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The year I was born was the year Vittorio de Sica released Bicycle Thieves. I am not claiming to have seen it when it first came out, but when I search Wikipedia for all the movies that were made in 1948, Bicycle Thieves was the one that, when I did finally see it, moved me the most and stays with me the most permanently. 

My birth year was a decent year for cinema. Olivier’s Hamlet won the best picture Oscar; John Huston won best director for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; he also made Key Largo, which I will watch every time I come across it channel surfing, even if I see only the final 15 minutes: It is like a favorite tune you love hearing again. 

Others from 1948: Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair; Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero; Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story; Orson Welles’ Macbeth; Howard Hawks’ Red River; Hitchcock’s Rope; Visconti’s Terra Trema; and the last great screwball comedy, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Myrna Loy and Cary Grant. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, one of the stalwarts of my childhood of TV watching: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

My 73rd birthday is looming and I began to think — among many more important things — about all the movies I have seen in those seven decades. When I was a kid, I saw piles of them on TV, including those that aired 15 times a week on Million Dollar Movie, where I was first introduced to those English “kitchen sink” movies of the 1950s: Look Back in Anger; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; Room at the Top. There were a surprising number of British films on New York’s Channel 9. They certainly gave me a formative impression of the United Kingdom that later cleansed the palate after the Masterpiece Theatre syrup. 

And so, I thought to list the best movies for each of the years I’ve been alive. “Best” is the wrong term, of course: I couldn’t have seen all the movies made. But these are the movies I saw that I loved the most. Taken year-by-year, they make an uneven list: Some years were bumper crops and some were slender picking, but year after year, these were my picks.

When I was 1 year old, Orson Welles dominated Carol Reed’s The Third Man. When I was 2, Jean Cocteau made Orphée, which remains on my Top Ten list (although, I must remind you, my Top Ten list has about 40 films on it.)

1948 Bicycle Thieves

1949 The Third Man

1950 Orphée

The next decade begins with Jean Renor’s The River, although I should admit it is a late addition to my list. The first several times I saw it, it was in a miserable print with scratches, washed-out colors and blown-out contrast. I passed it off as one of Renoir’s lesser efforts. I was very wrong. Since then, Criterion (god bless’em) has sent out a gorgeous print and it would be hard to find a more gloriously beautiful film visually.

I saw Kurosawa’s Ikiru for the first time in a porno theater. I was recently graduated from college and a local film society could afford to rent out the theater for their film series. The posters in the lobby challenged the imagination. 

For 1954, I couldn’t decide between The Seven Samurai and Godzilla. When I was little and Million Dollar Movie ran the Americanized version of Godzilla with Raymond Burr, I thought it my favorite cheesy monster movie. Now that I am grown up and have seen the unmutilated version, Gojira, I recognize it as one of the most heartbreaking films ever made, up there with Bicycle Thieves and Mouchette, and is really an art film about the bombing of Hiroshima. It also has one of the greatest film scores, by Akira Ifukube, that expresses the grief. 

The decade ends with La Dolce Vita, which may top my Top Ten list. Every time I watch it, it seems deeper and more profound. 

1951 The River

1952 Ikiru

1953 The Earrings of Madame …

1954 Godzilla and Seven Samurai

1955 Pather Panchali

1956 The Searchers

1957 Wild Strawberries

1958 Hidden Fortress

1959 400 Blows

1960 La Dolce Vita

Up until 1968, all the films on this list were seen in retrospect, on television or on DVD. I was not a big moviegoer in my youth. There was no theater in my town. But after taking a film course in college, I got hooked and from Kubrick’s 2001,saw all the films when they came out. 

1961 Yojimbo

1962 Jules and Jim

1963 The Silence

1964 Dr. Strangelove

1965 Red Beard

1966 The Battle of Algiers

1967 Ulysses

1968 2001: A Space Odyssey

1969 The Passion of Anna

1970 The Wild Child

Choosing one from many is fruitless. It’s just a game. Take 1975: My favorite from that year is Ingmar Bergman’s version of Mozart’s Magic Flute. But it was a toss-up between that and Antonioni’s The Passenger, which I saw again recently and was even better than I remembered it. 

But how can you choose when in the same year, you could have picked: Jaws; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shampoo; Dog Day Afternoon; Nashville; Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Love and Death; Kurosawa’s Derzu Uzala; Picnic at Hanging Rock; Hester Street; Barry Lyndon; The Man Who Would Be King; The Story of Adele H.; Grey Gardens; The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum; and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves

Lina Wertmuller gave us both Seven Beauties and Swept Away; Ken Russell released two over-the-top biopics on Mahler and Franz Liszt (Lisztomania) — to say nothing of Tommy. Pier Paolo Pasolini dared you to watch Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. And there was The Rocky Horror Picture Show

And 1975 was not exceptional. I could make a similar list for most of these years. 

1971 Macbeth

1971 Macbeth

1972 The Godfather

1973 Amarcord

1974 Chinatown

1975 The Magic Flute

1976 Taxi Driver

1977 Annie Hall

1978 Pretty Baby

1979 Apocalypse Now

1980 Return of the Secaucus Seven

The 1980s was the decade it all went to hell. The top-grossing films of the decade were E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; Return of the Jedi; The Empire Strikes Back; Batman; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (also: Ghostbusters; Beverly Hills Cop; and Back to the Future, all among the top 10). Hollywood knew where the future was and it wasn’t back (“I am small; it’s the pictures that got big”). 

Yet, there are always great movies made. My best of the decade is Kieslowski’s Dekalog, ten short films based on the Ten Commandments — sort of. They were made for Polish TV, and the director made longer cuts of two of the segments, and for 1988, I have chosen A Short Film About Killing, one of the most brutal and truthful films I have ever seen. 

1981 My Dinner with Andre

1982 Fanny and Alexander

1983 l’Argent

1984 This is Spinal Tap

1985 Ran

1986 True Stories

1987 Wings of Desire and Full Metal Jacket

1988 A Short Film About Killing

1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors

1990 Goodfellas

By the ’90s, I was working as a journalist and often functioned as back-up movie critic, and so got to see a lot of films, including a fair share of really bad ones, and so, perhaps, it made me a little more tolerant of those that were good but perhaps not classics to make the AFI list. Still, my list includes some of my all-time favorites. 

Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy — and especially its conclusion, Red, are among the most moving I’ve ever seen, deeply humane. And it changed my thinking about coincidence both in fiction and in life. 

It was the decade I finally discovered Pedro Almodovar. I now own all of his films on DVD and share them with whoever is willing to sit still long enough. He is, with Kieslowski and Jean Renoir, among the most humane of filmmakers. 

1991 La Belle Noiseuse

1992 Reservoir Dogs

1993 Three Colors: Blue

1994 Three Colors: Red and Pulp Fiction

1995 Before Sunrise

1996 Sling Blade

1997 The Apostle

1998 The Thin Red Line

1999 All About My Mother 

2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou

In 2017, some misguided Broadway producers attempted to make a stage musical from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, a film so cinematic it lives in a world of its own. The musical closed shortly after it opened. How could it have been otherwise? The movie has elicited a good deal of hate from those who could only see an impossibly sweet smile and goofy haircut. There’s a lot more going on in it. It was my favorite film from 2001. I loved the color manipulation, the inventive camera movement and the quirky editing. It is a film you can simply sit back and have fun with. How is that any different from Tarantino, other than the violence? 

2001 Amelie

2002 Russian Ark

2003 Dogville

2004 The Merchant of Venice

2005 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

2006 Children of Men

2007 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

2008 Man on Wire

2009 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish version)

2010 Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

After retirement in 2012, I saw fewer and fewer films, at least in theaters. But I still ventured out for a few selected movies. In 2016, my wife became increasingly ill and I spent most of my time looking after her needs. There are no films for the whole year I can list. It is, until 2020, the only year left blank. After she died, I had little will to leave the house. But I have seen a few films since that I felt were notable. Now, most of the movies I watch are either streaming or from my DVD collection, which, at its peak, included about 200 French films, and all of Almodovar and nearly every drop of Werner Herzog. 

And I thank providence for Turner Classics and the Criterion Collection. 

2011 Tree of Life

2012 Lincoln

2013 Blue Jasmine

2014 Boyhood

2015 The Hateful Eight

2016 Nil

2017 The Death of Stalin 

2018 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

2019 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 

2020 Nil

2021 ?

This is my list. If I made it again, I’m sure I would list different films. I’m sure if you made your list, it would be completely different. Again, it’s just a game, an exercise. It doesn’t mean anything.

purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.