukowski a couple of years earlier had done for literature. Horizons were expanded. Not just by a little bit, but by head-staggering amounts. True Stories, Blue Velvet and Top Gun get honourable mentions (for somewhat different reasons).
1987 — Withnail & I. Another easy year. Not because there aren’t many to choose from (there are!) but because one stands out so much. Absurdly funny and painfully sad all at once, it’s as close to perfect as any film manages to get. So good, in fact, that even the likes of Wings of Desire, The Princess Bride or The Last Emperor fail to get serious consideration.
1988 — Die Hard. I make no apologies for this. There’s a part of me that loves dumb action flicks with lots of stuff blowing up. And this may just be the best of them. It’s got Bruce Willis as the foul-mouthed, wise-cracking underdog who performs increasingly unlikely feats of derring-do while out-witting and out-gunning a skyscraper full of evil mercenaries led by an hilariously over-the-top Alan Rickman. What more could you possibly want from a movie?
1989 — Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The most difficult decision yet. In the end it was something as silly as the fact that I can quote a good third of the dialogue of this, the best of the Indy movies. It’s the Boys Own Adventure Story par excellence (to mix cultural motifs). It was a close-run thing though. This year also saw the best romantic comedy of the past 38; When Harry Met Sally. And one of Woody Allen’s masterpieces; Crimes and Misdemeanors. And the disturbingly depraved debut from Takeshi Kitano; Violent Cop. And How to Get Ahead in Advertising. And Cinema Paradiso. And… well, you get the idea.
1990 — Dances With Wolves. Look, at least I’m being honest. I could have gone with the flow, put Goodfellas like you’re supposed to, and quietly skipped on to 1991. But if truth be told, Dances With Wolves is the film from this year that I return to most often these days. Having said that, Tremors is the one I’ve seen most often, but that’s down to it being on heavy rotation on late-night TV when I was at university.
1991 — Naked Lunch. Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Burroughs novel might well be the greatest piece of “cinema on drugs”. Not just because of the subject matter, but because you feel genuinely altered for a good few hours after emerging. There were other fine films released this year, but nothing on a par with this.
1992 — Bob Roberts. Tim Robbins does for US politics what Rob Reiner did for rock music. A sublime faux-documentary that savagely lampoons both left and right (though mostly right). Don’t smoke crack. It’s a ghetto drug.
1993 — Sonatine. Another year in which I need only give the briefest of looks to what else was released. Takeshi Kitano’s contemplative gangster movie is one of the most haunting films ever made… though later films of his (which I suspect will also make this list) give it a run for its money in that regard. It’s hard to think of a less conventionally paced film (explosions of gunfire at the beginning and end serve as bookends to a dreamlike meditation on the nature of violence — the clue is in the title for those who are familiar with musical terminology). And it’s hard to imagine another year in which a film like True Romance would be a distant also-ran in the gangster movie stakes. Honourable mentions also to The Piano, Hot Shots! Part Deux and In the Name of the Father; all of whom should have known better than get released alongside a Kitano classic.
1994 — The Hudsucker Proxy. There’s something genuinely magical about this movie. And as wonderful as Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption (another good year for Tim Robbins) and Ed Wood are, none of them make the hair stand up on the back of my neck the way this stylised classic from the Coen Brothers can. You know? For kids!
1995 — Seven. David Fincher’s grim tale of psychosis demands a certain level of commitment from the viewer despite the all-star mainstream cast. Things happen in Seven that… well, frankly you don’t expect to see in a Morgan Freeman film. Toy Story, The Usual Suspects and 12 Monkeys all got considered, but I eventually went with Fincher. Good year for Pitt and Spacey.
1996 — Trainspotting. Gnarly as a grim thing, but with light and humour flooding in through the many pinholes. This was also the year of Fargo and Wes Anderson’s first feature, Bottle Rocket, both of which are excellent. And I have a soft-spot for both Independence Day and Jerry Maguire. But perhaps with the exception of Fargo, nothing else really held a candle to Trainspotting this year.
1997 — Hana-bi. Takeshi Kitano writes, edits and directs most of the movies he’s involved in. Under the name ‘Beat Takeshi’, he also stars in quite a few of them. The character he’s most famous for is the brooding killer (either gangster or corrupt cop) who attracts and repels us in equal measure. His coolness always undercut by moments in which the extreme ugliness of his violence is writ large. In Hana-bi though (Japanese for ‘Fireworks’), we are offered a far more human protagonist, someone we can genuinely sympathise and empathise with. And strangely enough, it works. A heart-wrenching film from beginning to end filmed in Kitano’s utterly mesmeric dreamstyle.
1998 — The Big Lebowski. No, it’s not overrated. It’s every bit as good as even the geekiest fanboy insists. Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi are an incredible on-screen team, and every single minor character is massively memorable and great, great fun. Whether it’s John Turturro’s absurd purple velvet cameo, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s perfect nervous chuckle, Julianne Moore’s parlance of the times, the krautrock nihilists (is Karl Hungus the funniest name ever in a movie?) or Sam Elliott as ‘The Stranger’… you end up thinking “oh wow! I’d forgotten how good this is!” a few seconds into every single scene. Dark City was also good this year, and I like when Will Smith saves the world, so Enemy of The State deserves a mention. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was excellent too. But the dude abides.
1999 — Fight Club. Actually, this is the year I’m using my wild card thingie whereby I get to declare a tie. And not just a two-way tie neither. 1999 was easily the finest year of my life for cinema, with a whole host of truly amazing films being released. I put Fight Club up there in lights because it’s the one I thought “oh, I think I’ll watch that again soon”. But there’s no way I could choose between it and Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, Magnolia, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai or The Straight Story. And both The Matrix and (yes!) Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace have a place in my heart too.
2000 — O Brother, Where Art Thou? Another great film from the Coen Brothers. It’s funny as hell and plays the mythical allusions for laughs rather than getting weighed down by them (even going so far as to credit Homer as co-writer). The film is responsible for the phrase “dumber than a sackful of hammers” entering my lexicon, which I’m fairly sure wasn’t one of Homer’s contributions. Like the previous year, this was a good one for cinema, with Homer and the Coens facing stiff competition from Wong Kar-wai’s gorgeous In The Mood For Love, Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending Memento and the masterpiece of acting that was provided by Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys.
2001 — Mulholland Drive. I’m not too proud to admit that I’m a big fan of the Lord of The Rings films, but I suspect they’ll be pipped to the post each year. Sorry about that Peter Jackson, but a big shout out to you all the same. Here in 2001 it’s David Lynch that keeps Gandalf off top spot. Perhaps the only film-maker I know who gets “dreams” as well as Takeshi Kitano gets them. And it’s never more evident than here in Mulholland Drive. Dark and sinister as it gets, but utterly absorbing all the same. Tip of the hat to Amélie, Donnie Darko, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, The Royal Tenenbaums, Waking Life and Monsters, Inc. Each one a gem. And each one considered for the top spot. Another great year for cinema.
2002 — Dolls. In my view, the greatest film ever made. Takeshi Kitano’s masterpiece (to date) and the most visually beautiful thing you are ever going to see on a screen. Take a random still from the movie and chances are you’d have something you’d be happy to frame and hang in your home. Opening with an extended scene from traditional Japanese puppet theatre, this scene is then replayed in the lives of three sets of doomed lovers. It’s a deeply affecting film that presents something new and wonderful each time I watch it.
2003 — The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Seems I was wrong. Gandalf gets top spot after all. See, I thought Adaptation was 2003 and it would have beaten Lord of the Rings in a photo-finish if it had been. But it turns out Adaptation was up against Dolls last year. And in that race, it was always doomed to second spot. Mind you, Kitano almost crashed the party this year too with Zatoichi and there was plenty else going on in 2003. Mystic River was amazing, Lost in Translation was quietly beautiful as was Code 46. And only a total killjoy could fail to consider the first Pirates of the Caribbean film as being close to the top of the pantheon of Great Swashbucklers. The less said about the sequels, the better, however.
2004 — Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. I literally tossed a coin between this and 2046. Both are — in very different styles obviously — beautiful examinations of the powerful bonds that can grow between people. The first time I watched 2046, I took about a 10 minute break to compose myself and immediately watched it again. I had only the vaguest of ideas of what was happening, but it was happening very beautifully indeed. As for Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, it almost gets too clever for its own good, but never does — and instead of becoming a vehicle for some mind-bending writing and direction, the film manages to remain a haunting love story… illuminated and not obscured by the cleverness of those involved. Shaun of the Dead and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou were both fun too.
2005 — Me and You and Everyone We Know. Criminally overlooked love story by Miranda July. Genuinely moving, heart-warming and uplifting without ever once straying towards sentimentality. Stylised and real all at once. Just plain lovely. If — like most folks — you’ve not seen this yet, then you really should do.
2006 — Land of The Blind. If any film catches the current zeitgeist, it is not last year’s questionable Zeitgeist: The Movie but this overlooked gem from 2006. Uplifting it is not. Despite dealing with a fictional country that appears to morph between banana republic, Eastern European communist state and Islamic theocracy, the film deals head-on with The War Against Terrorism and the tactics used to fight it. It assiduously refuses to take sides and reveals instead the psychosis at the root of the whole thing. Donald Sutherland and Ralph Fiennes put in excellent performances (Sutherland has been known to sleepwalk through some roles of late, but he’s fantastic here) and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be left thinking “How come I never heard of this film?” after watching it. Special shout out to An Inconvenient Truth.
2007 — I’m Not There. I reviewed this stunning Dylan biopic on this here very blog. So I don’t really need to say much more about it, except that subsequent viewings have confirmed it to be the flawed masterpiece I originally hailed it as. Hot Fuzz was a lot of fun as was the fourth Die Hard film. Oh yes it was. No Country for Old Men was a real contender for the number one spot and David Fincher’s Zodiac had some excellent moments. But I’m not There stands out a little from the crowd.
2008 — In Bruges. Yes, it’s extremely politically incorrect. Reprehensibly so. I accept that. But it’s also very very funny, and genuinely gripping in it’s own fairly offensive way. “Harry, let’s face it. And I’m not being funny. I mean no disrespect, but you’re a cunt. You’re a cunt now, and you’ve always been a cunt. And the only thing that’s going to change is that you’re going to be an even bigger cunt. Maybe have some more cunt kids… … … … … Leave my kids fucking out of it! What have they done? You fucking retract that bit about my cunt fucking kids!” Come on, how can you not like a film with that dialogue in it?
Obviously if anyone wants to play with this meme, then have at it. I’ll not officially nominate anyone, though let me know in the comments if you decide to take a shot. I’d be interested in seeing how my choices compare with others.
Firstly, I think that the sheer quantity of time we spend with our favourite music has a big part to play in it. I’ve listened to Floating Into The Night over 30 times in the past year alone (it was the album I typed-up my thesis to). And that’s nothing compared to the number of times I listened to it in the early 90s. And that’s far from my most-listened-to album. Even those films that I’ve watched most can’t compare to that kind of exposure.
Secondly, I think the way music can be part of your life is hugely significant. You can give it your undivided attention (which is what movies tend to demand) or it can be there in the background while you do pretty much anything (from having a tooth removed to making love). I’ve walked through a desert on psychedelics with Remain In Light playing on my walkman. The very nature of films precludes that kind of experience.
Thirdly, we tend to view music as being like a message communicated to us by one person (perhaps two or three at most). A movie on the other hand is more like an event we witness. Because of that, I’d argue it’s a less personal experience for most of us. None of which is to suggest that films can’t have a profound emotional impact; just that it is less likely to “become a part of us” (to use a terribly woolly phrase) than music is.