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Peter Travers: 25 Years, 25 Reviews

In honor of his 25th anniversary at the magazine, Rolling Stone’s film critic looks back at some of his personal favorite reviews

Trainspotting, Do the Right Thing, Trainspotting,Fight Club, Rushmore,The Social Network

20th Century Fox Film Corp.

It's anniversary time for me: As the film critic for Rolling Stone since May of 1989, I've had the privilege to review movies for a committed, contentious readership raised on rock & roll. So in picking 25 movies to highlight over my first 25 years at the magazine, I'm going with the ones that have the same juice as the music: youth, defiance, danger, fun and a need to bust rules.

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Are these the greatest movies? Not always. But they are the movies that tried to shake things up — bang-on, truthful, no apologies. Here goes. By Peter Travers

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‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

Perhaps the most influential film of the past quarter century, Pulp Fiction made good on the promise writer-director Quentin Tarantino showed in 1992's Reservoir Dogs. This crime anthology blends three stories and 12 principal characters (career-best acting from John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman) into a mesmerizing mosaic of the Los Angeles scuzz world. Tarantino can do action like nobody's business, but it's second to his powerful gift for language. Listen up. There's not a trace of caution, complacency or political correctness in Pulp's 154 deliciously lurid minutes. Read the Review

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‘Fargo’ (1996)

Kidnap, murder, Minnesota, snow, strange accents and a pregnant sheriff named Marge (the Oscar-winning Frances McDormand) figure in this darkly comic classic from Joel and Ethan Coen — whose off-handedly revolutionary films could fill half this list. You betcha. The Coens wouldn't know how to make a dull movie or an obvious move. And here, while making it look easy, they make us see ourselves in the best and worst of human behavior.

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‘Trainspotting’ (1996)

Adapted from Irvine Welsh's 1993 cult novel, Danny Boyle's visionary film declares war on the dull gravity of social realism. Sure, it's an urban grunge fantasy from Scotland about four shoplifting, slum-dwelling junkies (Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle) with accents as thick as their smack-addled heads. But there's an incendiary daring in it, a willingness to go for broke. Read the Review

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‘Breaking the Waves’ (1996)

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is a certified wild man, and I mean that as a compliment. For me, Breaking the Waves is his best cinematic provocation. It stars the luminous Emily Watson as Bess, a virginal Scottish lass who shocks her strict Calvinist community by marrying a lusty Scandinavian oil rigger, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard). She rubs his belly, brushes her fingers through his pubic hair and plays with his penis as if she's just discovered sex, which, of course, she has. When Jan suffers a paralyzing accident, Bess thinks having degrading sex with strangers will help cure him. "The strength of my films," von Trier said, "is that they are easy to mock." This one is also impossible to forget. Read the Review

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‘Boogie Nights’ (1997)

Paul Thomas Anderson, whose game-changing films have been a continuing joy of my years as a critic, was just 27 when he proved himself a young master with this tumultuous two-and-a-half hour evocation of sex in the 1970s. Not just any sex: Porn sex. The teen busboy hero (Mark Wahlberg in a breakout performance ) rises to X-rated fame on the size of his dick and his apt new name, Dirk Diggler.  The mother figure for Dirk is a porn queen (Julianne Moore) and the father is a porn director (Burt Reynolds). The subject for Anderson is family, and the illusion of glamor that  helps these alleged swingers buy into the fantasy. Read the Review

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‘Rushmore’ (1998)

In only his second film, following 1996's Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson began performing miracles that have continued through his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The bedrock of Anderson's unique talent and style can all be found in Rushmore. It stars the terrific Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer, a 15-year-old misfit at Rushmore Academy who puts on school dramas set in cities or jungles that always end in shootouts. The plaintive subtext of even the funniest scenes becomes apparent when Max vies for the affections of a teacher (Olivia Williams) with the school's benefactor (Bill Murray, artfully digging for signs of life in a character who thinks his soul is dead). Slowed-down farce?  Souped-up tragedy? No matter. Rushmore is indelible. Read the Review

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‘Being John Malkovich’ (1999)

The crazy-ass imaginations of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman hit you like a blast of pure oxygen. The plot? A puppeteer (John Cusack) discovers a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich — played by Malkovich himself; he's never been better — and charges $200 to take a quick trip inside. What happens to the puppet man, his dowdy wife (Cameron Diaz) and his hottie accomplice (a delicious Catherine Keener) defies description. But this is a one-of-a-kind movie of constant astonishments. Read the Review

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‘Fight Club’ (1999)

Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk and directed in a white-heat by David Fincher, Fight Club is much more than what meets and dazzles the eye. I've never gotten more hate mail for liking a movie. But I ask you, how do you not relate to a zeitgeist movie that pulls you in, challenges your prejudices, and leaves you laughing in the face of an abyss? Edward Norton is astonishing as a work slave who meets his polar opposite, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt, never more dynamic) at a fight club where men get in touch with their feelings by beating each other to a bloody pulp. Fight Club plumbs the violence of the mind to unearth deeper truths. Read the Review

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‘Election’ (1999)

Alexander Payne is not a filmmaker who gets up there in your face. His films, including Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska, sneak up on you. But their comic darts leave marks. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor use an Omaha high school election to satirize nothing less than political and moral corruption at the heart of democracy. Reese Witherspoon gets my personal Oscar as the demonically fierce and funny Tracy Flick, a young, female tricky Dick Nixon who is willing to lie, cheat, steal, screw faculty and even make cupcakes for voters to win the race for student council president. One teacher (Matthew Broderick) stands against Tracy's fascist rise. Ha! Read the Review

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‘Requiem for a Dream’ (2000)

Director Darren Aronofsky uses Hubert Selby Jr.'s 1978 novel to bend the world into new shapes. Good for him. Set in Brooklyn, on the streets of Aronofsky's native Coney Island, Requiem stars Jared Leto as a dreamer who gets hooked on drugs along with his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) and his mother (Oscar nominee Ellen Burstyn), a diet pill freak crazed by hallucinations of her frig in attack mode. Aronofsky assaults the senses with jump cuts, split screens, and jarring, distorted images to show lives spiraling out of control. Academy voters, who don't feel safe in the dark, chose Gladiator as Best Picture that year. Read the Review

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‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001)

"What drugs are you people on?" asked filmmaker David Lynch when the New York Film Critics Circle named his out-there, outrageously entertaining Mulholland Drive as the Best Movie of 2001. That's easy. We were high on the film's visionary daring, swooning eroticism, and the shifting identifies of a Hollywood newcomer (an astonishing Naomi Watts) and a glamorus brunette amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring). The creator of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet has issued an invitation to get lost in the landscape of his mind. The film grips you like a dream that won't let go. Read the Review

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‘Memento’ (2001)

Christopher Nolan's jolting jigsaw puzzle introduced us to a filmmaker of startling gifts, as later evidenced in The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, a former insurance investigator out to find the man who killed his wife. The striking opener involves a murder and a Polaroid of the body. Then Nolan runs everything backward. The photo slips back into the camera, a bullet is sucked back into a gun barrel, and Leonard starts living in reverse. A trick? Nah. In Nolan's hands, Memento is a mesmerizing mindbender built to keep you up nights. Read the Review

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‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)

Charlie Kaufman's innovative script concerns two lovers — a subtly moving Jim Carrey and a flamboyantly superb Kate Winslet — who try to erase each other from their bruised memories through a firm that specializes in the process. Director Michel Gondry is expert at finding visual equivalents for the humor and heartbreak of love, creating a romance like no other and way ahead of its time. Read the Review

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‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal bring deep reserves of feeling to this defiantly erotic love story about two Wyoming ranch hands and the external and internal forces that drive them from desire to denial. Directed with piercing intelligence and delicacy by Ang Lee, the film of Annie Proulx's 1997 short story wears its emotions on its sleeve. Did homophobia play a part in the so-called "gay cowboy movie" losing the Oscar to the inferior Crash? You be the judge. What's onscreen hits you like a shot in the heart. Read the Review

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‘Children of Men’ (2006)

Alfonso Cuaron won a directing Oscar this year for Gravity, but the spellbinding Children of Men is the fullest expression of his passion and intellect. Cuaron takes on a 1992 novel by P.D. James set in 2027 in a battle-battered England overrun by terrorism, immigrant invasion and global infertility. Invoking shattered landscapes from Beirut to Baghdad, Cuaron  locates shards of humanity among the ruins. Clive Owen stars as a resistance leader pinning his hopes on the last pregnant woman on Earth. Is it possible to capture the terrible absence of a world without children? Cuarón does it with  sorrowful beauty and exhilarating action. You don't just watch the car ambush scene (pure camera wizardry) — you live inside it. That's Cuarón's magic: He makes you believe. Read the Review

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‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007)

Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is set in 1980 in West Texas, where the chase is on for stolen drug money. The film  is a literate meditation on America's bloodlust for the easy fix. What do the criminal acts of losers in a flyover state have to do with the life of the mind? Plenty, as it turns out. Josh Brolin is the cowboy caught between a decent sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) and an assassin (Oscar winner Javier Bardem) who reps evil topped with the cherry of perverse humor. Dehumanization is the topic here and this film carries in its bones the virus of what we've become. The Coens squeeze us without mercy in a vise of tension and suspense, but only to force us to look into an abyss of our own making. Read the Review

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‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007)

In terms of excitement, imagination and rule-busting experimentation, Paul Thomas Anderson's portrait of an American primitive is the biggest creative gusher I've experienced at the movies in the past quarter century. As Daniel Plainview, a prospector who loots the land of its natural resources to fill his pockets and gargantuan ego, the acting hurricane that is Daniel Day-Lewis shows us a man draining his humanity for power. Anderson, having extended Plainview's rage from Earth to heaven in the form of a corrupt preacher (Paul Dano), gets us drunk on movies, on their potential to blast into new frontiers of visual poetry and visceral fervor. From Hard Eight to The Master, Anderson persistently pushes at Hollywood limits. Going into the next 25 years of film, I'd put my money on PTA to lead the way. But if Anderson had done nothing else in his career, There Will Be Blood would still rank him with the giants of cinema. Read the Review

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‘The Social Network’ (2010)

Talk about a movie of its time. Director David Fincher uses a brilliant, dick-swinging script by Aaron Sorkin about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (a never-better Jesse Eisenberg) to show us the nation of narcissists we've become, reshaping who we are on Facebook in the hope of being friended by other users who may or may not be lying their asses off. Bracingly smart, brutally funny and acted to perfection without exception, the film laces its  scathing wit with an aching sadness. The final image of a solitary Zuckerberg  at his computer has to resonate for a generation of users (the drug term seems apt) sitting in front of a glowing screen pretending not to be alone. Read the Review

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‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012)

Kathryn Bigelow had already become the first female director to win an Oscar (for 2009's The Hurt Locker), but to my mind she and screenwriter Mark Boal topped that achievement with this high-voltage thriller, digging with shocking gravity into the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.The film opens with voices crying for help in the towers on 9/11. It ends on May 2nd, 2011, when Navy SEAL Team Six took out the Al Qaeda leader. Bigelow and Boal go beyond the SEAL heroics by plunging into the byzantine layers of the CIA, where operatives – low-and high-echelon, trackers and torturers – spend years at the chase. We see the toll reflected on the face of Maya (a stellar Jessica Chastain), a CIA targeter who hasn't yet grown calluses over the places where she can still feel. The film's Oscar chances were hurt by a negative media campaign that claimed the film condoned torture. Not to anyone who watched it with their eyes opened. Zero Dark Thirty remains the definitive film to date on the moral confusion inherent in the War on Terror. Read the Review

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’12 Years a Slave’ (2013)

It's pure coincidence that my 25 years at Rolling Stone are bookended by two fierce, feeling films about the black experience in America. 12 Years a Slave starts its true story in 1841 when Solomon Northup (the electrifying Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violin player living free in New York with his wife and children, winds up as human chattel in the Deep South. This pitiless chamber of horrors would be unimaginable if it didn't acutely define the American slave trade. Director Steve McQueen, a conceptual artist born in London to West Indian parents, works with African-American screenwriter John Ridley to create a cinematic gut punch that looms like a colossus over the Mandingo-Mammy-fixated drivel that passes as muckraking in Hollywood. Ancient history? Only if you naively believe that freedom has lost its fragility in today's world. Unlike 1989's Do the Right Thing, 12 Years a Slave actually did win the Best Picture Oscar, the first black film in the Academy's 86 year history to do so. Progress, indeed, but such a damn long time coming. Read the Review

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