As I embarked on my 1990s project, I adhered to a few general principles. Utilizing IMDB as a source of reference, a film of the 1990s would be defined as something released the timeframe of January 1st, 1990 to December 31st, 1999. This disregards limited release status or anything that failed to see stateside release during the time. Both broadening and limiting the scope of my project as certain films of the late 1980s reached greater cultural significance during the 90s. Congruently, films released in the late 90s bore critical notoriety during their run in the aughts. Still, this was simply the most efficient method of narrowing down a list of hundreds of films.
In developing this list, placement became less an issue as opposed to what was to be omitted. Often times I struggle with simply attempting a top ten list for a year, as it often fails to encapsulate each and every film I wanted to see. This project was no different – there were numerous films that I had simply not been able to obtain during the course of my viewings. Most notably would be Emir Kusturica’s Underground and Moshen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence – not available through my normal means of viewing, the two were unfortunately crucial foreign viewings that I simply could not see. There were several others, but those two are my most regrettable omissions.
If any of my recent Thursday Ten’s have taught me, it’s that films need the opportunity to ruminate. Beginning in mid-November and wrapping my viewings into early March, it’s been a slow and steady process. With my list finalized, I figure it best to mention a select few films, in alphabetical order, that left an impactful impression on me – they aren’t necessarily films that would have populated my list had I expanded to sixty, but rather films of great interest. Perhaps as a preface to this whole endeavor is the following: not every film works for its audience. My list serves to underscore films of the 90s that spoke to me on both a personal and formal level. While I’d like to think of my list as a primer of the very best of the decade, it’s more of a personal statement on what I find most appealing in cinema.
A Perfect World (1993) and White Hunter Black Heart (1990) – Unforgiven (1992) is afforded the critical acclaim, but it’s the two films that came before and after that register as Clint Eastwood’s finest works as a director. Both films deconstruct a masculine identity that spans throughout all of Eastwood’s work, yet raise the stakes by evoking a critical lens to both its audience and the director himself. The tenderness evoked in A Perfect World’s naïve social lens is something that Eastwood has never again been able to express, with a young boy’s worldview remaining uncompromised by his captor. This of course, is preceded by Unforgiven’s banal exhibition of masculine domination which in itself was preceded by White Hunter Black Heart - Eastwood’s dark study on misogyny, race, and control. Both pictures, in their way, address the notion of how one ascribes to a morally questionable worldview, even as we attempt to resist it.
Porco Rosso (1992) and Princess Mononoke (1997) - Hayao Miyazaki is represented in my main list, in a way, but it’s these two directorial works that just missed the cut. The two films serve to express just how expansive a voice Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are in animation. Whereas most my age will likely recall Disney’s “Renaissance” with films like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, it’s Miyazaki’s efforts that perhaps possess a more timeless aura. Existential and deeply profound, both Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke posit the concept of animation as something to be consumed by all, and not something delimited to an age group.
Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994) – Zhang Yimou was an unknown name to me prior to embarking on this project. While none of his films ended up on my main list, both Raise the Red Lantern and To Live have continued to linger in my mind, weeks and months removed from viewing. While most of what I’ve read on the director seems to imply that his style remains consistent throughout his works, I’d have to question that ideology. For one, Raise the Red Lantern’s largely internalized emotional landscape simmers into an eventual boil, whereas To Live operates under a vast and emotionally heightened wavelength. This disparity is coupled with astute critiques on a culture that, admittedly, I’m simply not as well versed on. These are the sorts of films that with a bit more distance will inch their way in esteem.
The Thin Red Line (1998) – Perhaps disappointment may be construed as my general reaction to Terrence Malick’s sprawling war film. Having seen and admired his entire filmography, I was left distanced from his 90s return. Lacking the narrative construction of his earlier work yet not quite as functional as a stream of consciousness as shown in The New World and especially The Tree of Life, the picture marks an “in development” feel. So much of the picture felt like something that was right on the cusp of completion, nimble yet never fully realized. Despite my qualms, it’s a film of monumental ambition. Any film in Malick’s filmography is worth a look, and while I may be somewhat more resistant to The Thin Red Line than any of his other films, it remains required viewing.
American History X (1998), Leon (1994) and Buffalo ’66 (1998) – Undoubtedly a bit odd to include these three films in the same breath, Tony Kaye’s American History X, Luc Besson’s Leon, and Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 were some of my favorite films of the 90s during my high school years. Pictures that I held dear for their nostalgic value, none of these films have aged particularly well. American History X is a particularly nagging picture, with a warped racial philosophy that only gets worse with subsequent viewings. But as I look back at my high school years when my interest in film was blossoming, these three films were crucial viewings that piqued my interest in a medium that I was only just beginning to understand.