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Best films by decade: The 1990s (part 1)

22 Oct

In retrospect, life was easy, simple. We had a booming sense of self-worth fueled by victory abroad and innovation at home. We hadn’t destroyed the world, and neither had the Soviet Union. The personal computer became a stable of almost every household. We had money. We were living at the end of history. Only goodness was to follow.

The dominant paradigm was something like this: Let’s take it easy. Let’s reap the benefits of our long and storied struggle. Let’s, all of us, get rich. Isn’t this the land of plenty? Can we now, all of us, get our share?

The culture wars percolated in the background. Who would decide was moral, what was good, what was proper, what was decent and what was right? With the passage of time, it’s hard to see what the big deal was, but in the moment the debate over the National Endowment for the Arts and the controversy over the crucifix in a jar of urine seemed important, necessary, and portentous of some imminent moral crash.

The two big film stories from the 1990s were the return of small-scale, independent American films and a renewed push-in of foreign movies. Both were the result of the Weinstein Brothers. They brought an enormous stable of talent into movies, including Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Jane Campion among others. They distributed foreign films, they developed homegrown directors, they were the driving force for movies in this country, good and bad. They developed a formula. Pick a writer from the past. Show their work as a direct result of their life. Create a period piece, with touches of drama and comedy, with a dash of whimsy. Or, singles in the city and their sex lives are complicated. Or, quirky girl with a touch of insanity meets melancholic man who needs to loosen up.

Elsewhere, a new genre was born: the slacker comedy. The protagonists acted like tragic figures; they wandered through life without purpose and direction, at the whims of external forces. They walked with bleary eyes. They were not artists or dreamers, but enacted the artifice of both. Who needs causes anymore?

Teenagers in the ’80s, protagonists were twenty-somethings in the ’90s. A new sense of homegrown diversity began to reverberate in the independent movie scene. Yet, there were few good roles for women. Try to think of one. This with Meryl Streep, Annette Benning, Julia Roberts, Diane Keaton, Nicole Kidman and a whole host of other talents panthering around. Ditto for ethnic actors. Where were the great vehicles for female stars?

The Internet changed everything. Digital film made shooting movies, in theory anyway, cheaper, as well as easier to edit and control.

Horror movies were bad. Scream was considered hip, and now seems so hopelessly square.

There were few musicals.

The decade ended with an eruption of pre-millennial tension. A resurgent end of days paradigm appeared.

And then we had the erosion of reality. Cyberpunk came to movies. Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, Eyes Wide Shut, existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, Summer of Sam, Terminator 2 and The Game, among others, deal with a breakdown not in society, but in reality itself. All of these movies deal with a fission in the movie as a alternate reality; think of Brad Pitt talking directly to the camera, and with his gaze tearing the celluloid wheels apart. Things were moving too fast. The machine was becoming self-aware. What place is there for art, really, when thinking computers can do everything humans can do, only better?

The crush of technology, the absurd culture wars, the (appearance anyway) of excessive wealth and prosperity, the creeping feeling that the whole thing, the living and breathing and procreating and dying, that the whole thing was some type of silly little game, with obscure rules and no way of winning. A deep and pervading sense of purposelessness seemed to permeate everything.

This section was the hardest for me to write. I started the ’90s watching mainstream blockbuster releases and loving Hollywood for them; I ended the ’90s a burgeoning cinephile with increasingly sophisticated tastes. My favorite movie in 1990 was Lethal Weapon. My favorite movie in 2000 was The Seventh Seal. The result is a peculiar tunnel vision. I have no distance to many of these movies.

I entered the nineties a child, and left them a man.

The woman and her double and the shimmering world.

1. Pulp Fiction/Chungking Express—A blast of retro grindhouse weirdness. Quentin Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, is a wordy, snarling little caper film—more of a play, really—where the heist happens off-screen. It has some great scenes, but it’s also hobbled by an overly talky script and a few scenes that run too long. (It’s still an astonishing debut.) Pulp Fiction is a giant leap forward, a funny, clever, violent movie that exploits the non-linear strengths of movies, and holds at its center a hard-won morality. Tarantino resuscitated Travolta’s career, and made Uma Thurman and Samuel Jackson stars. Unpredictable, funny, violent, remarkable, Tarantino’s second feature hit the theaters like a comet. (I was fifteen when this was released, and I saw it four times in the theaters.) Tarantino has remained a beguiling figure, resolute and committed, but to what it isn’t clear. Chungking Express: Wong Kar-Wai’s best film is really two short little films, connected by a little noodle stand and the theme of love, loss, and reinvention. This beautiful movie is funny, sad, strange, endearing, rambling and poetic. Unlike many other films of this type, Chungking is warm, welcoming and fun. Kar-Wai has an outsized reputation; this and In the Mood for Love, and to a lesser extent Days of Being Wild, are all great movies. But many of his other films are dated or just plain bad. Still, Chungking is a high water mark for international cinema, a timeless classic.

The lost girl and the gauze of memory and sunlight.

2. Fight Club/The Virgin Suicides—David Fincher’s karate chop to the adam’s apple of American cinema, capitalism and traditional concepts of masculinity. A divine casting sets Edward Norton as a nerdy loner who becomes friends with a muscled hottie named Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt). Durden lives by a macho, revolutionary creed, an anti-consumerist radical who sells soap made from stolen human fat. He and Norton, reeling from the pointless, flattened life of pre-millennial America, form a fight club, where disaffected men reconnect with their humanity by beating each other into a pulp. From this club is born a terrorist organization dedicated to inspired, murderous nonsense. It’s a divisive, two-fisted movie, and along with the Matrix, another blast of Hollywood zeitgeist weirdness. There were better movies, but none so virile and aggressive. The Virgin Suicides: Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, and is it a whammy. A middle-aged narrator looks back on the strange events of his childhood that led to the collective suicide of a group of teenaged sisters. Coppola wields sunlight as a physical force, and the sun-saturated film feels like a document from the 1970s. The movie makes no explanations or excuses, breaks many narrative rules, meanders at times, sprints at others, but the result is a major first film from a very fine artist. (Whether she’s fulfilled this early promise is up for debate.) The film has a gauzy, haunting quality that sticks in your guts for days, and works as a period piece, a horror movie, a character study and a family melodrama.

Portrait of the artist as a young rake.

3. Shakespeare in Love/Trainspotting—The best way to handle the canon is with a wry, light touch. Tom Stoppard co-wrote this funny, moving, and fascinating imaginative invasion into the life of the bard. Joseph Fiennes plays Shakespeare as a deep-feeling, wisecracking hack, stumbling his way through a dirty, shaggy Elizabethan London. He owes money all over town. He sleeps with married women.  He’s known as a second fiddle writer to his friend/nemesis Christopher Marlowe, the most celebrated playwright of the realm. Shakespeare puts on a new show, titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter,” while also falling into a relationship with dreamy rich girl, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s never been better. Paltrow wants to be an actor, but women are banned from the stage. She tries out in drag, and gets the lead role in Romeo. The whole thing moves towards a devastating climax, where Fiennes and Paltrow act out their relationship’s end through the initial performance. Stoppard has a knack for repositioning Shakespeare’s plays with an extra emotional dimension. Rosencrantz and Guildestern Are Dead foregrounds Hamlet in post-modern, cosmic humor; here he adds Shakespeare’s own suffering as a Romeo-style dude, locked in the sour tragedy of impoverished lovelessness. Incredible. Trainspotting—Director Danny Boyle connects the dots in this bleak, funny and disturbing immersion into the squalid lives of Scottish junkies. It’s a rare example of an adaptation that is superior to the original work; the film pares down the useless anecdotes, and infuses the proceedings with surreal touches. It’s a fine, visionary cast: Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremmer and Kelly McDonald. It’s a sleazy sojourn with fairly despicable lads, but Boyle gives each character, even the violent Bigby, humor and humanity. Trainspotting also introduced the druggy club culture that characterized so much of nineties fashion.  Style over substance, maybe, but what style. A great 90s soundtrack to boot.

Gabriel Byrne plays both sides against the middle in a mob war.

4. The Big Lebowski/Miller’s Crossing—The ultimate cult film follows the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, and Walter, played by John Goodman, as they resist the allure of a kidnapping crime caper plot to bowl, argue, smoke and hang out. Their refusal to engage with the plot gives the movie a marvelous comic sheen. Bridges and Goodman, always good, are here at their absolute best. Bridges has since claimed the Dude as closest to his own self, and Goodman hasn’t been given such a rich role since. Funny, hard to categorize, somehow a synthesis of every movie ever made and a rejection of the concept of cinema, Lebowski has, over time, become one of the most important films of the era. The Dude would be pleased. Miller’s Crossing: The Coen Brothers best movie, a half-farce, half-tragedy paean to the gangster pictures of their youth. Two rival gangsters fall into the familiar beef. At the center of the escalating war is Gabriel Byrne, a morally flexible fixer with a hard chunk of ice for a heart. You have Irish gangsters on one side, Italian mafia on the other, with a love triangle at its center. Complex and rewarding.

Favreau and Vaughan at their glorious best.

5. Swingers/Pusher—A fabulous comedy about struggling actors, the delusions they hold, and the distractions they create. Vince Vaughan and John Favureau co-wrote and star in this little movie directed by Doug Limon. All three would go on to stratospheric careers. But Vaughan has never been better than he is here, sharp-tongued and sarcastic, with a hard, arrogant edge. Limon moved on to Go, another nice little movie, before graduating to the big leagues with The Bourne Identity. And Favreau, a very fine comedic actor, became a filmmaker of blockbuster ideals. Swingers was the first and best of a type of film, following twenty-somethings through parties, bars, restaurants, life. Pusher: This Danish import follows Frank, a low-level drug dealer, through the worst week of his life. The movie unfolds in a series of long tracking shots, and the result is an intense meander through the wreckage of a thug’s life. Hotshot director Refn keeps the action moving with long tracking shots through the underbelly of Copenhagen. It’s a sterling, rousing first feature from a director who has since lost his way. The other Pusher films are equally excellent, more compressed, the final film taking place over the course of 24 hours. Refn has yet to replicate the passion, skill and humanity of his early films, but remains a filmmaker to watch.