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The 10 Best Films of 1990

The 10 Best Films of 1990


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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.” 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

Honorable Mention: Edward Scissorhands, The Garden, Jacob’s Ladder, The Killer, King of New York, Miami Blues, Pump Up the Volume, Santa Sangre, Trust, and Wild at Heart

The 10 Best Films of 1990


Total Recall

The 21st-century America of Total Recall has little in the way of a visual culture: sports, holographic tennis instructors, calming wall-to-wall screensavers, and an inescapable network of TVs broadcasting commercials and rigged news. What Rekall Incorporated offers is a kind of evolved cinema. The company cooks up psychic holidays and escapist fantasies that are realer than the real thing, totally collapsing the virtual into the unreliable mesh of memory—the ultimate Dickian pseudo reality. Fitting then that the film’s emancipating Übermensch is lashed, Ludvico-style, into the Rekall operating chair like a slack-jawed viewer strapped into a movie theater seat. Paul Verhoeven’s first real-deal stab at massively budgeted, star-vehicle blockbuster cinema takes roots as a bottom-up burlesque of its own form. John Semley

The 10 Best Films of 1990


Nouvelle Vague

Post-1968, Jean-Luc Godard’s work becomes a tangled web of cinematic, political, religious, and aesthetic allusions, cathedrals of self-reflexivity spoken in a tongue invented and arguably understood solely by the director himself. For its part, Nouvelle Vague stands at or near the pinnacle of Godard’s mature period, extending a perhaps unintentional streak of embarking on each new decade with a work of helpful thematic disclosure, a tact he’s tended to spend much of the subsequent years editing and expanding into hyper-sensory audio/visual explorations. Shot in and around the Swiss countryside he calls home, the film is noticeably rich and dramatic in a manner befitting its personalized origins. Ostensibly a depiction of the underhanded dealings of bourgeois society and, in particular, a young woman haunted by the specter of a man she may have once murdered, the film uses these fairly conventional trappings as a means toward reducing the narrative to a base text, which in this case amounts to an interlocking grid of literary interpolations. Nouvelle Vague, then, may be something of a coded language, but it’s a bracing and beautiful realization of one artist’s splintered past and uncertain future, a new wave all its own. Jordan Cronk

The 10 Best Films of 1990


Gremlins 2: The New Batch

After rampaging through the American dream in his original Gremlins, Joe Dante set his cartoon anarchists free in the headquarters of a multinational corporation for the sequel. While the first film’s creatures functioned as, per Jonathan Rosenbaum, “a free-floating metaphor,” here they’re explicitly the giddy vengeance of the disenfranchised: Their introduction into Clamp Tower is the indirect result of the corporation’s tacky Chinatown development project. Dante, as ever, spins off from this central conceit to poke fun at everything in sight, from Turner and Trump (embodied in Daniel Clamp, with his insatiable hunger for real-estate development and colorized classic films) to narrative convention (the film ceases to even make an effort at plotting following a brief reflexive interlude in which the Gremlins break the projector and Hulk Hogan pops up to scare them into restarting the show) to himself (there are multiple discussions of the completely illogical rules for the Mogwai laid out by Gremlins). While Dante may have made more conceptually and formally audacious films in the ’90s, Gremlins 2: The New Batch is still filmmaking that’s as smart as it is fun. Phil Coldiron

The 10 Best Films of 1990


To Sleep with Anger

Charles Burnett sketches the details of the lives of Gideon (Paul Butler) and his family, bridging theatrical dialogue, portentous omens, and presentational acting with a grace that’s so masterful as to appear effortless, capturing enough life and subtext for several films. A boy practices his trumpet next door to Gideon’s home, blowing awkwardly and irritating everyone in his periphery, including other boys who ridicule his struggles. Pigeons fly into the sky in rapturous slow motion. Gideon argues with his wife, Suzie (Mary Alice), about one of their sons. By the time that Harry (Danny Glover) arrives at Gideon and Suzie’s doorstep, Burnett has carefully established this family as a group of decent yet uncertain people who’re haunted by the legacy of American slavery. Chuck Bowen

The 10 Best Films of 1990


Central Park

The variety and sweep of pre-Giuliani New York are on vivid display in Frederick Wiseman’s documentary via the microcosm of the eponymous expanse. One of a handful of essential films shot or released in the late 1980s and early ’90s that take the city’s evolution from drug-addled, subculture-rife urban sphere to obsessively regulated, Middle America-friendly metropolis as either text or subtext, Wiseman’s film deserves to be considered the quintessential New York movie of its moment—or perhaps any moment. Communists hold rallies in the park, an eccentric man teaches Shakespearean elocution, people roller skate, while in nearby buildings the Central Park Conservancy discusses how to regulate bike-riding and local residents weigh the merits of building a new tennis clubhouse. The conclusions are inescapable, though in Wiseman’s continued refusal of explicit authorial commentary, they’re left for the viewer to stumble across on his or her own. The changing conception of the city may make things more cosmetic and safer, but it threatens to efface the unique vibrancy of the town that is the film’s true subject and which has its glorious moment, in all its diversity and wonder, across the three unforgettable hours of Wiseman’s masterpiece. Andrew Schenker