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.
Short Cuts (Robert Altman)
Roughly 22 characters with nine separate though converging plots, Short Cuts is the sort of ambitious work that perhaps would be more highly regarded if it weren’t for Robert Altman doing the same damn thing in the 70s with Nashville. But it’s not to say the effort here is lost. Instead, Short Cuts exudes the same masterful craft displayed by Altman twenty years prior. Only this time, the Los Angeles haze stifles its characters movements as they take their chances by simply inhabiting their environment. Altman’s ambitions here are much like that found in Nashville: your chances of survival and success are as much based on skill as they are luck. One’s destiny is something out of our reach – sounds about right to me.
Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven)
Anyone who has watched enough of Paul Verhoeven’s films understands the intricate layers in his work. Subversive and satirical, the picture unravels as both a critique of science-fiction action films as well as the celebrity of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Seen comically in scenes as a construction worker, the actor’s brutish physique affords the picture the opportunity to probe some of the various aspects that made him one of the biggest box office draws of the 80s into the early 90s. The film’s “is it real or is it a dream” element expertly provides Total Recall the suspense of any action caper. But it’s the added introspective element of reevaluating the components of white male hegemony found in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s swelling popularity that elevates the material to something of profound social significance.
The Lovers on the Bridge (Leos Carax)
Leos Carax went for broke with The Lovers on the Bridge and has only barely survived the financial strains that the film caused him. Swirling in goofy romance, The Lovers on the Bridge evokes a dizzying passion. With grandiose sequences involving its homeless leads dancing as fireworks go off in the backdrop, the film has a relentless cinematic quality that pays reverence to the past while bustling into the future. Few films of the 90s house as many individual sequences that resonate so brightly. From the aforementioned fireworks sequence, Denis Lavant spitting fire, to Juliette Binoche staring at the camera doe-eyed as the snow falls in one of the picture’s final scenes, The Lovers on the Bridge reshapes the confines of normative romance films into something you feel rather than passively watch.
King of the Hill (Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh’s finest achievement, King of the Hill remains something of an obscure relic in the director’s filmography. It lacks some of the stylistic panache found in his contemporary work and followed in the wake of a series of commercial and critical failures. But King of the Hill reconciles Soderbergh’s thematic concerns of fiscal anxieties and communal living within the confines of a period-piece aesthetic. Utilizing a child-gaze, the film transcends sentimentality yet never comes across as something overwhelming in despair. Instead, it offers a glimpse of hope and a child is essentially left to fend for himself in the Depression Era. It’s the director’s most delicate film, so genuinely heartfelt and astute to the plights and joys of adolescence.
Rosetta (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
When speaking of films of universal quality, Rosetta perhaps addresses the concerns of the largest subsection of the world – the poor. The film prompted a law to be passed in Belgium that prohibits the exploitation of teenagers in the workplace, though some may contend that the French-speaking film operates in a world that does not directly address their own social circumstance. The Dardennes, as they did in La Promesse and every subsequent film following Rosetta, speak to truths of the human experience that extend beyond language. They are filmmakers who have reconciled the tower of Babel quandary by capturing the human experience through celluloid and most remarkably so in Rosetta.
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola)
While not a benchmark of cultural coolness, Sofia Coppola captured a certain gravitas of sexual potency when using Heart’s “Magic Man” to introduce Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). The tides of nostalgia that The Virgin Suicides induce suffocate, almost as much as the balmy air the film evokes through its deployment of Air’s compositions. A remarkable achievement of formal complexity, feminine perspective and dashed teenage hopes, The Virgin Suicides introduced audiences to one of the best contemporary filmmakers of the era. Time will only etch the film’s spot as being one of the best contemporary cinematic debuts for a filmmaker. And for a film so largely reflective on time and place, it’s befitting.
Safe (Todd Haynes)
Think of the air we breathe. Now consider the thoughts and ideas in which we inhale. This undoubtedly makes me sound gratingly pessimistic, but at times I wonder how people can so passively accept a life of dull routine and extravagant excess. In Todd Haynes’ Safe the audience watches on as a dull, dull woman wanders through the pangs of repetition and complicacy. A scene of dispassionate sex only serves to underscore the monotony of her life, though serves as a terrifying reminder of how most are so willing to accept the here and now. And perhaps even more terrifying, it’s a reminder that even the most drastic of life changes will not allow you to escape the meandering aspects of life in the air.
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
The zeitgeist film of the 90s; the one with the most markable cultural impact and reverberating effect on contemporary cinema. Masochistic and brutally aggressive in its mandom, it’s a film of such high-octane visceral pleasures that are near impossible to resist. A potpourri of verbal acrobatics and commanding formal integrity, Tarantino may be accused of aping the work of other filmmakers with his blatant and excessive references. But it’s his ability to coalesce them into a mixtape of unadorned and unreserved enjoyment that propels Pulp Fiction onto the next level. Along with Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction’s dripping original ushered a slew of copycats that never captured the freshness of the original.
Barton Fink (Joel Coen)
The effort put into establishing the appropriate space for writing – setting up your desk, securing a location free from distraction, and having the genuine desire to write all comes to a standstill when confronted with the blank page. Time may have modulated the concept from a blank piece of paper in a typewriter to the flickering cursor on a Microsoft Word document, but the overarching feeling of writer’s block remains an overwhelming hurdle to overcome. Barton Fink, with its brash statements on Hollywood screenwriting and the commercialization of the cinema, functions at its best and most frightening when its lead character looks to his blank piece of paper in despair. It’s at this time we question everything about ourselves as we struggle to come to grips with reality.
Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)
My interpretation of Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece has always been somewhat stilted as I wrapped up reading Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy days prior. Still fresh in my mind, Dead Man’s mishmash of Western iconography and Native American spiritualism registered on subsequent viewings. Watching Dead Man and seeing Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer wander the increasingly desperate American landscape read as something right out of Dante’s Inferno, a perpetual spiral of decadence as Dante (Depp) and Virgil (Farmer) witness sin and violence firsthand. It’s Jarmusch’s ability to view the violence of the world firsthand with a careful and introspective eye that lends Dead Man a true sense of spiritual honesty. There is no attempt to exploit death or glamorize it as so many films of the 90s attempted to do – he observes it as part of our violent cultural fabric. And like the characters in Alighieri’s work, there’s not much we can do but observe.