“By the current timetable of cultural recycling, pop artifacts tend to look their most dated—no longer fresh and new, but also not yet easily filed as products of their time—roughly 15 to 20 years following their initial conception.” So wrote Slant‘s Eric Henderson in his intro to our list of the 100 Best Films of the 1990s. Five years after that list’s publication and we’re feeling, on the 16th anniversary of this site’s inception, a little nostalgic. Which is why, every day for the next two weeks, we’re looking back at one year from the 1990s, to celebrate the films—from the cerebral Iranian puzzle box, to the Hong Kong mixtape, to the American cine-savvy royale, with and without cheese—that inspired many of us to write about film in the first place.
Like we do today with our year-end lists, the year of U.S. theatrical distribution was for the most part used to determine what year a film belonged to. But in cases where a film took more than a year to reach America, the year of its first prominent theatrical engagement, either in its country of origin or beyond, was used. And given the abundance of riches we had to choose from, prior to each Top 10 is a list of 10 honorable mentions—the majority of which were shortlisted for our 100 Best Films of the 1990s back in 2012 but didn’t garner enough support to make the final list. Ed Gonzalez
Cronos has the sense of play that characterizes Guillermo del Toro’s American productions like Blade II and the Hellboy features. In these films, del Toro isn’t pressured to dramatize all of Spain’s collected weight of atrocity, and so he’s freed to inform his hunger for mythology and monster movies and literature with audaciously amusing perversity. Cronos lacks the polish of later del Toro works, and it’s all the more lively and moving for its rawness—for the way its shoestring surreal-ness corresponds loosely and tellingly with the protagonists’ desires. Chuck Bowen
Vanya on 42nd Street
The agitated emotions of Anton Chekhov’s personages become veritable landscapes in the hands of André Gregory’s assembly—entities as “readable” as they are squirmily unwatchable. Larry Pine as Astrov, for example, is noxiously vacant, shriveling under a lifetime of guilt behind the scalpel and seeking to save man instead by detachedly planting trees; he encompasses both a farce and a tragedy on his own. (Chekhov was, himself, of course, a frustrated man of medicine.) Furthermore, since the performance takes place in the dilapidated, pre-Disney renovated Amsterdam Theater, once the pride of Broadway, there’s a sense in which the actors become solemn, thankless “stewards” of a now-barren dramatic tradition, just as Vanya works the soil of his brother-in-law’s estate in vain. Insofar as the film Vanya on 42nd Street documents this effort, it’s a kind of shrugging elegy for an urban-cultural era that, by the ’90s, was long gone. Joseph Jon Lanthier
Tim Burton, an imaginatively unhinged visual prankster who occasionally moonlights as a major director, never before or ever again exhibited the astonishing range of talent he displayed in Ed Wood. The film is an example of that most rewarding sort of artistic mastery: It feels effortless, and there’s no deadening sense of “craft” that often kills Oscar winners. The tone, in particular, walks a fine tightrope between comedy and despair that never falters, which is notably impressive in a scene in which the faded star Lugosi (Martin Landau) pleas to Wood (Johnny Depp) to allow him to kill them both off in a blaze of intended glory. Bowen
Repetitive by design, Atom Egoyan’s precisely structured chamber film has an experimental constitution but a romantic heart, positioned as a direct conduit to the piercing pain of loss. Playing out across an economic 74 minutes, it hops between two discretely divided sections: 12 scenes set amid the quiet splendor of the Armenian countryside, interspersed with 12 set inside the cramped apartment of the unnamed protagonist (played by Egoyan himself). Employing a static camera, the film depends entirely on the placement of people and objects within its carefully defined tableaux. In the Armenia sequences, a flirtatious guide instigates the growing rift between Egoyan’s character and his wife as he works on a calendar shoot of old churches. In the home scenes, dinner dates with a dozen women are sabotaged by the intercession of a conveniently located phone and some inconvenient answering-machine messages, a scenario that grows more acute through repetition. Imagining both national and personal history as inescapable specters exerting a marked influence on our current lives, Calendar is a pointed inquisition on the eternal toll taken by the past. Jesse Cataldo
Red, the final chapter of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s homage to the French tricolor flag, was perhaps always destined to be the most striking of the three films; red, after all, is the most innately dramatic of the three colors. Coming off the heels of Blue and White, the film is particularly bracing, and the longer you consider its self-reflexive and labyrinthine self-awareness, the more Kieślowski and cinematographer Piotr Sobociński’s exquisite chromatography astounds. As in all of Kieślowski’s films, his microcosmic scrutiny of the world, sans judgment, suggests all things happen at once at a sub-cosmic level, embodying the notion of the filmmaker as a loving god. An opening phone call that echoes Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” sets the tone for this kinetically charged investigation of the spectrum of morality, a fitting swan song for a filmmaker intent on going out with a bang. Near-death experiences and unlikely friendships are just the springboards for his final gospel (Kieślowski would retire after this film, dying but 22 months after it premiered), and in Irene Jacobs’s soul-wrestling performance as Valentine, Red finds the necessarily enigmatic, literally hyperbolic figure on which to project its richly multifaceted metaphor of choice. Rob Humanick