Sean P. Means: 20 movies that mark 20 years of movie viewing
For the record, the photograph was not my idea.
What I suggested to photographer Francisco Kjolseth was that he take a picture of the mass of press credentials I have accumulated during the 20 years I've worked as movie critic of The Salt Lake Tribune.
I believed that the intertwined lanyards and laminated passes told a story of the many events I have covered, the places I've been, the people I've met and interviewed, and most important, the many movies I've seen since I officially took this job in the summer of 1993.
No, Francisco said, I needed to be in the picture. People make better pictures than objects, he argued.
I had to admit he's right. Journalists hate it when they get bigger than what it is they are covering, but this was one instance where I was, inarguably, the story.
It's a story I didn't expect to happen, because I didn't expect to be here so long. I arrived in Salt Lake City in 1991 to take a copy-editing job at the Tribune, and I planned to work here three to five years and then move back to the Pacific Northwest where I grew up.
Then things started to happen.
After a few months here, when I thought I couldn't stand the Utah winter, I attended the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. I saw for myself that one of the most vibrant movie scenes in the world played out here every January. I couldn't wait for the next one, and I've been saying that ever since.
Less than a year and a half later, my predecessor, Terry Orme, got promoted to arts editor. A few of us auditioned for the vacant critic's job, and I became the movie critic in July 1993.
Even then, I didn't think I'd be around more than three years. That number's important, because it was about three years and three months later that I met Leslie, who was and is as much of a movie lover as I am.
I fell in love with Leslie and she with me. Through her history as a seventh-generation Utahn who traces her family back to the Mormon pioneers, I also fell in love with Utah.
This is where most movies would end, because from an outside view it gets kind of boring and predictable. Leslie and I got married, stayed married, started raising two boys (who are now 13 and 10), and I kept working at and watching movies for the Tribune.
Of course, from where I sit, it's never boring or predictable. This is the best job anywhere in the world, and it continues to be that because I get to dig into other people's stories, uncover what makes them tick and share those discoveries with readers.
So, in the end, the story of my 20 years as the Tribune's movie critic can be told by the movies I've seen and loved. Out of the thousands of movies I've reviewed, I compiled this list of the 20 best. Lists like these are never set in stone, but this one's a good reflection of my constantly evolving movie love over the past 20 years.
1. "Brokeback Mountain" (2005, directed by Ang Lee) • The most beautifully heartbreaking romance I've seen in the past two decades. The fact that the central figures are both cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) makes it all the more moving.
2. "Schindler's List" (1993, directed by Steven Spielberg) • A masterwork by a movie master, this has become the definitive fictional depiction of the Holocaust.
3. "Pulp Fiction" (1994, directed by Quentin Tarantino) • A crazy/brilliant pastiche of crime-movie motifs, pieced together by somebody who knows all the cinematic rules and is dead-set on breaking every last one of them.
4. "Toy Story" (1995, directed by John Lasseter) • Two rivals-turned-friends on a quest simply to get home, all told with Pixar's dazzling computer animation and a ton of heart.
5. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (2012, directed by Benh Zeitlin) • An amazing little girl (QuvenzhanÃ© Wallis) sees the whole universe and her place in it, in this surreal-yet-naturalistic tale of the Mississippi Delta.
6. "127 Hours" (2010, directed by Danny Boyle) • A reckless adventurer (James Franco) gets caught in a dilemma he can't escape without leaving something of himself behind in this electrifying tale of survival. It's also the best movie made in Utah in the past 20 years.
7. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000, directed by Ang Lee) • Decades of martial-arts traditions are boiled down into one dazzlingly choreographed, sumptuously filmed and beautifully told story.
8. "Hoop Dreams" (1994, directed by Steve James) • In this groundbreaking documentary, the ups and downs of two high-school basketball players' careers pack more drama than any script ever could.
9. "Once" (2006, directed by John Carney) • A sad Irish guitarist (Glenn Hansard) and a lonely Czech woman (Marketa Irglova) fall in love with the music they make together in a sweet, haunting romance that won an Oscar and inspired a Tony-winning Broadway show.
10. "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy (2001-03, directed by Peter Jackson) • With rugged scenery and a cast of thousands, J.R.R. Tolkien's epic got the space, time and grandeur it needed to be told.
11. "Children of Men" (2006, directed by Alfonso CuarÃ³n) • In a future where babies mysteriously stopped being born, a small group of survivors balance hope and desperation as they try to get a pregnant woman to safety.
12. "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (2001, directed by John Cameron Mitchell) • Mitchell's one-of-a-kind creation, an East German transsexual rock star, tells her own story with raucous rock 'n' roll energy.
13. "Before Sunrise" / "Before Sunset" / "Before Midnight" (1995/2004/2013, directed by Richard Linklater) • A romantic story, between an American boy (Ethan Hawke) and a French girl (Julie Delpy), has unfolded tenderly from first love through middle age in almost as much time as I've been watching movies for a living.
14. "Fargo" (1996, directed by Joel Coen) • Crime and punishment, the Minnesota way, with a lot of unsavory characters and one plain-talking and quite pregnant sheriff (Frances McDormand) who uses her smarts and her empathy to solve the mystery.
15. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004, directed by Michel Gondry) • A mismatched couple (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) discover they can't forget each other, even when they try, in this wonderfully off-kilter romance.
16. "The Incredibles" (2004, directed by Brad Bird) • Old-fashioned superheroes discover a modern problem how to be heroic in an era without heroes in Pixar's retro-cool adventure.
17. "Batman Begins" / "The Dark Knight" / "The Dark Knight Rises" (2005/2008/2012, directed by Christopher Nolan) • A tortured hero rises, falls and returns in a trilogy that made us reconsider the comic-book movie and, in Heath Ledger's Joker, gave us the most compelling villain of our time.
18. "Sita Sings the Blues" (2008, directed by Nina Paley) • A triumph of do-it-yourself animation and self-distribution in which the travails of the Hindu goddess Sita (as told in the epic tale The Ramayana) dovetail with the filmmaker's marital breakup.
19. "The Blair Witch Project" (1999, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) • Before it became a clichÃ©, the "found footage" horror genre got off to a creative and scary start with this horror story about three college kids videotaping their own demise.
20. "The Truman Show" (1998, directed by Peter Weir) • A man (Jim Carrey) discovers his entire life has been televised, in a satire of reality TV so subtle and so sharp that it's become prophetic.
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.
5 times I got it wrong
Over 20 years of reviewing movies, even I get it wrong occasionally. Here are five movies I changed my mind about over time.
"Clueless" • I didn't get the subtle brilliance of Amy Heckerling's 1995 Beverly Hills update of Jane Austen's "Emma" at the time, but repeated viewings since have convinced me of its sly humor and keen observations on teen social life. I gave it 2 stars then; I'd give it 3.5 now.
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" • When director Michel Gondry's odd romance starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as mismatched partners who each employ a company to remove their memories of the other opened in 2004, I remember liking it but not loving it. My wife, however, thought it was wonderful. Watching it again recently, I find she was right, and its offbeat charms have rocketed it to my top 20 list. Then: 3 stars. Now: 4.
"Forrest Gump" • Like most people, I was charmed by Tom Hanks' portrayal of a simple everyman back in 1994. But the more I thought about it, the more loathsome I found its message: Obey everyone in authority (your mama, your coach, your lieutenant, your president) and you will stumble to greatness, but go your own way and you'll be miserable and die of AIDS. Then: 3.5 stars. Now: 2.
"The Ice Storm" • As is clear from my top 20 list, Ang Lee is one of my favorite directors. His 1997 family drama, starring Kevin Kline and Joan Allen as a married couple fumbling through midlife, was solid but me naming it the year's best movie was a stretch in a year that included "Ponette," "When We Were Kings" and "L.A. Confidential." Then: 4 stars. Now: 3.
"Natural Born Killers" • The craftsmanship of director Oliver Stone and writer Quentin Tarantino was instantly apparent in their 1994 crime drama. Comprehending its repellent emotional core happened after deadline. Then: 3 stars. Now: 1.
5 unforgettable moments
Thinking back on my 20 years as The Salt Lake Tribune's movie critic has brought back a flood of memories. Here are five of my career highlights:
Attending the Sundance Film Festival • Before I even had this job, I found Sundance and loved the whole experience. Terry Orme, my predecessor, had some extra tickets in 1992 and gave them to me to use on my day off. I saw a very young Brad Pitt at the Q-and-A for "Johnny Suede" and shook hands with the great Seymour Cassel after "In the Soup" won the Grand Jury Prize.
Meeting Roger Ebert • One year at Sundance, I finally screwed up my courage and introduced myself to Roger. He knew who I was and gave me a warm response. Over the years, in person at Sundance and later (when his health issues kept him from Park City) over email, he was always kind, encouraging and collegial. He didn't have to be nice to a younger critic, except that's the sort of person he was.
Covering the Oscars • In 2002, I got to cover the Academy Award ceremony in Hollywood. It's the only time I've ever had to wear a tuxedo to work. I got to see Oscar history in person when two African Americans (Denzel Washington and Halle Berry) won the top acting awards in the same year. I also witnessed Woody Allen's one and only visit to the Oscars, as well as the awarding of Robert Redford's honorary Oscar.
The Departed list • From 2008 to 2010, I maintained a list of print publications that had eliminated the position of movie critic, a vigil to a dying profession and an indicator of the perils facing journalism. The list sparked plenty of debate within the industry and got me mentioned in The New York Times, The Guardian, Vanity Fair and Salon, among others.
Getting name-checked by Rachel Maddow • I'm an unapologetic fan of the MSNBC commentator. So imagine my surprise when in 2009, while interviewing former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson about Utah's messed-up liquor laws, I hear Maddow reading a passage from my recent Cricket column on the same subject.
Celebrating 20 years
The Utah Film Center is presenting a screening of Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," one of the films on Salt Lake Tribune movie critic Sean P. Means' list of 20 best movies of the past 20 years. Means will talk about the film, and about his career as a movie critic, after the screening.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
When • Thursday, July 11, at 7 p.m.
Admission • Free.
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