Sunday, January 02, 2011

Reviewing the 90's - 20 to 11

See films 30 - 21 here

20 - Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)

Who said there are no original ideas anymore? Being John Malkovich stars John Cusack as an out-of-work puppeteer who takes a filing job on the 7½ floor of a building (necessitating a lot of crouching) and finds a portal into John Malkovich's brain. What's extraordinary about this nutty film is how Charlie Kaufman manages to sustain his madcap premise while producing a coherent narrative and even developing an emotional undercurrent. Enormous credit must also go to Spike Jonze, making a remarkable feature debut, for realising that the script's content is insane enough and that he has no need to complement it with any kind of wacky visual style. Instead he takes a stripped-down, straightforward approach to his camerawork and lighting and keeps the film grounded in a relatable kind of reality. There's enough imagination here to fill half a dozen movies, and Being John Malkovich is full of memorable individual sequences: the opening puppet show, the sequence shot from a monkey's point-of-view, Malkovich performing the Dance of Despair and Disillusionment and the unforgettable moment when the actor goes down his own rabbit hole. Cameron Diaz excels playing frumpy while Catherine Keener is superb as the seductress who can wrap any man or woman round her finger, but it's Malkovich, perhaps inevitably, who is the standout as 'Malcotraz.' This might just be his best performance to date.

19 - The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

"Believe me," FBI director Jack Crawford warns his young protégé Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), "you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside your head." – but is his warning meant for her, or us? Anthony Hopkins might appear on screen for less than twenty minutes as Hannibal Lecter, but his influence hangs over the whole picture. The scenes he shares with Foster are electric, as she tries to gain information that will help her track a killer while he probes deep into her repressed childhood memories. They are divided by a pane of glass, but cinematographer Tak Fujimoto brilliantly uses reflections to create an intimacy between them. The Silence of the Lambs was directed by Jonathan Demme, and while nothing in his previous oeuvre suggested a natural affinity for this kind of material, he ended up making one of the finest thrillers of the past twenty years. The editing is taut and the script is focused, and Demme gives his actors room to give strong, nuanced performances that ensure the film is dramatically rich and even – between Starling and Lecter – laced with the hint of illicit romance. This is one of the select group films to win the five major Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay), and it stands today as a textbook example of how to construct a great thriller.

18 - A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1990)

The second (but not the last) four-hour film to make this list, A Brighter Summer Day is also the film on this list that I saw for the first time most recently. After years of neglect, Edward Yang's masterpiece has finally been restored and presented uncut, and it was one of the highlights of the recent London Film Festival. Set in 1960's Taiwan the film tells a tale of adolescent disillusionment and rebellion while also exploring the political upheaval experienced by older generations during this transitional period in the nation's history. Yang's scope is epic, but his focus is intimate and humane as he unfolds his story at a steady pace, while displaying a novelistic eye for detail. The director's composition and his intelligent use of lighting is exquisite and the film absolutely justifies its epic length, growing into a deeply absorbing experience. A Brighter Summer Day may be a film about a specific time and a specific place, but its truths are universal.

17 - Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

To date, this is the only film Quentin Tarantino has directed from a novel rather than his own original screenplay – is there a correlation between that detail and the fact that it is his best film? This adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch allows him to display moments of directorial panache while telling a tight, twisting story that contains intriguing, believable characters, and Jackie Brown has an emotional weight and resonance to it that has never emerged in the director's other films. The performances from Pam Grier and Robert Forster, as the ageing couple handed one chance of a big payday, are subdued and tender, while Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda both give their last great performances in terrific supporting roles. Tarantino handles the criss-crossing of the narrative in the film's final third flawlessly, and while the director's other films are more celebrated, this is the one I find myself returning to again and again.

16 - Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

In the summer of 1993, Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park – a rollercoaster ride with extraordinary visual effects – proved that this director was the master of blockbuster entertainment. It's hard to believe that the same filmmaker could have given us Schindler's List, less than six months later. This was the first Hollywood film to deal directly with the Holocaust, and it was a film in which he displayed a very different, but no less impressive, set of skills. Shooting in black-and-white and with handheld cameras, Schindler List's depiction of life in the ghetto and later the camps is immediate and shocking. Moments of brutality are handled with deftness – sometimes we only glimpse them in passing as Spielberg's camera moves onto some fresh misery. At times, you can sense the director's tentativeness, as he wonders how far he should go, and he stumbles with some of his choices: the girl in the red coat is a moment of artifice that pulls us out of the picture, while the director visibly struggles to find a way to bring his film to an end. Having said that, Schindler's List deserves to be celebrated for what it does show and what it does represent, and it contains exemplary performances. Liam Neeson is Schindler while Ben Kingsley is his clerk Stern, the film's conscience, and Ralph Fiennes is the embodiment of casual evil as Amon Göth, languidly picking off random Jews with a rifle from his balcony.

15 - La belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)

What happens in La belle noiseuse? Well, an ageing artist (Michel Piccoli), who hasn't picked up a brush for some time, is inspired by the arrival at his home of a beautiful young model (Emmanuelle Béart) to finish the masterpiece he abandoned years earlier. They go to his studio, Marianne takes off her clothes, and he begins to work. That's pretty much the plot of this four-hour masterpiece summarised, and yet Jacques Rivette's uniquely brilliant account of the artistic process never feels a minute too long. It is utterly transfixing as we watch Frenhofer study Marianne, pull her into the shapes he desires (often violently), start making some preliminary sketches (the scratching of his charcoal is hypnotic), and eventually begin to put together his masterpiece. Piccoli and Béart (the latter naked for most of the movie) are completely immersed in their roles and Rivette immerses us into the strange intimacy of their relationship. It is a beautiful, stimulating, engrossing, erotic and moving masterpiece. Rivette later re-edited La belle noiseuse, using alternate takes and reordering scenes, into a 125-minute version called Divertimento, but the film needs to be seen in its complete form. La belle noiseuse is a film about art that is in itself a work of art.

14 - The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)

The Coens' loose and shaggy riff on Raymond Chandler took a while to find its audience, but it has now been firmly established as a cult movie, and one whose following appears to grow larger all the time. It's not hard to see why people fall in love with this film. It is populated by some of the brothers' finest dialogue and their most inspired characterisations; pot-smoking hippy The Dude (Jeff Bridges, in a career-defining performance), his Judaism and Vietnam-obsessed buddy Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi), very much a third wheel, who is reduced to occasional interjections like, "I am the Walrus." The film meanders beautifully, managing to involve nihilists, abstract artists, a missing toe, a perverted bowler (John Turturro), a cowboy (Sam Elliott), a porn king ("Jackie Treehorn treats objects like women, man") and a stolen rug that really tied the room together. It all makes a baggy sort of sense in the end, but The Big Lebowski isn't really about plot. It's a film about friendship and about finding your own way down the often chaotic paths that life pushes you down, until you finally reach the point where you can say, "Fuck it, Dude. Let's go bowling."

13 - LA Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Condensing James Ellroy's epic crime novel into a coherent screenplay was already quite a feat on the part of Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland, but successfully turning LA Confidential into a modern film masterpiece must count as one of the great achievements of the decade. The film opens with the feel of a sleazy exposé, the narration being provided by muckraking hack Danny DeVito, and after Hanson has smoothly introduced the three main players (Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey) the picture just glides beautifully, packing in a dense series of plot details but never feeling like hard work. This is such a classy production, and Hanson has a feel for both the glamorous surroundings of his Hollywood setting as well as the seedy underbelly hidden beneath. His direction is elegant but unshowy, never drawing attention to itself and always leaving the spotlight on the narrative and his extraordinary actors. Kim Basinger won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but it really seems unfair to pick out a single performer from such a flawless ensemble.

12 - The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)

Made in the same year as LA Confidential and Jackie Brown, The Sweet Hereafter was yet another example of how to adapt a fine novel. It is not simply a matter of taking everything and rewriting it in a screenplay format, it is a matter of knowing what to cut, knowing what to reshape, knowing what is cinematic, knowing which characters can be altered, and knowing how to employ narration. In adapting Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter, Atom Egoyan got everything right, and while his film's structure is very different to the book, it remains true to its themes and its content. The story is a tragic one, starting with schoolbus crash that robs a small town of its children and divides its inhabitants. A lawyer named Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) arrives, smelling a potentially lucrative case, but his presence causes further friction, exposing layers of deceit and placing its characters at a moral crossroads. This is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, with Egoyan telling the story out of sequence but cutting between times zones with extraordinary grace and intuitiveness. His decision to use a reading of The Pied Piper as a framing device for the narrative pays of superbly, and his film explores its themes of grief, guilt and human nature with a clear-eyed intelligence and incisiveness. The Sweet Hereafter is a remarkable film, and by some distance Egoyan's best.

11 - Three Colours: Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)

The Three Colours trilogy was Krzysztof Kieslowski's final gift to the world. Two years after completing Red, he died at the age of 54, and the third picture in his wonderful trilogy feels like a fitting final work, a summation of everything the director felt about film and life. Through the story of a model (Irène Jacob) and a reclusive judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), Kieslowski gave us a beguiling narrative of human interaction, chance and fate, and the mysterious forces beyond our understanding that guide our lives. Ostensibly, these films were inspired by the colours of the French flag and the ideals behind the revolution (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), but the director was after something larger and less easily definable than that. Appropriately, Red is the warmest film of the three, after the grief-stricken loneliness of Blue and the chilly aesthetic of White. The director uses his eponymous colour everywhere, finding different textures and meanings in it, and the film shimmers with a rare, spine-tingling beauty. It is a transcendent picture, one that engages the mind and the soul and makes us feel as if anything is possible, and with Kieslowski's passing we lost a filmmaker who could touch us in ways that few others can.

See the top ten here