Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Reviewing the 90's - The Top Ten

Here is the final countdown, and while I initially thought I'd have no problem filling 50 slots with my favourite 90's films, I was quickly disabused of that notion. I had to cut a number of personal favourites, which was sometimes very painful, so among others I'd like to give honourable mentions to the following: The Piano, Hoop Dreams, The Age of Innocence, Nixon, Bad Lieutenant, The Long Day Closes, Chungking Express, Dances With Wolves, Mr Holland's Opus, Quiz Show, The Grifters, Babe, Looking for Richard, Donnie Brasco, Three Kings, Lone Star, Galaxy Quest, Leon.

And now, here are my favourite ten films from the 1990's.

10 - Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

This was Steven Soderbergh's comeback after a couple of years in the wilderness and it sparked an extraordinary run of films, but I don't think he has ever topped this near-perfect romantic crime caper. Brilliantly adapted by Scott Frank from Elmore Leonard's novel, the whole picture is handled with a laid-back assurance, and from the moment George Clooney walks into a bank armed with nothing more than his confidence and charm, and walks away with a bundle of cash, we feel like we're in safe hands. He plays Jack Foley, a career thief, while Jennifer Lopez (in the only worthwhile things she's ever done on film) plays Karen Sisco, the Federal Marshall chasing him. The subsequent pursuit that segues into mutual attraction is sold by Clooney and Lopez's smashing chemistry, and by the jazzy rhythms Soderbergh employs in the telling of this story. Elliot Davis's cinematography finds just the right shade and tone for every sequence, and the editing is simply sensational, most notably in a love scene that is one of the classiest and sexiest you'll ever see. Every member of the supporting cast (including Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn and Dennis Farina) pulls their weight, and the film is an absolute pleasure to watch at every step. Out of Sight is effortlessly cool, smart and massively satisfying.

9 - JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

JFK makes this top ten because I have never seen another movie quite like it. It is often described as inaccurate, hysterical, self-important and bloated (and I can't deny many of those accusations) but as a piece of filmmaking this is an awesome achievement. It is so dense with information, speculation and provocation that it should be unwatchable, but Oliver Stone turns the film into an engrossing spectacle, as he directs with the urgency of a man who simply has to tell this story and ask these questions. The screenplay, which Stone co-wrote with Zachary Sklar, does an extraordinary job of condensing reams of exposition into manageable chunks – sometimes Stone hires a great actor to do it for him – and he keeps the momentum going with some furious but intelligent editing, and a sharp use of newsreel footage and different film stocks alongside Robert Richardson's gleaming cinematography. The cast is legendary, but at its centre, the often underrated Kevin Costner has perhaps not received the credit he deserves for a magnificent performance that successfully carries this enormous beast of a picture. The final courtroom sequence is Costner's finest hour, and this film, in many ways, is Stone's masterpiece; the ultimate expression of his cinematic style and philosophy. His call for a greater openness from the government and a more questioning society still resonates.

8 - Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

People had waited for two decades for this moment. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino had both appeared in The Godfather Part II, but as their roles existed in different time zones, they never acted opposite each other. Now, finally, they were to play cop and criminal in Michael Mann's LA crime story – but the director was smart enough to delay that moment and keep them playing cat-and-mouse for much of the movie. Still, there was plenty to hold our attention while we waited for the titans to clash. Heat packs a lot of characters and subplots into its narrative, and Mann controls the pacing of his picture superbly, knowing exactly when to play things slow and when to unleash the explosive gunfire. Shooting on real Los Angeles locations, the film is a gorgeous homage to the city, captured by Dante Spinotti's slick and steely cinematography. In his imaginatively chosen ensemble, there's not a single bad performance and Mann gives every character their moment to involve us in their own personal tale. Still, we wait for the meeting of master cop and master thief, and it's a great moment, with the two legends warily sizing each other up, respectful of the other's status. It is followed by one of the greatest shootouts ever filmed, and a brilliant finale in which one character's philosophy of life is put to the ultimate test. Looked at individually, many of Heat's plot points and dramatic arcs are the stuff of standard crime thrillers, but collectively Mann turns them into a masterpiece.

7 - Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, 1999)

The most atypical film in Mike Leigh's body of work is also his finest. Stepping outside his usual contemporary setting for the first time, Leigh decided to explore the 19th century, where Gilbert and Sullivan were about to unveil The Mikado. The milieu might be alien to Leigh, but the sense of character and detail is not. As Gilbert and Sullivan, Jim Broadbent and Alan Corduner are completely invested in their very different personas, with Gilbert's stubborn crankiness causing the more refined and ambitious Sullivan plenty of headaches. Their relationship is at an impasse when Gilbert hits on the idea for The Mikado, and Leigh's film is a fascinating study of artistic development and the nature of collaborative effort. The film alternates between depicting scenes from the character's day-to-day lives and excerpts from the finished production, and it looks superb, with outstanding production and costume design and some terrific camerawork from Dick Pope. Topsy-Turvy is a humorous, lively affair, but the characters also bring great depth to their performances, particularly Lesley Manville, as Gilbert's wife, who shares a deeply affecting scene with him late in the film.

6 - The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991)

There are mysteries at the heart of The Double Life of Veronique that I haven't begun to grasp after multiple viewings of the film. Much of Krzysztof Kieslowski's masterpiece seems to exist on a plane that lies just beyond our understanding, and yet I remain completely entranced by it. The story concerns two women, both played by Irène Jacob, who live in Poland and France and are unaware of the other's existence. Weronika is a singer, but when she dies suddenly, Veronique seems to feel a shudder, and seems inexplicably aware of a sense of loss. There are odd parallels between their stories, and at one point the pair almost cross paths in Poland – what would have happened if Veronique had looked out of that window and seen her doppelganger? The film asks us to question the nature of identity, the nature of our souls, and the way we are linked to one another, but there are no easy answers to such questions and Kieslowski isn't interested in offering any. The Double Life of Veronique has a rare beauty, with Slawomir Idziak's distinctive lighting and his clever use of reflections and oblique close-ups, while we are carried along throughout the picture by Zbigniew Preisner's stunning score and Jacob's equally stunning dual performance.

5 - Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)

If Boogie Nights drew its inspiration primarily from Martin Scorsese, then this was Paul Thomas Anderson's Robert Altman film. Magnolia is an LA epic in which a dozen characters cross paths in one way or another, and Anderson – still in his 20's when he made the film – pulls it all together with a sense of showmanship and vision that is simply astonishing. Where to start with a film like this? Perhaps with the cast, which is eclectic but uniformly brilliant. A dying Jason Robards is tended to by his nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) while his wife (Julianne Moore) edges towards a breakdown; his lost son (Tom Cruise) is a chauvinistic sex guru; a lonely cop (John C Reilly) falls for an insecure coke addict (Melora Walters); a game show host (Philip Baker Hall) realises he is dying. There's more, much more, and Anderson furnishes almost every scene with some sublime cinematic flourish. He has the ambition (it can also be called courage or foolishness) to open his three-hour epic with an unconnected prologue and end it with a biblical plague, and he dares to halt the film at its most fevered emotional pitch so the players can all sing along to an Aimee Mann record. Magnolia is an inspired piece of work, a film made by a natural born filmmaker firing on all creative cylinders, and the stylistic brio is complemented by an emotional weight that is often overwhelming. Anderson has the technical skill and panache to dazzle us in every scene, but – crucially – he also has the sincerity and soul to make a masterpiece.

4 - Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

"As far back as I can remember I've always wanted to be a gangster." Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas is the ultimate gangster movie. It seduces us into the lifestyle of crime and glamour in much the same way that its protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) was seduced by it – who could resist as Scorsese's camera glides through the back entrance of the Copacabana and into the best seat in the house? But the violence is fast and nasty and the comedown is hard. From the very first scene, Scorsese's direction of Goodfellas fizzes, with his dynamic camerawork being sensationally cut together by Thelma Schoonmaker and set to a soundtrack that energises every sequence. The screenplay, which Scorsese co-wrote with Nicholas Pileggi, is witty and neatly structured with some wonderful individual scenes, and the director revs up brilliantly in the final third, cutting a climactic sequence to match Henry's cocaine-fuelled paranoia. Liotta and Robert De Niro and excellent, while Lorraine Bracco adds a vital female influence as Henry's wife, but Joe Pesci's funny, unnerving turn as the unpredictable Tommy steals the movie.

3 - The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)

After a twenty-year hiatus, Terrence Malick returned to cinemas with a film that was apparently based on James Jones' novel The Thin Red Line. However, the film that eventually turned up in cinemas was very much Malick's own strange creation, and it was quite unlike anything we had ever seen. This ruminative epic had no real fixed narrative, and instead it followed the fates of a variety of characters as they meditated on the conflict they found themselves engulfed in. In Malick's vision, war is seen a man's affront against nature, and Malick often seemed more interested in the world surrounding his characters than the men themselves, cutting away to shots of trees, water or creatures and editing to the beat of his own drum. The effect is mesmerising, challenging, romantic, upsetting and always spectacular. Malick stages some exciting battle sequences as the US troops attempt to storm Guadalcanal, but you always sense that these are not the moments that really occupy his thoughts, and The Thin Red Line feels more potent when its characters can be heard contemplating their fates. There are great actors in this cast list, but many of them saw their characters lost in the edit. Of the ones that survive, Jim Caviezel is the closest thing the film has to a leading character, his distant, otherworldly demeanour clicking with Malick's approach. Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas and Ben Chaplin also impress, but the film is only interested in their stories as long as they serve Malick's greater purpose. The Thin Red Line is a war film that eschews familiar tales of heroism and tragedy and instead attempts to grapple with the very notion of war itself. It is as strange and beautiful a work of art as has ever been produced by a Hollywood studio, and it remains a uniquely hypnotic achievement.

2 - Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Did we know in 1995 what impact Toy Story would have on cinema? We knew it was a smart, witty, beautiful and thrilling piece of entertainment, but who could have imagined that it would spark a revolution, and that 15 years later, Pixar would remain the masters of the art? This was the first completely CGI feature film ever made, but while its technical accomplishments are worthy of applause, that is not where the film's great success can be found. Toy Story succeeds because it has a screenplay that's close to perfection, because it has great characters, each of whom is perfectly cast, and because it is directed with a sense of pace and a lightness of touch that is extraordinary. Even if the film was a hand-drawn animation, I suspect those storytelling values would still ensure its classic status; as soon as the picture has hit its stride, you forget all about the techniques used in the animation and lose yourself in the story. The success of the Toy Story films, right up to and including the masterful third instalment in the series, lies in their ability to tap into our shared relationship with the toys of our childhood and the sense of imagination children bring to their playtime. Four years after this groundbreaking and near-flawless film, Pixar made Toy Story 2, and I'm sure many would elect to have that picture on this list instead, but this is the one that remains dearest to me. As an exciting, hilarious, touching adventure that will delight all ages, Toy Story is pretty hard to beat.

1 - Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996)

And so, we reach the end of my countdown. I feel it's appropriate to end with the Coen brothers as they were very much the filmmakers of the decade. They made five great films, each of which was stylistically different to the last, and each of which still holds up to repeated viewings years later. I could easily have included all five in my top 50, but for reasons of space and in an effort to be as inclusive to other filmmakers as possible, I restricted it to three, leaving Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy off the list. Ultimately, Fargo is a worthy winner of this poll, encapsulating as it does every one of the brothers' virtues and showing them on peak form. The oddball story follows one of the brothers' favourite themes (idiots chasing money) and their narrative is so beautifully worked out, tightly structured and yet leaving plenty of room for amusing digressions. The brothers make music from the distinctive Minnesotan accents, with their "Oh, you betcha," quickly becoming an infectious catchphrase, and they handle the shift from comedy to violence with stunning dexterity. Every performance feels exactly right; From Frances McDormand's determined cop Marge to William H Macey's panicky and cowardly Jerry Lundegaard, and the two bickering criminals, played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare. But the reason I rate Fargo as their masterpiece is that on top of the wonderful screenplay, imaginative direction and stellar acting, there's a touching emotional core to the film that is more striking here than in any of the brothers' other work. The final scenes, in which Marge contemplates the violence she has witnessed and then returns to the warm, safe embrace of her husband, are as good as anything they have ever done, and as good as anything produced in this remarkable decade.