There’s a fun game floating around social media in which you select your favorite movie for each year of your life. It’s an exercise that abandons the pretense of objectivity that plagues many ‘best of’, ‘Top Ten’ and ‘GOAT’ lists. These lists mostly feel like a way to arbitrarily assign value to creative work originally designed to evoke a wide range of emotions and responses.
A best of television in 2016 list that compares a smart, conventionally structured sitcom like Blackish with a dark comic experimental show like Fleabag says more about the author’s emotional preferences than the quality of either show. Even the lists that focus on a specific medium and genre feel like an exercise in comparing fundamentally distinct things. A list of great comedies could include a over the top farce and a realistic comedy, and a list of the best gangster rappers can include an MC who tells hard boiled grounded crime stories about life in the inner city and one who spins elaborate fantasies about mafias and drug cartels. It’s not about what makes you laugh most or what kind of story is most evocative, its about what kind of laughter and fantasies you prefer.
These top ten lists are a curious kind of anti-criticism in which the writer focuses on the ‘value’ of art instead of its message and meaning. The best lists ‘celebrate’ an art form by treating it like a reality show competition with the writer as judge. The worst soullessly evaluate creative work in the way that one might assess corporations on a trading market.
I don’t believe in top ten lists, but I love to read and write them. They aren’t a good way of identifying the best in any field, but they are a good tool for exploring one’s prior beliefs and aesthetic preferences. The end of year lists and essays that are released throughout the fall and winter give insight into the sensibilities and values of the critics who create them.
A list of my favorite films by year may not show how my tastes evolved over the years, but it does suggest something about how my life changed. The movies that I was entertained by as a child are very different from the movies that I sought out in high school, or the ones I saw in my twenties with my wife as we were exploring our love of film, or the ones that I watch through half-lidded eyes as I drift off to sleep as a middle aged man.
The process of creating this list forced me to be unfair and honest. I have to choose between movies with different goals and budgets from a wide variety of genres.
I need to reconcile myself with huge blind spots in the years after my son was born. I don’t know much that came out after 2013.
Remembering a time when I used to go to the movies…
I gave myself three rules:
(1) I would choose my favorite movie of the year based on the way I felt in that particular year.
(2) The only movies that were under consideration were the ones that I saw in the year in question. I love My Own Private Idaho and Barton Fink, but Jamaal in 8th Grade wasn’t ready for a black comedy from the Coen Brothers or anything from Gus van Sant.
(3) Since I don’t actually remember when I saw many of the movies from my childhood (and probably didn’t see many the year that they were released), I evaluate all movies from 1978 – 1988 from the perspective of 10 year old Jamaal. So no Apocalypse Now or Deer Hunter.
The resulting list is a strange mix of classic movies, mainstream hits and nonsense. Some were dramas, others horror movies or comedies. All had some flaws. It was extremely difficult to choose a movie for some years, either because I had too many favorites (1995, 1996 and 2002) or too few (2013-2016).
I was surprised by some of my choices – never would have guessed that I would choose a compilation of old Warner Brothers cartoons over Raiders of the Lost Ark, or a weird (and frankly terrible) Gary Oldman/Lena Olin vehicle over classic movies from Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese (I was greatly moved by the former, but the focus on non-Jews always made me a little uncomfortable and it took me at least a decade to appreciate the latter). They were all movies that resonated with me at some point in my life.
I created this list in spare moments – when everyone’s gone to sleep and I’ve finished checking e-mails for the day, or when I’m on my way to work (after dropping my son off at daycare) and don’t feel like reading or checking e-mail. It has been a comforting exercise, an opportunity to think about earlier versions of myself. I find that I think more about myself as a child or teenager than as a person in their twenties or thirties. I remember what it was like to be fourteen, but have some trouble remembering what it felt like to be thirty four (as compared to thirty three or thirty five). Thinking about the movie that I enjoyed most in a given year prompted me to think about where I was at that point in my life. It was like being reintroduced to an earlier self. Meet 33 year old Jamaal, he’s a married lawyer and development guy who thought that Life of Pi was a bit too sentimental and manipulative but couldn’t stop thinking about it for months after watching it for the first time.
I also loved how the process of creating this list seemed to reinforce and undermine my efforts to sustain self-continuity. The sense of wonder I felt when I first saw Malick’s The New World evoked the feeling I had when I saw Barry Lyndon in high school and finally understood why it was great, or when my dad took me to see Dances With Wolves for my birthday and I was awed by the buffalo hunt.
I love that sense of continuity between different versions of myself, but there are times when the links between the art and culture I listened to, read and watched as a child and the works I engage with as an adult feel too visible. I’ve been reading books and comics, listening to hip-hop and watching movies for my entire life, and while my tastes may have developed over the years, there is a distinctly nostalgic element to my love of culture. I like to think that my nostalgic tendencies are driven by a desire to savor my memories and that nostalgia enriches my appreciation of art and culture, but sometimes it feels like it might limit my ability to grow and appreciate new things. I love that Kendrick’s Damn reminds me of the Freestyle Fellowship’s Project Blowed compilation album, but I don’t want to be the kind of hip-hop listener who can’t enjoy Rich Homie Quan because he doesn’t remind me of a rapper I listened to when I was a sophomore at Brooklyn Tech twenty five years ago.
I like to imagine that I’m not a traditionalist. The moments of discontinuity in my personal narrative – when the connections between my past and present preferences are unclear or contradictory – keep me honest.
It’s a check on any desire I might have to recreate the past. One of the reasons that I loved Ferris Bueller as a kid was that it was a story of a cool guy who did cool things without consequence. The movie is far more interesting than that, but the cool guy protagonist was the chief appeal when I was ten years old.
It’s easy to recognize the boy who loved the quiet moments in Alien and the teenager who was absorbed by the world Carl Franklin created in his adaptation of Walter Mosley’s Devil in A Blue Dress because the line between their preferences and mine is so clear (and flattering), but I will always feel a lot of affection for the boy who wanted to roll with the winners, even if those sentiments feel foreign to me now. This list was a great opportunity to meet those earlier versions of myself again. You can check it out here.