My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #1 – WILD AT HEART. Messy and undisciplined, but undeniably passionate and visceral, David Lynch’s ‘Wild at Heart’ felt like a great revelation to me the first time I saw it upon its release in 1990. Never was a film more aptly titled – the wild, unbridled spirit of the film is what I respond to most. Lynch throws in inspirations from The Wizard of Oz, Elvis Presley musicals, 50’s road pictures; he sets a tone of the unexpected, so none of these elements feel out of place with the world he creates here (even the transgressions that often derail Lynch’s films). It’s a musical, a road picture, a fable, a violent crime film, but most of a palpably felt love story between the iconic couple of the decade – Sailor and Lula (played by Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern). They’re the anchor to the chaos that surrounds them, and provide the extreme contrast to the darker tones of the film. As he so often is, Lynch is obsessed with these contrasts – part of what makes Lynch such a singular artist is the fact that he’s a weird cross between naïve boy scout and purveyor of the dark and perverted. Structurally, ‘Blue Velvet’ is a stronger achievement, but I respond more to the anarchy in ‘Wild at Heart’ (if it were any less unhinged, its unique vision would fall apart).
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #2 – JFK. Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ is an epic portrayal of what may be the most profound murder mystery of our time. But it’s also an example of impeccable film craft, an immersive take on obsession and the gnawing need to know the potentially unknowable, an ingenious reimagining of the Jimmy Stewart-type crusader, and a thoughtful examination of how we chose to channel and make sense of our grief. The film is historical fiction; its intention is to provide counter-theories to the Warren Commission’s report on the Kennedy assassination. This seemingly endless rabbit hole of information is what gives the film momentum, and it’s brought to life and made digestible by the crackling multi-format cinematography from Robert Richardson and some of the most dynamic editing you’ll ever see. While the movie certainly shouldn’t be construed as a factual document, it does have something to teach us about history. It provides a much needed rallying cry for all of us to avoid apathy in our role as citizens of this country.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #3 – HEAT. Michael Mann’s staggering achievement is cops and robbers on an epic scale, and the best of its genre. The first-time face off of De Niro and Pacino – our two greatest modern actors – is reason enough to rejoice, but Mann supplements this clash of the titans with terrifically drawn supporting roles. But no supporting presence is as crucial as the city of Los Angeles itself; the 70 or so locations used in the film give us an L.A. we rarely get to see, and Dante Spinotti’s steely blue-grey photography captures it all with a quality that goes beyond mere mood and ascends into the purely soulful. It’s also another example of one of my favorite subgenres in film – a portrait of people at work. What’s thrilling, revelatory and surprisingly touching about ‘Heat’ is the cold fact that both of these characters need the other to justify their existence.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #4 – CASINO. Ahhh…the ongoing ‘Goodfellas’ vs. ‘Casino’ argument. I find ‘Goodfellas’ to be a perfect film, but I’m more likely to return to ‘Casino’ (as I so often do). Much like ‘The Godfather Part II’, Scorsese’s ‘Casino’ takes off on the inspirations of its counterpart and broadens its scope and ambitions. The tapestry Scorsese weaves here is exhilarating, and so chockfull of constant stimuli (visceral performance moments, multiple voiceovers articulating an endlessly fascinating underworld, stunning costumes of delicious color, deliriously swirling camera movement, viciously realized themes of power, corruption, and paranoia) that the viewer barely has a chance to catch their breath before this 3-hour opus comes to a close. De Niro gives a particularly lovely performance here; he’s subtle but always in command. In terms of my favorite Scorsese efforts, ‘Casino’ rests right behind ‘Taxi Driver’. It’s a movie of pure intoxication for me.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #5 – EYES WIDE SHUT. This is one of the most fascinating of Stanley Kubrick’s efforts, and his most divisive and misunderstood. I find myself watching the film 2 or 3 times a year; its mysteries continue to draw me in. What does it say about the male-female dynamic? Is it another of Kubrick’s biting critiques of power? Is it at least partially a dream? Is it even a murder mystery? To what genre does it belong, or is it even classifiable? To my delight, there are many answers that remain elusive to me, but there’s a constant barrage of details that continue to make the experience of the film a revelation. Nicole Kidman delivers one of the most hypnotic performances in all of Kubrick’s work, but more and more I am taken by Tom Cruise’s extremely curious performance. Kubrick uses Cruise’s movie star charisma in a very unique way; he inverts it. We’re used to seeing Cruise as the all American go-getter (even his Ron Kovic becomes a fiery activist by film’s end), but in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, he’s truly rendered impotent and passive. This is the greatest kind of film for me (as are the majority of Kubrick’s films) because it’s one I will always return to and feel like I’m watching for the first time.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #6 – SEVEN. Fincher’s modern classic takes all those serial killer movie conventions and turns them on their head. Unlike all those inferior movies of the genre, there’s a method to the madness of these crimes, the killer gives himself up ¾ of the way through the picture, and the typical buddy cop roles may be present (hot- headed rookie paired with the wizened veteran nearing retirement), but the performances allow them to transcend the obvious and become something a lot more specific and human. Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay is an ingenious invention, and particularly brave in its final act. Darius Khondji’s rain soaked, tobacco stained cinematography make this one of the most beautifully visualized films of an ugly despairing world.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #7 – GOODFELLAS. Widely considered by the critical intelligentsia to be one of Scorsese’s shining efforts, and the best film of this decade, ‘Goodfellas’ is ‘The Godfather’ without the romanticism. You feel the thrill that Henry Hill experiences when he first begins his rise in a life of crime, but his downfall is equally vivid, thrilling and ultimately devastating. What really makes the film sing are the details; every second contains a telling action or behavior that becomes the very definition of authenticity, creating a world that feels fully lived-in. A real game changer in regards to editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s frenetic, jaggedly pieced cutting as well.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #8 – THE INSIDER. We’ve all seen our fair share of one-whistleblower-stands-alone-against-the-system movies, but this one stands out from the lot due to a roster of superlative performances, and the compelling and complex vision of director Michael Mann. Mann is patient as he explores his story of compromised principles in the face of corporate interests. The 2 hour and 40 minute running time allows him the freedom to examine every nuanced turn under his expert dramatist’s microscope.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #9 – CAPE FEAR. A remake done right. Scorsese takes a perfectly agreeable little thriller from 30 years earlier, and infuses it with the religious overtones and moral shadings for which he is renowned. Scorsese’s ‘Cape Fear’ is about guilt and atonement, and how sin and indiscretion tear a family apart from the inside; these themes are made even more profound if you view the villain of the piece (an avenging angel played by Robert De Niro) as some sort of specter rather than a flesh and blood human being. This tightly constructed and oftentimes claustrophobic movie features gorgeous, fever dream-like cinematography by Freddie Francis, whose closed in framing feels even more menacing and immediate give its widescreen format.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #10 – TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. A surrealistic nightmare, and David Lynch’s true horror film, ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’ is equal parts confounding and devastatingly powerful. I also believe it’s his most deeply felt film. For me, feeling rules over logic in any Lynch film. I don’t necessarily think it’s beneficial to look for meaning behind every weird nuance in his work; the powerful emotions that he inspires through hypnotic sounds and visuals dictate their own sense of logic. In crafting the tragic story of Laura Palmer, Lynch continues his exploration into the darkest and most mysterious recesses of humanity within what seems to be – on the surface – a normal everyday small town environment. If you find yourself receptive to his vision, the film can be a bruising, but ultimately transcendent experience.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #11 – THE BIG LEBOWSKI. This is one of the smartest movies ever made about dim-witted people, and at the top of my all-time favorite comedies. ‘The Big Lebowski’ is unabashedly silly, wildly inventive, and a gorgeously acted comedy of behaviors. The flawless interplay between the core group of performers – Bridges, Goodman and Buscemi – is what really gives the film its spark.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #12 – TITANIC. Taken from my review of the recent 3D re-release: What was clunky in the film back then is no less clunky now, but the elements of the film that struck such a primal, deeply emotional chord across the globe 15 years ago still ring true today; mainly, James Cameron’s ability to seamlessly infuse cutting-edge technological spectacle with all the sentimental allure of an old fashioned epic. Some of the dialogue may be groan-inducing, but the script is nevertheless beautifully structured; the smaller story centered around the doomed lovers plays more profoundly because it’s played against the scope of the larger tragedy, and vice versa. In its best moments, the film feels haunted by a visceral, respectfully solemn feeling of loss. For first-time viewers, TITANIC may feel like a revelation of how a true epic can stimulate the senses, and not just bombard them into a stupor.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #13 – SUMMER OF SAM. Both ‘Summer of Sam’ and ‘He Got Game’ are bravura pieces of filmmaking. There aren’t many filmmakers who consistently produce work that truly surprise and exhilarate me, but Spike Lee usually does, no more so than with these two films. I love his unconventional approach to narrative; his characters have the freedom to go off on tangents completely unrelated to the main plot, but those tangents actually work to further your investment in the story by providing a completely immersive and lived-in sense of reality. His approach feels like his own unique, blistering take on Robert Altman in one sense, but then je also gives you sweeping and expressive camera work worthy of Scorsese. I appreciate the bold brush strokes in these films – the basketball being thrown from father to son at the conclusion on ‘He Got Game’ – defiantly defying the laws of physics by travelling a symbolic journey from basketball court to prison yard. In ‘Summer of Sam’, these qualities create an unsettling and feverish vision of New York that’s reminiscent of ‘Taxi Driver’ at times. He uses the true crime case of the Son of Sam killer to beautifully illustrate a more intimate story, populated by tension-filled characters experiencing an awkward period of transition in their lives.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #14 – HE GOT GAME. The 90’s were the decade of Spike Lee for me, where he capitalized on the heat generated from the wondrous ‘Do the Right Thing’, and delivered a string of exciting and personal visions. The epic ‘Malcolm X’ stands as one of the great biopics from this period, ‘4 Little Girls’ is one of the most moving documentaries that exists, ‘Mo Better Blues’ is a passionate take on the pitfall-ridden path of an artist, the ‘Jungle Fever’ subplot involving a drug-addicted and desperate Samuel L. Jackson features moments of overwhelming emotional resonance, and his film ‘25th Hour’ actually rests at #1 on my list of favorites from the 2000’s. But my two favorites from Spike during this period are this one and…
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #15 – LEAVING LAS VEGAS. This gritty, doomed romance is all about need. These are tragic characters in desperate need of connection, and they happen upon each other at the perfect time in their lives. In their own unique way, they both want out of their current existence, and they give one another the strength and the comfort they need to reach their destination.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #16 – THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. The 90’s were a great decade for romantic films – I count four in my top 20 alone – and this one (coupled with my #15 pick) is the most haunting of the bunch. I entered the theatre groaning the first time I saw it; I couldn’t possibly have expected to respond well to it after hearing about the relentlessly syrupy tone of the novel. But it struck such a deep chord for me, and remains such a strongly emotional film in my life. I know I’m in danger of having to turn in my man card here, but there are moments in this film that are as visceral and devastating as any I’ve ever seen – Meryl Streep grasping onto the car door handle, tormented on whether to leave the man to whom she’s married for a life and a love for which she yearns; her husband lying next to her later on his death bed telling her he knows she had dreams of her own.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #17 – PRESUMED INNOCENT. The last truly great film by director Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men), and one of Harrison Ford’s best performances. This is the movie equivalent of a page-turner (as it came from a popular legal thriller from author Scott Turow), but its tone is largely solemn and meditative. Ford is supported by a terrific cast including Brian Dennehy, Bonnie Bedelia, Paul Winfield, and two incredibly charismatic performances from actors that are sadly no longer with us – John Spencer and Raul Julia.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #18 – JERRY MAGUIRE. Cameron Crowe is such a terrifically talented writer of warmth and character, and his work really shines here. ‘Jerry Maguire’ is about believing in yourself, embracing the love around you, and being your best self; sentiments that would normally feel icky and Hallmark-worthy, but play so truthfully here. It’s all held together by a funny, charming, tortured and tender performance by Tom Cruise in what I believe is his greatest movie star role.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #19 – DEAD MAN WALKING. A devastating film featuring staggering central performances by Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. The movie bleeds compassion, and I think its portrayal of the dicey topic of capital punishment avoids being preachy and heavy handed by achieving a note of true grace and transcendence. You really feel the journey of a man who finally owns up to the sins of his past, and the up to the sins of his life, and of the loving guide who ushers him there.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s: #20 – MEET JOE BLACK. This movie isn’t looked upon very kindly by most, but I’ve always responded to its open heart, effective performances, achingly beautiful musical score, and large themes. It’s too labored and long at times, but it’s one of those old fashioned weepers that feels both large and intimate. There’s a scene that’s stayed with me – and I think it’s one of Anthony Hopkins’ finest moments – as he stands at a window and speaks of his dead wife and cold lamb sandwiches. Mostly when I watch this film, I miss the work of writer-director Martin Brest, and regret that he disappeared from the industry following his debacle with ‘Gigli’.