Friday, December 31, 2010

Reviewing the 90's - Guest Contributions

While I was delighted to receive so many contributions to my Best of the 90's readers' poll, I was particularly pleased to receive top ten lists from fellow film writers and a few filmmakers too. Here are some of those contributions, and I'd especially like to thank those who offered additional thoughts on their picks.

Film Writers

David Bordwell from the indispensible

For what it's worth, back in 2000 I did a list of 90s films for FILM COMMENT. Looking back at it, I'd drop ANGEL AT MY TABLE and SIMPLE MEN and replace them with EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED (Johnnie To) and FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (Hou).

Through the Olive Trees
A Brighter Summer Day
Chungking Express
The Blade (Tsui Hark)
The Thin Red Line
Flowers of Shanghai
Expect the Unexpected
A Scene at the Sea
The Suspended Step of the Stork

Matthew Turner from View London

Christ, this was difficult. Thought about doing one film per director but decided I had to have Lebowski and Miller's Crossing in there. Sticking to UK release dates means no Magnolia, no Memento, no Show Me Love and no Galaxy Quest, all of which would have had a shot otherwise.

1) Miller's Crossing
2) Goodfellas
3) L.A. Confidential
4) Twelve Monkeys
5) Dances With Wolves
6) Fight Club
7) Ed Wood
8) Groundhog Day
9) The Big Lebowski
10) Reservoir Dogs

Michaël Parent from Le Mot du Cinephiliaque

1. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
2. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
3. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
4. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
5. Fargo (Ethan & Joel Coen, 1995)
6. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
7. Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)
8. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)
9. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)
10. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)

Philip Raby from Front Row Films


At the risk of attracting derision, I would argue that Groundhog Day is one of the most profound movies ever made. People have said to me, “yeah but it’s the same thing happening over and over again,” to which I can only reply with a blank and uncomprehending stare. Bill Murray has never been better; Harold Ramis’s subsequent films have been a grave disappointment, and if anyone wants to know about the meaning of life, watch this film until you get it.

L A Confidential is another not-so-guilty pleasure. It’s what American cinema is like at its best; actors from other countries (Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe are Aussies); plus the likes of Kevin Spacey and Danny de Vito surpassing themselves; all knitted together by an amazingly succinct and on the money adaptation of a crime novel that seemed impossible to film. And then there’s Kim Basinger.

All About My Mother is one of two great Almodovar films (Habla Con Ella/Talk To Her being the other), which are – so far – the pinnacle of his career. There is so much feeling, beauty, elegance and subtlety, that I would never get tired of seeing it.


Last Of The Mohicans is the most perfect action/romance historical drama I can imagine, because Daniel Day Lewis so comprehensively and single-mindedly inhabits the part of Hawkeye. The sequence in which he rescues Madeleine Stowe from being scalped, before later diving from the waterfall having uttered the immortal lines “I will find you. No matter how long it takes, how far, I will find you…” That for me is pure undiluted cinema magic.

I wrote my MA dissertation on Breaking The Waves, not least because when I saw it for the first time, I started sobbing at about the same moment that David Bowie broke into Life On Mars. Plus the fact that my wife thought that she must have chosen the wrong man on the basis that I could admire a film so vile. It’s a film everyone should see, if only to test the limits of tolerance. And if you tell me it’s manipulative, er, yes, that’s right.


Quiz Show, my left field choice. I could have gone for The Piano, Magnolia and many other admirable films, but Quiz Show is a well told, well acted, well scripted and well directed (Robert Redford’s greatest moment) that was mostly overlooked when it was released. It says a lot about America, corruption, temptation and the power of the media, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film.


Colin Harris at Pick n Mix Flix

Nobody's Fool
LA Confidential
Beautiful Girls
The Grifters
Out of Sight
True Romance
The Limey
Jackie Brown

Katherine McLaughlin from Coconut Boots

1.American History X
2.Fight Club
5.Terminator 2
6.Heavenly Creatures
7.Pulp Fiction
9.Seven - "What's in the box?" Genius
10.Forrest Gump

Jake Cole from Not Just Movies

1. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)

In the long history of revisionist, even anti-Westerns, Dead Man is the most savage in its take on the Romanticized vision of the expansive West as a place of freedom and personal morality. For Jarmusch, it is simply a place of lawlessness, not in opposition to corrupt government but in reckless control of the id. It's a place where people can kill scores of buffalo from a train engine just because, and a rich baron can send bounty hunters after a man less for the murder of his son than the theft of a prized horse. Jarmusch invokes the memory of the poet William Blake throughout, but his key twist is of course the naming of the protagonist for the forerunner of the Romantic movement. By casting Blake as the titular dead (or dying man), Jarmusch cements his deconstruction of the Western image by killing the father of Romanticism in it. As scathing a film as has ever been made.

2. The Double Life of Véronique (Krzysztof Kieślowski)

There are few directors as gifted with mise-en-scène as Kieślowski, yet I can think of no other filmmaker who makes me care less about what any shot means. His films reach the heart, not the mind, and even the most meticulously placed recurring symbol is less interesting for what it might mean than how it serves as a leitmotif in a tone poem. The imagery of The Double Life of Véronique is reflective, appropriate for its focus on French and Polish doppëlgangers (both played by Irène Jacob), and each inversion adds both metaphysical rumination and fantastical wonder. Like the Three Colors trilogy rolled into one film (Yellow?), The Double Life of Véronique examines the way in which we are all connected, even if through the most tenuous (if not physically impossible) ways. Kieslowski's films are always delightful even at their most haunting, and Véronique is his most overwhelming picture.

3. Safe (Todd Haynes)

Originally simplified as a metaphor for the AIDS scare, Safe has since established itself as one of the most of- and ahead-of-its-time social commentaries of the modern age. Following a bored, upper-middle-class woman stricken with a mysterious disease, Safe paints a portrait of a world that has become so commodifed and sterilized that the human body cannot cope. It needs bacteria to function, and in a world that packages everything in postmodern gloss, in hospital-like order, Carol starts to fall apart like a leper. She finds herself trapped between the worst aspects of the old system -- the gender gap and regressive class warfare resuscitated by Reaganomics -- and the new -- alienation, impersonality and homogeneity. New Age remedies only make things worse, leaving only the faintest sliver of hope for recovery. Then again, the illness breaks Carol from a society that looks increasingly horrific as she separates further from it. The cure may be the disease, and a deliverance back to Carol's old life might as well be a return to slavery.

4. Hoop Dreams (Steve James)

I always have a hard time ranking documentaries with fictive films, but Hoop Dreams is one of the few that it is so unabashedly cinematic it practically demands placement with narrative features. The greatest of all sports films, Hoop Dreams takes on a dramatic importance because it's all real, and it exposes the inverse placement of pressure on those who stand to make the least money off of their skill. A professional player can afford to miss a free-throw; he's under contract and will still get his millions. But every time high schoolers Arthur Agee and William Gates miss a free throw or suffer the slightest injury, we fear for their entire future. Originally conceived as a short TV documentary, the film took five years to complete and lasts three hours. But that's because it captures urban decay, misplaced social values (sports skill over academic achievement), a loss of childhood and class and race tensions in the current age. There wouldn't be a more damning social indictment until The Wire hit HBO. And the scene with Arthur's mother getting her nursing degree is one of the 10 most beautiful moments in the history of cinema.

5. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai)

Wong Kar-wai is the William Faulkner of the cinema. His films are as tied to time and place as Faulker's-- Reconstruction-era South for the author, pre-handover Hong Kong for Wong -- as they are both completely divorced from temporal and spatial limitations. Chungking Express' bifurcated look at tragic romance is, as with the best of the director's work, searing and painfully relatable. Be it the awkward, childish displays of affection the first cop shows to no one in particular in an attempt to prove to the cosmos that his ex- should come back or the more forlorn oblivion the more mature officer slips into after his own breakup, the depiction of romantic pain is all too real for anyone who's ever been in love, and Wong's steadfast refusal to provide easy answers allows him to craft a truly beautiful and poignant ending rather than just get people back together for a dénouement. Plus, he's the only person who can get away with using such a blatant example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as Faye Wong.

6. Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami)

Abbas Kiarostami's most poetic feature (at least until Shirin) is also, paradoxically, his most openly intellectual. Turning that old "based on a true story" tagline on its ear, the world's greatest living director re-stages a case of fraud in which a cinephile impersonated his favorite director using all of the real parties. Thus, when Kiarostami is not getting documentary footage of the actual trial, he's using those involved to stage re-enactments of the events. The result is a meditation on the effect of art of the psyche and the way that art, a facsimile of reality, can help us face the real world more readily. It's what The Purple Rose of Cairo might have looked like if made by Charlie Kaufman: endlessly dense, but deeply enchanted with the conceit and possibilities of the cinema, always understanding of film's power.

7. Fight Club (David Fincher)

After enduring the strain of studio pressure on auterism on his first feature and honing his skill in a freer environment on Se7en, Fincher continued his brand of cynicism-mistaken-for-nihilism with his masterpiece, Fight Club. A vast improvement on the clever, provocative but occasionally scattershot novel, Fight Club is Fincher's most condescending and satiric view of nihilism and he-man self-worship. Naturally, it is also the film most mistaken for being an embrace of misogynistic anarchy. You can't win for losing. Yet as time rolls on, Fincher's insights become more powerful, and the satire becomes even funnier. In an era where the Internet promises near-total anonymity, the idiotic rallying cry "His name was Robert Paulson" is even more revealing. Perfectly acted, immaculately shot and keenly observed, Fight Club was the best comedy of the '90s, and people still aren't in on the joke.

8. Carlito's Way (Brian De Palma)

I only recently came to embrace Brian De Palma as an artist, but even in my skeptical days I adored this deeply touching portrait of an anti-Scarface, a man who just wanted to leave the game alive, only to find the net too tight. It's the single best case for viewing De Palma as the last great romantic of American cinema, and one of Al Pacino's last great, understated performances. As ever, De Palma is in love with his camera, but here the tone he creates is not his usual cheek but a deep melancholy. I felt and continue to feel more sorry for Carlito than nearly any other gangster in cinema, and by knowing how this tale will end from the beginning -- an ingenious move on the director's part -- the inevitability of his fate is all the more affecting.

9. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)

Following 1975's Barry Lyndon, Stanely Kubrick made a film every 12 years. As people never seemed to fully appreciate a Kubrick film until the next one came along, we can take the master's late-career pacing and project that we might finally be at a time when everyone can see Eyes Wide Shut for what it is: the first humanist masterpiece from a notoriously cold director. Granted, Kubrick's look at a disintegrating marriage may be his most outwardly frigid of his career, but underneath is a searing pain foreign to his work. His usual sense of dark satire is still present, but now there's a sense of mourning to it, a sense absent even from his film on nuclear holocaust. Inverting the ending to his proposed A.I., the ending of Eyes Wide Shut is outwardly bleak, but it builds the surreal trials witness previously and buries a hint of hope in its dark dénouement. Perhaps Kubrick, who died suddenly of a heart attack in his sleep, knew his end was coming, allowing him to craft a beautiful send-off for himself: we mourn, yes, but with work, we can recover.

10. Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter)

The first Toy Story may have launched a creative revolution, but it was not until the Pixar gurus seemingly went back to the well almost immediately in 1999 that they established themselves as future giants of American filmmaking. Toy Story posited the question "What if toys were alive?" but it is the sequel that dares to ask, "What is the meaning of a toy's life?" As we see, plastic never ages, and worn fabric can be repaired. A toy cannot particularly die, but if it exists to be a child's plaything, what is it when a child moves on? Not since the end of the French New Wave has there been a moment as overwhelmingly existentialist as the shot of Buzz Lightyear standing in a toy store in an aisle filled with copies of himself. Each overproduced unit will go to a child who will call it his own; what, then, does that say about each of the toys we come to know and love? One of those rare sequels that far eclipses the original, Toy Story 2 took the resurgence of ingenuity injected into American animation by the Disney Renaissance and focused it to a fine, diamond-tipped point with which it bored into the realm of high art. Close as they've come at times, Pixar still haven't outdone themselves.


David Wain, director of Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models and the forthcoming Wanderlust

1. Magnolia
2. Shawshank Redemption
3. Schindler's List
4. Groundhog Day
5. Husbands and Wives
6. Thelma & Louise
7. Rushmore
8. Dazed and Confused
9. Glengarry Glen Ross
10. The Fugitive

J Blakeson, director of The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Fight Club (written by Jim Uhls, directed by David Fincher – 1999)

I don’t want to put multiple films by the same director on this list, so choosing between Seven and Fight Club was extremely hard. I saw Seven in my first year of university and it just astounded me. But I just couldn’t leave Fight Club off the list. I think it is the best film of the 1990s. Maybe even the best film of the past 20 years. It’s bravura film-making that has wit, depth, style and pace. It was a shame that the popular press took it on face value as a “violent masculine film” when it is so much more than that. Perfectly cast, perfectly played. A near perfect film.

Reservoir Dogs (written & directed by Quentin Tarantino – 1992)

Like a lot of people my age, this film changed everything for me. I’d never seen anything like it. I loved the way it fused genre film-making with a more European art-film sensibility whilst throwing in pop-culture references, uncomfortable violence and purposefully iconic moments. It was clearly a film made by someone who loved film as much as I did. When it finished, I remember thinking “Damn, that’s the film I wanted to make!”. And the fact that some geeky guy who worked in a video shop had made it, just made it even better for me. I saw it again recently and didn’t like is half as much. And I think Pulp Fiction is a much better film. But it was Reservoir Dogs that jumped up and bit me hardest.

Goodfellas (written by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese, directed by Martin
Scorsese - 1990)

I first saw this in around 1994 – as I was too young to see it in cinemas on its release. Like Fight Club, it is such confident bombastic film-making. It just blew me away. And again like Fight Club it shows that voice-over can work brilliantly in films. If a decade starts with Goodfellas and ends with Fight Club, you know it’s a good decade.

Miller’s Crossing (written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen - 1990)

Again this was a hard decision. I’m a big fan of the Coen brothers, so having to choose between Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing was very difficult. But Miller’s Crossing had to be the winner for me because it’s the one I can watch again and again. Packed full of iconic sequences. Great actors. Great images. Fargo and Lebowski get all the love, No Country got the Oscar, but for my money Miller’s Crossing is probably the best film the Coens have made.

Dead Man (written and directed by Jim Jarmusch - 1995)

I was already a big Jarmusch fan by the time I saw Dead Man. I watched it at the old ABC in Piccadilly Circus in on a tiny screen in a freezing cold room. But that didn’t matter. I loved Dead Man from start to finish. A couple of years later I was studying "The Western" as part of my University degree. I wrote an extended essay on Dead Man and watched the film four times in a week as prep. The film just got better each time I watched it. The performances from Depp and Gary Farmer are awesome. And as a huge fan of Robert Mitchum, it was great to see him make an appearance too. This was the film that taught me that genre isn’t a cage, it’s a framework of expectations that you can play with for your own ends.

Surviving Desire (written and directed by Hal Hartley - 1991)

This is a bit of an odd choice. Although available in a feature version (which I must confess, I’ve never seen), Surviving Desire was originally an hour long short film made by Hartley for American TV. I saw it as part of the video 3 Shorts by Hal Hartley which I bought on impulse after reading a review of it in the now defunct Deadline magazine. I’d never even heard of Hal Hartley before and didn’t know what to expect. But I was blown away by it. I immediately loved Hartley’s off kilter style, his overly-theatrical performances, the non-naturalistic word-play dialogue, the arch use of irony and melodrama. I’d never seen anything like it before. I hunted down all his other films as soon as I could. And although I loved Trust, Simple Men and Amateur when I saw them, Surviving Desire has remained my favourite Hartley film. It has the archetypal Hartley hero played by regular leading man Martin Donovan. It has a dance routine. It has high art and profundity slammed up against the mundane and ridiculous. And it has fantastic dialogue. It was like a breath of fresh air. And it made me want to write. And the first proper script I ever wrote – when I was 19 – was basically a cover version of Surviving Desire. Unfortunately Hartley’s stuff has not really held up so well over time in my opinion, but I still have a huge amount of affection for his stuff and this film in particular.

Wild at Heart (written and directed by David Lynch - 1990)

I saw Wild At Heart before I saw Blue Velvet, Eraserhead or The Elephant Man. I was already an avid watcher of Twin Peaks – which I could put on this list as it’s the best TV show of the 1990s – but this was the first Lynch feature I saw. It blew me away. And the day after I saw it I embarked on my first proper attempt to make a short film. It literally inspired me to pick up a camera and create something.

My Own Private Idaho (written by Gus Van Sant & William Shakespeare, directed
by Gus Van Sant - 1991)

For me Gus Van Sant is one of the most talented film-makers around. Not only did he make one of the best films of the 1980s in Drugstore Cowboy and two of the best films of the 2000s with Paranoid Park and Elephant, he made one of the best films of the 1990s with Idaho. It’s a heartbreaking film. A beautiful film. A daring and sexy film. River Phoenix delivers one of the most touching and extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen. And the direction is so imaginative and iconic. I just love it.

I shot Andy Warhol (written and directed by Mary Harron - 1996)

By no means a perfect film, I Shot Andy Warhol deserves a lot more attention than it usually gets. This is the only film that as soon as I’d finished watching it once, I immediately went back and watched it again for a second time. Lily Taylor’s central performance is amazing. She throws herself at the role completely. It’s a tough, hypnotic and moving film. And whilst most films about the 60s fall into nostalgic cliché about psychedelia and free love, this film shows the grubby underside of the scene. And is a great deconstruction of the idea of fame for fame’s sake. Since watching it those two times, I’ve not watched it again. But it’s remained firmly in my memory. Maybe I should go buy the DVD right now...

Election (written by Jim Taylor & Alexander Payne, directed by Alexander Payne - 1999)

This is just a fantastic film. Perfectly constructed. Very funny. Excruciatingly real. The cast are universally great. The breezy style and high-wire tone are joyous. Satires are so hard to get right. But like Dr Strangelove this nails it. I have seen it so many times and it never disappoints.

Henry Winkler, director of Cop and ½ and the man who was The Fonz!

Of the hundreds of movies made each decade, here are my favorites of the 90’s:

Dances with Wolves
The Shawshank Redemption
Apollo 13
Sling Blade
Pulp Fiction
Schindler’s List
The Last of the Mohicans (greatest score)
Pretty Woman (directed by my mentor)
The Usual Suspects

Each one of these has stayed with me over the years
and touched me deeply when I first saw them.


Finally, here's Alex Cox's less enthusiastic contribution:

Easy. I don't have any favourite films from the 90s.
None at all.