Best films by decade: The 1990s (part 4)

29 Oct

The best soul movie ever made, and it's set in Ireland.

21. The Cider House Rules/The Commitments/Carlito’s Way—Lasse Hallstrom is my go-to guy for well-made middle brow entertainments. (The Hoax, Chocolat, The Shipping News and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape are all very fine movies.) Here he tells the stories of Wilbur, an orphaned teenager, and his doctor ward.  The doctor, played by Michael Caine—in a very fine performance—performs illegal abortions, while operating an orphanage with love and care. His teenage ward, played by Tobey Maguire, often helps him, but feels the procedure is wrong. (The film, although eventually making its arguments for the merits of abortion, is a very fine character study.) Wilbur leaves the orphanage to work on an apple farm, where he meets black migrant workers and falls in love with a wealthy upper class woman. Despite his attempts at reinvention, to find any sort of happiness he must confront his orphanage past. Carlito’s Way: I’ve never really liked Brian De Palma. He’s a great visual director but a terrible storyteller. His movies often seem hastily thought out, half-baked. But here he delivers a very fine saga of a Puerto Rican gangster attempting to go clean. Al Pacino plays Carlos Brigante, a weary ex-con released on a legal technicality, attempting to keep his nose clean by running a legit nightclub. But the streets, in the form of his coked up lawyer (played by Sean Penn) and a hotshot street hustler (played by John Leguizamo) refuse to leave him alone. Soon he is embroiled in murder of a high-ranking mobster, and must somehow survive his vicious, avenging sons. The movie has a few silly moments, mostly around the dancing, but on the whole it’s a very fine mobster story. The Commitments: A great musical about the short rise and quick fall of a no-hit Irish soul band. Dublin gets the bleak downer treatment, a city of smiling drunks wandering about in front of broken down mills and half-empty factories. The film’s humanity comes from Jimmy, the manager and catalyst for the band, and the superb renditions of American soul music. Parts haven’t dated well, but when it hits, it’s close to perfection.

Tom Cruise as a sport agent attempting to find his soul.

22. Jerry Maguire/L.A. Confidential/Dark City—Tom Cruise is very, very good as a sports agent attempting to rediscover his soul in a soulless industry, which is emblematic of his acting career. Hiding within silly roles in pointless movies—I’m talking about Top Gun, Days of Thunder, etcetera—Cruise here gets to flesh out a real character. Cruise’s tendency towards hambone acting works to the film’s credit, for Jerry Maguire is a man who protects himself from the world through a fine veneer of histrionic self-protection. And then there’s Cuba Gooding, Jr., who delivers a great performance as an arrogant, self-promoting, and over the top football player. The two men form a friendship, over money, yes, but still a friendship, as Maguire moves from money-grubbing sports agent to a human being. Co-stars Renee Zellwegger as his love interest, but the real romance in the movie is all male. L.A. Confidential: Curtis Hansen delivers a rock solid adaptation of James Ellroy’s labyrinthine novel about the collision of Hollywood, police corruption, and the sprawling L.A. underworld. Guy Peirce and Russell Crowe are both excellent, as is David Straithairn and the other supporting players. Kevin Spacey hams it up a bit, and Kim Basinger is downright mediocre, but Hansen captures the whole thing in beautiful wide angle shots, with intricate period costumes, vehicles and weapons. A very fine film. Dark City: An intriguing little science fiction movie about a world controlled by albino telepaths looking for the secret of the human soul. They look by changing the architecture of the endless city the humans live in, and by altering the landscape of their daily lives with amnesiac shots. In the middle of this forever shifting cityscape, a man wakes up in a bathtub full of blood, with no memory of how he got there. He flees the scene, pursued by the super-powered telepaths and their human agents, through an urban scene that is perpetually dark. The movie is reckless, strange, but also believable and even moving.

Horror cinema verite with a killer backstory.

23. Good Will Hunting/Cry Baby/The Blair Witch Project—The story of an unparalleled genius growing up in South Boston amongst working class racists and barely literate drunks. He works as a janitor at M.I.T., where he solves complex math equations on public chalkboards, for kicks. One day, he’s caught by a professor, and the result is not one but two father figures in his life: Robin Williams, as depressed, empathetic counselor, and Stellan Skarsgard, an arrogant math professor. Let the healing begin. Yes, it’s improbable. Yes, it’s a bit treacly. But there’s a fine sense of time and place, and the characters feel like they have real internal lives, no small feat.  Cry-Baby: I’ve never understood John Waters’s appeal. His films are crass, silly, unsophisticated and amateurish. (Strangely, he’s a very fine writer of prose.) But here he delivers a great subversive musical about rascals and lowlifes eking out a living in the puritanical, white-washed landscape of starched collar America. Johnny Depp shows how good an actor he is, imbuing a rather slim character with brash humanity and an interior life. And, the songs are great. The Blair Witch Project: Attention must be paid. This no-budget horror exercise, shot on handheld digital film and released to enormous profits is also a clever, well-made frightfest about three filmmakers lost in unforgiving, possibly haunted woods. It was a searing, terrifying experience, seeing the movie on opening night. People believed the backstory, that this was found footage, assembled in an editing room. As an aside, shortly after Clerks, every film major was trying to make movies like this.

Daniel Day-Lewis holds it all together in this very fine period drama.

24. Short Cuts/In the Name of the Father/The Shawshank Redemption—Robert Altman strikes back. Looping together a dozen Raymond Carver stories, overlapping the characters and intertwining them through each other’s lives, Altman almost returns to his glorious ensemble work in the 1970s. It is only a silly ending and a forced catastrophe that mars what would otherwise be a work of art. Still, it has good performances and strong dramatic scenes, where Carver’s penchant for suspense, anxiety and despair are pulled to the surface. Utilizing an earthquake as a climactic device is a mistake, but the film is still a remarkable return to form for a very fine American director. In the Name of the Father: These sort of movies—historical re-intreprations about specific injustices—often date badly; here’s one that stands the test of time. The true story of five Irish hoodlums bullied into confessing to an IRA bombing they didn’t commit. Along with their families, they are sent to prison, where years pass amidst intimidation and violence. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the lead, and as usual his performance is raw, visceral and unforgettable. Directed by Jim Sheridan, who never quite made a movie of this quality again. Shawshank Redemption: Stately, patient, calming, mellow, and melancholic, Shawshank Redemption is also poignant, epic, thrilling . . . and overrated. Tim Robbins stars as Andy, an innocent man imprisoned for life for the murder of his wife. Inside, he meets Boyd, played by Morgan Freeman, and the two form a friendship, and even a community, amongst their fellow felons. But Andy—he’s modeled after Randall McMurphy and Cool Hand Luke—refuses to accept his imprisonment, and spends years planning his escape. The film has a touch of the self-importance about it—the cost of the rain machines alone must have run into the tens of thousands—but the performances, especially from James Whitmore—infuses the film with a hang dog humanity that comes through with an earthy glow.

Beware the fury of a woman scorned in Takasha Miike's Audition.

25. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery/Heat/Audition—It’s easy to mock now, but this Mike Meyers’s comedy upon its release was a brash reinvention of the spoof genre. And, it’s funny. Austin Powers is a 1960s spy frozen at the end of the free love era, and then re-animated in the 1990s. This disconnect, between the sexist past and the sensitive, multi-cultural future, is the source of most of the jokes. Meyers’s knack for catchphrases and accents, his feel for the pop culture of the 1960s, his insistence on silliness, it all amounts to a series of extended Saturday Night Live skits that work. Heat: I always found this movie to be shaggy, overly long, convoluted, mistimed and too damn long. But it has an obscenely devoted fanbase, and offers an interesting step in the career of Michael Mann. Mann spent the eighties in television and with the strange, underrated Manhunter. With Heat, he moved into the big leagues, and put out half a dozen blockbusters made with consummate skill. (I would argue that only Scorsese, Fincher, and Spielberg are so consistently skillful and entertaining with their big movies.) Heat is a sprawling, overwrought beast, convoluted and sloppy, but it has its moments. The bank heist at the end is superb. Still, what is the movie saying about the human condition? Blessedly little. Audition: Japan has a weird film culture. They’ve developed out of a different tradition, including Kabuki theatre, and the result is a dissonant viewing experience. Their values are more Buddhist than Christian (or humanist) and therefore the movies don’t always make sense. (They also, by firsthand accounts, sell used panties in vending machines.) Even a nice little movie like Shall We Dance comes off as peevy and weird, with the strange erotic relationship between the teenage dance instructor and the middle aged businessman. With Audition, this viewing dissonance informs a terrifying horror. A middle-aged man holds fake auditions for a acting job, looking for girls to screw. But the girl he picks might or might not be a murdering nutjob. Directed by the prolific, disturbed wunderkind of Japanese cinema Takashi Miike. Scary, gruesome, and terrifying.

Stupid, crazy love . . . with plenty of bullets.

26. The Ice Storm/True Romance/Titanic—Two families and their dysfunctional foibles against the backdrop of mid-seventies middle America. A great cast: Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood and Henry Czerny. Ang Lee shoots the film with his patient but scrutinizing calm. His movies often feel like a voyeur peeking through the curtains of a squabbling couple. The swinger party amongst the adults in the neighborhood, where the married men and women pair off in new combinations through the luck of the draw from a bowl of keys is creepy, funny, tense, erotic, unforgettable. A very fine little movie. True Romance: Tony Scott’s best film, which is faint praise. Christian Slater is very fine as a nerdy clerk who finds love with a call girl (Patricia Arquette). Their relationship sets him on a collision course with her pimp, who has stolen mafia drug money. Slater and Arquette flee across the country with the cash, pursued by killers, gangsters, and the Feds. It’s a tough little bullet of a movie, shot with Scott’s characteristic scenes of ultra-violent torture (which, by the by, predicts the next decade’s exponential increase with onscreen violence). But there’s something worth fighting for at the movie’s center, a loving relationship, and the result is a movie that is almost wholesome. Great cameos by Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken fill the movie with an interesting narrative alley. Unknown actors Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini both have killer little scenes, and Slater is convincing as a murderous nerd willing to do anything for a chance at love. Titanic: It’s an easy film to mock, with its overt sentimentality, hambone acting and expensive, fetishized period pieces. The villains are scoundrels; the heroes are heroic; love is pure and so on. But the production is compelling, lavish, and grand, a throwback to Hollywood’s beginnings. For what else is Titanic, really, other than a full color reworking of D.W. Griffith. His bloated Titanic picture, despite the innate cheesiness in the love story, works, and is a very fine movie. It’s over-wrought, but the emotions are enormous and exaggerated, like in an opera. As a cultural presence, James Cameron has a fascinating pattern: he disappears, and then reappears with an enormous hit. He seems to ponder the popular culture with a tastemaker’s diffidence, to appear like Arthur at the hour of entertainment’s need.

Honorable mention: Pi; The Fugitive; The Lion King; The Piano; Wild at Heart; American History X; True Lies; Boys Don’t Cry; Donnie Brasco; The Fisher King; Dumb and Dumber; Dead Man; Princess Mononoake; Newsies (not a joke); Reservoir Dogs; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Bad Lieutenant

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