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The 10 Best Films of 1991

The 10 Best Films of 1991


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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: Chameleon Street, Days of Being Wild, The Double Life of Veronique, La Femme Nikita, Hangin’ with the Homeboys, JFK, Life Is Sweet, Madonna: Truth or Dare, Poison, and The Silence of the Lambs

The 10 Best Films of 1991


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

The 10 Best Films of 1991


Point Break

Embracing and crystallizing countless macho-genre tropes in a way that’s simultaneously amusing and awesome, Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break provides the same type of high-octane thrills sought by its story’s crew of president mask-wearing, extreme sports-loving bank robbers. Those villains are led by Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, a surfer guru whose new age-y ethos (and long, flowing blond locks) are so inviting that even former football star turned undercover cop Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves)—sporting, without question, the best protagonist name in the history of action cinema—can’t fully resist his charm. Throw in Gary Busey as Utah’s sidekick, Lori Petty as the girl that woos Utah, and a host of robbery, skydiving, and wave-riding sequences that Bigelow helms with clean, forceful vigor, and it’s a film whose sillier elements find a way to coexist with its legitimately kick-ass action—never more so than in a superb foot chase through back alleys that concludes with an unsuccessful Utah firing his gun into the air and screaming in inadvertently hilarious frustration. Nick Schager

The 10 Best Films of 1991


La Belle Noiseuse

In a career consisting almost solely of highly taxing and demanding works, La Belle Noiseuse would paradoxically prove to be Jacques Rivette’s most immediate and accessible film, a brisk four-hour sprawl of simmering emotion and artistic benediction. At once a celebration of the love of art and the art of love, the film explores in arrestingly simple fashion a series of interpersonal ruptures provoked by a single, otherwise harmless decision. When Marianne is volunteered by her boyfriend to pose for a respected, aging painter, her initial reluctance is temporarily alleviated by friends and acquaintances before a series of extended modeling sequences turn from unspoken tension to psychological foreplay (“I want everything. The blood, the fire, the ice. All that is in your body…I want the invisible”) to compassionate and deeply affecting spiritual sympathy between artist and subject. Rivette stages these passages with a patient, reverent touch, allowing desires to brood while outside relationships strain from unforeseen conflict. An unassuming, quietly shattering work, La Belle Noiseuse examines passion at the level of art, yielding passions as lasting for its characters as they are for its audience. Jordan Cronk

The 10 Best Films of 1991


Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The slick, digitized T-1000 to the 1984 original’s grungy, analogous exoskeleton, Terminator 2: Judgment Day set the standard for modern Hollywood’s F/X-driven mega-productions and cemented James Cameron’s dystopian vision as modern science-fiction’s saga par excellence. The 1991 sequel is best remembered for the groundbreaking CGI and puppetry work that brought its liquid metal villain to life, but all that cybernetic glamour would be for naught without the film’s overreaching humanitarian concerns: the insistence that, even at the brink of self-induced extinction, mankind is still worth saving. Replicating the chase-movie structure of its predecessor (and brilliantly echoing that film in many telling details), the equally breathless T2 suggests a maestro at the helm of a full orchestra, conducting the whole exhilarating piece without a single note out of place. The film itself is something of a perfect machine, albeit one with a beating, bleeding heart to go along with its relentless apocalyptic swell, the central, unlikely nuclear family anchoring the action with genuine emotional heft, saving the world and earning our tears in the process. Rob Humanick

The 10 Best Films of 1991


Barton Fink

Enter the headspace of Barton Fink (John Turturro). One of the Coen brothers’ more oblique mash-ups, Barton Fink combines classical Hollywood satire, healthy doses of surreal imagery, and psychological horror straight out of Roman Polanski’s “apartment trilogy.” (Fortunately for the Coens, Polanski headed the jury at Cannes that year, clinching them the Palme D’Or.) Drawing on the experiences of lefty playwright Clifford Odets during his sojourn in 1940s Tinseltown, Barton Fink adumbrates that old saw about commerce versus creativity with ready wit and a savage eye. (As Tony Shaloub’s harried mid-level producer phrases it over lunch at the commissary: “Throw a rock in here, you’ll hit a writer. And do me a favor, Fink. Throw it hard.”) On another level, how better for the Coens to overcome a case of writer’s block than writing about a writer suffering from writer’s block? Precisely that sort of meta-circularity is emblematic of their working method. Then there’s the doppelganger-like doubling consistently established between Barton Fink and fellow Hotel Earle resident Charlie Meadows (Coen axiom John Goodman). Indeed, a shamelessly psychological reading of the film would posit Charlie as some kind of projection or manifestation of Barton’s violently roiling unconscious. Budd Wilkins