Thursday, December 30, 2010

Reviewing the 90's - 40 to 31

See films 50 to 41 here

40 - Hana-Bi (Takeshi Kitano, 1997)

A popular entertainer in Japan, Takeshi Kitano reinvented himself in 1989 with his directorial debut Violent Cop, casting himself as a brutal law enforcer, and in the following decade he enhanced his new reputation with a series of increasingly ambitious crime pictures. His success was built upon his skill at blending hard and fast violence with moments of off-kilter humour, but Hana-Bi makes this list because it develops into something more than that, with Kitano focusing less on the action than the aftermath of it. He stars as cop Nishi, whose daughter is dead, whose wife is slowly dying, and whose partner has been confined to a wheelchair after getting shot during a stakeout. At his lowest ebb, Nishi robs a bank, giving some of the cash to his partner and using the rest to take his wife to the beach, where they can at least be alone and happy in her last days. The director's spare approach to storytelling boils his narrative down to essential moments, with the director's lyrical, imaginative style giving his film an emotional weight while constantly keeping us slightly unsure of where his story is leading. As a leading man, Kitano has incredible presence, with the ability to command our attention even as he does absolutely nothing. Usually, you'll see nothing more than a curious smile occasionally playing across his lips, although we do eventually see him laughing here as his character gradually rediscovers the joys of life, even if such happiness is fleeting.

39 - Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)

The dark, troubling and subversive Fight Club is not the sort of film you expect to see being bankrolled by a major Hollywood studio, but we must be thankful for such anomalies. This adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel explores themes and notions that mainstream cinema rarely dares to contemplate, and while its exploration of these ideas may sometimes come off as shallow and incoherent, Fincher's directorial verve ensures it is an exhilarating experience. The film's first half in particular hurtles forward on a tidal wave of testosterone, wit and cinematic ingenuity; sequences are edited together with stunning precision and Fincher intelligently utilises both Edward Norton's narration and some very impressive special effects, weaving them seamlessly into the narrative. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the film starts to flag in its second hour – how could it possibly maintain such a pace? – but it is always bold, often smart and it frequently cuts to the bone. Helena Bonham Carter's outstanding performance as Marla Singer goes some way to tempering the film's raging machismo, while Brad Pitt is hilarious and charismatic as Tyler Durden – surely the role he was born to play.

38 - The Wings of the Dove (Ian Softley, 1997)

Helena Bonham Carter reportedly secured the role of Marla in Fight Club after David Fincher saw her in this mesmerising adaptation of Henry James' novel. She is seductive and manipulative as Kate Croy, a woman hatching a plan to exploit a dying rich girl (Alison Elliott) so she can finally marry the pauper she loves (Linus Roach), and she brilliantly displays her character's growing guilt and regret as the pair plot to deceive a woman she has come to consider a friend. Director Ian Softley gives The Wings of the Dove a prestige sheen, with the film benefitting from some lovely cinematography, especially when the drama moves to Venice, but he also delves into the raging undercurrents of complicated emotions that lie beneath the surface. It's a brilliant, taut study of love and its limits, with the relationships between the three protagonists growing increasingly complex as the film builds towards an painful climax. It ends with a quite brilliant sex scene; one of the rare of examples of such a scene which is both dramatically and emotionally potent.

37 - Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

After making a debut like Reservoir Dogs, what do you do for an encore? Quentin Tarantino's second film was even more audacious than his first; a set of criss-crossing narratives, fractured timelines, hitmen discussing hamburgers, myriad pop culture references, and Christopher Walken with a gold watch up his arse. This was Tarantino showing off the full range of his talents, and Pulp Fiction exploded, becoming an independent blockbuster and, for many, an instant classic. I think Tarantino has subsequently done better work (as we will see later) but Pulp Fiction remains an outrageously funny, clever and stylish piece of filmmaking. The director puts the puzzle of his overall narrative together with a wonderful sense of confidence, and he shows himself to be equally adept at handling the (often comical) violence as he is detailing the intimacy of Vincent and Mia's eventful date. Every performance (except, sadly and predictably, for the director's own cameo) feels absolutely right for the character they're playing, the musical choices are spot-on, and it's so much fun that you don't really realise until afterwards how empty it ultimately is. Pulp Fiction may not be anything more than an exercise in style, but what style!

36 - The Dreamlife of Angels (Erick Zonca, 1998)

Eric Zonca's debut film focuses intensely on the friendship between two very different women, but he also draws the viewer into that relationship, making us feel as if we are experiencing the tumultuous ups and downs of life right there alongside them. In a similar fashion to the Dardenne brothers, he keeps his camera alert and allows life to unfold in front of it, capturing telling details that reveal so much about his characters' personality. Those two characters are Isa (Élodie Bouchez) – dark-haired, outgoing and fiery – and Marie (Natacha Régnier) – blonde, insecure and withdrawn – who meet at a factory and quickly become friends, with Isa staying at the house Marie is looking after. The subtlety and grace with which Zonca tells this story is astonishing. Nothing in the film feels forced, and yet the drama grows completely absorbing when the friendship is suddenly threatened, as Marie falls for a man that Isa (and we) can see is no good for her. The Dreamlife of Angels quietly gets inside us and grabs hold of our nerves, and the ending is heartbreaking.

35 - One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

A few years before he won an Oscar for his Sling Blade screenplay, Billy Bob Thornton co-wrote this gripping thriller, which I think is by far the greater achievement. Thornton plays one of the three criminals fleeing LA after a drug deal ends in murder and planning to lie low in Arkansas, where Fantasia (Cynda Williams) hails from. The cops are on their tail, but their biggest obstacle might yet be small-town sheriff 'Hurricane' Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton), whose boyish excitement at the opportunity to work alongside big city cops on a major case is palpable. One False Move's brilliant script cuts back and forth between the cops and the killers as they are drawn inexorably towards a climactic showdown. The characters are given real depth, revealing memories and secrets as the film unfolds, which lends the picture an unusual resonance, and it's a particular pleasure to see Bill Paxton taking on a role with dimensions and playing it so beautifully. This was Carl Franklin's directorial debut, but you wouldn't know that from his complete command of pacing and tone. After this, one of the great contemporary crime movies, Franklin went onto direct another of the most accomplished genre films of the decade with 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress. What a shame his career seems to have stalled since then.

34 - Nil by Mouth (Gary Oldman, 1997)

Raw and uncompromising, Gary Oldman's first – and, to date, only – film as a director presents us with a despairing look at broken lives on a South London estate, and no matter how bad things get for his characters, he refuses to look away. In a pair of stunning performances, Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke play Ray and Val, a married couple, while Charlie Creed-Miles plays Val's drug-taking brother Billy. Whenever Ray returns late from the pub, spoiling for a fight, Val and Billy are his prime targets. Nil by Mouth is a painful examination of a domestic violence, with Oldman suggesting a cycle in which nothing ever really changes: Ray beats his wife, tearfully apologises, and then life returns to a state of relative normality, until the next volcanic outburst. All of this is captured with a documentary-like immediacy, with Oldman often letting the film ramble off on a tangent (it is a little overlong) before suddenly snapping the movie back into sharp focus with another explosion of rage. It's authentic and terrifying, and it has the added weight of feeling like a distinctly personal piece of filmmaking. Oldman dedicates the film to his father, and if he hasn't directed again since, perhaps it's because everything he wanted to say was said right here.

33 - Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)

Martin Scorsese was reunited with Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi as well as many of that film's cast members for this sprawling epic. It may lack the focus of the earlier film, but it has so many other virtues, notably the thrill that comes from watching a great filmmaker giving a masterclass in cinematic technique. From the explosive opening sequence, Casino is a spectacular affair, with Scorsese deploying all of his familiar tricks – freeze-frames, voiceovers, tracking shots, eclectic soundtrack selections – to immerse us in a empire built on violence and greed. As Casino charts the rise of the mob in Las Vegas, we follow the fortunes of Sam 'Ace' Rothstein (Robert De Niro), his wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) and - the wild card - his volatile friend Nicky (Joe Pesci). All three give superb performances, but Stone is the standout, perhaps because the shades she brings to her role are so unexpected. The film is three hours long, but Pileggi's eye for detail and Scorsese's showmanship (not to mention Robert Richardson's luminous cinematography) make every minute spellbinding viewing.

32 - Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)

Saving Private Ryan never regains the intensity of its opening half-hour, but we can forgive it for that. After all, Steven Spielberg's depiction of the D-Day landings is unmatched in its ferocity and veracity. It plunges us right into the middle of the crossfire as bullets shred bodies wherever we look, and soldiers lay dead and dying having barely managed to step off the boat. It is relentless and an incredible filmmaking achievement from one of the most technically gifted directors of our time. He surrounds us with chaos and horror but he keeps it just the right side of incoherence, focusing on Tom Hanks as he slowly makes his way up the beach. Thereafter, the film becomes much more conventional, following a group of men on a mission to rescue a single soldier, but this is no bad thing. The ensemble cast, led by the flawless Hanks, is terrific, with the actors carving out little character details for themselves, and even if the film doesn't reach the same pitch as the initial onslaught, Spielberg still stages a number of remarkable sequences (the bridge assault is amazing). Saving Private Ryan is the most convincing portrayal of men at war seen on the screen, and it changed the way combat would be depicted in cinema forever.

31 - The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992)

A cracking adventure, a compelling historical epic and a grand romance, all rolled into one enormously satisfying package. Michael Mann's screen version of James Fenimore Cooper's novel is one of the director's greatest films, proving that he equally at home in the mountains and forests as he is in the city that he is most commonly associated with. He strikes a fine balance between making an authentic account of 18th century warfare and an old-fashioned, sweeping epic, relying heavily on Daniel Day-Lewis' conviction as trapper Hawkeye to draw us into the story. Of course Day-Lewis is superb, he always is, and so too are Madeleine Stowe as the woman he loves, Steven Waddington as the soldier who loves her and Wes Studi as Magua, the brutal leader of the Huron tribe. Dante Spinotti's cinematography is majestic and Mann keeps the story driving forward, but he kicks it up a gear for the climax, with the last 20 minutes being one of the most brilliantly sustained action set-pieces imaginable. Propelled by the wonderful score, Mann expertly ratchets up the tension, before imbuing so much meaning into a couple of glances between his characters, as they stand precariously on the edge of sheer drop.

See the next ten here