We Are What We Watch

Last year, I created a lifetime mix and shared it with you. It comprised thirty-four years of music; one song chosen for each year I’ve been alive so far. As I heavily caveated, it wasn’t clear what would make the best mix.

Should it simply be a list of the best songs from each year, regardless of genre? Who am I to create such a list? After all, I had developed my own taste over those thirty-four years, and despite the fact that it does cover a wide variety of sounds, I wasn’t sure that a sonic sampler was quite the experience I was looking for. I wanted to create a cohesive whole, one that plots a personal through-line from the year I was born to today. So, I settled on three simple rules to help me do that.

First, the mix would include songs that are my current favorites. Not what I was actively listening to then (which, obviously, wouldn’t have been much until about 1991, anyway), but what I still actively listen to today. Second, the mix would prefer artistic diversity. I’d need to take into consideration other years’ choices in order to avoid the same artists appearing over and over again. Typically, another tool in the mix-maker’s box would be sequence. But in my case, sequence was predetermined. I was going in chronological order; that was the whole point. So, that made for a certain check and balance in my third rule: Without the ability to reshuffle the songs later, the weight any individual choice had on the whole was that much more significant. Rules one and two were my priorities, but if I needed to choose a different song for the sake of a more listenable mix, I would. And so, I made a mix. It’s one I still listen to a year later.

This year, I thought I’d do it again. But instead of a musical through-line, I’d plot a cinematic one. I’ve been thinking about how my media preferences have changed over the years, about how I’d once preferred films that aggressively worked the media, whether through story, sound, celluloid, editing, or all of the above, as in a film like Natural Born Killers (not on my list, but instructive of the point). If you’d asked me sometime in the late nineties who my favorite filmmakers are, I’d have said Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and David Lynch. In hindsight, it seems like they were working to the same tempo that ran through my younger, hormone-wracked body. Their work always seemed to sprint across a tightrope. It was just this exquisitely controlled recklessness, oxymoronic as that may sound. For a young adult — still finding a place in his own skin and sorely with something to prove — their voices made for more than a suitable surrogate. Back then, I’d have just as readily sat a friend down to watch some film I thought was important as a proxy for my own self-expression as I would have made them a mixtape. In fact, I did both often. I was quite happy to let these older men give voice to the incoherent turmoil of self churning within me.

What a difference a decade or two can make. Had I created this list at twenty-five, rather than thirty-five, I’d have had a difficult time choosing among the films of Scorsese, Stone, or Lynch. Today, it was much easier. They are, of course, still there — you’ll see films by each of them on the list — but in most cases, a quieter, subtler film took the place of a louder, more bombastic one. And while I can still lose myself in a sci-fi, fantasy, or superhero movie, it just doesn’t happen as often as it used to. (You’ll see that change in the comparison of films I’d have chosen then to those I choose now, which I’ll start to point out in 1986).

In any case, media makes for a fascinating clock. I was born in haste and had been sprinting ever since, somehow in a hurry to live. But something happened after I turned thirty; suddenly the world seemed to be moving faster than I wanted to. I can see my desire to slow things down in so many of my choices now. And now that it’s complete, I can see that’s really what this list is about.

If you’d like to see all the films I considered, you can access the full spreadsheet here. I point out which ones I preferred at the time, which I’ve chosen today, and which have grown or shrunk in my estimation in between.

And this goes without saying, but feel free to skim as you are interested. There’s more below than anyone need attempt in one sitting.

CB, January 2, 2016

THIRTY-FIVE (a Lifetime Film List)

It would take you 3.69 days to watch all of these films if you did so with no breaks, which would be crazy. Don’t do that.


1980: The Shining

“…there is no way, within the film, to be sure with any confidence exactly what happens, or precisely how, or really why.” That was Roger Ebert’s conclusion to his enthusiastic review of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and, I think, a great explanation of why this film continues to enthrall me. I don’t particularly like horror films, and while The Shining contains some of the most terrifying images I’ve ever seen, I wouldn’t say it’s really about those things. It’s about the horror of the interior space — the destruction of a person’s mind. The hotel, in all it’s confounding twists and turns — and its impossible layout — makes for an apt metaphor for mental and emotional instability, as do, of course, the ghosts, blood, and the homicidal maniac that run about within it. That Kubrick so deftly wields symbols in his cinematic language makes it all the easier for us to use them to plumb the depths of our own psyches and project on to this film whatever meaning we need it to carry for us. Which also makes for a perfect start to a thirty-five year immersion in cinema. 144 minutes.


1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indiana Jones had to be somewhere on this list. He was probably my most beloved childhood hero — somehow, a guy who was as at home in the library as he was on a swashbuckling adventure. He expressed two sides of a person not often seen in eighties pop-culture, and as a wimpy indoor kid struggling to imagine what sort of man he’d become, Indiana Jones was a helpful marker. I’d also grow up to notice that this film — and, really, much of the rest of the series — doesn’t exactly let him off the hook for his flaws, either. That he ultimately saves the day (and the artifact) is mostly in spite of his haste, bravado, and womanizing, and he has the bruises and slaps to the face to prove it. Indeed, in this film, Marion makes for an excellent counterpart to Indy — one no other Jones-girl could measure up to — and delivers many of those bruises herself. Gender-politicking aside, this film is just a whole lot of fun. So much so that it is the template the other three follow almost exactly. The cold-open in pursuit of a less central artifact, the re-orientation in the safety of the college campus, being drawn into pursuit of something bigger and more mysterious, the suiting up, the globetrotting (the maps! the red line!), crossing paths with the girl, the scavenger hunt and race against the enemy, the big, supernatural climax, the loss of the artifact, the return home, empty-handed. 115 minutes.


1982: Blade Runner

I’ll admit to being thiiiiis close to choosing The Dark Crystal instead, but when I thought of my choice as a permanent eraser, where all the other films I’d considered go away forever, I found it impossible not to choose Blade Runner instead. That it’s been re-cut and re-released twice since its first cinematic debut is testimony to its imperfection. I’m probably among the minority that feel that the original cinematic cut — with it’s clunky but necessary voice-over — is the better one. Without it, you just don’t know what the heck is going on. And unlike The Shining, that’s not a good thing. But for all its flaws, Blade Runner is a breathtaking work of production design and cinematography, one I’m just as happy (if not more so) to watch silent as with the volume turned up. Except for Roy Batty’s final soliloquy, of course. I chose Blade Runner because I couldn’t bear it being “lost in time, like tears…in…rain.” By the way, did you know that actor Rutger Hauer re-wrote the lines of that last speech on his own the night before filming? Legend has it that after director Ridley Scott yelled “cut,” the crew applauded, and some even wept. 116 minutes.


1983: The Big Chill

Another surprise. Last year, when I came up with a quick, less-considered version of this list, I chose A Christmas Story to represent 1983. It was a big one in my house growing up, watched almost every year at Christmastime. But I saw The Big Chill for the first time last year, and that changed the balance and my choice. My parents occasionally mentioned this film, and I knew they enjoyed it, but I never got around to seeing it for myself. But now that I have, I feel I better understand the transition their generation made from twenties to thirties and can compare and contrast it with my own. I also better understand The Big Chill’s role in setting the stage for so many later films and television shows that riff on the same themes with the language Chill provided them. Thirtysomething, especially, comes to mind, as of course, do Seinfeld, Friends, and even this year’s Transparent. They all owe something to The Big Chill. That being said, it’s not a perfect film by any means. Some of the jokes bottom-out. Jeff Goldblum’s character is intolerable and the film doesn’t seem to know that. The ending is oddly abrupt (explained by the fact that the original flashback ending was cut in order to preserve the impression of the characters’ pasts, rather than make it explicit, thus denying the then-unknown Kevin Costner all his scenes). But even so, it’s a story about the messy webs of family and friendship we weave, and whose characters come to realize that their mess is the only sure thing they’ve got. Who can’t relate to that? 105 minutes.


1984: The NeverEnding Story

A bullied loner escapes his sad life by way of a book he reads over several days alone in his school’s attic. He learns to indulge his imagination, redefine heroism, and gains confidence and a new sense of purpose to his own life. I doubt that many kids my age who watched this in the early eighties understood what it was doing, just as kids watching Harry Potter fifteen years later didn’t. But it worked on them subconsciously, while creating one of the strangest, most original fantasy worlds ever depicted on screen. 107 minutes.


1985: Back to the Future

Had to. Look, I could have put a time travel movie up for every single year on this list — I’ve got a soft-spot for that particular sub-genre — but I only chose two, and they just happen to be the two that care the least about the mechanics of time travel and are willing to do all kinds of Grandfather paradoxing in order to tell a story that is both poignant and fun to watch. So here’s the first one. See you in 2012… 116 minutes.


1986: Stand By Me

In a way, every movie is a time travel movie. Movies manipulate time in order to explore. Often, we use them to explore our past, to rehash, over and over, things that happened to better understand them. To better understand ourselves. And just as filmmakers do that by making movies, we, too, do that by watching them. Now, if you had asked me, back in 1986, what was the best movie of the year, I’d have said the one I can remember seeing in a theater that year: An American Tail. But almost thirty years later, it’s not as easy to relate to a little cartoon mouse exploring a big world for the first time and singing about it (though on the right day…). Instead, I relate to the man who frames this story, writing about his past from almost thirty years later, processing those formative moments from his childhood again and again in order to make sense of them. His memoir is his time machine, and ours. 88 minutes.


1987: Wall Street

Here’s one of the two Oliver Stone films that remain on my final list. I’ve always loved this film for all the reasons I already explained why I loved Stone and Scorsese, especially in my late teens and early twenties. This film runs hot. Whenever I talk about this movie — about why I like it — I describe a scene about three-quarters of the way through where Charlie Sheen’s character argues with his father, played by Martin Sheen, in an elevator. Rather than cutting back and forth between A/B stationary shots, the camera (hand-held by Director of Photography and fellow RISD FAV department alum Robert Richardson) wildly pans back and forth between them as they speak in a single shot. It’s that sort of thing that builds the tension you feel as you watch a deeply flawed character ride the rollercoaster of ambition and greed and know that it can’t go on forever. In fact, Wall Street and Goodfellas (my 1990 pick) are basically the same movie in that regard: young guy comes from nothing, is remade in a monster’s image, tries to outdo the monster and destroys himself in the process. And both films use similarly wild filmmaking techniques — the speed of camera and editing, especially — to ensure you feel the ride and its impending disaster, too. 126 minutes.


1988: The Last Temptation of Christ

To say that this film — and the novel on which it is based — were controversial is an understatement. And I neither have the room nor the expertise to defend them in light of any religious controversy. (Though I am familiar enough with systematic Christian theology to say that its complexity — especially the complexity of a single theological point like the incarnation — warrants exploration in equally complex forms, which, out of necessity, run the risk of veering into heresy, and therefore I’d more easily champion a film like this one, say, over one like The Passion of the Christ any_day_of_the_week.) So I’ll sum it up like this: a story of Jesus the man written by a Greek Christian, retold with a low, independent Cinema budget by an Italian Christian, — cast with men who look and sound entirely wrong for their parts (Willem Dafoe as Jesus; Harvey Keitel as Judas, New York accent and everything!) — which, yes, explores the question of how human, really, was Jesus, set to a Peter Gabriel soundtrack which is, in and of itself, a work of art. Also, David Bowie as Pontius Pilate. 162 minutes.


1989: When Harry Met Sally

Here’s where old me and new me really clashed. Without a doubt, Batman was THE movie of 1989 for me… in 1989. Despite the fact that it was the same year I saw an Indiana Jones movie in the theater for the first time. And a Back to the Future movie. And a Star Trek movie! At various points in time since then, I might have chosen either Batman or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (never, though, would I have picked the uniquely bad Star Trek V). But, starting sometime around the early 2000s, I’d have started to feel more pressure from When Harry Met Sally, and now, having had more than my fill of superhero fare, it’s absolutely my choice among the lot. Like The Big Chill, When Harry Met Sally is interested in telling its story with flawed and decidedly un-heroic characters. You know, people like us. There’s something refreshing about a love story between two people who aren’t very lovable, nor even desirable by Hollywood standards, but who charm each other enough to charm us. It offers hope for anyone at any point in the journey of love and does so with a lot of restraint, especially as compared to the rom-coms that count When Harry Met Sally as an ancestor. You can’t laugh for an hour and a half straight, but you can smile for that long. This is a movie that gets that. 96 minutes.


So that’s the eighties. Almost twenty hours of your life to watch it all! Let’s take a break. Stand up, stretch your legs. OK. Are you ready for the nineties?


1990: Goodfellas

See my 1987 entry. Also, Donald Trump should have to pay Joe Pesci something every time he speaks, right? Also, also, “That reminds me, Ma, I need this knife. I’m gonna take this. It’s ok?” 145 minutes.


1991: JFK

How better to follow a Scorsese film than with another Oliver Stone film? And, in my opinion, this is THE Oliver Stone film. It contains more cast members, more film stock, more cuts (and more minutes) than any other film on this list, and is certainly up there compared to most other films I’ve ever seen. Now, more doesn’t mean better. But with this film, it certainly helps. Stone untangles a massive web of confusion and intrigue surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and constructs a conspiracy narrative unlike anything you’ve seen or heard before and uses every detail and every person and every cut to do so convincingly. Also, if you want to dominate in the Kevin Bacon game, this movie is the key. He’s in it, as is just about everyone else in the world. 206 minutes.


1992: Glengarry Glen Ross

Another year that then-me would have picked a Batman movie, instead, now-me picks a slow, talky movie about down-on-their-luck salesmen whose brutal bottoming-out helps pose the questions, what is dignity? If you’ve seen the Always Be Closing scene, or, perhaps, it’s kid brother, but haven’t seen the whole movie, get in there. 100 minutes.


1993: Groundhog Day; The Remains of the Day

The first tie! In a list of contenders that also included Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Philadelphia, Short Cuts, and The Age of Innocence, I’d say I did pretty well to limit it to just two. So again, I envisioned a world without all these films, and I just couldn’t bear a world without Groundhog Day and The Remains of the Day. Both films are about men stuck in their lives — in themselves, really. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character only escapes once he stops trying to cheat his way out and reaches a point of true acceptance of who he his and discovers a desire to serve others. In Remains, Anthony Hopkins’s character never escapes, partly the result of having lived a life in service of a man doomed himself, but really the result of never having lived for himself. As a pairing, these films are interesting. While “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” as Pink Floyd put it so well, Murray’s Phil might have spent a few less mornings waking up to “I Got You Babe” had a little quiet desperation been part of the American way. Incidentally, it’s been estimated that Phil repeats Groundhog Day 12,395 times. 101 minutes; 134 minutes.


1994: Shallow Grave

Once you see some of the films I passed over for this one, some of you will be irate. Clerks! Forrest Gump! Pulp Fiction! Shawshank! Well, consider this a Goldilocks problem. Sure, there’s a case for each of these film’s importance, but each is too-something. Clerks, too juvenile. Forrest Gump, too saccharine. Pulp Fiction, too unrestrained. What I like about Shallow Grave is that first-time director Danny Boyle had more than a decade on Clerks director Kevin Smith, so the film doesn’t get waylaid by the kind of crude junk teenagers laugh at; it was about run-of-the-mill, everyday human depravity, not the sort of grandiosity that places a magical simpleton at the crossroads of nearly every historically important moment in the 20th century; and it created a truly taught thriller with less money and time than its American counterpart. Now, I’m not saying it’s a better movie than Pulp Fiction. But I am saying I like it more. Also, I’ll be honest: I’ve never been a Tarantino fan, anyway. 92 minutes.


1995: Leaving Las Vegas

1995 was another good year for cinema, and so it was again a challenge to pick just one film. Until right now, I had called it a tie between Heat and Leaving Las Vegas, but I just decided to cut out Heat. While I love the film and think it’s one of the best crime films ever made, I’m not sure this list needs another mobster flick. And anyway, I just saved you 170 minutes. What Heat and Leaving Las Vegas have in common, though, is they tell the stories of men on the path to their own destruction. Only, it’s much more interesting when he knows it, as Nicolas Cage’s suicidal alcoholic Ben does. He’s past rock-bottom, and knows exactly where he’s headed. I used to think of this film as asking “Why?” Why does Ben give up? Because it doesn’t answer the question, I’ve continued to wrestle with it. But I wonder if the question this film is truly asking is about Elisabeth Shue’s character, Sera. Having been drawn in by Ben, the real question is whether the gravity of his actions will continue to pull her down even after he is gone. 112 minutes.


1996: Waiting for Guffman

Probably the best “mockumentary” ever made, few of its progenitors have reached the heights of this early example in the form. (Yes, I know it came after This is Spinal Tap but I think it might be better. Send hate mail.) Gave birth to the famous catchphrase, “I hate you and I hate your ass face.” 84 minutes.


1997: The Ice Storm

So I’m starting to realize that this might as well be called “The Human Frailty Memorial List,” as it’s largely composed of movies about broken people breaking themselves even more. This film asks, why do people so easily lose sight of one another, and what will it take for them to truly see again? When tragedy strikes, you’ll be as caught off guard as they are. 113 minutes.


1998: Elizabeth; The Thin Red Line

Two historical dramas. Elizabeth succeeds by limiting its scope to just the handful of years that comprise her rise to power. It’s like the Elizabethan version of The Godfather II, and, as I recall, even includes a wiping-out-of-all-her-enemies sequence. Also, I see it as setting the stage for my favorite thing I watched this year, Wolf Hall.

The Thin Red Line was 1998’s other World War II film. Both films pose the same question of the value of human life, but suggest radically different answers. Much, of course, has been made of whether so many men needed to die to save Matt Damon. But in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, one starts to lose a sense of differentiation between his characters by the end, which is precisely the point. As is Malick’s way, poetic voice-overs from a variety of different characters ultimately create an over-character — almost an oversoul — at the center of the film, and Malick attempts to turn his audience into the God of this universe, looking down on it from such a height from which humanity is the character, not any individual human. Perhaps one of the most beautiful and moving war film ever made. 126 minutes; 170 minutes.


1999: Being John Malkovich; The Talented Mr. Ripley

Another tie, and another unintentional thematic pairing. In Being John Malkovich and The Talented Mr. Ripley, you have two films telling stories about people trying to be other people, but using about as different a cinematic palette as you could imagine to do so. In Malkovich, John Cusack’s character Craig (a puppeteer, so, a bit on the nose) discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich. He and his wife both become obsessed by this portal, using Malkovich to gain something they lack in their own lives. In Ripley, Matt Damon gives one of his greatest (and most disturbing) performances as Tom Ripley, a sociopath whose desperate ambition to be someone else seems to know no bounds. It’s a remarkable film that manages to make a mirror of a monster. Yet, what works so well in this film is that we do see ourselves in Ripley, no matter how depraved his actions, nor how disgusted we are by the reflection. Sometimes great art is like a mask — it allows you to try on being someone or something else, and gain some perspective through it. But even greater art gives you the mask and shows you how you look in it. If you haven’t seen these films, see them at once! 112 minutes; 138 minutes.


And thus ends the nineties. My god, are you as worn out by reading this as I am by writing it? It would take you another twenty-seven hours to watch all of these films. Let’s take another break. Who needs a coffee? Here comes the two-thousands…


2000: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Wonder Boys

I praised Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in a letter last November, so check that out for my thoughts on it. As for Wonder Boys, it really has nothing in common with Crouching Tiger other than that I like it very much and that it’s simplicity (it’s no puzzle movie, like Memento, the film I would have chosen back in 2000) is what makes it endlessly re-watchable. It also features a cast of actors who thrive on subtlety. Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, and Robert Downey Jr. all do their best work in roles that are less showy, in my opinion, and this film is a great example of that. Michael Douglas, especially, is a delight as Professor Grady Tripp, the kind of guy that eventually acknowledges his flaws with a shrug and a smile, rather than some kind of contrived catharsis. 120 minutes; 111 minutes.


2001: Mulholland Drive

I’m still not sure I understand Mulholland Drive, but I didn’t choose it because it’s a particularly confounding puzzle movie. Nor because it’s a movie about movie making, as so many critics have said. Maybe it is. That’s fine with me. But it’s here because it so perfectly captures the surreality of a dreamscape. In a dream, the overall integrity of its reality rarely matters. In fact, it’s rarely something you even perceive. Instead, you are strung along from one moment to the next with a kind of cognitive myopia that keeps you from asking too many questions, doubting much, or looking down at your hands and discovering that you are, in fact, asleep. That is what watching Mulholland Drive is like. It’s a series of moments, connected by… something. Perhaps a bigger story that eludes my understanding. Perhaps the low-level drone of the film’s soundtrack that must tow the line between barely audible and vibrationally mood-suggestive, to the point where there is just a persistent dread that no contrasting image can put to rest — even Naomi Watts’s initially glowing face. There are two moments in particular that I have never been able to forget and which, on their own, provoke me to rethink this film and re-watch it every now and then. The first is when Patrick Fischer’s character, Dan, recounts a dream to a companion at a diner. As he describes the dream, the camera follows him and his friend to a dumpster in the parking lot, where he sees a monster emerge from behind it. The second comes about halfway through, when two women find a mysterious blue box. One opens it, and the other just disappears for good. Lynch plays with things like that — these deadpan mysteries, these abrupt and gapped events that become symbols. And what we create from our own imagination in order to fill the gaps is always more terrifying than anything he could put on the screen directly. 146 minutes.


2002: Adaptation

The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, was a big hit, pretty much immediately upon its release in 1998. And it was actually an adaptation of an article she’d written earlier, for a 1995 issue of The New Yorker. In both the article and the book, Orlean tells the true story of John Laroche, who was arrested in 1994 for poaching wild ghost orchids from a land preserve in Florida. In Orlean’s pursuit of the story, she wrote about themes of obsession and passion. And orchids, of course. Enter Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay for Adaptation, ostensibly a film version of The Orchid Thief, but really a film about Charlie Kaufman failing to write a screenplay of The Orchid Thief, which ends up really being about the artistic integrity, performance anxiety, and the commercial excesses of Hollywood. It’s true that Kaufman was initially hired to adapt The Orchid Thief, and that when he struggled to do so, he veered off course and wrote a script about his writer’s block. What’s not true are most of the plot details he invents to tell that story, like the existence of his twin brother, Donald (who is actually credited as co-writer of the Adaptation screenplay, along with Charlie), the romance between Orlean and Laroche, and the entire third act, which imagines Laroche and Orlean at the center of an orchid-fueled drug trade and veers the narrative off-course into high-octane, Hollywood thriller territory involving guns, a car chase, and death-by-alligator. I’ll say no more. Nicolas Cage stars as Charlie and Donald in what might be the performance of his career. No one plays self-loathing like Cage (see my 1995 entry), and in also playing Donald, he is able to balance out the oppressive weight of Charlie Kaufman’s depression with a warm, lighthearted whimsy he rarely portrays. There are too many wonderful moments in this film to recount, but I will share two: Midway through the film, Charlie Kaufman, desperate to get past his writer’s block, attends a story seminar held by Robert McKee (a real person). Kaufman sits toward the back, and while McKee lectures, his inner monologue of anxiety and doubts spews as voice over. As if suddenly aware of his role in this meta film, McKee, played by Brian Cox, rants, “And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you! It’s flaccid, sloppy writing!” which, of course, shuts up Kaufman’s narration. Later, in a question and answer period, Kaufman manages to work up the courage to ask a question. “What if the writer is attempting to tell a story where nothing much happens…more of a reflection of the real world?” Cox’s McKee unleashes on Kaufman a Glengarry-caliber diatribe, “The real world? The real fuckin’ world. First of all, you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly, nothing happens in the real world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption — every fucking somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else. Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love. People lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches a mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life. And WHY THE FUCK are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie!?” We’ve spent the majority of the film listening to Kaufman berate himself only to watch him discover by way of this ogre’s tirade that he’s not even much good at that! Oh, and the other moment comes when Kaufman visits the set of Being John Malkovich, and scenes from that film are entirely recreated in order to achieve the behind-the-scenes point of view Kaufman has in this one. 114 minutes.


2003: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Gorgeous, epic, seafaring adventure. Best use of Russel Crowe perhaps ever. Wonderful dynamic between he, the man of action, and his friend, the ship’s doctor, a man of science. 138 minutes


2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This is the third of four Charlie Kaufman-penned screenplays on the list. Can’t be helped. They’re all that good and that important. While Kaufman excels at mind-bending, deconstructed and surreal meta-narratives — all present in this film — the poignancy and beauty of Eternal Sunshine were unexpected, at least, to me. Unlike Malkovich and Adaptation, this is not a film simply about neuroticism, anxiety and narcissism (though again, that’s all here). It’s also about love, and how love can bend reality across time and space. Director Michel Gondry brings a softer, more delicate balance to Kaufman’s naturally heavy, black humor, which is essential to making this film’s aftertaste more sweet than bitter, one that holds up to repeated consumption. The genius of this film is in the question its final scenes leave with us: Can people change? Implicit in our ability to get up in the morning and press on with life is our belief that the answer is “yes,” and that is what creates a perfect narrative loop in this film. At the end and the beginning, we see two lovers at the conclusion of a fraught and exhausting relationship given the chance to retrace their steps and begin again. Who wouldn’t take that chance? 108 minutes.


2005: Brokeback Mountain; Good Night, and Good Luck

You’ve already seen Brokeback Mountain and probably love it even more than I do, so there’s little I need to say here other than there is no list of important films that it wouldn’t be on. For those of you who haven’t seen it — whatever your reasons or assumptions, hang them up and give this film a chance. You’ll be surprised and moved. 134 minutes

Chances are, though, that you haven’t seen Good Night, and Good Luck. Not because it wasn’t a wonderful, brilliant film, but because it was released in a limited run in that quiet, early Fall slot where most people are recovering from Summer movies and getting ready for Oscar-contender season. 2005 was very crowded with many popular (and some good) movies. It was the year of Batman Begins, Capote, two Spielberg films (Munich and War of the Worlds), a Harry Potter episode, a Star Wars prequel, and a bunch of other stuff. Still, this little movie did pretty well. Thank goodness, too, because George Clooney took no salary to make the film and mortgaged his own house to fund it. In a nutshell, this film is about how Edward R. Murrow and his staff took a public stance in opposition to Joseph McCarthy during his Communist witch hunt in the early fifties. It’s beautifully shot in black and white — grainy, with lots of dark rooms clouded in cigarette smoke and hot spots flaring off of eyeglasses. But more than that, this film is a powerful statement about the role of the press plays in Democracy. Two years into the second Iraqi conflict and a year after a truly depressing American election, this was a timely statement smuggled in by way of historical drama. Today — more than a decade later — it’s just as relevant. 93 minutes.


2006: Children of Men; The Departed

It usually takes some time for a science fiction film to be seen for what it really is. Often, the special effects get in the way, and some new technique can give a mediocre film the sheen of a great one… for a little while. But after some years, when enough movies have come and gone in order for that new look to become common place, then and only then will it become clear whether a film has something else — something timeless — to offer. Children of Men is absolutely that kind of film, and I suspect that it will soon join the ranks of science fiction classics, like 2001 and Blade Runner, whereas director Alfonso Cuarón’s more recent film, Gravity — more of a technical exercise, excellent as it was — will not. This is because the production design — the technology, the gadgets, the new ways the world might look — is in proper balance with the story and its characters. Good science fiction is about ideas and themes, not technology. And Children of Men is one of the most thematically heavy and technologically subtle science fiction films I’ve ever seen. It’s a vision of a not-too-distant future in which the world has lost all hope, not because of some sudden cataclysm that forces everything to change, but because of a subtle, fertility apocalypse slowly unfolds, withering the social fabric person by person as each wonders what the point of living is if no one will come after them. There are some incredible images in this film, and some astounding feats of cinematography, especially in several single-shot sequences that will almost certainly leave you wondering how on Earth they made them work. And there is an ending ambiguous enough to function as a hope barometer — you have to decide for yourself if the sun is rising or setting, so to speak. 109 minutes.

The Departed is Martin Scorsese’s greatest film, and the first one where he truly cared about developing complex characters. It’s so good that even Jack Nicholson’s ridiculous and over-the-top performance doesn’t ruin the good work that everyone else — Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Vera Farmiga — does. It’s so good that even that final, on-the-nose shot that everyone hates can’t bring it down. 151 minutes.


2007: Atonement; Michael Clayton

The final scenes of Atonement are an emotional gut-punch unlike anything I’ve seen before and poses a dilemma: how can one receive atonement when those who have been wronged are no longer around to deliver it? 123 minutes.

I’m also realizing that in addition to Charlie Kaufman’s prevalence on this list, I have a thing for small George Clooney films. Basically, if it’s small and he’s involved, it’s probably good (don’t believe me? see: Three Kings, Solaris, Syriana, The American, and The Ides of March in addition to the ones on this list). Michael Clayton is the story of a corporate “fixer” — a guy who is basically an invisible lobbyist for a law firm who makes problems go away and cases go his bosses way — who eventually grows a soul and cleanses the temple, so to speak. 119 minutes.


2008: Synecdoche, New York

If I wanted to be very clever, I’d just rewrite the entire film here instead of some short blurb that I hope gets you to watch it. Because what’s better than portraying reality than reality itself? That’s a central theme in Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece about a theater director attempting his own masterpiece but, well, living it instead. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the playwright, Caden Cotard, so, so brilliantly; in my opinion, this is the role that defines his career. Like Kaufman himself, Cotard is so driven to create something true — something honest and real — that the line between life and the stage begin to blur. As I watched this film, I thought so many times of my former philosophy study group friends — we who used to call ourselves the BIVs, or brains-in-vats, because of the almost inexorability of the idea that maybe we are living in a simulation, and if we are, how would we know anyway — especially as Cotard constructs a set inside an airplane hangar that is so vast and intricate that it contains its own hangar, in which there is a set, too, with it’s own hangar… More than once I wondered about those nested realities. Every story — every film — is an act of world building. The question is what the resolution of that world must be before it becomes a reality of its own. And once we’ve created a little world of sufficient complexity — sufficient enough to simply imagine inhabiting it — it becomes far easier (if not necessary) to consider the nature of our own reality, and who created it, and it’s place in the grand scheme of things. And then, of course, one must ask what sort of creature is equipped for and entitled to such an act of creation? Kaufman? Cotard? 123 minutes.


2009: A Single Man

Colin Firth’s performance as George Falconer, a gay man left to grieve his partner alone, without the support of family, friends, or society, is truly heartbreaking. Michael Phillips, film critic at the Chicago Tribune, put it better than I ever could, so I’ll just quote him here and commend the film to you: “Some films aren’t revelations, exactly, but they burrow so deeply into old truths about love and loss and the mess and thrill of life, they seem new anyway.” 100 minutes.


And that was the first decade of the two-thousands. It was a dark time. And it ate twenty-eight more hours of your life. We’re in the home stretch though. Got time for a quick bio break, but then we gotta get back down to business…


2010: The Kids Are All Right

Coming out of that dark stretch, this one gets the new decade started on a more uplifting note. When a kid called Laser meets his biological father, it shakes up everything, including the marriage of his two moms. Everyone is great in this film, and it offers a family positive message of endurance. 107 minutes.


2011: Jiro Dreams of Sushi; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I was a very grateful late-comer to Jiro, which I noted back in an old letter, so I’ll just reiterate a few of my thoughts from then: It’s “a beautiful meditation on simplicity and discipline. And that’s the entire point of the film — that Jiro’s mastery is the product of years and years of daily, repetitive monotony! Though the film doesn’t really get into this much — it’s certainly in the subtext, though — Jiro’s approach to his work is basically a spiritual discipline. Focus. Simplicity. Practice. Patience. Repetition.” 81 minutes.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, on the other hand, is absolutely my favorite film I saw in theaters in 2011. As I noted in my spreadsheet, I probably would have said The Tree of Life as of when I saw it in the summer of 2011, but by the time Tinker Tailor reached theaters, I imagine I’d have sorted through my thoughts on Tree enough to leave it behind. As much as I wanted to love it, there was less there there than the other Malick films I’ve adored in the past. Tinker Tailor is interesting in comparison. It’s a beautifully shot, slow, quiet drama that’s more interested in detail than action — so far, similar to Tree — but unlike Tree, every detail is necessary to an abundantly clear outcome. Gary Oldman is wonderful as an older, seasoned secret service agent who eventually identifies a long-term mole in the organization. 127 minutes.


2012: Looper

In a contest for best time-travel film of all time, Looper, Primer, and Timecrimes would probably all tie if we were voting on paradox law-abidance. But if we were voting on the basis of which is also the most fun, Looper would win. In part, this is because Looper is a time-travel film that, through the words of a grizzled time-traveler to his astonished younger self, makes clear it’s not interested in time-travel. Bruce Willis’s older Joe says to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s younger Joe: “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” That’s about as close as we get to a technical description of how time-travel works in Looper’s universe. Instead, Looper is about what happens to people in a universe where time-travel is possible. Specifically, in a universe in which the future mob (bossed by a delightful Jeff Daniels) sends people back in time to be knocked off by waiting hitmen until they’re not needed anymore and the mob sends these hitmen back in time to be knocked off by their younger selves. Oh, and as much as Looper, according to director Rian Johnson, isn’t interested in “working out all the intricacies of [time-travel],” it does contain the most creatively intricate and gruesome illustration of cause and effect that I’ve ever seen. 118 minutes.


2013: All is Lost

After seeing his 2011 debut, Margin Call, I was an immediate fan of J.C. Candor, and eager to see whatever he directed next. All is Lost not only didn’t disappoint me, it set the bar much, much higher (perhaps why I was slightly disappointed by last year’s A Most Violent Year). Chandor is becoming a master of restraint. Margin Call was almost like a stage play with a small cast set in an office building. But All is Lost goes much, much further. It’s just one man, alone in a boat. I like how A.O. Scott put it — that both All is Lost and Margin Call are about “how powerful men react when their sense of control is challenged.” In All is Lost, we see how one man, with no one to see, hear, or help him, reacts. Robert Redford delivers a tremendous, technical performance playing that man (he is never named), despite only uttering a handful of words. 105 minutes.


2014: A Most Wanted Man; Boyhood

A Most Wanted Man was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performance, and was released last January before basically disappearing. Those who saw it seemed to have loved it, but I was shocked that it was hardly mentioned and appeared on no end-of-year lists. Hoffman is wonderful in this film that, like Tinker Tailor, is a slow, detail-rich espionage thriller based on a novel by John le Carré. (It’s also directed by Anton Corbijn, who made the very good, small Clooney film, The American.) But unlike Tinker Tailor, which was about a seasoned agent working within a secret system to restore it to proper function, A Most Wanted Man is about a burnt-out agent trying desperately to work against a secret system to do one small, good thing. Hoffman was, as usual, extraordinary. 122 minutes.

You already saw Boyhood, and you loved it, too. Right? I struggled with whether to keep it on my list, though. It deeply moved me, but it hasn’t haunted me like A Most Wanted Man has. But perhaps I need to see it again so that I can pay closer attention to the details, especially considering the way in which it was made (as you already know, over twelve years with the same cast). In my first viewing, I was swept away by the film — really, by the characters — and that technical structure (of which I was already aware) fell away. That’s a strength of the film, not a fault, which is why I’ve kept it here. So if you haven’t seen this one yet, please do. 165 minutes.


2015: ???

Over the last few years, I’ve seen far fewer films than I had in years past. And the number of them that weren’t worth seeing is troublingly high (just look at all the mad faces on my spreadsheet!). My accounting of all these films underscores the points I made in the introduction about the kinds of films that speak to me now, versus those that did in the past. It’s a different kind of film that excites me now — typically, not an exciting film. But my theater-going habits don’t seem to have caught up. I’ve seen so many big, dumb action movies in the past few years, and every one of those tickets bought and hours spent is a ticket I don’t buy and an hour I don’t spend on (probably) a better film. As a case in point, this year, I saw three films in the theater: Terminator Genisys, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. One of those was truly dreadful (Terminator), and the other two were among the best of their kind. But even the best Mission: Impossible or Star Wars film isn’t going to stay with me like the films I’ve just shared with you. I’ve already forgotten most of the details from Mission: Impossible, and even though I just saw it last week, the latest Star Wars is already starting to fade away. Action just doesn’t stick like character does. So I don’t have a pick for 2015. I imagine I will once I’ve caught up with some of the many films from this year that I’d still like to see, like, Anomalies, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Carol, Crimson Peak, Mr. Holmes, Room, Tangerine, The Big Short, The Danish Girl, The Revenant, and The Assassin. And sure, maybe I’ll get to the James Bond movie that came out this year, or the Mad Max, or The Martian. But I think I need to start being more intentional with the films I see. If I’m not going to get to the theater as much as I used to, then I need to use those opportunities to see the kinds of films that I’ll want to talk about years from now — the kinds that will be lifelong ticks on my media clock.

Well, that’s it. I hope you enjoyed something from this list. I’ll be back to the usual format next week. Happy new year!

Written by Christopher Butler on January 2, 2016,   In Essays

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