If you have any slightly pop culture-inclined friends within your social media network, you’ve likely come across the “Name A Favorite Movie For Every Year Since You Were Born” challenge this week. The parameters are simple and self-explanatory: For each year that you’ve been on this earth, choose a favorite movie that was released within it. Of course, if you have pop culture-inclined friends, you know that this isn’t as simple as it sounds. Choosing just one movie from a year that likely contains several unassailable classics, a few cult favorites, and something you watched 100 times on HBO is difficult—particularly when you’re the type of person who frets over what it says about your taste. After all, film fans tend to be a tad judgmental by nature.
And yet, they also love making lists like this, which is why several members of The A.V. Club staff immediately did so. And then—because we have at our disposal several professional movie critics who can judge our selections with their expertise, right to our faces—we submitted them to our film editor, A.A. Dowd, so he could analyze what they say about us.
I went first, because it was my dumb idea.
A.A. Dowd: The most obvious trend to pick out here is the love of capital-C comedies—not the highbrow drama-in-comedic-clothing kind that critics sometimes praise to prove that they’re not humorless jags, but some of the biggest gut-busters by Saturday Night Live alums. If I didn’t know that Sean grew up in the ’80s, his roll call of that decade’s biggest and best blockbusters would clear that up. (These are movies he clearly grew up on, as opposed to discovering later in life.) And the more recents years tend to be dominated by the big swinging dicks—the virtuosic film brats—of quasi-independent American cinema: Scorsese, Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Fincher, and PT Anderson. Beyond that, I’d say Sean’s picks betray a love of music and movies that play like riotous soundtrack listening parties (24 Hour Party People, Trainspotting, Magnolia), as well as an interest in the creative process, specifically—and perhaps not surprisingly—stories about writers (American Splendor, The End Of The Tour, Barton Fink). Coolest curveball: Henry Fool.
Sean O’Neal: That’s a fair, astute assessment, actually. Bill Murray was sort of like a surrogate father to me, and I’m such a narcissist I’ll watch pretty much any movie where the writer (preferably unappreciated and suffering) is the protagonist. I was also a teenager and video store clerk (and aspiring filmmaker) squarely within the indie-film explosion of the ’90s, which means I worshipped all of those directors who bucked the studio system in a way that I would still hear about in Arlington, Texas. And yeah, I agonized over choosing films I learned to love over perennial favorites. Ultimately, I went with a weird, imaginary scenario where I was only allowed to watch one movie from that year for the rest of my life—and in that case, I have to be true to myself and rescue Stripes over Scanners, Step Brothers over The Wrestler or The Dark Knight.
Anyway, most important: Is there anything particularly egregious in there that makes you respect me less? And overall, would you at least agree that I sound like an okay guy to hang out with?
A.A. Dowd: Nah, nothing egregious. I’d categorize everything on there as at least fun or interesting—and that’s setting aside the ones, like Dawn Of The Dead and Groundhog Day and The King Of Comedy, that I think are legitimately great. I can’t share your love for Step Brothers, but I can understand why you and plenty of others do love it—among Ferrell’s comedies, it’s one of the most genuinely go-for-broke dadaist. This would make for a fun (albeit very long) movie marathon—though maybe only if you mixed up the order. (Watching Pulp Fiction, Casino, Trainspotting, and Boogie Nights in consecutive order might give you a contact overdose.)
A.A. Dowd: Gwen tipped her hand a little noting that the kind/variety of films included on her list changes around the time she had kids, when suddenly she had less time to watch movies (at least those that don’t aim young). But there are plenty of picks scattered across the whole list that suggest an appreciation for family fare, from Disney animated classics to Babe and Galaxy Quest. (Whether she’s loved those films since they came out or had an appreciation for them drilled into her soul by repeat viewings, I can’t say.) This is, in general, a pretty eclectic list, finding room for big blockbusters (Star Wars, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), iconic comedies (The Birdcage, This Is Spinal Tap), and indie sensations (Sex, Lies & Videotape, Clerks). If there’s a uniting factor, I’d say that it’s many of the movies are actor-driven, and built around memorable star performances. She also clearly loves musicals of many different forms, from Oliver! to The Blues Brothers to La La Land; were the challenge to list a favorite film for every year before you were born, I have no doubt that MGM would be well-represented.
Sean O’Neal: Given how steeped in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers she is, I’d say you’re probably right. I’m also not surprised to find that Gwen—a former employee of the Chicago History Museum—loves films set in and around this city, be it Risky Business, The Breakfast Club, the aforementioned Blues Brothers, or Chicago (a locally set musical—the ideal Gwen movie!). For me, I was most surprised by Gwen’s apparent love of political conspiracy thrillers, as seen in Three Days Of The Condor and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and by the inclusion of Point Break—a movie that seems as far from what I know about Gwen’s tastes as possible. What do you think’s going on there?
A.A. Dowd: Again, old-school Hollywood star power! Swayze and Keanu! The Brando and Jimmy Dean of their own age! Anyway, Point Break’s coolness transcends genre preference. Or maybe Gwen just knows some great, practically achieved action when sees it. (Note, also: Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the best parts of The Winter Soldier, and, uh, that scene in Dazed And Confused where Adam Goldberg gets beat up.)
A.A. Dowd: Like you, Sean, Erik loves comedy. In fact, by my count, only about four of the 32 movies listed are definitively not comedic—and come on, “I drink your milkshake” is pretty funny. But the sheer range of varieties confirms Erik as a student of the genre: There are affectionate parodies, mockumentaries, deadpan art-house comedies, animated comedies, crime comedies, ’90s special-effects blockbuster comedies, the aforementioned dramas in comedic drag, comedies about comedy, and even comedies about serial killers. (And no, I don’t mean Silence Of The Lambs, though that has its laughs, too.) Not to play armchair psychiatrist—and I don’t mean this disparagingly in the least—but Erik is also clearly pretty in touch with his inner child, given the starring roles granted to Pee Wee, the Muppets, and WALL-E. Oh, and if it’s massively quotable, it has a shot at Erik’s heart. “I’d buy that for a dollar!” “Very nice!” “Difficult difficult lemon difficult.” Etc.
Sean O’Neal: What do you find more surprising: Erik’s apparent spurning of the entire Judd Apatow oeuvre, or the fact that there’s only one Wes Anderson movie on this list? Also, do you agree with my constant, friendly harping on him that he should just fucking have kids already?
A.A. Dowd: I’m not getting into the kid discussion, because I’ve been on the receiving end of that “encouragement” myself, but let’s just say that there’s no way he can recreate Weezer’s “Keep Fishin’” video on Halloween without some sharply-dressed miniature Eriks to play the rest of the band. As for the more surprising snub, it’s Anderson, obviously. Though it makes some sense: In Erik’s heart, as on our big comedy list, the Tenenbaum kids just can’t quite compete with the Camp Firewood gang. (Side note: Rushmore technically opened in 1998, but as it was only in a few theaters for awards qualification, I’ll let it slide.)
A.A. Dowd: Another Point Break fan! That vintage Bigelow joint doesn’t stand out quite as much on this list, given the periodic appearance of action movies—though, to be fair, most of the slam-bang stuff here has a sci-fi or comic-book component. Danette’s picks are a fascinating, unpredictable mix of escapist franchise films and one-of-a-kind passion picks like Never Let Me Go, Persepolis, and the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It. A lot of perceptive films about women, from Muriel’s Wedding to Thirteen to Frances Ha, made the cut. What I dig most is the lack of canonized, consensus favorites: You could stack this list up with everyone else’s on staff and you’d probably get only a few matches.
Sean O’Neal: Yeah, I have to admit, I didn’t see Danette’s love of action films coming, nor did I expect what appears to be her secret appreciation for Bruce Willis movies (though oddly enough, not the acknowledged classics like Die Hard or 12 Monkeys). There’s also a surprise championing of what I remember snottily dismissing during my video store days as “quasi-prestige” fare like The Last King Of Scotland and Thank You For Smoking, movies that were critically acclaimed but ultimately seemed difficult for anyone to truly love. I agree with you: By and large, Danette’s list seems the most personal—almost defiantly so. Looking at hers compared to everyone else’s, does it make it seem like some of us might be allowing that consensus canonization to influence our choices?
A.A. Dowd: I think it’s kind of inevitable, honestly. Universal acclaim helps assure, for starters, that we even see these movies; the fact that they’ve been canonized means that you’re going to read about them or hear about them in the first place. Beyond that, though, when a film has reached a kind of consensus praise or popularity, it validates your own opinions. “I knew I loved Pulp Fiction, but the fact that so many other people love it makes me feel more confident in that love.” (P.S. I also love Pulp Fiction.) The flip side of that it that it can put you on the defensive against a movie that doesn’t quite click for you—or worse, send you scrambling away from the obvious masterpiece of a year, towards something that makes you feel more like an individual for picking it. I’m sure plenty could accuse me of doing that with my own list. They probably wouldn’t be 100-percent off base.
Sean O’Neal: Oh, how the tables have turned—slowly, languorously, in a heart-wrenching, two-and-half-hour reflection on what it really means to be a table. I’m obviously not surprised that your list would reveal my own to be the relatively safe, pedestrian choices they are, or make me feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of world cinema. It’s why you’re our film editor, and I’m the guy who asks you to do an article based on a trending meme. I also know how much you value films that directly address the human condition, so Wings Of Desire, Close-Up, A Brighter Summer Day, Yi Yi, Breaking The Waves, Certified Copy, etc.—all of these make sense to me.
Building off your comments, though, I actually am curious how much you might have deliberated over allowing just enough crowd-pleasers like Dazed And Confused and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, as well as on choosing movies that didn’t fall too closely in line with conventional critical wisdom. (To name just one example: Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, a meandering, largely dialogue-free film that is, at times, literally about watching tumbleweeds blow. I know you like movies where people stare meaningfully at things—and 2002 wasn’t exactly a landmark year—but it does strike me as an attempt to differentiate yourself from more “accepted” critical favorites like Adaptation, About Schmidt, The Pianist, Gangs Of New York, etc. Am I close to the mark there?)
Also, boy oh boy, this list is suffused with grief: The Sweet Hereafter, Tokyo Sonata, Amour, A Separation, 45 Years, Manchester By The Sea, and so on. Were you always drawn to films about the inescapable cruelties of life and how everything we love will one day leave us, or was it seeing Toy Story at age 11 that did it?
A.A. Dowd: Now that you mention it: Holy hell, there are a lot of depressing movies on this list. I don’t fancy myself the type of person who walks around with a storm cloud hanging over his head, but these picks really tell a different story, don’t they? In truth, I think I gravitate towards really heavy movies because they loosen some emotional valves: As someone not especially prone to fireworks in his day-to-day life, I always feel powerless and a little awed by something that can reduce me to a puddle of feeling. (Pixar—who indeed provided the training wheels for my descent into soul-crushing cinema—really nailed it with Inside Out: Sadness should be respected and nourished, not ignored.) So, yeah, it’s fair to say I like to be bummed out by movies.
As for the taste calibration, I’m probably a little guilty of that, sure. Not so much with the crowdpleasers. Quite to the contrary, their presence on the list ahead of “hipper” or more highbrow options is just a testament to how damn much I like those movies, to the extent that denying them the title would just be blatantly dishonest. But when it comes to a year like 2002, I’m probably doing a little mental arithmetic, as opposed to shooting from the hip (though of your acclaimed alternatives, only Adaptation would really have a shot).
What it comes down to, I think, is that I’m rarely just thinking of my own preferences when putting together one of these lists. Silly as it sounds, I do consider a service element—the idea that, as someone who makes a living writing about movies, a list is an opportunity to champion something I think deserves more love or attention. Maybe I’m giving up the game by admitting as much, but when it comes to a year like 2002, where no film dominates my affections over all the rest, I will privilege the one that might “benefit,” so to speak, from some cheerleading. Maybe that principle shouldn’t influence something as inherently fun and subjective as just naming your favorite movies from every year since you were born. But “favorite” and “best” long since blurred in my mind, anyway.
Also, Gerry rules.