Happy Birthday to Me: A Film For Every Year I’ve Been Alive

I turn thirty-eight years old today. Because film has had such an important place in my life, I decided to share 38 movies, one for each year since I was born, that are not necessarily my favorites but have a important place in my life. Hope you enjoy.

Modern Romance (1981, dir. Albert Brooks)
This wasn’t a film I watched as a kid; I didn’t even see it until I was in my thirties. However, it has become one of those that gets deeper the more times I watch it. My favorite aspect of Modern Romance is the lack of sugarcoating adult relationships; Brooks isn’t afraid to show his ugliness in terms of selfishness and codependency. The female protagonist is just as a terrible, allowing Brooks’ manic adult child to manipulate and coerce. The punchline of the whole film is the endnotes which reveal that these people become stuck in a toxic cycle never seeming to be able to break from this horrible relationship. Modern Romance, for me, is a warning about what kind of a partner to never become. However, it is incredibly funny stuff. More in my review here.

The King of Comedy (1982, dir. Martin Scorsese)
When I was a kid, I would use a tape cassette recorder to make fake shows with my siblings, and we’d staple together paper into booklets to fashion magazines. So when I see a figure like Rupert Pupkin pop up on the screen, it makes me a little uncomfortable seeing what happens when you don’t transition fantasy into a creative drive and instead it becomes delusion. This film was poorly received at the time of its release, but now it resonates with such a pointed commentary on our society’s uneasy relationship with fame. In the last few years, it has begun to receive the acclaim it deserved

A Christmas Story (1983, dir. Bob Clark)
A Christmas Story has been overplayed to the point that it could be something I hate. However, I have to remind myself of a time before a Broadway musical and a 24 hour TBS marathon. I remember the first time I became aware of this film; it was during a trip to Gatlinburg, TN, in the Smokey Mountains. I was flipping through the channels in our hotel, and we came in a little after the start but ended up loving the whole thing. This was in the early 1990s, and that was around the time the film started getting noticed. Like the King of Comedy, A Christmas Story did poorly in its theatrical release but found an audience years later. There’s a god awful sequel that was straight to video in 1994 titled My Summer Story that is an excellent example of how bad it is when movie studios try to cash in on something way too late.

Dune (1984, dir. David Lynch)
This was my first exposure to David Lynch, who has gone on to be one of the most important creative influences in my life. The first version I saw of Dune was the “edited for television” one which has added material and is a two-night event. Critics and audiences are correct when they say Dune is a terrible film. It is a muddled and bloated film that took an unwieldy text and tried to make into the next Star Wars. Lynch will talk publicly about much he hated making this film, and that is pushed him back to making smaller, more personal movies. However, one of the reasons I do hold it in a particular place is that Lynch met Kyle MacLachlan who would go onto to be his muse in Twin Peaks.

Brazil (1985, dir. Terry Gilliam)
During college, this was one of my favorite films. I’d see pictures like Tim Bandits and the Monty Python movies before, but Brazil took those surreal comic sensibilities and paired them with a more dramatic tone. The film has been compared as 1984 as a comedy, but I think it’s much deeper than that. Brazil isn’t about an imagined future, its the present as seen through the eyes of a dreamer type. The worst aspects of reality are just as exaggerated as the protagonist’s positive view of his fantasies. Brazil was one of the first films where I figured out how to articulate why I prefer movies with endings that might traditionally be considered downbeat or bleak. I argue the place Sam Lowry finds himself at the end of the picture may be materially dark; he has figured out how to transcend what happens to him.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, dir. John Hughes)
I watched this movie a lot in the late 80s/early 90s, and it is still a picture I sit down and watch if I come across it while channel surfing. Matthew Broderick has never been better than in this film; every role since has just not measured up to what he did with John Hughes’ material. This was the first Hughes film I saw, and it presented such a distinct voice compared to other movies I’d seen as a kid at the time. In the years that have passed, I’ve grown to like different movies by that filmmaker more, with Planes, Trains, & Automobiles becoming my favorite. Ferris is still one of the best teen comedies ever made, unafraid to be silly and unrealistic, most definitely capturing a tone of youthfulness that Hughes manages to understand better than other directors of the time.

Raising Arizona (1987, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
Like many of the film above, this was another first, my first exposure to the wild, unique world of the Coen Brothers. Raising Arizona might be the perfect introduction to these creators’ work because it features one of their most prominent collaborators, John Goodman, and lays out their off-center sense of humor so well. Nicolas Cage starred in this picture the same year he exploded in Moonstruck, and this is before his acting style became a schtick he’s been playing into. Keeping up with him is Holly Hunter, an actress I think has been extremely underrated in the decades that have passed. This makes me want to do a Holly Hunter marathon now that I think about it…

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988, dir. Frank Oz)
I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched this film since I first picked it up off the shelf of my local library when I was a teenager. This is one of my favorite comedies ever made because it plays so well to the strengths of its actors. Michael Caine gets to be suave & charming while Steve Martin gets to be manic & silly while they are both hilarious. I also think it would be a crime to ignore how good Glenne Headley is as Janet Colgate, the mark both Caine and Martin are out to dupe. There are many instances of her upstaging the two and running away with the film, especially her final scene. This is a movie that I know isn’t perfect but genuinely close to my heart and always will be. More in my review here.

The ‘burbs (1989, dir. Joe Dante)
This is one of the most formative films of my childhood. Our family checked it out from the local video store, and it became a must-watch for us all. Tom Hanks is pre-Forrest Gump and doing comedy, a genre I wish he would return to. He’s able to play the everyman yet pulls beautiful comedic reactions out of what could be a bland performance. The supporting cast is a fabulous mish-mash of comedic and dramatic actors which is what helps the film walk the line of comedy horror and pull it off. I would not say I like that particular subgenre, but Joe Dante is one of the few filmmakers who can do justice to both the organic laughs that can come out of a scary moment but also keep the audience feeling creeped out. More in my review here.

Misery (1990, dir. Rob Reiner)
While I probably watched Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride more as a child, this is the movie I remember more fondly, which speaks to my darker sensibilities. This was probably my first full exposure to a Stephen King story, and it’s a great one to start with. The plot is pretty good, but it is Kathy Bates’ performance as Annie Wilkes, the obsessed fan of James Caan’s Paul Sheldon, a Stephen King stand-in. The setting is another element I’ve always loved, a snowed-in house in the middle of the Colorado Rockies. Reiner does an excellent job of never delving into gratuitous gore but still making Annie’s torture feel painfully visceral. Paul Sheldon is brutalized over the course of the film, and we feel every beating and broken bone.

What About Bob (1991, dir. Frank Oz)
Here’s another fantastic Frank Oz film, another video store rental, and another formative childhood film experience. While some love Bill Murray via their nostalgia over Ghostbusters, I think back on What About Bob? with that level of fondness. It’s such a joyfully fun dark comedy where everything works out for the best, Dr. Leo Marvin won’t allow himself to see that. Richard Dreyfuss keeps up with Murray, and the two slowly switch types by the end of the picture. You have the wonderful Julie Hagerty, an underrated comic talent, showcase her talent for comedic reactions. The crux of the comedy comes from the escalation of Bob’s antics and the juxtaposed increasing mania of Leo while his family remains at baseline.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, dir. David Lynch)
I love the Twin Peaks television series, but this was a film that took me a few years to warm up to. Where once I saw it as the weakest part of the franchise, it’s now my favorite piece of Twin Peaks media. The film causes you to realize how little we got to see the acting spotlight on Sheryl Lee, that most of her onscreen time in the television series was merely as a face. Working with director Lynch, Lee brings out the story of Laura Palmer and turns her into one of the most real and complex characters of the late 20th century. Fire Walk With Me can exist apart from the preceding television series or the revival mini-series. It is the story of a young girl trapped in an abusive home and can resonate through every corner of our culture.

The Last Action Hero (1993, dir. John McTiernan)
Much maligned upon its release; The Last Action Hero has the potential to be a cult sleeper movie. It was metatextual before that was cool and is a savvy and pointed satire on the 1980s action film made by a director of many 80s action flicks. It also stars who is arguably the face of action movies in America. I cannot imagine Tom Cruise allowing his movie star image and persona to be lampooned the way Arnold Schwarzenegger goes for in this picture. What the film had going against it was Jurassic Park and the massive marketing that played it as an earnest action film. This is the final note on the machine Hollywood built in the decade of greed, and it has a lot of exciting things to say.

Star Trek: Generations (1994, dir. David Carson)
I was so excited about this movie when I was a dorky young teenager. I was never a massive Star Trek fan, but I understood the legacy and scope of the franchise, and that this was a monumental event. It is not a film that ages well at all, and when time and greater film education takes place, you revisit Generations and find it to be a weakly written and structured film. Yes, it is cool that we see Captains Kirk and Picard together, but it never realizes the scale it should for such a landmark story. The transition from The Next Generation to the film world sees it bringing a lot of the tv aesthetics onto the big screen. The result is something that feels woefully cheap and gives Data a cringe-worthy subplot that goes nowhere.

12 Monkeys (1995, dir. Terry Gilliam)
I didn’t see this film until I was in college and while I think it is great, discovering it led me to the original film La Jetee. Written and Directed by Chris Marker, La Jetee is a photo-roman, a film told without moving images but still photographs accompanied by voice-over and music. Watching La Jetee for the first time is a pretty remarkable experience; it’s not like anything you’ve likely seen before. I also think the story at the core of both La Jetee and 12 Monkeys is a relevant heartbreaking tragedy. I’m a big fan of time travel when it is done right, and I especially love time travel when it’s used to tell sad stories about the inevitability of mortality (see Dark on Netflix). The tragic lyrically circular structure of La Jetee is one of my favorites.

The Frighteners (1996, dir. Peter Jackson)
This film was the bridge between Peter Jackson’s indie work and his eventual plunge into Lord of the Rings. It’s not the most exceptional picture ever made, but it is the last leading feature film role for Michael J. Fox. What struck me the most when I saw this film was how it does a similar thing to Ghostbusters. It walks the line between comedy and horror very well, not quite as good as Ghostbusters, but still very watchable. Frighteners exists in that realm of movies I don’t actively seek out, but if I catch them on tv, I will sit through the whole thing. At its, core Frighteners is no different from most big-budget summer noisemakers that hit theaters every year. I would argue that there’s a bit more love that went into the production that helps it stand out from the rest.

Starship Troopers (1997, dir. Paul Verhoeven)
The award for film I have done a complete 360 on goes to Starship Troopers. For years, I couldn’t get it through my thick skull that the mindlessness of this Paul Verhoeven flick is an intentional move. This isn’t a sci-fi alien killfest it’s a satire on fascist propaganda. I love the analysis that sees Starship Troopers as a metatext, a film that exists in the universe of Starship Troopers made to feed impressionable kids pro-supremacist propaganda. The actors are all too old to be teenagers, just like the worst film productions. Now in the age of “fellow kids,” the movie plays like adults trying to brainwash the youth. I am so glad I gave this picture a second chance because it’s become one of my favorite pieces of satire that continues to be relevant today.

The Truman Show (1998, dir. Peter Weir)
One of the all-time greats that I saw as a high schooler, yet another video store rental. I think it’s safe to say that the themes and philosophy Peter Weir presents played a formative role in shaping my viewpoint as a young adult. I don’t know if Jim Carrey has ever been better than he is here, backed by a strong supporting cast, but he’s the star of the show. What The Truman Show gave to me was a different perspective on free will and was a meditation on the ideas how we choose our lives or can allow others to shape them. You would think as I got older, the themes of the picture might dull and lose their complexity, but Peter Weir is one of those directors who makes movies that are timeless at their cores.

The Sixth Sense (1999, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
This was the first film I saw in the theater as a college student. One weekend, it was suggested by someone (I think Andy, who had already seen it) that our group of friends should go. Being the horror neophyte I was, The Sixth Sense creeped me out. On subsequent viewings and with a better handle on the breadth of horror cinema I don’t see the film as scary anymore, but a very quiet and thoughtful picture about grief and guilt. It’s always a reminder of the M. Night that once was but is not there anymore. Between this and Unbreakable, you could get the sense that this filmmaker had a bright future ahead of him. However, then sometime around The Village or Lady in the Water, he lost his ever-loving mind, and it appears we will never get anything of this quality again.

George Washington (2000, dir. David Gordon Green)
The new millennium hit me with this stunning film, the first feature from David Gordon Green. Set in an economically depressed small town in North Carolina, we follow a group of children going through their lives. The main character is 12-year old Nasia who becomes interested in a shy, withdrawn boy named George. George wears a football helmet at all times due to his skull never fully hardening. A horrible tragedy strikes, and the children all spin in different directions with their reactions to the event. Green, who has gone in a very different path since this picture, teams with cinematographer Tim Orr to create a beautiful, poetic vision on the screen.

Amelie (2001, dir. Jean Pierre Jeunet)
I used to go to the movies by myself and would see certain films multiple times. I think I saw The Royal Tenenbaums and Donnie Darko three times each. There is no other film I’ve seen in theaters more than Amelie, at least four, maybe five, can’t remember exactly. As much as I love dark cinema and stories with sad endings, I could not help but get swept up in Jean Pierre Jeunet’s stylized Paris and his protagonist Amelie. Amelie is one of my favorite film characters, which reveals a deceptively complex persona as the story goes on. This isn’t a film about being mindlessly optimistic; it’s a film about genuinely feeling your emotions fully, imagining what the world can be without ignoring what it is, and making sure to protect the beautiful secret moments and things in your life from external cynicism. It is one of the first masterpieces of 21st-century cinema.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, dir. Phillip Noyce)
I don’t remember the context of why I went to see this in the theater, but it didn’t take long to get swept up in the compelling story. Three Aboriginal sisters are stolen away by the Australian government bureau over the native people. They are placed in an orphanage where they are to be trained as laborers and servants with the intent to be bred out of existence by intermarrying with the whites. When the opportunities arise, the girls escape and begin the over 2,000-mile journey through the middle of the inhospitable Outback to return home. This is based on an actual event, changing three native friends into sisters, and using those relationships to heighten the emotions of the story.

My Architect (2003, dir. Nathaniel Khan)
This documentary is profoundly intimate, telling the story of director Nathaniel Khan’s search to understand his deceased father, Louis Khan. Louis was a prominent American architect who focused on making buildings that were monolithic and didn’t hide the materials used in their construction. In his private life, Louis has a lover (Nathaniel’s mother) and a wife and family that knew of each other but never intersected until the funeral. Nathaniel travels across the globe, learning about his father through the context of his building, understanding that his painfully private patriarch told his story through these constructions. One of my favorite documentaries of all time that has a very good chance to get a cry out of you.

Birth (2004, dir. Jonathan Glazer)
I have been listening to the soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat for fifteen years now. Those opening bouncy notes and strings paint a picture of motion through a snowy winter landscape and eventually transition to a low creeping rumble of secrets about to explode. Nicole Kidman stars as a woman on the verge of a new marriage, her first husband dropping dead from a heart attack a decade earlier. A little boy shows up at her engagement party claiming to be her husband, reincarnated. Instead of turning this into an investigative story, Jonathan Glazer focuses on the remerging of grief in Kidman’s character and how she feels guilty about moving on with her life. A tiny film that flew under the radar but one of my favorites.

The Proposition (2005, dir. John Hillcoat)
This was one of the last films I watched in Nashville before I flew out to live in Bellingham, Washington for a year. It was a complete surprise; I tagged along with my roommate Ross who was going to see it with friends. What I found was an Australian western that merged the myths of the frontier present in American media with the hazy, dreamlike legends of the Aboriginal people. There is a profound sense of time moving in bursts and then slowing to a lazy crawl throughout the film. You never lose the epic foundations of this story of outlaw brothers and the tragedy that befalls them as a result of their crimes, but the writing by musician/poet Nick Cave puts in the head of the main character, experiencing his turmoil over the horrible choice he is forced to make.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006, dir. Tom Tykwer)
This is another often overlooked film that I think deserves more attention. Tom Tykwer the director behind Run, Lola, Run and who teamed with the Wachowskis on Cloud Atlas, adapts a novel about a fictional French serial killer from just before the French Revolution. Jean Baptiste Grenouille is an orphan who ends up an apprentice to a perfume maker and learns about the formula to construct a scent. Grenouille is highly adept with his nose, distinguishing the nuance between smells in his environment. He begins killing women and soaking them in oiled clothes to extract their aromas working on what he believes will be an ultimate scent. The music in this movie, composed by Tykwer, is one my favorite 21st-century soundtracks, so sweeping and atmospheric, perfect for this dark phantasmagoric story.

Zodiac (2007, dir. David Fincher)
For the longest time, I went back and forth on David Fincher. I still have certain movies I don’t click with, particularly Benjamin Button and Fight Club is grossly overrated. Zodiac was the first film of Fincher’s that clicked with me, and I can watch endlessly. The director does a fantastic job creating a sense of time and place, building the mystery of the Zodiac killer in a non-exploitative way while making sure the audience feels the horror of the killer’s actions. Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr, and Mark Ruffalo share the screen as three men in different capacities investigating the crimes and the way their relationships deteriorate as the killings continue.

Waltz with Bashir (2008, dir. Ari Folman)
A powerful documentary made in a very different way. This is a recollection of the 1982 Lebanon war from the perspective of an Israel veteran. Instead of just interviewing people involved, he animates those interviews and presents animated recreations of events that happened to him and friends that served. This is not meant to be literal but allow the audience to see the psychology of what was happening to these young soldiers, how killing civilians affected them. Even if you are not familiar with the historical events, Folman does an extraordinary job of laying out facts in a way that will keep you aware of what is happening. This is one of those movies I saw multiple times in the theaters and is a unique experience.

In the Loop (2009, dir. Armando Iannucci)
A pitch-perfect satire on foreign policy in the United States and the UK in the 21st century. Comedy writer/director Armando Iannucci tells how a single comment from an otherwise inconsequential British minister spirals into a cross-Atlantic build up for war in the Middle East. The star here is Peter Capaldi, reprising his role as foul-mouthed director of communications Malcolm Tucker whom he played in the tv series The Thick of It. This is The Office if it was about global politics, with characters in the position we think of as staid and competent, revealed to be buffoons. In this age of uncertainty, Iannucci is happy to remind us no one is steering the wheel of the ship.

Rubber (2010, dir. Quentin Dupieux)
A car tire comes to live and develops psychic powers, which allows it to kill people. This is one of the strangest films of the last few years, and I love it. There’s a framing device of a group of people in the desert watching the events of the movie via binoculars. This is the audience, which brings up all sorts of questions about where the line between reality and fiction is in the film. Director Quentin Dupieux is a very odd man and has no qualms about getting weird with the premise which makes it even more compelling. You keep watching because you have no idea where all of this is leading to.

Bridesmaids (2010, dir. Paul Feig)
Probably the last comedy I saw in the theater I found funny. I have my issues with the direction Paul Feig has gone with his movies, leaning heavily into improv over good scripts and acting. The improv in this picture works because everyone is firing on all cylinders throughout. Bridesmaids also doesn’t use improv as a scene extending crutch, there is a story here, and character interactions add to the progress of that story. What it reminds us is that Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumlo need to write another movie together; their comedic and narrative sensibilities are perfectly matched.

Prometheus (2011, dir. Ridley Scott)
One of the great film disappointments of the decade. I was hyped to see Ridley Scott return to the Alien franchise being that his original film is the best of the bunch. The movie we ended up with had lots of fantastic ideas and concepts, but the execution was so muddled and poorly structured. I think Scott does a great job of working with his production designers to make his worlds look exciting and have a sense of history. He needed to do some substantial rewrites and decide what sort of film he wanted to make while also making his characters make better choices. The appearance of a neo-Alien at the end of the film confuses the whole production because for most of the picture it feels like it doesn’t want to be an Alien movie. A profoundly missed opportunity.

Oblivion (2013, dir. Joseph Kosinski)
On the flipside, we have this sleeper science fiction film that I believe we find an audience one day. Joseph Kosinski is a filmmaker with an evident vision of what he wants, just sometimes it gets mixed up in the translation from mind to the screen. In this future, humanity has fled to the moon of Titan and use hydro-generators on Earth to drain the oceans and provide power to the colonies. Jack Harper stays behind, living on a floating station that allows him to make repairs on the generators. It becomes clear that Jack has gaps in his memory and isn’t aware of what exactly is happening on Earth. An attack from scavengers on the surface leads him to discover the real history of what happened to humanity and his role in the present situation. If you haven’t seen this, there are some fantastic surprises and beautiful production design here.

It Follows (2014, dir. David Robert Mitchell)
This is one of the recent films that has been heralded as part of the contemporary horror resurgence. The movie follows a pretty simple 1980s horror type plot but adds subtle touches to make it stand out as something truly unique. There are some details that hint we are viewing a world that is not our own, so simple that you easily miss them. The evil entity at the center of the picture is vague enough to keep it terrifying, and the visual choices made to show this presence are pitch perfect. The manifestations hint at past victims or specific psychological triggers of the victims. There’s a death scene in the third act that I believe reveals that the evil is aware of characters’ abuses as children and that makes it all the more chilling that it chooses to represent those past evil people.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, dir. J.J. Abrams)
I was so excited for this film, and it lived up to that excitement for me. There will always be an endless supply of “fans” who want to pick apart things they claim they love. I’m no Star Wars mega-fan, but I love the series, and sense of legacy moving forward has brought. Abrams does a fantastic job of recreating what it felt like watching Star Wars for the first time, hitting the same plot notes, but with new characters. It’s part reboot, part sequel. Whereas the prequels dulled the sense of adventure I felt watching Star Wars, the Force Awakens made me excited to watch this franchise. While I haven’t enjoyed the spinoff movies, this core trilogy has me, and I’ve loved both episodes 7 & 8.

Christine (2016, dir. Antonio Campos)
This film surprised me with what an amazing biopic it is. A video surfaced on the early days of the internet of a Florida news reporter in 1974 killing herself on the air. It was real. This film seeks to humanize the woman in that shocking viral video and does a remarkable job telling the story of Christine Chubbuck. Christine lives in a time where female depression and anxiety are seen as eye rolling hysteria. It doesn’t help that she is in a field of work dominated by male talent who regularly demean and humor her work. When Christine goes through with her suicidal plans, our hearts ache because we completely understand why she feels so helpless but also want her not to give up because she is a talented reporter.

First Reformed (2017, dir. Paul Schrader)
Paul Schrader came screaming back into my purview with this stark, urgent film about the existential crisis that occurs when confronting the dire reality of climate change. Told through the eyes of Reverend Ernst Toller, a middle-aged pastor in upstate New York, we see him struggle with the political and financial machinations tied up in keeping his historic church out of disrepair. Through a meeting with a parishioner, Toller is forced to confront his apathy and ignorance of more substantial systemic injustice and decides to take harsh action to compensate. Ethan Hawke plays Toller and delivers a performance that demands your attention.

Eighth Grade (2018, dir. Bo Burnham)
Bo Burnham made this film about anxiety and used a middle schooler transitioning into high school as his protagonist. The lead role of Kayla is played beautifully by Elsie Fisher, giving a vulnerable funny and poignant performance. What struck me most, after working with students for over a decade, was how true Burnham wrote the voices of these characters. There’s a constant shaky foundation of enthusiasm and worry, kids eager to connect but always hesitant that they will do or say something to break that connection. Burnham can be so specific with the experience of adolescence while creating a story that speaks to everyone who struggles with anxiety in their lives.

Shazam! (2019, dir. David F. Sandberg)
Shazam (formerly known as Captain Marvel) has been my favorite superhero since I started reading about him as a kid. I was a little shaky about this film when I saw the trailer but reminded myself that a lighter tone is preferable to Zack Snyder completely horrible Superman films. I was pleasantly surprised by how true to the heart of the character Shazam was. I think we got the best adaptation we could hope for, and it makes me excited to see how they continue this character. It won’t be in my favorite films of 2019, but it is a movie that renews my hopes for positive DC superhero movies in the future.

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