My Top 20 Films Since 1992
by John David Ebert
After watching Quentin Tarantino’s list on You Tube and then realizing that absolutely none of his films overlap with my own list, I’ve decided, just for fun, to post that list here, with brief discussions of each film.
Here they are, then, in order by release date:
1. Ed Wood (1994) This is my favorite Tim Burton film, his funniest and also Johnny Depp’s best performance. The sheer, maniacal insanity of the film, its evident love of filmmaking, and the persistence of Wood’s vision mark it as a classic. Fans of Forrest J. Ackerman’s (now defunct) magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland will know exactly what I’m talking about.
2. Dead Man (1995) Jim Jarmusch’s bizarre, surrealist Western, filmed in black and white and set in the unusual–for a Western–setting of the Northwest Pacific Coast, which gives the film a ghostly quality. Another great performance by Johnny Depp and one of the best recent Westerns ever made. The film works so well because it sidesteps all the cliches of the genre, while depicting a descent into Hell that is vividly unforgettable. And by the end of the film, all of the lead characters are dead.
3. Lost Highway (1997) Nobody makes movies like David Lynch, and this film is the first of what I like to think of as his Los Angeles Trilogy, the other two including Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. If those latter two are Purgatory and Paradise, then this one is his version of Hell: a sinister imagining of astral Los Angeles with people caught in feedback loops of eternal, unredeemed repetitive motion. The film is non-linear and there is no way to “solve” it. It’s like a William Burroughs novel: you just have to experience it.
4. Crash (1997) This is one of David Cronenberg’s best films and you must be careful to distinguish it from the embarrassing movie of the same name about racism. I remember in their reviews of this film, that Gene Siskel hated it, absolutely could not understand it and that Roger Ebert loved it. Let me just put it this way: if you read, and enjoy, Baudelaire or Rimbaud; like Surrealist art; or enjoy cyberpunk fiction, then you’re going to “get” this film. Otherwise, there’s no explaining the brilliance and originality of its vision of the coupling of sexuality and car crashes. It is one of the simplest, most economically symbolic statements of the situation of contemporary post-modern man stuck, with all his ancient hominid-animal impulses, inside of a mechanical environment that he has built around himself and into which he has fallen and cannot be redeemed. Think of Rilke’s panther pacing inside his cage, all animal, with nowhere to go.
5. Titanic (1997) I think this is Cameron’s best film, and it is also Hollywood at its best. Big, splashy, messy and apocalyptic with lots of incredible special effects. A parable about the collision of Western Industrial Society with the biosphere (that iceberg is now melting) and the lack of a sustainable future for the Great Machine. Soon, our ship will be sinking, and we will be dealing with the consequences of refugee populations, crowds and mob violence, as islands in the Pacific ocean start sinking (as they are now, in fact; check out the Maldives) and coastal areas in Hawaii and Miami start disappearing. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was just a preview of coming attractions.
6. The Truman Show (1998) Peter Weir’s film based upon Andrew Niccol’s screenplay borrows heavily from Philip K. Dick’s novel Time Out of Joint, but it is an absolutely brilliant allegory of the disappearance of the Real behind a Symbolic landscape of hyperreality: shopping malls, advertisements, electronic gadgets, video screens, fake this, fake that. It is the End of History and the Disappearance of Reality. We’re living it. Each of us is Truman, the star of his own 24 hour media show. The film was also prophetic of the Digital explosion that has happened since 1995, in which increasingly more and more of our privacy is offered up at the altar of being a digital “Star” in the age of Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes for Everybody.
7. Being John Malkovich (1999) The best film ever made about the metaphysics of celebrity. And if you don’t believe there is such a thing as a metaphysics of celebrity, all you have to do is read my book Dead Celebrities, Living Icons to find out what it is. The celebrity puts on the public as a mask, just as the public puts on the celebrity as a mask. This film explores how electronic society destabilizes the personality as a result of generating avatars and two dimensional clones of oneself in the Electroverse. No film has done it better since.
8. Existenz (1999) Just as David Cronenberg called his Crash “the real Crash” to distinguish it from Haggiss’s version, so this film could be called “the real Matrix” since it plunges into the plasma pool that The Matrix entirely sidesteps. There is a diguised Puritanism in The Matrix, and a fear of the body, which it never bothers to take into account. Existenz, on the other hand, looks at the effects of the creation of virtual realities using electronic technology as invasions of the human mind and body and takes a fearless and searching inventory of the disruptive effects on both of such technologies. The body’s biorhythms are thrown out of synch; the mind is disoriented and confused by which reality is real; and the whole evolutionary process of being embodied in a soma is brought into question. All the voices of objection are here: the reptilian brain stem pictured in the factory with all the amphibial creatures; the confused mammalian sex drive of the limbic ring: eggs or womb? And the disordered and violently disrupted linear thought processes of the neo-cortex. This is the best analysis of the damaging effects of video game reality simulations ever done. The Matrix is merely a comic book, by comparison.
9. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) Stanley Kubrick’s final film is a love it or hate it type of movie. I’ve never talked to anyone who was neutral about it. The haters claim that its vision of New York is a fake one and obviously misunderstands the culture of the city. In trying to project 19th century Vienna and its fascination with sexuality into postmodern New York, there is a misalignment of cultures. Maybe. But on the other hand, I will never, ever forget the image of those red-robed and masked cult members in that house. The impact of the imagery is very much akin to that of the ancient Mystery Cults. And the film now seems, at some level, prophetic of the WikiLeaks scandal: beware, lest you speak about what you have seen, otherwise you will die. The film is an exploration of the great themes of Sex and Death and it is timeless: these themes are part of the very structure of human incarnation and they will never be dated. So the film will be just as relevant in a hundred years as it is today. Mark my words.
10. Mulholland Drive (2001) I don’t think anyone denies that this is Lynch’s best film. It is a film that rewards multiple viewings, for it is complex and made with an avant-garde artworld sophistication. The shifting of roles and identities is part of the metaphysical effects of Hollywood on the personality. In this respect, the film is picking up and carrying on the tradition of L.A. Gothic that begins with Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust and continues on with Billy Wilder’s magnificent Sunset Boulevard. The film belongs in that tradition of exploration of the disintegrative effects of Hollywood on the actors who offer up their lives as sacrifices to its “greatness.” The film warns: be careful, aspiring actor, lest your dream of becoming a Hollywood star actually becomes true. Your nightmare only begins at that point.
11. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) I have seen this film now maybe 15 times and my prediction back when I first saw it that it would become a future classic despite poor audience reception is slowly proving true. The film is a masterpiece of sorts (namely, of that type of broken torso masterpiece of which Virgil’s Aeneid, with all its flaws, is an example). It is a wonderful updating of The Wizard of Oz that is absolutely saturated with irony in every frame. The film explores what we’re losing as human beings when we begin to start genetically engineering people. And it is a refutation to the atheists–the Richard Dawkins’s, the Christopher Hitchens’s, the Bill Mahers–that religion is an unnecessary part of the human psyche that can simply be done away with. On the contrary, the film insists that dreaming of gods and offering ourselves to Higher Beings is precisely the essence of what makes us human and it cannot be taken away without doing damage to our basic humanness. The religious quest which the film is a disguised allegory of is intrinsic to the human condition. You can’t take it away and still be human.
12. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) I’m going to list this here as a separate film from the other two, but I really mean all three, for they are just one gigantic movie. In an age when we had thought that there were no more giants left, no more Camerons, Lucases or Spielbergs, to come out of the woodworks and astonish us with celluloid visions we never thought we would live to see, along comes the very unlikely underdog Peter Jackson, who had only made a handful of not too interesting horror movies prior to this. This cinematic trilogy is gargantuan in size, sprawling in sweep and Wagnerian in the majesty of its compass. It is one of the few special effects films to use CGI imagery successfully and without damaging the basic integrity of the universe that it creates. These three films are amongst cinema’s very greatest achievements. But take note: they are like Ramses II’s construction of the world’s biggest temples at Karnak and Luxor. They are so gigantic that after them, in Egyptian architectural history, there is no follow up. Such gigantism, then, manifests the signs of end-stage phenomena.With this trilogy, film begins to enter its Post-Classical phase.
13. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) I think this is the best of the prequels. It is very self-assured and measured in its pacing; unfolds its story at a leisurely rate and is in no hurry to Wow us. Then comes the Third Act, which is the greatest of all the Third Acts in Star Wars cinematic history. One Wow piled on top of the next. Episode I, by comparison, suffers from a certain hesitancy about its raison d’etre; Episode III is rushed, forced, hurried. It’s over before we’ve had any time to assimilate what we’ve seen. Episode II is just right: neither too fast, nor too slow, and with a payoff that is absolutely worth it. A fine achievement in my opinion (even if the Romantic scenes are embarrassing to watch).
14. Minority Report (2002) Spielberg at his finest. The film is a delightful and deliberate dialogue with the history of science fiction filmmaking from A Clockwork Orange to Logan’s Run to Blade Runner. The action sequences are fantastic, the script is great, and the visuals still have a freshness to them even while simultaneously announcing that the well is going dry on this sort of thing. This was Spielberg’s last great film, but he may have others in store for us, like Black Hole or Robopocalypse.
15. The Terminal (2004) This is an underrated Spielberg film that is based on a premise originated by Andrew Niccol, the screenwriter who had given us The Truman Show. The idea of a man being trapped in an airport, however fantastic, is based on a real life story of an Iranian man who was trapped at Charles DeGaulle airport in France for twenty years! It is one of the very few films that deal, if only subliminally, with the problem of people living in a “state of exception,” in which borders have tightened and in which the Law no longer applies to them. Nobody wants them, nobody knows what to do with them, and so they end up constructing huge tent cities at the doorsteps of the great nation states. I think this problem of what Zygmunt Bauman calls “wasted lives” is going to get worse as the years unfurl, and Spielberg’s apparently light little scherzo is an important exploration of an under-exposed thematic. The script is not perfect: it’s troubled and wanders a bit, but the film is a personal favorite of mine.
16. The Village (2004) M. Night Shyamalan is a problematic filmmaker who can never seem to get it right, except in my opinion, just this once. In fact, The Village is an almost perfect film: with its metanarrataive which questions the very worth of making Hollywood special effects cinema, it also simultaneously works in the problem of those disaffected groups–and this includes Al Qaeda, the Amish, etc.–who don’t want anything to do with Modernity and all its decadence. There are few films that deal with this thematic successfully, mostly because the problem is too difficult to tackle head on. But this is where visionary cinema comes in: you disguise the theme with a fable that appears to be about something else altogether. This film has an almost Bergman-like complexity to it and is surprisingly Euro for a Hollywood production. This, perhaps, explains its failure at the box office.
17. Inland Empire (2006) This is the third of Lynch’s L.A. Trilogy, and also the most difficult of the three to watch. It is also the least popular. Some critics described it as self-indulgent, but let’s be fair here: it is no more “self-indulgent” than Fellini’s 81/2 or Bergman’s Persona. People lodged similar complaints about the “Nighttown” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, to which, in fact, it bears a certain resemblance. I think this is an example of a director being exquisitely faithful to his Vision and carrying it through to its logical consequences. Stylistically, it picks up from the last half hour of Mulholland Drive and carries it on for three more hours with an absolutely brilliant and nightmarish exploration of Hollywood’s theme of creating the parallel Self. The cognitive noise that is generated by some Hollywood stars who create parallel Selves that begin to take on their own lives and confuse the actors and actresses who generated them in the first place is a real problem. I think Inland Empire, for all its demands on the viewer, is a really fascinating exploration of this theme.
18. No Country for Old Men (2007) The reason this film works so well is because it explores the consequences of the postmodern landscape that we live in so honestly. We have created a world without macronarratives, a world without meaning or significance, a world in which the human being finds himself with no more dignity than a random molecule being jostled about by all the other molecules, the sum total of whose random motion has somehow brought creation into being. Right. If you buy this story, you’ve not only bought into another species of macronarrative altogether, you’ve also bought one that is actually harder, in my opinion, to believe than one in which the universe is created by spiritual beings. But McCarthy’s narrative examines the amoral consequences of the status of the hero in such a universe: he is neither guaranteed a “win” or a defeat over the powers of Evil, while Evil, on the other hand, is not at all obliged to show mercy to anyone anywhere at any time. Welcome to postmodernity.
19. Synechdoche, NY (2008) This little seen film is actually, in my opinion Charlie Kaufman’s best, and so far, the only one he has directed. It belongs in the metanarrative tradition and is also difficult to watch. However, its exploration of the life story of a single man and his attempt to transform his life into a play is utterly fascinating. It is a meditation on death and on the human life cycle in the same way that Benjamin Button pretends to be, but fails, since it relies too much on Forrest Gump for its story arc. There is nothing fresh about Fincher’s movie, but Kaufman’s is the genuine article. Trust me, while watching it, you will realize you’ve never quite seen anything like it before.
20. Moon (2009) Duncan Jones’s first film is a potential classic. It is a mesmerizing story to watch, full of allusions to science fiction films like Alien, 2001 and The Truman Show. The protagonist is trapped in a feedback loop, like the main character of Lost Highway, an endless circle of repetition that he cannot seem to break loose from. He is a denizen of Hell, imprisoned, however, in the opposite direction, up instead of down. Here, Earth becomes the Heaven to break free and get up to. All the traditional religious metaphors are turned upside down. An absolute gem, and I look forward to Jones’s next film.