This is a work in progress: a running list of my favorite films by year.
Organizing any film list is a challenge. Should I catalog films by year, like most people? If so, how do I determine the release date? By its first screening anywhere in the world? By the first film festival screening? By the American commercial release date? What if it’s made available online before it reaches theatres?
For simplicity’s sake, I now list 1980-2012 movies by the year of the film’s first showings as reported by IMDB (the Internet Movie Database).
This puts my lists at odds with most other American film critics, who treat a film as if it is “real” when it reaches New York or L.A.
It means that my favorite moviegoing experience of 2011 — Certified Copy — is now listed as my #1 film of 2010 because the completed film was first presented to audiences in 2010.
No doubt I still have some corrections to make, so if you see that I’ve mistakenly repeated a title or categorized in the wrong place, please let me know.
Films released before 1980 are grouped by decade. That’s because I have only recently started making concerted efforts to catch up on movies that I missed during childhood or that were released before I was born.
Before you peruse the lists, permit me to explain a little bit about what it actually represents.
WHAT THE LIST MEANS: Q&A
What makes you think you’re an expert, Overstreet?
I don’t! I explore movies and I study them, but I’m not a scholar.
Then why write reviews? Why make long lists like these?
For 20 years I’ve been writing reviews. Writing reviews helps think through what I’ve seen.
Seeing a film for the first time is like meeting a stranger for the first time. I don’t want to just meet works of art. I want to get to know them. Sometimes they have little to say to me, or they’re mean, or they’re superficial, or they want to sell me something. Sometimes they turn out to be marvelous company, and I end up learning from them and revisiting them often. I make lists as a way of keeping track of which movies have been most rewarding for me, and which I’d most like to spend time revisiting.
You know the word “ruminate”? If so, you probably know where that word comes from. When animals “ruminate,” they’re chewing their meal again. I write about movies and discuss them in order to get more out of the experience, to glean rewards, to savor. I started LookingCloser.org not so I would have a platform or a pulpit, but because I wanted to find others who were interested in discussing cinema as “incarnation” — the embodying of truth through the imagination. I’m still learning a lot from that discussion, and I’ve only scratched the surface of it.
Do these lists represent what you would call “the best movies”?
When film critics announce that they’ve decided “the best films of the year,” I’m immediately distrustful. I’ve never met an individual who has that kind of authority. It’s better to be humble about it. Why not call them “favorites”?
Lists are personal things. Our cinematic preferences say as much about our personalities, interests, aversions, and questions as they do about the films themselves. We’re all distinct individuals and, to complicate matters further, we’re all changing. So what we value, appreciate, and understand is going to change and grow as we do.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a critic say, “Well, it wasn’t a perfect movie.” Of course it wasn’t! There are no perfect movies. Movies are imperfect because they’re made by imperfect people. It’s not very worthwhile to declare whether a film is imperfect or not. It is worthwhile, however, to talk about what impressed us, what confused us, what intrigued us. Still, our relationship with any work of art will always be incomplete, unique, and subject to change.
Thus, whether we’re rating movies with stars or points or thumbs, there is no strict unit of measure that can tell us the value of a work of art. We can talk about the virtues and faults of Schindler’s List or The Blair Witch Project, but any kind of “grade” or “point system” is severely insufficient and misleading.
Rating movies is like rating food: Is a ham better than a strawberry? How can you compare the two?
A movie, like any work of art, is — as my high school English teacher used to say — both a Thing and a Way. As a Thing, its craftsmanship can be examined, and we can discuss the quality of acting, soundtrack, editing, cinematography, composition, etc. As a Way, it is an invitation to an experience, and each traveler will find that movie inspiring different kinds of memories, challenges, questions, ideas, and lessons.
So in these lists, I have no authority to say which films are the “best.” Nor do I judge movies based on whether I “liked” them. I’m taking into account whether the Thing is excellent and worthy of praise, and I’m also taking into account what I have experienced on the Way of the movie.
But isn’t it all subjective, this business of assessing what is excellent?
Some questions about movies are somewhat subjective:
- Was a director’s decision to shoot in black and white a good one?
- Should the voice-over narration have been eliminated?
- Was a performance too understated, or too flamboyant?
- Is the movie boring, or is it asking us to pay close attention?
- Was the non-chronological storytelling confusing or revealing?
- Must a movie have a clear and compelling narrative, or can movies work in other ways like impressionist paintings or poetry?
These are matters of opinion.
Because of that subjectivity, we should listen to each other’s opinions and preferences with respect, and offer our own with some humility.
But it would be wrong to say that there is no such thing as excellence.
Some aspects of film reviewing are far less subjective. For example, if the sound is poorly mixed, if the editing is sloppy… if there is evidence of laziness or thoughtlessness… or if we observe unethical treatment of actors, animals, or audiences… these are not very subjective matters. Most people know the difference between an actor and somebody who just speaks lines into a camera.
If somebody thinks that excellence is always just a matter of opinion, I’d like to give them some choices: Would they like their open-heart surgery performed by an accomplished surgeon or a 12-year-old who knows how to play the game of Operation? Would they like to hear a piano concerto performed by a famous pianist or by someone who’s had one piano lesson? I suspect that person’s choice would demonstrate that they do believe in objective measures of excellence.
Your lists, like a lot of critics’ lists, don’t look anything like the box office reports. Are you saying you know better than the moviegoing public?
I’ll say this:
Most people will agree that the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are “great” national parks, but a lot of people would rather go to an amusement park than a National Park. The most popular restaurants are obviously not the establishments that serve the greatest meals. People tend to choose donuts over spinach salad. Appreciating great art is a matter of growing up. When we’re children, we dislike a lot of the food and drink that we learn to appreciate and favor later. I hated both coffee and asparagus when I was a kid. But I learned, gradually, that the adults weren’t just trying to trick me. Coffee and asparagus are wonderful things. When I look at what’s popular at the box office, I think it shows us that we are a people of childish interests. Growing up a little would be good for us.
Most people think critics are crazy when they talk about “the great films.” That’s because most people don’t have the patience to discover the greatest rewards that movies have to offer. They want instant, familiar gratification. Americans tend to treat movies like junk food, and that’s why we’re now getting our movies out of Redbox vending machines instead of renting them from a neighborhood store, like the one where I used to work and have long conversations with neighbors and introduce them to challenging new filmmakers.
Recognizing greatness takes time, even for the most thoughtful moviegoers. Most critics will agree that Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, and Andrei Rublev are essential works of cinema, but the greatness of those masterpieces has been recognized over time, through countless viewings and discussions, through examinations under many different critical lenses. Blade Runner was not well-regarded when it first opened; now it’s often called a science fiction masterpiece. 2001: A Space Odyssey was not even nominated for Best Picture, but now it’s viewed as one of the crowning achievements of cinema. A movie’s greatness may go unrecognized by a casual moviegoer who goes to the movies on Friday night with certain expectations, desiring something easy and familiar, and equating “greatness” with “fun” or positive emotions.
Most people wouldn’t sit through Tokyo Story, or Yi-Yi, or Certified Copy, or Into Great Silence, or many of the films that have become my favorites over time. But then, when I was younger, I wouldn’t have appreciated those films either.
Having said all of that, I do like a good candy bar now and then. Sometimes I get cravings for an Almond Joy or M&Ms with pretzels. I’m also fond of Die Hard, Fletch, and Spider-man 2. These movies aren’t bad. But we can turn them into damaging influences if we make a steady diet of them, or fail to think about what they and how they are made.
Okay, enough about subjectivity and excellence. How does your rating system work?
I offer these lists and classifications as tentative summaries of personal experience. Nothing more. They’re expressions of enthusiasm and gratitude to some artists, and expressions of respectful acknowledgement (but not enthusiasm) for others. They reflect a combination of the excellence I see in each Thing, and the experience I had on the path of each Way. Thus, my choices say as much or more about me as they do about the films in question.
I don’t attach “ratings” to reviews, though, because I’d rather have people read my review to get a sense of my experience. Think about it: If I served you a delicious strawberry on Monday, and a Thanksgiving feast on Tuesday, and then asked you to rate them on a scale of 1-5, what would you do if they were both excellent? Five stars for both of them? Are you saying a good strawberry is equal to a good Thanksgiving dinner? It doesn’t make sense.
So, these aren’t ratings. They’re recommendations! Right?
No. I might love a movie for how it changed my life, and still be careful to avoid recommending it to certain people based on what’s in it. And here I go with another food metaphor: I may enjoy a well-made peanut butter sandwich, but I have friends who will get sick if I serve them peanut butter.
Recommendations are for individuals. Recommending a movie to a crowd is like a pair of shoes to a crowd of people. What is useful and comfortable for some people could be harmful for others.
Are the lists finished?
No. I’m changing, so the lists will change too. I revise them often.
I just noticed that you listed one movie twice. And you overlooked one of my favorites. What do I do?
Email me. Feel free to point out errors or omissions. If you notice that a film is not listed among my favorites or among the titles I have not seen, that means I’ve overlooked it or I saw it and didn’t care for it.
COLOR-CODED GUIDE TO THE LISTS
The lists are numbered and color-coded.
The numbers list my Top 25 of each year, in an approximate order of my gratitude for the experience.
The colors are a general expression of how grateful I am, how much I appreciate and value them. (If I were to offer a list of my all-time favorite movies, I’d be drawing from the red-letter “treasures.” Some years didn’t produce anything I’d consider “treasure.”)
Films that have profoundly inspired, influenced, and affected me. I want all of them in my personal collection for future reference. Why are they red? They’re like Moses’ burning bush, always blazing, never consumed, and they’ve given me close encounters with something sacred.
Films I will probably never tire of revisiting, studying, sharing, and discussing. Why are they purple? Among films, I consider them royalty.
Films worth seeing more than once, studying, sharing, and discussing. Why are they blue? To a rain-soaked Seattle-dweller like myself, blue is a reason to celebrate.
- DECENT / NOTEWORTHY:
Films worth seeing once, maybe twice, due to their strong points. Why are they grey? They may be enjoyable while they’re playing, but they didn’t make a strong, lasting impression.
- UNSEEN or UNRATABLE:
Films I haven’t seen, or else I can’t remember what I thought of them… but they’ve been recommended to me by friends or reputable critics. If the right opportunity comes along, I’ll check them out. Why are they green? I look at them as “the grass on the other side of the fence.” Or, perhaps, an undiscovered pasture where I can graze in future days.
- * MOVIES MARKED WITH ASTERISKS:
Those are those that received either a festival-only release or an extremely limited release during their year. Many of these films I didn’t see until after the year of their release, and I had to go back and revise that year’s list.
(This list is under construction, and won’t be rated in numerical order until January 2013.)
- 2012 Treasures: n/a
- 2012 Favorites: Moonrise Kingdom, Brave, Miss Bala
- 2012 Achievements: Cabin in the Woods (review), Blue Like Jazz (review), The Avengers, Beasts of the Southern Wild
- 2012 Decent / Noteworthy Films: John Carter (review), The Hunger Games (review), Camilla Dickinson (review)
- 2012 Films I Probably Wouldn’t Bother to See Twice: Casa de Mi Padre, Damsels in Distress
- 2012 Films During Which I Checked My Watch and Glanced at Exit Signs: n/a
- 2012 Films That Earn a Strong Objection: n/a
- DISCOVERIES (films I saw in 2012 that were released in earlier years): The Kid With a Bike, Pina, A Separation, Tuesday After Christmas, Film Socialisme, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey