Inspired by the politics and philosophy podcast Owls at Dawn, I’m listing my favourite films from each year I’ve been alive.
1988: They Live
Conspiracy theories may be dangerously simplistic explanations of the real world, but they make for great allegorical narrative. Bonus: writer-director John Carpenter is opposed to anti-Semitic interpretations of the film.
1989: Do The Right Thing
Classic. Spike Lee’s best, palpably capturing a certain time and place, with Public Enemy’s Fight The Power on near-continuous loop. Interesting note about interpretation; white audiences debated whether the climactic property destruction was justified, rather than the murder of a black teen that directly preceded it.
An entirely accurate portrayal of fandom.
1991: Terminator 2
Also the ’91 pick of both Troy and Austin from the Owls at Dawn podcast. But dude, I’m serious; look at the banner on this website; look at this tattoo of mine…
T2 is a great action film, but it’s also a profoundly optimistic film about the possibility of changing the future.
1992: Batman Returns
Controversial choice, and it is a fucking mess. A glorious, Gothed-up mess. If you’d like to read my defence of the film, it’s here.
1993: Jurassic Park
From a controversial choice, to an easy one. At the time, the introduction of CGI was a big deal, but this holds up on every level – performances and writing with just the right level of self-aware comedy, a sparing mix of CGI with physical effects, and generally a great action-adventure film. (Side-note: I actually reckon The Lost World and even Jurassic Park III are solid, but Jurassic World is a hack-job).
1994: Once Were Warriors
Slick, yet powerful, depiction of urban alienation and domestic violence. Unfortunately it’s become a key reference-point for racist motherfuckers in my native country Aotearoa/New Zealand, and the book it’s adapted from is bootstraps conservative, but the film is solid.
1995: Forgotten Silver
Another New Zealand film, one of Peter Jackson’s last before he went Hollywood (though co-director Costa Botes reportedly played a bigger role behind the scenes). My favourite mockumentary: a hoax depicting an innovative early New Zealand filmmaker, so innovative that he invented cinema, flight, synched sound… widely interpreted as factual on initial release, leading to a nationalist backlash when people realised it was a hoax. Considering how absurdly extreme the claims in the film are, the desperation of Kiwi nationalism is laid hilariously bare.
1996: The Craft
Goths, plaid, Portishead: this is the 90s. I may be biased by childhood obsession. Reviewed here.
1997: The Fifth Element
The future is French. That opera sequence.
1998: Run Lola Run
A manic pace that strongly contributed to my love of video editing. Romantic philosophy of the sort 15-year olds come up with, and all the more charming for it. Vibrant, imaginative garbage.
1999: The Matrix
Badass blockbuster philosophy. Nokia flip-phones and bullet-time quickly became dated, but unlike the clumsy sequels, this smoothly integrates political philosophy with Capital-S Spectacle.
2000: Battle Royale
Lovely satirical schlock. The Hunger Games is often accused of plagiarising the concept; a dystopian society that forces teenagers to kill eachother for sport. But whereas The Hunger Games is an earnest, character-driven Young Adult series, Battle Royale is shamelessly gory exploitation-satire, sending up the ambivalent treatment of young people in Japan.
Battle Royale II bizarrely pulls out the satirical stops by opening with the teenage leads blowing up a pair of Twin Towers, so… if that sounds like your bag, go for it.
2001: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Queer punk-rock musical, amazing soundtrack. Criticised for not accurately representing trans experiences, it’s essentially more of a drag act, so keep that in mind.
2002: Sympathy for Mister Vengeance
A compelling depiction of cyclical violence, the first of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, followed by the crossover hit Oldboy. My review is here.
2003: Kill Bill Volume 1
Candy. Delicious candy. A major shift in gears for Tarantino, who made his name with dialogue-driven films, shifting here towards visual excess.
2004: Kill Bill Volume 2
Doesn’t go down as easy as the first, with more Tarantino monologues, and technical devices that feel even more self-conscious. But the central dynamic between Uma Thurman and David Carradine makes it click. By the time she fulfils the title I’m ugly-crying.
At the time I was sick of the hype from Whedon fans. Moreover, while this attempts to work as both a continuation of the TV show and a self-contained blockbuster, it only really works for fans of the show. With those caveats, Serenity is a thoroughly enjoyable libertarian sci-fi action romp.
2006: Children of Men
Again, I agree with Troy on the Owls at Dawn podcast. A chilling dystopian depiction of rising xenophobia, artistically and politically on-point.
2007: Hot Fuzz
Not so much a parody as an ode to action cinema, with a glorious homoerotic romance at its core (fun fact: many of Nick Frost’s lines were originally written for a female love interest). Perhaps my favourite of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy.
2008: In Bruges
Jet-black absurdist comedy from Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. Guilt catches up with two assassins stationed in Bruges, a pretty place to die. The relationship between Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell is disarmingly tender, with the older man concerned for the younger.
2009: Big Fan
Writer-director Robert D. Siegel also wrote The Wrestler, and this is even better, developing themes of obsessive sports fandom (in this case, American football rather than wrestling). As a nerd, Big Fan resonates with my pathology in a similar fashion to Misery; we really are that creepy. Patton Oswalt’s best performance.
2010: 127 Hours
Honestly I don’t love a lot of films from 2010, but this was a tight, effective survival story. You feel everything that happens to the guy.
2011: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Badass heroine exposes rich Swedish Nazis, what’s not to love? I particularly like anything that shatters illusions about Sweden as a socialist utopia.
2012: The Master
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is my favourite actor, and PT Anderson is certainly up there as a writer-director. Depicting a (barely) fictionalised version of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, they make the secretive cult comprehensible. Hubbard’s sci-fi theology is irrelevant; at a base level, he offers salvation, and I want to buy what he’s selling.
2013: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
I’m generally a fan of this series, but the first film failed to capture the complexity of Katniss’ characterisation, in particular her calculated decision to perform love for Peeta to win audience favour. In depicting more behind-the-scenes machinations, this sequel managed to capture more of these nuances, along with the more epic revolutionary themes, and a great soundtrack to boot (obviously there’s Lorde’s excellent Yellow Flicker Beat, but I also love Anohni’s Angel on Fire).
My only Best Picture winner on this list. I’m generally a Linklater fan, and this is one of his many technical experiments that pay off dramatically. One bugbear though: it’s not a ‘universal’ story about the ‘human condition’, it’s a story of white heterosexual masculinity developing in the US. That’s not a criticism of the film, it’s a criticism of the hype.
2015: Mad Max: Fury Road
My third and final overlap with Troy from Owls at Dawn. I love blockbuster action, and this one delivers. Bonus: upsets MRAs.
2016: 10 Cloverfield Lane
I hated Cloverfield, but this is a different beast. Part survival horror, part absurdist character-study (character being John Goodman, which should be enough recommendation in itself). My review is here.
2017: I don’t have one yet.