Perhaps as a preamble 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.
Se7en (David Fincher)
Impressive freshmen outings happen in cinema; though it’s perhaps a bit more irregular to see a disappointing first feature followed by a sophomore effort that completely rattles you to your core. The decades’ introduction to David Fincher saw plenty of ups (Fight Club) and downs (Alien 3)-, but it’s his 1995 feature that serves to establish the powerful formal control that he has only honed in the aughts. Featuring one of the finest ensemble casts of the decade, Se7en relishes in its downpour of fear and anxiety. It serves as one of the many films of the decade that acknowledges a growing connect between what is perceived and what is reality – the traditional narrative framework that operates in Se7en is cut and hacked by a razor when its evil elements are introduced.
Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
With Se7en being a gruesome outing in the external nature of grisly deaths and wavering psychosis, Cure is an internal study. Rather than simply relegating itself to a police procedural, Cure becomes an examination on the social environment that perpetuates actions of grotesque violence. In one of the film’s most tantalizing sequences, a lunatic is apprehended and questioned by a roomful of authorities. As the men question the madman’s motives, his response of “Who are you?” posits grand existential thought – blood is on everyman’s hands, it’s simply the social structure we impose that levies death’s moral worth. Questions on the fluidity of identity and social privilege present Cure as an incredible sociological study. The biting fact that it’s considered a horror film is secondary.
Wallace and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers (Nick Park)
Of course, the 90s weren’t all grim and glum times. Genuine moments of wonder illuminated the screen, with Aardman Animation producing two serendipitous Wallace and Gromit shorts. I prefer The Wrong Trousers to A Close Shave (marginally so), if only for the endearing qualities of its DIY methodology. The simplicity of its story-telling is compounded by incredible stop-motion animation; a laborious effort that stills remains my preferred method of animation. Like all of Nick Park’s efforts, the bountiful riches come from the playfulness of its characters and design. It’s a film concerned with delicious puns, fiscal insecurities, and a fugitive penguin, essentially casting a broad enough net that anyone with a pulse would enjoy.
Office Space (Mike Judge)
Candid, albeit exaggerated, Office Space may lack polish and finesse in presentation, but it boasts truths on the nature of office workplace antics that still, over a decade removed, remain prevalent. Like so many pictures on this list, the value found here is based largely on personal experiences, with pieces of myself found littered through the experiences of its characters. Mike Judge, a purveyor of the ordinary and dull, essentially snapshots the drudgery of life itself – canvassing the irrationality of working on the mindless and insipid. The picture eventually subsides into something of a fantasy, where its lead character lives out the wishes of its viewer. Cinema provides its outlets of wish fulfillment, though few as satisfying as walking past your boss without the slightest hint of acknowledgement.
Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)
Iranian cinema remains an unfortunate blind spot in my cinematic worldview. But if this 90s project proved fruitful in any way, it’s that it introduced me to the work of Abbas Kiarostami. Taste of Cherry was one of the first films I saw by the acclaimed director, a delicate picture that ruminates on existence and most poignantly, on death. A man’s search for someone to bury him, as he accosts various individuals on the monetary compensation of carrying out such a deed, inspires perpetual thought on the value of life itself. But it’s the film’s closing moments that elevate the picture to something of incredible strength as the bridge between cinema and reality is brought down. The bold movement remains on the decade’s true coup d'états – a visionary move that haunts the mind.
The Long Day Closes (Terence Davis)
A montage of memories works as well as the hand that crafts the images together. In what could perhaps be described as a precursor to The Tree of Life, The Long Day Closes operates on a grounded level of visual elegance that unites images with smooth camera movement and a classical backdrop. Bach populates much of the film’s sounds with rich imagery of candlelit nights and snow covered winters. Terence Davis is less concerned with narrative cohesiveness, instead opts to study the nature in which we remember our childhood. Like any truly great film, you bring a piece of yourself to the proceedings and come out with a greater sense of self.
The Dreamlife of Angels (Erick Zonca)
Perhaps it’s my sociological background that allows pictures on the struggles of those in poverty to inspire so much sympathy. Or, in all likelihood, it’s the inherit struggle associated with being an adult that draws me to films like The Dreamlife of Angels. Erick Zonca, a powerful yet underrated director, is drawn to characters who struggle to survive. As seen in his work in Julia, Zonca captures the essence of fiscal struggle, but posits additional queries on where we find solace in times of uncertainty. Featuring two incredible performances, The Dreamlife of Angels ruminates on the fiscal value of relationships – sometimes we just can’t afford the price of a friendship.
La Promesse (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The moral quandaries and narrative structure of all of the Dardennes’ films possess masterful clarity. The sense that their films move on long after their final shot that imposes such an everlasting reaction. Clarity and simplicity may be misunderstood as something light and without context, though this is quite the opposite in the case of all of the Dardennes’ work. Racial xenophobia, class consciousness, globalization and the simple moral flexibility in keeping a promise are among the many ideas that the Dardennes’ address – not superficially, but in the most direct and natural way. La Promesse introduced the Dardennes to a larger audience, though it’s an audience that remains disappointingly small in contrast to the monumental achievements in cinema the two have achieved.
Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (Lam Ngai Kai)
A certain level of flexibility and tolerance would be suggested when entering the world of Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. Scenes involving assassins using their own entrails to choke a victim or the title character punching through his opponents are vivid and frequent. While this all appeases a particular niche, it would hardly be as interesting if it were not for Lam Ngai Kai’s technique as he displays a sharply acute sense of his material’s comic roots. There is no shortage of grotesque imagery that pulsates through this fantasy world. The perpetual nature of the film’s visceral delights etches itself as something of a guilty pleasure, but hell, it’s so damn entertaining I could care less.
The Player (Robert Altman)
The significance of The Player is layered within Robert Altman’s career, where the ups of his 70s career was followed by a perceived downtrend in the 80s. This sensibility is expanded upon by the oft-mentioned opening sequence that sees a sustained shot of a Hollywood lot, where various individuals enter and exit the frame, representing a particular aspect of cinema. But as the film expands to narrative by introducing the audience into the life of a wanton film executive, the sense that the cinema, the acceptance of its growing and endless commercialization, registers as The Player’s most suggestive and illuminating idea. And then we look back at Robert Altman and we begin to understand: for a film filled with so much humor, the melancholic punch of its argument possesses remarkable heft.