I’ve decided to play the game that’s currently going around the web and post a list of my favorite films released in each year of my life to date.
Here are my two self-imposed rules:
• For the purposes of this exercise, I define “favorite” as the one film from the year in question which continues to mean the most to me today, and to which I have returned most frequently and with the greatest pleasure—broadly defined—since I first saw it.
• No cheating, faking, or posing. None of these films was chosen to impress the reader, or in an attempt to reflect a critical consensus, whether past or present. They’re here because I love them, period.
The nature of the list—only one film per year—has resulted in some anomalies. You’ll find only a handful of foreign-language films, for example, and the list also fails to reflect my general aesthetic preference for comedy over drama. So please note that these are not my Sixty Favorite Films Released Since 1956. That list would be a lot harder to draw up, if not impossible.
For the record, I went to a movie house for the first time in 1961 and started doing so with reasonable regularity in 1975, when I went off to college and walked a mile to the nearest theater to see The Longest Yard. I made the initial acquaintance of all but one of the earlier films on this list long after the fact, usually on home video or, before the VCR was invented, on network TV. (I saw Chinatown on a tiny portable bedside set in my college infirmary, having come down with the flu. I had a fever that night, and Roman Polanski’s cameo weirded me out beyond belief.) The first one that I saw on its original release was The Godfather, to which my unwitting parents deigned to take me, God knows why. I bless them for it.
Try as I might, I found it impossible to pick just one film in 1959, 1960, 1976, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1998, and 2016, so I listed both of my favorites for those years. Elsewhere, though, I treated this as a “forced-choice” quiz, meaning that a considerable number of films that I love failed to make the cut simply because they came out in the same year as other films that I love even more.
The films whose absence surprised me most are Croupier, The Limey, and Magnolia, all of which were given the push by Topsy-Turvy, and The Dreamlife of Angels, which was in competition with Next Stop Wonderland and The Last Days of Disco. The film whose absence I most regret is Henry Bromell’s Panic, a forgotten one-shot masterpiece—Bromell never wrote or directed another movie—which came out in the same year as You Can Count on Me, for me the greatest film of the past quarter-century. (I also hated to have to cut Barbershop, but it was up against Ripley’s Game, so what could I do?)
I should mention that I wrote an essay about film each month between 1998 and 2005. As a result, I saw a much higher proportion of the films that came out in those halcyon years, the golden age of the indie flick. Toward the end of that period, though, I came to feel that American film was entering a period of artistic decline which was unlikely to reverse itself in the foreseeable future, so I decided to stop writing about it. Since then I’ve devoted most of my time to reviewing plays and musicals. In most of the years since 2005, I’ve seen no more than a half-dozen very carefully chosen films, if that many.
I leave it to you to note the idiosyncrasies on display in this list, which is an all-over-the-place mélange of indisputably great films, big-budget middlebrow crowd-pleasers, no-budget indies, and purely popular popcorn-and-a-Coke charmers. (Yes, I like The In-Laws better than Apocalypse Now. Sue me.) I will, however, point out that all three of Kenneth Lonergan’s films made the cut, and that it was his Margaret that knocked Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress off the list. Sorry about that, Whit, but please don’t forget that I picked Metropolitan over Goodfellas!
You will also, I suspect, note the absence of, among others, Woody Allen, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Clint Eastwood, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Ron Howard, Akira Kurosawa, George Lucas, Satyajit Ray, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Luchino Visconti. Draw your own conclusions—but don’t count on their being right.
Finally, if I had to choose one all-time favorite film from this list, it would probably be Chinatown, but that’s because it’s the last one I saw.
With that, here are my sixty-one hostages to fortune:
1956: The Searchers
1957: The Tall T
1959: North by Northwest/Rio Bravo
1960: The Apartment/Shoot the Piano Player
1961: The Hustler
1962: Jules and Jim
1964: A Hard Day’s Night (take that, Dr. Strangelove!)
1965: The Cincinnati Kid
1966: A Man for All Seasons
1967: Point Blank
1968: Rosemary’s Baby
1969: The Wild Bunch
1971: The Last Picture Show
1972: The Godfather
1973: Charley Varrick
1975: Dog Day Afternoon
1976: Network/Taxi Driver
1977: Slap Shot
1978: The Deer Hunter
1979: The In-Laws
1980: Atlantic City
1982: My Favorite Year
1983: Tender Mercies
1984: Blood Simple
1985: The Trip to Bountiful
1987: Near Dark/The Untouchables
1988: Bull Durham/Who Framed Roger Rabbit
1989: The Fabulous Baker Boys
1991: Defending Your Life
1992: Strictly Ballroom
1993: Groundhog Day/Tombstone
1994: Ed Wood
1995: Kicking and Screaming
1996: Lone Star
1997: The Apostle
1998: Next Stop Wonderland/The Last Days of Disco
2000: You Can Count On Me
2001: Ghost World
2002: Ripley’s Game
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Napoleon Dynamite
2005: Me and You and Everyone We Know
2006: Cœurs (Private Fears in Public Places)
2007: No Country for Old Men
2008: The Dark Knight
2009: Me and Orson Welles
2010: The King’s Speech
2012: Moonrise Kingdom
2013: Frances Ha
2014: Mr. Turner
2016: Hell or High Water/Manchester by the Sea
* I saw only one new film in 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I hated.
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A scene from Arthur Hiller’s The In-Laws, my favorite film comedy to come out in my lifetime: