Sunday, January 02, 2011

Reviewing the 90's - 30 to 21

See films 40 - 31 here

30 - Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)

Tim Burton's Ed Wood is a loving portrait of a terrible filmmaker. Johnny Depp gives a wonderfully engaging performance as the hopeless director, investing his every action with a guileless enthusiasm and buoyancy; when a producer tells him his film is the worst he's ever seen, the criticism barely seems to register before Depp responds, "Well, my next one will be better." In what is by far his finest film, Burton seems to empathise with Wood and the collection of oddballs he surrounds himself with, like Bill Murray's fey Bunny Breckinridge and Jeffrey Jones' non-psychic Criswell, but the heart of the film lies in the touching friendship that forms between Wood and Bela Lugosi (played by an Oscar-winning Martin Landau). From the clever opening credits sequence, Burton's whole aesthetic pays homage to the shaky effects of Wood's zero-budget productions, and its desire to celebrate rather than simply mock its subject is very endearing. In one great scene, Wood bumps into his idol Orson Welles (an uncanny Vincent D'Onofrio) in a bar, and Ed Wood does the filmmaker the honour of viewing them as kindred spirits.

29 - Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, 1996)

Is this the greatest ensemble cast of the decade? Kenneth Branagh's mammoth production of Shakespeare's masterpiece has famous faces packed into every minute of its four-hour running time. He employs all of the legendary British actors you'd expect to see in a production like this (Derek Jacobi, John Mills, Judi Dench, Julie Christie), but he also asks them to rub shoulders with Hollywood stars (Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal) and even the odd comedian (Ken Dodd briefly appears as Yorick). The effect can be occasionally distracting, but taken as a whole, this is an extraordinary achievement, with Branagh's daring attempt to film Hamlet in its entirety rarely losing its grip on the audience. The director draws consistently strong performances from his large cast – Christie's Gertrude and Richard Briers' Polonius are especially fine, while Kate Winslet is affecting as Ophelia – and Branagh himself gives a mesmerising performance in the lead role. His film is visually inventive, finding neat ways to work his soliloquies into the drama, making clever use of two-way mirrors, and the picture is magnificently shot by Alex Thompson. I believe Branagh's Hamlet is the most involving and satisfying screen version of the play that has yet been made, and while that may be a matter of opinion, what's indisputable is that this is a considerable filmmaking endeavour.

28 - Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

David Fincher's second picture is a film that slowly tightens its grip on the viewer before landing a sucker punch to the gut that leaves you reeling. Working from Andrew Kevin Walker's cruel and smart screenplay, Fincher delivered a film that seemed to be cut from the genre cloth (old cop and young cop, killings following a strict pattern), but as detectives Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman track a man who kills according to the seven deadly sins (an ingenious plot device), the film starts to unsettle as it undermines our expectations and moves outside the regular parameters of a Hollywood thriller. Shooting in constant rain and near darkness, at least until the climactic act (Pitt and Freeman's literal journey into the light), Fincher creates an oppressive atmosphere of encroaching menace and slow-burning suspense. The sudden and unexpected appearance of the murderer in the final half hour further destabilises our assumption that Se7en will follow genre rules, and Kevin Spacey's measured, clinical turn as the psychopath John Doe suggests a man who holds all the aces. It's Morgan Freeman's performance that we are drawn to, though, with the actor doing magnificently understated work as man who has seen enough horror and evil to last a lifetime. Even he, however, has never seen anything like the climax to this story.

27 - The Iron Giant (Brad Bird, 1999)

Coming a couple of years after Pixar sparked the digital animation revolution, The Iron Giant already looked a little old-fashioned, but Brad Bird's lovely fable also displayed some very old-fashioned virtues – a solid story, characters we can care about, and the ability to deliver a strong moral with preaching or overwhelming the narrative. Bird's hand-drawn adaptation of Ted Hughes' story takes placed in the 1950's, with ten year-old Hogarth making an astonishing discovery when he ventures into the woods, stumbling across an enormous robot that has fallen to earth under mysterious circumstances. The pair become fast friends, with Hogarth teaching the Giant all about his favourite comic book characters, but unbeknownst to the youngster, this machine has been designed as a weapon. Bird pitches this material just right, developing a touching friendship on one hand while building a sense of Cold War paranoia on the other, and he never falters in delivering a film that will enthral and move viewers of every age. There's a great beauty in the film's visuals which perfectly complements its storytelling, and it ends with a climax that has never failed to move me, no matter how many times I re-watch this magical film.

26 - Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)

The rich and challenging Close-Up has its origins in an odd true story. A man named Hossein Sabzian is arrested in Iran for impersonating the famed film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and taking advantage of a family with whom he promised to make a film. Kiarostami's ingenious approach to this material sees him shooting Sabzian's trial in 16mm and cutting that footage in with recreations of the man's crime, in which Sabzian, the family he duped, and even Makhmalbaf himself take part. The resulting film is an absolutely fascinating study of truth and identity, which is lent an extra poignancy by Sabzian's sense of innocence and utter devotion to cinema; there were suggestions that he planned to steal from the family, but we can see that he just wanted to be somebody. Kiarostami peels back the layers of this tale and plays with notions of reality and fiction with the assurance of a master filmmaker.

25 - Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)

Jim Jarmusch's film begins as a western, but by its end this extraordinary picture has morphed into something else entirely; a revisionist western, a lyrical portrait of death, a waking dream. The film stars Johnny Depp as William Blake. He is not the poet, just a mere accountant who happens to share his name, but when he flees the town of Machine after killing a man, Blake's legend grows. Jarmusch's dark and often scathing take on the American west is full of resonant imagery and abrupt, savage violence. As Blake slowly moves towards his inevitable demise, a bullet lodged in his chest ensuring he is essentially a dead man walking, the film becomes ever more mysteriously entrancing, as Jarmusch's striking imagery melds beautifully with Neil Young's strange and haunting score. From the eclectic supporting cast, Robert Mitchum makes an impression in a small role, while Gary Farmer is terrific as Nobody, the Native American who becomes Blake's loyal companion on the last journey he will ever take.

24 - Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)

After spending too much of the 1980's making bad/misunderstood/underrated movies, Robert Altman restored his reputation in Hollywood with the 1992 satire The Player, but it was the following year's offering that really showed him operating at the top of his game. Short Cuts, the director's inspired adaptation of Raymond Carver's writings, gave Altman his biggest canvas since Nashville, and he certainly made the most of it. In telling multiple storylines and following the fates over twenty principle characters, Altman delivered an epic portrait of life, love and death in Los Angeles, with his protagonists' individual narratives occasionally overlapping with and clashing into one another. As ever, Altman's grasp of what to focus on and when is consummate, and he balances the humour and tragedy of his tale brilliantly. While some of the story strands may be less intriguing than others individually, they are elevated by the film's grand sweep, and the same goes for the actors, with some of the weaker performers seeming to be bolstered by the overall strength of the ensemble. Altman is the real star here, though. A year later he tried to pull the same trick with Prêt-à-Porter and fell flat on his face, but wasn't that unpredictable, all-or-nothing approach exactly why we loved him, and why we miss him so dearly now?

23 - Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)

In his controversial breakthrough film, Lars von Trier first revealed the themes that would underpin most of his subsequent work, and first displayed the talent and vision that would later see him established as one of the world's greatest filmmakers. Set in the 1970's, in a fiercely religious Scottish community, Breaking the Waves stars Emily Watson (incredible in her first film role) as a Bess, a young woman whose brief happiness with new husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) is shattered when he is paralysed in an accident. He persuades her to engage in sexual acts with others and recount her experiences to him, and this request sends her on an emotionally wrenching and ultimately heartbreaking odyssey of love, guilt and self-sacrifice. The director hardly adheres to his own Dogme manifesto – utilising artificial narrative techniques such as musical inserts and chapter headings – but the drama in his film pulses with an astonishing sense of raw authenticity. Never one for half-measures, von Trier's film is shameless in its manipulation and audience-baiting, but he is also serious in his intent, and utterly sympathetic towards his characters, which makes Bess' slow decline into martyrdom devastatingly difficult to watch.

22 - Miller's Crossing (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1990)

In Miller's Crossing, the Coen brothers' first great film, everything just feels right; from the lyrical score by Carter Burwell to Barry Sonnenfeld's beautifully toned cinematography; from the spot-on performances to the sharp and snappy dialogue. The story is convoluted but it boils down to a simple love triangle. Albert Finney is the imposing boss Leo and Gabriel Byrne is his right-hand man Tom; they're both in love with Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who is more than a match for any man. The Coens set this tension against the backdrop of a mob war and populate it with strong supporting characters (played by Jon Polito, JE Freeman, Steve Buscemi and, most memorably, John Turturro), and they handle the complications of the narrative with incredible dexterity and skill. This is clearly the work of filmmakers who have studied the style and tone of earlier gangster films, but the Coens brilliantly take those tropes and make them their own, staging a series of distinctive and utterly unforgettable set-pieces, such as a shootout to the strains of Danny Boy, or a man on his knees in a leafy glade, pleading for his life: "Look in your heart!"

21 - Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)

Shot with an exhilarating sense of energy and confidence, Boogie Nights is the result of a young director setting out to show us the full measure of his talent. Paul Thomas Anderson's tale of a young man's rise and fall in the porn industry is a spectacular piece of work, with the director displaying a complete command of his craft, whether he is pulling off an audacious tracking shot or assembling rapidly edited sequences that recall the coke-snorting rush of Goodfellas; but there's not just flashy technique to be enjoyed here. Anderson wrote an ambitious screenplay that incorporated a dozen instantly memorable characters, and after making some brilliant casting decisions, he drew marvellous performances from every actor. Burt Reynolds was a revelation as filmmaker/father figure Jack Horner, Julianne Moore was touchingly wounded as an ageing star whose lifestyle has cost her access to her son, Alfred Molina provided a vivid cameo in a horribly tense late sequence, while Mark Wahlberg brought an appealing naïveté to his performance as a star who burns bright and burns out, before finally coming to terms with where his real talent lies.

See the next ten here