– By JD Westfall –
Originally this series of articles was intended to be about the best movies of my lifetime, give or take, and so that meant from about 1990. The focus has changed to the best modern movies, but still that date pretty much stands … and so it stands.
Since that year there have been plenty of amazing films released, alongside lots of mediocre and downright awful ones (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman). So today, we’ll begin a series of articles designed to bring you only the finest of films from the past 26 or so years.
Some things for you to expect:
- You will not agree with all the choices. Feel free to air any disagreements you have in the comments.
- Some of these you will have already seen, others you’ll have heard of but never seen, and some you’ll have never heard of at all.
- This list is not ethnocentric. Meaning there will be several films that were made in other countries and in which the cast speaks another language. If you happen to avoid these films, well, you’ll get through the list more quickly.
- Several of your favorite movies will likely not appear. There’s limited space and we’re after variety. Others will not appear because I have a personal grudge against them and didn’t want to waste the necessary time watching/researching/constructing arguments. So, no Titanic or The Matrix, no Harry Potter movies, Fargo or Jerry Maguire, and especially no Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s begin, shall we?
- Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder
Despite some very successful films released in the 1980s (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and, of course, Batman) Tim Burton didn’t really hit his stride until the 1990s. His first release of the decade was Edward Scissorhands, a sweet romantic comedy disguised as a Gothic horror film. The premise is quite strange: an aging scientist has given life to a nearly human creation, but dies before he can give him the final piece, his hands. This will likely raise several questions (the first being, why in the name of all that is holy would you choose to put scissors on your creation’s wrists??)
After being freed from the scientist’s castle lair, he is taken down to a nearby suburb (what kind of castle is built next to a…. never mind) where he’s raised and provided for by an Avon lady, and he begins to quickly fall in love with the woman’s daughter.
The few nagging questions one might have are easily forgotten, though, as you get wrapped up in the undeniably sweet story that’s spun in the film.
- Midnight in Paris (2011)
Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams
Despite borderline illegal and definitely questionable choices later on in life, Woody Allen is known as one of cinema’s most beloved figures, having written and directed many of film’s greatest comedies. However, most of his success was confined to the 1960s-1980s, only really having had one standout film since then (2005’s Match Point). That suddenly changed with the release of 2011’s Midnight in Paris. According to Allen, the film began with the idea for the poster (!) and title, and the story only came later.
It follows Owen Wilson’s character, who is visiting Paris in the modern day with his fiancée, when for an unexplained reason he finds himself walking in Paris in 1927. As he wanders about he comes face to face with some of history’s greatest artists and writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway. (He also has a few brief chats with Luis Buñuel for any of you film buffs.) During all this he realizes he’s beginning to fall in love with a French girl from the era, leading him to question his impending marriage to McAdams.
The film was a resounding success, and gave Allen his first Oscar (for screenwriting, though he also received a nomination for Best Director) since 1977’s Annie Hall.
- The Bothersome Man (2006)
Directed by: Jens Lien
Starring: Trond Fausa, Petronella Barker
Surrealism is one of those art forms that lends itself perfectly to film. Mind-bending imagery combined with a cohesive plot is a beautiful combination, and few films in recent memory have provided these things as well as The Bothersome Man. Filmed in Norway, it begins starkly. A man traveling on a bus alone is dropped off at a gas station, where he is whisked away to a seeming utopia where no one is ever sad, but no one seems particularly happy, either (as evidenced by the creepy, creepy kissing scene). He quickly and easily settles in, getting himself a job and a home, but over time gets more and more uncomfortable with the environment. Eventually he starts asking questions, which the people surrounding him don’t seem to like. This begins a snowball reaction that leads us all the way to the film’s conclusion, and the film ends as suddenly as it began.
- Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
Directed by: Paul Justman
Starring: Joe Hunter, Jack Ashford
The first documentary we’ll cover on this list, it tells the moving story of the Funk Brothers. Who are they? Most of you have never heard of them, but you’ve heard them. They were the house band for the Motown record label from 1954 to 1972, and in that time they played on more #1 records than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined.
This documentary sets out to interview all the surviving members (which is most of them, fortunately) to lay out their entire history. How they were found, how they meshed with one another, how they overcame the racial tension plaguing the nation, and how they were finally and ignominiously sacked. Mixed in with interview footage and reenactments is newly filmed footage of the Funk Brothers in concert, backing a selection of singers covering old Motown tunes – Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins and Joan Osbourne, among others.
- Star Trek reboot (2009-)
Directed by: JJ Abrams, Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto
By 2005, the long-running and venerable Star Trek series, produced continuously since 1979, seemed to be at its end with the ill-received Enterprise series. But of course, after 26 years of nonstop production, it couldn’t be left dead forever right?
Right. The powers that be saw fit to finally put into production an idea that had been kicking around since the days of Star Trek V, that of showing us young Kirk and Spock first meeting one another. While this idea may sound fraught with peril (hmmm, prequels showing us origins of famous and beloved characters … has that ever gone badly?) they actually managed to pull it off admirably. JJ Abrams was hired to helm this new installment, and brought the source material roaring to life by blending the classic characters and tropes with a more modern filmmaking style.
While some have criticized the over-reliance on action (myself included) and further criticized the lazy Into Darkness sequel, the results have for the most part been excellent. A strong cast that nails their roles every time is the key to the success, which was proven when JJ Abrams left (in order to go do a remake of A New Hope and have the nerve to call it “a sequel” with an “original screenplay”) and was replaced by Justin Lin for the third installment, Star Trek Beyond.
- The Artist (2011)
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo
The Academy Awards tend to get criticized for their lack of variety. The winners tend to be American films about American men doing American things. America, America. (For examples of this, see Dances With Wolves, A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump, and other films you will definitely not find on this list)
So if in 2011 someone had told you that the next Best Picture winner would be a black & white silent French film, you would never have believed it. Astonishingly, though, that exact thing happened.
The Artist told a story that may sound rather similar to the classic Singin’ in the Rain. An actor and aspiring actress begin a relationship during the time when the film industry is trying to adapt to the advent of talkies rather than silent films. However, while the basic premise is the same, the story quickly comes into its own. The two drift apart as she accepts the change to talkies while he blindly moves forward with the same thing he’s always done – silent films. He defends it as being an artistic choice, when of course it’s little more than fear of change on his part.
The film proved to be a rousing success, not only winning the Best Picture Oscar, but also garnering awards for its director, lead actor, screenplay, musical score and costume design, in addition to five more nominations. It was also an enormous commercial success, taking in over $133 million on a small $15 million budget.
- Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
Directed by: Aditya Chopra
Starring: Kajol, Shah Rukh Khan
I don’t know you, so therefore I don’t know how you feel about Bollywood. Even if you despise it, no article on film from 1990 onward can be complete without at least a passing mention of this Indian gem. Released to massive success in 1995, it achieved a Guinness World Record for its theatrical run. It ran continuously from October 20, 1995 until February 19, 2015, a total of 1,009 weeks! After only a brief time out of theaters, popular demand brought it back again, and it continues to show at the Minerva theater.
The plot is rather simplistic – young woman meets young man and falls in love, but her family has other plans for her. Typical Bollywood. But what elevates this beyond soap opera territory is just … I don’t know, charm! There are few films wherein, in my defense of them, I’m left rather speechless. I just can’t find the rights word to adequately describe what makes this one so good. So I’ll leave it at that. Charm. Watch the film just once, and you’ll immediately understand why Shah Rukh Khan is India’s top actor.
- Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-)
Directed by: Joss Whedon, Jon Favreau, others
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr
After the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men movie and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film, many proclaimed it was a new superhero movie revolution. And it would be hard to argue with that assessment after the massive influx of superhero films that immediately followed. However, after time one needs to shake up the formula to keep things fresh. In walks Marvel, which launched a novel idea. A cinematic universe equivalent to the one their comics enjoyed, wherein characters could freely move from one film to the next, regardless who the lead character was.
This universe got off to a powerful start with 2008’s Iron Man, which defied all expectations and revitalized the career of Robert Downey Jr (who has now appeared in four different billion dollar films, thanks to the franchise) and received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Over time this universe was built by giving films to the Incredible Hulk, Captain America and Thor (and using Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury to connect them all) until it was finally time for the biggest gamble. Bringing them all together in a massively budgeted film helmed by nerd lord Joss Whedon, whose most successful film to date was Serenity (which incidentally failed at the box office). The gamble paid off as The Avengers proved to be the third biggest film of all time, and cemented Marvel as the new leaders of superhero film.
Of course, this success immediately brought on countless ill-prepared and shameless attempts at cinematic universes, as now we’re getting them for Ghostbusters, Universal monsters, and of course Marvel contemporaries DC, who have thus far provided more entertainment through their incompetence at filmmaking rather than through their films.
(“I know!” shouted one executive: “We’ll get America’s worst director to make a moody Superman movie that stars America’s worst actor as Batman!!” “Brilliant!” shouted his cohorts)
- The Wrong Trousers (1993)
Directed by: Nick Park
Starring: Peter Sallis
Claymation may not be the standard animation technique around the world, but by golly can it work wonders when helmed by people who know what they’re doing. Enter Aardman Animations, easily one of the most reliably great animation companies in the world today. In 1989 they introduced us to an eccentric inventor Wallace and his exceptionally intelligent (and adorable) dog Gromit in a 30-minute short entitled A Grand Day Out. After several years spent on other projects, they finally returned to the characters with The Wrong Trousers, which not only lived up to the standards set by its predecessor, it exceeded them.
The plot makes little sense, but that’s a great element of the charm. Wallace acquires a pair of robotic legs (?) to send Gromit off with on walks. Simultaneously he rents out his spare bedroom to a penguin (??) named Feathers McGraw, who is later revealed to be a jewel thief (???). Feathers soon discovers how to use the trousers to incriminate Wallace in the crimes, which will allow himself to get away scot free.
If that sounds like an awful film, trust me it isn’t. Plus the run time is barely over 30 minutes, so I assure you: The Wrong Trousers is absolutely worth your time.
- Phoenix (2014)
Directed by: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld
A German film set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Phoenix follows a woman named Nelly Lenz who is released from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Lenz has suffered severe damage to her facial structure following a bullet wound, and upon her release attempts reconstructive surgery to restore her appearance. It’s mostly successful, allowing at least close friends to recognize her, albeit with a little difficulty.
However, as she stays with a friend to recuperate and starts to investigate whether her husband is still alive, she learns he may have been the very one who got her sent to Auschwitz in the first place. She’s reluctant to believe this and continues her search regardless.
She eventually finds her husband again, but he doesn’t recognize her. Rather, he asks for her help to pull off a scam. She agrees, but begins using this opportunity to find out the truth. Was he responsible for her imprisonment or not?
If you like the film noirs of old, this film is for you. Nina Hoss puts in a powerful and memorable performance, and is ably supported both by the rest of the cast and the direction by Petzold.
That brings us to the end of our first summary of the 100 greatest films of our lifetime. If you disagreed with any of the choices or have any other opinions you’d like to share, please head to the comments section below. And stay tuned for films 90-81, coming soon!
JD became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado