The canonization of films is a slippery slope. For films like Citizen Kane and Vertigo, the process toward critical acceptance required time and vocal support attesting to their merits. Met with some resistance, the two films have etched spots within the critical community as being the most vital motion pictures of all time. But as critical theory has now unfolded (or rather, forced) into the hands of young bloggers where the ability to watch just about any film is a Google search away, there’s a palpable sense that the cinematic hierarchy is being shaken.
Like a majority of contemporary bloggers, I grew up on the films of the 90s. Taking the good with the bad, the decade offered its share of compelling mainstream efforts as the period marked a significant movement toward the development of special effects. Films like James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, released earlier in the decade, harmoniously merged special effects with a compelling action narrative that eventually gave way to large scale digital-effects cinema.
The technical advancements on display made the decade a particularly bipolar one. Divided in sects, one group of filmmakers immersed themselves in big budget pictures (James Cameron and Michael Bay). Other groups pursued new methods of filmmaking that opposed the excess on display in the aforementioned big-budget efforts, with the pursuit of stripped down dramatic efforts presented by foreign directors like Lars von Trier and the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
It was a decade that saw filmmakers of the 70s provides some of their most compelling works, while the newcomers etched their spots in the critical community. Filmmakers of the 70s like Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese remained vital voices in American cinema, while Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, and Quentin Tarantino emerged as heirs to the moniker of best American filmmaker. The decade offered the final film of perhaps the greatest director of all time, Stanley Kubrick – a much delayed final effort that was well worth the wait. Terrence Malick would also return from a near two-decade hiatus, departing from the narrative tendencies he adopted in the 1970s for a stream-of-consciousness type of cinema that defines his most recent works.
The contributions of world cinema and its implications into contemporary American cinema is especially notable – from Wong Kar-Wai’s bombastic visual sensibilities to the hushed precision of Abbas Kiarostami’s work were refreshing, as both filmmakers saw their work reach crucial distribution over the time period with the advent of DVDs in the latter portion of the decade. The subsequent growth of the market has afforded cinephiles the opportunity to catch up on many films that were otherwise unobtainable during the 90s.
Whereas most would be quick to mention the Disney renaissance of the 90s with films like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King holding a place within my own childhood, it’s the film of Studio Ghibli that marks the greatest achievement in animation for the decade. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata led the charge with impeccable works of grand visual mastery and true thematic resonance.
Exploring and rewatching films of the 1990s has been an incredibly rewarding experience. The decade’s diversity and excitement is particularly assured – rigid formal traditionalism, visual orgies, delicate sensuality, and visceral provocation were markers of single films. The foreign offerings were particularly notable, and will be reflected as such as I embark on constructing a list of my top fifty films of the decade. Yet to label anything from the 1990s as a cultural artifact boggles my mind. Is there anything that’s offered on my forthcoming list that will earn the same level of notoriety as bestowed on films like Citizen Kane and Vertigo? It’s a question of time, but as I distance myself from a decade that shaped my initial understanding of cinema, I’d say it’s a yes.