Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Runners-up: The ‘Burbs, Heathers
Released in Germany at the tail-end of 1988, Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece is not only his best film, but also, as Derek Malcolm said on the poster quote “one of the cinema’s great fantasy films” (I’d say the greatest). In the cases of contenders The ‘Burbs and Heathers, well, Munchausen would have won out against anyother pick on this list, but Joe Dante and Michael Lehmann movies are also provided for directly.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Runners-up: Goodfellas, Miami Blues
Warner Bros was desperate for a sequel, and eventually Joe Dante gave them one, not so much biting the hand that fed him as gnawing it off. To call Gremlins 2 irreverent would be an understatement; to call it demented genius would not. Surprisingly, studios weren’t exactly beating down his door after this. Yes, I could have gone for the crime antics of Henry Hill or Junior Frenger, but who can resist Donald Clamp?
Runners-up: Miller’s Crossing, The Last Boy Scout
Richard E Grant apparently called Mark Kermode an idiot for professing his admiration for Hudson Hawk. Mariella Frostrup, I seem to recall, also pronounced herself a fan. There’s a lot of them about, and even Reg can get it wrong. Michael Lehmann’s first three movies (the others being Heathers and Meet the Applegates) promised a brand of anarchic edge-of-mainstream filmmaking that would put him on a tier with Dante and Burton, but alas, nothing since has quite made the grade. I nearly had the Coens’ film about the hat here, but I couldn’t in all conscience omit the film of theirs I didselect from my list.
Runners-up: Until the End of the World, Barton Fink, JFK
I’m not a massive fan of Clint as director, but Unforgiven was a perfect match of his no-frills approach, his status as then-aging star (now sprightly looking), and material. One of the very few wholly deserved Best Picture winners of recent decades. Also in the running were Oliver Stone’s best film, another of the Coens’, and Wim Wenders’ “ultimate road movie” (but best savoured in the 280-minute version; I’ve yet to see the five-hour director’s cut).
Runners-up: Groundhog Day
Unlike many who will return this form, I haven’t homed in on any Tarantino-directed pictures, but Tony Scott’s True Romance (with its altered, upbeat ending) is probably a better version of his wish-fulfilment fantasy screenplay than Quentin himself would have delivered. Groundhog Day could have been an easy alternate pick, but it does have Andie McDowell against it.
Runners-up: Pulp Fiction, The Music of Chance, Carlito’s Way, The Hour of the Pig
Peter Weir’s underseen and underrated plane-crash survivor yarn is one of the director’s very best, even given Rosie Perez’ overwrought supporting performance. I briefly considered Pulp Fiction, but it will get more than enough votes anyway. Mentions too for De Palma’s last classic, Colin Firth putting a porker on trial, and Mandy Patinkin building a wall.
Runners-up: In the Mouth of Madness, The Shawshank Redemption, Chungking Express.
Danny Boyle has never come close to equalling his first two films (well, maybe T2 is within shouting distance), and Shallow Grave was the kind of thing British cinema shouldhave been doing in response to the advent and influence of Tarantino, rather than wannabe-gangster pics. Runners-up include Carpenter’s last worthy movie, Frank Darabont’s enduring classic and Won Kar-Wai’s dual tales of unrequited love.
Runners-up: Seven, 12 Monkeys, Trainspotting
Part of me felt like leaving Michael Mann out entirely, such is the irritation his endless, needless tinkering with his back catalogue provokes. Heat needed no pruning or altering from its original release form (and if you really must, Michael, ensure that original release form is also available), Such is its status as the heist film par excellence, though, that it beats the mighty contenders from Fincher, Gilliam and Boyle.
Grosse Pointe Blank
Runners-up: L.A. Confidential, The Fifth Element
George Armitage quietly directed two of my favourite films of the ‘90s, and this hit-man-goes-to-his-high-school-reunion is a sharp and funny and kinetic as they come, andblessed with a great soundtrack. L.A. Confidential is probably better crafted and The Fifth Element more wonderfully whacky, but I’m giving this to John Cusack (remember when his movies meant something?)
The Big Lebowski
Runners-up: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Out of Sight, Enemy of the State
The Big Lebowski really ties this list together, man.
Shakespeare in Love
Runners-up: The Matrix, Fight Club, Bulworth
The other Best Picture winner in my thirty. The Wachowskis have an entry elsewhere, while Fincher is probably the most glaring omission (not that you’d say that about anything he’s made in the last ten years).
Runners-up: O Brother, Where Art Thou, Memento, Wonder Boys
Not a year I have really strong feelings about, despite Nolan’s sophomore arrival as a director to watch and yet another notable from the Coens. As such, I didn’t really expect I’d be putting Tim Burton anywhere, but this is probably his last great movie, and finds Depp offering a dry run of his quirky comic lead withbox office clout.
Runners-up: Amelie, Shrek, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Dude, Where’s My Car?
I’ll robustly defend Zoolander 2 if required, even as a stir and repeat of the original; Ben Stiller is a rare talented director who brings his acumen to comedies, a genre where style doesn’t generally stand out (indeed, the problem with his Walter Mitty remake was that it just wasn’t funny enough). I’ve cooled a bit on Lord of the Rings post-Hobbit I’m afraid, the first Shrek wasfullydeserving of its Best Animated Feature Oscar, and Amelie is a perfect match of image and soundtrack. As for Dude, Where’s My Car? It deserved sequels.
Runners-up: The Royal Tennenbaums, Donnie Darko
Spielberg’s last great movie (I don’t regard any of his serious, Oscar-baiting fare as in remotely the same league as those pictures where he’s simply trying to thrill). Strong runners-up in Wes Anderson (mentioned elsewhere, but a very near thing here) and the sad case of Richard Kelly, who last made a movie a full decade ago.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Runners-up: Adaptation, Master and Commander: Far Side of the World
It’s a shame the Pirates franchise has been run into the ground, but such is the eventual fate of most of their kind (the reboot will be as disastrous as Men in Black International), and even with Gore Verbinski involved, neither of the immediate sequels could match this for a perfect balancing the elements, in particular the supporting/lead status of Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. I could have swapped The Curse of the Black Pearl out for Adaptation, but I felt two Charlie Kaufmanns on the list was a bit too similar to two multiple director efforts.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Runners-up: Shaun of the Dead, The Incredibles, The Bourne Supremacy
The other Charlie Kaufman being this; Michel Gondry is a great visualist, but I’ve had little patience with his other features. Pushed aside are Edgar Wright’s debut, Brad Bird’s first Pixar pic and Paul Greengrass’s best Bourne.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Runners-up: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit
Shane Black isn’t a bad director, but he’s undoubtedly a superior writer; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang moves so fast and is so full of furious verbiage, you can’t hope to digest it all on first viewing; which means it really comes into its own on return trips. Wallace & Gromit, good as it is, wasn’t even close.
Runners-up: Brick, A Scanner Darkly, Children of Men
The Prestige or Inception was probably the most difficult choice I gave myself, but I ultimately felt the (only relatively) more obscure Nolan film deserved it. The rest: still Rian Johnson’s best feature (his debut), probably the most reverent Philip K Dick adaptation, and Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian nightmare with the barest glimmer of hope.
Runners-up: Zodiac, Apocalypto
I don’t know if Ratatouille is my favourite Pixar (that’s probably Wall-E) but it may be the most perfectly formed, belying its troubled production. The couldn’t-be-more-different Zodiac nearly took this, but only in Director’s Cut form, while Mel’s Apocalypto is a masterful action movie.
Runners-up: No Country for Old Men, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, In Bruges, Wall-E
This tale of canine reincarnation – or is it – and the transformative effects of Tokay may not have been Peter O’Toole’s final role, but it feels like the perfect farewell. It’s moving, funny and beautifully told, and deserves to be better known. More Coens and Pixar in the runners-up, Martin McDonagh’s debut movie and still his best, and the film for which Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin should have won Best Picture (rather than The Artist).
Runners-up: A Serious Man, Star Trek
As with 2000, I don’t feel too strongly about these. I might have gone for Star Trek, except JJ and co really dropped the ball after the strong quasi-reboot, which retrospectively diminishes it. So I went for Watchmen, visually accomplished, tonally suspect, and like Zodiac, only really essential in its subsequent release version(s).
TRON: Legacy, vastly superior to the original, gets a lot of shit, but – aside from some fairly hopeless CGI “doubling” of Jeff as Clu – it’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking from Joseph Kosinski, made fully immersive by a majestic Daft Punk soundtrack. I still mourn the cancellation of the sequel.
The Tree of Life
Runners-up: The Guard,Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I debated including The Tree of Life simply because I’ve found Terence Malick’s subsequent films alternately empty or borderline self-parodies, and I have a feeling it may be tarnished upon revisit. But I loved it on the first couple of viewings, and John Michael McDonagh’s directorial debut (still his best), Nicholas Winding Refn’s first with Ryan Gosling (still their best) and the big screen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alec Guinness’ Smiley is still the best) couldn’t quite match it.
Easily the most out-and-out flawed inclusion here but Prometheus was still the most enjoyable Sir Ridders in years, even shitting on Alien’s legacy and all. Cosmopolis seems to elicit love it or hate it responses, but may end up being Cronenberg’s last great movie.
Runners-up: Iron Man Three, The Counsellor
Also flawed, but the ambition of the Wachowskis here is infectious, and I for one preferred their embellishments on the novel. Another Ridley in the runners-up, and also the nearest Marvel came to an appearance.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Runners-up: Edge of Tomorrow, Inside Llewyn Davis, Only Lovers Left Alive
Wes Anderson at his most sublimely free-wheeling, absurd and hilarious, ensuring he beat out Doug Liman’s alien Groundhog Day, the Coens, and Jarmusch’s louche vampires.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Runners-up: Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation
Fury Road looked pretty great from the trailer, but I still wasn’t expecting it to be thatgreat. And repeats diminish it not at all. Probably the overall Number Two film on this list, and I dearly hope George Miller films the next two before he gets too old.
Tale of Tales
Runners-up: Nice Guys, The Invitation
Matteo Garrone’s offbeat, interlinked adult fairy tales are gorgeous to behold (cinematography courtesy of The Empire Strikes Back’s Peter Suschitzky), and as with Dean Spanley, deserve a wider audience. Another gem from Shane Black and Karyn Kusama’s not-quite-home invasion thriller take runners-up.
Blade Runner 2049
Runners-up: T2 Trainspotting, John Wick: Chapter Two
Some profess to preferring Denis Villeneuve’s very belated sequel to the original. I wouldn’t go that far, but its high quality is nothing short of a miracle. Two other second instalments also pleasantly impressed in the runners-up.
Bad Times at the El Royale
Runners-up: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri
It’s unfortunate that neither of Drew Goddard’s directorial efforts have met with the box office they merited; El Royale in particular, is a supremely skilled piece of writing, expertly put together. Both of which are true of the runners-up, of course.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Nothing this year really deserves “Favourite” recognition yet, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? comes closest, with Melissa McCarthy on great tragi-comic form, ably and eccentrically supported by Hudson Hawk hater Richard E Grant.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.