It has been my custom to assemble an ordered list of my favorite movies of the preceding year, sometime close to and prior to the Academy Awards ceremony honoring movies released the previous year, for every year since 1974. These lists are occasionally updated as I see more movies from past years. Before 1988 these movies were viewed primarily in repertory movie theaters; since then they have primarily been viewed while lying in bed or on a couch somewhere. I've never placed a newly discovered movie into an existing list in the first or second position.
A friend recently viewed for the first time the movie that is second on my 1993 list*, and that got me to thinking that it might be worthwhile to take a look back to say 10, 20, or 30 years ago to see what movies I'd placed second in those years, and to see if I still regard them less highly than the movies I placed first, and more highly than everything else that followed them.
In 1975, I was still in high school so I lived in Los Angeles. I didn't see as many movies as I would have liked, but I did see most of the high profile--and not a few cult--movies. I first saw the movie that would win the Best Picture Academy Award, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, at one of the old movie palaces on Hollywood Blvd. The occasion was an English class field trip. We'd read the book. We'd not read Barry Lyndon, but that is the adaptation I find I had put into the number two slot that year. It is there primarily because Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Dr. Strangelove) directed it and because it is brilliantly photographed. Its leads, Ryan O'Neal and Marisa Berenson, were actors for whom I had little regard and, yet, I wasn't put off by their presence. My favorite movie released in 1975 was (and is) Steven Spielberg's Jaws. I thought that movie an improvement on the book and, despite a few problems of believability once the shark surfaces, there are few moments in movie history more memorable than Roy Scheider's reaction shot when it does, and there is nothing that ever caused me to jump more in my seat than a certain surprise earlier on. Were I to reassemble this list now I'd probably not place Barry Lyndon second. I have Monty Python and the Holy Grail fifth, and while I know why (I was an avid reader of the Arthurian Legends; it peters out at the end; I didn't know then that they were going to move on to Christianity and then to the big question, etc.), I also know that today I'd rather watch it for the 100th time than Barry Lyndon, Nashville, and/or Dersu Uzala for the 5th (or is it the 10th?) time.
In 1985, I was living in San Francisco and working as a programmer at an insurance agency. I saw so many movies in theaters during the years in which VCRs first came into homes that I doubt I made any changes to this list once I'd assembled it. It includes three movies set in Japan: Paul Scrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Akira Kurosawa's Ran, and Kon Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters (released in 1983, but not shown where I was in a position to view it until 1985.) It includes three movies set in South America: John Boorman's The Emerald Forest, Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Luis Puenzo's The Official Story. It includes a movie set in India (Satyajit Ray's The Home and the World) and the Best Picture Academy Award winner, a movie about a woman who, following a preface, in voice-over, says "You see, I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills...". None of these movies are in the top two positions on my list. The movie at the top of my list is set in Philadelphia and then set approximately 80 miles west off the Lancaster Pike in a place that might be described as "going back in time" (without the aid of a DeLorean) and that brings me, at long last, to the second movie on my list. Back to the Future is one of those movies about which criticism is largely superfluous. It's fun and it never drags. Would I rate it higher than Witness now? No, I don't think I would and that may be because, at the end of the day, John Book (Harrison Ford) goes back to Philadelphia while Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) goes on to two far less entertaining sequels.
In 1995, I was living in Moss Beach, working at cable sales offices all over the Bay Area, and, one Saturday in August, for reasons I don't remember, I was in Berkeley with a bedeviling sinus headache and six or so hours to fill. I filled those hours in two separate theaters in the square mile in which I undoubtedly saw the majority of the movies I'd seen during the preceding 20 years. I began by seeing Clueless. It made my list. Then, The Usual Suspects. That movie tops the 1995 list and will always top the 1995 list. I still can't think about this movie and not love everyone responsible for its having come into existence. It is the only movie for which I have a bound copy of the screenplay. I've listened to the director (Bryan Singer)-writer (Christopher McQuarrie) DVD commentary multiple times. Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze. So, as I was saying, the other movie I saw that day was Clueless, and I did pick up on the fact that it's a free adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. Before 1995 ended there would be two straight adaptations of Jane Austen novels in theaters: Emma Thompson's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (directed by Ang Lee) and the BBC television version of Persuasion, which got a theatrical release in the United States. It is the latter that occupies the second spot on my list. Why? Perhaps it's because it's a beautifully-told story of thwarted love in which the principals, about whom there is nothing extraordinary, unexpectedly meet again and this time finally, after much of the same societal pressures are applied, overcome. Regardless, after reviewing the list I'd leave it second. There is an insert at the end that is easily recognizable as being from The Bounty. That I'd take out. Mel Gibson's Braveheart won the Best Picture Academy Award for 1995 and made my list (10 movies before 1979 and 20 thereafter), but only because of its battle scenes. I thought Rob Roy, also released in 1995, a much better movie.
In less than a week the peers will assemble to hand out statues to people who helped make movies that were released in 2005. I'll be rooting, probably in vain, for Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale, to be presented with the Original Screenplay Academy Award. In 1975, I was rooting for many nominees, some of whom won. By 1985, I was rooting for the Witness film editor, Thom Noble. He won. In 1995, I was rooting for a Best Supporting Actor nominee named Kevin Spacey. He won. One of the most annoying nomination omissions in Academy Awards history was the omission of my second favorite 1993 movie* in the Original Screenplay category.
I guess I should go work on my 2005 list.
*Groundhog Day was my second favorite movie of 1993.
The frying pan versus the fire
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