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.
Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata)
A more narratively unified visage of how memories can shape one’s adult life, Only Yesterday is one of the several bold animated films of the 90s that pushed the prospects of what animation can do. Isao Takahata, largely known for his 1988 work Grave of the Fireflies, deploys a simple narrative structure that sees a woman reflect on her childhood while taking the train to see family. Lingering on thoughts of a first crush, family vacations, and the loneliness associated with childhood, Only Yesterday continues a tradition that Studio Ghibli has held true for their films – that animated films can be an expansive territory where personal connection can be achieved.
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s trajectory in the 90s was something of an unknown, provided his uneven start with Hard Eight in 1996. The release of Magnolia late in the decade offered a glimpse into the type of director he would evolve into for the new millennium. A dense three-hour drama of intersecting lives and paternal drama was capped off with one of the true head scratchers of the decade – when it rains it pours. But what Magnolia presents is a director at an early age having the audacity and formal comprehension to create one of the boldest and personal films of the decade.
Election (Alexander Payne)
Another director who saw his start in the decade, Alexander Payne followed his 1996 abortion satire Citizen Ruth with this impeccable high school comedy, Election. Not just a thoughtful dissection on the stereotypes that populate high school life, Payne provides Matthew Broderick with his best role to date as a sad-sack high school teacher who desperately lives vicariously through the lives of his students. Payne’s biting humor offers as much insight as he does laughs. It’s a darkly honest look into the lives of those who see their future slipping away from them. Payne would continue with the same writing methodology found in Election, with successful films like About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants, though none come quite as close to unifying a clear thematic intent with so much humor and perspective.
Batman Returns (Tim Burton)
With nerd culture dominating the box office, superhero films have opted to lose their comic roots in favor of something darker and “real”. Before all that nonsense, there was Tim Burton’s take on the Batman mythos – a comprehensive adaptation that keeps true to Tim Burton’s aesthetic tendencies while maintain the material’s comic sensibility. There hasn’t been a more grimier and true Gotham City since, a sexier Catwoman or grotesque Penguin. It all fulfills much of the promise of a “comic book” film while remaining universally appealing. It’s one of the few occasions where Burton’s eccentricities feel right at home with the material, where excess is welcome and only enhances the picture on the whole.
Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese)
Arguably the least Scorsese-y film in his oeuvre, Cape Fear initially feels more like an extension of Brian De Palma’s filmography rather than anything Martin Scorsese has done prior. But as the film pushes on, the undeniable control exhibited through all of his work is made clear. The visual flourishes of Cape Fear serve to underscore the over-the-top performances from all involved, particularly Robert De Niro and 90s mainstay Juliette Lewis. The film may as well be considered a perpetual risk, often presenting uncomfortable material successfully. But it’s the bustling energy that is found from every aspect of the picture, performances, writing, and direction that makes Cape Fear one of Scorsese’s most irrevocably high-octane and hyperkinetic of films.
Metropolitan (Whit Stillman)
Exploring the lives of the upper financial crust of society may illicit its share of groans, but Whit Stillman realizes the wealthy youths with a tinge of melancholy. As a young lower-middle class boy attempts to join the ranks of a group of young Park Avenue elites, the overarching yearning for acceptance remains something that reverberates throughout the picture. In this immaculate debut, Stillman’s ability to balance humor and unrequited social acceptance is an assured quality that carries the picture through its most awkward moments. Stripped of its economical component, Metropolitan is a film of broad implication and effect – where the bruises of youth are at their most tender. Stillman may not have risen to the prolific rank as his oft compared contemporary Wes Anderson, but his style remains something of his own.
Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo)
Like any would-be writer, I ‘m sympathetic of those in a similar writer’s block predicament. The central character in Whisper of the Heart is interested in books and writing. Upon meeting a boy with a passion for constructing violins, she questions her own goals and strives to produce a short story that can capture her writer’s spirit. As the case with any perfectionist, this is hardly a simple task, where the limit of one’s imagination is tested. The manner in which Kondo captures this writer’s struggle surpasses that of most other films that deal with the creative process. In Whisper of the Heart, it’s less a descent into madness, but rather attempting to express your passion for writing in your work – in simply finding the right words.
Irma Vep (Oliver Assayas)
A Hong Kong starlet is assigned to a French production. No one speaks Cantonese and she can’t speak French so they split the difference and speak broken English (with star Maggie Cheung deploying a British accent). The globalization of film production can be seen within the first ten minutes of Irma Vep, an unclassifiable film on the expanding and ever-changing nature of making a film. Irma Vep is a stew of ideas, at times utterly confounding though incessantly mesmerizing. To pin down a concept may seem futile, but what sticks out so prominently is the Assayas’ critique of American and French cinema. Reflective of the decade itself, the 90s and cinema became occupied with excessiveness (American cinema) and faux-intellectualism (French cinema). There’s room for cinema to grow and expand, with Irma Vep’s dizzying final sequence positing the argument most effectively.
Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai)
The tumultuous and impromptu nature of Wong Kar-Wai’s style may suggest a lack of finesse or skill. While the difficulty of shooting a film with only a vague outline and a couple of albums to listen to for inspiration may provide mixed results (see: Fallen Angels). The results can also at times prove to be wonderfully realized. This is the case with Happy Together, a film featuring two of the most prolific Hong Kong actors of the time in a picture about a doomed gay romance. Spiritedly moving from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires, the picture adheres to the signature style of Wong Kar-Wai’s propulsive energy. Bustling and visceral, Happy Together remains a cynical- minded film, one that openly acknowledges that, no matter what, some people are simply destined to be alone.
Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson)
While not as formally aggressive as the aforementioned Magnolia, Boogie Nights makes up its formal transgressions with smutty charm and zippy energy. Not to say the picture isn’t an immaculate production- it’s a stunning picture that adheres to a very traditional and linear plotting. The rollicking 70s of the porn industry gives way to its eventual downfall in the 80s, with Anderson possessing the wit to acknowledge that there’s a certain kind of nobility in everyone involved. Wounded in every sense, people fall into this line of work not by choice but because of the social conditions that necessitate some form of communal interaction. In the end, it’s a film with the most humanistic of intents: to show the implicit desire for human connection wherever they can find it.