This list was originally shared as part of the 5th episode of the Reel Spirituality Podcast.
Groundhog Day because it is an infinitely re-watchable movie that Trojan Horses existential angst in Bill Murray’s impeccable, dead-pan humor and Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis’ perfect script. Groundhog Day is an art-house film in mainstream clothing and ought to be the gateway drug for all blockbuster movie-goers’ experience of the broader range of cinema. That it wasn’t nominated for a single Oscar and only won one major award (Best Screenplay at the BAFTAs) is a cinematic tragedy.
War of the Worlds because for me it is the movie that best captures my experience of 9/11. Other movies more explicitly about that day do some wonderful things, but on that day, I didn’t know what was happening on Flight 93, there were only victims, not heroes, trapped beneath the World Trade Center, and I didn’t connect with people around the world also impacted by the events of September 11, 2001. I like War of the Worlds, because it is the very personal story of Ray Ferrier responding to the horror unfolding around him and struggling to protect his loved ones from forces far beyond his control. Everything happens so fast, he never really has time to adjust. The horrors keep mounting, and then, just as suddenly, they seem to abate, but of course, the threat is still out there, somewhere, and it always will be. Somehow we have to continue on.
Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and The Fellowship of the Ring because apart they represent the extremes of movie-going over my lifetime – severe disappointment and surpassed expectations. Together, they represent a kind of realism about movie-going – it’s always an experience that is sometimes terrible and sometimes transcendent.
The Tree of LIfe because it is this generation’s 2001 at least in terms of scope if not in terms of popularity. 2001 was the story of all people, and the characters, with the exception of Hal, are mostly forgettable, which is appropriate, because it’s not about any one man. There seemed to be a yearning in the 60s and 70s for some kind of human coalescence. Everyone wanted to “come together.” This desire was coupled with an avoidance of traditional understanding of “god” as well. Out current epoch is hyper-individualized, or “personalized,” so The Tree of Life is a very personal journey. We are traveling through Jack’s memories and questions. Also, currently we are much more comfortable with spirituality and the idea of a “god” behind all this, so the movie can appeal to “god” in a way that 2001 never could. I also wanted to include a film that attempted to deal with the “big questions” of existence, and I think that The Tree of Life does it better and more seriously than The Matrix, a much more popular film concerned with the same questions.
Spider-Man 2 for being the pinnacle of achievement in the superhero genre, a genre that has dominated the box office since X-Men was released in 2000. (I don’t count Nolan’s Batman movies as superhero movies, because, to put it simply, there’s nothing “super” about Batman.)
Wall-E because Pixar needed to be represented on this list given their consistent quality and success during my lifetime, and I think Wall-E is their best movie. Wall-E is a movie with a deep appreciation for cinema throughout time, it is at its core a very simple story about two people falling in love, and yet it becomes a very big story in the end about all humanity falling in love again with each other and with earth. This love isn’t simply emotional either. It is active, patient, rejuvenating, redeeming love. People called it a thinly veiled pro-environmentalism political statement. They missed the point that love between two people must blossom out to include love of neighbor and world. And even if it is “thinly veiled environmentalism,” it deserves to be on this list, because “green-speak” has been one of the major debates of my life.
Inglourious Basterds because Quentin Tarantino is the finest filmmaker to emerge in the past 30 years, and Inglourious Basterds is his best movie. Tarantino is a product of home video age. His movies exist only because of all the other movies Tarantino has seen, which he references both verbally, visually, and thematically. He doesn’t simply make a “war movie.” He makes a war movie about war movies and questions the assumptions those other war movies are built upon. However, I’m not sure his questioning is intentional. I think it may simply be the byproduct of his method. I think that’s why he never gives any answers, and I’m grateful he doesn’t, because I’m not sure I’d like the answers he’d give.
Fight Club, though I considered Wall Street, because both go right and wrong in the same ways. They both become weaker movies when they appeal to the kind of sensationalism favored by their respective decades. More importantly, they both critique the increasing commercialism and material greed of our time. They are both the final deconstruction of the prevailing myth of the post-WWII era – that our strength is in our ability and commitment to buying more things. “Greed” isn’t actually “good,” though it seems to be in the moment, because eventually everything built on greed topples. I chose Fight Club instead of Wall Street because Fight Club shows the toppling, and it shows it on both an institutional and personal level. It also better preconfigured what happened in 2007 when the banking system began to collapse worldwide.
Back to the Future, mainly because Raiders of the Lost Ark came out before I was born, and I wanted a movie that was mostly just pure fun on my list. There’s some deeper things going on in this movie related to children better understanding their parents, but that’s not why I put it on my list.
Once because it is a great example of the potential for small movies with small budgets made by relative amateurs to reach broad audience and impact filmmaking and the world. Cheaper production and distribution methods mean the future of filmmaking belongs to the amateur and independent filmmaker who have no contractual or marketing obligations to get in the way of their craft and between them and their audience.
Little Miss Sunshine
Million Dollar Baby/Unforgiven
The Silence of the Lambs
Fargo/No Country For Old Men/A Serious Man
The Thin Red Line
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (but 50 First Dates is better)
Sleepless in Seattle
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Departed (because I don’t like Goodfellas)
And it’s cheating, but cinematic television has become increasingly important during my lifetime as well as has different distribution methods, so I have to mention the following cinematic TV shows and miniseries:
Band of Brothers
LIMITATIONS OF MY LIST
Looking over my list, I realize it is dominated by Western cinema. Through the first three decades of my life, i have focused primarily on the world of my upbringing, the Western world. Given the increasing availability of non-Western films, my enjoyment of those non-Western films I’ve seen, and my commitment to broadening my understanding of the world and world cinema, I expect my list will look very different in ten years.