“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
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a filmmaker for whom genre is merely the starting point for more oblique, existential questions about character and society, and none of his works are as hauntingly mysterious as Cure, a 1997 serial-killer thriller that cares less for typical police-procedural machinations than for raising confounding suggestions about what compels individuals and cultures to embrace and commit violence. Those issues are filtered through a detective’s investigation of a series of murders linked by the fact that each victim has had an “X” slashed into their throat, and which are eventually revealed to have been perpetrated by different strangers all working under the apparently hypnotic orders of a madman who answers queries with only more queries. That this lunatic seems to be the embodiment of larger societal decays becomes more apparent during a second half that operates at a detached remove and is tangled in identity-crisis horrors, culminating with a provocative final shot that remains a preeminently tantalizing talking point. Nick Schager
“Let’s start over.” One might argue that this haunting line, first uttered during the breakneck opening of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, encapsulates the director’s entire oeuvre in three simple words. Past and present heartache blurs any hope for the future in Wong’s intensely heated melodrama about two lovers (Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Leslie Cheung) from Hong Kong who escape to Argentina, hoping a change of scenery will save their self-destructive relationship. While Happy Together is just as formally audacious as Chungking Express, and every bit as emotionally devastating as In the Mood for Love, it’s also uniquely sad. Wong doesn’t create one of those classically weepy romances tragically hindered by social formalities or hierarchies; his two characters are simply mired in a stagnant and masochistic relationship from which they can’t or want to escape. But their extended downfall is devastating nonetheless, mostly because the performances by Leung and Cheung are so deeply felt and psychologically intertwined. Happy Together, which envisions emotional addiction as a series of heightened freeze frames, jump cuts, and pop-music cues, is melancholia incarnate. Glenn Heath Jr.
The lynchpin of David Lynch’s transition to full-bore, intensely intangible abstraction, Lost Highway is his first film to exist entirely under the sway of dream logic, rather than just feeling strikingly dream-like. Pushing further the successes of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which upended the expectations of the sequel by first embarking on an startling digression, then progressively imploding the format of a series of which he’d long grown tired. Lost Highway does the same for narrative structure, indulging in a two-part story that’s a puzzle box of discarded noir tropes and horror-movie cues, with a sense of creeping dread signaling Lynch’s move beyond the realm of traditional storytelling. Once again cataloguing the dark passage of a protagonist discovering the capacity for evil within himself, the film achieves this transformation through a baffling bit of character-swapping, one of the many subtly disconcerting elements in this influential work of mad, disturbing beauty. Jesse Cataldo
The purest distillation of Tsai Ming-liang’s signature approach to filming contemporary urban experience, The River finds the director’s perpetual stand-in, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), achieving a maximal state of estrangement, if not from the desiccated environments that mirror his own tightly constrained mental states, than at least from all the people that populate that world. Stripping his art of such superfluous elements as camera movement, music, and visual clutter, Tsai follows his protagonist as he fills in as a film extra, appropriately playing a dead body floating in a polluted Taipei river. Perhaps as a result of this dip, Hsiao-kang develops increasingly debilitating neck pain and, along with his father with whom he barely exchanges a word, he begins seeking various cures. Tsai’s symbolism, as always, is suggestive without demanding definitive readings, a means to heighten our sense of disjunction, whether between family members or between characters and their poisonous environment. A final misguided attempt by Hsiao-kang at release proves at once shocking and pictorially stunning in its red-tinged chiaroscuro. Finally, however, there’s no cure; in Tsai’s jaundiced vision, life is destined to go horribly, banally on. Andrew Schenker
The first, and most successful, of Olivier Assayas’s engagements with the world of global capital (present here in the form of an international coproduction, which also describes the film itself), Irma Vep is one of the few films explicitly about filmmaking that manages to transcend its inevitable narcissism. Maggie Cheung, superstar Hong Kong actress, is Maggie, superstar Hong Kong actress, brought to Paris to star in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires directed by past-his-prime René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud). The big showstopper, a dreamy nighttime sequence set to Sonic Youth in which Cheung dons her character’s black latex catsuit and steals a diamond necklace from another guest at her hotel, manages to make the tired theme of the collapsing divide between acting and living seem exciting again. But Assayas’s big ideas, fundamentally pessimistic and conservative, only come out in the final sequence, as the sacked Vidal’s footage is revealed to be a shock of avant-garde provocation modeled on Isidore Isou’s On Venom and Eternity: Even this once radical form can be squeezed by the weight of global corporate dollars into the shape of narrative resolution. Phil Coldiron