1900s

1920

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — It is what it is, I suppose. It has its charms. My favorite thing about it is the look of the film — the crooked, shadowy, gothic architecture and deliberate staginess of it, like Tim Burton and Wes Anderson were alive and making films in the 1920s and decided to work on a project together. It certainly has its own distinct feel. There aren’t many films from this era I can watch over and over again — too spoiled on modernity, I suppose — but this is all right.

1921

The Kid — I don’t think it’s Charlie Chaplin’s best film, but it’s certainly one of his sweetest and most likable. He was at his best when he found a way to have the comedy advance something emotional — in this case, the Tramp’s relationship with the child. This movie is both funny, in Chaplin’s typically laid-back way, and quite affective.

1922

Nosferatu — Again…it is what it is. You appreciate it for its innovation and significance at the time (and for what it’s worth, this was clearly working on a larger budget than other films of this era, or at least managed to get unprecedented access, because the sets and locations here are pretty great). Max Shreck’s physical presence is enough to make Nosferatu a horror icon. I don’t know that it holds up all that well today, but it’s still impressive, and I’m glad I saw it.

1923

1924

1925

The Battleship Potemkin — This seems to me to be the type of film that everyone admires distantly for its historical significance and innovation but that no one particularly likes. Even in film circles, you won’t see many people putting it on their all-time favorites list. I mean, at the end of the day, though the Odessa Staircase sequence is suitably harrowing, there isn’t much of a story, there are no characters to speak of, and it’s comically unsubtle propaganda for some…shall we say, questionable politics. That’s where I stand — I admire it for its innovation at the time, but I can’t say that I particularly enjoy it otherwise.

The Gold Rush — It comes from an era of cinema where we were still figuring out a lot of things, so there are definitely elements of it that make it a lot less enjoyable today than it was back then. (Admittedly, the version I watched was very low-quality — probably close to what it looked/sounded like back then, but I don’t know if there are any good remasters out there.) Still, I enjoy its laid-back comic tone.

1926

The General — I have mixed feelings about this. With the silent film era, there comes a point where you have to admire it a little more distantly, because beyond doubt, we know now of better ways of doing some of these things. The storytelling and characterizations here are very simple. Mostly, it’s just a movie where trains chase each other. It’s not laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it is sometimes amusing — it can be hard to tell, though. A lot of it plays out like a straightforward adventure movie, and the line between mugging for laughs and mugging on account of this is a silent movie can be hard to navigate. Still, it’s occasionally enjoyable, and given the era in which it was produced, it’s certainly ambitious. Of course, the main obstacle to anyone’s enjoyment of this, as it was to mine, is the fact that this was made in the 1920s, when it was still considered acceptable to root for a hero whose goal, inadvertent or not, is to allow slave owners to continue owning slaves. It’s a whole lot of give and take, basically.

1927

Metropolis — I believe there are a few cuts of this; I saw the restored version. It’s a product of its times, but it’s still a stunning achievement for the resources that were available to it.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans — I love when a historical obligation turns out to be a genuine pleasure. It truly is like a song — moving in a way you can’t always explain, in a way that just feels right. This movie fairly well swept me off my feet with its effervescent charm and charismatic lead performances. The music and sparse sound effects lend it a full atmosphere that’s sometimes missing from old silent films, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such striking cinematography in a product of this era. Only one thing holds me back from loving it thoroughly, and that’s that the sprightly and energetic story in which a married couple falls in love all over again is several leagues of magnitude lighter than than the act that triggers their reconciliation in the first place. It always feels as though there’s a gigantic elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge. I still very much enjoyed it, but it must be noted for the record that if your spouse ever even considers killing you, that relationship probably needs to end regardless of whether he’s sorry and wasn’t able to go through with it. That’s what we call a red flag.

1928

The Passion of Joan of Arc — Those of us raised on the ninety years of cinema that followed this will always be unaccustomed to the language of early silent films. The fact that it’s in a language I don’t speak is another obstacle; at least with English silent films I’m able to pick up a little extra nuance trying to read lips. I truly did enjoy it, though, so I imagine it would’ve swept me off my feet back in the day. Also, I watched the “Voices of Light” version and can’t imagine the film any other way; it’s perfect film music, and it amazes me that it wasn’t the original score.

1929

1930

All Quiet on the Western Front — A great movie in a number of respects (I love the way it conquers the usual war movie “cast of interchangeable dozens” by basically making them all the same person and giving them all the same arc; also, it has one of the most distressing homefront sequences of any war movie). But what really impresses me is the scale of these battle scenes. So huge, so many actors, so many effects, and the cameras feel incredibly free and energetic considering it was released in 1930. This must have blown minds when it was first released.

1931

City Lights — Sweet and charming and just really inherently likable. There’s a lot in it that’s just being done for the comedy, but at the same time, I think Charlie Chaplin often tried to tell a story in a way that certain other silent film classics didn’t. I don’t necessarily think it’s the richest or most interesting thing ever, but it’s worth a watch.

Frankenstein — I feel like the old Universal horror classics were the competent blockbusters of their time. “Frankenstein” strikes me as perfectly okay. The story isn’t all the way there, but it’s good enough. Same for the performances. I just didn’t have much interest in it as anything other than perfectly acceptable background noise.

M — As I’ve said in the past, I tend to need a character to pull me through things, so M isn’t quite to my taste, being largely a vignette-style portrait of a community’s heightening paranoia in the wake of serial murders. It’s quite good at that, so definitely don’t take this as a knock against the film itself. M is good and historically significant. It’s just not quite my thing, so I can’t call it a personal favorite.

1932

The Mummy — I really don’t want to dislike old horror classics, but they can be so stale sometimes. Barely a one of them has the slightest interest in telling an actual story; anything beyond that has lost the novelty that was once its selling point. This movie doesn’t really have a protagonist, or an arc in any real sense, and the whole thing is predicated on all of the characters being impossibly stupid all the time. It isn’t very long, but it tested me even at that.

1933

Duck Soup — Suffers a bit nowadays from what I’ve heard called the Seinfeld Effect: It’s been ripped off so many times that it’s lost the element of surprise necessary to effective comedy. It’s going to work best for people who watched it as children and were introduced to its style of comedy in that way. It is my misfortune that I’m not one of those people. There’s a madcap energy here that’s completely infectious, and I wish I could appreciate it less abstractly. This is clearly very good — sharp, well performed, funny. And I did laugh. But I’ve grown up seeing its jokes copied and repeated again and again, and that put a damper on it for me. Of course, none of that is the movie’s fault. If I ever have kids, I halfway want to own this so I can position them to love it in a way I struggle to.

King Kong — A fun horror adventure movie. I don’t know that I consider it a narrative triumph, not that it’s absolutely terrible, but it’s paced very well and is certainly imaginative, both in its subject and in how it renders its spectacle.

1934

The Man Who Knew Too Much — The remake is better. This version has a lot of potential but lets too much of it go to waste. It’s fun — I like Hitchcock’s lighter, more humorous stuff almost as much as the Rear Windows and Vertigos, and while it’s all too brief, I loved the dynamic between the main family. Reminded me a bit of my own in the way they express their love primarily through sarcasm and trolling. But the story wasn’t there; it felt like the movie began with the premise and just winged it from there. The main characters’ decisions have so little effect on the plot, and most of the climax is entirely outside of their hands. It sidelines most of them for close to half the movie and runs out of things for them to do. Entertaining, but definitely rates as extremely minor Hitchcock.

It Happened One Night — Not as emotionally…sledgehammer-y as some of Frank Capra’s other famous films, which I appreciate, and it does have some fairly enjoyable elements — the scene where the two leads improvise a fight to escape private detectives is such a strange thing for them to bond over, but it works. Some iffy gender politics skew my enjoyment of it a bit, though that has a lot to do with the changing culture. I would also say that Cary Grant’s character sometimes ended up on the wrong side of the “jerk with a heart of gold” equation. But yeah, it’s all right, I guess.

1935

Bride of Frankenstein — I actually prefer this to the first one. The characters feel sharper, the pacing seems tighter, the imagery is stronger and more memorable. It’s a little sillier than the first (the bit with the tiny people feels like something that would happen in Young Frankenstein), but if anything, that only makes it more interesting. The ending is a little anticlimactic. Still a good watch.

1936

Modern Times — I love this one. This was Charlie Chaplin at his finest. He’s in top form, as usual, and for this movie, he managed to assemble a cast that successfully goes toe to toe with him. I love the satire, I love (most) of the comedy (there are one or two bits that go on a touch too long), I love the characters. The decision to keep the characters silent but to use sound for the background noises really fills out the empty spaces and boosts the film’s effervescent energy. It’s so good.

1937

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — It amazes me how much life and vibrancy Disney could find within such broad strokes. Snow White is a charmer — funny, sweet, and somehow both gently paced and energetic. It’s an excellent children’s film.

1938

The Adventures of Robin Hood — This goes very firmly under the category of “impossible to hate.” Modern Hollywood isn’t even capable of making something this innocent and childishly sincere anymore. This one brings out the kid in you. To be fair, it’s so childlike that it can get downright cloying, and it probably meanders more than it needs to, but it’s still pretty fun.

Bringing Up Baby — It’s a bit too fever-pitched and loud for my tastes, and some of the performances are better than others, but its madcap energy won me over in the end. It’s admirably committed to its childlike innocence and broad, slapsticky tone. It’s unapologetically silly in a way few movies are allowed to be anymore.

The Lady Vanishes — It’s garnered a reputation as lesser Alfred Hitchcock, or at lest less well known Alfred Hitchcock, so I was surprised when I first watched it at how fun it is. Hitchcock wasn’t quite a cultural sensation when he made this, and maybe that’s why it isn’t so overtly stylish or immediately recognizable as one of his films. But its low-key approach is actually why I like it so much. Sure, the plot is far-fetched, but it’s difficult to be bothered by that, especially since the movie as a whole doesn’t take itself too seriously. I especially loved this movie’s characters; they’re a diverse and lively bunch, and they fill out the extra spaces nicely. Hitchcock gained a reputation for being the master of suspense and horror, so it’s nice to see he could also make something that’s just goofy and fun.

1939

Drums Along the Mohawk — Even by comparison to other movies from its era, this is a film you have to watch while thoroughly aware of its historical context. There’s some social stuff on display here that’s…pretty uncomfortable. The women are generally hysterical and useless (except Mrs. McKlennar, who’s kind of awesome), the Native Americans are kooky and weird, that early scene in the cabin comes straight out of the Abuser’s Justification Handbook, there’s that moment at the end where the black woman and the one good Native American character get weepy over the American flag alongside everyone else that smacks of total hypocrisy. There’s also the pastor, whose militant nationalism may or may not be intended as black comedy. And some of the complicated aspects of these historical events are smoothed over pretty easily (“We’ve always treated the Indians well,” a settler says in response to word that they’re teaming up with the British, and that’s the movie’s final word on the subject). Having said all that… It’s entertaining and basically well-made. It’s got a good sense of character even if the story development isn’t fantastic. The battle scenes are very well-mounted for the time. So, it’s all right. You just have to watch it for what it is.

Gone with the Wind — I struggle with this one; I really do. I struggle because I think it’s exactly the movie it intends to be, and I could probably even write a really thorough and complete thematic analysis that would account for nearly every decision it makes. At the same time, said themes fill me with absolute loathing in execution. I went into it thinking I was prepared. It’s a old Hollywood romance made in the 1930s and about the Civil War South; as such, I expected a hefty dose of cheese, which I don’t mind when it’s supported by storytelling, and a lot of uncomfortable racial stuff, of which there was even somewhat more than I anticipated, but I was prepared to overlook those things as products of their times (though I did run into a bit of a wall somewhere around the shantytown bit). What I was not prepared for was how deeply and thoroughly I would come to despise Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. What a pair of hateful, selfish, self-absorbed, narcissistic, manipulative, abusive crybabies. It’s amazing to me that culture remembers this as one of the great movie romances; at its most warm and inviting, the movie only suggests that these two psychopaths deserve each other. And I honestly think it’s intentional; it ends on such an unhappy, deeply ironic note. And it sure is hard to tolerate at nearly four hours. I was nearly yelling at my screen somewhere around the two and a half mark. Could not possibly have cared less about either of these adult children. And I’m not sure how much that should reflect upon the film, because I don’t think it wants us to like these characters. But I do think it wants us to empathize with them, and somewhere shortly after the halfway mark, I completely stopped doing so. Neither one of them has a single redeeming trait. And it’s hard to handle at the film’s ludicrous length, especially since there doesn’t seem to be a deeper point to it than “don’t be, like, completely, irredeemably evil all the time.” I don’t think I could ever happily watch this again.

The Hound of the Baskervilles — Decently entertaining. Basil Rathbone obviously ended up defining the role of Sherlock Holmes, and there’s a reason for that, despite the fact that it’s not quite 100 percent who the character is in the short stories. The movie as a whole might not be terribly special, but it’s a solid watch anyway.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — I sometimes think there’s a storytelling know-how movies had back in the day that they don’t anymore. A modern movie as flawed as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would scarcely be watchable, but it tells its goofy little story so well that, despite all the errors, it’s 100 percent involving at all times, and you genuinely care about what’s happening. And it is flawed, for sure — the ending leans so far into pure fantasy that it only serves to emphasize exactly how impossible it would be for the good guys to win in this situation in real life; certain emotional moments are so over-romanticized that they become accidentally hilarious; and the normally excellent James Stewart’s performance here hits the naively idealistic notes so hard that he sometimes seems like a five-year-old in an adult’s body. But it is nevertheless a well-structured story set in the context of characters with defined and relatable wants and needs whose traits and personalities are not only recognizable but unique. And for that reason, it is completely engaging and a wonderful watch each and every time. We need to get that back.

Stagecoach — John Ford had a pretty decent year in 1939. Speaking as someone who generally isn’t a big fan of Westerns, this is one of the better ones. I like the characters, I like the tone, it’s fun and touching. I take some issue with the ending; I don’t think it resolves one of its foremost character arcs the way it should have. But it’s a good movie overall.

The Wizard of Oz — By way of warning, I’ve been accused of communism for this one. I don’t particularly care for this movie. I didn’t particularly care for it when I was a little kid either. I don’t hate it; it’s hard not to admire its spirit and the amount of effort that went into the sets and costumes and makeups. But particularly prior to Dorothy’s arrival in the Emerald City, it is so bright and colorful and happy that it starts to border on “accidentally sinister.” I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about.

1940

Fantasia — A very interesting exercise in cinema as experience rather than narrative. I love the faith it has in its audience, the way it approaches the music from an intellectual perspective and incorporates it into so many different moods and styles. Some parts of it work better than others, but on the whole, Disney was on to something very beautiful here, something animation has not since replicated. 

The Grapes of Wrath — I think it basically works on the level of drawing on one’s natural compassion, which makes it a mostly positive experience. I don’t ascribe classic status to it, though, primarily because it sketches its characters so thinly that the situations never take on enough detail to really be personal and involving on a deeper level.

The Great Dictator — I wish I loved this entire movie as much as I love parts of it. That is to say, it’s not a movie I could watch over and over again and never get bored, but there are scenes in it that are candidates for the all-time list. This movie contains some of the funniest bits Charlie Chaplin ever committed to film, from its endearingly childish takedown of Adolf Hitler (made braver given when it was produced and released), to Chaplin’s increasingly pitch-perfect physical comedy to (especially) literally everything Napolone does. At the same time — while most of Chaplin’s films aren’t stories and are mainly bit-driven, his best ones, like Modern Times, manage to have most of their comedic bits tied into something larger — in that film, for example, the Little Tramp’s desire to make it in the world. Here, it’s just loosely connected bits that don’t particularly hover around any central theme. So, while it’s funny, it doesn’t do much for me emotionally. There is some really, really great stuff in here, though.

His Girl Friday — Fun enough. I don’t have particularly interesting thoughts about this one; it just flew past me. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are great; the way the movie leaps up and down the tonal scale is entertaining if a bit disjointed. It’s perhaps overly frantic, but a pleasant viewing nonetheless. Interesting to see a Golden Age romantic comedy that implies the leads weren’t made for each other so much as deserve each other.

The Philadelphia Story — I think this movie began as a concerted effort to assemble the most charming cast possible and give them nothing but charming things to do. Did Aaron Sorkin travel back and time and write this script? Every line either made me laugh or yell “OH SNAP” at my television. There are a few issues with the story that I’m not yet convinced of (I feel like we’re told about Tracy’s character flaws far more often than we actually see them, and that ending is just a mess of shifting motivations), but the movie as a whole is so fun that it almost doesn’t matter.

Pinocchio — I regret to inform you that I haven’t seen this in forever. I have seen it, but I couldn’t even speculate as to how long it’s been. It wasn’t one of the many Disney films we owned when I was a kid; I’m not sure why. When I did see it, I remember liking it but being a bit upset by some of its darker moments. At any rate, it’s earned its place in Disney’s little hall of fame.

Rebecca — It’s definitely a very good film; it just also happens to strike me as the sort of thing Alfred Hitchcock could make in his sleep. My biggest issue is that I dislike how easily it resolves itself; it seems far more morally ambiguous early on than it does by the end. The plot twists all seem orchestrated to give the characters the break they need at that moment. Putting that aside, however, it’s still a highly entertaining watch, just one that I think engages on the surface level better than underneath.

1941

Citizen Kane — Yeah, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to say about this. Um, it’s one of the greatest movies of all time? Um, it’s one of my personal favorites? Not exactly revelatory. Saying you love this movie reveals essentially nothing about you; everybody who loves movies loves this movie.

Dumbo — I think that even when I was a kid, I was drawn more to films that interested me than films that entertained me right away. I always remember my response to Dumbo being confusion more than anything, but unlike other little kids, that didn’t stop me from watching it again and again. I was too intrigued by all the bizarre things that happen in it. I think Disney took some risks with this one, and it seems they paid off.

The Maltese Falcon — I love the darkness and cynicism of this movie compared to most of the other staple classics of its era. There really isn’t a hero here; even Humphrey Bogart’s private detective Sam Spade is an underhanded, rough sort of guy. I think it’s a wise decision that a movie about deception never quite allows the audience to trust its protagonist, even though the story is primarily about him dealing with the web of lies the other characters weave around him. I don’t think the film has a single moment of conscience until its last scene, but it’s constantly building toward that moment — increasing its pitch of lies and human selfishness until someone finally explodes and decides to leave it behind. This one is really good.

Sullivan’s Travels — One of the great Hollywood entertainments, which is not to say that it is the greatest but that it is the greatest that most personifies the Golden Age film. Humor, drama, a little melancholy, cast with charismatic leads, and filled with hope even in its ambiguities. The prototypical “I laughed, I cried” movie. Perhaps not a personal favorite, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless.

The Wolf Man — One of my favorite films from the Universal horror canon. I have yet to love any of these, but there’s a strength of story and character in The Wolf Man that I found somewhat lacking in films such as Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. And of course, having Claude Rains in the cast doesn’t hurt. It isn’t perfect, but its brisk run-time does a good job smoothing over the flaws before they become critical. Solid Halloween viewing overall.

1942

Bambi — See Dumbo. This movie could not possibly have toyed with my emotions more when I was a kid. It’s really dark for a Disney film. It is not above killing off adorable and lovable characters when it needs to. Despite that, I watched it constantly. It just had a strange hold over me. Still does.

Casablanca — Again, what do you even say about this? It’s got one of my favorite casts of characters pretty much ever. And I love the dialogue — no one talks like these people, but the movie creates its own world of wit and poetry. The story unfolds like a typical romance but has the decency to end on an uncommon and morally courageous note. It’s a great story and one of my favorite movies.

Mrs. Miniver — Give me a minute, picking up the pieces of my shattered heart. It’s super manipulative but semi-overcomes that problem via the novel method of tricking you about what it’s manipulating you toward. William Wyler gives it an emotional intensity that I don’t often find in movies of this sort; it’s bloodless and not all that spectacular, but the scene with the Minivers in the bunker does so much to set the stakes. It’s far from perfect — I’m not sure why Mrs. Miniver is the main character, Mr. Miniver feels like he completely disappears from the plot midway through, and there are a few performances I’m not sure about. Also, is it just me or does the sermon at the end kind of sound like it’s advocating that we go bomb their villages and kill their civilians now? But it’s still moving where it needs to be, one of the better homefront movies I’ve seen.

1943

Shadow of a Doubt — Textbook Hitchcock: Effortlessly tense and engaging despite its small story and limited domestic setting. Teresa Wright is radiant; the role is a touch cheesy, but she fully embraces every note. Joseph Cotten is excellent as well; the tension is derived from whether he truly loves his niece or views her as a means to an end that can be discarded if necessary, and Cotten manages to play it both ways at all times. You know he’s a killer from the beginning; it’s a question of whether he has it in him to kill Charlie specifically. The way the performance darkens when the character’s thoughts turn dangerous is truly intimidating. My biggest complaint is that I wish the film were more of a mystery: I think it would work better if we were in Charlie’s shoes, coming to suspect her uncle as she does instead of knowing from the outset. Even so, it’s great. It isn’t top-notch Hitchcock, but it’s pretty close.

1944

Double Indemnity — There’s something I find very compelling about films wherein the best laid plans slowly unravel — where actions have inescapable consequences. Piece by piece, the whole construction comes tumbling down. Of course, it has to feel inevitable, and here, it does — though, to be fair, when you think about it, these characters do overlook a couple of pretty significant traps you’d think they’d be smarter than to fall into. You can see some of the holes in their murder plot from the get-go. It also seems that the film’s initial contention is that its protagonist is, at least, an ordinary man, so to be honest, the relationship that drives him to premeditated murder maybe needed more development in order to sell that change in him. Still, it’s engrossing film noir.

Gaslight — An intriguing psychodrama. I have personal issues with movies like this; they strike so close to home that they get uncomfortable for me. So, it’s not something I’m going to revisit a whole lot. But it’s definitely extremely well done, and I would happily recommend it to someone who doesn’t have the same turn-offs as me.

Laura — Clifton Webb absolutely makes this movie for me. Waldo Lydecker is a unique and interesting character, and everything he did just cracked me up. “Laura, dear, I can’t stand these morons any longer. If you don’t come with me, I shall run amok.” My feelings about the rest of the film are a bit more mixed. I like the idea of the detective falling in love with the person whose murder he’s investigating, but I don’t think the movie really dramatizes it all that well; and on the thematic level, I’m not sure the hero and the villain are ultimately all that dissimilar in behavior, so the film’s commentary on unhealthy romantic attachments fell a bit flat for me in the end. Even so, the movie’s fine, and with Webb in the mix, it’s excellent viewing.

1945

And Then There Were None — It doesn’t leave you with much to chew on, but it’s an appropriately tense, twisted, paranoid, and fun thriller while it last. I admire most how skillfully it wrangles its large cast. That silent opening shot of everyone arriving on the island says so much about each character individually — even the boat captain, who doesn’t even amount to a full minute of screen time.

The Big Sleep — I’m still not entirely sure what happened in this movie. It usually takes me multiple viewings to get my head around most film noir — they’re complicated, and you have to be committed to memorizing every name and every clue and every connection and every detail, and it’s just a lot to take in the first time around. This thing is convoluted even by those standards. Nevertheless, it’s consistently compelling thanks to its wry humor, conviction, and the power of its stars. And I love how fully it embraces the inherent cheese of film noir and just revels in it. Everybody is trying to have sex with everyone else, and they’re all doing it wittily.

1946

The Best Years of Our Lives — It sometimes tries to have its cake and eat it, too, but it’s somehow pretty decent at that — it manages to attune you to the harsh reality while also going for the simplest, happiest version of events. It makes it a pretty strong feel-good movie. I think what really elevates it over a lot of other films of the time is the complex inner life it develops — I look at other movies from this era, even the greatest of them, and see a certain emotional simplicity from scene to scene. What you saw was what you got. But with this film, every scene has complicating factors, and regardless of whether the surface emotion is happiness, sadness, or whatever, there’s nuance beneath the surface that really brings out the difficulty of its characters’ circumstances and how they affect everything in their lives. It also benefits from its timing — a movie about WWII veterans readjusting to society made almost immediately after the war and with a double amputee non-actor in one of the lead roles. It gives the film detail and comprehension it might not otherwise have. I think it’s just south of greatness, but it comes close.

It’s a Wonderful Life — I’m slowly beginning to understand Frank Capra’s role in film history. A lot of the movies he made are beloved classics, and I can definitely see why — he wasn’t half bad as a storyteller, in the sense of making you like his characters and giving you a real sense of what motivates them and why and how they relate to the people around them. However, you find that his movies don’t enter the conversation nearly as much when you’re running with the really hardcore cinephiles, and I can definitely see that, too, because Capra never met an emotion he didn’t want to slather in a thick layer of cheese and then wrecking ball into his audience’s brains. It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really an exception in that regard. It’s solid and emotionally involving entertainment, and it’s also spectacularly goofy and overdone. But I can go for that from time to time. I do think the story has a really deep-seated flaw, though. I could almost write an entire review solely on what I think is wrong with the story, but this blurb is already too long. Suffice to say that I don’t think George Bailey as the story has allowed us to understand him would have learned the lesson that he did from Clarence’s intervention.

Notorious — It’s amazing to me that Alfred Hitchcock could make the climax of his movie nothing more than people walking down a flight of stairs and somehow have it be pretty much the most harrowing thing ever.

1947

Gentleman’s Agreement — This movie actually wasn’t as dumb as I thought it was going to be; for its time, it’s surprisingly progressive. I mean, there are weird elements throughout — Gregory Peck’s character means well but is obnoxiously preachy; it’s especially weird when he starts lecturing actual Jews about anti-Semitism. But it’s also focused on the small, unnoticed details of prejudice in a way that you don’t even see much today, and even if it lets Peck get away totally unscathed, it does have characters built in that are designed to challenge the audience rather than make it feel superior. I have to admire it for that, at least.

1948

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein — Charming in that way that such movies tended to be, for how handmade and earnest they were. Still a bit dumb and not all that interesting, though.

Bicycle Thieves — I definitely like this movie — that ending strikes you like a ton of bricks — but no matter how many reviews I’ve read, I’m not sure I’ve been drawn over to the side that considers it one of the greatest movies of all time. I agree that it manages to achieve something really special given the scant story elements it chooses to put at its disposal. I just disagree that it’s so charmingly simple that it makes it all the way to the top of the all-time list. Still, good film.

Rope — It goes without saying that Hitchcock’s control over tension is absolutely masterful, and that’s this movie’s life blood — in addition to how far it goes in making the central dinner party so utterly diseased. (When Brandon essentially gifts his murder victim’s unknowing father with the murder weapon… Lord.) I just wish the central theme — how hateful but seemingly abstract sociopolitical ideologies can provide justification to the worst of us — were better developed. The metaphor here is a bit too direct for my taste; I would rather the Stewart character’s ideology had been something subtler than, you know, basically advocating murder. Still, Rope is an engaging, if slight, film.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre — An involving and appropriately psychological treasure hunt with an intriguing dark side. I don’t know that it’s the most nuanced examination of the perils of greed ever filmed, but it nevertheless uses it to good effect as the subject of a rollicking good yarn. I think it’s a touch better at establishing characters than developing them, which I would say is its major flaw. Either way, it’s still an excellent watch.

1949

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad — Unfortunately, this is one of those movies where I can say with certainty that I’ve seen it but nevertheless remember very little of it. I distinctly recall my parents renting it when I was a kid. I still have a few images of it in my head. More than that, I can’t say.

The Third Man — An entertaining and appropriately unpredictable thriller that doubles as a warning against allowing such things to romanticize your worldview. There’s something unusually complex about it, and it doesn’t feel like a film from its era — there’s something modern, ahead of its times, about it. It’s not perfect — that incongruent, unchanging soundtrack was interesting at first but became maddening over time. But on the whole, it’s innovative and interesting.

1950

All About Eve — Basically a good film on every level, but there is something at its core that I find a touch…discomfiting. I think there are two major through-lines happening here: the first, of an almost sociopathic pursuit of fame and fortune and what that threatens to do to you, is fairly tight in its focused and cyclical nature; the second, of paranoia, insecurity, and aging gracefully is somewhat undone by the first. I couldn’t speculate as to the film’s specific intention, of course, but surely it noticed that it retroactively justified all of Margo Channing’s hyperanalytical insecurity and acting out, right? It gives her a moment of major life change, but it’s unclear whether or not it survives the revelations that come later. Some people have also argued that the movie’s anti-female-agency, and I definitely see that, too, even if it’s comparatively small. It’s solid filmmaking overall, but I might not hold it to the same height that others do.

Cinderella — Two Disney movies in a row. Yeah, I’m sorry. Despite this one being a very well-known entry in the Disney animated canon, my family didn’t own it, and it wasn’t a big part of my childhood. I saw it once or twice and maybe saw snippets of it here and there after that. But I don’t remember it well enough to offer an opinion of its quality.

Rashomon — I don’t think it’s one of Kurosawa’s most refined films, but it’s still pretty good. I tend to prefer perspective stories like this when they show the same literal events but in different personal contexts; Rashomon isn’t that, but I do like that the lies the characters tell about what happened really inform the audience about who they are as people. I have my issues with it here and there, but mostly, I think this is a good watch, even if it’s no Seven Samurai.

Sunset Boulevard — Man, this one really gets under your skin. When I first watched it, I had no real idea what it was going to be. I was surprised initially, based on the plot description I’d read, to find that it was film noir. Even then, it seemed destined for a different ending than what ultimately came. It just gets darker and darker and more twisted, and it successfully makes all of that come out of the characters. The final lines are among cinema’s most haunting and heart-rending. Great movie.

1951

The African Queen — An entertaining watch. I don’t love it; I think there are a few stretches of it that drag a bit. But there’s some solid acting, some tense adventuring, and some great locations.

Alice in Wonderland — I guess this is just my thing with Disney movies from this era, but yeah. I’ve definitely seen this, but I remember basically nothing about it. Sorry.

The Day the Earth Stood Still — Okay, bear with me. Revered sci-fi classic though it is, I don’t particularly care for it. It’s interesting to me that the Rotten Tomatoes consensus specifically praises it for not being didactic. That it’s so didactic is exactly why I don’t like it. And it’s didactic in that way that movies always seemed to be in the 50s: not “don’t use nuclear weapons because kindness, love, peace, etc.,” but “don’t use nuclear weapons because aliens will obliterate your planet if you do.” The allegory has no real-world application, though one could easily recast it as a sly commentary on American foreign policy… I don’t absolutely hate it; it has its charms. But I’m not a fan.

Strangers on a Train — I think this is one of Hitchcock’s stranger films in its weird balance between drama, action, crime, psychological thriller, etc. And then, it all culminates in this weirdly silly final set piece. Then again, it remains persistently tense and involving in that way it seems only Hitchcock could achieve.

A Streetcar Named Desire —Very, very, very good. There’s a lot about it that I’m still piecing together, but its primary strength is its well-drawn characterizations — each member of the main trio is fully realized, with complicated personalities and motivations and plenty of interesting flaws. I like that it makes Stella the only immediately likable character and constantly shifts your perspective on the other two. There’s a dark psychological quality to it; Blanche’s storyline reminds me of the short story The Yellow Wallpaper. It really gets under your skin. Just an excellent movie all around.

1952

The Greatest Show on Earth — Boy, Cecil B. DeMille sure did love the circus, didn’t he? This movie is two-and-a-half hours long, and if you cut all the scenes of random circus stuff that has nothing to do with the plot, you’d be left with, like, forty-five minutes. It’s ponderous and melodramatic to the nth degree. Still, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have its charms. It’s certainly quite in love with its subject — almost childishly so. That tone is somewhat infectious. You have to watch it for what it is, I suppose, but it doesn’t have to be a bad time if you’re open to it.

High Noon — It’s a solid and enjoyable Western. It probably beats a little too much with the heart of red-blooded American manliness, but then again, it is a Western. It’s a good enough story.

Ikiru — I had such a tormented relationship with this movie while I was watching it. It got off on the wrong foot with me, what with its opening narration that explains the main character’s entire personality to me and clumsy storytelling like the totally unnecessary additional scene in the hospital where the movie makes extra-sure we know Watanabe has cancer. But then, it started to win me over, through a combination of its sensitive direction, its thematic clarity, and an absolute barnstormer of a performance from Takashi Shimura. But then came the funeral, and the movie started to lose me again — the last half hour of it seems to have little purpose other than slowly, deliberately explaining its themes just to make sure we got it. But then there’s that scene of Watanabe on the swingset, in the snow, singing that song from earlier in the film, and I was right on the verge of just crying my eyes out. So, I don’t know what to say about this. Few movies achieve the emotional highs this one did, so I guess I really liked it, even though substantial parts of it bore me a little. Go figure.

Singin’ in the Rain — Great fun. It’s hard to imagine a happier, more charming movie. I wish there was a little bit more to the story, but it’s hard to complain overall.

1953

From Here to Eternity — It has a handful of strong moments, but I’m sort of middling on it as a whole. It mostly seems like a series of disjointed events that go on for a while, seemingly at random, until Pearl Harbor happens with an equal sense of arbitrariness. I mean, it isn’t totally unconnected; everything is relational, for one thing. But even that plays out with a perspective on male-female relationships that’s very much of its times. I don’t know; kind of a mixed bag.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — Funny and self-aware enough that it manages to avoid disappearing into its own vapidity. Usually. I’m not really a fan of Marilyn Monroe, but Jane Russell more than makes up for her here.

Hondo — It strikes me as the sort of simplistic, idealized Western that we as a culture ran from and basically never made again once this phase ended. In theory, Westerns were all about grits and guts; in practice, they were often exactly the opposite. Hondo epitomizes that — there’s nothing even remotely complicated about it. Every potentially interesting element in it is cleaned up to the point of meaninglessness. Stuff just kind of happens, and none of it matters, because making it matter would require its characters to wrestle with more complicated thematic questions, and that’s boring, I guess. This movie also began to prove to me that John Wayne was only really good as the man of few words — this guy talks too much, and you can hear Wayne’s gears clicking on how to deliver each line. I don’t really miss this sort of thing.

Roman Holiday — It’s charming enough, though there’s a certain inevitability to the way things play out. It might’ve been fresher in the 50s than it is now, for all I know, but you know from the beginning the two characters are going to become romantic in one sense or another and that the drama is going to come from the fact that they’re all lying to each other. Fortunately, it forgoes that moment where each party finds out the other’s been dishonest and runs off angry while everyone sulks and mopes only for them to inevitably make nice. Actually, the ending is surprisingly low-key and real for a movie like this. Either way, it’s basically amusing, if not necessarily a work of genius.

Stalag 17 — A surprisingly fun movie — and very funny, as well (“Have you been indoctrinated?”) — though perhaps a bit too much of a lark given its subject matter. Nevertheless, very enjoyable.

Tokyo Story — Further proof that sometimes, all the drama you need can be found in the everyday, ordinary actions of everyday, ordinary people. Despite other people’s praise, though, I’m still not sure I’m sold on the direction and editing, which I found very static.

The Wages of Fear — This feels as though a modern movie with a full understanding of cinematic history that was somehow released in 1953. It is amazing how well this movie has aged — you don’t even have to muscle your way through stodgy, detached camerawork and weird editing. If you released it exactly as it is today, it would still be a great movie. This thing is an absolute nail-biter. It has a Hitchcockian ability to find unbearable tension in the most mundane things. I love the way it picks you up, lets you relax, then hits you with the big moments when you’re least expecting it. I love its simplicity and straightforward quality, which nevertheless makes room for plenty of big thoughts and ideas. Honestly, the only thing I’m not sold on is the ending; I think it should’ve closed about five minutes earlier. I like the implications behind the ambiguity that would have left. But it’s a heck of a ride before that.

The War of the Worlds — I find it interesting that we have two adaptations of this movie — a Cold War one and a post-9/11 one, each of which views the story with the specifics of the paranoia surrounding those events. I’d say, on the whole, that this is a pretty good piece of spectacle. Its strongest point is the way it allows even the minor characters to express enough personality that you care about what happens to them. Its weakest point, unfortunately, is that the two leads don’t get half as much of that, and when the movie separates them out from everyone else, it starts to get boring. Still, despite its age, there’s some good stuff here.

1954

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — I like it for its handmade earnestness and how shockingly well parts of it still hold up today. I also love, love, love James Mason as Captain Nemo; he plays the part exactly the way I imagined the character in the book, wounded but prideful, angry and desperate but cool and collected in its expression, ultimately very complicated. However, the story really isn’t there — too many pointless digressions, scattershot character and thematic development, bungling a handful of key scenes. It’s a mixed bag but mostly an enjoyable one.

Creature from the Black Lagoon — Good fun. The creature is possibly my favorite Universal monster; it’s the only one that didn’t exist as a cultural artifact prior to the release of the film, so it’s the only one that’s wholly original. Its design is very memorable, and while it’s difficult to get genuinely freaked out by old horror movies as a jaded resident of the 21st century, this one definitely gets closer than a lot of its counterparts.

Dial M for Murder — Its singular gift is in being suspenseful and intriguing despite giving the entire game away right off the bat. Right from the start, you know the culprit, the method, the motive. And yet, it’s still completely engrossing. This may be understating it a bit, but this Hitchcock guy, he had a gift.

La Strada — Pretty good. Those of you who know my taste probably are unsurprised that Fellini isn’t my cup of tea. Fortunately, this one is a little more accessible; I never felt like there were layers upon layers of imagery and symbolism between me and what was going on. It’s a simple story, but I liked it — especially since it’s complicated underneath the surface. The only thing I don’t like about it is the acting; it all strikes me as broad and trying too hard.

On the Waterfront — Yeah, what else do you say about this one, really? I love heroes like this, the ones who are complicated and caught somewhere between good and evil, trying to get by and/or maybe do the right thing somewhere along the way. It also contains what is probably the best movie pastor of all time. Pretty great overall.

Rear Window — Possibly my favorite Hitchcock film. Possibly my favorite James Stewart film as well. It makes quite a lot out of a little, remaining in a single room for most of its run-time. It’s funny and well-observed for most of that time, but in those final moments, when it abruptly ratchets up the tension, Hitchcock proves his mastery once again — even while letting a few laughs into the situation.

Sabrina — I love just about every person in this, and the characters are very well-defined, which gives the movie an air of unpredictability despite its overall familiarity and allows it to muscle right through the superficiality inherent in the plot (at the end of the day, neither of the men give Sabrina the time of day until she changes her look). However, that may be its Achilles’ heel as well — the skin-deep pep wears thin after a while, and the movie never finds the deeper connections between the characters, making it tough to be particularly invested in the ultimate outcome of its romantic triangle (in the end, it feels as though the movie just flips a coin). Even so, the Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, and Audrey Hepburn factor can’t be easily dismissed, and I mostly enjoyed myself.

Seven Samurai — This is definitely a long one, and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t take a while to get going. At the same time, I’m also aware that the way the movie just kind of sits there and hangs out with everybody for something like an hour and a half is the reason why that stunner of a climax works like gangbusters. “Epic” is, for once, the appropriate word, I think. It’s got a big cast, and it mostly manages it really well; you get a sense of who everybody is and come to like each character in one way or another. And while I think the editing can be a little too jumpy, the cinematography is quite lovely.

1955

Diabolique — It’s a solid, tightly-wound thriller. I really enjoyed it. Still found it a touch underwhelming, though. “Person does something bad and is consumed by paranoia while trying to hide it” is pretty well-worn cinematic territory. It’s done pretty well here, but still. I figured out the twist a long time before the movie wanted me to. Mostly, I think I’m spoiled on The Wages of Fear — it’s one of those movies that’s so perfect that everything else the director does, especially if it’s in a similar vein, kind of pales in comparison. Still, Diabolique is a tense thriller; it just isn’t one of my all-time favorites.

Lady and the Tramp — This one’s also been a while, though my family did own it, so it had a somewhat larger presence in my childhood. It wasn’t one of my favorites, but I did like it a lot and revisited it now and then. It’s been a bit since I’ve seen it as well, though.

The Night of the Hunter — It’s solid but one of those cultural masterpieces that I don’t particularly love. I appreciate its uniqueness; it’s an uncommonly dark film with heavy subject matter and daring themes. It’s also visually impressive; there are a few shots in this movie that are incredibly well done, especially for their time — the shot of the murder victim in the car underwater is expertly filmed and looks completely real. I also like a lot of what the film is saying about the flaws of authoritarian religion, even though it says it clumsily at times. For me, it fails largely on the character level — they’re sketched pretty broadly and don’t change much over the course of the film. The serial killing preacher is an interesting presence, but the movie only goes so far into his psyche. The widow who becomes his disciple is intriguing, but her religious fervor goes from zero to 100 so quickly that it’s difficult to follow it meaningfully. The kids ultimately come off as the leads, but they’re very boring children — monotone, dull, flat. I like a lot of things about this movie, but large parts of it leave me cold, too.

Rebel Without a Cause — I always procrastinated on this movie as I toured various classics I haven’t seen; I’d somehow gotten it in my head that it was just a nostalgic teen flick mainly preoccupied with how cool it is (something that never, ever ages well). I should’ve given it more credit than that. It was a pleasant surprise. Actually a complex, gripping drama that explores some pretty dark thematic territory and isn’t afraid to go the distance when it counts. I wish I hadn’t put it off for so long.

The Seven Year Itch — I liked it much more than I expected to (I didn’t pay attention to the opening credits and had no idea Billy Wilder was the director until after it was over; I might have gone into it with more enthusiasm if I had). Despite being made in the 1950s, there’s something distinctly modern about its tone — the humor is dry, the jokes are sharp and fast, there’s a certain madcap energy about it. Tom Ewell owns the entire movie; I went into it having never seen him before and left a fan. The guy has a direct line to my funny bone. He spends 95 percent of the movie monologuing, and it never once gets dull. I even think Marilyn Monroe was used fairly well here; I’m not a fan, but the ditzy performance suits the character, who needs to be somewhat empty-headed in order for it to be believable that she thinks the Ewell character is just a nice man with no ulterior motives. It isn’t perfect, but I had a pretty good time with it anyway.

To Catch a Thief — At times perhaps a little too sophisticated for its own good, but I nevertheless enjoy Alfred Hitchcock’s lower-stakes, lighthearted cat-and-mouse games, the ones where the characters are having a good time chasing the thrill of it all. It’s casual, relaxed entertainment, but entertainment nevertheless.

1956

Forbidden Planet — A Russian nesting doll with a really good story about a scientist whose efforts to protect mankind from its hubris ultimately lead to him becoming the epitome of that hubris, buried in the center of five or six way less interesting stories. I sure am glad Cookie got his bourbon.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers — It’s perhaps unexpected that one of the few classic horror movies that I actually enjoy would be the one that sounds the dumbest on paper, but there you have it. Dumb, pulpy name with idiotic premise, decent movie nevertheless. There’s something inherently spooky about the idea behind it, and the movie gets some mileage out of that. Moreover, while it might not be the best-told story of all time, at least it attends to character enough that what happens matters a little. I’m totally on the director’s side about that ending, though.

The Killing — Lesser Kubrick in that it feels more like a modest 90-minute amusement than a towering work of art, but lesser Kubrick is still a lot better than most directors on their best days, and this is a pretty good modest 90-minute amusement.

The Man Who Knew Too Much — I can see why Hitchcock decided to go back and remake this one. The original isn’t exactly a black mark on his record, but it’s a bit mediocre by the Hitchcock standard. The remake not only feels like the confident work of a much more experienced filmmaker but rectifies most of my problems with the original, primarily that it sidelined its own protagonists for most of run-time and had so little narrative drive. With that fixed, this version is able to, if anything, go even smaller than the original while nevertheless being many times more engaging. The only regard in which I think the remake is inferior to the original is in its villains — after all, it’s tough to beat Peter Lorre in such a role. And as a matter of personal taste, I preferred the somewhat older child of the original — it made the character feel less like a cute thing to be endangered in order to up the tension. Otherwise, it’s markedly better in nearly every respect.

The Searchers — I’m torn between this being admittedly well-made and very entertaining (and I’m saying that someone who isn’t typically a huge fan of John Wayne or westerns) and the fact that, even by the standards of 1950s westerns, it’s really, really, really, almost comically racist. It’s compelling storytelling all the same, but you have to go into it prepared to be regularly uncomfortable in ways the film doesn’t seem to intend at all.

1957

12 Angry Men —If you ever asked me to definitively arrive at an answer to the question of what my favorite movie of all time is, my head would probably explode. But this would be one of the five or six titles that crossed my mind before that happened. I can’t condense my feelings about this movie to a short blurb; suffice to say there isn’t anything about it that I don’t love entirely without reservation.

3:10 to Yuma — A pretty solid Western. I like it mainly for the villain, Ben Wade. He’s complex, unpredictable, manipulative, and scary — just a fantastic bad guy. I generally like the structure of the film; I just think it needs a little more weight in the moment. The hero and villain are great but not quite written for one another; their relationship is sensible but not as potent as it needs to be for what the film is trying to accomplish. Nevertheless, pretty good, glad I saw it.

The Bridge on the River Kwai — A lot of people seem to regard Lawrence of Arabia more highly than this, but I’m not sure. I think the latter might be the better film on the whole, but this one strikes higher highs for me. It contains two of my favorite characters of all time — Colonels Nicholson and Saito. Their incredibly strange relationship has never really been duplicated; I’m not sure that anyone’s even particularly tried. I’m not sure where this would land on my all-time list, but it’d be up there.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral — Historical accuracy is one of those things that depends on the context for me, i.e., not that something was changed but why it was changed. With this movie… Honestly, the version of events they’ve cobbled together here is somehow less interesting than the true story one presumes they were trying to dramatize. This movie is barely even about anything. I mean, when most movie sites’ one-sentence plot description doesn’t even happen until over an hour in, something has gone seriously awry. This movie just bores me.

Paths of Glory — It’s a war movie that’s part courtroom drama, so naturally, it’s right up my alley. It’s not quite as dramatically lively as you’d hope; fundamentally, none of the characters undergo any sort of arc over the course of the film. But the way it toys with the audience’s emotions and mental state is…brilliantly frustrating. You feel like a bystander to the characters’ stupidity and self-absorption, which makes you empathize with the Kirk Douglas character immediately. It highlights the foolish arbitrariness of what we consider to be morally-justified violence in a way that practically has you shouting at the screen. It also has some incredibly cinematic sequences that were well beyond its time visually. The one big battle scene ought to be on the all-time list.

Old Yeller — It’s a bit on the sentimental side, and not particularly story-driven. Still, it’s that type of family film that doesn’t get made anymore — the type with real lessons and real emotions and actual thematic ambition. I don’t think it’s great, but there are very great things about it.

The Seventh Seal — Visually, you could make an argument that this film was well ahead of its times. Not only is the imagery iconic, it has such a modern construction about it. Aside from the aspect ratio, I could see this film being made in exactly the same form today. It looks great. There’s something mesmerizing about it, particularly during the famous chess scenes. I don’t love it as much as other people, though. I think I reach a point with movies like this that express their themes almost exclusively through dialogue where I wonder why they didn’t just write an essay. The characters are good and the story is all right, but it didn’t grip me the way I hoped it would. But I wouldn’t dwell overlong on the negative; there’s a lot of greatness on display here.

Throne of Blood — It’s lesser Kurosawa, but naturally, still pretty solid. It’s well-done; I just wish it had done something with this well-known story other than change its setting. It’s a little too straightforward for my taste. It’s a decent watch nevertheless.

Wild Strawberries — Well, Ingmar Bergman certainly was a busy guy in 1957. His movies still aren’t really my thing, but Wild Strawberries is all right. Strangely, I think it might be one of his more accessible films — it’s considerably more literal than average for him, and you don’t go through it with a sense that there’s something that you’re not getting. The ideas here — intergenerational anxieties, dealing with one’s own mortality, taking the measure of your life — are plainspoken but not unsubtle. It’s just a bit…arch, I suppose. Stolid. Hard to describe. But good.

Witness for the Prosecution — This was a heck of a year for courtroom dramas, which is great for me. That’s a genre I happen to adore without reserve; as mentioned above, 12 Angry Men is probably my favorite movie of all time. This is pretty great, too. There’s just something I love about watching smart people shout at each other about crime while slowly piecing together the truth behind a dire mystery. So help me; I love it. If 12 Angry Men is a serious examination of the legal process, then Witness for the Prosecution is little more than the fun version, and I’m totally okay with that. This one goes for convoluted plotting and twist after twist after twist, sprinkled with a light film noir sensibility and dashes of humor here and there. I love Sir Wilfrid; I can think of few films that would choose the fat, ailing, grumpy old codger for a protagonist, particularly when those are simply his traits and not at all the subject of the film itself. He’s a fun character. And this is a fun movie.

1958

The Blob — Not a bad movie. It does a lot of things I like — namely, its tendency to lend little details to all of its characters that don’t matter in the long run but make them stand out better. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with the plot that Steve doesn’t like scary movies, that Richie passes the long nights playing chess over the radio, that Bertie lost his wife in a car accident, but it serves to humanize all of them. Even so, I think neither the story nor the spectacle are all that strong, and the movie as a whole passed by as a bit of a non-event for me.

The Fly — Weirdly screwed up for a film of its era. I understand why some might find it cheesy, but the climax sent chills up my spine. The whole movie is scary, not in the sense of a physical threat, i.e., “a monster is chasing me” but in the existential sense, i.e., “the monster is inside me.” Made my skin crawl throughout. Not entirely sure about the film’s structure, giving the game away right off the bat (and unnecessarily wasting time on the way) and then spending the rest of its time playing catch-up. But it works, despite its occasionally haphazard negotiation between seriousness and cheese, sort of embodied in Vincent Price’s “closing argument,” as it were.

Touch of Evil — Oh man that opening scene! We see a man slip a bomb into the trunk of a car, then follow it for several interminable minutes. There’s no score, no ominous camerawork, just a relentless, unembellished tracking shot. It introduces our main characters simultaneously, without telling us, at first, that they are our main characters. But it’s enough to see them together on what appears to be an enjoyable night out as, at first, the car slowly passes them by, then gets stuck in traffic long enough for them to catch up, then waits for a while by the border guard. Every time you think the characters you’re looking at are safe, the movie pulls you back in. What an incredible piece of absolutely unbearable tension! Oh, and the movie’s decent, too.

Vertigo — There’s part of me that finds the storyline overly far-fetched, and then, there’s part of me that doesn’t give a crap on account of that whole thing where this movie is awesome. As I said earlier, Rear Window is probably my favorite James Stewart movie as an overall whole, but Vertigo is probably the best performance of his career, one of the few that gave him someone a bit darker to play. And that final shot is incredible. Yes, I do consider the extended ending to be a bit of blasphemy.

1959

The 400 Blows — Good movie. I didn’t love it. Must have missed something. I enjoyed the characters and thought the family dynamic was rich and detailed and interesting. I just lost the larger point of it somewhere.

Anatomy of a Murder — I expected to like it somewhat more than I did, given that I’m such a sucker for a good courtroom drama. But there’s something just a little standoffish about it, alongside a few weird implications and some old-style noir dialogue that felt, at least to me, too labored. It’s still pretty good, though, and I did enjoy myself. I especially like the way it keeps you guessing; the evidence presented throughout the film supports both sides of the story, and it’s not until the very end that the movie finally plays its hand. A tough jury to be on, indeed.

Ben-Hur — It’s a really good piece of spectacle with enough dramatic precision to keep you from feeling its length. Nevertheless, it is too long; I’ve seen very few old Hollywood epics that absolutely needed their absurd run-times. The weird thing about Ben-Hur is how it budgets that time, simmering forever in one detail and then blazing through the next one (example — that Judah becomes one of Rome’s best chariot racers entirely off-screen). It has an extremely protracted first third, but as soon as Jesus becomes a factor, the movie hurries things along. It resolves its themes a bit strangely and without much impact. Still, it’s emotionally engaging; it’s very good at establishing relationships and motivations and defining them with regard to the characters. And that chariot sequence… It’s absolutely amazing how well that holds up. Barely a second of it rings false. I have absolutely no idea how they got some of those shots without killing everyone involved. Bravo.

House on Haunted Hill — I never really developed strong feelings one way or another about this one. On the plus side, it has a strong sense for atmosphere compared to a lot of other horror movies, and it does manage to establish a fairly unique tone and story. On the negative side, that story never really comes together, and a lot of setups never really pay off. I don’t like it; I don’t hate it.

North by Northwest — I expected to love this when I first saw it. I ended up surprised to find my feelings a bit lukewarm. I like it, but there were long parts of it where my attention started to dwindle. The characters didn’t strike any particular chord with me, the story was textbook crime/adventure, the visuals were fine but nothing to write home about it (except during the scene with the plane). It’s enjoyable, but I’ve felt no particular urge to see it a second time.

Sleeping Beauty — I have a distant admiration for it because of how influential this was; you can see its fingerprints all over its modern counterparts. I also like the animation, rough though it may be. Disney, like any other studio, has always had a style that governed most of its productions; this is one of the few that truly wandered off the beaten path. It’s more stylized, with thicker, bolder lines with hard edges, very colorful, like a stained glass window set in motion. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it very empty-headed, low-stakes, and dull.

Some Like It Hot — You have to go into it under the realization that it’s very much a product of its times and doesn’t always have the most progressive notions when it comes to women — even though, laudably, a lot of its humor is drawn more from how people treat them rather than how they act, so I’m not saying there’s nothing of value there. I would also say that it has a somewhat flawed script — the two main characters seem to switch personalities the moment they step on the train, and one of them later changes his motivation entirely apropos of nothing to set up a major plot development. Still, it’s hard not to admire its energy or the fact that it’s frequently hilarious — Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon really put their all into these ludicrous and embarrassing characters. You just have to take it for what it is, I suppose.

1960

The Apartment — I like it, but compared to everyone else’s assessment of it, I think I have a few more reservations. It’s a little uneven. I’m not really sure why it chooses the character it does for its protagonist, and it has a couple of archaic notions about certain things, making it difficult for me to embrace it fully. But you couldn’t ask for a better cast, and it’s emotionally involving on at least the most basic level, so it’s worthwhile on the whole.

La Dolce Vita — I don’t know. I’m starting to wonder if maybe there are times when I should admit that I just didn’t like it instead of assuming that I didn’t get it? Because I’m pretty sure I “got” this. I don’t ever remember feeling like I was totally out of the loop or like the film was retreating into the kind of abstraction I struggle to understand. It’s “accessible,” in that sense. I felt like I was in tune with the message; I felt like I was in tune with the characters. It just seemed like it made the same simplistic point over and over again at much too severe a length. It definitely ended up being what I fear most as I catch up on my film history — the dry, dull historical marker. I liked La Strada and am totally okay with filing 8 1/2 under “didn’t get it,” but this? I think it’s possible it just isn’t my thing.

The Magnificent Seven — Honestly, I’m not a big fan. For the most part, neither of the famous western remakes of Kurosawa films do much for me. They adhere so closely to the originals’ formula and don’t do it as well. Seven Samurai benefits from its length; it has time to establish the seven and keep them in play throughout. The Magnificent Seven is too abbreviated; I quickly forgot about most of the cast. I don’t think it does much emotionally with the premise either. It’s fun sometimes, but mostly, I can take it or leave it.

Ocean’s Eleven — Is it just me or did all leading men in the 50s and 60s look EXACTLY the same? Something like eight of the eleven are smartly-dressed, square-jawed white men with the exact same haircut and (even more bizarrely) the exact same dark brown hair color. I kept losing track of who was who, which is a problem I usually only have with war movies where everyone’s coated in dirt and wearing a helmet. Anyway, the movie’s okay, albeit nothing special. Kind of feels like it’s making things up as it goes, but it’s entertaining enough.

Psycho — Yeah, this is pretty much the definitive Alfred Hitchcock movie. Honestly, I like Rear Window and Vertigo better, but it’s hard to deny the visceral force this thing has. The twist midway through is shocking even if you know it’s coming. The rest of the movie is impossibly tense, and even a little scary sometimes. It works on just about every level, honestly.

Spartacus — Absolutely one of the great Hollywood epics. At the hands of Stanley Kubrick, you’d certainly be hard-pressed to find one that looks better — and it’s also uncommonly human by his standards (his emotional distance has been the main reason behind my struggle to appreciate his movies on anything more than the abstract level). It must have been a joy to see this on the big screen in its day.

Swiss Family Robinson — This movie is just a ton of fun. This is the image that comes to my mind when people talk about the classic Disney adventure movies. It has it all — big, goofy set pieces; simple but effective character drama; really cool sets; great locations; a whole bunch of neat animals; and snarling pirates for bad guys. Among movies my family didn’t own that my grandmother did, this was probably my most-watched as a child.

1961

Breakfast at Tiffany’s — This is another one of those classics whose overall regard I just don’t understand at all. It strikes me as empty-headed and formless; only on rare occasions could I discern any particular point behind what I was seeing. Also, insert obligatory mention of Mickey Rooney’s character here. Audrey Hepburn’s sheer charisma — okay, and the fact that I kind of have a major crush on her — comes close to saving it. Close, but no cigar.

The Hustler — I genuinely wasn’t prepared for this one. There’s an understated but frequently surprising brutality to this movie, if not in its visuals then in its implications. There’s a cutting honesty — and implicit challenge to the audience — in this movie that is really atypical of the preserved classics from this era in film. I greatly appreciate it for that reason, in addition to the fact that it’s largely well done on the whole.

Judgment at Nuremberg — Hey, you know how I keep saying that I really, really love courtroom dramas? Judgment at Nuremberg is a courtroom drama. So I really, really loved Judgment at Nuremberg. Transitive property, people. Seriously, though, this is a great movie. I’m always nervous going into a movie that pushes or exceeds three hours, because I’ve seen very few, even among the all-time greats, that use that time well. This movie, fortunately, does. It’s over three hours, but it really doesn’t feel like it. I think some of the stuff that happens outside the courtroom can be a little dry (Spencer Tracy’s character is probably the least interesting person in a movie that’s ostensibly about him). But when they’re in the courtroom, arguing it out and making impassioned pleas, the movie just soars by. In particular, I love the movie’s balance — every character has a flaw, every character has a virtue, and most importantly, every character has a point. The movie is asking a lot of heavy questions — the typical questions of justice and redemption, yes, but with a mixture of pragmatism, post-war reconstruction, and the possibility of atrocity among seemingly ordinary people. This movie, ironically, really distances its audience from judgment. It condemns, in no uncertain terms, the evil of which men are capable but doesn’t position you to feel as though you’re somehow above it all, as though a similar sequence of events could not make monsters of us all, as though the actions of the Nazi regime are buried history rather than active elements in our own world. As you can tell by my mini-essay here, I really, really like this movie. What’s a guy have to do to get a Blu-Ray release up in here?

One Hundred and One Dalmatians — This is one of those rare childhood favorites that I think I like more as an adult than I did as a kid. Don’t get me wrong — I liked it plenty when I was little, but compared to, say, The Lion King, it just didn’t get as much play. When I finally revisited it as an adult, only on occasion did I find myself mentally quoting along with it. But I did find that there’s a real maturity to it. It’s a kids’ movie with a lot going on for the adults, too. It’s sophisticated and laid back; the dialogue is laced with complex political and cultural references and jokes kids have no chance of getting. There’s some real nuance in there, too — the relationship between the primary human characters feels like a very lived-in marriage. There’s a surprising amount to like here. I hope it remains a family film staple.

West Side Story — This is the sort of movie that wrestles you to the ground and forces you to enjoy it. I try to be open-minded, but the moment it starts and members of a street gang start leaping and twirling around while singing about how tough they are, I definitely started resisting it. And yeah, the primary obstacle to anyone’s appreciation of this film as going to be how powerfully cheesy it is. But the longer it goes, the more engrossed you are in it, until the finale reduces you to a blubbering mess. It is dumb and silly and broad, but it creates its entire world around that so none of it feels out of place — it’s not dealing with any characters or story threads or ideas whose complexity is too much for it to accommodate. So, yeah, the two leads fall in eternal love the second they see each other, but that’s enough for the movie’s purposes. And anyway, it’s hard not to admire the scale of the production and the uncommon consistency of its songs. Not all of it is sung, but the dialogue scenes have a rhythmic quality to them that make them feel like part of the larger whole. It’s enjoyable overall.

Yojimbo — It’s not surprising that this got remade/ripped off as a Western in the U.S. — it already feels like one. A small, dusty, ruinous old town in the middle of nowhere, run by rival gangs, with only a lone warrior passing through on a long, aimless journey to stand in their way. This probably comes as no surprise, given that I’ve gone on the record as not liking A Fistful of Dollars (which I saw first) all that much, but I find Yojimbo to be superior to its Western remake in almost every way. It’s not perfect either, but I think it’s much better, for a variety of reasons but chief among them that Sanjuro’s smug, condescending detachment is much more entertaining than the Man With No Name’s complete nothingness. That trilogy would sort of figure itself out as it went along, but Yojimbo had its act together from the beginning.

1962

Lawrence of Arabia — Like I said, it’s probably the better overall film compared with The Bridge on the River Kwai, even if, I again, I think the latter hits higher highs. But what does it even matter? They’re both fantastic. It might be too long when all is said and done, but then again, it uses that time pretty well. It’s a fascinating study of a pretentious egotist and performer who began to believe his own narrative so intensely that it drove him to madness…only to regain his sanity exactly in time to realize that it was all for nothing.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — Probably one of my favorite Westerns. It feeds off the usual tropes while still managing to twist them into something new. You can easily read a lot into it, and all of it makes sense, whether you see it as a collision of worldviews or a subtle political commentary. Either way, it’s a solid film.

The Manchurian Candidate — I can’t quite tell whether this movie is exploiting Cold War paranoia, critiquing it, or both, and that fact may actually make it better; it leaves you with something to contend with. Not only that, it gives the film a layer of complexity that isn’t common in its genre; it’s more interesting than a black and white take on a multifaceted years-long political and cultural phenomenon. I don’t completely love it, mainly because few of the characters had any real impact on me, but there’s still plenty to like.

To Kill a Mockingbird — Forget you people and your real-life role models; I want to be Atticus Finch when I grow up. I sometimes throw in my copy of this film just to watch the scene where he gives his closing arguments. Moments like that are why cinema exists.

1963

8 ½ — This film falls under the category of “probably a great movie, but not really my thing.” I don’t particularly know what to say about it other than that.

The Birds — It’s weird that other than Psycho, this seems culturally to have become the movie that defined Alfred Hitchcock. In all honesty, out of all the films of his that I’ve seen, this one might be my least favorite. In fact, I’m not sure I’d say that I even enjoy it. As with a lot of movies like this, it’s no longer scary because the effects haven’t aged well at all. It does have a few great moments of tension and unease (I love the shot where Tippi Hedren is sitting on the bench, and in the background, crows slowly and quietly gather on the playground). But I didn’t find the characters or story particularly compelling.

The Great Escape — Definitely very entertaining. The tone and sense of humor are both great, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the plan come together — I’m predisposed to love any movie that favors brains over brawn in solving its problems. It’s not necessarily the deepest thing ever, but it’s not really meant to be. The only thing I’m not entirely sold on is the ending — part of me thinks it works like the anti-cathartic endings of The Bridge on the River Kwai or Das Boot, but here, it’s such a severe departure from the film that proceeds it. I haven’t made up my mind about it yet. But the film had me emotionally from the get go, and that’s quite enough to recommend it.

The Haunting — I wish I loved the whole thing as much as I love parts of it. Ultimately, I couldn’t quite get into the story — everyone other than Eleanor struck me as uninteresting, and even then, I don’t think her arc works (it jumps from one thing to the next too quickly, and the decision to let us hear her thoughts seems like cutting corners rather than a stylistic choice). But the visuals and the craftsmanship behind the horror sequences are so incredible that I have to rate it positively anyway. If a modern director decided to shoot a black and white horror movie that relied on atmosphere and tension to the exclusion of jump scares and spectacle, he/she would produce something very much like this. The direction is spot-on, the cinematography exquisite, the sets full of personality and texture. The voices in the wall scene is a masterclass in horror.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — One of my favorite comedies. It’s probably too long, but every set piece is so great that I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any scenes I’d be willing to part with. It just has this wonderful madcap energy, and like the best comedies, it benefits from the fact that it has a basically workable story as well. That way, when it’s not being funny, it’s still at least fun. But this is a great cast, obviously, and all of them brought their A-games. Hilarious and tons of fun overall.

The Pink Panther — It’s been a couple years since I last saw this, so my memory of it’s shaky in the details. My impression of it was that it’s an entertaining film with enough laughs to justify a few viewings, even if it’s not especially interesting.

The Sword in the Stone — I don’t particularly care for it. It wasn’t a part of my childhood; I discovered it later in life. Among Disney’s more non-narrative films, Fantasia is definitely the way to go. This movie is just a series of mini-stories that are occasionally cute or funny but mostly are kind of bland.

1964

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: Very funny, very incisive satire. There’s an extent to which you have to have been there, but I wasn’t, and I still love it. Some of its satire is applicable only to the Cold War, true, but on a larger level, its portrayal of the toxic mixture of human paranoia, nationalism, and ignorance and gigantic guns still rings true today. I know this is Peter Sellers’ movie, and he’s great in all three of his roles (I think the President has an underrated comedic role to play), but for me, this movie is all about George C. Scott. Which makes it even funnier when you know exactly how Stanley Kubrick got that unhinged performance out of him.

A Fistful of Dollars — I honestly don’t know about this. It sounded like something I’d love, but I’m really mixed on it. I think it’s basically involving once it finally gets going, which takes forever. Most of the praise for it centers on the direction and editing, which are admittedly impressive, but I’m still holding true to my philosophy — direction and editing, while capable of making or breaking something, are the vessel and not its contents. The story here is really thin. The characters are more so. Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, in this film, is a visual icon, but despite being our protagonist, we learn essentially nothing about him. No one gets meaningfully connected to anything, and other than the shades of gray surrounding the protagonist, there’s nothing much going on thematically. People tell me to take it as an action movie, but honestly, there’s so little of that, and when we do get it, Sergio Leone’s snappy direction sells it for a bit, but at a certain point, it becomes too much GUNFIRE CLOSEUP GUNFIRE CLOSEUP, and it all takes too long. I don’t know. Like I said, toward the end, it starts to get compelling enough for me to be conflicted about it, but man was I ever expecting a whole lot more out of this movie.

The Graduate — A good film with some great scenes and better performances and enough storytelling prowess to keep you on board. There are parts of it I’m still debating, however. The fact that it teeters on the edge of sincerity and disaffected youth in revolt is both its strength and, to some extent, its weakness. The whole thing becomes extremely cohesive when viewed in the light of every decision being made purely out of rebellion, but it also has these little moments that make you wonder what anyone wants and why. My favorite interpretations of it have painted it as an example of what goes wrong when kids aren’t allowed to seek independence and, yes, to rebel in healthy and productive ways and instead bottle it up until adulthood. Still, there are things that come off as mis-ordered and decisions that seem under-justified. But it is still a compelling portrait of lives caught in flux in a world that seems to have forgotten what it feels like to stand on the precipice of adulthood.

A Hard Day’s Night — I like The Beatles and went into it with an open mind, but it just didn’t work for me. None of the four are particularly good actors; the movie doesn’t even try to work the songs in organically; there really isn’t a plot. It’s funny now and then, I guess. Maybe my problem is that I’m not really into The Beatles pre-“Rubber Soul.”

Mary Poppins — My family owned at least 80 percent of the animated Disney canon. Ironically, Mary Poppins, that film that every human being on the planet owns, wasn’t one of them. My parents definitely showed it to me when I was very little; I have a distinct memory of that. And now, I confess the full extent of my crime: I’m pretty sure I never saw it again after that. I apologize and assure you that I have plans to revisit it eventually.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — My family owned a few Christmas movies, but this is the only one I can remember watching outside of the holiday season — or ever, really — so it must have captivated me in one sense or another. I remember a lot about it but am, unfortunately, unable to tell you what my modern-day opinion of it is.

A Shot in the Dark — That rare sequel that’s better than the original in just about every sense. The Pink Panther was basically amusing, but A Shot in the Dark is consistently hilarious from beginning to end. There are parts of it that drag a little story-wise, but aside from that, it’s a pretty great watch.

1965

For a Few Dollars More — I think it’s better than its predecessor in almost every way. Sergio Leone was definitely finding his footing in the Western genre with this one. Firstly, there’s as much slow tension as there is fast action — actually, there’s much more. The whole thing is much more evenly paced and unwinds with far more precision. It delivers its thrills with scientific accuracy. And that fast action is handled far better — it’s not as disorienting and doesn’t over-rely on closeups the way A Fistful of Dollars tended to. Plus, the villain is an actual threat to something, at least, and there are enough actual humans inhabiting the background that the movie doesn’t feel like a set populated only with the necessary actors the way the first one did. Heck, it even has a few relationships that have some character and life in them. I’m still not certain why these movies seem to take no meaningful steps whatsoever to connect their characters to anything that’s going on so as the audience might care a little, but this is still really well made. Though I don’t really have an explanation for why the brutal, vengeance-driven, largely unexamined violence of these movies doesn’t bug me the way it would in literally everything else.

1966

Batman: The Movie — If you don’t like this movie, shame on you. It is the dumbest thing ever committed to film, and I adore it for that. Everyone talks about how hilarious Adam West is, but honestly, this movie is all about Burt Ward for me. He’s so dang intense all the time; it’s hard not to laugh at the ridiculous stuff he says. It amazes me that there are still people who think this was supposed to be a serious movie. Irony had been invented in the 1960s, guys.

The Battle of Algiers — Excellent. It’s amazing — and more than a little bit sad — how utterly relevant this film remains. Change the names, dates, and locations, and you could make this exact movie about so many ongoing conflicts worldwide. It captures the pitch of everything so well. While it gives you a core group of characters, it really is a movie about a time, a culture, and a movement. It develops so organically. Class, race, violence, terrorism, the security state… It runs the gamut and covers all those subjects and more with intelligence. It’s almost documentarian in its objectivity, but in context, that objectivity plays as uncommon grace and compassion. Such a smart and moving film. The only thing I don’t like about it is that it goes a bit slack in the last 45 minutes or so — the sense of cause and effect that drive the first two acts fades out. That’s about it, though — everything else is great.

Fantastic Voyage — Kind of lacking in the character/overarching theme department, but a lot of effort went into this production, and it shows up on the screen. Generally speaking, it’s a well-engineered piece of spectacle, even if it isn’t a whole lot more.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — In terms of my assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, I feel much the same toward this as I do toward its predecessor, For a Few Dollars More, so cruise on over to 1965 for a little more detail. This one’s better, I think, primarily because it sharpens its relationships a little more so there’s something other than macho posturing to keep you interested. More importantly, this is the installment where these movies started to grow what you might call a moral compass. This is a picture of the West in its death throes, overtaken by a more civilized age, one with no place for the violent gunslingers who dominated the landscape. I still feel these movies would benefit from a little thing we sometimes call “personal stakes,” but it’s becoming clear to me that these are films admired more for their craftsmanship than their storytelling, which puts them a bit outside my wheelhouse. Still, there’s something to be admired about a trilogy where each installment was superior to the last.

Persona — I wouldn’t say that I understand it better than, for example, The Seventh Seal; truthfully, I probably understand it even less. Still, for some reason, I like it better. It’s somewhat impenetrable intellectually, but there’s an emotional cohesion to it that really draws you into the strangeness of what you’re seeing. The characters seem more detailed, and there’s a lot of nuance in the central relationship — some great acting, too. Of course, Ingmar Bergman’s imagery is memorable as ever. It’s impossible to categorize, but in a good way; it’s like the weird baby of a psychological thriller and a domestic drama. I didn’t “get” it, and I suspect I never will, but I found it surprisingly watchable nonetheless.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — Worst. Dinner party. Ever. This movie’s heart is made of 100 percent pure bile, and I kind of love that about it. It’s weird how entertaining its hatefulness manages to be. It’s got well written characters, sharp dialogue, and a dark but strangely effective sense of humor underlying everything. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had watching loathsome people get progressively drunker and shout at one another.

1967

Bonnie and Clyde — Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway make this movie. It’s rare a film gets one genuine movie star performance, much less two, and against such a harsh but strangely sprightly backdrop. The rest of the cast is almost a distraction from the two of them; in every scene, the camera seems like it’s itching to close in on them. It’s a good film overall; the editing is a little twitchy in places (and I know Blanche is annoying on purpose but good lord), but I can find little else to complain about. The stars are magnetic; the script is tight; the weird tone is perfectly managed; it’s more than earned its place in Hollywood history.

Cool Hand Luke — If I was making a list of my all-time favorites, I’m not 100 percent sure Cool Hand Luke would be on it, but it would definitely make the also-rans. The cast is great, and I love the movie’s reserved tone. There’s a lot going on thematically as well, but for me, it’s my go-to movie for an exploration of the question of rehabilitation over retribution in the justice system. It’s pretty great.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — Based on the premise alone, I thought I was really going to like this, but eh. It’s kind of a mixed bag. There’s definitely some very good stuff in here somewhere (I think the film’s realization that the father’s anger is at himself as much as anyone else; he’s essentially failed to live up to his own ideal). And there’s some…less good stuff (Katherine Houghton’s performance doesn’t work for me on any level whatsoever). And yeah, it’s aged a little bit poorly. We are so much farther along on these issues in our modern time. Still, it’s not as dated as you might fear. I guess I’d say that it’s basically entertaining, but its message is ruined by one absolutely baffling plot element that should definitely have been left on the cutting room floor — the fact that our lovers have only known each other for ten days. That kind of ruins the movie’s efforts to sell the relationship as perfect and everyone’s objections as a little bit racist. I mean, they are, but still. If I was the father, I wouldn’t approve of it either.

The Jungle Book — This was a childhood favorite that I had the opportunity to revisit recently. There are some movies from my childhood that I still love now, almost exactly as much as I did when I was a kid — Star Wars and The Lion King are two noteworthy examples. This, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. I still like it, but I was disappointed to find that parts of it don’t hold up. The immediately noticeable thing is that it doesn’t really have a plot; Mowgli just kind of wanders around and has musical interludes with the different animals he encounters. Fortunately, the characters are fun, and the songs are even more so. And I was astonished at exactly how detailed the animation is, even if it reuses some frames throughout. I also noticed new things story-wise that I didn’t when I was a kid, namely that Mowgli isn’t actually the main character of this — that would be Baloo and Bagheera. Mowgli’s just the dumb stimulus receptacle who reacts to the decisions they make. That makes it a bit problematic toward the end, when Mowgli starts to get all the focus and needs a bit of development to make that kind of shaky ending stick. Still, it was an interesting revelation into a movie I thought I knew very well.

Le Samourai — It has its moments, but overall, I wasn’t a huge fan of this one. There’s a very fine line between a character who’s stoic and insular and a character with no noticeable depth, and Le Samourai definitely flirts with it. I just didn’t have any investment whatsoever in this character. I think you could knock twenty minutes off this movie if you cut all the scenes where characters are just walking somewhere. It was stylish enough to move me here and there, but I wasn’t left with any particular interest in seeing it again.

The Producers — I think I might’ve liked this better if every actor in it hadn’t been allowed to play the characters at absolute fever pitch; the movie ends up being a bit too loud and self-conscious. But it still manages to establish a comic energy that carries it well past its flaws. And anyway, I’ve got to respect any movie with a plot centering around the production of a play called “Springtime for Hitler.”

1968

2001: A Space Odyssey — Leave alone the fact that it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture; can we talk about the complete absurdity that was this film not getting nominated for Best Cinematography? This movie is one enormous black mark on the Academy’s record — it’s easily the most remembered and celebrated film of its year, as well as one of the most innovative. Then again, I suppose there’s no shame in settling for leaving a permanent mark on film culture.

Bullitt — There’s something about the cold, clinical nature of late 60s/70s police dramas that I find off-putting, but it almost works for Bullitt, or at least feels as though it matches the character. Steve McQueen is really good in this; he brings a lot of nuance to a character who doesn’t get many favors from the script. He’s able to capture the ragged weariness of the “cop on the edge” archetype without losing the fundamental decency that offers a clue as to why he decided to join the fight in the first place. Bullitt cares deep down, he just doesn’t like people to know it. The movie also benefits from its stylish direction, and the infamous car chase manages to be an all-timer despite the participants passing the same green buggy a half-dozen times.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang — This goes under the category of “have definitely seen it at least once, and not since I was a small child, so I remember basically nothing about it.”

The Love Bug — My family didn’t own a lot of the live action Disney movies. This was one of the few we did have. And I really liked it growing up. But as with a number of other childhood favorites, I haven’t seen it in a while.

Night of the Living Dead — I respect that it basically created an entire horror subgenre. At the same time…this really hasn’t aged well. At this point, it looks like somebody’s home movie. And production value ordinarily isn’t that important to me, but that’s all it has going for it. I’m sure it was very scary at the time, because it is innovative, and again, I respect that. These days, though, it’s just another zombie movie, and it’s one that doesn’t have much in the way of story or characters or themes.

Once Upon a Time in the West — I guess I’ve turned out not to be as big a fan of Sergio Leone as I’d hoped I would be when I first started watching his movies. Part of it might be that I’m just not that into what he does — most of the praise I read for his films involve how they reference other Westerns, which isn’t something that really impresses me all that much. The rest of his accomplishments have been dulled by time for me — he’s been praised for injecting gritty realism into the glorified, saintly, and totally false portrayals of the Wild West up to that point. But I grew up in an era where movies are absolutely rife with grit and cynicism, so time has sort of ruined this for me. But anyway. I don’t know what the general consensus is on this movie, but I’d say it’s better than any given installment of The Man with No Name Trilogy. Finally, we’ve got a Sergio Leone Western that actually does something to give its characters actual motivations and reasons to do what they’re doing. I also like the cast — there’s something enchanting in the quiet melodrama of Charles Bronson’s character, and I love the unusual series of choices that led to Cheyenne actually being one of the heroes of the piece.

Planet of the Apes — You kind of have to muscle your way past the numerous senses in which it’s very much a product of its times, but once you do, there’s a surprisingly smart and interesting story being told here.

Rosemary’s Baby — It’s kind of a difficult thing to get your head around. The setup and the twist are like something out of a Scream movie and played with just about the same tone, but the film surrounding it is much more serious and atmospheric. It’s paced and packaged so beautifully that it’s easy to miss some of its most fundamental problems — namely that Rosemary, while quite likable and easy to root for, is a stupid, stupid person who does stupid, stupid things. At the same time, there is something genuinely spooky, if not necessarily frightening, about it, and Roman Polanski brings so many abnormally human touches to the proceedings. It’s not structurally different than your average limited-scope horror film, but it nevertheless has a voice all its own.

1969

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — I’ve only seen this once, and it’s been maybe a year since then. I think I expected to love it a lot more than I did. Nevertheless, it’s still a pretty good movie. The leads have great chemistry and are a lot of fun to follow. And the movie deals with the emotional core subtly and tactfully. The strange point for me was how quiet it is. That’s something I ordinarily like in a film, but here, it’s weirdly hollow. It seems like the story and the presentation are shooting for two different tones. It might be worth revisiting it, though, and seeing if my opinion’s changed at all.

True Grit — It’s decent — once it settles in, the dynamic between the main characters is quite funny and full of life. But the Coen Brothers remake is just so, so much better than it in almost every way — from the characters, to the tone, to the way it doesn’t cut out all the most consequential stuff, etc. The original is fine and has a little more edge than most Westerns from this era, but it still feels kind of samey in the grand scheme of things.

1970

The Aristocats — Meh. Not one of my favorites.

M*A*S*H — I was expecting a little more from it than I got, I think. A small part of me is actually a bit surprised at its acclaim; there’s a shoddiness to the direction that really annoyed me. Between the lighting, the busy shots that do their best to keep you away from the focal point, and the pacing, I found that by the end of the film, I could only name and distinguish three or four characters by sight. Fortunately, those three or four are strong characters, and the film is fairly amusing, albeit a bit heavy on the sexual harassment humor.

Patton — The defining George C. Scott performance for a reason. I would say that this movie actually is a bit too long for its own good, but there are a lot of great things going on in it — not the least of which is a fascinating character study of a man so bluntly patriotic that he became a relentless warmonger.

1971

A Clockwork Orange — I’m…not entirely sure what to say about this one. I mean, I get it. It definitely accomplishes what it sets out to do. I suppose that makes it a good movie. But I sure did feel like I needed a good, long shower after I watched it. It’s possible — probable, actually — that was the intent. But my discomfort relates not solely to the themes but to the presentation itself. Maybe this is one of those things where subtlety or, for lack of a better word, tone-based commentary just isn’t enough for me. It doesn’t present its violence and sex and sexual violence with realistic emotional intensity; it presents it wryly, forcing dissonance with the bright music and strangely cheery tone. I understand the purpose of that direction, and I understand why someone might be drawn to it, but me, personally, I’m just not. It makes me really uncomfortable. The movie’s a classic, pretty much required viewing, but don’t be surprised if I never, ever see it again.

Dirty Harry — My opinion probably isn’t particularly novel — it’s of compelling make but SUPER uncomfortable in this day and age. I do think there’s an argument to be made that the film doesn’t quite agree with Harry Callahan’s philosophy — there are a number of thematic cues that might lead one to read the ending not as Callahan parting ways with the force because he considers it ineffective and immoral but because he realizes he isn’t cut out for it in the world he lives in. If nothing else, it lets that nuance slip in here and there. Still, I can’t imagine the filmmakers had significant doubts about the way the general public was going to read it. It’s an engaging watch; it just has to be viewed within a certain context.

The French Connection — It’s becoming clear to me that the cinematic language of the 70s crime film just doesn’t connect with me the way it apparently does others. I don’t get what most people see in movies like this. I mean, it’s good; there are plenty of solid moments in it. But there’s something flat and lifeless about it, in my opinion. Half of the movie is people surreptitiously following one another in public, without advancing story or character. These just don’t grip me the way everyone says they’re supposed to.

Harold and Maude — Basically the most charming thing ever committed to film. It didn’t quite work on me emotionally, but the more I read thematic analyses of the story being told, the more I think it’s a film that’s specifically of its time and place, focusing on a generational transition at one particular moment in our history. It’ll play best for the people who actually lived it. For people like me, eh, at least it’s got that surface-level charm and humor.

THX 1138 — George Lucas’s direction is surprisingly strong here. Even with Star Wars, easily one of my favorite movies of all time, he never struck me as much of a visual stylist, more the type of director who just points the camera at the action and lets the cards fall where they may. This, though, is really visual, really evocative, really atmospheric. Lucas is absolutely the MVP on this project. I say that because, even though the world is intriguing and the film really holds up well for being made in 1971, the story ended up being a bit of a non-starter for me. Still, lots to admire here.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — I enjoy it for the effort that went into the production design, as well as for some of the charms its story has to offer. On a subjective level, though, its weirdly dark undercurrents a bit off-putting to me. I like it, but it’s not one of my favorites.

1972

Aguirre, the Wrath of God — I’ve been working on it for a full day now, and I still can’t gather cohesive thoughts about this movie. In short: It’s a work of fierce, engrossing passion, and I have a lot of problems with it that may or may not be the result of my own ignorance.

Deliverance — Very good. It understands how to do ambiguity well and does an excellent job orienting you to its characters’ perspective. It’s a difficult film and exactly as unflinching as it needs to be without quite becoming a goofy backwoods hillbilly-sploitation movie. It suffers from the problem I have with a lot of survival thrillers, in that it has to capture the struggle but never makes the periods between the major story and thematic beats equally compelling. Nevertheless, it’s a very interesting film and one I don’t think could have been made the same or as well in this day and age.

The Godfather — I feel like I would be completely out of my depth attempting to say anything about this movie. I mean, how unlikely is it that nearly everyone alive would almost unanimously arrive at the conclusion that this is one of the greatest movies of all time? The second I start trying to talk about this movie, I immediately become hyper-aware of the fact that I’m just some dumb kid with a computer. I don’t think I’ve even seen it enough times to gain a full appreciation and understanding of it. I’ll just leave this one to critics and reviewers more knowledgeable than me. This is clearly a cinematic milestone.

Play It Again, Sam — It’s an interesting entry in the smallish genre of “movies about other movies,” and despite some thematic wonkiness, it’s a pretty entertaining watch.

Solaris — Another one for the “didn’t get it” files.

1973

American Graffiti — Very charming. Dazed and Confused before there was Dazed and Confused, and clearly acted as a model for that film. American Graffiti is a little more story-driven; every character has a goal he or she is trying to accomplish on this last night of adolescence. And most of the individual stories are pretty fun. Growing up was the same all those years ago as it was for my generation; only the hair and music change. Whatever happened to this George Lucas, and what do we have to do to get him back?

Badlands — I had high hopes for this, but I ended up not really caring for it, which I know places me in an extreme minority. That surprises me; it’s earlier, more traditionally narrative Malick, which is the zone that most matches my taste. I really liked Days of Heaven. This just left me cold. The characters are detailed enough to seem like real people but not enough so that a real psychology forms behind them. Nothing really seems to change from one scene to the next; I feel as though you could cut any given segment without anyone noticing. And when people talk about the themes, they mostly seem to restrict the conversation to, like, three scenes. It just wasn’t my speed, I guess.

Charlotte’s Web — I’ve definitely seen it; one of my elementary school classes showed it after we read the book. If I’ve seen it since then, though, I don’t remember it. So, I don’t know what I think of it, ultimately. Again, apologies.

Enter the Dragon — It probably wouldn’t do to expend a whole lot of thought on it narratively or thematically speaking (especially since the latter route can take you down some pretty unpleasant paths). The acting is mostly pretty bad. But all it means to be is fun, silly martial arts nonsense, and it delivers more than enough of that to entertain.

The Exorcist — Spooky, well-acted. It does as good job portraying the causes and impact of a crisis of faith. I’m not the biggest fan of William Friedkin as a director, and there are a few touches in this movie that I don’t love. Still, it’s a really strong horror movie all-around.

Mean Streets — It’s like if Richard Linklater made a crime film. Sort of has that “early career, future great director figuring things out” vibe, but there’s something fundamentally compelling about it despite its loose storytelling.

Papillon — Good in that sort of boring way where I don’t have a lot to say about it. McQueen and Hoffman are solid, the direction is solid, the writing is solid. I was surprisingly un-bored given its run-time. Insert prolonged critique here. I liked it.

Robin Hood — Yeah, there is no way I can approach this movie critically. Robin Hood was a huge deal with me when I was a kid. I loved the characters, the animation (though I would later learn that a lot of it was recycled), the humor, the adventure. I will never manage to have an adult opinion on this movie. I just can’t.

Serpico — It’s kind of like if no one ever actually listened to Juror No. 8. Serpico is one of the most brilliantly frustrating films of all time.

Sleeper — I actually kind of love this, more than a lot of Woody Allen’s more “vital” works even. There’s something about him in “intellectual” mode that often leaves me a bit cold. Sleeper doesn’t have half the pretense; it’s wild, weird, goofy, and regularly hilarious, with touches of satire filling the gaps between.

The Sting — Very entertaining. Kind of…insubstantial, but eh, that’s fine once in a while. Sometimes, you go to the movies to escape. Nothing wrong with that. This is pretty solid escapism — well paced, well acted, an uncommon interest in character. And unlike all too many con movies, it’s not trying to outsmart you. It keeps you abreast of things at nearly all times, and that’s part of the reason it’s fun, seeing it unfold as it does. It also makes the small handful of plot twists it does pull that much more effective — it tricks you into not looking for them. All in all, pretty good fun.

1974

Blazing Saddles — Mel Brooks and his cast were firing on all cylinders with this one — the energy, the performances, the jokes, the pratfalls, the timing, there’s hardly a scene in this that doesn’t go perfectly. That rare comedy that’s funny from beginning to end with hardly any dry spots.

Chinatown — It’s definitely well made and intelligent in its basic construction, but it’s so emotionally distant from everything that, honestly, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to even begin getting involved in it. I’ll keep reading additional perspectives on it to see if that gives me any new insights.

The Conversation — A smart, engrossing, paranoiac thriller that never plays its cards too late or too early and is thoroughly grounded in character. Francis Ford Coppola had one heck of a year in 1974.

The Godfather Part II — The debate over whether this or the first movie is better will probably rage on forever. I’m firmly in this one’s camp, though. It’s the same greatness, but I think it manages to do an even better job connecting its characters emotionally. It engages me to an extent that the first one doesn’t. There’s something about the juxtaposition of the two stories that works really well, even though I have yet to put my finger on its thematic purpose. It’s especially interesting the way the story of Michael Corleone is talky and complicated, whereas the story of Vito Corleone is simple and stripped down and more atmosphere than dialogue. I think the two very much benefit from each other’s presence. These movies are just ridiculously good.

Herbie Rides Again — We only owned one sequel to The Love Bug. I definitely liked it when I was a kid, though not as much as the original. It’s been many years since I’ve seen it. I’m hesitant to revisit it, though, as I suspect it’s one of those childhood favorites that adult me will realize was kind of terrible, and I don’t want that stain on my memory, I guess.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre — What a gruesome exercise in largely meaningless human carnage this was. Not sure what I was expecting; I guess I hoped its acclaim would result in something at least a little bit more artful. I couldn’t tell you much of anything about the characters’ personalities, other than Franklin and astrology girl. Feels like the characters just hang out for a while, then amble around on their own getting picked off by a killer most of them aren’t even aware exists. The story doesn’t change or develop; it just spends an hour hovering around the same point. It gets repetitive after a while. And for me, it seemed to take too much pleasure tormenting its protagonist.

Young Frankenstein — Mel Brooks seems to specialize in finding a way to take incredibly obvious jokes and making them funny again — largely because of how obvious they are. Sometimes, it works for me; other times, it doesn’t. Brooks’ sense of humor doesn’t always match mine, but in the moments when it does, it’s a riot. This isn’t one of my favorite comedies of all time or anything, but it does have some good laughs.

1975

Barry Lyndon — It seems as though all serious cinephiles are required by some unwritten law to like this movie. I don’t. It’s not the only great movie that does very little for me, but it strikes me as the most likely to get me in trouble: I don’t think anyone important would ever come after me for not caring for Halloween, for instance. Obviously, if you’re reading this list, you don’t need me to tell you that I like slow-moving films, I like long films, and I even generally like Stanley Kubrick films. I just don’t like Barry Lyndon in particular. About an hour in, I was bored beyond belief, and by the second hour mark, I didn’t even have the energy to try anymore. It is everything I dislike about period dramas, in that it seems far more concerned with the costumes and the (admittedly lovely) cinematography. And it magnifies the one Kubrick flaw that has, for all but two or three films, kept his work from being close to my heart — it is so, so distant from its characters and their personalities that it’s impossible to engage it emotionally. I’m not saying there aren’t some really good scenes here and there, but it was a yawner for me.

Dog Day Afternoon — I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie quite like Dog Day Afternoon. Sidney Lumet is so completely in control of its constantly changing tone. It starts out as a weirdly grounded farce, with two morons — albeit realistic and believable morons — fumbling a half-baked robbery plot and then dealing with the ridiculous fallout. It turns into this crazy media circus, and they halfway become friends with their hostages as everyone basks in the spotlight. But it slowly, almost imperceptibly, grows darker as the movie subtly fills in backstory and reveals it’s as much a post-Vietnam and social commentary as a comedy of errors. It ends up in a radically different place from where it begins, and it gets there so naturally. Also, people don’t talk enough about how great Al Pacino is in this movie — he’s not ordinarily a subtle actor, but there’s such great nuance in it. John Cazale, too. This is a great movie.

Jaws — Come on. It’s Jaws. Is there any movie that’s more universally recognized as great? Granted, I’m not the best person to critique it — I am absolutely and utterly horrified by sharks in particular and the ocean in general, and it does not take a lot for a movie about either one of those things to get under my skin.

Love and Death — Surely one of the most absurd, weird, and ludicrous things Woody Allen ever did. I love it and hate it. Only Woody Allen would release a parody of centuries-old Russian literature in the 1970s. I think maybe I’d get into it more if I knew anything at all about such things. But as off-putting as parts of it are, parts of it are laugh-out-loud hilarious. If only for the best scenes in it, I still find myself recommending it to just about everyone and immediately second-guessing that decision whenever I do.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail — If I ever met someone who didn’t think Monty Python and the Holy Grail was funny, I’d have to, like, stare at them, really hard, with my most disapproving stare. And I say that even though I don’t think I like this movie quite as much as everyone else. Oh, don’t get me wrong — I still like it a lot. But the good bits are all in the first and final thirds of the movie. There’s a roughly 30-minute stretch in the middle that doesn’t really have anything other than the Knights Who Say Ni. But other than that, this movie is hilarious.

Nashville

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Strong characters, strong acting, strong storytelling, strong movie. Effective mixture of humor and pathos. It could stand to dig a little deeper than it does, but the subtle details on display already work so well. Somehow, the public at large recognizes Nurse Ratched as one of cinema’s most despicable villains despite the fact that she doesn’t really do anything and almost certainly doesn’t think of herself as a bad or even questionable person. That’s the strength in the way the movie allows such small things both to motivate and to affect its characters.

1976

All the President’s Men — This movie captivated me in such a way that it’s actually difficult to describe what it was that I loved so much. All I can say is that I loved it. I guess I just have a weakness for the journalistic procedural. I can’t help but be totally engrossed in the process. I just love watching smart people being smart.

Carrie — There’s a basic effectiveness to its story and the way it approaches the topic of repression, but the whole thing is also inescapably a mess, a weirdly shot and badly lit story of live action cartoons trying to pass themselves off as real people. And as much as I try not to be uptight, there’s an extent to which that opening scene, to me, comes off as being totally pornographic, which had my guard up early. Also, random aside — has there ever been a movie where people slap each other in the face as much as this one?

Network — I’m working on a theory that every media satire ever produced eventually became real. That’s why I’m waiting for the announcement of a Hunger Games reality TV show. Time has had such a strange effect on this movie; it began life as a dark satire and has morphed into an edgy dramedy. Reality caught up to it. It’s still funny; there are a lot of bits that work independently (“I must give my witness”). And it’s still somewhat satirical; as far as I know, no network has ever conspired to commit real-world violence on the air for ratings. Plus, most of our pundits don’t ritually pass out after performances. But yeah, Network was prescient, and quite good as well.

The Omen — I like this more than The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. Is that wrong? Seriously, though — while it is pretty silly and probably only warrants a certain amount of thought on the thematic level, as a piece of entertainment, it is tremendously well executed. It deals more in tension and suspense than outright horror, but it’s really good at both — the priest fleeing the storm, the dogs in the graveyard, the entire climax, all scenes that have you right on the edge of your seat. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is definitely the movie’s MVP; good grief is it ever unsettling. This is honestly a scary great time.

The Outlaw Josey Wales — I could probably write a multi-thousand-word essay on how mixed my feelings are about this movie, because on just about every conceivable level on which I could analyze it, there are things I absolutely love and things I really, really don’t like. It amazes me how this movie managed to both aggravate and thrill me at the same time, how it could send so many messages I love and messages I hate all at once, how the characters could be a collection of multidimensional human beings and useless damsels, how the storytelling could be so tight one scene and then the next have a woman whose husband was just killed in front of her complaining that her clothes are uncomfortable. I have always had a conflicted relationship with Clint Eastwood movies, but this takes the cake.

Rocky — I’m a living human with a functional brain, so, yes, I like Rocky. Watching it nowadays, it’s surprising that this isn’t really a sports movie, in the traditional sense. If what you’re looking for is scenes of emotionally charged sports action, you’re not going to get much of anything other than the first and last scenes. No, this is straight drama, and for a guy who’d go on to basically never appear in anything good again, Sylvester Stallone’s script is surprisingly complex. Everyone, right down the the Obi-Wan Kenobi-ish mentor, is uniquely terrible in his or her own damaged way, which is really unusual. Rocky himself kind of defines the dumb schmuck character type for me. He’s such a lovable moron. Honestly, for being the bruiser character, he’s kind of adorable. Movies like this and The Godfather make me wonder if maybe audiences were more patient back in the day. They would be financial failures today; they’re too slow and uncomfortable. But both of them were massive box-office successes, and they were rightly preserved as classics. If this came out today, would it disappear immediately and be forgotten by everyone? Let’s be grateful, then, that it happened when it did.

Taxi Driver — It’s Martin Scorcese. Pretty sure the guy is incapable of making a bad movie. This is a strange film, but a consistently compelling one. In a lot of ways, I see it as one of the great deconstructions of the Nice Guy, veering into black comedy as it takes this bumbling, socially impossible character straight into “complete psychopath” territory. For me, it’s biggest issue is actually the thing about it that fans spend the most time discussing — how much of it takes place solely in Travis Bickle’s head. Because I can’t arrive at an answer to that question that makes sense within the context of everything that happens in the movie, regardless of what it is. Still, it’s great.

1977

Annie Hall — It’s largely a charming and uniquely framed comedy. I appreciate its straightforwardness; despite being told totally out of order, it jumps immediately to whatever insight or background it needs at the exact moment it needs it and doesn’t dally. The lack of a fourth wall and the way characters step into their own pasts with no explanation actually fit very well into the tone. And Woody Allen and Diane Keaton have a very natural chemistry here. At the same time, it’s slowly becoming clear to me that the films of Woody Allen simply don’t play all that well to me — particularly the films of Woody Allen that star Woody Allen. He always plays the same character in the same way, and the tone of that character is always fun for about half an hour but wears thin so quickly. The dynamics of it seem as though they never change, whatever happens. I’d still give this a pass, but like a lot of his other movies, I was elsewhere by the third act. It’s not surprising that my favorite films of his tend not to star him.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind — Being a combination of two things I love a lot — Steven Spielberg and science fiction — I expected this to become a personal favorite. What actually happened was that I found it, honestly, not all that interesting. It’s a decent movie with a few great scenes and some extremely memorable imagery, but I was bored for some sizable portions of it. I’ve heard the Director’s Cut is better by far, so maybe I need to see that version instead.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh — Enjoyably low-stakes children’s entertainment of the sort Disney seemed to do best.

Pete’s Dragon — It has charm to spare, from the design and personality of the dragon to the fun songs. I especially like the adult cast in this movie. They’re playing it really broad for kids, but they imbue their performances with enough comedy that the grown-ups in the audience find them funny rather than embarrassing. Mickey Rooney runs away with the whole show. That said, while the fun songs are very, very fun, there’s an equal number of sappy-to-the-point-of-unwatchable ballads. And being almost entirely plotless, it runs much, much too long at over two hours.

The Rescuers — It’s probably not a great Disney movie, but even then, it’s pretty underrated, because it is lively, tonally unique, and a lot of fun all told.

Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope — Yeah, if you read this site with any kind of regularity, I don’t need to tell you the details of my feelings toward Star Wars. I grew up in the 90s, so I was a young kid around the time prequel mania hit, and while that burned out on the adults fast, among my age group, these movies were all the rage. I was about 10 when my parents finally decided I was old enough to see a Star Wars movie with my friends, and they regretted that decision immediately, because I instantly transitioned into a person who couldn’t communicate with other human beings in a language that wasn’t Star Wars. By 13, I was a member of the official fun club, owned all six movies on DVD, could recite most of them entirely from memory, watched at least one of them per week, began collecting Expanded Universe novels, and much more. I’m constantly debating whether this or The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite of the saga. I love them both unreservedly. I think that, among adventure movies, Star Wars has my favorite cast of characters. Everyone in it became a cultural icon, and there’s a reason for that. It’s so much fun, and I couldn’t possibly love its universe any more than I do.

1978

Animal House — There’s a weird charm to it despite the fact that it has no plot or main character. It’s funny in a way that’s hard to describe. The fact that it’s so deliberately offensive almost makes it less offensive somehow — the gender politics/rape subtext of most high school/college comedies from this era here comes wrapped in so much debauchery and vulgarity that it’s harder to get het up about it. Harder, mind you, not impossible.

Days of Heaven — Once you get adjusted to its style, it starts to work on you in almost exactly the same way as any well-told story. I think Terrence Malick almost loses his characters in the midst of all the visual poetry, which, to be fair, is a concern I’ve always had with his work. And I do think he’s refined his directorial style since this; there’s a flow in his editing that’s not quite as on point here. But it’s great to see his style attacking what is ultimately a more narrative film than is the norm for him, and there’s something very special here despite the flaws.

The Deer Hunter — It came as a bit of a relief to me that there remains a lot of debate over the quality of this film. I went into it familiar only with its reputation as a classic and one of the great war movies, so I was surprised when the credits rolled at how little I’d cared for it. It’s not terrible — I like that it devotes an uncommon amount of attention to the home life, so you know who and what the soldiers are returning to well enough for it to register as a motivation. But it’s much too long, and certain, largely superfluous sequences drag on far longer than necessary. On top of that, while the characters have enough personality to carry, say, an action movie, they aren’t established in enough detail for the effect the war has on them to register on anything other than the most abstract level. Honestly, I found the film as a whole to be a bit sleepy and kind of a chore to sit through.

Grease — Extraordinarily cheesy, and not in the good way. No plot, almost all of the characters are annoying, the songs serve fundamentally no purpose, some scenes seemingly go on forever. The cast is almost universally terrible, something that probably has to do with the fact that it’s a high school movie with a median actor age of, like, 28. Whatever everyone else sees in this, I really just…don’t.

Halloween — …I’m sorry. I tried hard, you guys, I really did, but I honestly just don’t get it. I’m starting to think I should give up on classic B-horror; I’ve liked so little of it. I think this movie has some pretty decent scares, both in setup and execution, and, of course, the score is awesome, but the stuff in between is boring and pointless.

Jaws 2 — It’s really not that bad, but yeah. It’s a totally unnecessary sequel that doesn’t do anything particularly new or interesting. It’s a self-described teen slasher flick, and yet, out of the cast of dozens, only, like, three characters actually die. Everyone else just…fills space, I guess.

Superman — Anymore, it seems we’re incapable of making anything this openly hokey and dumb without turning it obnoxiously self-referential. I think the first act is a bit slow, but once Superman dons the cape, it’s a good time at the movies.

Watership Down — This is one of those weird movies that I enjoy a lot more than my reservations would suggest, and it isn’t always easy to say why. It’s sometimes simplistic to a fault and regularly loses focus with its characters, but it’s also lovely in a hand-crafted sort of way, often tense, mythologically rich, and poetic with dialogue spoken in crisp, clear, gentle voices. There’s something moving about it, despite its uncommon brutality (by the standards of animated films, anyway).

1979

Alien — I know I said I’m not much of a horror fan, but I make an exception for Alien. I am pretty much in love with this movie. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe the sci-fi aesthetic is all it takes for me — and for what it’s worth, its universe is quite unique and interesting. But the great cast helps, and Ridley Scott’s atmospheric direction is what makes it soar.

Apocalypse Now — This is one of the greatest movies ever made and probably the greatest war movie ever made. And it’s for that reason exactly that I’m not sure I have the stomach to ever watch it again. This movie is a wide-awake nightmare. It’s so feverish and hallucinatory that you start to feel as though you’re going mad alongside its characters. This is a tough watch. But it’s hard to imagine a great war film being anything other than that. Brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant.

Being There — A great film. A mental illness comedy that never encourages you to laugh at its protagonist. Well, not really — it’s not about mental illness so much as the human ability to project upon and misuse for our own ends things that are pure and innocent. The final shot, where Chance appears to walk on water while old men talk about appointing him to the board so as to continue to “control the presidency,” is the least subtle thing ever, and I kind of love it for that. Admittedly, it frustrated me throughout that no one even guesses that Chance is mentally impaired despite the fact that it’s glaringly obvious in everything he does; the film’s reality isn’t quite heightened enough to justify the obliviousness of its supporting cast. Once I got past that, the movie was quite enjoyable.

Kramer vs. Kramer — This, right here, is the kind of movie that makes me wish people wouldn’t get so invested in the results of the Academy Awards. It irritates me to no end that this movie’s main significance in culture is “that movie that shouldn’t have beaten Apocalypse Now.” This movie should be allowed to be remembered as what it is: really, really good. It’s extraordinarily balanced and so incredibly good at showing rather than telling what its characters’ problems are. It develops its characters so organically, and their interactions feel so real that it doesn’t surprise me at all that a lot of these scenes were improvised. It’s just really great filmmaking, and that’s the way we should be discussing it.

Life of Brian — Like anything Monty Python, some bits are better than others and one or two last a little longer than I’d like. Fortunately, the best of Life of Brian is absolute comic genius, and it leans that direction more often than not.

Mad Max — It’s becoming clear to me that one genre I’ll never understand is “old low-budget action movies with significant critical acclaim.” Mad Max mostly seems like a movie without a story, or characters, or (complete) themes, or…even all that much action, really. Everything it does seems totally arbitrary. And it’s weird, but it’s weird in this really self-conscious way. Everything is staged so awkwardly. The movie is like a prolonged awkward social interaction. I’ve been reading reviews trying to get my head around it, and pretty much all I’m hearing is: “The car stunts are so well filmed!” And I guess they are, for all three scenes that actually have those. I just don’t get it.

Manhattan — Honestly, I was expecting to like this more than I did. Maybe this is that one majorly revered film where I simply part ways with the overwhelming critical consensus. I mean, everyone has at least one, right? Woody Allen is one of those filmmakers who, with me, either resonates fully or stays completely cold, and it’s hard to predict which it’s going to be, even by its reputation. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve liked some of his films and surprised at how stale I’ve found others. I’m certainly not going to call this terrible; Allen is, of course, a pretty funny guy, and he directs comedy uniquely. He’s the only filmmaker I know of with his level of skill at ending scenes at precisely the perfect moment for the comedic rise and fall of it. And it’s not as though these characters don’t have personalities or as though the dialogue isn’t sharp or any of that. For whatever reason, I simply couldn’t bring myself even to begin caring about the insipid problems of these pretentious characters. And that might actually be the point of the whole thing. But I just couldn’t get into it.

The Muppet Movie — Come on. What sort of terrible person doesn’t like the Muppets? Yeah, it’s not super narrative, but it isn’t really trying to be. It’s hilarious and has a bunch of catchy songs. What more would you want out of a Muppets movie?

Rocky II — I don’t think Rocky really needed sequels, even if it seems on the surface like the sort of movie that would easily accommodate them. At the end of the day, the point of the first movie is that he loses, and that’s good enough for him, because he proves he can go the distance and is satisfied with himself. His character arc is over. The sequel goes wrong in trying to replicate the first one almost exactly but without as neat a through-line. It seems to take a lot longer to get going. But as sequels go, you could do a whole lot worse. This is at least watchable, and maybe better than that.

Stalker — I can’t claim to be particularly surprised that I was unable to get into this. It wasn’t as inaccessible as I thought it would be and didn’t drive me to madness the way similar films often do, but it still went right over my head. I promise I’m trying.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture — More ambitious than the average sci-fi flick, but kind of boring nonetheless. Too much pomp and circumstance for a slow-moving story that doesn’t allow the characters to express all that much identity and that is surprisingly unfocused.

The Warriors — Kind of a guilty pleasure for me. I’m not saying it’s not a good movie or that there aren’t a ton of things it does well, just that it’s sort of hard to make a complete, cohesive argument for it, especially within the confines of my established taste. I just enjoy the world of it, from the production design to the directorial style. It’s well-paced and pretty fun, all told, despite also being largely amoral and not particularly character-driven.

1980

Airplane! — This type of random, non-narrative comedy tends not to be my thing so much. That said, Airplane! is friggin’ hilarious. Not a single thing in it makes any sense at all, but if there’s ever been a movie that subverts expectations with more regularity and with more artful stupidity, I haven’t seen it. It’s hard not to admire its complete insanity and willingness to go for any joke, no matter how idiotic.

The Blues Brothers — It’s a movie you see for the soundtrack more than anything. There’s plenty to like on top of that, but I think that’s the selling point. Parts of the movie ran a little slow for me — I get that it’s dry comedy, but I thought a lot of the bits weren’t strong enough to justify that direction. I wanted the leads to have a more interesting chemistry. Fortunately, it’s a lot of fun when it finds the right degree of excess: That final car chase is one of the most gloriously insane things I’ve seen in a while.

Caddyshack — Harold Ramis’s blunt, unembellished, remote, awkward sense of humor appeals to me. Bill Murray steals the show. I wouldn’t object to it having a plot, though. Or a central character who isn’t a blank slate who doesn’t factor into the comedy one bit.

The Elephant Man — Very good. I like that it’s not just a simplistic morality tale about not judging a book by its cover but also indicts the opposite end of the spectrum — false, self-serving charity, involving yourself in the lives of the oppressed solely because it makes you feel good or advances your social standing. To The Elephant Man, that’s not simply a quiet corruption of one’s own motives but something that perpetuates the oppression itself.

Friday the 13th — People…know this sucks, right?

Raging Bull — There’s a pretty widespread consensus that this is Martin Scorsese’s best film. I’m in no position to confirm or deny that, but I definitely believe it. It’s hard to deny the absorbing, unsettling power of this film. It’s clear to me that there’s something about terrible people that fascinates Scorsese; he’s barely ever made films about good ones, or even about complicated ones who have a mixture of positive traits and personal demons. Jake La Motta is pretty objectively terrible, so much so that I was shocked to learn that the real La Motta wrote the book this movie is based on and consulted during production. Was he so stupid that he didn’t realize how he comes off in it, or did he, in real life, reach a point of redemption where he was able to recognize his young life as a cautionary tale? In the movie, he’s paranoid, insecure, violent, and domineering — quite the volatile combination of characteristics. I don’t know how Scorsese views his boxing — as an outlet that’s better than the crime he would probably otherwise be committing or as encouragement to continue being terrible — but it’s clear he doesn’t think much of the sport. He spends a lot of time fixating on the chaos in the audience, which is fighting and foaming at the mouth. I suppose his gift is that he makes us fascinated with his subject as well, despite the fact that La Motta’s descent into loneliness and worthlessness wasn’t, after all, too different from the fate of many others like him.

The Shining — I wasn’t really expecting to be scared by it; generally, I find that older horror movies and especially the ones like this that could genuinely be described as influential, don’t often get under my skin. They’ve just been ripped off too much. It’s hard to be surprised by them. Nevertheless, my first viewing of The Shining had me surprisingly on edge at parts, and I rapidly began to regret my in-retrospect cocky decision to watch it late at night. I like that its scares are mainly imagery focused — here, Kubrick showed a knack for stringing unsettling images together in such a way that heightened the emotional impact of each one. I also like that the film isn’t just about the scares, or at the very least, that it attempts to register them on a character level and mostly succeeds. It’s easy to recast it as a metaphor for domestic strife, particularly alcoholism and abuse. I don’t quite think it’s perfect — I seem to be alone on this, but there’s something about the acting, especially early on, that strikes me as somewhat artificial and obviously staged. I also wish it had a bit more economy — it feels the need to show us absolutely everything instead of letting us fill in blanks by ourselves. Seriously, did we need 10 minutes devoted to Halloran renting a Snowcat? But who cares, right? The great stuff is super great.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back — Yes, refer to my entry on A New Hope. Its predecessor is more fun, but this was the movie where the saga started telling a real story with real characters who have real wants and needs and conflicts. So, whether or not it’s my favorite Star Wars movie depends largely on my mood: If I want to chill out and have fun, it’s A New Hope; if I want to be told a story, it’s this. Plus, having George Lucas on story duty this time around means the film both looks a lot better and has sharper dialogue and characterizations. I could not possibly love it more than I do.

1981

An American Werewolf in London — I need someone to help me out with these old genre movies, because I’m able to make sense of so few of them. Strong practical effects, but otherwise? A little too corny to be taken seriously, not quite corny enough to be fun; it’s half an hour of consternation about a guy possibly being a werewolf followed by an hour of a guy being a werewolf. The idea that he has to give up his own life in order to save others could be potential, but the movie totally squanders it. It just didn’t work for me. I can’t say that I see the appeal.

Chariots of Fire — I like it, but I don’t love it. I don’t know; for me, it played out largely as a pretty ordinary inspiring sports movie. It has merit on a lot of levels but has never struck me as a thing of genius or anything.

Das Boot — The ending increased my estimation of this film considerably. I love it when war movies dialogue with other war movies like that. I think that, when we make war movies, a lot of them are designed to achieve a certain, distinctly Hollywood catharsis. It’s couched in a sense of respect, in that the filmmakers will shoot for sadness and regret. But it’s a very movie version of sadness and regret, one that exists in a world whose characters and situations are fantastical in the sense that the reality behind them doesn’t quite sink in. Then, you’ve got movies like this — and I would say that The Bridge on the River Kwai is one as well — that play out as typical, cathartic war movies. And then, at the end, they just sweep the rug out from under you, like, “Sorry, folks — war is hell, and such.” I guess my issue is that I didn’t find the cathartic war movie part of it particularly engaging. It gets a lot out of the tense uncertainty of submarine warfare, but I didn’t care for any of the characters in particular, and the story didn’t grip me. To be fair, thought, this seems like it was probably made for World War II or submarine buffs; it’s quite invested in the minutia of submarine warfare. They’d probably get a lot more out of it than I did.

Escape from New York — For me, this movie kind of exemplifies the 80s at their (quote, unquote) best. It’s dumb and pulpy and weird and straight-faced in exactly the right degree.

The Fox and the Hound — Growing up, I didn’t know a lot of little kids who loved The Fox and the Hound, and it’s easy to see why — yeah, you’ve got a couple of songs and your requisite comic relief characters, but otherwise, this is a very slow-moving and melancholy film with an ending that can be described as bittersweet at best. But as a child, that absolutely fascinated me, and I loved this movie despite the mix of emotions it stirred in me. In a lot of ways, I think The Fox and the Hound was my gateway movie into tougher dramas when I was a kid, and I really love it for that.

The Great Muppet Caper — I don’t love this one the way I do the first movie. There’s definitely some fun stuff here and there, and you can’t beat the Muppet team for passion. But this feels a lot more labored than the first one. The Muppet Movie had this laid-back sense of doing whatever it thought would be fun. This one’s a little more determined to get on with things, and when it does stop and take in the scenery, it picks the weirdest moments to do that. The songs aren’t as good — the best ones are too similar to even better ones in the first movie, and far too many of them are inexplicably sappy — and the jokes are getting kind of stale, too, with way too much fourth wall humor, and not the clever kind either. It’s just not as infectiously enjoyable.

On Golden Pond — Given the extent of its acclaim, I certainly expected to like this movie a lot more than I did. It struck me as the picture of fluffy, conservative, sentimental Oscar bait with little thematic depth, subpar storytelling instincts, and a feel-good message that isn’t interested in exploring the film’s more challenging edges. It packages everything so neatly and puts it right where it’s supposed to be without determining how any of it works, so an entire film’s worth of character arcs happen for essentially no reason and sometimes in the space of five minutes (Jane Fonda pretty much goes through an entire movie all its own in her last big scene). I’ll get even more blasphemous and say that I like neither Henry Fonda or Katherine Hepburn in this. The writing may be more to blame than they are. Their characters are defined by their surliness and their exuberance respectively, and neither has many layers beyond that.  And those traits are the only things the actors are really playing. Fonda snarls; Hepburn nearly faints every time she sees a loon. I did not like this movie.

Raiders of the Lost Ark — You actually want me to sit here and criticize Raiders of the Lost Ark right now? You actually want me to explain why it’s pretty much the greatest adventure movie ever made? Where would I even start? Everything that needs to work in this movie works wonders. I’m not even sure what to say other than that.

The Road Warrior — A significant improvement over Mad Max, which had basically no impact on me whatsoever. The pacing is much tighter, and it’s no longer teetering on the edge between seriousness and silliness. The Road Warrior is goofy and bizarre. It’s endearingly ridiculous, and the set pieces are perfectly executed (also, actually existent this time — Mad Max often strikes me as a dumb action movie that forgot to have action in it). There really isn’t much of a human element here, but the effort that went into making the side characters distinctive and memorable goes a long way. It’s just generally a great piece of guilty, junky entertainment.

Time Bandits — This seemed like something that would be right up my alley, but I just couldn’t get into it. What it comes down to, for me, is the characters — with movies like this, I can accept looser plotting as long as I think the characters are fun and interesting, and I just didn’t. The kid is boring, the dwarves are interchangeable, the other characters are just one-joke cameos. The adventures they have along the way are largely pretty low-key and neither as funny or entertaining as they mean to be. Terry Gilliam’s vivid imagination is the only saving grace.

1982

Annie — Eh, it’s occasionally enjoyable for what it is. It’s one of those movies that I find I grade on a curve for earnestness and sheer likability. There are a lot of kids in the cast, so yeah, there’s a lot of bad acting on display. John Huston’s direction is kind of slapdash. It constantly seems like it’d be more fun to watch live than on a screen. It’s too long by a considerable margin. And yeah, okay, it’s a kids movie, but that doesn’t change the fact that its politics are…troublesome. But it does have a certain spring in its step. I don’t know that I necessarily recommend it, because there were large parts of it that bored me, but you could certainly do a lot worse.

Blade Runner — (Have only seen theatrical cut) There’s something cold and clinical about it that puts me off a little; nevertheless, this is pretty spectacular science fiction. I love how cleanly it builds its world around the story, never calling attention to itself but always feeling extraordinarily detailed and lived-in; that’s its strongest point by far. Combine that with a great Rutger Hauer performance and some stellar visual work, and you’ve got a well-deserved sci-fi classic.

Conan the Barbarian — Oh, hey, someone made a movie based on an angry 15-year-old boy’s self-insert fiction. More seriously — I do have a somewhat distant admiration for its storytelling economy and weirdly operatic style. I just can’t get behind its seemingly unironic worship of violence and its reduction of women to sex objects (the extent of which seems regressive even by the standards of the early 1980s). It’s also really weird, and not in a way I particularly appreciate — it exists in this surreal haze that made me constantly uncomfortable, like a fever dream or something. Not a fan.

The Dark Crystal — As with most Henson productions, I have extremely mixed feelings about it, but it’s hard not to admire the vision, particularly here, where they created an entire world almost exclusively with puppetry. Other than the main characters, who slide into uncanny valley territory, this film looks great. And the story isn’t brilliant, but it does what it needs to do.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — Who doesn’t love E.T.? Seriously, who? Tell me who that person is. I have never met that person. This is such a great movie about kids growing up and getting mixed up in a situation that’s way bigger than them. The title character is the most likable fictional character this side of WALL-E. There are so many iconic moments, and all of them are that way for a reason. And Spielberg’s approach here is so detailed and deliberate. Who doesn’t love E.T.?

Fanny and Alexander — …Yeah, I didn’t really get it. That’s not an unusual thing with me — or anybody, for that matter — and Ingmar Bergman films, but it’s nevertheless my least favorite of the ones I’ve seen. Which is weird because it doesn’t really spiral off into metaphorical strangeness until the final reel. Up until then, it’s pretty accessible — or at least, it isn’t difficult to understand. But even on the surface and narrative levels, I don’t like a lot of its decision-making. It’s called Fanny and Alexander, but we don’t even find out how Fanny is until an hour in, and she doesn’t do anything important after that. It’s a movie, in part, about a child dealing with the death of his father, but it spends its entire first hour on the problems of characters who either aren’t important or never appear again, and it’s not clear who the kid’s father even is except by a slow process of elimination. You find out they’re father and son in the scene where the former dies. On top of that, I didn’t care for the kids — even prior to their father’s death, they’re sullen and monotone, and their only facial expression seems to be “stare blankly into the middle distance.” There are some scenes — a lot, actually — that are interesting/enjoyable on their own, fortunately, and it’s undeniably a handsome production, rich with color and decoration and design. I just can’t access it on a much deeper level than that.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High — I couldn’t get into it. It feels like a wannabe Dazed and Confused that somehow came out a full decade before Dazed and Confused. Episodic, big cast with lots of side characters and subplots, no strong narrative focus. I’m fine with all of that. Here, I just couldn’t connect with it. I think it’s missing the passion of youth — that sense that every experience is fresh, that every idea is novel, the naive belief that no one has ever loved like you have or hurt like you have, the desperate want for the future, the anarchic fun of the now. These characters just seemed kind of detached to me, and not in an interesting way.

First Blood — I don’t think it’s bad, necessarily, but there’s a lot more potential in its setup than gets realized on-screen. It’s one of those movies where the social commentary and the action movie sometimes come into conflict, and decisions are regularly made that undercut one or the other. It needs to be bolder. I feel like a movie where police abuses trigger a veteran’s PTSD and cause him to go on a rampage ought to be a little more raw than this film ultimately is.

Gandhi — This movie has almost strongarmed its way into the cultural consciousness — remembered less because it’s great and more because it’s about Gandhi, and you don’t dislike GANDHI, do you?!?! Honestly, much as I love what’s happening here philosophically, the film itself strikes me as inert and lifeless. It jumps from highlight to highlight in Gandhi’s life and barely bothers to connect half of the dots. There’s no real arc to it; it just recreates historical events. If I was reviewing it for Rotten Tomatoes, I would still submit it as a fresh review, mainly because Ben Kingsley is absolutely amazing in it. I can’t imagine watching this over and over again, though.

Poltergeist — I think the scariness has been overstated a little; honestly, it felt more like an adventure movie with horror elements in terms of its overall tone and approach. Taken as that, it’s pretty entertaining. I like the naturalism of the main characters and the sense of humor the film maintains — albeit a natural, organic one. I wish the thematic and emotional subtexts were closer together and that there were fewer prolonged conversations about how ghosts work. Despite that, it’s fun.

Rocky III — It’s a solid enough sequel. I think if the series had ended here, culture would think more highly of it, sort of the way Back to the Future‘s solid but lesser sequels didn’t taint its legacy at all. At this point, it was pretty openly just a sports movie with no higher aspirations, but that’s probably for the best. I still don’t think this movie needed any sequels, but at least this is okay.

The Secret of NIMH — This wasn’t a part of my childhood, and that’s probably for the best, because it would likely have terrified me. After repeated recommendations from people for whom this movie was their life as children, I gave it a try. Maybe it was the strength of the recommendations that left me disappointed to find that I liked it but didn’t particularly love it. It’s atmospheric and very well animated, but the mystery is never as interesting as the movie makes it out to be, and the characters, while not completely dry, are still fairly one-note.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — I think I wanted to like this movie a little more than I did, but it’s definitely a marked improvement over the first. It’s pretty good sci-fi. Still, there are a lot of elements in play that I don’t think get properly connected, and it’s definitely more for diehard fans of the show than relative outsiders like me.

The Thing — Definitely ranks pretty high on my list of horror movies. I’m not really a big horror guy, so you know a horror movie is something special when I come away from it having really enjoyed myself. I don’t know that I necessarily found it scary — in fairness, it’s very difficult for a movie to scare me, for whatever reason — but I did find it very tense and engaging. Something about paranoid thrillers where no one can be trusted really grips me. I don’t think it’s perfect, namely in that I immediately started coming up with survival solutions the characters never even considered and was frustrated with the number of times the group leaves someone alone somewhere, returns, and immediately goes, “Oh, right, this dude could totally be the Thing now.” But I nitpick. It’s a good movie.

Tootsie — This was nominated for Best Picture. My brain doesn’t know what to do with that information. Ultimately, I was pretty disappointed, because it actually exceeded my expectations for the first third of its run-time or so — it admirably steered clear of the “lol dude in a dress” jokes, for the most part, and told a subtler, more interesting story about a guy who disguises himself as a woman because he thinks it’ll be easier only to run headlong into the cold, hard reality. Then, midway through, it hit a wall and became exactly the movie I was worried it would be — tons of “kooky misunderstanding jokes,” tired plotting, cavity-inducing 80s adult contemporary montages, and another obnoxious “guy lies to absolutely everyone he knows to a point that’s very damaging to all of them and is mysteriously forgiven after the customary moping” ending. Still, there are some good laughs in here, and the actors are clearly having a good time. And like I said, it gets off to a strong enough start; it just doesn’t maintain it. All in all, I have to be somewhere in the middle on this one.

Tron — I admire what it’s trying to do more than I admire the film itself. It was definitely groundbreaking on the level of its effects, which, let’s face it, are a bit of an eyesore today. The story works for about the first third of the movie or so, after which it turns into pure spectacle. Parts of it are fun; other parts are boring. I’d rate it positively if only for its ambition, but it’s not a film I feel compelled to see again any time soon.

The Verdict — It’s no 12 Angry Men, but nothing other than 12 Angry Men is 12 Angry Men. It has a bit of a plausibility problem, but other than that, Lumet (and  Paul Newman, for that matter) is firing on all cylinders throughout.

1983

A Christmas Story — I don’t own this movie, but I guess I don’t need to, since TBS has ensured that I get to watch it every Christmas anyway. And mostly, I take advantage of that. I think what works best about A Christmas Story, other than its wry sense of humor, is the timelessness of it. For as long as there’s been Christmas, this is how kids have felt in the weeks leading up to it. Twenty years from now, my generation’s children will find the same familiarity in it, I suspect. I don’t know that I’d personally call it a great movie, but it’s something special nonetheless.

The Dead Zone — One of those movies that’s mostly entertaining but I’m not entirely sure what the point is.

Jaws 3-D — Sucks. Comically terrible 3-D. Next.

National Lampoon’s Vacation — I enjoy the awkward reserve of Harold Ramis’s films, and Chevy Chase is basically the perfect movie comic to capture it on screen. Vacation is quietly, subtly funny in a way you don’t often see anymore, and it feels like there’s more happening beneath the surface, too. It’s American suburban consumerism writ large and ridiculous.

Scarface — It’s a solid movie. Is it blasphemous to say that I don’t really think it’s great? It’s memorable, sure, and it’s easy to see why it’s stood the test of time, but there’s a lot about it that doesn’t work for me. Chiefly, I truly believe it could be a full hour shorter. I didn’t feel like the story had any real stakes — that I cared about, anyway — until the final third. The story doesn’t really start until Tony Montana gets enough power to become paranoid about it. You don’t need all that much prelude to his time as a drug kingpin to establish that — especially since the movie skips a thousand developmental steps between the second and third acts anyway. The first two hours struck me as largely pointless. Here’s why it’s good anyway — Tony Montana is a fantastically layered character, and you definitely have a sense of how his mind works by the time the credits roll. And Al Pacino, while occasionally leaning a little too close to parody, is nevertheless magnetic in the part. Tony Montana is an icon; I have no argument with that. I wish I liked the movie about him better than I do.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi — I’ve been forced, after much hand-wringing, to admit that it’s not quite as good as either of its two predecessors in the Original Trilogy. Nevertheless, this movie contains a disproportionate amount of my favorite moments in the entire series — the three-pronged climax, the emotionally charged final battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, everything involving Admiral Ackbar, who is awesome, etc. For that reason alone, despite a superfluous opening scene and a bit of struggle to stand on its own as a film, I would still have to rate this movie just barely below the other installments of the Original Trilogy.

WarGames — Eh. Kind of boring. I only saw it a year or two ago, but I’ve already pretty much forgotten it.

Zelig — An interesting concept largely well-executed: a faux-documentary that mostly doesn’t feel staged or “written,” with the exception of one or two moments. While that approach does tend to create some distance between the viewer and the story, there’s still some great satire and a handful of inspired comedic moments on display here.

1984

Amadeus — Just an all-around great movie. I like that it plays the tone just a touch silly and over-the-top, enough to highlight the pettiness of it all, instead of going for the straight period piece approach we’d usually get to material like this. On top of that, it’s obviously an ornate and immaculate production, and the writing isn’t half-bad either — I think the complexity of Salieri’s distaste for Mozart is fascinating in the way that there’s a religious component, an ethical one, an artistic one, and more, coupled with just plain jealousy. It touches on a lot, but as a character study, it feels very whole. If it suffers from anything in particular, it’s that I didn’t find anything going on with Mozart himself half as interesting as what was happening with Salieri. But that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise resplendent film.

Beverly Hills Cop — Civil rights? Due process? If a police officer has a hunch, he should be allowed to do whatever it takes to get his man without any fear of consequences!

Footloose — Kind-of-sort-of enjoyable in that way that the more well-structured pieces of 80s cheese were. It can be a bit entertaining how earnest these were — nowhere else are you going to get scenes of Kevin Bacon rage-dancing or super-dramatic games of tractor chicken. It also has touches of unironic merit here and there. Still probably not a “good” movie, though, whatever that means. I like the unexpected choice of giving the film’s arc to the preacher, but it bungles it from the beginning. I hear it originated as a darker, meaner film, and that shows — it introduces the preacher as an uber-conservative hard-liner and immediately begins backpedaling on that, like they shot the opening scene and studio executives got nervous that they were offending Christian audiences. But never getting a sense of the character takes all the storytelling juice out of it. It’s still an okay watch, though, for a combination of the right and wrong reasons.

Ghostbusters — “Who you gonna call? GHOSTBUSTERS!” Seriously, if you don’t love this movie, you and I can’t be friends anymore. It’s hokey and hasn’t aged well at all, but it’s one of those movies that, for me, almost becomes more charming for that exact reason. And of course, the comedy is gold no matter what era you live in.

Gremlins — Fun for what it is, and the puppetry/animatronics are top-notch, but there’s a lot I wish the script did differently. Feels like it spins its wheels for half its run-time, then takes off in a million arbitrary directions without paying off any of its setups. There are dozens of scenes and characters you could cut with basically no impact on the plot. Good enough that I wish it were better.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — I both agree with the people who consider it the weakest of the first three Indiana Jones movies and simultaneously think they overstate its flaws. It’s not quite as coherent a narrative, true, but even Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t really about storytelling. And yeah, it treads very different tonal ground, but honestly, I like that about it. Its darkness isn’t so much grim as it is pulpy, like an adventure wearing a cheesy B-movie’s skin. Like I said, it’s probably my least favorite of the first three, but I still have a good time watching it.

The Karate Kid — My favorite piece of 80s cheese. I acknowledge all the flaws that seem to be driving the Internet to dispute its status as a family classic. Those flaws just don’t bother me. We don’t make movies this dumbly earnest anymore. The Karate Kid just plain puts a smile on my face. And beyond that, it’s not as though it doesn’t have merit — I love these characters, particularly Miyagi, and the story, while easy to roadmap in elaborate detail just by reading the back of the case, is at least structured and gets you involved on some level. Well, I love it, anyway.

The Muppets Take Manhattan — Better than the second one, though not the first one. Again, these movies work better for me when they’re willing to relax themselves and just do fun stuff, whatever they feel like. Songs, comedy, whatever. I think it helps that this movie has basically no fourth wall humor. I’m fine with a little of it, like in the first movie, especially since the conceit of these movies is not that they inhabit a particular canon but that they’re movies being produced by the Muppets themselves. But in The Great Muppet Caper, there was so much of it that it almost started to seem lazy. Overall, this movie isn’t great, but it’s got enough of the charming fun you expect from the Muppets gang.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind — Here’s another oddity — along with My Neighbor Totoro, I think I might prefer this to Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke as well. In this case, though, I readily admit that it’s not a better film than those; it simply appeals to me more directly in its style, approach, themes, characters, etc. (With My Neighbor Totoro, I’ll happily make a case that it’s actually just plain better.) Nausicaa has its flaws, chief among them the clumsy exposition (Nausicaa sure does talk to herself a lot). Everything else is superb, though. My venture into Miyazaki’s filmography has borne exactly the fruit I hope it would — the guy is officially one of my favorites, full stop.

The Neverending Story — It’s not the most effective storytelling ever, but it’s also very definitely painting with its own brush — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie break the fourth wall as part of an emotional development before. Anyway, as wobbly as it is in parts, I think I have to slide this up into “pass” territory if only for the sheer imagination of the thing. They really did create their own world here, and put a lot of effort into it to boot. Not a great movie, but interesting.

A Nightmare on Elm Street — I think I’m at least starting to understand its following. It’s entertaining in a trashy sort of way, it gets a lot of mileage out of its premise, and it’s structured well enough. Even so, it’s cheesy, kind of pointless, and stuffed to bursting with bad acting, and I’m not at all ready to sign onto its classic status yet.

Once Upon a Time in America — Absolutely deserves its place among the pantheon of great crime films. It seems, at least based on my initial observations, that I like Sergio Leone’s most famous films in exactly the opposite order from everyone else — which is mostly to say that this is my favorite of his, even over the Man with No Name Trilogy (by far, actually). It’s not without its flaws — it ends with a bit of a whimper and could probably stand to be at least a full hour shorter than it is. The first two-thirds or so are so strong, though — great writing, great characters. There’s a rich psychology to the characters that seems absent from Leone’s more famous westerns. There’s so much detail packed in their interactions. It’s fascinating to watch those relationships and storylines develop. Just a really good movie all around.

Paris, Texas — Somewhere out there, there’s a better version of reality where Harry Dean Stanton was absolutely decorated with awards for this, was handed a million more roles like it, and retired as one of our most celebrated actors. The one we live in sucks, but at least this movie managed to cross the dimensional plane. This is minimalism at its most potent; the climax is nothing more than a handful of static shots of characters talking held to an almost absurd length, and it’s absolutely riveting. This movie did horrible things to my tear ducts.

Red Dawn — Daaaaaangerously close to “so bad it’s good” territory for me.

Romancing the Stone — A fun movie, if only for its entertaining characters and the fact that Robert Zemeckis still had energy as a director. It’s pretty flawed, though. Right off the bat, it’s pretty obvious that this is striking a lot of the same beats as any given Indiana Jones movie, and it has very little to offer that you won’t see done much better in one of those. I think its biggest issue is the extent to which its characters’ traits are merely informed rather than shown. The inevitable romance falls a bit flat, too. Plus, the villains have very thinly-sketched motivations, and it’s unclear how the movie wants you to feel about them — the pair of kidnappers start off the plot with the feeling that they’re going to run the show, but then, the movie introduces the militants and kind of wobbles back and forth on whether or not the original baddies are just comical morons who made a bad decision. It seems to settle on the latter, but that’s after swaying back and forth for most of it. There are also times when it feels like it’s made for young kids only for it to suddenly do a comparatively graphic sex scene or some left-field bloody violence. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be or how to get there. But it is entertaining.

Sixteen Candles — We’ll begin by addressing the obvious elephants in the room: Firstly, everything about Long Duk Dong. Secondly, there is a strong and weirdly persistent undercurrent of rape behind way too many of the relationships in this. John Hughes’ least attractive quality was easily his tendency to have all his nerds be pushy, obnoxious, entitled creepers and still pretend us though they’re likable or put-upon. Even apart from that, though, the movie is just kind of aimless. It’s not Hughes’ strongest. The characters don’t have as much definition, and if there’s a story, I couldn’t really identify it. Nothing that happens seems to matter as far as anything that happens later. Just kind of empty and boring.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock — Despite its somewhat below-average reputation, I found this to be a largely enjoyable sci-fi romp. There isn’t a whole lot of depth to it, necessarily, but it strikes just the right tone to at least be fun enough.

The Terminator — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence as a villain (mainly a product of giving him only minimal dialogue) is enough to propel it and make it basically watchable. He’s a palpable threat in a way that few movies achieve. Other than that, for being directed by a guy who would, decades later, essentially become the king of spectacle, it looks kind of crappy. Plus, its characters are flat, and like too many action movies of its era, it just. Refuses. To. End.

This Is Spinal Tap — There’s enough straight-faced stupidity to keep me amused throughout. Other than that, I don’t like this as much as it seems like most people do. At this point, I’ve simply accepted that my taste in comedy is wildly different than everyone else’s.

1985

Back to the Future — I’ve largely been joking when I’ve said this about other movies on this list, but I have seriously never met anyone who doesn’t like Back to the Future at least a little. It’s that rare movie that tries to be every genre — sci-fi, comedy, adventure, family, teen drama — and somehow pulls it off, holding all of them in balance, with none of them ever tripping over each other. No matter what your cup of tea is, you’ll find it in Back to the Future. The script isn’t deep, but it’s 100 percent effective at what it’s trying to do, and the characters are an absolute joy. This is my go-to movie when I’m in a bad mood; I can’t be miserable while watching it.

The Black Cauldron — My feelings are ambivalent. Maybe leaning a touch to the positive side. It looks great, and for Disney, it’s something a bit different. The ambition doesn’t really come across in execution, though.

Brazil — From the moment it began, and Peter Vaughn was talking about how his opponents are bad sports who have forgotten old-fashioned virtues and just can’t stand to see the other guy win, my stomach was in a knot and I was thinking, “Oh, so this is going to be another one of THOSE 80s movies that’s just reality in 2017 but with bright colors.” Always compelling, always delightfully weird, always impossible to make complete sense of, and always thoroughly Terry Gilliam. Roger Ebert called it undisciplined; he’s right, and it may be what makes it so instantly memorable.

The Breakfast Club — Probably my favorite among the John Hughes movies that I’ve seen. It’s simple, but it gets the job done. I think maybe it tries to strike the emotional beats a bit too hard, but other than that, it’s a really enjoyable watch.

Clue — It’s a mixed bag almost by necessity. At the end of the day, the story is deliberately structured so nothing that happens makes any sense, and everyone is potentially guilty of the murder, so the movie never gives you the chance to really get to know them. Instead, it has to get by on energy, comedy, visuals, and performances, and mostly, it does. It’s a fun little movie, though probably not an endlessly rewatchable one.

The Color Purple — It can be very, very manipulative at times, and tonally, it occasionally almost plays as a parody of sentimental Oscar bait. It’s also really good anyway. Steven Spielberg is a damn magician.

Commando — It’s a bad movie by just about every metric of analysis, but from the opening scene where Arnold carries an entire tree over his shoulder and hand-feeds a wild deer, I knew I was going to love it. Its cheesy, over-the-top, macho bullshit is hilarious, and I had a really good time; whether that’s the right or wrong reason to like it, only the director can know. I mean, Arnold picks up a phone booth with a guy in it and throws it. There should be laws against hating things like that.

Fletch — I’ve got to be honest; I didn’t get it. While it has a handful of amusing lines here and there, I don’t think it walks the line between its comedic elements and its more serious ones all that well. For starters, most of the movie is pretty grounded, so when Chevy Chase shows up in a glorified SNL costume, it’s bizarre. The more constant problem, though, is that when your comedy has a more internally serious plot and derives its humor mainly from the protagonist having an amusing personality, you run the risk of the whole thing becoming overly glib and keeping the audience at arm’s length. That, unfortunately, is what Fletch did to me.

The Goonies — I can’t even begin to understand the following this movie has. It’s two hours of incomprehensible yelling and shoddy, confusing direction. It’s obnoxious.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome — I’m not inherently opposed to the idea of a more family-friendly Mad Max movie, but yeah… This goes about as well as you’d expect. Saddling Max with a hundred indistinguishable kid sidekicks was not the best idea. Among the adults, the supporting characters aren’t nearly as memorable as those in The Road Warrior. This installment feels self-conscious about its weirdness again, like it’s not coming naturally and being forced as often as possible. The film’s stakes couldn’t possibly be lower — basically, if everyone stayed where they were, the last hour of the movie would have absolutely no reason to happen. It’s slow and bloated and clumsily executed and a major disappointment in the wake of the efficient, tightly-wound The Road Warrior. The world of the film is still endearingly bizarre, and the final action sequence is trademark George Miller goodness. Other than that, I just didn’t find much to like.

Out of Africa — The stereotypical “made solely to win Oscars” movie. It’s grand and kind of full of itself, tackling every scene like it’s saying something important or adding footage to future Academy Awards montages. If you can get past that, it’s not too bad. It certainly looks very nice, anyway. I liked it well enough, largely because it made me feel nostalgic in the way it resembled the bloated historical movies we would watch when we were at grandma’s house.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure — I don’t know. The jury is still out on this one for me. On one hand, it’s Tim Burton, so it’s obviously both visually inventive and impressive. There are some amusing moments, and there’s probably something to the way it juxtaposes its protagonist’s childishness against all this weirdly dark real-life stuff. At the same time, there isn’t really a plot, per se, and there probably is a circle of hell where all you do is hang out with Pee-wee Herman all day.

The Purple Rose of Cairo — It’s interesting to see a movie assess the cultural effect of cinema in the way this does. It captures both dynamics fairly well — the transcendent power of art and storytelling to compel us to change our lives, and the danger inherent in the unpracticed soul retreating too far into the fantasy of the whole thing. The ending is genuinely awesome, especially for how well the film gets you to buy into the wishful, movie-magic thinking the characters do. As with a lot of Woody Allen dramas, there’s a dryness to it that keeps me from loving it outright, but the good stuff is really good.

Rambo: First Blood Part II — Doesn’t really do much other than up the ante as far as it can go on the violence end of things. It’s such a weird sequel to a movie that isn’t anywhere near as action-packed as people remember it being. First Blood is more of a slow burn; First Blood Part II is the quintessential dumb 80s action movie. It doesn’t have much self-awareness and is occasionally almost funny in its over-the-top masculinity. And it has very little of the complicated emotions that made First Blood — which, keep in mind, I don’t think is anywhere near a great film — interesting. It’s just dumb, violent bravado with occasional speechifying about the importance of honoring veterans. Not good.

Ran — I loved this movie for most of its runtime. It was predictably astonishing to find out what Akira Kurosawa could do with color and more modern directorial techniques. Ran is absolutely resplendent from beginning to end, so colorful and delicately framed. However, for me, this is one of those movies where the flaw is mainly how long it is. Eventually, it just wore me out a bit; the emotions it drew early on started to fade. I think, as of this movie, I’ve finally reached the point where I can assess Kurosawa’s filmography more generally. From my personal perspective, he’s a director I love when he’s at his best but more often leaves me in a place where I wish I love his films more than I do. I think it’s mainly my personal taste — I automatically resist films that approach characters and dialogue and acting very stolidly. When you exercise that level of restraint, you want to get close to the actors so they can sell it for you, but Kurosawa likes to frame things distantly. I still really like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, and I sure do love parts of Ikiru and even this, but at my current level of cinematic experience, I can’t call Kurosawa one of my all-time favorites.

Re-Animator — Watched on the recommendation of the Birth Movies Death Canon. I’m not really into the whole B-movie/exploitation thing, so take all this with a grain of salt, but I spent most of its run-time not understanding its appeal. The lab table sexual assault scene pushed me over the edge.

Rocky IV — Movies like this make me wish the Cold War never ended. This is basically Rocky Punches Communism in the Face: The Motion Picture. These movies should never have gotten political. This is like listening to a third-grader read a class paper on world events. The depiction of Russia is completely adorable in the way it goes straight to every single one of the broadest and silliest stereotypes it can find. And it all ends with Rocky punching communism so hard that all the communists change their minds within, like, five minutes. Up to and including the politicians. And then, after beating the crap out of communism, Rocky sagely decides that the way to end the Cold War is to just hug it out. And then there’s the robot. This is such a small thing, and it shouldn’t bother me as much as it was, but seriously — what’s with the robot? What was happening in the screenwriting sessions when that went down. They were just, “Hey, what if we had a robot?” And everybody else was like, “Good, good, that’s new; I like it!” This was also the movie where the fact that Rocky keeps coming back no matter what you hit him with stopped being a trait and started being a mutant superpower. And honestly, the formula was just getting unearthly stale at this point. There’s a large faction defending this movie as so bad it’s good. I’m not quite there, because really long stretches of this are boring, but I definitely see it, so if you’re into unabashed 80s cheese, here you go.

A Room with a View — I’m able to recognize this from some sort of objective position as a good movie, relatively well done on all accounts. But as with anything, it’s either your kind of thing or it isn’t, and I have a notoriously low threshold for costume dramas about free spirits fighting a private war against stuffy rich people and their silly customs. It’s been done a lot, and it can seem so trivial. But it does tackle that premise in a much more measured and intelligent way than what I’m used to, so I have to applaud it for that. But I just can’t watch this sort of thing without rolling my eyes every five minutes.

Witness — I think it’s more of a prototypical 80s movie than it thinks it is; it’s a marriage of the cop movie and the fish-out-of-water romance, both layered in synths and plenty of cheese. Despite that, I really enjoy it for reasons I can’t quite pin down. I mean, as broad as it is, the storytelling here is nevertheless functional; still, that wouldn’t explain why it manages to work as well as it does. I like the philosophical/cultural underpinnings, I suppose; plus, I grew up in Amish country, so there’s a sense of familiarity that draws me to it.

1986

The Adventures of Milo and Otis — I liked this well enough as a kid. I’m not sure how I’d react to it today, both because I don’t remember it in enough detail to say whether or not it’s good and because I’ve since been made aware that shooting this movie was a long process of torturing innocent animals for no reason.

Aliens — It takes a good path for a sequel — using the universe, the story, and the characters, but tweaking the genre a bit. Alien was a horror movie; Aliens is an action movie. And for what it’s worth, I think it’s a solid one. It’s not as good as its predecessor, but there’s fun to be had — and a few scares, too.

An American Tail — I didn’t think I watched this all that much when I was a kid — my family never owned it — but the number of songs I knew says otherwise. Must have been one of our more regular rentals. Anyway, it holds up all right. I miss this kind of sincerity in kids’ movies, back when even the bad ones were trying to tell a story and get you to feel something. An American Tail is basically functional, albeit much too loose for its own good; the story just kind of does whatever it feels like. Good for kids.

Big Trouble in Little China — Mostly fun and entertainingly subversive. I think it has some structural issues (it always bugs me when a solid third of a movie is devoted to an action sequence that doesn’t change the status quo one bit), and it also has three or four characters who end up being totally pointless. But I largely enjoy what it does right.

Castle in the Sky — This was one of the earlier Studio Ghibli films, and you can definitely see Miyazaki still trying to find his voice a little bit. You can see traces of the brilliance he’d achieve in the future, but Castle in the Sky isn’t quite there. It’s not as layered or interesting as some of his other films. Still, as a straightforward adventure film, it’s top-notch. The world is interesting, the designs are great, the characters are really lovable and funny (especially the pirates). There’s a lot to enjoy here, even if it doesn’t quite stick with you the way Miyazaki’s best films do.

Crocodile Dundee — One of those inexplicable 80s oddities that somehow survived despite not really being all that great. Not that it’s outright terrible. It just somehow manages to be typical 80s cheese — it’s like a super-conservative romance novel about a city girl who meets a rugged wild man and has adventures but manages to tame him — while also being totally dramatically inert. Nothing really happens in this; there are just some light, obvious fish-out-of-water gags. And that’s about it. Yeah, I don’t really see its appeal.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — I’m on the record as not really liking this movie all that much despite being the all-time teen comedy. I used to hate it, primarily because I found its protagonist to be an extraordinarily unlikable sociopath hedonist. I softened on it later, when I managed to tune into some of what it’s doing with its supporting cast, which I related to a bit. Ferris Bueller, however, is still smug and annoying.

The Fly — In retrospect, the decision to put off lunch until after I watched this maybe wasn’t a great one. I can’t deny that The Fly is a good movie. It’s better than the original and is an ideal remake all around in that it borrows the basic premise but otherwise does its own thing with it. But I don’t suspect I’ll ever be watching it again; this thing made my blood curdle.

The Great Mouse Detective — A much darker Disney animated movie than the norm. I actually managed to revisit this one rather recently. We didn’t own it when I was young but did rent it once or twice, and one of my younger siblings happened to find it on Netflix Instant. And it’s a solid Disney film, and sometimes, a surprisingly intense one. I don’t quite think it’s great, though.

Hannah and Her Sisters — I think it meanders a bit too long, but once it gets its pieces in place, it becomes pretty entertaining, if not quite arresting. I think it’s one of Woody Allen’s most optimistic films; his monologue near the climax is life-affirming in that rare way that just makes your heart soar. I love those moments; I just wish the film surrounding them was stronger.

The Karate Kid Part II — For how much I love The Karate Kid, it’s been a weirdly long time since I last saw this. I like it, though not as much. Like I said, these movies just appeal to me in some strange way. The change of location benefits it; everything looks very nice. And it raises the stakes well enough. It’s fun.

Labyrinth — As with The Dark Crystal, my feelings here are pretty mixed, but I have to at least praise it for its ambition. Here, again, we have an entire world created through incredibly complex puppetry. Our heroine and our villain are the only major characters portrayed by humans. On the whole, there really isn’t much of a plot, and the world is one that’s more visual than it is a tangible reality with stories of its own. And for someone who would go on to do such great work, Jennifer Connelly’s performance here is just…terrible. But the supporting cast is so colorful and unique, and everything just looks great.

Platoon — It’s not as thematically rich as one might hope, nor are its characters all that strong. But Oliver Stone shoots the battle scenes in such a way that they’re so terrifying and disorienting that they become their own self-commentary. They defy the Truffaut principle perfectly; there’s no way to have fun watching them. It’s a good war movie made by a guy who was there and saw all of this happen. It inevitably ends up being compared to Apocalypse Now, since they’re both revered Vietnam War movies, and it obviously loses that fight by a landslide, but it’s still laudable in its own right.

Pretty in Pink — On this one, I’m ambivalent leaning maybe a bit negative. On the plus side, some of the John Hughes intelligence shows through in the script. I think it makes the right call with the ending. And Harry Dean Stanton, here, plays one of my favorite movie dads — kind of tepid and lazy, but he loves his daughter unreservedly and treats her like an equal and a young adult capable of making her own decisions, and I love that about him. On the downside, it strikes all of its emotional beats with all the force of a sledgehammer, usually accompanied by a cheesy 80s power ballad. And I’m sorry, fans — Ducky is a clingy, obnoxious, entitled Nice Guy, and truth be told, he got better than he really deserved.

Stand by Me — Decent film, but there’s a broadness and distinct “movie-ness” to it that keeps me from really getting into it.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home — Part of me thinks that I appreciate this movie for all the wrong reasons, but as I’ve said in the past — the filmmakers’ intent is starting to matter less to me than what I actually get out of it. So, the fact that I immensely enjoy this movie is good enough for me. Don’t get me wrong; it’s stupid bordering on completely adorable. Nevertheless, I really miss goofy movies that played everything with the utmost sincerity and earnestness. It’s very, very dumb fun, but still fun.

Three Amigos — This is a really underrated comedy. I kind of hope it sees a resurgence in popularity; I think it would be received much better today. It has a lot of big set pieces, combining adventure and comedy, and both of them get bigger and dumber and happier the longer the scene goes on. Every flavor of comedy is represented her, from verbal wit to pure absurdity, but its tone never wobbles. I think it’s really, really funny and wish more people would agree with me on that.

Top Gun — Super cheesy. Not in the good way.

1987

Adventures in Babysitting — Not terribly original, but lots of fun anyway. They got a pretty good cast (the little girl is completely adorable) and knew exactly the right tone to strike. It reminds me a bit of Back to the Future, both in its distinct 80s-ness and its largely successful marriage of a couple different elements, even though, for me, it’s nowhere near the level of that film. As a matter of personal taste, I also love movies like this where the characters encounter a lot of “uglies” who turn out to be surprisingly helpful despite being the sort of figures who usually aren’t in this sort of thing. It’s not deep or thought-provoking, but it’s exactly what it wants to be: a good time.

The Brave Little Toaster — I definitely saw it once or twice when I was a kid, but I don’t remember it at all.

Broadcast News — It’s the sort of thing that’s pretty compelling throughout, managing to make a sudden broadcast as tense as an action sequence and milk a lot of comedy and pathos out of the same moment. I also have a hard time really making a case for it — if not for its quality, then for its purpose. The character development feels a touch haphazard, and the characters themselves exist in this constant vortex of love and hate that sometimes seems less like complex, real-world emotions and more confusion. But I do like it.

Dirty Dancing — One of those movies where there’s constantly this little voice in the back of your mind saying, “You shouldn’t like this,” but you kind of do anyway. Dirty Dancing is unabashed 80s cheese, but it seems like it mostly knows what it’s doing. The central romance isn’t always great, but both characters’ individual stories are compelling in their own way (despite Patrick Swayze’s melodramatic tough guy act, which manages to be endearingly goofy all the same). It gets you where it wants to, more or less.

Empire of the Sun — Probably not one of Spielberg’s finest, but I think it deserves a little more acclaim than it gets. It might get a little boring here and there, but it’s shot very well, and it does an excellent job of capturing exactly what war and suffering inflict on the developing mind of a young child.

Evil Dead II — As I’ve said in the past, this sort of bloody, gory, over-the-top grindhouse type of thing isn’t generally what I turn to when I want to have fun at the movies. That said, I really do get why people like this so much. It’s non-self-consciously dumb to exactly the right degree.

Full Metal Jacket — I really enjoy this film; it’s one of the better war movies out there. It’s greatest strength is in its tone; Kubrick controls it masterfully. It’s half straight war movie and half black comedy, and it knows exactly when to lean further in one direction and when to pull back. It can be hilarious, but it can also turn that around on a dime — already, I’m thinking of how starkly the otherwise energetic and amusing boot camp portion of the film ends and how immediately that changes the way you see things. It’s smart about using those abrupt tonal shifts to the highlight the absurdity of war. It’s not perfect; there’s a good-sized section of the film, starting shortly after the setting switches to Vietnam, that feels a bit slack to me. But everything else is great. Also, R. Lee Ermey. Did I mention R. Lee Ermey?

Good Morning, Vietnam — My feelings about this movie are mixed in that way that absolutely frustrates me. On one hand, it’s totally absorbing, mainly because of Robin Williams’ hilarious, incredible performance, but for other reasons as well. I love it. Hardly a second of this movie does not have my attention entirely. At the same time, there’s all kinds of stuff in it that gets on my nerves immediately… Some of the kinda insensitive gay jokes, the way it sometimes treats the locals as an amusing curiosity, etc. Its heart is in the right place, but when it meanders, boy does it meander! But the good stuff is so, so good.

Lethal Weapon — It kind of feels like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are the entire show here. Which is fine, I guess. They’re pretty good. I don’t know, I was kind of unmoved by the rest of it. Other than some laudable emotional bravery here and there, most of it’s a bit formulaic and of-its-times.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles — It’s okay. It’s not one of my favorites. I give it a thumbs up for the fact that it is frequently funny, but it’s held back by the lack of variety in its humor, which is pretty much just John Candy screwing up and Steve Martin getting flustered. And I think both characters are unlikable enough in their own unique ways that the dramatic moments fall flat. But it’s worth seeing anyway.

Predator — A scary thing is in the jungle. Walk through the jungle. Shoot at stuff. A guy dies. Walk through the jungle. Shoot at stuff. A guy dies. Walk through the jungle. Shoot at stuff. A guy dies. Repeat until everyone is dead except for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Engage climax. Bleh.

The Princess Bride — I love this movie. That’s a meaningless statement, I know. But I still love it. The Princess Bride is a master of hokey, vaguely comedic charm. It’s predominantly a comedy parodying fairy tales, but it’s also a fairy tale in its own right, and in that context, it…actually works. It’s fun and funny at the same time. You laugh at the characters for their bombast and self-importance but root for them to get what they want anyway. And it’s unpretentious, having no qualms whatsoever about seeming like a dumb film even though it’s actually very smart.

Radio Days — It’s not really about the story or the themes, both of which seem slight; it’s a picture of a family and a culture at a certain type of place. Woody Allen seems to enjoy that kind of movie, and this is an example of what it looks like when he does it right. It isn’t, in theory, all that different from some of the lesser vignette-style pieces he’s done; it’s head and shoulders better than a lot of the others solely because there’s something very lived-in and full about the characters, relationships, and world he crafts around what is clearly a very personal story for him. It’s specific in exactly the way it needs to be.

Raising Arizona — I know everyone seems to consider this “lesser Coen Brothers,” a statement that means nothing given that they’re pretty much the greatest filmmakers currently working, but I don’t know. I think Raising Arizona just might be one of my favorite comedies of all time. If you know me, you know that the way to get me with a comedy is not just to have witty one-liners and well timed physical comedy or whatever. It’s to create a ridiculous situation and then play it just barely straight. With Raising Arizona, at a certain point, you just start laughing for no reason. And you don’t stop. It’s a ton of fun.

The Running Man — “I’ll live to see you eat that contract. But I hope you save enough room…FOR MY FIST!” (Serious commentary: kind of entertaining in that way Arnold movies were, very little else going on, satirical idea seems like it was probably more developed in the source material.)

RoboCop — Right now, my thoughts are less on the film itself and more on the revelation I experienced not five minutes before writing this that there is a Criterion edition of RoboCop. My brain isn’t even sure what to do with that. I almost want to buy this now, just for the novelty of sandwiching this between obscure foreign art films that bear the same logo or something. But yeah, I don’t really get RoboCop. Actually, no — I’m pretty sure I get it; I’m just not certain why it’s all that brilliant. I think we need to redefine satire when it comes to goofy action movies. Too often, what we actually mean is that they reference in brief certain social issues, not necessarily even in a joking context, and then go on with the unrelated exploding of things. Some of the stuff in RoboCop is kind of amusing, particularly the news anchors who spend no time at all on actual news and tons of time selling stupid novelty products. But it’s all really unfocused. Capitalism, war, a dumbed-down mass media, urbanization, crime, corruption, corporatism… It’s all there, and none of it seems to be the point so much as some deal happening in the background. The movie just shows us a situation in which it turns out to be a bad idea to privatize literally anything and then moves right along. Take that, Reagan? It’s not what I’d call “biting” so much as “making really obvious points that most people would agree with.” And even as a piece of dumb entertainment, I don’t know. I was hoping it’d be a lot more over-the-top than it is. It pretty much just coasts on having a cool-looking robot with all the powers of…engaging in generic gunfights.

Spaceballs — I probably should like this. Galaxy Quest is its closest cousin, and I really like that. Spaceballs, though… I don’t know. There’s just a lot about it that doesn’t work. The leads both turn in relatively boring performances. John Candy does his best, but the movie doesn’t seem to know what his character is in terms of comedy. It doesn’t parody Star Wars so much as summon up random imagery: Dot Matrix could easily have been deleted from the film, because what does she do other than look like C-3PO? Plus, the visuals are really static, and the sound effects and music are distractingly empty. I will vouch for it in only one respect, and that is Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet. I genuinely believe that this is one of the all-time great comedic performances. And it brightens up a movie that otherwise just isn’t as funny as it should be.

The Untouchables — I talked about this at some length in my review of Gangster Squad. On the whole, it’s a pretty good movie. Its heroic cast gels really well as a unit, and you do end up rooting for these characters. Its protagonist is developed very well; the script truly tests his breaking point and draws him into more morally ambiguous situations. Its major flaw for me is that, despite being largely a realistic crime drama, it tries to strike action movie joy a little too often and sometimes goes very overboard in the attempt. But aside from that, it’s a good movie.

Wings of Desire — One of those treasured classics that wasn’t my thing, or I didn’t get it, or maybe I just didn’t like it and need to embrace that. Most of the philosophizing struck me as circling the same point, taking one idea and simply repeating it with different metaphors over and over again for scenes I almost universally thought stretched on much, much too long. I kept drifting away, focusing on the images and losing track of what was being said for minutes at a time. There are a lot of things I like about it (not the least of which was the abundance of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), but too much of it had no effect on me. Very open to having my mind changed about this one.

1988

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen — A charmingly weird, silly, and fun film with some fantastic production design and practical effects work.

Akira — Too self-consciously cool for my taste, like a movie made strictly to appeal to an Internet subculture that wouldn’t exist for another decade at least. Between the violence and the almost pervasive emotional intensity, it comes across really ugly, and not in any particularly edifying way. It’s also structurally messy and constantly gives the impression that you’d have to have read the manga to meaningfully understand anything that you’re seeing.

Beetlejuice — You know, it’s plenty flawed, but it’s got that rare combination of elements that put it firmly under the category of “hard to dislike.” The idea couldn’t possibly be more original, and neither could the setting or characters or nearly impossible to describe mixture of tones and genres. The weird practical effects, of course, are a big part of the charm. They don’t always blend well into the real-life stuff, but it’s hard to hate it for that; it does a lot with what it has to work with. The biggest problem, I suppose, is that the story is kind of all over the place; it seems like it just randomly makes up stuff to do as it goes along and then does it. At the same time, it functions on such an outlandish internal logic already, so you don’t really blame it. It isn’t genius or anything, but it’s a pretty good watch regardless.

Cinema Paradiso — I keep trying to condense this to a short blurb, but it’s really difficult. This is a very multi-faceted film that touches on a lot of things, and discussing any of it, the positives and the negatives, would take too long. Plus, I haven’t seen the director’s cut. I did read what happens in it, and that information definitely changes the entire film fundamentally, to the point that we’re discussing two entirely different movies between both cuts. So, I’ll keep it short and simple and say that I like it quite a bit.

Coming to America — It’s only really got one joke, but that joke is sometimes kind of amusing. I don’t love this movie; there’s about as much comedy that doesn’t work for me as there is comedy that does, and there’s a lot about the ending that feels way too easy (on top of the story being pretty formulaic to begin with). But it has some funny moments, and it gets a long way off its main character’s irresistible likability.

Die Hard — I talked about Die Hard a bit in my review of its sequel, A Good Day to Die Hard. Honestly, it isn’t anything brilliant, but it’s not trying to be. It’s a dumb action movie that knows it’s a dumb action movie, and that’s exactly what I appreciate most about it. It’s over-the-top and humorous but not winking or overly ironic. Like a lot of the best uber-violent action movies, it’s easy to see it more as a subtle black comedy — and with the strong emphasis on the Christmas motif, that’s exactly the light in which I view this. And it caught Bruce Willis during the part of his career prior to becoming a sleepy old man, so he’s lots of fun. It isn’t a masterwork of storytelling, and it drags in places, but ultimately, it does a lot with what it has.

Grave of the Fireflies — I know I’m in the minority on this, but honestly, it struck me mainly as being a little manipulative. The characters are more constructs than people, designed to evoke a certain emotional response rather than stand on their own. Their personalities and relationships are extremely general and not all that interesting. Admittedly, it’s good at being manipulative — come on, people, I’m not made out of stone. Of course I’m going to feel something while watching this. But it left me with basically nothing to think about.

Heathers — Wow, where has this movie been my whole life? I wasn’t expecting this. I went into it with only a vague sense of what it was about and a general lack of interest in high school comedies. I was so unprepared. This is one of the most darkly hilarious movies I’ve ever seen, and it’s a complete original — nothing has ever come near this movie’s utterly bizarre tone. A high school murder comedy/angry satire that somehow turns into a John Carpenter movie in its final reel. I’m not sure I completely agree with every decision it makes, but I still found every single one fascinating and entertaining in equal measure. I am in awe.

The Land Before Time — A cherished childhood memory that, all told, still holds up all right. It isn’t particularly substantial, but at just barely over an hour with fun characters, solid animation, and charm and imagination to spare, it’s a just-right piece of children’s entertainment.

The Last Temptation of Christ — Quite good. It was obviously the subject of a lot of controversy, but it struck me like 2014’s Noah — not an adaptation, but a film that assumes you already know the story and proceeds to address its cultural and historical significance rather than its literal details. There are one or two moments that struck me as needlessly controversial, but mostly, I find that response to be overstated. I like its portrayal of Jesus as an actual person — which is, after all, what the Gospels claim he was. Shouldn’t he have thoughts, fears, doubts, struggles, and temptations? If he didn’t, what was the point in coming at all? He wouldn’t have experienced the world of man at all. I have some issues with it here and there, but overall, it’s a highly interesting film.

Mississippi Burning — Sort of a mixed bag, but a compelling one. I definitely dislike the “white savior” elements, that its primary focus seems to be reframing these events as a cop thriller lionizing the FBI. And it’s strangely preoccupied with the effectiveness of various information-gathering tactics, considering the thousand more interesting and important things happening in the margins. Its ultimate embrace of the “anything goes” approach to crime-solving is troubling as well (not that the people against whom it’s used are anything less than repugnant). One thing saves it for me — I can’t think of many films that have depicted the Jim Crow/Civil Rights-era South as unflinchingly as this one. This chapter of history has been as whitewashed as the rest of it; when we think about it, and study it in our history books, we see images of lunch counter sit-ins and segregate water fountains, things that are technically true and were an important part of it but fail to capture the magnitude of the atrocity. The Jim Crow South wasn’t simply the generalized mistreatment of black people; lives were on the line. This was nothing less than physical and psychological warfare, and I like the apocalyptic note in the movie’s tone. It strikes a particular blow nowadays.

My Neighbor Totoro — I’m that rare person who actually prefers this to Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. This is a thoroughly charming film, and it’s quite touching as well. It’s difficult to extract a specific thesis from it, but its portrait of a pair of little girls dealing with the near-total absence of their sickly mother is very effective. It has the magic and fantasy typical of Miyazaki, but there’s a subtle sadness just beneath the surface. These are children, and they don’t understand the significance of their own lives yet. There are things down the road that they aren’t prepared for. Stylistically, it’s very childish, but in every other way, it’s quite adult — you can’t appreciate it in full unless you see the larger world that’s invisible to its protagonists. I just love this movie.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! — It’s not quite as funny as Airplane!, but given that it’s a bit more narrative and character-driven, I personally like it a little better. The comedy is more of the same: randomness, endless visual puns, physical humor, and the like. And it’s all still hilarious. My main issue with it is that whereas most comedies will save their biggest and most absurd stuff for last and built up to that over the course of the film, The Naked Gun actually seems to be at its weakest during the ending, which simply doesn’t live up to the big, hilarious set piece I was expecting. Still, if only three-fourths of the movie is laugh-out-loud funny, that’s enough to do it for me.

Oliver & Company — I really liked it as a kid. In retrospect, I definitely see it as one of the lesser entries in the Disney canon. Don’t get me wrong; I’d still say that I enjoy this. But this is an animated studio whose primary success over history has been the creation of lovable and interesting characters, but everyone here is either a blank slate or annoying, one-note comic relief. There’s enough going on to work it out in the end, but I don’t love it.

Rain Man — There’s a trap a lot of movies that center their narrative arc on a bad person learning how to be a good person often fall into — severely overdoing the “bad person” half of that equation. In my opinion, Rain Man falls into it hard. I’m not saying your protagonist, in this situation, can’t be a really bad guy, significantly more bad than good, but he has to be recognizably human, and we desperately need those little touches of light that suggest how he might change — those traits that eventually blossom into natural, organic growth on his or her part. Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbit is just way too awful. The three-fourths of the movie that pass before he learns his lesson are nearly impossible to watch; they’re absolutely rage-inducing. And as a result, that character arc didn’t work for me — he warmed up to his brother solely because the movie demanded it. Outside of that… Eh. Barry Levinson is ordinarily good at taking this sort of sweet, sentimental thing and making a mostly watchable movie, but I just don’t think that’s what happens here. It’s too long, too unstructured, too one-note. I’m just not a fan.

Rambo III — These movies went from being (surprisingly) emotionally complicated in the first to overly emotionally simple in the second to just plain not emotional at all in the third. It’s one of those movies that could end an hour earlier or later than it does without affecting anything — no structure, no drive, extremely limited character. It’s also weird watching a franchise that started out criticizing one overseas U.S. quagmire switch to embracing what would become another overseas U.S. quagmire. Hindsight’s 20/20, I suppose.

Scrooged — I think Richard Donner was making a different movie than Bill Murray and the writers. Donner goes for Christmas movie sentimentality, while Murray and the writers seem to intend it much more tongue-in-cheek, exemplified by the final scene, which Donner shoots like the typically joyful Ebenezer Scrooge redemption while Murray plays it as the ramblings of a man with a broken mind suffering a breakdown on national television. Sometimes, the disconnect makes the movie more interesting; sometimes, it’s just awkward. At any rate, it’s a lot of fun for a variety of reasons, Bill Murray chief among them but Carol Kane’s cheerfully abusive Ghost of Christmas Present coming in a very close second.

They Live — I’m never sure how to feel about these 80s satires that are basically 1:1 depictions of the world I live in. Without the aliens, I guess…well, then again, Donald Trump. Anyway, “They Live” is all right; it has a few interesting ideas and is right on that border of parody and sincerity that 80s action movies walked so well. It could stand to be a little better-paced — there’s a lot it might have done to get into the actual premise sooner, and I can’t think of a more unnecessarily long movie fight than the “put on the glasses” sequence. It needs more interesting characters, too; it goes for such big heroics in the climactic scene but never establishes or develops the protagonists as people for whom those moments actually matter. Flawed but fun.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit — I discovered this film later in life. People always seemed to lump it in with a bunch of other 70s and 80s adventure movies that I really like, so I expected it to be right in my wheelhouse. Ultimately, though, I was a bit disappointed. I like the movie — it’s extremely innovative, and the mixture of animation and live action is surprisingly seamless. But it’s a little too wacky to take seriously as a story, and the comedy is more manic and loud than it is actually funny. I liked it, but I wanted to love it.

1989

All Dogs Go to Heaven — I haven’t seen this since I was a kid, but I still have a crystal clear memory of what a dark, messed up kids’ movie this is. Man alive. I was young enough to be terrified by it but old enough that I didn’t run screaming and vow never to watch it again. Instead, the darkness of it left me morbidly fascinated with it. But it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I can’t offer a definitive opinion.

Back to the Future Part II — I like it, but it’s probably my least favorite of the trilogy. It leans a little more sci-fi than its predecessor, and in trying to explore the implications of its world, the plot folds over on itself, like, seven times before the movie ends. To its credit, it never gets confusing, but keeping track of all the causes and effects and stopping to explain the rules really messes with its energy. Still, the characters, story, and world are lots of fun, and that’s all it really needs.

Batman — It’s not at all surprising that Tim Burton is really good at camp. For all of his flaws, he’s got quite a talent for meshing genres and working with unusual tones. This is campy and silly, but in a dark sort of way, and it’s never winking or ironic about anything. It’s just a good, old-fashioned tale of simple good vs. simple evil. Its simplicity is both its strength and its weakness, though. Nobody gets emotionally connected to much of anything, and what they do get connected to is not involved to the extent that it should be. It doesn’t really climax, except to the extent that you recognize by its structure when the big showdown is going to happen. And while I wouldn’t say I dislike him, I’m not too fond of Jack Nicholson as the Joker. He brings too much calculation to it; his Joker never seems as unhinged as he should be. But it’s still a masterwork of production design — Burton’s tendency to infuse gothic architecture into everything works well with this more modern setting — and it’s fun enough to watch.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure — It’s not a “good movie” in the sense that I would use that word, but it is sincere and absurd enough to be enjoyable anyway.

Dead Poets Society — Mostly saccharine nonsense, but lightly inspiring, somewhat uplifting saccharine nonsense. I’m not made of stone.

Do the Right Thing — I’ve only seen this once, and I feel as though my opinion on it is caught in a state of flux. I don’t think I’ve pieced it together just yet. In tone and style, it’s very far off the beaten path, but I can see a bit of rhyme and reason to it. And its narrative is all over the place, but can see a bit of rhyme and reason to it as well. After one viewing, I suppose I’d say that I find it interesting, and whether or not I love it will have to wait for another day. I do find it strange that this movie has a reputation for being a political cudgel; I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie that comes to less of a thematic conclusion than this one.

Driving Miss Daisy — …You sure about that one, Academy? This movie is so sweet, adorable, and insubstantial that it comes close to being outright mind-numbing. The natural charisma and chemistry of its main characters are the only things that even come close to saving it. I think it’s supposed to be some sort of commentary on race relations, because that’s where most of the biggest emotional beats are, but…I really don’t know what it’s saying about that. It doesn’t even focus on it all that much for most of its runtime. Mostly, it’s just some cute little movie about a crabby old lady befriending her kindly chauffeur. And that’d be fine with stronger writing, but the relationship between them happens in fits and starts rather than gradual development. This just…isn’t good, in my opinion.

Ghostbusters II — I don’t know why everyone is so down on this. It’s fun enough, and it has its amusing moments. It’s not a masterful story or anything, but honestly, neither is the first one. I think it’s good fun.

Glory — A good Civil War movie. I found that I enjoyed it but left the experience without much to say; there’s something a touch generic about it. But it’s got some great characters and two or three great performances, and it’s well directed, so it gets a thumbs-up from me.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids — I saw this when I was a young teenager. It was on TV, I think. I don’t remember it very well. I can’t recall what my reaction was, so I can’t form an opinion.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — In theory, I’m willing to admit that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the superior film in terms of quality. But as far as personal preference, there’s no question — The Last Crusade is my favorite Indiana Jones movie. For me, it just hits this perfect high of action, adventure, humor, character, atmosphere, mystery, and story. It’s a fun and, on occasion, emotionally involving ride, and it gives Indy his best supporting cast yet.

The Karate Kid Part III  — Despite my love of the first movie and my appreciation of the second, I have no forgiveness for this. Just terrible.

Kiki’s Delivery Service — It’s very laid back, particularly by the standard of animated films for young children, but I like that about it. It comes close to just being a hang-out movie; there isn’t much of a plot. Which is fine when you like the characters a lot, and I did. The central theme — Kiki’s witch powers as a metaphor for Miyazaki’s own creative instincts — clicked with me in an unusually personal way. My only real issue with it is that it broadcasts that theme very late, close to an hour in; I wish it was present sooner. But on the whole, there isn’t much about this that I dislike.

The Little Mermaid — We never owned this one; I’m pretty sure I thought it was for girls or some nonsense like that. I saw it a few times at school and at friends’ houses and things like that and secretly enjoyed it every time, though.

My Left Foot — A pretty traditional biopic with a lot of pretty traditional biopic problems. It’s less a complete story and more an extended montage of a person’s life, albeit one that, for some weird reason, skips a lot of the most interesting stuff — it’s about a painter, so it’s odd that it treats painting like something Christy Brown just does and not something that means anything in particular to him. Plus, it cleans up the story overmuch; there’s something almost offensive about treating his relationship with Mary Carr as the happy conclusion to his loneliness, given what came after. I’d still just barely knock this movie up to a positive rating, though, because there are several elements and scenes that work well enough independently and because Daniel Day-Lewis is just nuts in it.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier — Am I nuts for liking this? It comes down, once again, to that distinctly 80s sense of dumb earnestness. Actually, it’s weird to me that people like the fourth one but hate this; they strike me as being stupid in exactly the same way. It might be condescending to like a movie for how unintentionally adorable it is, but whatever. I had fun.

1990

Arachnophobia — Some pacing issues aside, largely an entertaining B-movie.

Back to the Future Part III — While inferior to the first film, this is my second-favorite of the trilogy. Surprisingly, it pretty thoroughly abandons the sci-fi element, planting its feet firmly in Western and staying there. But it manages to make that work. The story is a lot simpler this time, so it has more room to just have fun with it. Of course, the characters are still great, the spirit is still high, and the humor still works. It’s also impressive that this movie involves its comic relief character in a romance that, on paper, had to look like a terrible idea, and yet, somehow, manages to make it work, to the point that you actually become kind of invested in the relationship.

Dances with Wolves — This, too, carries the feeling of Oscar bait to the extent that it feels very assured of itself and quite certain it’s saying something of importance. But unlike other such films, it’s almost good enough to justify that. Kevin Costner has a surprisingly keen eye behind the camera, for one, and his performance, while not brilliant, is still quite solid. The supporting cast works out well, and I think it’s thematically balanced overall. I do find that some of the protagonist’s decisions don’t sit well with me and that the excessive third act, in line with the unnecessary length, starts to lose me a little. But there’s still a lot worth celebrating here.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder — This is the only Die Hard movie other than the first one that I even come close to liking, and even then, I don’t care for it. It still has a lot of the elements that worked for the first one, but it makes a bad move in upping the seriousness of it, I think. The director once said that they wanted this movie to do for airports what Jaws did for the ocean, and I just think that’s a bad direction for this movie to go. The action movie and the horror movie — I don’t know what else you’d call it — fight against each other, and the film as a whole just gets shaky and uncomfortable.

Edward ScissorhandsThe Tim Burton movie. It’s such a strange, offbeat film, but I love that about it. I like that it doesn’t feel the need to over-explain its nutty universe and strikes such a fairy tale-like tone that all its weirdness doesn’t feel out of place anywhere. I like the visual contrast of the whole thing (it’s the single most perfect marriage of Burton’s gothic aesthetic and love of kitsch), and I also think it’s quite funny, even if it isn’t strictly a comedy. Johnny Depp is very good in it, too, crafting another protagonist to join the ranks of the most purely lovable characters of all time — despite his darkness and strangeness. It’s just a lovably unusual film on the whole. I think it might be one of my all-time favorites.

Ghost — Sorry. I’m just a sucker for earnest cheese like this. The ending reduced me to a puddle of goo, and I am not ashamed.

The Godfather Part III — I agree with some of the major criticisms: Sophia Coppola’s performance is noticeably not on par with everyone else’s, which may not be that great an insult given the barnstormer of a cast these movies have; and the plot is pretty convoluted and hard to follow, though, to be honest, I kind of had that same problem with the first one as well — please don’t shoot me. But despite the mixed response it still provokes, I like this movie a lot. I don’t know if it’s in lockstep with the arc that was set up for Michael Corleone in the second installment, but it still takes it in a unique, interesting, and logical direction — he’s trying to redeem himself while skipping the step where he faces the consequences of what he’s done. And when you build a foundation on violence, the ghosts are always going to come back to haunt you. You can’t simply make something else of it. The final scene is really haunting, I think.

Goodfellas — Definitely Martin Scorsese in top form. The movie is a gun slowly being loaded with characters and decisions and conflicts that you know are going to explode any minute now. The film is an exercise in waiting for the shot. It’s also the best film I can think of that shows how crime becomes normalized to the people and especially the kids who inhabit that world. You see how they view it as a win-win for everybody except the fat cats as long as everyone cooperates with their organization of rules and systems. And that goes a long way toward justifying the rougher stuff. And of course, Scorsese’s direction is still energetic and precise. There’s part of me that thinks aspects of this movie are almost too good, though. I mean, I’ve defended films of Scorsese’s, such as The Wolf of Wall Street, against those who say they celebrate the immoral lifestyles of their characters. With Goodfellas, on the other hand — intellectually, I’m aware that the story does believably bring about realistic consequences to the mad behavior of its characters. At the same time, I found that it got to the point where it wasn’t just that I was invested in and cared about the characters, I was kind of rooting for them to get away with it. And that kind of worried me a little. But it’s definitely a great movie.

Home Alone — At the end of the day, I think everyone acknowledges the problem with Home Alone — the climax is hilarious, and everything else is “meh.”

The Hunt for Red October — Count me in the minority on this one, I guess. I think it’s kind of boring. It jumps from one character to another and scarcely attaches any of them to the story emotionally. It seems more like a reenactment of Navy and government procedures. If that’s you’re into that sort of thing, maybe you’ll find this movie interesting. I was hoping for something more involving.

Miller’s Crossing — Not one of the great films among the Coen oeuvre, but still a highly compelling watch with great characters and sharp dialogue. I think what fascinates me the most about it is that it isn’t a crime film that explores the ethics and morality of what these characters do. Instead, it somehow gets you to root for them even though everything they’re doing is highly illegal. You get invested in this twisted inter-gang conflict as though the side you’re being shown could truly be considered “the good guys.” There’s something very interesting in the way the film accomplishes that.

Misery — Definitely very compelling, and still more than relevant in an era when fans’ primary mode of engagement with artists appears to be death threats. It’s a bit silly in a distinctly late 80s/early 90s sort of way, a double-edged sword that makes it both more “fun” and less engaging. I think I might have liked it more had it been subtler and escalated more slowly. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining and unique, and I completely understand why it’s become iconic in the way that it has.

The Rescuers Down Under — This is a lot of fun, very well animated, and extremely underrated. I hope more people check it out.

Rocky V — Yeesh. It actually ends up working against it that it’s not as bad on its surface as Rocky IV. At least that movie was kind of interesting in the specific ways that it was terrible. This movie, on the other hand, is just bland. It completely changes gears midway through with the cheesy father-son tension. And at this point, it was becoming clear that Rocky is likable enough to root for in fight scenes and otherwise such a simple and uninteresting person that he can’t carry six movies’ worth of drama. So, the first one and, to a lesser extent, the finale, Rocky Balboa, managed to work on an emotional level, and everything else either shot for dumb fun and barely slid in under “acceptable” or failed completely. This is why franchises shouldn’t go on forever. However, I will admit some begrudging appreciation for this movie’s decision to depart from the formula and not have Rocky be the one in the ring.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — I…kind of appreciate its willingness to be a dumb kids movie, but…man, this really, really doesn’t hold up. It’s definitely on the wrong side of cheesy and stupid. It ought to be both, sure, but its handle on that tone is completely out of control. I might forgive it if the action or direction were any good, but all the fight scenes are badly mismanaged; you can see extras awkwardly fidgeting in the background waiting for their turn to jump in. It’s one of those rare awful movies for which I don’t have any real ill will, though; at least it’s cheerful and mostly confident in itself.

Total Recall — Among the Arnold Schwarzenegger canon, one of the few that I appreciate without irony (well, mostly — with Arnold, there’s always going to be a little irony in the viewing). That’s not to imply that it isn’t silly; it just feels more deliberate and purposeful than most. Plus, there’s some intelligence buried just underneath the surface; it’s the movie’s inner nerd trying to hide itself. There’s also some really stellar animatronics work going on here. Pretty fun overall.

Tremors — Cheesy B-horror done right. Tremors knows that its goal leans more toward goofy fun than horror, and it plays its cards appropriately. It focuses on humor, character, and spirit rather than scares and gore, and all told, it’s a pretty fun creature feature.

1991 (The year I was born, yaaaaaaaay.)

The Addams Family — I saw the film in its entirety when I was a bit younger than I am now, somewhere in my teens. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it on TV since. I couldn’t say what my opinion of it is on the whole, but I can say that Christina Ricci is seriously, like, borderline Oscar-worthy in this. Has there ever been another performance by a child with that level of comic timing and that ability to get so many laughs just through a facial expression? 

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West — This…does not hold up as well. My brothers and I thought this was uniquely hysterical when we were kids. Parts of it are still kind of funny, but mostly it’s just tiresome. I halfway wonder if anyone actually wanted to make this movie; this thing just blazes through every plot point. It ends before you even realize it’s started. It’s still better than most obligatory sequel, if only because it goes by too quickly to have a chance to get boring.

Barton Fink — I can’t believe there was ever a time when I didn’t love this. But it’s hard for egotistical teenagers to get into a movie about egotistical adults; you’ll never be sure what it’s on about. Now? This movie has its finger on the pulse of everything that’s weird and interesting and beautiful and stupid inside the mind of a writer. I’ve lived the mindsets this movie is mocking, and that just makes it even funnier to me. “I AM A WRITER! I CREATE!” Barton yells at sailors leaving to fight in World War II. I love Lipnick’s portrayal as the perfect Hollywood executive every writer wants — someone who literally kisses his feet and takes his word for every decision. John Goodman is dynamite — you can see how his entire character is fundamentally insincere and basically groveling in front of Barton just to mess with his ego; it’s hilarious that Barton is too conceited to notice. This movie isn’t all that over-the-top in presentation, but tonally, it’s sheer madness. The Coen Brothers are so good at achieving that state. This movie’s great. I used to be a stupidhead.

Beauty and the Beast — The first animated movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture, and it did that when the Academy only allowed five nominees. And it deserved that, honestly. I don’t know what else to say about it; it’s great on just about every level an animated film can be great.

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey — Yeah, I’m constitutionally incapable of hating something this utterly insane.

Boyz N the Hood — I’ll start by saying that I haven’t even come close to living the experiences depicted here, so it’s entirely possible the one or two moments that rang false to me are actually pitch-perfect. Anyway, I think it’s a pretty good movie — not very narrative, sort of a hangout, talking-philosophy sort of thing, but I liked that about it. There were a few scenes that were a little too openly manipulative for my taste, but I appreciate the overall effect of it.

Cape Fear — I haven’t seen the original, so I can’t compare the two. It’s interesting to see Scorsese wander into genre territory, especially because of how thoroughly he embraces it here. This movie is one nasty piece of work, one where almost every character is unlikable, every scene is uncomfortable, there’s squeamish sexuality hanging over everything, and the violence is both sudden and gruesome. There’s no domestic thriller cliche it doesn’t charge right into, which is both to its benefit and its detriment — it’s a little too predictable while also feeling like an ode to the genre. And it does venture into some interesting, if unfocused, thematic territory here and there (considering it came out in the early 90s, it says some pretty advanced things about perceived male ownership of women and how rape is so much more often seen as a violation of that than of a human being). I do wonder if Scorsese perhaps over-embraces the genre, though. It’s the first film of his that feels like it’s trying to be like a film of someone else — mainly Alfred Hitchcock, whose inspiration is all over this. Still a solid thriller.

The Fisher King — Really good. You don’t see movies that deal strictly with motive in this clear a manner. And I like that it’s not really nihilistic about human nature — even if you’re only doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, you’re flying close enough to the fire that it can’t help but change you. You begin to empathize, and suddenly, you’re doing it for the right reasons. Robin Williams is great in it, obviously; I don’t think the performance is that far out of his usual wheelhouse, but the movie recontextualizes it very interestingly. Actually, I think Jeff Bridges’ work here is truly underrated; it’s one of the few roles he’s played where I totally lost my awareness that I was watching Jeff Bridges. It’s the kind of part that would usually go to someone like Jack Nicholson. But yeah, weirdness — and some potentially ill-advised comic perspective — aside, this is a wonderful movie.

Hook — It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong here. It definitely isn’t Spielberg’s finest hour. Part of the problem, I think, is that, yes, he made lots of movies for families (alongside his more adult fare), but he always approached them the same way he approached everything. Movies like E.T. are ageless, as good when you’re an adult as when you’re a kid. Hook feels like a kids’ movie — which is fine in and of itself, but what grates is how hard it’s trying, how much visible strain there is, how it feels calculated for a certain audience rather than for its own needs. Also, it’s the length of your average historical drama, which is a little ridiculous. Even the direction doesn’t feel like Spielberg’s A-game; he allows a lot of chaos in all the Neverland scenes and doesn’t quite wrangle it successfully. His editing isn’t as sharp, rhythmic, or emotionally intuitive as usual; there were a lot of scenes where it felt like all the players reset themselves prior to the cut. It’s not a total loss; there are plenty of moments where the Spielberg we know and love appears, albeit briefly. But mostly, Hook is an overlong, chaotic mess.

The Rocketeer — It’s hard to beat for pure sincerity. It’s right on that line between camp and emotional seriousness and walks it pretty deftly. It never feels like it’s winking at you or otherwise trying to be more than it is. It’s a bit on the slight end of things, all told, but it’s fun enough.

The Silence of the Lambs — Very good movie. Yeah, not sure what you expected I would say. It’s one of the most iconic horror films of all time — and pretty much the only one to ever win Best Picture — for a reason. Though I might classify it more as a psychological thriller. I was surprised after I see it that some of the first perspectives I encountered accused it of sexism. The opposite seemed true to me, that it’s very much about the male gaze and the objectification of women. It takes men to task for the fact that Clarice is treated differently in every circumstance and in totally mundane ways. I actually feel as though I need to see this a few more times in order to parse through some of those undercurrents. There remain a few things I can’t tie together. But even so, this is strong filmmaking with extremely memorable characters. Hannibal Lecter, of course, just oozes creepiness. A lot of people find him strangely likable, and I see that, but even when he’s not causing any harm, I thought there was something slippery about him. I was just afraid of the guy. And that’s an appropriate response, too. When all hell finally breaks loose, this movie actually does get pretty close to being genuinely frightening. So maybe the horror genre is appropriate after all.

Slacker — I can’t claim that I really “got” this in its entirety. I’m generally a fan of Richard Linklater’s work; he’s got a couple movies on my all-time list. I’m not bothered that it’s talky, heavily philosophical, and non-narrative; that’s kind of his thing. First, I’d say that, somewhat subjectively, I just need a character to pull me through everything — someone I empathize with, someone I watch change along with the events depicted. This film’s approach of walking from one vignette to another almost on a minute-by-minute basis is interesting but keeps anyone from being particularly interesting, especially since half the characters start to feel like time-divergent versions of each other past a certain point. And secondly, I’d say that, thematically, this didn’t really register. Boyhood and the Before movies approach their subjects in the same way, but I got what they were on about. Slacker is an oblique piece of work — I’m okay that it doesn’t leave me with answers, less so that it doesn’t leave me with questions either. Still, there’s something about it, something difficult to define, that’s entertaining in its own subtly energetic way. And I could listen to Linklater dialogue all day.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country — Easily in my top two for the Captain Kirk Star Trek movies. Just a good, old-fashioned, rip-roaring sci-fi yarn. Solid mixture of intrigue and adventuring. Not perfect, but good fun all the same.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze — They sure did churn this thing out fast, and it shows. It’s still too goofy for me to outright hate it, but yeah, it’s pretty bad. I mean, I appreciate that it was okay back in the 90s to make live action movies based on kids properties, you know, for kids, instead of adults who refuse to grow up. But this is just a little too annoying. And even by comparison to its predecessor, it’s trying way too hard to be cool. These days, it’s a complete relic of early 90s culture.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day — It’s a bit better than the first one, but honestly, I don’t love it either. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character simply doesn’t work as the hero; he carries no emotional weight, despite the movie’s best efforts. Linda Hamilton is really, really great, though; she carries the movie through its rough patches.

Thelma & Louise — I like this a lot more than I think most people would expect me to. It’s just interesting the way it subverts the usual tropes of the genre — a road movie without much comedy, an action movie without much action, a crime movie where most of the illegal activity is either accidental or completely incidental. It feels like a subtly intelligent 80s action movie that flips the script and makes it about women. So, instead of the scene where the hero shouts a one-liner and then leaps in, fists flying, you get the protagonists berating a guy for his sexist behavior and then cheerfully blowing up his truck while he has a hammy 80s movie villain emotional breakdown. But while doing that, it also goes out of its way to highlight some of the ways that life is different for women than for men in a largely patriarchal society, and that’s a nice touch. The issues I have with it are the issues I have with other movies of its type, namely some unconsidered moral questions and some odd flourishes here and there, but it’s pretty enjoyable on the whole.

1992

Aladdin — I loved this movie when I was a kid. I love it now. I can still recite most of its dialogue. It’s just a highly entertaining and well made animated movie. It looks great, it sounds great, the characters are extremely enjoyable, the story moves along nicely, there are some great moments of sheer imagination, and so on. 

Alien 3 — As with most of his lesser films, David Fincher’s tight direction is what saves this movie from a weak script. I love how he introduces, early on, the alien’s proclivity for attacking from above and then positions the camera below the characters for almost the entirety of the film. Also love the way he sometimes allows you to catch a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of the alien approaching; very unnerving for the viewers who manage to catch it. But yeah, the script needs some work.

Army of Darkness — Where has this movie been all my life? It’s got a reputation for being so bad it’s good, but that’s not true it all — it’s actually really good at being bad. This movie works on so many bizarre levels that it’s hard to pick it apart and figure out its process step by step. There’s a basic functionality to it internally, in the sense of the strange horror-adventure-fantasy it is. But it’s also outright hilarious, not because of the jokes (though some of those are funny), but because it’s so, so far over the top, ridiculous, and hokey. And none of that’s an accident; it’s so awesome that it’s hilarious. It takes the tropes of your average horror comedy or fantasy adventure and plays them straight but establishes a sense of distance from them that highlights how silly they are without taking you out of the moment. Raimi’s direction is the MVP here; he does a great job with the physical comedy, both the slapstick and the moments of over-the-top manliness and corny story elements/characters. I had a big, dumb smile on my face the entire time I watched it. I just loved it.

Batman Returns — I might actually like this movie more than the original. However, I totally understand why fans seem to see it otherwise. Batman Returns is really, really goofy. It nearly gets competitive with the Adam West series. Of course, me being the person I am, I kind of appreciate its unpretentious goofiness. Moreover, once again, I like that Tim Burton knows how to do camp right. It’s really, really silly — the Penguin was raised, apparently, by sewer penguins, and he keeps an army of rocket-powered penguins around, Catwoman came about as a result of being raised from the dead by magic cats or something, and Batman spends most of the movie having the hormonal awkwardness of a teenage boy — but it isn’t winking about it or even particularly self-aware. It draws you into this absurd, ageless world and makes you believe it. It’s kind of like a kids’ movie, with its big, broad performances and stupid imagery, but it’s also weirdly violent and almost kind of fetishy. And Tim Burton makes that bizarre blend work. I think it’s better than the original because both villains have motivations that make sense to me on an emotional level. The only sense in which its worse is, oddly, Batman’s complete lack of anything interesting to do. But I like it; I think it’s pretty fun.

Chaplin — Richard Attenborough certainly made handsome biopics, but their storytelling instincts weren’t always the greatest. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is great — it takes a lot of effort to replicate Charlie Chaplin’s specific mannerisms — but Chaplin still barely registers as a character, certainly not one with a complete psychology. The movie’s watchable on an innate level — probably more so than Gandhi, in my humble opinion — but it’s still pretty skin-deep. It never wants to investigate or even particularly condemn some of the sordid details of Chaplin’s personal life. It’s almost like an abnormally emotional piece of film journalism.

FernGully: The Last Rainforest — My parents definitely rented this for me because I remember thinking the bat was funny. I think I saw it once, maybe twice. I remember absolutely nothing about it.

Glengarry Glen Ross — This movie is THE actors showcase, as far as I’m concerned. That cast, and that dialogue. The whole thing is a recipe for movie magic. It’s an intense portrait of cinema’s most toxic work environment, one with really strong characters, snappy writing, and acting that, other than Al Pacino, was woefully overlooked come awards time. This thing is pretty great.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York — Seeing as it’s kind of a retread of the first one, it suffers from the same problem — the climax is funny, and everything else is pointless, excessively sweet, and boring.

Honey, I Blew Up the Kid — Saw it. Forgot it. Next.

The Mighty Ducks — Saw it. Forgot it. Next.

Of Mice and Men — It’s a good movie — well acted, clearly crafted with love and care, filled with a lot of emotion and humanity. My issue with it is that you can feel it transparently setting its pieces in place to make everything as tragic as possible, and that predictable quality forces you to kind of withdraw from it, because you know what’s coming, and you know that whatever you’re invested in at the moment isn’t going to last. But that ending still hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s quality filmmaking.

The Muppet Christmas Carol — It gets a lot, as usual, out of its characters and sincerity, plus the old familiar tale that inspired it. Still, A Christmas Carol has seen dozens upon dozens of film adaptations, all of them about the same. You’d think the Muppets would be the characters to breathe fresh life into it, but not really — this is a weirdly safe retelling of the story that mostly plays it pretty straight. It just has Muppets in some of the roles and the occasional brief comedic interlude with Gonzo and Rizzo. Other than that, it’s fairly straightforward, which means, much like the book, we get to watch the characters dealing with poverty and death, and it’s strange watching that happen to Muppets.

Reservoir Dogs — I think I may be the only person who considers this one of the best Quentin Tarantino movies, but there you have it. Part of this may be because, as my readers already know, I’m not really into the genre film/grindhouse sort of thing. Reservoir Dogs doesn’t have a whole lot of that in it; it’s a film where the violence feels like a part of the story rather than the whole show. And that story is compelling, well acted, well shot, and frequently disturbing — in a good way.

A River Runs Through It — According to Letterboxd, this is the 1,000th film I’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s good enough for me to be all right with seeing it in that landmark. It’s kind of hard to define what works about it; dissecting it narratively or even thematically is difficult. But it’s still emotionally involving, somehow, despite one or two overly stereotypical touches, and of course, it’s beautifully photographed.

Scent of a Woman — Good lord, just tell him who did the stupid prank already. THIS is what we gave Al Pacino an Oscar for?! There isn’t a single beat here that can’t be predicted well in advance. It goes on much too long; I paused the movie at one point, saw that there was half an hour left, and almost collapsed, having absolutely no idea how it was going to fill that time. Answer: A prolonged speech about how snitches should totally get stitches that is somehow inspiring to both the student body and faculty members. Very much deserves its minor reputation as one of the quintessential Oscar politics movies.

Unforgiven — For the most part, I really enjoy this film. I find it interesting as a bit of a meta-commentary on Clint Eastwood’s own career — William Munny is very much the sort of person one can imagine the Man with No Name becoming, a hollow old man, so defined by his violence that he is torn in two trying to have anything else. He has a hole in his heart that can only be filled by killing. It’s basically an extended commentary on the myth-making of the Old West, a dark critique of the genre that made its director a star. I also think it’s just plain interesting narratively — it’s basically reversed the hero/villain role, with our protagonist being a heinous murderer and the antagonist being a small-town sheriff, with all the usual catharses and climaxes built into it, just twisted to darker effect. If I’m not entirely in love with it, I’d say it’s because I’m coming to the conclusion that I’m just not a big fan of Eastwood as a director; even at his best, he can be arch, boring, and overly obvious. Still, good movie.

Wayne’s World — I’m mostly ambivalent on it. Don’t love it; don’t hate it. It’s moderately amusing sometimes, but there weren’t any huge laughs for me, nor were the laughs all that frequent. A lot of it’s just mugging and wacky reaction shots, plus a couple of overly easy jabs. It’s kind of unfocused, too, with the weird moments where the guys abruptly destroy the fourth wall and get up to all sorts of weird shenanigans. It’s somewhere in the middle for me.

1993

Addams Family Values — I also don’t remember anything about this other than the admittedly hilarious Thanksgiving play scene, which I tuned in for just in time when it was on TV a few months ago.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm — A solid theatrical adaptation of a solid animated TV show. I don’t know that it ever really crosses the hurdle of explaining why this story had to be a movie rather than an episode. But even if it is just a long episode of the show, at least it’s a particularly good episode.

Cronos — All the Guillermo del Toro staples are here, and all the better for it. It’s technically a vampire movie but never feels like one; it studiously avoids the cliches. It’s a unique film in general — a familiar story told through del Toro’s distinctive lens. Like many of his films, it’s more a dark, gruesome, and mordant fairy tale than a strict horror film. It has a unique voice and is generally very entertaining.

Dazed and Confused — I don’t know by what alchemy Richard Linklater’s movies consistently engage in the way that they do. Somehow, they’re talky and philosophical while also functioning best as things that you feel more than think about. This is that rare case where the cast of dozens works out to the movie’s advantage — there’s a character for everyone to relate to somewhere in here. It’s dryly funny and strangely moving all at the same time.

Dennis the Menace — I thought it was funny when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen it since.

Free Willy — I know I saw this a bunch when I was little, and yet, I somehow remember almost nothing about it other than that I watched it.

The Fugitive — Solid, entertaining thriller. Harrison Ford and especially Tommy Lee Jones are both great. I wish it expanded more upon the law vs. justice questions it raises seemingly by accident and built something more interesting into the plot than the bizarre conspiracy that suddenly comes out of nowhere in the last half hour. Regardless, it’s a lot of fun.

Groundhog Day — Honestly, this might be one of my favorite movies of all time. At the very least, it balances comedy and drama better than any other film I can think of off the top of my head, aside from maybe Being John Malkovich, which I see as being very much in the vein of this film overall. It’s funny and dramatically interesting, but it’s also deeply psychological in a way that really gets under your skin and actually makes you a bit uncomfortable. It is so close to being a perfect movie, in my opinion. I absolutely love it.

Hocus Pocus — This was on Disney Channel all the time when I was in the age group Disney Channel targets, so I’ve seen it a number of times, but while I remember images and characters and storylines and even a few jokes, I have no ability, for some reason, to recall whether I actually liked it or just watched it whenever I was vegetating in front of the TV.

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey — Fundamental. Part. Of. Childhood. Will. Not. Approach. Critically.

In the Name of the Father — Very good. An infuriating look at justice gone awry that’s only become more relevant in the age of the War on Terror. It isn’t perfect; I think it really struggles to decide what it’s about somewhere midway through the second act and suddenly starts throwing in all these elements with no prior grounding and trying to build all its biggest moments around them. But it’s still good.

Jurassic Park — Again, like all other humans, I happen to think that Jurassic Park is fantastic spectacle, fun and scary in equal measure. And of course, it looks fantastic. One of these days, I’ll understand why special effects looked better in the 90s than they do today. But yeah, this is the movie where Spielberg proved, once and for all, that he is without equal in his ability to transport an audience and rivet them with an unforgettable experience.

Last Action Hero — I don’t think it’s great, but I don’t know why everyone’s so down on it. It really isn’t any better or worse than most other Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. For me, its problems are less in overt flaws (though it definitely has a few) and more in that it doesn’t seem to realize exactly how much potential there is in its premise. It mostly uses it to broadly goof on action tropes, but there are a dozen ways it could dig more deeply into its smartest ideas and come out with something much more fun and memorable. Even in this simplistic form, though, I mostly enjoy it — I just have a taste for “meta” cinema, I suppose. How can I not like a movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger plays himself playing a character and also plays himself separately in a plot where characters from a movie within a movie are attempting to assassinate him in real life? That’s kind of amazing.

The Nightmare Before Christmas — Sometimes, I remember that Tim Burton had a streak that might have rendered him one of my favorite filmmakers if not for what happened later. The Nightmare Before Christmas was an innovator, and a visually spectacular one at that. The premise is highly imaginative, and the film plays with it throughout, creating a lively, detailed, and interesting world. The songs are all a lot of fun, and I love the way they blend Christmas and Halloween into this surreal and awkward mixture that matches the tone of the film perfectly. The story may be the weakest element, but even it could be a lot worse. This was a great way to start off the stop motion subgenre of animation.

Philadelphia — One definitely has to admire it for its place in cinematic history. It was the first mainstream movie to deal with AIDS and homosexuality in an era where neither of those things was yet well-understood to the public at large. I’m glad it did that successfully. Still, I have to admit, it’s kind of a clumsy film. It really overdoes a couple of moments, particularly early on when it’s trying to bash you over the head with how much the main character loves his job and how respected he is by his superiors. I also can’t really say that what it does qualifies as character development; actually, do we even get any demonstrable proof that the Denzel Washington character has changed by the end of this? It’s just kind of assumed. And then, there are parts that go halfway: The opera scene is like a parody of Oscar bait, but Tom Hanks believes in it so thoroughly that it’s actually kind of touching. I think there’s a solid foundation there and enough going for it that it is a good movie, but there are significant flaws, too.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights — Well, I think it’s funny. And you can shut up.

Rudy — The cinematic equivalent of a puppy chasing its own tail. It’s innocent, wide-eyed, earnest, and just plain adorable. It’s really, really cheesy and really, really manipulative — sometimes in a way that’s strangely endearing, sometimes in a way that’s a bit annoying. It’s nowhere near a great movie, but it’s too lovable and sincere to dislike.

The Sandlot — I’m pretty sure I saw this a thousand times as a kid and a teenager because of how often it was on TV, so it’s weird that I don’t remember all that much about it. I do remember generally enjoying it, though.

Schindler’s List — I don’t really like talking about movies like this for what you might call “the obvious reasons.” For one, it’s almost impossible for me to be objective about my emotional reaction, because, knowing what you’re seeing really happened in exactly the way you’re seeing it, how could I? I’m going to react to that sort of thing no matter who films it and how. But moreover, sitting around and talking about whether or not Schindler’s List “works” is just kind of weird. I’m torn about it. I’m not saying it’s above criticism; we should be concerned with telling these stories well. Still, it’s strange to sit around talking about how to make a Holocaust movie more effective. The short version is that I really like this movie — in the sense that one “enjoys” movies about the Holocaust — but think it has some problems that maybe make it not quite great. That will have to suffice for now.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III — None of these movies are good, but at least there was something vaguely earnest about the first two (even though the second seemed really rushed). It doesn’t seem like anyone really cared about this movie. It has all the trappings of a cheesy, joyful adventure/comedy but none of the spirit. The jokes feel like the first thing the writers came up with, the actors seem like they couldn’t be bothered, not a single plot point gets any focus outside of what’s absolutely necessary to set it up. It seems like everyone just wanted to get the thing to print and then forget about it. And it shows.

Three Colors: Blue — Moving, great performances, gentle and lovely direction. All around, an engaging film.

Tom and Jerry: The Movie — I confess that my family owned this when I was a child, and I watched it sometimes. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Tombstone — It has a few more characters than it can successfully keep straight, but it’s entertaining enough, and Val Kilmer is insanely good in it. My biggest problem with it is that it’s so aggressive in its refusal to examine its moral implications that it starts to come off as nearly irresponsible.

We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story — This got rented for me when I was a little kid because, like any little kid worth his salt, I was obsessed with dinosaurs (and there was no way my parents were letting me see Jurassic Park). So, the fact that I don’t think we ever rented it again despite my dinosaur obsession probably speaks to how much it weirded me out and didn’t capture my interest all that much. These days, I’m culturally aware enough to know that it’s widely regarded as terrible, so I haven’t felt much of an urge to give it another whirl.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape — Like it. Don’t love it. Leonardo DiCaprio is almost frightening good in it. I only saw it a few months ago, so the fact that I don’t remember much about it could probably be considered a testament to its general lack of specialness.

1994

Angels in the Outfield — I enjoyed it when I was younger and when I was in my early teens as well. I’m not sure if I’ve seen it since then, though.

Black Beauty — I’m not quite sure what it was with this movie. My family owned it, but I watched it so infrequently that I can barely remember anything at all about it. For some reason, I guess it just didn’t captivate my childhood self all that much. Few live action movies did, though, for what it’s worth.

Clerks — As of this writing (September 2015), this is my first and only Kevin Smith movie. I mainly know him by reputation, so it was surprising to me that not only is this movie good, it’s good in ways that don’t come across as accidental. There’s actual intelligence here, and it impressed me how the film expresses that. It seems, for most of its run-time, to be about absolutely nothing, but, late in the film, when it reveals its thematic endgame, you realize everything has been quietly building toward that moment, and it becomes surprisingly potent. It’s also, generally, pretty funny. Granted, it’s basically a home movie a couple friends threw together, and it feels exactly like that — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It also trades in the kind of relentless vulgarity that strikes me as disgusting and lazy more often than not. Still…it’s a weirdly smart comedy.

The Crow — Sin City before there was Sin City. While admirable for its blunt efficiency, visuals, and strange world-building, it strikes me as somewhat empty beneath the surface. It also, on occasion, feels as though it’s straining, somewhat self-consciously, to appeal to a certain demographic — no one will ever mistake it for anything other than a product of the 90s. But perhaps its brooding melodrama is part of its charm.

Dumb and Dumber — I understand that I’m basically setting myself up by saying that a movie called Dumb and Dumber is, well, dumb. I tried really hard to understand why it has such a following, but I just don’t. I’m not sure what the difference is between the humor here and the humor in any given Seltzerberg movie, to be honest.

Ed Wood — The inspiring true story about how an eclectic band of nobodies came together to fight for their dreams and failed horribly. The cheery pessimism of this movie is weirdly infectious. Remember when Tim Burton’s style adapted to different genres, resulting in something new but distinctly his every time he made something? Remember when Johnny Depp tried to act sometimes? I don’t love everything about it (sometimes, I think the story is tongue-in-cheek to the point of near-meaninglessness), but it’s easily the second-best Tim Burton movie with an eponymous protagonist named Edward.

Forrest Gump — It seems as though one of the unwritten rules of the Internet is that we all hate Forrest Gump now. And to be fair, in competition against the likes of Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, there’s no earthly way it should’ve won Best Picture. But I don’t hate it. It’s too wide-eyed and sincere for me to do that. I will confess that in delivering its message, it inadvertently ties Forrest’s kindness to his lack of intelligence and in so doing winds up accidentally saying, “Dumb is good.” I guess I just have some forgiveness for it because I don’t think that’s its intent.

Heavenly Creatures — Kind of weird in a way I never quite got used to. Kate Winslet is over-the-top; Melanie Lynskey retreats so far into withdrawn, sullen teenager-dom that it becomes a touch silly. Plus, there’s the discomfort of sexuality involving minors on top of it; that’s always going to feel kind of exploitative to me. I do think there’s something aesthetically interesting happening here, though, on top of some interesting ideas in the thematic and narrative departments. Not something I’d watch again, but I do think it’s good.

Interview with the Vampire — Eh, I never developed particularly strong feelings about it one way or the other. It has some interesting ideas and a couple of good scenes, plus a solid handle on its atmosphere. It’s also relentlessly whiny, somewhat badly cast, and deeply, deeply silly, in a way I don’t think it quite realizes.

Leon: The Professional — Where it shines is in its characters, who are unique both in personality and in their relationship to one another. An innocent hitman and a worldly-wise child, both trying to make their way. They’re the reason this has become an action classic; I have no doubt of that. Unfortunately, it’s clumsy and overly on-the-nose in its approach to just about everything else. It’s a good movie, but I think that holds it back from true greatness.

The Lion King — There was a very long portion of my childhood where my film viewing habits wouldn’t have looked much different if The Lion King was the only movie I owned. I loved animals, and I loved animation. That’s not a hard puzzle to put together. This movie obviously took the world by storm, and I was right there in the middle of it. It’s such a good-looking movie and such a good story. I picked up the Blu-Ray when it came out a few years back and found myself humming along to the background music; it was like recovering repressed memories under hypnosis or something. I am incapable of disliking this movie.

Miracle on 34th Street — This would be the remake with Mara Wilson. I guess it goes under the same category as Black Beauty. My parents owned a copy, but I never really watched it, to the extent that I have basically no memory of it. Again, for some reason, it just didn’t captivate me.

The Next Karate Kid — About as terrible as the third installment. It might even be worse, but I like it a little better if only because it has the decency to be bad in ways that are kind of fascinating. What’s up with these karate bullies who rappel down from the ceiling in the middle of prom and whose teacher openly encourages them to kill another student?

Pulp Fiction — Again, Tarantino’s grindhouse aesthetic isn’t really my thing, so I have trouble getting into this. And I’m not entirely sure what it gains from the story being told out of order, or from the vignettes it chooses to show us with both the main and side characters. That’s been a subject of much debate. It’s hard to argue that Tarantino isn’t a great writer, though, particularly of dialogue, and this is one of the most endlessly quotable movies ever made, provided you are not uncomfortable with absurd amounts of profanity. Again, like all great action movies, you could make a good argument that this is more of a black comedy, and it is regularly hilarious.

Quiz Show — I have to give it credit for being as engaging as it is considering its somewhat minor subject matter. Well-acted all around, and I like the way it connects the politics behind the investigation to the TV show theatrics itself and captures how both are, in their own way, performances calculated to manipulate the public and happily chew up and spit out the naive rags-to-riches stars who end up in their crosshairs. It does, however, have a tendency toward melodrama — I have no familiarity with the real-life events, which may cloud my perspective here, but people cheating on game shows strikes me as somewhat low on the scale of injustice for the sort of earnest treatment given it here. A very good movie nonetheless.

The Santa Clause — I saw this at least once in a classroom around Christmas and a couple more times on TV. I don’t remember it well.

The Shawshank Redemption — As far as I’m concerned, the actual Best Picture winner of 1994. I might argue against the reputation it’s garnered as a candidate for the greatest movie ever made, period, but if we’re just looking to put it in the Top 50 or so, I’d step out of the way. It’s a little grandiose, but it manages to work that into the story in such a way that it doesn’t bother you. It’s a world that’s close to reality, but just barely off. The protagonist himself is a bit of a reference point, but the supporting cast is colorful and engaging, and the theme of hope in the face of inescapable odds is handled well.

Star Trek: Generations — There’s some good stuff in it, but mostly, I just find this movie to be dry. Too many motivations stated rather than shown; none of the relationships have the same spark as the Kirk/Spock/Bones dynamic. Definitely feels like the first “modern” Star Trek film, too, in that it’s afraid of being silly and doesn’t indulge in the same guilty pleasures that allow me to get some enjoyment out of the fourth and even fifth installments. Mostly, it’s just a somewhat flat and contrived excuse to get Kirk and Picard on screen together.

Three Colors: Red — I think it’s my favorite of the Three Colors trilogy — wrestling with deeper, more interesting questions, painted in such interesting shades of gray, the evocative visuals and subtle performances perfectly intact. It has the most interesting characters and the greatest emotional impact. Good film.

Three Colors: White — It’s good drama, but it doesn’t register on a much deeper level than that with me.

1995

Apollo 13 — It’s entertaining enough in its best moments, but I don’t love it. Significant parts of it strike me as little more than impenetrable technical jargon with no real arc or story attached to it. It only sometimes finds the heart at the center of its true story.

Babe — Revisiting this today…why is this movie with the cute talking pig about prejudice and bigotry? And why is it so bizarrely dark? And why is it so thoroughly charming?

Balto — This movie could be considered proof of my objectivity. Nostalgia doesn’t always overpower my critical faculties. As a child, I adored this movie and watched it all the time. I loved the characters, particularly the comedy antics of Boris the Goose; I loved the animation; I loved the adventure. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to watch it again and was dismayed to find that I really wasn’t all that into it. It’s not that I was having a terrible time; it’s just that the story wasn’t picking me up at all. I respect that the film is clearly trying to be something special; I don’t think this is a cynical piece of corporate entertainment. I just think that its execution is a little off.

Batman Forever — Joel Shumaker kind of had a tin ear for camp. It’s clear this was emulating the Tim Burton adaptation, but whereas Burton’s camp was more visual, Shumaker just turned everything to fever pitch and instructed all of his actors to behave as if they were completely insane. That stopped the story from working, but since it was supposed to be camp and not comedy, all the wild and crazy antics just kind of hovered off the screen, existing unto themselves, not really accomplishing anything one way or the other.

Before Sunrise — I talked about this a bit in my review of Before Midnight. It seems as though everyone either loves all three or doesn’t like any of them. I’m weird in that I love the second and third but think this is…only okay. There’s a lot worth praising in the dialogue and acting, but there were large portions of it where I just found myself calling B.S. on what was going on. It wasn’t so much that this otherworldly romance would ever occur and more the way they talked. Both characters seemed so poised and practiced, ready to respond to every question with a complicated and pretentious metaphor. In the sequels, they don’t really do this, which is why I like them a lot more. Still, it’s decent.

Braveheart — Oh, don’t get me started oh wait you just did. There aren’t a lot of classics I openly hate, but this is one of them. And people call Lady in the Water a vanity project. This is a movie Mel Gibson made about the stuff Mel Gibson sings Mel Gibson to sleep with at night. This is the guy’s fantasy, a movie about how awesome he thinks he’d be if he lived in medieval times. That we would learn years later that he was a violent, aggressive bigot really shouldn’t have surprised anyone; this is war movie with a tone of an adventure movie that has an odd and distressing fixation on wounds and blood and gore and torture and human suffering, and yet it never lets up on that note of inspiration it’s constantly pushing. It’s a revenge film, ultimately, and it isn’t even a good one. All of the characters are boring, and the movie itself is, like, umpteen billion hours long and doesn’t use that time even remotely well. It looks very pretty, but that is the only positive thing I’m willing to say about. I really don’t like this movie.

Casino — Not my favorite Scorcese. I don’t love it. I’m not saying it’s bad, though, because it isn’t. Scorcese’s direction is so electric, and that alone is going to carry just about everything he ever does. And when this movie hits that apex of dialogue, acting, and direction, it just sings. It is a bit of an unwieldy thing, though — not only is it almost exactly three hours long, it’s also one long info-dump that throws so many details at you at any given moment that I think you’d need to see it three or four times solely to understand what character has what role and how the myriad schemes all fit together. There are somewhat long stretches where it gets a bit tedious. However, Sharon Stone is pretty great, and her character is tragic to the point that it cut me deeply enough to cause actual, real-world pain. And I don’t know what the movie’s overall purpose is, but as a read into the paranoia of organized crime and the way that seeps into the rest of the involved person’s life, it’s pretty interesting.

Casper — I’ve seen it a few times, but unfortunately, I don’t remember it well enough to comment.

Clueless — Erm, uh…not really my thing.

Dead Man Walking — Love, love, love, love, love this movie. It’s one of those movies that I think I like a little more than it deserves — not that it’s not good; it’s just that it’s not absolute genius. It has its flaws, from its tendency toward monologues and a general lack of subtlety on any point. At the same time, it’s just up my alley — its subject is an issue about which I feel very strongly, and the matters that surround it fascinate me. I think I knew going in that I was going to love it. But it’s still really good, so it’s not like it’s a guilty pleasure or anything. Despite the fact that I’ve made up my mind about the political issue at hand, I still found it very challenging — how do you love victimizers and their victims simultaneously?

Die Hard with a Vengeance — I didn’t care for this movie. Primarily, I guess I found it forgettable, because only a few months after seeing it, I remember very little of it. I enjoyed Samuel L. Jackson’s character, I guess. But Bruce Willis was already beginning to step into Sleepy Bruce Willis mode, and even with the geography expanding to include an entire city, the formula was starting to get very old at this point.

A Goofy Movie — Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen it since I was a teenager, but honestly, I kind of like this movie. I don’t know why everyone’s so down on it.

Heat — An entertaining and smart enough crime thriller once it gets going. That said, I do think it’s pretty heavily flawed — its cat and mouse game gets so cerebral that it has to keep having its characters luck into information; there are a handful of pointless subplots that either go nowhere or are forgotten so long that their resolution is irrelevant; etc. Still, there’s a lot to like. I think it develops its characters very naturally, and the diner scene remains one for the ages. It’s a mixed bag but one that I think generally comes out on the positive end of things.

Judge Dredd — In which fascism fights incrementally worse fascism and saves the day (not really) and it’s almost fun anyway because everything is so straight-faced and goofy. But then Rob Schneider shows up, and the movie decides that “main character is framed, main character is put on ship to prison, ship crashes, main character gets off, main character immediately returns to city, main character fights guy who frames him, basically nothing important changes” is sufficient structure for an action movie.

Jumanji — It’s not a brilliant piece of cinema or anything, but I still think this is pretty fun, in that it’s a decent movie to switch on in the background when there’s nothing else on TV. It’s imaginative, it does a lot with the premise, the practical effects are cool (even if the CGI is kind of wonky), and the sets are well designed. I don’t know; I just like it, I guess.

La Haine — I have to confess that I didn’t quite grasp what this was one about. Felt kind of aimless, a hangout movie with aspirations toward something else. Even so, there’s something strangely compelling about it, the naturalistic performances especially. Not one of my favorites at the moment, but something I’d be willing to give another chance.

Pocahontas — This movie was a big deal for me as a kid. Actually, I’m pretty sure it was the first movie I ever saw in theaters (being four years old at the time, I really wouldn’t remember all that well). It’s come to my attention as an adult that fans and critics in general aren’t too keen on it. I haven’t seen it in a while, so I can neither confirm or deny. I’ll revisit it eventually, but I’m kind of scared to. Like I said, this was a big deal, and it’d be hard to find out it was terrible.

Se7en — No complaints here (well, only small ones, which is as close as it gets with me anyway). Se7en is a pretty fantastic crime drama. Insanely gruesome, yes. But still pretty great. You can always count on David Fincher to deliver on the atmosphere; Se7en is heavy, tense, and compelling. And while there are elements of it that don’t quite come together, I love that this movie is far more interested in the philosophies of its characters and working those out. Ultimately, it seems to become a war between idealism and nihilism, with the two of them coming to a head in a big way with that stunner of a final scene. Just a really well done movie overall.

Sense and Sensibility — I’m glad I wasn’t reviewing movies when this came out (I was four, so…) because it’s one of those rare films that’s really good and I like it a lot but I just don’t have much of anything interesting to say about it. Good acting, good storytelling, good direction… Yup.

Toy Story — Sometimes, it occurs to me that Toy Story is as distant from kids today as Star Wars was from me, and that freaks me out and makes me feel old. Somehow, computer-animated movies still feel like a novel concept to me; I guess it’s because I saw every traditionally animated movie ever made when I was a kid. Either way, this was definitely a game changer, and I loved it when I was a child. It’s hard to talk about this movie without talking about its sequels, because I really feel as though these films grew up with me and always met me where I was at every stage of my life. These movies are incredibly special to me. That’s the short version.

Twelve Monkeys — An intriguing examination of media narratives, societal priorities, and the concepts of fate and destiny filtered through Terry Gilliam’s charmingly idiosyncratic vision. A good film.

The Usual Suspects — I don’t know that I even think it’s a great movie, but I still love it to absolute death, probably disproportionate to its actual quality. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely good, maybe even great. But the great part of it is Kevin Spacey sitting in a police station and telling a story. The story itself leaves a lot of its characters thin and doesn’t dive that deeply into its themes. But man, if only for Kevin Spacey sitting in a police station and telling a story…A+, man. A+. And of course, that ending. I knew it was coming, and it still managed to catch me by surprise somehow. I love it.

Waterworld — Somehow both weird and boring. The sets are decent, I guess.

1996

101 Dalmatians — I saw it but have forgotten it. The animated film is always going to be the definitive version for me anyway.

Alaska — This was one of those movies my grandma had that we watched sometimes. There are images from it in my brain, but on the whole, it’s a blank space.

The Birdcage — A bit of a mixed bag, but pleasant overall. There are enough laughs to justify its existence as a comedy and just the right amount of heart, too. Plus, it looks lovely — the entire film is like a rich sunset. I have my issues with it, though; chiefly, I think the film strikes some of the wrong notes too hard. The relationship between Armand and Albert is definitely a bit of a “but not too gay” situation, so they come off more as a frustrated straight man and his wacky roommate than a romantic pair. I also found that I liked their son less and less as the film goes on; ultimately, he does learn a lesson, but the fact that it takes as much pain and heartache as it does made him seem really self-absorbed. Still, it’s a largely enjoyable watch, particularly once the spectacularly awkward dinner gets started.

Escape from L.A. — 80s-style action movies are always maintaining a difficult balance. I think Escape from L.A. just misses it. I liked the original well enough, mainly because it held its straight-faced goofiness consistently. This one gets a little too stupid for my taste. It’s too self-consciously cool, too obviously playing at the trends of the time. It looks pretty bad, too — from the sets to the direction, everything seems cheap. The CGI is awful, too — yes, it was the 90s, but bear in mind that Jurassic Park is three years older than this movie. I enjoy some of the satire if only because it strikes uncomfortably close to home (I spent the entire time examining the fascist dictatorship of this movie and trying to figure out which of its policies my craziest relatives wouldn’t support and only managed to pinpoint the gun ban). But like a lot of 80s movies, I don’t really see that it does anything with the satire.

Fargo — I haven’t seen all of the Coen Brothers’ movies, but as of right now, this one is my favorite, and it might just plain be one of my favorite movies of all time. And that’s weird, because in terms of genre, tone, and style, it’s very much not my thing — it’s a dark, pulpy crime thriller with a twisted sense of humor and tons of over-the-top violence. But it’s just so well done. The Coens are such detailed writers, and this is where it really shows. Has it ever occurred to anyone that this movie’s theme hinges almost entirely on a character ordering a Diet Coke in one scene? I love that. If they ever invent one of those things from Space Jam where you can steal people’s talent, I’m coming after you, Coen Brothers. Lock your doors.

From Dusk Till Dawn — Falls into that weird middle ground where it’s admittedly well-made and entertaining but also pretty thoroughly offended me. I don’t have much patience for movies that intersect extreme violence and exploitative sexuality, including VERY male-gazey camerawork and the near-constant threat (and occasional realization) of sexual violence, for no readily apparent reason other than to earn their genre bonafides.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame — This is the first movie I mention whenever a Moral Guardian is telling me about how movie ratings are soooo much less sensitive today and allow all kinds of troublesome things to reach the ears of our youngsters. Did anyone ever make a G-rated animated movie more entirely messed up than this one? This animated musical for kids, where a woman dies after getting her skull cracked on a stone staircase, and a guy gets shot in the shoulder with an arrow, and a guy falls to his death in a fiery inferno, and the villain sings a song about how his lust for the heroine is consuming him and making him unclean before God. This movie does not fear risk in the slightest, and I love that. And it is a pretty good movie — a pretty good movie that, unfortunately, gets sabotaged by very ill-advised comic relief.

Independence Day — I’ve mentioned my primary problem with Roland Emmerich as a director — he’s very good at building tension up to his big event, but after it gets there, the movie can’t sustain that anymore and just gets boring. That’s my issue with Independence Day. I enjoy it up until the aliens actually attack. After that, I lose interest. Nevertheless, I somehow end up watching it every time it’s on TV. I don’t even like it, so I don’t know why.

James and the Giant Peach — Eh… I enjoy the animation, the effects, and the pure imagination of the thing. The story is kind of a non-starter, though, and the songs are totally forgettable.

Jerry Maguire — It’s fine. I laughed a bunch, the leads have good chemistry, the central romance is adorable despite the schmaltz. It’s a touch thin and a touch overlong, but it’s enjoyable enough.

Jingle All the Way — You can keep your cheesy black and white horror movies or your low-budget 80s action movie cash-ins. This is my go-to “so bad it’s good” movie. There has never been and shall never again be a Christmas movie as unhinged as this one. This thing is completely insane. It’s like it started as an action/superhero movie for Arnold Schwarzenegger until some suit decided to repackage it as a Christmas film for the whole family. What we got was a movie where the Governator and Sinbad fight each other across the length of an entire city to buy action figures for their children, culminating in Arnold in a superhero costume with a jetpack fighting a dude with tinsel. “PUT THAT COOKIE DOWN!” indeed. 0/10 for quality, but 1,000/10 for entertainment value, seriously.

Mars Attacks! — I find it entertaining in a moronic sort of way. It’s obviously at its best when the parody is on-point — the haphazard effects, coupled with Burton’s distinctive touch, truly resemble a modern update of an old style; and Pierce Brosnan absolutely kills it as the classically attractive manly scientist who believes in the good of all things and is always staring solemnly off into the middle distance. Unfortunately, the film itself is chaotic, and not in a good way. I get that dysfunction is its function, but the movie is in dire need of a direction — everything and everyone in it is entirely pointless, with no meaningful satirical angle, comedic function, or storytelling purpose. This could easily have been great with a tighter script.

Matilda — It seems I’m not entirely alone in this, but despite its status as a children’s classic, I’ve always found this kind of mean-spirited and unpleasant. I’ve never been able to get into it. 

Mission: Impossible — It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s a fun ride if you’re into gadgets and gizmos and stunts and all that other cool secret agent stuff. Fortunately, I am.

Mr. Holland’s Opus — I like it, but it’s been too long since I last saw it for me to properly articulate my reasoning.

Muppet Treasure Island — I like this considerably more than The Muppet Christmas Carol. This one knows it’s a Muppet movie and is much less anxious about deviating from the source material and putting its own unique spin on things. Plus, Treasure Island is easier to adapt into the Muppet style anyway. It’s already a light-hearted adventure; add some comedy and turn it up a few notches, and you’re good to go. Also, if just for one day I could have as much fun as Tim Curry appears to be having all the time, that would hands down be the best day of my life.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie — It’s essentially just an episode of the TV show that they put in theaters for some reason. Actually, there are episodes of the TV show that are longer than it is. But I am a huge fan of the TV show for a reason, that reason being that it is sheer hilarity. And the movie is also sheer hilarity. The medium doesn’t compromise that at all, so why would I complain?

Scream — I have pretty mixed feelings about this one. There is a level on which it does work as a slasher flick, albeit an extraordinarily cheesy one. Wes Craven can direct the heck out of a scare. There’s something viscerally compelling about it. At the same time, I am very much not among the legions praising it for its satire of the genre. Because it is not satire. It’s a movie where characters constantly reference other movies in increasingly blunt and distracting ways. It doesn’t satirize the genre so much as go, “Look! A trope!” and then get on with things. Interesting feminist undercurrent, though.

Sling Blade — I’m surprised that I didn’t care for this one. People seem to hold it in such high esteem, and it certainly sounds like something I should like. It just didn’t work for me. The script struck me as much too obvious. It explains all the interpersonal dynamics in advance and then doesn’t find anything interesting or nuanced in them when it finally gets around to actually showing us. And the ending is such a foregone conclusion. I figured out its endgame very early on and was frustrated that every scene just plodded dutifully toward it without ever straying from the course in an interesting way. It has its moments of humor and pathos, but for the most part, I just wasn’t into it.

Space Jam — Oooooooh boy. I loved this when I was a kid, but never actually owned a copy of it. I’m afraid to revisit it. I’m not sure how it could not be terrible. It must be. It has to be. But I don’t want to know. I just don’t want to know.

Star Trek: First Contact — It’s all right. Not great — a few too many underdeveloped subplots for it to really resonate — but it gets the job done. Fun sci-fi, decent use of two hours.

Swingers — I kind of hated it for half an hour or so, but sometime shortly after the conclusion of the Vegas scenes, I started to get it and ended up mostly enjoying it, even though it still strikes me as a bit of a wannabe early 90s independent film.

A Time to Kill — Certainly an interesting piece of work, a mess so titanic that it’s difficult to even begin unraveling its strengths and weaknesses — so few of them are consistent throughout. A proper review would almost have to go scene by scene and evaluate it on a moment-to-moment basis. It comes down to whether it’s good more often than it’s bad, and I think it is, even if the margin is somewhat slim. Consistently? The acting is pretty good, the general premise is compelling enough (though it’s hard to tell how much of that is derived from the story and how much from the real-world emotions we naturally bring into something like this), it at least has the audacity to ask interesting questions, whether or not it has the skill to address them cohesively. It largely doesn’t; it’s all over the map thematically. It’s trying to be a complex portrait of justice in a case where the legal guilt is clear but the moral burden is a bit more shaded; it’s also trying to filter that through a racial lens and show how even in cases of cut-and-dried guilt and a ruling that recognizes that, systematic (and quite a lot of overt) racism can still leave justice undone. But the movie’s heavy-handedness and simplification of the issues under consideration (as well as the way it ultimately chooses to answer some of its questions) nearly makes the message less “racism corrupts justice” and more “vigilante justice is A-OK,” which is not quite as inspiring as the movie acts like it is.

Trainspotting — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie more filled with sights I desperately wish I could un-see. I guess that’s a good thing when we’re talking about a film whose purpose is to show the horrors of heroin addiction and the difficulties in getting out of it. But still.

Twister — I’m just old enough to remember this being all the rage with kids I knew at school. I saw it many, many years later. It’s a blockbuster. Nothing more, nothing less. It really isn’t anything special, and there’s no reason to watch it when there aren’t any tornadoes on-screen

1997

Air Bud — This is one of those situations where I know I’m omitting a lot of entries from the list, because, to my great shame, I must confess that my parents at least rented a lot of the sequels to this thing, and I simply cannot remember which ones. Yeah, I was kind of into this as a kid. I have no idea if I’d like it today. I’ll probably have to find out, and unfortunately, I suspect the answer to that is a firm no.

Alien: Resurrection — The prototypical late 90s blockbuster, in that everything about it is terrible in outright confusing ways. It’s totally half-baked, seems to have absolutely no interest in being good, is uniformly bad in every respect, it’s incoherent and does nothing to attempt to be understood. It’s a parade of arbitrary weirdness, filled with bad acting, awkward direction, poor writing (Joss Whedon wrote this? Really? How is that a thing?), zero tension or scares. It doesn’t even feel like it belongs in the “Alien” universe; it’s a dumb B-movie that just borrows the setting. I like absolutely nothing about this.

Amistad — I think I lean more toward the side that thinks this movie is underrated. I don’t think it’s one of Spielberg’s strongest either, but it has merit. I’m glad he sort of returned to this well — the anti-slavery legislative procedural — with Lincoln and got it just about 100 percent right that time. Amistad is more like 80 percent right. It could have a stronger grounding in character, and I think it’s structurally weird, but it’s nevertheless gripping, emotional, and compassionate.

Anaconda — It’s not absolutely terrible, and I could see someone enjoying it in a cheesy B-movie way. I’m not that person, though. It seemed to me like it was just trying to get in on the Jurassic Park audience. To be fair, it does have some enjoyably nutty moments (the scene where the snake, like, unfurls out of a tree and grabs a dude who just jumped off a waterfall, good grief). I don’t think even its fans would call it “good,” though.

Anastasia — It has its charms and basically works on the level it needs to, but it definitely feels like it’s trying much too hard to sign onto the Disney renaissance — it fits into that canon much more easily than Don Bluth’s. The story is perhaps too simple — it has a beginning and an ending, and everything in the middle is just trundling dutifully toward it, never deepening things or discovering a purpose. Eventually, the parade of pointless, cloying ballads starts to wear thin. Also, I don’t know why Bluth animated the characters so they always look like they just smelled something.

Batman and Robin — Even if I liked this movie, it would be suicide to admit that. Does anybody like this movie? I have yet to meet that person. Yeah, Shumaker’s response to the camp in Batman Forever not working was apparently just to make it even louder and with more puns. Again, camp works when the story can still be taken seriously on some level. This…all hope is lost.

Boogie Nights — If I don’t love it, it’s mainly a question of taste and interests; in a lot of ways, a porn star dramedy was never going to connect with me that deeply. And if I don’t love it, it may be worth attaching a “yet” to the end of that, since it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson film, which means it’s dense and insane and impossible to grasp completely on the first viewing. It’s amazing that he can go from the vibrancy of this to the oppressive darkness of something like There Will Be Blood while maintaining that distinctive touch that can only come from him. Boogie Nights is marvelously directed and wrangles its large cast and sprawling story flawlessly; you never lose sight of anyone and always know where the characters are coming from as people. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch. It’s absolutely arresting, and in the sheer density of it, it’s very easy to come away from it all thinking, “Okay, so what was the point again?” Maybe it’s possible There Will Be Blood is the only PTA movie I’ll ever fully commit to, but that doesn’t mean I regret watching this for one second.

The Fifth Element — Man, why don’t we make cheesy pop sci-fi anymore? I love that this movie was essentially Luc Besson directing a screenplay he’d written when he was a teenager. And I love that, given that, it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be. And even though it treads toward annoying with some frequency, it’s hard not to admire how unashamedly insane the whole affair is. And then there’s Gary Oldman’s inexplicably committed performance; he’s like a flamboyant Texas oilman or something. This is no work of genius, but it also stands pretty alone in cinematic history, so I have to give it a thumbs-up for that, at least.

George of the Jungle — My brothers and I thought this was just the funniest thing ever when we were kids. We watched it enough that we’re still capable of quoting it sometimes. I suspect we largely found it funny because we were stupid kids, though. But if I saw it again, I’d keep an open mind.

Good Will Hunting — This is the sort of movie that’s good in that way where it’s hard to say much about it other than “it’s good.” You can identify basic things like the characters being good, the acting being good, the writing being good, the direction being good, etc. But that all seems, well, basic. My point is that Good Will Hunting is good. I’m probably just shy of loving it. But it’s good.

Hercules — This is probably Disney’s weirdest animated film. And it’s so weird that its strangeness comes close to undoing it. As I said with Batman and Robin, there’s a way to do camp right; if you let it get out of control, the story’s going to lose people. Hercules has the same problem with its self-referential satire. Fortunately, it keeps it just barely in check, and the movie mostly works. But seriously, be ready for something weird (and, for the record, not at all G-rated).

Jackie Brown — Probably my least favorite Tarantino movie. And it seems I’m not alone; he’s kind of disavowed it as well. I don’t think it’s bad; his dialogue and characters are still sharp, and there’s never been an actor who turned in a bad performance under his watch. This movie just goes way too long without anything interesting happening, either on a story or character level. It just kind of checks all the blaxploitation film blocks. If Tarantino’s got a major weakness, it’s probably his need to reassure us constantly of his expertise in genre films. Fortunately, he seems to have gotten over that of late. Like I said, it’s decent, but I feel no pressing need to see it again.

L.A. Confidential — I’m going to need a few more viewings, but it just might be great enough to qualify as one of my favorite films of all time — the characters are so strong, the acting is so good, the story is so well structured and consistently engaging, the heightened noir world of it is perfectly established, it looks good, all that jazz. I love that each of the three leads comes with a fully established psychology that develops organically over the course of the film — and I love that not a single one, even the straight-laced Guy Pearce hero cop, is particularly likable. I have a few thematic issues with it; I think it needs to be striking those irony notes a little harder in the end. But yeah, it’s great.

Life Is Beautiful — You know how I said there are very few classics I hate unreservedly? This is the other one of those. First off, in my opinion, this is the worst performance to ever win someone an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role. This is such a broad performance; there isn’t an ounce of subtlety in it, nor is it over-the-top in a more calculated way. The protagonist just gibbers and talks and shouts and makes goofy faces, and when a scene gets more intense, he just does all of that except louder. As to the story itself…It tries so hard to make good things out of a bad situation that it starts to look like an ostrich with its head stuck in the ground. It’s actively avoiding reality. And there are deeper implications to what the protagonist does, chief among them the fact that he makes the concentration camp much more dangerous for everyone around him with the antics he uses to keep his son amused. I am just not impressed with this one.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park — Spielberg’s output does vary in quality, but there are few that I dislike altogether. This is one of them. As a sequel, I think it’s just a big mess. It doesn’t have any great moments the way the first one did, and there’s a lot more overt stupidity going on. I think the dinosaurs ending up on the mainland either needed to be its own movie or left out altogether. Also, I wonder if the movie realizes that every death that occurs on the island is the direct result of Vince Vaughn’s character being terrible. It’s still weirdly fun in moments, but overall, I’m not a fan.

Men in Black — As I said in my review of Men in Black 3, it’s entirely possible that this just isn’t my thing. But I’m not fond of it on a number of levels. The story doesn’t compel me, and the characters, while fun on occasion, don’t involve me emotionally. And I’m just not a fan of its weirdly ugly aesthetic. It’s not a universe I want to spend much more time in. But a lot of that may be part of its homage to 50s-era science fiction. Like I said, it’s possible this just isn’t in my wheelhouse.

Mimic — It benefits considerably from having Guillermo del Toro at the helm. His direction is pitch-perfect; he has an almost Hitchcockian skill for pure, in-the-moment fear and suspense. Apart from that, the movie’s pretty bad. I like del Toro as much as the next guy, but I think it’s time we all admitted we’ve overstated his talents as a storyteller. Even the del Toro films I love have problems on the script level; that’s especially true with Mimic, which is somehow both formulaic and structure-free and affords its characters only the bare minimum of personality and almost no development. It’s not really a story so much as an increasing series of scares. Only on the visual level is it at all worth seeing.

Princess Mononoke — It’s hard to write a short blurb on this movie because every thought I have about it unlocks a new rabbit trail that I have to pursue in order to adequately explain every feeling I have about it. Short version: It’s really, really good, and I know none of you find that surprising. Part of me wishes that it would better contextualize certain characters’ motivations, and the cartoonish excessiveness of the violence occasionally took me out of the moment. But it’s resplendent otherwise.

Scream 2 — A general improvement over the first one, which might be a first among horror movies — even vaguely comedic ones. The elements that worked in the first one are still here, and some of the big flaws are reduced a bit. (Though there’s still that dumb scene in the film class where Wes Craven spends, like, ten minutes proving he knows what a horror movie is.) I think its biggest issue is that it’s trying to cover more ground than the first, and a lot of characters and storylines keep getting lost in the mayhem. I also have mixed feelings about its general M.O. Not a lot of movies have had the guts to comment on their own copycat murders, so kudos on that, but maybe a little more tact would’ve been nice? I mean, this feels like just thumbing your nose at real events. But it’s okay overall.

Starship Troopers — It inspires in me the distant admiration I feel toward most Paul Verhoeven films. The satire is sharp, amusing, and suitably subtle and subversive. At this point, though, I’m starting to dislike the way said satire always feels like a backdrop in his films — something that doesn’t really register on a character or story level and only informs the movie’s style, iconography, and sense of humor.

Titanic — You kind of have to go into it knowing that, yeah, it’s the sort of movie where two people meet and fall madly in love to the point of ludicrous self-sacrifice in the period of, like, two days. Plus, being a James Cameron movie, it’s really romanticized and full of cheesy attempts at poetic, witty, or poetically witty dialogue. And you have to go into it knowing whether or not things like that are deal-breakers for you. Fortunately, if it’s cheesy, at least it’s a functional cheesy. Everyone’s got defined motivations and characters, and that grounds it emotionally. And obviously, at least we can all agree that the scale and the sheer amount of effort that went into this production is pretty admirable. However, it’s not a film I’m apt to revisit often — its portrait of a real-life tragedy is heart-breaking and extremely difficult to watch, particularly for how long it lasts. And I’m not going to say that it uses the true story to say nothing of import, but it didn’t strike close enough to home for me to bend the portrayal into something vital — again, for me personally.

Wag the Dog — It’s good. Very funny. An amusing satire of how good media narratives overpower even the most basic and fundamental of facts. The reality the film inhabits is a bit heightened, but it seems intentional. My only issue with it is that I don’t think Barry Levinson is suited to the material. As a director, his main cinematic expression is one of total earnestness, and I just don’t think it works here. This needs an extremely dry, vaguely absurdist touch. The entire time I watched it, I wondered what it might have been as, say, a Coen Brothers movie. Still, what we got is pretty solid.

1998

American History X — This is one of those movies that sucks you in pretty effortlessly, and despite its flaws, time flies while you’re watching it. And yeah, I think it does have problems. It’s not terribly subtle and sometimes overdoes its points to the extent that they actually lose effectiveness — I’ve said it a thousand times, but it always bears repeating. If you stack the deck too heavily, members of your audience for whom it might be thought-provoking are going to excuse themselves from the criticism on technicalities. I also have some skepticism about the ending, which I think makes the usual mistake of conflating big emotions with big ideas. It almost needs an extra half hour to wrestle with the implications of what happens there. But never mind. It’s a really compelling film, and a rare one that actually uses its flashback structure very effectively. And for being as horrifyingly brutal as it is — there was one moment of violence in it that actually made me gasp out loud, and I can’t remember the last time that’s happened to me — it actually does have a surprisingly big heart and means quite well.

Antz — I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give this movie an objective revisit. It absolutely terrified me when I was a child, and now, I’ve permanently imprinted those feelings upon it. I think people forget sometimes that kids are not only very literal about what they’re seeing but also see everything that talks as being “human” in a way. So, for them, the fact that the characters are insects does nothing for the scene where a whole bunch of ants get killed with toxic goo or where the main character’s soldier friend gets decapitated or where the other ant gets incinerated under a magnifying glass. I haven’t seen this movie in years, mind you, and I still remember those moments in detail. I just plain wasn’t ready.

Armageddon — Probably the least objectionable Michael Bay movie. And yes, I understand that, coming from me, that statement means absolutely nothing whatsoever. If Michael Bay ever makes a movie I like, I’ll surrender from the Internet. I don’t think I could handle the shame.

Babe: Pig in the City — I’m not sure what I just watched or how to begin approaching it critically. It’s kind of like someone forced George Miller to make a “Babe” sequel, and he said to himself, “I’m going to make them regret it.” And he took a generally dignified, lightly fantastical kids’ movie and sequelized it into total batshit insanity. I…kind of liked it? I think?

The Big Lebowski — Going in, I knew enough about the Coen Brothers and about this movie to be disappointed but not surprised to find that I didn’t really understand this. It’s just this strange, pointless thing, and I don’t 100 percent get it. The Coens sometimes seem like they’re either operating on an intellectual level way above mine or deliberately tricking me into thinking that. I do love a lot of their work; it’s when they get extra weird that they lose me a little. Don’t get me wrong — I like The Big Lebowski. There are a lot of very funny moments in it. Its dry, awkward, absurdist sense of humor at times appeals very directly to my general comedic sensibility. But the moments in between the laughs were just a bit…empty, I suppose.

A Bug’s Life — I saw this in theaters in 1998, and there was definitely a period lasting until around 2000 where it was my entire life. It developed a reputation as lesser Pixar — at least prior to Cars 2, after which point Pixar became Disney’s workhorse. And it might be the lesser among the studio’s original work, but you know what? I still think it’s a lot of fun. It’s lively and colorful, and the characters are bursting with personality. Its main flaw for me is that it gets off to a pretty rough start, but it rights itself quickly.

Dark City — This was a pretty good radio drama. Not sure why they forced me to listen to it on a television. I mean, I get the thematic reason behind the decision not to turn the camera on until the last scene, but it still strikes me as a bit much. I kid, I kid. It was an interesting watch (in the scenes where it was at all possible to watch). I’m a sucker for anything that explores the nature of memory. I’m fascinated by the idea of the past as an abstract concept that exists mainly in our minds — our memories essentially being a story we tell ourselves, one that has only what meaning we give it. On that level, I enjoyed it.

Elizabeth — More a triumph and visuals and performances than story, in my opinion. It feels like it’s always bypassing the most interesting material in favor of more well-worn territory (i.e., the conflict of religions element that literally opens the film but spends the remainder of the run-time serving mainly as a distantly realized motivation for the political quagmire the young Queen Elizabeth must navigate). There’s a lot of compelling stuff in here, but the movie is less than the sum of its parts.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — I’m definitely on the “hate it” end of the spectrum on this one, arguably the most “love it or hate it” movie ever made (and by intent, based on what Terry Gilliam has said). I’m just…really not sure what this film has to offer that I wouldn’t get hanging out in a Taco Bell after midnight. I’m wise to some of the subtext, but I don’t think it has any emotional grounding. It just jumps from one episode to the next and occasionally breaks its stoner philosophy long enough to quickly impart some real philosophy, then reverts back. Honestly, I was physically uncomfortable watching this. It is so, so far outside my wheelhouse.

Following — There’s some good stuff going on here — enough that it’s not terribly surprising that Christopher Nolan went on to do some pretty impressive things — but it’s a directorial debut that consistently feels like exactly that. It’s an especially impressive student film, basically. There are some really interesting ideas hovering around the center of it, but the execution can be a bit clumsy. I don’t know that I like the disordered storytelling here. The fact that it gives you the payoff first and the setup second in almost every scenario is almost certainly deliberate, but it also makes both of them do less emotionally. I think the real problem is the fairly straightforward acting. These aren’t bad performances, but they aren’t going much farther than delivering lines and conveying basic emotions believably. It’s an interesting concept centered around a film that feels somehow empty.

Godzilla — I know I said that I would only be listing films that I’ve seen in their entirety, but I’m making an exception for this. The reason that I’m making that exception is that I have tried to watch this in its entirety something like four times, and every time, it’s so unrelentingly boring that I can’t get the entire way through. At that point, it’s safe to say that no matter how it ends, this is a terrible, terrible movie. And honestly, I’m done trying.

The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride — I definitely watched this a few times as a kid. I saw pretty much all of the Disney direct to video sequels, and this was one of only two that I liked at all, so who knows? Maybe there’s something to it. Then again, it was made for video, and I haven’t seen it since I was a kid. I probably don’t need to revisit it.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — There’s a fuzzy line between black comedy and everything else, but it’s plain to see in this one. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels comes as closer to being straight comedy than other films like it — and there’s a clear Tarantino influence in this. It’s a comedy of errors, basically. Some characters are smart, most are stupid, and absolutely all of them end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. For me, the whole thing is encapsulated in the gunfight near the end that leaves all of its participants dead, their last words being, “What are you doing here?” And it’s pretty funny to watch it all unravel. However, I would say that this is one of those movies that’s saved by the third act. Prior to that, it’s just dangling a whole lot of subplots whose utility is not immediately clear and that, more importantly, are not always independently interesting. But it’s amusing nonetheless.

Mulan — A strong entry in the Disney animated canon overall. The animation is gorgeous, the side characters are amusing (yes, even the Eddie Murphy one, and no, you can’t stop me), and it’s not afraid to play around with its tone a little bit and get surprisingly dark when it needs to. And movies should have more female characters like Mulan. It suffers from its uninteresting villain and some songs it would’ve been better off leaving on the cutting room floor, though (okay, except for the training song, which is awesome, but one great song does not a musical justify).

Pi — This is another one of those movies that I’ll say is good but not really my type of thing. It does a great job of creating this claustrophobic, feverish, and surreal atmosphere. Unfortunately, the better a movie is at doing that, the harder I find it to watch. I can’t explain why, but watching movies like that somehow ends up causing me actual, real-world stress. For me, that experience is not really worth it regardless of the film’s merit. But Pi does have a lot of merit, and if movies like it are up your alley, it’s earned its place in cinematic history.

Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World — I definitely saw this at least once. I can’t remember what my response was as a child. Even more than the Lion King sequel, I’ve got no burning desire to revisit this.

The Prince of Egypt — This is surprisingly good. In some ways, I think it ought to be counted among, if not necessarily the best animated films, then certainly the most ambitious. It largely looks great, incorporating a number of different styles and techniques pretty seamlessly. More importantly, it really gets to the emotional core of this story — and the decision to emphasize the relationship of Moses and Rameses as brothers was nearly genius. You don’t see many animated films that allow you to feel sympathy for the villain the way this one does. I do think that it tends toward softening some of the harsher elements, if not in tone and consequence then in cause, and that kind of rubs me the wrong way. Still, it’s about as edgy and ambiguous as a movie like this is going to be without alienating its core audience. I really appreciate what it does well.

Ringu — The remake, it turns out, was pretty faithful, which likely explains why I don’t care for either one. The characters don’t interest me, and neither does the story. I don’t care for the mystery in either one — unless you’re approaching it from a very specific angle, when a ghost is trying to kill the main characters, I’m interested in how to stop it, not how it came into existence, particularly when the answer is the usual “magic and abuse” sort of thing. I’m just not a fan of this series, in any form.

Rushmore — I think I’m slowly beginning to appreciate Wes Anderson in at least a vague, distant sense — especially here, since the style is a lot more grounded and isn’t completely overpowering the story. It’s distinctive but mostly unobtrusive. Still, to be honest, I have to admit that it didn’t particularly engage me. I liked the characters (well, “found them interesting” might be a better way to phrase that), I generally found it funny, I actually appreciated Anderson behind the camera. It just never got me on any level deeper than that.

Saving Private Ryan — After thinking about it for a long time, I’ve decided that I think Saving Private Ryan might be the best example of a movie that is less than the sum of its parts. I don’t necessarily consider it one of the greatest movies of all time, but it certainly has some of the greatest elements of all time. I have to speak, of course, of the opening scene, the D-Day Invasion, which is one of the greatest scenes in film history. The level of realism and brutality on display is absolutely shocking and has never been matched. That’s the sort of scene everyone needs to see eventually, especially for those of us for whom war is an abstract concept, a question of needs and numbers. Spielberg’s direction is pretty spot-on throughout, really, though the opening is the obvious standout. And he’s directing a stellar cast, all of whom are doing their level best. Then again, the movie falls back hard on pure sentimentality sometimes, with the weepy death scenes included more for impact than purpose and the sainted shots of the American flag flapping in the wind on a sunny day and whatnot. Parts of the story confuse me in terms of their purpose in the larger scheme. I’m not sure what to make of Upham’s arc; the film doesn’t seem to know how to treat him. And even the concept of the mission to save Private Ryan is kind of questionable, especially because of the way Ryan ultimately reacts to it. Don’t get me wrong; there is definitely some great stuff here, and I like the movie a lot. But it’s plenty flawed, too.

The Truman Show — This is another movie that I think of as a close cousin to Groundhog Day — a comedy that’s secretly more of a drama and has a high-concept premise that’s actually a bit uncomfortable. And it uses that premise to dig under your skin and make you start to perceive what’s going on as actually being a bit horrible. And slowly, the laughter gives way to cringing. This is much more satirical than Groundhog Day, though, and that satire is surprisingly incisive, and it covers a lot of ground. Moreover, it does that in a way that’s layered well into the story, so it doesn’t feel like the movie is taking Message Interludes. The only issue is that I’m still not particularly a fan of Jim Carrey, and I feel he overplays a lot of moments here. That’s a small problem in a great movie, though.

1999

American Beauty — Some of the most beautifully made garbage ever produced. And I do mean that. American Beauty is emotional, involving, beautifully filmed, brilliantly acted, and totally meaningless. Some would go further and say it actually does mean something, but it’s universally negative. I won’t say that; I think it means well. But thematically, it’s all over the map. My assessment of this movie’s message is as follows: You can either be a decent person and miserable or a total sociopath and happy; however, if you choose the latter, you will eventually learn a lesson and become decent and happy for no apparent reason justified within the film. Also, teenage stoners are insightful and filled with infinite wisdom. I just about cried, and I felt very stupid doing it. Yeah, okay, it’s a decent movie, I like it, but it needs to be way better than it is in order for me to feel okay with the seriously icky subject matter on display here.

Analyze This — It has a really weird tone and maybe doesn’t always manage it well. There’s a joke sitting just beneath the surface that never quite comes to fruition, which, despite its best efforts, renders it more of a light drama than a comedy but one that doesn’t work all that well because of how clumsy some of the emotional stuff is. Despite all that, there’s something fun about it that’s hard to pin down.

Being John Malkovich — And here’s another film that I find very similar to Groundhog Day, being both comedy and drama and tackling them in a really cerebral way. You go into it expecting John Malkovich to tear apart his own public persona for our amusement, and you get that. What’s weird is how much of a character he actually is within this story. He’s not just an object of comedy but rather has his own needs and personality. And that means it’s funny at first, but at a certain point, the movie becomes this major question of identity as selfish people bury other people’s minds in a curtain of darkness to fulfill their own whims. I definitely like a few other Spike Jonze films better than this one, but it still has all the trademarks: solid direction, an extremely intelligent script, and great acting — including the only Cameron Diaz performance in which she is completely unrecognizable.

The Blair Witch Project — I ordinarily hate found footage horror, but The Blair Witch Project does it about as well as it could be done. What most strikes me about it is its authenticity. A lot of work went into making it appear real. It disguises the narrative beats so it doesn’t feel as pre-planned; it (mostly) doesn’t contrive bizarre excuses to keep the camera around (or use obviously professional shots to make it look better); it focuses more on the process of the documentary than the characters, giving it some sort of arc without having to awkwardly shoehorn character information into random scenes; and most importantly, the haunting doesn’t play to the camera. You only catch glimpses of it, the majority of it in the aftermath, and the fear comes more from the characters’ degrading mental state. I still think of this kind of thing as pure experience and therefore not something that I’d particularly enjoy re-watching, but this was surprisingly solid viewing nonetheless.

Boys Don’t Cry — I’m honestly really torn about how to feel toward this movie. I did mostly appreciate it while I was watching it — it’s far from perfect, but it does a lot well. My bigger issue emerged after I’d finished it and did a little research, finding that this film, based on a real-life murder story, was produced without the permission of the survivors and changed details of the accounts for dramatic purposes. These are not public figures, their story isn’t one that’s entertaining or that has a simple and straightforward Hollywood message, and only a handful of years had passed since the tragic events. That’s sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong; having uninvolved parties in Hollywood co-opt the story makes me really uncomfortable. That’s where I am with it — it’s good, but its production history makes it nearly impossible for me to recommend it to anyone or to want to watch it again. I’m just not okay with all of that.

Deep Blue Sea — It’s a crappy horror movie. It’s bad in all the ways you’d expect. Still, it’s hard not to admire how hard it subverts horror movie death tropes.

Election — A largely entertaining oddity. I’m glad someone finally figured out that Matthew Broderick’s persona is insufferable and had him play a character who’s that way on purpose. Also, Reese Witherspoon is kind of amazing in this, absolutely hilarious. Kind of uncomfortable with certain elements of it, though. You probably know the ones.

Fight Club — It’s basically good storytelling with strong writing and characters. Acting, too — I think Edward Norton’s performance in this is heavily underrated. It’s one of the best uses of voiceover narration I can think of as well. I was surprised to find it played more as black comedy; I was expecting something considerably more serious going into it. But I think that tone works wonders for it. It’d be too much otherwise. I sort of have mixed feelings about it thematically, and I’m continuing to try to work those out. I understand the argument that David Fincher sexes up the immorality in his films to an extent that they overpower the message, but I also think that can be a strength of his — the way he can capture the occasional allure that evil holds. Here, though, I confess that there are one or two details in the plot — primarily things that are underexplored or not sufficiently demonstrated — that leave some of the pieces hanging loose. But it’s a good movie.

Galaxy Quest — I love Galaxy Quest. I just love it. This really is how you do parody. You have to like the original material, too. So, this pokes fun at Star Trek, but there’s a reason some fans have made it an honorary part of the Star Trek canon — because at the end of the day, it works as a goofy sci-fi adventure, too. But I love this cast — not necessarily the people in it, because some are better than others, but the fact that the filmmakers knew how to use each one of them. Everyone in this film is playing to his or her strengths, and that helps it create a great comic dynamic between the core group of characters. And, of course, Sam Rockwell is awesome.

The Green Mile — This is just a good story. I’m not sure much would come of trying to look into it too deeply, but it creates a cast of characters and makes you care about them. Maybe not all that much happens in it developmentally, and I’m still not sure what the reasoning is behind the somewhat cruel ending. But every emotional beat works, because you truly are invested in the people you see on-screen. I don’t think it’s necessarily a great movie, but I’ve never had an unpleasant time watching it.

The Iron Giant — This is probably in my top five animated films of all time. You know how much I love E.T.? In case you didn’t read that entry on the list, the answer is, “A lot.” Well, The Iron Giant has pretty much the exact same plot, and I like it even more. It is impossible not to care about these characters; each of them is unique and detailed and has a part to play. The animation, too, is really, really good, blending CGI into the mix pretty seamlessly for being made when it was. I couldn’t be happier that people discovered this after its box office failure and elevated it into the family classic it’s become. It’s a great movie, and it would’ve been a shame for it to have been forgotten.

Magnolia — It’s great storytelling and totally swept me away. I tend to go into three-hour movies with a sense of trepidation, but nothing excites me so much as when the movie in question successfully makes that time fly. I have an uneven relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson; sometimes, his movies are right up my alley, and other times, I can’t even begin to understand them. Magnolia, thankfully, turned out to be the former. I love its analysis of causality and daily “butterfly effect” events, the way one occurrence ripples outward. Those are ideas that fascinate me, and Magnolia depicts them well. I still found myself narrowly unable to outright love it, though. And maybe I’m crazy, because very few people seem to see this as anything less than perfect. But for me, there was just something “off” about it, something difficult to describe — a sense of unreality, a story that’s close enough to the real thing to demand that sort of treatment but just exaggerated enough to leave it feeling a bit disjointed. There’s some weird stereotyping, a few performances that never quite worked for me, and that heavy-handed soft rock soundtrack. Maybe these are things I’ll change my mind about given future viewings. Presently, however, they diminish the experience slightly.

The Matrix — I don’t really love The Matrix as much as everyone else. I give it a pass because the idea at its core is a great one, and the film explores it really well. Plus, there are some genuinely spectacular things happening here from a visual perspective. But the characters are all so flat and wooden that I’ve never been able to get emotionally invested in it.

The Mummy — The tone and characters are fun but offset by a weak script and my general distaste for Brendan Fraser as a performer.

Muppets from Space — I saw this a few times when I was a kid (I’m pretty sure at least one of those viewings was theatrical, too), but I haven’t seen it at all since the hype faded, so I have no idea what I’d think of it nowadays.

Office Space — I’m not sure whether to be alarmed at how relatable I found this. Overall, it’s a bit of a trifling amusement, but an amusement nonetheless.

The Sixth Sense — I didn’t know this until I started assembling this list, but this was released into theaters the same day as The Iron Giant. I really wish I hadn’t been only eight years old, because that must have been a heck of a week to be a movie buff. The Sixth Sense is also a great movie, that rare example of what I guess you’d call a horror drama. Of course, it’s most famous for its twist ending, but let’s not forget that there’s some great acting here and some even better atmosphere. It’s a creepy and unsettling film, but it doesn’t bombard you with that or bend over backward trying to scare you. That’s not its purpose. And if we must talk about the twist, it needs to be said that few movies with shocker endings have pulled them off as well. The ending is both hinted at in details of the plot and characters, and moreover, while it changes the context of everything that happened before it, it doesn’t change the nature of what happened, so the movie isn’t a cheat. This is just a great movie; I don’t know what else to say about it.

Sleepy Hollow — This is seriously underrated. Not only do I like it a lot, I think it belongs somewhere near the top of the Tim Burton canon. My only significant grievances with it are its inability to say much of anything coherent about its central theme of faith vs. reason and its excessively long climax. Everything else about it works really well, though, the atmosphere especially — this movie just plain looks great. On top of that, Burton gets a lot of suspense out of the situation and really makes you feel what’s at stake. He also brings his typical twist to it — it’s very much camp horror in its over-the-top-ness, but it never interferes with character. It lets you in on the joke but functions independently as well. I honestly think this is pretty great.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace — Oh, great. You’ve finally cornered me and forced me to talk about my feelings about those pesky Star Wars prequels. I still don’t much want to, and not just because I, you know…kind of hold the minority opinion on them, in that I actually find them kind of enjoyable. Though that’s definitely a part of the reason. I actually don’t want to talk about them because I have tried very hard to justify my enjoyment of them, but I…just can’t. I admit it. These are bad movies. And I like them anyway. And I don’t know why. I could say that it’s just nostalgia; I was introduced to the saga through the prequels, so, in all honesty, they were a bigger part of my childhood, keeping in mind that Star Wars in general was my entire childhood. But there are other movies I liked as a kid that just don’t work for me anymore. I don’t know. I guess I just find it dumbly enjoyable. Yeah, let’s just leave it at that.

Stuart Little — It hasn’t been that long since I’ve seen it, but it’s been long enough that I don’t really want to try to pick it apart. I liked it when I was a kid, though, and I liked it when I was a little older, too. I suspect, based on everything else I know, that I’d probably like it today, too. But I don’t want to say anything for certain.

Tarzan — Another strong Disney film. It seems other people thought Disney was starting its decline around this era, but I disagree. I think this is a really fun watch. It seemed that with every production, Disney was increasing its visual prowess, and this movie is no exception. Man, that animation is fluid and colorful and textured and just…beautiful, seriously. But the characters are pretty good, too, and the movie succeeds in getting you on their side. And it takes its world seriously enough to allow it to be downright scary sometimes. Again, this was a G-rated movie when I was a kid: a movie where we see the corpses of people who were mauled by a jaguar and where one guy accidentally hangs himself. You sissies.

Three Kings — I really, really like this one. I admire when a filmmaker looks at a genre and says, “Hey, you guys realize these exist arbitrarily, right?” And then, he makes something that isn’t quite like anything else that ever existed. There are so many different tones and styles at play here: It’s a pitch-black comedy, it’s a war movie, it has dashes of adventure here and there, even little touches of drama. And almost all of it works. Not only that, it makes a thematically cohesive statement about the moral excuses we make for wars that we fight for other reasons. It’s a weird little movie, and I absolutely love that about it. The only thing I’m not quite sold on is the visual style.

Toy Story 2 — Good movie. I think it’s probably the weakest of the trilogy, in that it covers a lot of ground already covered by the first one. But it does enough new things, and it spins the series more toward action/adventure, which is a good direction for it. The characters are still fun, and you get to see a little more of the supporting players this time around. It’s not the most gripping Toy Story movie, but it’s a lot of fun.

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