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.
Hoop Dreams (Steve James)
A rich and complex portrait of American life, Hoop Dreams is a miracle of a film. Following two freshmen high school boys as they contend with financial difficulties, sports injuries, and familial abandonment, the film has the richness of a narrative drama while never succumbing to overt melodrama. Yet how could Steve James and his crew have known the narrative trajectory of his subjects? The harsh reality and various obstacles that hinder the success of both families speak of a harsh urban landscape that makes life a perpetual struggle. With familiar Chicago sights that acknowledge segregated North and South side communities, Hoop Dreams functions as the ultimate “Chicago” film – a city divided along racial and financial lines.
Ed Wood (Tim Burton)
When crafting any work of art, passion and ineptitude are not mutually exclusive terms. One could even fault Tim Burton for succumbing to a level of aesthetic stylism that is simply too heightened, where obliviousness to the quality of one’s work comes into play. Ed Wood is as much a film about the dismal director as it is a film about those who strive to succeed in a particular field that they’re simply not meant for. Yet despite Ed Wood’s many follies as a filmmaker of little visual or directorial competence, it’s hard to resist someone who is so passionate about their work. If Ed Wood mythologizes its central character, it’s for good cause. Sometimes there’s no stopping the burning ambition to succeed as a filmmaker.
An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion)
Adopting a traditional biopic narrative, An Angel at My Table delicately depicts writer Janet Frame’s (played by Kerry Fox in one of the best performances of the decade) struggles as a youth, only to find refuge in the written word. Campion unites childhood images with much of Frame’s written word in a blend of visual poetry of astounding affect. With Campion’s motivated focus, An Angel at My Table towers over other biopics in the emotional depth that is provoked through her lush imagery. But as is the recurring trend with my favorite films of the era (and in general), it’s a film about the writer’s struggle, both in and out of the confines of the page.
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)
The decade’s response to The Godfather, Martin Scorsese first film of the 90s remains a relic of the decade. Not just one of the most lauded and culturally significant, but an integral picture that serves as inspiration for years of would-be filmmakers. Oft mimicked but never replicated (even by Scorsese himself), Goodfellas trades in bustling energy and relishing in the allure of crime. As Scorsese beautifully illustrates, friendships and loyalties take decades to forge, yet betrayal always lurks. As all the characters eventually tumble down the rabbit hole of bad decisions, would any one of them have never accepted this lifestyle? The film opens with a narration stating “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”. For the characters in this film, they won’t trade in one bad decision if it meant adhering to the ordinary.
Three Colors: Red (Krzysztof Kieślowski)
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s final film and the conclusive chapter of the Three Colors trilogy explores the bonds of friendship on an almost cosmic level. Reflective of all of Kieślowski’s work, Red reconciles the director’s penchant for symbolic hyperbole while possessing a level of refined emotional restraint. Featuring Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant, the two almost function as deities as their blossoming friendship delves into the depth of the interconnectedness of spirit. With the color red splashed on every frame, Red is the most vibrantly alluring of Kieślowski’s French work, even as it perhaps registers as one of his most somber. While the three films in his trilogy operate within their own narrative framework, Kieślowski’s ability to unite Blue, White, and Red is one of the decade’s most ambitions examples of thematic cohesion.
Fargo (Joel Coen)
Amidst the twisted humor and violent bloodbaths, Fargo is first and foremost a film of miscalculations. Jerry Lundegaard’s (William H. Macy) plan to collect on a ransom is as convoluted as it is stupid, with his hopes of obtaining a little bit of land to turn into a parking lot being equally as stupid. His intentions are wrapped in a warped sensibility where financial compensation takes precedence over all else. Right from the start the audience is privy to the deviant and moronic ways these schemers plot their downfall. From being an hour late to a meeting with hired guns to rationalizing how Jerry would have ever been able to explain a missing car from his used car lot, Fargo perhaps explores why crime is best left to a professional.
Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh)
The decade’s penchant for exaggerating the exploits of criminals took something a detour in Steven Soderbergh’s bombastic Out of Sight. In what stands out as one of the best screenplays of the decade, Out of Sight’s scattered narrative threads provide a scattershot perspective of its characters. Wildly romantic, the film observes the strains of criminality amidst the pangs of unrequited love. Out of Sight is all about the sly glances and intimacy of an exchange. Humorous and timely, the film marks a transition in Steven Soderbergh’s career as he emerges as not just one of the best American directors of the time, but one capable of intermingling traditional Hollywood concepts within his own worldview.
Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma)
The swell of crime films following Goodfellas boasted its share of highs and lows though fewer reached the feverish ambition of Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way. A colorfully diligent and perpetually earnest picture befallen in the shadow of De Palma’s showier Scarface, Carlito’s Way aims dwell less on male bravado (though there’s plenty of that) and wish-fulfillment. Rather, it’s a reformist picture that deconstructs the sociological pitfalls of reintroducing a man into a society bent on reinforcing criminality. De Palma extends his cinematic inspiration beyond Hitchcock as various scenes reflect the work of Jean-Pierre Melville and Otto Preminger. As tightly orchestrated as any of De Palma’s masterpiece 80s efforts, Carlito’s Way functions as an ideal compromise between Hollywood convention and auteurist flourishes.
Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze)
Love is a cruel thing. In Spike Jonze’s debut feature, he and writer Charlie Kaufman dwell on a labyrinth of ideas. From the fetishism associated with celebrity to the drudgery of work-life to puppets, it all ties to the central concept that hearts can never be complacent. It’s an oddity that a film populated by cruel people can spurn any sympathy at all, but Being John Malkovich addresses that the circumstances of our cruelty. People define their success based on delusional social circumstance. They strive for love in a world filled with false mirrors and faulty perspectives. In the end, my opening sentence may need to be reevaluated. It’s the world that’s the cruel place.
Trust (Hal Hartley)
Following a discussion on synonyms, Hal Hartley scripts dialogue for his two central characters as follows:
Your job is making you boring and mean.
Matthew: My job is making me a respectable member of society.
In a film marked by a dull color palette with concepts of parental neglect, abortion, and anomie, it’s hard to figure Trust as anything more than a really depressing film. But Hartley’s intent and ear for dialogue presents these situations with an air of hopefulness. It’s really the film’s two leads, Adrienne Shelley and Martin Donovan that instill the material with glimmers of youthful vigor. The previous film, Being John Malkovich deals with cruel people in a cruel world – Trust follows two people within that same world trying to make it work.