Best films by decade: The 1990s (part 2)

24 Oct

The enigmatic, paralyzing, terrifying, mystical weirdness of David Lynch.

6. Boogie Nights/Magnolia/Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature is a rollicking romp through the feature film pornography industry in the 1970s and ’80s, based on the life of John Holmes. This is a fantastic film, with well-drawn characters and a superb combination of humor, paranoia, satire and sex. Anderson uses the sex industry as a metaphor for the evolution from the free love/easy sex early 1970s to the STDs and AIDS ravaged 1980s. The movie begins with a tone of sleazy and breezy warmth and fun; it’s a long rock n roll video with jokes. But as the story moves on, and the characters fall into drug abuse and petty crime, the film becomes darker, culminating in a robbery scene that is unparalleled in its intensity. It’s a period piece, a comedy, a tragedy, a metaphor for the perils of fame, and an insightful demystification of the sex industry, breaking down our most intimate acts into blocked moves under glaring klieg lights. Magnolia: Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film is an enormous re-imagining of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, with dozens of characters at various epiphanic moments in their lives, colliding with each other against the immense backdrop of L.A. It’s a big, long emotional blast of a film, with very fine acting that skirts with the histrionic but holds it together. Each story contains suspense and anxiety, each character faces a moral and emotional crisis through a 24-hour period. It’s an astonishing achievement, both technically and otherwise. The only drawback is the singing number; I think Anderson, if he could, would go back and edit this out. Still, a dynamite movie. Twin Peaks: A disturbing, sullying, destabilizing movie. Twin Peaks was a flash of subversive genius, that flickered for a few brief moments and was then snuffed out. Lynch and co-writer Frost used the familiar small town setting to explore all manner of endless weirdness, circling the basic question: who killed Laura Palmer? Here, he answers the question, sort of, in a prequel that follows the days and weeks leading up to Palmer’s murder. The movie is terrifying, and Lynch exacts an awe-inspiring performance from Sheryl Lee as the coked up, miserably confused teenage girl. This tormented piece of celluloid was panned upon release—it’s a deranged journey through a sordid unraveling of tawdry world—but as the years pass it has grown in its magnetic power. Fair warning: the film will leave you frightened and changed.

 

The innocents abroad: two cousins wander Spain's most beautiful city.

7. Barcelona/Last Days of Disco—In the 1990s, Whit Stillman was the king of the droll comedy, a master of deadpan delivery, interesting characters, and funny as hell lines. A salesman located in Barcelona has his life upended when his cousin from the states comes to live with him. Taylor Nichols plays the lead, Chris Eigeman his cousin. Barcelona has some intangible quality of  pleasantness; it’s a fun movie to watch over and over again. The only drawback is the American actresses playing Spaniards; the accents are terrible and it’s a shame, because the rest of the film is a hands down masterpiece. Go local with the women and this would be my number one. Last Days of Disco: Stillman’s third film is his most ambitious and best. A group of underemployed twenty-somethings navigate the Disco scene in its final hours. People fall into relationships, there’s a subplot of embezzlement, but the film’s strength lies in its indelible characters and the razor sharp script. He’s been called the Jane Austin of generation X, an apt comparison. Stillman gets wonders out of Kate Beckinsdale and Chris Eigeman in this movie stuffed with toss away one-liners and a strange, hulking melancholia about the creeping end of an era.

Fear and Loathing in New York, a David Mamet mantra.

 

8. Homicide/The Matrix/Unforgiven—David Mamet’s one great film, where his dialogue, cast and story all combine to create an intriguing, enigmatic film. His often amateurish direction here looks lean, professional and tough. The story follows a Jewish detective (played by Joe Mantegna) working on a heinous case, where a Jewish storeowner appears to have been bludgeoned to death because of her ethnicity. His investigation leads him into a labyrinth of wealthy Jewish zealots and an anti-Semitic conspiracy. It’s a spellbinder, and following this rugged homicide detective as he loses his sense of direction; his sense of self; the honor of his profession; and the goodness of his own country is an excoriating judgment on humankind’s inability to eradicate something as absurd as racism. The Matrix: If Star Wars is a mashup of space opera and the western, The Matrix is a mashup of cyberpunk and kung fu. Keanu Reeves resurrects his career as Neo, a dissatisfied hacker making his way through a drab existence. He’s wandering through life as if in a dream, which in a sense he is. Morpheus, a leather-clad badass, offers Neo a glimpse at ultimate reality. The reality, Neo discovers, is ghastly; the bulk of mankind is asleep in tiny containers, their consciousness living in a virtual world, while their bodies are harvested by thinking machines as fuel. It’s a marvelous movie, despite the spinning visuals, and a bold mashup of movie genres. A big budget science fiction bonanza, combining chop sockey, nerd hacker goth and gee whiz Philip K. Dick ideas. The bad guys are white dudes in fancy suits, the good guys are freaks, nerds and people of color.  Unforgiven: The end of the western, and it’s not with a whimper, but a bang. Clint Eastwood’s last ride is a brutal reimagining of the frontier western. Aging gunmen clank around a tormented landscape, where bullets don’t kill instantly but rather drag a man screaming to his death. There is no honor, beauty or ideals, justa sordid might makes right paradigm where the wretched of the earth commit murder for no real reason at all. Gene Hackman stands out as a sadistic sheriff. Unforgiven is not pleasant, but it feels like a distillation of Eastwood’s entire career, and the sand blasted end of the most American of genres.

Anderson's first film is in some ways his best.

9. Bottle Rocket/Rushmore/Army of Darkness—A laconic, funny, and wry look at small-town complacency. Luke Wilson plays a depressed average joe just out of a facility, and his real-life brother Owen Wilson plays Digden, his best friend who’s biggest ambition is to be a bank robber. The bright colors, meandering storyline, offbeat humor and killer soundtrack lay down the signature Wes Anderson components that would compose, in various combinations, his entire oeuvre to date. But he hides within this quirky little movie a hard sucker punch of reality, tucked away right at the end, a summation of the devastating consequences of foolish living.  Anderson is one of the wundkerkinds of 90s cinema, a dashing, debonair talent with an eye for fashion, music and design. His vast talents in these areas come to harm some of his later films. He has, over the years, shifted into a stylish director who can’t seem to tell a straight story. He suffers because of his talents; 60 years ago he would have been a set designer for Douglas Sirk or Vincent Minnelli and been happy with the work. Rushmore: Wes Anderson’s second film and it’s superb. Max Fischer is an industrious, hard-working, overachieving student at Rushmore, a private school; he’s also failing every class. Through a story that is touching, silly, honest, and offbeat, Fischer develops a crush on one of the teachers. Applying his same, low-rent ingenuity to win her, Fischer comes to loggerheads with a depressed middle-aged businessman (played by Bill Murray). Murray is a revelation, his first serious acting in years. The plot doesn’t convey the pleasures this rambling little movie holds. Bold colors, lavish design, and incredible attention to detail make for a wonderful film. Army of Darkness: The great cult non-hit of the 90s, this low budget, time traveling horror comedy is the last collaboration of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell before Raimi went big time. The plot is silly, the action non-stop, the special effects at times laughable, but the movie is infectious, rambunctious and anarchic, like a live action Bug Bunny cartoon. Hundreds of movies try to replicate this zany tone, but only a handful capture it. Here’s one that does. (Kung Fu Hustle is the other.)

 

John Singleton: one great movie and then a downhill slide.

10. Boyz in the Hood/ Deconstructing Harry/Fargo—John Singleton’s first film—he was in his early twenties when he wrote and directed this—is also his best. He has a great cast: Lawrence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Morris Chestnut, among others. He has a simple story, following half a dozen characters through the random hard knocks of South Central L.A.  Singleton’s other films all suffer from pedantry, silliness, and visual clunkiness, but here he delivers a lean story about the creeping bad luck that stalks the good, the evil, and the innocent in the hard-scrabble neighborhoods plagued by gangs, drug violence and rampant unemployment. Everything about the film feels right and important, and the watching of it is elegant in its simplicity. Singleton went wrong fast, but here he gets everything just right. Deconstructing Harry: The misconception about Woody Allen is that he stopped making good movies around 1988. This is false. I would argue that he never stopped making good movies, with a few weak exceptions. But, Celebrity—despite its viciousness and misanthropy—is very good, Shadows and Fog is very good, Bullets Over Broadway is very good, and Deconstructing Harry is excellent. Harry is a profane, dark and very funny story of a writer who has written all of his own life episodes into his fiction, and the hatred his family and friends have for him because of it. The film is a big departure. Allen curses like a sailor, visits prostitutes, and drinks constantly. The visuals utilize a quick cut technique, and much of the underlying kindness in Allen’s other films is scrubbed away to an abrasive stone. Fargo: The Coen Brothers had a great run in the 1990s, floundering only with The Hudsucker Proxy. (They love the screwball films of the 1930s, but they can’t seem to replicate the tone. In fact, they struggle with every genre except the violent black comedy.) Barton Fink is small, insulated and superb; Miller’s Crossing is a high water mark; and Fargo is a very fine crime caper. They pull out of William Macy some essential performance, of a skeevy coward so morally bankrupt that he’ll have his own wife kidnapped to avoid an unnamed financial scandal. Steve Buscemi is great, funny but menacing. Melding black humor, regional satire, and a harrowing kidnapping story against the bleakness of a Minnesota winter, Fargo is a disturbing dark comedy that works.

 

The culmination of Kubrick's career: casual misanthropy and weird sex.

11. White/Eyes Wide Shut/The Truman ShowBlue is too precious and moody, and Red is a pretentious bore, but White manages to tell a great story, while holding onto philosophical inquiry and biting commentary on the human condition. Impotent in the bedroom, a Polish immigrant in France must rebuild his life on the margins of things, searching for meaning after being sartorially destroyed by his ex-wife, whom he still loves. His reinvention involves shady business deals upon his return to Poland, and a stint as a homeless beggar on the streets of Warsaw. Sexy and spectacular. Eyes Wide Shut: A very beautiful film full of ideas, a creepy jaunt through the sexual lives of New York rich, and a peeping tom mess. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise play an upper class couple tearing each other apart with their cold materialism and their savage intellects. When Kidman tells Cruise (her real-life husband at the time) of a time she wanted to cheat on him but couldn’t, Cruise flees to a night in the street, where he wanders from bar to bar, scene to scene, ultimately sneaking his way into a cult-like orgy. The next day he must deal with the night’s mistakes, and a creeping sense of danger stalks his every step. Then, the movie deflates into a disappointing, but realistic, ending.  Kubrick’s eye for detail never wavers; it seems fitting that his final film is a misanthropic ode to the potential saving grace of raunchy sex. Truman Show: Jim Carrey remakes himself as a dramatic actor, playing an orphaned child living in an artificial universe for the delight of the masses. Here his jittery manic style seems the exact fit for a damaged man-child living in a world designed to keep him unhappy. Perhaps the most interesting part of the movie is the narrative switch, halfway through, from Truman, to the show’s creator, played with real brio by Ed Harris, as a twisted artist who finds no solace in the pleasures of creating fiction; he wants to shape reality itself. This tiny little movie recasts the voyeuristic obsessions of the Internet age as tragic, and our attempts to control our environment, and therefore the environment of others, as absurd. A great movie that revels in its self-contained smallness, held together in part by a terrific performance by Laura Linney.

 

Almodovar's big leap forward as an artist, and a great film.

12. Seven/The Sixth Sense/All About My Mother—Still a hard film to watch. Morgan Freeman departs from his usual wise old man role to play a hardened, cerebral detective, so sick of the job that he cannot sleep, nor sustain any relationship at all. Brad Pitt plays his new partner, and they are confronted with an immense series of crimes, that appear to be connected by a demented obsession with the seven deadly sins. In another director’s hands this would all be corny torture porn, but David Fincher, using dour lenses, rain machines and on-location shooting creates a haunting atmosphere of urban decay. When the killer appears, played to the nines by Kevin Spacey, the movie moves into an ultra-disturbing climax of Biblical proportions. What holds the cruel, pulpy mess together is Fincher’s immense storytelling talents, and the very fine performances. Take a look at the casting to see what everyone is up to: Richard Roundtree and R. Lee Ermey skulk around as hard-worn cops. This is a genre movie, through and through. The Sixth Sense: A horror story put together with talent and craft, focusing on a single mother and her tiny son, and an emotionally distant psychologist who can’t seem to make any physical connection with his wife. Shyamalan is a hit or miss director, and all of his films suffer from a characteristic glacial pacing. But here he caught the movie-going public by surprise with a twist ending that was logical, predictable, but a total surprise. A great cast doesn’t hurt: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osmont, Toni Collette, and Olivia Williams.  It’s easy to dismiss Shyamalan now, but with his first release he appeared to be a major American auteur. What happened? Fame, self-involvement, and solipsism. All About My Mother: Spanish superstar Pedro Almodovar has had a hell of a career, combining slapstick humor, bold interiors, clever dialogue and a breakneck pace. He would, in the 2000s, evolve his skill into miraculous films, including Talk To Her and Volver, two of my favorite films of the era. All About My Mother is the hinge, where he moved past the slapstick sex comedies of his youth into a mature artist. The story follows a young writer who wants to learn about his father, whose identity his mother has concealed from him. His journey brings him not to greater appreciation of his absent father, but rather into greater understanding of his mother’s sacrificial love.

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