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The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s


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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. That became painfully clear when, and this isn't to speak for the rest of the Slant writers, I set about the task of re-watching some of the '90s movies I've long considered favorites, and even more so as I finally set about to catch up with some of the other movies my colleagues were endorsing. Beyond the leftover '80s-hangover effect, there's also the fact that some of the most beloved and influential '90s movies helped kick off trends that have, in the years since, curdled into cliché and downright annoyance. Hence, over-familiarity and premature antiquity form a minefield that makes determining the last analog decade's best films uniquely tricky.

Still, the further one sifts through the decade's offerings, the more surprising its highlights seem. This is, after all, the decade during which Terrence Malick broke his two-decade-long sabbatical from filmmaking, a fugue only Stanley Kubrick came close to rivaling, both creating masterworks well worth the wait. The decade when all sorts of Eastern cinema broke through, from sensual Hong Kong mixtapes to cerebral Iranian puzzle boxes. The decade where Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, David Cronenberg, Steven Spielberg, and others who made their names during the American New Wave of the '70s all broadened their horizons and confirmed their artistry, even with next-generation filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, David Fincher, Todd Haynes, and Quentin Tarantino all nipping at their heels. The decade where a commercial tie-in to a hit TV show could also be perhaps the strangest, most confounding wide-release film of its era (which should've surprised no one, given David Lynch's involvement). The decade that saw a talking pig (Babe) competing against another one (Mel Gibson) for the Best Picture Oscar. The '90s were all that and still found room for Aleksandr Sokurov holding a landscape shot for 40 minutes, James Cameron breaking the $100-million-budget ceiling, Chantal Akerman people-watching, and at least two anarchic, if not downright Marxist, sequels to hit children's movies. Dated? This decade is daft punk.  Eric Henderson



Camera. Elevator. City. Ernie Gehr has always been adept at opening up the world in surprisingly simple ways, a trait that he shares with many of his fellow travelers from the realm of structuralist film (Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, George Landow, etc.): His great Serene Velocity is, very literally, the product of a guy moving a camera around in a hallway. In Side/Walk/Shuttle, he takes to the glass elevator attached to San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel and rides its 24 stories up and down, constantly shifting the orientation of his camera to offer images of the city as a site of flux, freed from gravity to rearrange itself in perpetuum. While the sensual and emotional experience of all these new views is enough to make one's life richer (the phrase “city symphony” has never seemed quite so apt), Gehr's film is also a deeply visceral reminder that the world contains so much more than we can ever know; written out, that's just a cliché, but the experience of watching Side/Walk/Shuttle is so dizzyingly unforgettable that Gehr might've been better served borrowing a title from that other great San Francisco movie and calling it Vertigo. Phil Coldiron


The Sweet Hereafter

Let's face it: In the hands of a lesser director, Russell Banks's novel about a bus crash that kills most of a small town's children easily could have been played for weepy melodrama, whereas Atom Egoyan brings his decidedly chilly aesthetic to bear on this wintry tale of woe. By reshuffling the storyline into nonlinear building blocks, Egoyan allows a thematic and causative rhyme scheme to slowly emerge, analogous to the film's recurrent use of Browning's “Pied Piper” poem as a leitmotif, thus elevating the material into something truly “strange and new.” Witness the parallel opening scenes, both of which hinge on the endearment “Daddy”: In the first, Ian Holm's lawyer must contend with his addict daughter's abusive tirade, which repeatedly invokes the word as an ironic taunt. The second scene seems to portend a much more supportive, if not positively bucolic, relationship between aspiring young singer Nicole (Sarah Polley) and her father Sam (Tom McCamus), though, as it develops, their bond is far more troubling than it first appears.  Budd Wilkins


The Iron Giant

As far back as the marvelously old-fashioned The Iron Giant, Brad Bird was envisioning nostalgia-rich universes rich in wit and moral inquiry. Hogarth, a B-movie-obsessed, coffee-drinking latchkey kid from 1950s Maine with a Pee-wee Herman bike, sees his sci-fi dreams come true after a big metal giant crash-lands in his hometown from destinations unknown. Bird doesn't intend the film as Cold War allegory (the kids at school tellingly ignore a cutely alarmist newsreel about atomic warfare), but as a toothy commentary on the sometimes perilous consequences of our fear of the other. The finale is heartbreaking. As for the heart it breaks, it's located in the message conveyed by very crucial two-become-one juxtapositions: Hogarth's eyes lighting up when he hears about the robot for the first time inside his mother's diner and the many shots of the giant's eyes absorbing and registering life. “You are what you choose to be,” says Hogarth during a crucial scene, to which the giant responds, “Hogarth.” The Iron Giant is many things, above all else a poetic fairy tale about our essential goodness and friendship as a ritual of communion.  Ed Gonzalez


Santa Sangre

Puppetry and the penis come together in no laughing fashion in avant-crude cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky's macabre circus comedy. Playfully toying with the madhouse-as-societal-microcosm template from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and, more overtly, Tod Browning's iconographic Freaks, Jodorowsky equates coming of age with coming into a state of inherited insanity. Though big-top brat Fenix has been marked early on (in excruciatingly bloody fashion) with the tattoo of his father, his soul remains in bondage and service to the will of his devilishly devout mother, who early in the film loses her arms in an act of seemingly self-provoked martyrdom. The conflict tears his allegiance asunder, and takes the film down with him. Santa Sangre, which sometimes suggests Fellini orchestrating a hallucinogenic slasher flick, leaves no communion wafer untarnished in its depiction of crazy, stupid faith. That the director cast his two sons to play the film's tortured central character would have even Freud nervously looking down into his box of popcorn.  Henderson


Naked Lunch

Anyone who classified William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch as “unfilmable” clearly didn't have David Cronenberg in mind when they read it, because the raw material of that gonzo epic couldn't be more up his alley: bug powder, talking typewriters, sadistic doctors, orgies-cum-bloodbaths, talking assholes, bountiful supplies of heroin, children “watching with bestial curiosity” as “flesh jerks in the fire with insect agony,” the lot of it a bizarre mélange of grotesqueries and nightmare visions inflected with the insight of Freud and a bit of folkloric William Tell grandeur. And so Cronenberg, naturally, bursts the whole thing apart from inside, transforming a trip through the mind of Burroughs into an oblique biopic about him, plopping the author into the text and letting him run wild. The film takes symbols and words and characters from the novel and imagines speculative real-world corollaries, drawing a through line from the drug-induced hallucination to the mundane thing that produced it.  Calum Marsh


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