Best films by decade: The 1990s (part 3)

26 Oct

They look unhappy because they are.

13. Welcome to the Dollhouse/Happiness/12 Monkeys—Todd Solondz’s vicious deadpan isn’t for everyone. Here, he follows a well-intentioned little girl as she is humiliated, threatened, shamed, bullied, tormented and misunderstood. It’s a comedy, a satire, and a terrifying vision of adult incompetence. Solondz is unrelenting, and for the uninitiated, a cruel, distemperate writer out to punish the viewers. The key is the jokes; it’s a funhouse of punishing sarcasms. Happiness: Solondz strikes again, this time following half a dozen interrelated stories from a very disturbed dysfunctional family. One of the main characters masturbates while calling strangers; another is a pedophile rapist; the protagonist is a woman named Joy, who is systematically degraded and debased. Yet, the film operates with a deadpan humor, and a peculiar tenderness, that makes the film seem like real life. The rapist loves his son; the pervert is looking for love; Joy weathers the various hardships with an unflappable decency. Solondz weird and wooly, almost unlovable, but brave and bold and searing. 12 Monkeys: It’s the end of the world, again. Terry Gilliam expands the short film La Jetee, adding his own kooky scenes of asylums, insanity, and delusions, and in so doing gets a fantastic performance from Bruce Willis, who plays the frayed, perhaps insane time traveler trying to save the world. It’s a twisty little film, by turns devious and charming, and at its center is a romance that defies the viewer to forget the future holocaust that hangs over the proceedings. Is Willis the savior of the world, or just insane? The movie’s oddball structure—both non-linear and yet strangely chronological—makes this one of the best science fiction films in a long time. Gilliam is hit or miss, and many of his films date badly (The Fisher King being a case in point), but when he gets it right, he’s a marvel.

Peter Weller as a very convincing William Burroughs.

14. eXistenz/Naked Lunch/Pretty Woman—A sequel, or remake, or parallel narrative of Videodrome, this time focusing on the invasive power of video games and their premonitions of alternate realities. After a brief fling with respectability—Crash and Naked Lunch both adaptations, and Dead Ringers a critical darling—Cronenberg returned to his low fidelity roots. Jude Law stars as an innocent lost in a blasted out world, where people plug virtual game systems into jacks in their spines. The virtual world is a strange, recursive place, where patterns and stories seem to replicate themselves. It’s a twisty, scary, funny, at times quiet take on the same Matrix-style idea, with Cronenberg’s signature fascination/revulsion with bodily functions. (At one point, Jude Law makes a pistol out of chicken bones.) Technology changes us in unforeseen ways. Naked Lunch: Burroughs and Cronenberg make a lot of sense together, and Cronenberg, by taking liberties with an unfilmable (and egregiously overrated) novel, makes a very fine, stylized movie that gets to the center of Burrough’s freaky deaky work. Peter Weller is rail-thin, measured and pitch-perfect. A revolting display; a science fiction period picture; a rollicking exercise is tongue in cheek satire. It’s all bugs, aliens, orifices and addiction. Pretty Woman: The Richard Gere, Julia Roberts cash machine begins. Roberts plays a prostitute new to the streets. Gere plays a ruthless banker whose sole ambition is to accumulate money. The movie offers a panoply of ridiculous messages—find the right man and all will be forgiven, love conquers all, the past doesn’t matter, etcetera—but its made with skill and a lugubrious eroticism that seems timeless. Gere and Roberts were movie stars for a reason, too; they look great, move well on camera, and when it comes to sappy romance, they deliver the goods. Mock it from a distance, but when experienced its hard not to get sucked in.

Portrait of the perpetual underachiever.

15. Clerks/Chasing Amy/Four Weddings and a Funeral—Kevin Smith hits the zeitgeist homerun with this super low-budget movie about a particularly strange day in the life of two clerks. The jokes and anecdotes mostly deal with popular culture, such as extended riffs on Star Wars, as well as on the mundane frustrations of the lower working class. They’re underemployed, bored and misdirected, overeducated and cynical, and the resulting character study, for all of its childish perversity and obsessive nastiness, is a scathing portrait of American malaise. These are clever cowards, afraid to step out of the tiny little microcosm they live in. Mallrats is at times funny but one-dimensional and pointless, and also a bit peevish. Chasing Amy is a return to form, an at times very funny story of a man’s relationship to a bisexual woman he thinks is a lesbian. Ben Affleck delivers the goods, Jason Lee is still very funny, and Kevin Smith’s filmmaking deficits are hidden by an at times very powerful emotional story. Four Weddings and a Funeral: Aptly named. A very British comedy about a group of friends attending four weddings and a funeral. Hugh Grant plays the proto-typical Hugh Grant role, a nice, twee Brit who is witty and a touch shy. A strong cast and a very funny script make this the strongest of the middle class British comedies, utilizing droll humor, slapstick set pieces, American music, and precise comedic timing. Very, very good.

Tough, beautiful, problematic: that's Terence Malik in a nutshell.

16. Dead Alive/The Thin Red Line/Naked—Aussie weirdo Peter Jackson—before he became a household name—was a reckless director of slapstick splatter spray horror comedies. A sub-basement of an often-trashy (and neglected) corner of the cinematic house, this type of film reached its apotheosis with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II. Raimi and star Bruce Campbell realized they could capitalize on their low budget films by marbling the horror with Warner Bros. style slapstick. And it works. Jackson took the concept and upped the gore. The result is a zombie movie with enough fake blood to drown a village. Jackson understands that the excess is essential to the joy; the more blood, the more creative ways to spray the actors with viscera, the funnier the film. There’s a disembodied set of organs that chase the hero through the rafters. There’s beheading and dismemberment. There’s a priest beating an animated corpse with a human arm. The excess doesn’t seem excessive, only funny. The Thin Red Line: A superb film hobbled by too many celebrity cameos and a few misfire scenes. But the bulk of the movie, following a large group of soldiers at the Battle of Guadalcanal, is an excellent example of an artist at work in the war movie. Terence Malik applies his signature technique of wandering narrative voice-overs to provide moral, philosophical, and ethical ballast to what is, in essence, a classy dogface shoot ’em up. The cast is large and at times unwieldy, although Sean Penn, John Cusack, and Jim Caveizel all give excellent performances, as does Elias Koteas, who really shows his acting chops in a handful of scenes. Ultimately the movie is a stunning visual document; the tracking shots over the wind-blown grasses will break your heart. What it has to say about war, courage, bravery, the human condition, I’m not so sure. Naked: Mike Leigh’s ferocious exploration of a self-loathing, self-destructive misanthrope with too much intelligence and not enough moral sense, wandering through a disturbed London evening. He engages various characters with his slicing education and wit, dismantling a security guard’s belief system, for instance, despite the guard’s kindness towards him. A hateful screed, a blast of wordy anguish, a probing indictment of intelligence without empathy, Naked is an intense, dislocating experience in a Thatcher era England as a blasted out place.

If only all of Redford's films were this good.

17. Quiz Show/East Is East/Casino—Robert Redford’s best movie, a wry, quiet study of the beginnings of the television age. Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Van Doren, an entitled whiz kid who makes it big on a televised quiz show. John Turturro plays Herbie Stempel, a discarded former champion who is furious about his dismissal. And Rob Morrow plays Dick Goodwin, a federal attorney investigating the charges of fixing the quiz shows. The movie is fantastic, weaving in and out of media manipulation, political intrigue, and the personal lives of these three men, but with a light, deft touch, so unlike Redford’s other movies. East Is East: This very funny British movie is also an early foray into a very English multiculturalism. (They call it the Tossed Salad paradigm, and if that doesn’t make you smirk , then you aren’t up on your late 90s slang.) A Pakistani family deals with the viney invasion of British culture into their insulated world. The story deals with a large family, and the planned marriages that the family members flee from. A very funny movie, with a very fine cast. Casino: Both grand and grandiose, wonderful and wicked, but too close to, and a pale imitation of, its older cousin, Goodfellas. Scorsese reunites with DeNiro and Pesci to tell the story of the last days of the Italian mafia in Las Vegas. Scorsese ramps up the narrative pacing, and the sense of rush, of a crowded tale, of unnecessary violence, it amounts to a movie not quite sure of what it wants to say. Gangsters are bad people?

 

One of the great American movies about work.

18. Clockwatchers/The Game/Glengarry Glen Ross—A very funny, very dark little movie about full-time temporary workers in a big company who are unsure of the value of their work, or their place in the world. Parker Posey and Toni Collette, two superstar actresses comfortable in big budget films and little tiny indies, costar as temps working for a corporation they don’t care about or understand. They’re lives are drab, difficult and threadbare, but they movie focuses on small funny moments in their antiseptic environment. Reminiscent of Whit Stillman and the British Office, which is high praise. The Game: Michael Douglas plays a greedy, miserly businessman haunted by his father’s suicide and a general lack of purpose in life. His menschy brother, played by Sean Penn, gives him a birthday present in the form of the game, a puzzling game played out in real life. The game has rules, but they aren’t discernable. Finding out the point of the game is why you play. Douglas soon finds himself in a dangerous world of disintegrating reality. Hotshot David Fincher directs. Glengarry Glen Ross—David Mamet’s work holds up better in other people’s hands. It doesn’t hurt that this film has the best cast of male actors one could hope for: Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, Alex Baldwin and Jack Lemmon, who takes them all to acting school. The story takes place over 24 or so hours, following unscrupulous, down on their luck real estate salesman and the harsh new rules of their job; sell real estate, or find another job. Jonathan Pryce is the movie’s weak point, playing a simpering prey for the testosterone-charged salesmen, but otherwise it’s a brash and loud drama, a wordy film of nuanced and meaty performances.

A performance that is somehow obnoxious, frustrating and courageous at the same time.

19. Forrest Gump/Saving Private Ryan/Dazed and Confused—A movie with highs and lows, as well as some miserable set pieces (such as the entire jogging section), but also an ambitious re-imagining of American history through the viewpoint of a mental defective from backwater, Alabama. Hanks is very good, if also grating, flattened and a touch hamboney. But he builds a human being out of the cornpone and muck. The movie overreaches, yes, attempting to synthesize every great drama into some grand cinematic thing. But there’s a feeling that the movie, for all its flaws, tells a story of America that appeals to both sides of the political divide, no small feat. (It presents a liberal point of view on social causes beneath a conservative point of view.) Still, what is it saying about humanity? Are we really best represented by a noble fool? Saving Private Ryan: An episodic film, a pastiche of war movie clichés, all of it shot with visual aplomb. Spielberg is a very fine director, but he’s too bound by genre conventions. None of his movies, except his first handful, depart from expectations. Still, he delivers, and has had a fantastic career. Private Ryan is the story of a company of soldiers sent behind enemy lines to save one man. Along the way they are confronted with moral, physical, and emotional challenges, with death stalking them every step of the way. A very fine cast includes Barry Pepper, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi and Vin Diesel. A good liberal’s view of the war. Dazed and Confused: A 1970s re-imagining of American Graffiti, replacing cruising and drag racing with marijuana and sex. It’s also a guidebook of 90s independent actors: Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Cole Hauser, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Nicky Catt, Rory Cochrane. It’s all cars, music, and irresponsible behavior through one night of teenage sex and drug use on the first big party of a Texas summer. Director Richard Linklater’s enthusiastic love letter to his disappeared childhood is a superb example of the slacker comedy, finding humor in the aimless peregrinations of others. Linklater would go on to make a number of good movies.

Surreal French weirdness with a touch of humor.

20. City of Lost Children/The Paper/Jackie Brown/T2—A deranged old man looks for eternal life by stealing the power of children’s dreams. A childlike whale hunter, searching for his missing younger brother, pursues a trail of clues leading to the mad scientist. Directors Juenet and Caro made their name on their first film, a bizarre future cannibal comedy called Delicatessen. Those who like it, adore it; it left me lukewarm. Here they amp up the phantasmagoria, reveling in a reality gone askew. Their isn’t-life-kooky themes verge on the cloying, but here they create a mesmerizing alternate world. The Paper: Two movies, really: one is a funny as hell, fast-moving story of newspapers and reporters, the other is undeveloped  and hackneyed, a social justice movie about wrongfully accused youth. Michael Keaton stars as a high ranking editor for a New York tabloid. His wife, played by Marisa Tomei, is pregnant and pushing him to take a job at a respectable paper. Glenn Close plays Keaton’s nemesis, and they both duke it out daily under the aging, watchful eyes of Robert Duvall, the publisher. Two poor African American teenagers stumble upon two dead bankers, and they are blamed for the murders. Close wants to say their guilty, Keaton wants to say they aren’t. It’s a brilliant peek inside a mostly disappeared world—of the daily city paper and the hard-nosed newspeople who work so hard for stories that are small, forgettable, and immediately forgotten. A few edits, a little pruning, and this would have been one of the best films of the decade. As it is, it’s still funny, rich, and rewarding, just a touch flabby. Jackie Brown: Tarantino’s adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel is a very fine film, and an interesting counterpoint to the rest of his work. Here he toys with the realistic mode, using the music and characters to tell a linear story, and it’s quite good; he could have a great career, maybe even better, adapting existing works. Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel Jackson, Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, and Bridget Fonda star in this well crafted thriller from the 1970s mold. There have been many fine adaptations of Leonard’s work, but this is my favorite. The drawbacks are minor—the dialogue feels parodic of Tarantino’s other work; it’s too long; the scale of the film isn’t quite right—but they gnaw at the edges of the film, diluting its power. Terminator 2: Cameron’s return to the Terminator franchise, and it’s a whammy. The spectacle was something new; the villain has an amorphous, mercurial body that can take any form. The fluidity of the villain contrasts with the stony silence of the hero, in this case Arnold Schwarzaneggar, sent back in time by Connor’s future self to save his teenage incarnation. With every step, the heroes try to avert the future, and somehow continue to insure its eventuality. The movie can be seen as two dueling narratives for control of the future. Can the future be saved?

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