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The 100 Best Films of the 1990s
Starship Troopers

20. Starship Troopers. It seems fitting that it took stumbling upon an obscure Soviet-era concept for me to feel like I had the vocabulary to talk about Paul Verhoeven with any degree of accuracy. That concept is stiob, which I'll crudely define as a form of parody requiring such a degree of over-identification with the subject being parodied that it becomes impossible to tell where the love for that subject ends and the parody begins. And so there, in 32 words, is the Hollywood cinema of Paul Verhoeven. Starship Troopers then has to be a bad movie, insofar as that means that the acting is not dramatically convincing, the story is hopelessly contrived, the special effects are distractingly garish in their limb-ripping and bone-crunching, because the point isn't to do better than Hollywood (that would run counter to Verhoeven's obvious love of these cheap popular forms), but to do more of Hollywood, to push every element to its breaking point without caving to the lazy lure of ridicule. The result is a style that embraces a form as fully as possible only to turn it back against the content, and one of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films.  Coldiron

Being John Malkovich

19. Being John Malkovich. To watch Being John Malkovich is to be inside the minds of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufmann as much as it is to be inside Malkovich's, which is to say it's an alluringly trippy two hours. Few other debuts of the '90s—or, really, any other decade—struck such a new and original chord; fewer still introduced us to both a director and screenwriter whose subsequent work has proven equally worthwhile. For all the talk of surreality and (sub)consciousness around which discussion of the film tends to center, its humor is just as memorable: everything from "Take that, Malkovich!" to a closing line about immortality and Gary Sinise. Jonze's film is a triumph on many levels (formal, thematic, conceptual), but it's at its most unique when weaving several threads at once without even letting on that it's doing so. At once dense and accessible, philosophically abstruse and massively entertaining, it's too rare an object—something to which more than a few lackluster imitators can attest.  Nordine

The Decalogue

18. The Decalogue. A 10-part series on the Ten Commandants might sound like a tedious chore, but Krzysztof Kieślowski's routinely heartbreaking series of parables is less interested in the faithful application of these rules for living than all the shades of grey they fail to account for, turning each aphorism into a complicated moral puzzle. Scuffling around the darkened corners of the human soul, they present ethical behavior as a spectrum that lacks obvious definitions, a confusion the film tempers through the insistent bellwether of human decency. From the story of a man skipping out on his family to help an ex-lover find her missing husband on Christmas Eve in part three, to the tale of a woman plotting to abduct her own child in part seven, Kieślowski eschews easy answers and neat conclusions, filtering all the action through the shared location of a single housing block, presented as an inter-linked system of sad stories waiting to be told.  Cataldo

Heat

17. Heat. Michael Mann's crime-cinema cool is epically engineered in Heat, his 1995 film that pits Al Pacino against Robert De Niro in a cat-and-mouse cops-and-robbers saga. Though pairing the iconic actors on screen for the first time, Mann gives them only one pre-climax scene together, a diner-set conversation that lays bare the film's opposing-forces dramatic dynamic, all centered around Pacino's loudmouthed cop attempting to nab De Niro's routine-driven thief. That the headliners imbue this showdown with larger-than-life grandeur is to be expected, but it's Mann's sleek, muscular direction that drives this well-oiled machine, which is also fueled by a host of supporting turns led by a phenomenal (and phenomenally pony-tailed) Val Kilmer. Infusing a standard-issue scenario—replete with notions about the similarities of its good and bad guys—with shimmering sexiness and existential confusion and dread, it remains both heady and electrifying, a film capable of wrestling with questions of identity, fate, and purpose while also delivering, via its centerpiece, a bank-robbery shootout of rousing vitality.  Schager

Short Cuts

16. Short Cuts. No, Short Cuts isn't particularly faithful. It's not just that Robert Altman's characters are constantly dissolving into stuttering convulsions of therapeutic laughter, usually shocking themselves in the process, that stands in contrast with writer Raymond Carver's usually bemused demeanor. The Altman patchwork itself is an exercise in maximalism, the diametric position from the individual moments of clarity to be found in Carver's short stories. And you know what? It's a match made in heaven, and consummated with thick irony in the valley of Los Angeles. In the nearly two decades separating Short Cuts from its quilted '70s cousin, Nashville, Altman had lost none of his acerbic, humanistic brand of sympathetic contempt. But Short Cuts demonstrates less interest in the ways humans' behavior disrupts the lives of other humans, and more fascination with how they adapt to the game of chance or die trying. Boasting more great performances than basically any other movie of its era (and also Andie MacDowell's), Short Cuts is a sustaining environment unto itself.  Henderson

Dead Man

15. Dead Man. Death is a spinning coin in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, at once a liberating process of self-realization and an absurdly violent culmination of fate. Filmed in stunningly crisp black and white by the great cinematographer Robby Muller, Dead Man lives in the forested hills, rivers, and rock formations of Anthony Mann. It's one of the few westerns that embraces Native American spirituality and philosophy as a driving thematic force, often juxtaposing nature's purity and silence with the destructive, sadistic, and dispassionate ethos of manifest destiny and the post-industrial age. The story of a banker named William Blake (Johnny Depp) who travels west from Cleveland only to find mud, grime, and "white man's metal" is a daring and darkly comic subversion of western machismo and heroism. Blake's bloody journey is populated by strange and haunting variations on classic genre archetypes, none more enduring than his mixed-blood native guide, Nobody (Gary Farmer), a linguist and poet educated in British schools and subsequently deemed an outcast by his own people. Together, the two pariahs form a complex friendship that becomes Jarmusch's thesis statement against the savagery of capitalism, but more importantly his perfect portrait of otherworldly transference.  Heath

Showgirls

14. Showgirls. There are a few things we have to get off our chests, lest they start feeling good in a nice dress or a tight top. We at Slant Magazine were clearly feigning our love for Showgirls solely because it was disreputable to admit fandom. We obviously only wanted to make a name for ourselves. We wanted to trash the canon and canonize trash because upending the established order is easier than performing deliberate taxonomy. We are actually all heterosexual males and watch movies strictly for the tittays. So does Jacques Rivette. He told us his 84-year-old erection's favorite movie is probably Showgirls. If you believe one word of this capsule, take a closer look at these nails I just manicured for you, because you don't know shit! Which is to say, there are myriad right reasons for loving Showgirls, but there are also plenty of wrong ones for hating it. And now that Tommy Wisea's The Room has been embraced by every hipster-than-thou cinephile in an orgy of self-congratulatory bad-movie worship, a legitimately disreputable masterpiece like Showgirls still needs all the help it can get.  Henderson

Pulp Fiction

13. Pulp Fiction. Accept no substitute. Jackie Brown may very well be the greater film: pleasure-giving, tender, coolly assured, yet impossibly delicate. But Pulp Fiction seems like a chapter heading in a massive tome on the history of the cinema. Quentin Tarantino's influences are well-catalogued, of course, earning him praise and condescending dismissal from various, breast-beating quarters of the critical world. For fans like me, there's "before Pulp Fiction" and "after." It didn't invent cinephilia, obviously, but it seemed to revitalize it and recruit from the younger generation in large numbers. Lament fanboy culture all you like, or decry the "movies aren't great anymore, only cool" phenomenon whose DNA can almost certainly be traced back to the "Royale with cheese" conversation, but lots of young moviegoers were blown away—and continue to be blown away—by Tarantino's breakout hit, and it's helped connect them to movies in ways that were, before 1994, simply not on their itinerary. Its elusive, addictive thing-ness remains fresh today, a potent brew of genre and visceral pleasures, a catalogue of comedy (black, visual, low-brow, shock, awkward pause, etc.), structured to feel like a party that went all night and well into the morning.  Christley

Naked

12. Naked. Throughout a career defined by the endless gallery of remarkable characters he's presented us with, Mike Leigh has never exceeded the complexity, verve, and loathsomeness of David Thewlis's Johnny, the central figure in his 1993 masterpiece, Naked. A self-described "cheeky monkey," the character is introduced raping a woman in a Manchester alley, before moving to London to crash with an ex-girlfriend and her roommate and embarking on an odyssey through the dark night of that town's streets. A man filled with a perverse, probably uncontrollable need to hurt everyone around him, Johnny is perfectly matched to the seedy London backdrop that Leigh memorably concocts. Mirrored by a charmless, more directly sexually aggressive rapist, and countered somewhat by the capacity for kindness displayed by the film's female characters, Johnny is the unquestioned star here, given free reign to unleash his ferocious intelligence, pun-heavy spurts of brilliant wordplay, and odd charm in the service of winning over people only to leave them damaged and deceived. As such, Naked stands as an exquisite symphony of cruelty in which tentative bursts of human feeling are either perverted by sinister impulses or else cruelly betrayed—and an unparalleled example of Leigh's rare gift for crafting characters at once repugnant and irresistibly fascinating.  Schenker

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

11. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The prospect of a movie tying up the world of Twin Peaks following its ratings-driven implosion and apocalyptically open-ended finale offered a shot at critical and commercial redemption to everyone involved. Instead, David Lynch filmed a prequel, one that could only end in the brutal rape and murder of Laura Palmer, the mysterious crime that set the series moving. Moreover, a prequel that relegated Agent Dale Cooper, the show's most popular character, to a strange aside featuring David Bowie, and took an hour to even introduce the residents of Twin Peaks. This opening, setting a more immediately paranoid tone against the show's aw-shucks surrealism, follows Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland as they investigate the murder of a drifter named Teresa Banks, a process that leads them to dancing cousins, gruff waitresses, asshole local cops, lipstick graffiti, and an even more haggard than usual Harry Dean Stanton. When the film finally arrives in Twin Peaks and Angelo Badalamenti's iconic title song ambles onto the soundtrack, it plays as a tremendously dark joke, the relief of getting to what we all came for barely masking the awful reality of what that actually is. What follows is the most terrifying hour and a half in American cinema, David Lynch's suburban Inferno.  Coldiron


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