Friday, November 6, 2009

The Best (favorite?) of the 90s, Part 1

I set out to compile a list of the "greatest" films of the 90s, but quickly came to a realization: I can't do it. I'm far, far too biased. So, instead I offer you a list of my favorite films of the 90s. Are they "the greatest?" Some of them, maybe. There are some glaring omissions, however, most notably Hoop Dreams and GoodFellas. But that's what makes list-making so much fun--20 different people can be asked this question, and you'll get 20 different answers. The following list is by no means definitive, and will almost definitely change from day to day. Today, however, these are what I feel to be the best (aka my favorite) movies of the 1990s. The first 10 are today. I'll wrap the list up tomorrow.

20. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

Most of you are probably more familiar with Mann's 2004 crime hit Collateral. Before Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx ever taxied the streets of LA, however, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro played cat and mouse through the streets of the City of Angels. And what a game it is. Mann's masterstroke is the balance he displays: We, as an audience, can root for the cop, Al Pacino, in his quest to for justice, just as easily as we can root for Robert De Niro's criminal as he attempts to pull off one last heist in an attempt to disappear. While Heat is a fantastic action film, it also serves as a dark meditation on personalities lost in their job, and the actions people are willing to take, the things they're willing to sacrifice in order to satisfy their obsessions. This film also marks the last time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were in anything worth watching.

19. Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Pierce, 1999)

This searing little film seemed to get lost in the rush of other 1999 greats, but I've never forgotten Kimberly Pierce's treatise on identity and acceptance. Boys Don't Cry chronicles the true story of Brandon Teena, a Nebraska youth who falls into a dangerous lifestyle, all while concealing the fact that Brandon Teena is actually Teena Brandon, a man living as a woman. Most who see this film remember it best for its horrific, painful ending, but to do so is to ignore all the tender, sweet moments that proceed it. Yes, Pierce's film is angry at the crimes it depicts, but it also takes the time to tell a quiet coming-of-age story in the face of the worst kinds of adversity. Hilary Swank rightfully won an Oscar for her depiction of Brandon. Chloe Sevigny provides a strong performance for Swank to anchor herself on.

18. Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)

Admittedly, without its companion piece, Before Sunset, Before Sunrise loses a bit of its power. It remains, however, a singularly intelligent film that attempts to, in the course of one night, dissect love, fate, chance, and free will. Before Sunrise follows two strangers who decide to spend one night in Vienna together on a whim. The film consists of the two characters talking. And that's it. Rarely does a film have the courage to take characters, drop them in a location, and force them to be honest. Even more rarely does one find a film this entertaining that relies 100% on the power of its dialogue. Yet Before Sunrise is both of these things, and is incredibly effective. Its screenplay is one of the most witty, literate, insightful pieces you will hear (especially when viewed with Before Sunset).

17. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

I can hear you already: "How is this only #17 on the list?" The answer is simple--this is a list of favorites, not a list of bests. Yes, Steven Spielberg's Holocaust film is a technical marvel, stunningly well-acted, and achingly powerful. Is it, however a movie to grow old with? A movie to love, a movie that loves you back? A movie that becomes a friend over the years? No. I have nothing but respect for this film, but that's just it. I have nothing but respect for this film, which is why it only makes it to #17. Respect without love can only climb so high. That being said, the film is a staggering piece of work: Spielberg takes a subject that should be completely unfilmable, and turns it into a piece of art that has the ability to affect almost every demographic. This is quite commendable. In particular, I appreciate the expressive cinematography, the mournful John Williams score, and Ralph Fiennes: his Nazi commander is, in my opinion, perhaps the most chilling, effective villain ever committed to screen (...with the exception of Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, whom no one can top).

16. Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1995)

This is one of those rare films that bestows me with an inordinate amount of warm-fuzzies. Madden's film is a gigantic ball of joy, with the perfect balance of comedic elements, romance, and occasional drama. It succeeds in one of the most endangered genres in cinema: the "sophisticated comedy." While all this is well and good, the film's ending provides the masterstroke that makes this film the cinematic gem that it is: Madden chooses realism over poetry. What was before an involving romance becomes a bittersweet meditation on the transience and impermanence of happiness. It's a gorgeous piece of work.

15. American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998)

I'll be the first to admit that American History X is a little uneven. To focus on this, however, is to deny the raw, visceral power that so much of the film demonstrates. Tony Kaye's examination of the consequences of unbridled hate remains, for all its admitted faults, one of the most unflinching, searing experiences in recent cinema. Of special note is Edward Norton: this film rides almost entirely on his shoulders, and he more than rises to the challenge. Norton's Derek Vinyard is a revelation; one of the more memorably characters of the 90s. Not to undersell Edward Furlong's performance, of course: Furlong provides the perfect foil for Norton, and the two are never better than when they're acting together. The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but its whole is unforgettable.

14. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)

I'm legitimately confused. This movie should not, by any stretch of the imagination, be this good. Boogie Nights is a three-hour epic about the porn industry in the 70s and 80s. That's not exactly a film premise one hears everyday. Yet somehow, inexplicably, Boogie Nights is one of the most memorably cinematic experiences of the 90s. Perhaps its the acting: Julianne Moore turns in what might be the most spectacular supporting turn I've ever seen, and she is joined in greatness by Heather Graham, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, and Mark Wahlberg, all turning in the performance of their careers. Maybe it's the screenplay: Anderson's film pops with tension, insight, and startling originality. Whatever the cause, the end result is undeniably powerful. The film captures the full scope of its twenty year timeline, all while retaining the smallest moments of human drama in between. It's quite the balancing act.

13. Seven (David Fincher, 1999)

Director David Fincher is best known for Fight Club, but Seven demonstrates what Fincher can do when he really works at it. This film is one of the best thrillers in recent memory. Seven is dark, quiet, and, in places, almost unbearably gruesome, but manages to stay afloat. More than that; the film becomes an analysis of good men trying to live in a world designed to destroy good men. What I admire this film for most is its restraint: at any time, Fincher could have thrown in blaring music, quick editing, car chases, gratuitous sex and violence, like every other director who falls into the conventions of the thriller genre, but he doesn't. He approaches the film much like the senior detective in the film approaches a case--quiet, methodical, and unwavering. His dedication to this ideal elevates Seven from the pack of stereotypical thrillers and turns it into a piece of art.

12. Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995)

Dead Man Walking is an angry film. It has an ax to grind; an anti-capital punishment agenda. This, in and of itself, is no revelation. Many films have some sort of ideal to further, and do nothing for their cause. Dead Man Walking, however, sets out to do the impossible and succeeds with flying colors. The film presents us with a monster, a rapist and murderer, a bigoted, racist, white-trash scumbag, and dares us to see the humanity in him. The film challenges its audience to find empathy for a despicable individual, and, thanks to the immense power of the film, the challenge is answered. The execution scene remains, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most powerful scenes committed to celluloid in recent memory. And all this about a murderer. Robbins' film is the very definition of fair and balanced: it sees that everyone, regardless of their actions, is still a human being.

11. The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

God, what a odd, quiet, unique, beautiful movie. The Piano is unlike any other film you'll see. It is best described at visual poetry: the film is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and tells its story primarily through images, not words. And Lord, what memorable images they are. On the surface, The Piano is a romance about a by-choice mute woman who enters into an arranged marriage with a man in New Zealand that she's never met, and the uneducated neighbor who is attracted by her beauty, her mystery, and, above all, the skill with which she plays the piano. While images are the most important part of the film, the music takes a close second: the soundtrack is provided by the main character, whose only means of communication is through her piano. Michael Nyman's compositions for her are as haunting as they are eloquent. A completely unique cinema experience not to be missed.

There's the first half. You'll have to wait until tomorrow to tell me what movies I missed, but for now, any predictions? What movies are you hoping to see pop up in the top 10?


  1. I am guessing American Beauty and Titanic will be quite high on the list. I hope Saving Private Ryan makes it.

  2. ...You'll have to see.

    And I know it says that this article was posted Friday, but I only started it then. I didn't actually post it until Sunday, so, when I say "tomorrow," I'm not just being lazy. For me, that was today (monday).