Chatter #20 – The 90s
The Best of the Nineties - Preface
The Best of the Nineties – Part I
The Best of the Nineties – Part II
The Best of the Nineties – Part III
The Best of the Nineties – Part IV
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.
Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen)
Stylistically speaking, Husbands and Wives is Woody Allen’s most ambitious effort. Shot like a documentary, Allen’s typical arsenal of quips and insights are compounded by a visual style that positions the audience as more than mere spectator – the neurosis of the film’s four central characters seep into your consciousness. More personal than any other of Allen’s films, Husbands and Wives captures the tumultuous state-of-mind of those in a crumbling relationship. From the sensations of a new relationship to seeking refuge in an ex, Allen effectively provides a primer of his cinematic thesis into one singular effort. The film’s release came in the wake of Allen’s own controversy, where his relationship with Mia Farrow’s then adopted daughter was made public. With an impending divorce looming, the film’s final sequence involving Allen and Farrow acknowledges the bitter strains in their relationship following the news. Universal yet painfully personal, few films bridged the two ideals better than Husbands and Wives.
Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski)
Blue functions as the best entry in Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors trilogy. Pensive reflexes and subdued exchanges provide the most somber of experiences in the trilogy. And while it lacks the comedic panash of White and the stylistic vibrancy of Red, Blue is the most formally comprehensive and inherently human of the three works. Juliette Binoche, an actress capable of impressive range, accommodates Kieślowski’s vision by internalizing her emotions for a great deal of the picture. But as the memories of her lost love seep back into her consciousness, the swell of the music the two made together strikes the senses. An auditory experience of the great emotional grandeur, Blue assesses the meaning of liberty on both a micro and macro level as well as on both the internal and external psyche.
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang)
A colossal achievement in analyzing the social concerns of generations, A Brighter Summer Day examines how a singular event can shape the perspective of youth. In an opening sequence that shows a parent pleading with a school administrator to let his son attend a school, we juxtapose to a text that outlines the broad social complexities of the land: the Chinese fled to Taiwan as a means of escaping communism. Alienated from their culture and essentially forced into exile, Edward Yang is careful not to ever complicate the rich emotional terrain with an overt political subtext. Instead, we view the characters of the film roam a terrain of decadence, bruised emotionally and fatigued from the absence of culture. The dichotomy between parents desperate to achieve what their parents had and children attempting to formulate a sense of identity affords A Brighter Summer Day a rich portrait of a culture in crisis.
Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven)
A lambasted work of subversion, Showgirls’ superficial qualities may inspire the dread of watching a weekday soap opera. But what Paul Verhoeven posits is something broader. Essentially redefining the language of cinema itself, Verhoeven’s straight-faced satire in the midst of camp dialogue may cause you to squirm, but the film’s arguments are of striking richness. From its vivid depiction of male hegemony run amok to realizing the toxic superficiality of Las Vegas, Showgirls is of unbridled depth. Adopting a rise-to-fame narrative that compromises the viewer’s judgment outright, we view a character determined to rise in the ranks of stardom in the world of smut. This early narrative complication serves to underscore Showgirls’ central concerns as a film about the increasingly murky visage of the American dream itself. Neon lights populate the entirety of Showgirls’ runtime, but few films of the 90s broach such grim and complicated territory as Verhoeven’s nightmare of America.
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
Reservoir Dogs had a freshness of a new auteur emerging. Pulp Fiction tested the director’s faculty to contain many moving parts. Jackie Brown however, explored the director’s ability to test the emotional weight of his material. The hyper-violence of Reservoir Dogs and the comic book sensibility of Pulp Fiction never afforded Tarantino the opportunity to explore the emotional depths of his characters. Jackie Brown is Tarantino at his most sensual. It’s a film where violence has reverberated consequences and where fleeting glances audaciously boil more intimately than any of the quick-witted dialogue that the writer/director is known for. Tarantino has made five films since, all ranging in their volatility and comic sensibilities. Jackie Brown remains his most full work, a film of rich emotional complexities, unrequited happiness, and judicious violence.
Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami)
Most fantasize about being someone else. The thought arouses the disintegration of boundaries. The aforementioned Being John Malkovich questions the notion as a means of experiencing an entirely new perspective. Most of the time, its implications in cinema often deal with fantastic excursions in excess (Identity Thief) or generic thrillers (Taking Lives). What Abbas Kiarostami posits is something richer in emotional and social complexities. It follows a man named Hossein Sabzian who adopted the persona of an Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. His affront is simple: Sabzian’s passion for film motivates him to take part in a growing movement in the fledging Iranian cinematic culture. Upon being caught in his lie, the man faces trial. Kiarostami brings the material to focus when he places no judgment on Sabzian. Instead, one can understand the misguided reasoning for adopting an entirely new identity. It’s not out of delusion, but rather a need to partake in a cultural movement, to feel as if part of the growing cultural identity as a whole. Close-Up’s closing sequence punctuates a compelling study of identity and one’s love for cinema with a tinge of melancholy, where the distance between being a spectator to originality and creator is bridged, yet still feels so far.
Rushmore (Wes Anderson)
Bottle Rocket is the first film in Anderson’s filmography, but Rushmore functions as the director’s clearest exhibition of his style. It’s a style that would persist through all of his films, with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom refining Rushmore’s diegesis best. But refining a formula doesn’t necessarily hinder the original product, with Rushmore instilling a greater sense of spectacle and wonder through much of its proceedings. The freshness Rushmore itself gives the film an edge as a bespectacled youth contends with heartbreak, paternal disappointment, and simply growing up. With the film’s central conceit involving the hyper-precociousness and obnoxiousness of Max (Jason Schwartzman), few films of the decade have a more fitting ending than a school dance closing to The Faces’ Ooh La La with adolescence at Max’s perch.
Chungking Express (Wong Kar Wai)
One’s adoration for any given film tends to relate to their condition when viewing a movie. Sometimes a film may seem puzzling on initial viewing but lingers in the senses long enough to prompt another viewing, where interpretation could fluctuate. That was the case with many of my viewings of Wong Kar Wai’s work. At a time when I was hungry to digest just about any piece of esteemed cinema, I found most of his work to be something of a conundrum. Chungking Express remained on the backburner of revisits as I soon began to embrace Wai’s other works, particularly In the Mood for Love. Going back to Chungking Express, Wai’s stylistic flourishes land with reverberating impact – a style that initially seems so contained in the 90s yet rejects antiquity or staleness. Chungking Express’ two narratives detail the lives of characters with their bouts of loneliness and isolation in Hong Kong, though they are eventually reawakened by the discoveries of love and passion. What Chungking Express best expresses is a sense of wonder and spectacle. It at times feels like a memory. And more often than not, it moves like one, rapidly enveloping your heart through its fast-paced display of life being lived.
Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
As much as Eyes Wide Shut operates as a nightmarish dreamscape dealing with the anxieties of marriage, it’s also a vivid deconstruction of the gender dichotomy and social inequality. Stanley Kubrick’s final film inspires thought on the moral flexibility that comes with wealth, where one can live out fantasies of grandeur and fulfill sexual conquests with the greatest of ease. Even shared experiences along all social classes, like marriage and sexuality, are viewed in a distilled lens when money is involved. Like the aforementioned Showgirls, the seedy and deliberate evilness of social conventions are left for exhibition in Eyes Wide Shut. The lingering dread of the film is compounded the Kubrick’s masterful formal control and one of his most curious casting decisions in Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Like so many of Kubrick’s works, the impression he leaves you with is one of bewilderment. It’s an impression that is a branding itself: so permanent and unshakable.
The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
The Double Life of Veronique, along with the two previous films mentioned on this list, all possess a particular dreamlike and cryptic atmosphere. The most rewarding films of the decade, and in general, are those of this ponderous quality. They may all be dense in thematic intent and be built on clear narrative terms, but their movements are somewhat more elusive and oblique. The films operate to evoke a feeling and instill a sense of wonder – a difficult experience if one’s expectations are for clearly outlined narrative devices. Rationality is subjective in The Double Life of Veronique, co-opted by sweeping efforts of sensual elegance.
Kieslowski, whose latter works were of significant moral and social probing with Three Colors and The Decalogue, released The Double Life of Veronique in between both projects. While condensed in comparison to the grandiose manifestos that would define his career, The Double Life of Veronique resonates as the best film of the 90s for its temporal evocation and the manner in which Kieslowski is capable of illustrating something close to poetic lyricism through celluloid.
The film follows parallel characters – a Polish singer named Weronika and a French music teacher named Veronique. The two are played by the same actress, Irene Jacob, in the decade’s best performance. Leading distinct yet related lives, the two women possess something of a mystical relationship, whereupon their bound by larger spiritual forces. When tragedy strikes one, the other contends with the reverberating affect afterward, unaware of what brings about such bouts of emotional distress. While clear in its narrative transgressions, Kieslowski allows the imagery to propel his audience into understanding the complex ties that bind the doppelgangers together. No rational explanation is provided to the audience for the why, instead Kieslowski instills a perpetual sense of wonder and awe, inspiring something close to a spiritual experience.