Monday, November 9, 2009

The Best (favorite?) of the 90s, part 2

Here we are, back again in List-Country, stalking that elusive beast: the best film of the 90s. We have, however, nine more creatures to take down before we reach that one, so how about y'all get comfortable. Without further ado, Part 2 of the best of the 90s!

10. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)

The Shawshank Redemption is a bizarre phenomenon of a movie, in that it seems to be all things to all people. Currently, it sits at #1 on IMDB's "best of all time" list. That may be taking it too far in the superlative department, but I can't deny this film its rewards. The Shawshank Redemption sticks out in my mind as one of the more inspirational films in recent memory. I admire it for its pacing: Frank Darabont makes time feel real and tangible, as if the audience is in prison right along with Andy Dufresne. This isn't to say that the film is interminable, of course. Despite its moments of occasional violence, Shawshank's overall tone is one of hope and dignity in the face of adversity. Morgan Freeman, in, if not his best role, his most famous, provides a steady, weatherbeaten rock to which the audience anchors. His final monologue (Hint: it involves the phrase "I hope") is one of the cinematic highlights of the decade.

9. Titanic (James Cameron, 1997)

This movie is one of my greatest guilty pleasures. Perhaps it's because this is the first "adult" movie I remember seeing in theaters; at the tender age of 7, it seemed like nothing as good as Titanic had ever happened, nor would ever happen again. Now that I'm older and wiser, I'll be the first to admit that the first half of the film is uneven melodrama that is hokily written and clumsily acted. The last half, aka the sinking, is some of the most intense and proficient filmmaking ever to grace the silver screen. I have to respect James Cameron for his single-minded dedication: for the film, they literally created a near-scale model of the actual Titanic, and then proceeded to sink it. I'm a sucker for Big Movies that earn those capital letters, and Titanic is the biggest movie since Gone With the Wind. At the very least, Titanic earns its spot on this list for having the balls to go for old-fashioned epic filmmaking in a decidedly anti-epic modern cinemascape.

8. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)

Saving Private Ryan might not be the best WW2 movie of 1998 (that one you'll meet in a minute), but it's certainly the loudest. ...That might not sound like a compliment. What I mean to say is that Saving Private Ryan is completely unsurpassed in its depiction of battle. The opening Normandy sequence is, for my money, the best battle scene ever committed to film--not to sell short the other fantastic set pieces in this blood-soaked film. With Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg almost achieves the completely impossible: he sets out to make an anti-war film about the futility and dehumanizing nature of conflict set entirely within the confines of a conflict-driven film. As I said, he almost succeeds. I'm not sure I approve of the ending (SPOILER WARNING: jump to the end of the parentheses if you haven't seen it. Had I made this film, I would have ended it as Tom Hanks was shooting his pistol at the tank bearing down on him; the perfect metaphor for the futility of men trying to halt the machines of politically driven combat. But then, the deux ex machina comes, and we get the present-day framing, and the film loses a little power. SPOILERS ARE OVER...) If the ending were altered slightly, this film might be higher on the list. Still, I can't deny its extraordinary power and technical acumen.

Warning: I might not be able to control my enthusiasm for the remaining seven films on this list. Act accordingly.

7. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999)

I really don't have words to describe this movie. Let the movie's title try: it's mysterious, yearning, secretive, sad, lonely, troubled, confused, loving, musical, gifted, intelligent, beautiful, tender, sensitive, haunted, and passionate (that's the full title of adjectives, as it were). It's also creepy, ugly, strange, angry, bitter, and cynical. So many adjectives, yet I still feel no closer to solving the mystery that is this movie. It's just like its main character. Matt Damon's performance as a social climber who'll do anything to remain on top is downright chilling. Normally Damon is so likable: here, he inspires feelings that crawl under my skin and promptly die there. The Talented Mr. Ripley's stylistic and thematic beauty and flippancy is constantly overturned by moments of brutal violence whenever the film seems to come up for air. It drags the viewer down into the Stygian depths of its madness, and doesn't allow respite until the credits begin to roll. This is a bromance, of sorts. No, I take this back. This is a tale of male-on-male infatuation that ends in the worst way possible. Nothing like a kind-of-sort-of-not-really-but-still gay serial killer to start off one's week, is there?

6. Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)

Here's another movie that's nearly impossible to describe in conventional terms. I told a friend recently that Fargo was a movie "in which terrible things happen to good people in cringe-inducingly funny ways." Fargo is like a comedy of errors in which every error results in some form of grisly carnage. This Coen tale of a planned kidnapping gone terribly wrong is completely unique; I've never seen another film like it. Most of it is as cold, heartless, and unflinching as the Minnesota winterscape in which it occurs. The scenes involving Frances MacDormand's Marge Gunderson, however, are filled to the brim with warmth, humor and love. It's a bizarre juxtaposition, even more so when the heavily pregnant Gunderson finally crosses paths with the kidnappers-turned-murderers on the make. Fargo makes for incredibly absorbing filmmaking. Watch for Gunderson's monologue at the end of the film; its almost religious in its simplicity and depth (hint: it's the "there's more to life than money, ya know" speech).

5. Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997)
Who knew math could be so enthralling? Sorry, I jest. Good Will Hunting is a fascinating piece of work, not for its math (what the hell is an Advanced Fourier proof, anyway? ...not sure I spelled that right), but for its examination of the reluctance to depart from routine for fear of something new. Matt Damon and Robin Williams have never been better as a JD genius and his therapist, respectively. Conversations that could fall into tired cliche stay constantly insightful and interesting, thanks to the absolutely fantastic script written by Damon and co-star Ben Affleck. That this was their first screenplay is completely astounding, as this is, in my opinion, one of the most intelligently written films in recent memory. Yes the movie is intelligent, but it's also very moving. There are moments of dramatic intensity ('it's not your fault,' anyone?) that are nearly unparalleled in recent cinema. And all this from two kids in South Boston. Good Will Hunting isn't just a great movie: it's definitive proof of miracles.

4. The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick, 1998)
What a beautiful, beautiful film; the best war movie of 1998, regardless of what Steven Spielberg would like you to believe. Make no mistake: The Thin Red Line is not entertainment: it's work. Malick's film is a three-hour long visual poem with little in the way of conventional storytelling, plot, or even characters. The one real character in the film is Charlie Company; the men in it are pushed in and out of the spotlight, doing their bit and then receding into the background. The Thin Red Line is hardly about warfare as much as it is between man's conflict with nature, and the balance of good and evil in the soul of the individual. This is not to say that the film doesn't offer moments of violence: indeed, the assault on the Japanese entrenchment halfway through the film is almost overwhelming in its cruelness and intensity. Most of the film, however is devoted to long, bittersweet monologues concerning the world, eternity, morality, and what one man can do to cope with the infinite. The cinematography must be mentioned: this is one of the most beautiful movies you'll ever see. Every frame is stuffed with enough gorgeousity (shut up, it's a word) to make a grown man cry. This, coupled with the underlying thematic power and the completely unique directorial style, makes The Thin Red Line one of the most unforgettable cinematic experiences of my life.

3. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
Man, it hurts to put this movie as low as #3, but them's the breaks. This movie is a rare gem, a near perfect cinematic confection. I have to start by saying that: there has never been a better villain on film than Dr. Hannibal Lecter. You kids can have your joker, I'm sticking with Anthony Hopkins. Hell, not only is this the best villain ever captured, it's one of the best performances in general. There aren't words to describe how perfect and spot-on Hopkins' character is. I don't want to undersell Jodie Foster, however. It must have been intimidating just to breathe in the same room as this man, but somehow, she found untapped resources of dramatic integrity, creating a foil for Dr. Lecter that is every bit as convincing as he. As for the screenplay: were it not for another movie that you'll be hearing about directly, I would call it my favorite screenplay of all time. It's a rare tribute to a film when, in a movie containing serial killers, cannibalism, and a race-for-time-against-a-deranged-killer, that the most riveting parts of the film are discussions between two characters. It's true, though. The skull sessions that Agent Starling shares with Dr. Lecter are absolutely spellbinding in their intensity. This movie is all about building up to tension: though there are few moments of violence, when those few moments do occur, they seem more shocking than anything the viewer could have imagined. This is filmmaking at its most intense.

2. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Ah yes, here we are: the best movie screenplay ever written. As a wise friend recently told me after watching this: the art of interesting conversation has been lost. Right you are, wise friend (anonymity be damned: Nick, I agree). Consider the first scene, in which Jules and Vincent travel to their hit. They discuss Amsterdam, burgers, Samoans, and foot massages, but never once do they discuss who they are or what they do. Still, by the end of the scene, we realize that they're hit-men on their way to commit a crime. How many other movies have you seen that set up their exposition entirely in inferences and incidentals? And that's just the beginning. Pulp Fiction is never silent: it's over two hours of someone or another talking constantly. The miracle is that it never gets old, it never gets annoying, and you never find yourself wishing for less talking and more action. Thus far, I've made it out as if the dialogue is the film's only redeeming factor. Not true: the acting is great, particularly Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, and the plot is endlessly inventive. This film is great fun, but they're also something a little heartbreaking about it: a search for redemption. It shows us all these people at the bottom of the barrel, thrashing around, attempting to rise out of their situation, but with no idea how to do so. Samuel L. Jackson's Ezekiel 25:17 speech to Ringo at the end of the film goes down in my book as the best monologue in movie history, and Uma Thurman's "do you still wanna hear my joke?" has got to be one of the most heartbreaking.

1. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)
And it comes down to this: maybe American Beauty isn't the greatest film on the list, but it certainly connects with me the most. So there it is: emotional impact gets preference over technical proficiency. Not to say that American Beauty isn't technically proficient: its acting is magnificent all around, delivered by one of the most involving ensembles in recent history. It's beautifully shot, with moments of real, eye-opening wonder, it's evocative score finds all the right emotional keystones, and it's all put together so that the film never loses its balance. To endorse all of its surface qualities, however, is to neglect the sheer weight of its emotional impact. The film is, improbably, about hope and change. Its message implies that the catalyst and the end result aren't nearly as important as the desire to rescue oneself from mental and emotional death. It's about beauty: how the world is full of perfect moments hiding under the surface, waiting to flower for anyone willing to look. It's about love: love isn't neat, it isn't obvious, but it's full of those moments of beauty that make life worth living. In the end, it's about feeling gratitude for every minute of your stupid little life. And you know what? It works.

There we are. All finished. Based on this evidence, I humbly submit the 90s as the best decade for the film industry. Now then: what did I miss? I know there are hundreds of other movies that would back up that claim. Lay some of them on me!


  1. Wow, I can't believe I forgot Fargo, Pulp Fiction, Silence of the Lambs, and Good Will Hunting yesterday. I agree with most of the list, though I would not have American Beauty as high. Forrest Gump is a good movie, but I am not surprised that it is not on the list. However, I am a little surprised that Fight Club did not crack the top 20.

    We actually agree on a lot of movies as my top five are (not in order) Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction, Saving Private Ryan, Good Will Hunting, and Forrest Gump.

  2. Yeah, apologies for Forrest Gump: I respect those who like that movie, but just can't share in that opinion. As for Fight Club: I still think it's a good movie, but my admiration for it has dimmed. It starts off incredibly strong, but by the time they reach Project Mayhem, I feel like the director, and, by proxy, the movie has sort of lost control. It's interesting, and still a good film, but is it in the top 20? Not so much.

    ...Oh man Chuck's making lists. 2 of your top 5 are in my top 5! (Of all time, I mean. Obviously it's more as concerning the 90s...) Maybe someday you'll have to add another 5 on there to make a top 10, huh?