“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: Candyman, Dead Alive, Europa, Light Sleeper, The Living End, The Match Factory Girl, One False Move, Rebels of the Neon God, The Stolen Children, and Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America
The Last of the Mohicans
Considering Michael Mann’s recent decade-long foray into the realm of frenetic digital filmmaking, it’s easy to forget the director once specialized in sweeping genre spectacles like The Last of the Mohicans. Mann’s ravishingly kinetic and romantic adaptation of the classic James Fenimore Cooper novel envisions the dawn of American democracy in a deeply felt love affair between an embattled British woman (Madeline Stowe) and a colonial backwoodsman (Daniel Day-Lewis) raised to manhood by a Mohican father. Their burgeoning relationship develops within the context of the bloody French and Indian War of 1757, a volatile and dirty conflict that spawned the rise of guerilla warfare in the new world. Mann’s precise battle sequences begin in epic long shot, only to cut in closer to the carnage with each tomahawk swipe and musket shot. The close-contact action is always swept along by the film’s beautifully fluid score, which feels elementally connected to the dense forests and rolling hills of the Hudson River Valley. It all leads to a profound and deeply cinematic climax during which two characters’ devastating mutual sacrifice feels like the birth of a nation, and the demise of something far more spiritual. Glenn Heath Jr.
Glengarry Glenn Ross
It looks as though the unforgiving top-down system of quotas and steak knives and deadbeat leads has chewed up these tired and ever-weary salesman, ready to spit them out after years of dedicated service, all because, in the immortal words of Alec Baldwin’s brass-balled inspirational speaker, “a loser is a loser,” but the joke is that some guys just can’t cut it. The waft of desperation hangs around Jack Lemmon’s has-been schleper of land, permeating every word of his pitch, that affected put-on smile and plasticised ’50s charm almost painful to endure. But through the torrents of rain outside and Mamet-speak inside there are glimmers of light and vitality and talent: Witness Pacino, the poet laureate of sales-speak, as he zeroes in on his mark, the grace of the approach a thing of beauty. It’s a con, but we’re drawn to it for the same reason we find all cons seductive: The game, when played well, is an appreciable art. And we love to see people lose. Calum Marsh
I lost it at the movies long before seeing The Player, but this impeccably crafted poison love letter to Hollywood made me look at them differently. Robert Altman’s bemused condemnation of a world that wants to know only itself, where no private jab stays private and a lunch is a negotiation for status, is ultimately our own. We love these wolves because they gave us some of richest cine-memories of our lives; even their most absurd pitches (“It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman!”) speak to a desire to please audiences. But they repulse us at the same time, because they treat their moviemaking license as sociopathic triumphalism. There are references in this heavily coded satire I’m still unlocking, and for every wink and nod that continues to strain for reason (the delivery boy who knows Absolute Beginners but mistakes Alan Rudolph for Martin Scorsese) there are a dozen others that still send me to the moon, such as Detective Avery’s Freaks-referencing grilling of Griffin Mill. In one of the funniest, most sardonic scenes the movies have ever seen, an interrogation as calculated and condescending as some of the worst movies Hollywood have ever given us, even the good guys become wolves. One of us, indeed. Ed Gonzalez
Lessons of Darkness
In repurposing footage of burning Kuwait oil fields in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Werner Herzog crafted a stunning vision of apocalypse that doubles as a commentary on madness and the inexorable nature of human folly that allows for the perpetuation of armed conflict. Although long stretches of Lessons of Darkness are given to mind-blowing aerial shots of the decimated landscape set epically to Wagner and Mahler, Herzog also affixed a minimal narrative to the movie, about a planet destroyed by nuclear war, a story the director relates in his legendary Germanic drawl. Marking the most perfect synthesis of fiction and documentary in the Herzog oeuvre, the movie draws its power from the interplay between the two modes, bringing us back to ground level (both literally and metaphorically) as the film stops to listen to the real-life testimony of two women who’ve suffered horrible fates as a result of the human cruelty that finds its greatest expression in war and for which the director finds an astonishing visual correlative in the flames spewing from the black pools of oil which the firemen reignite, if only to have something to put out again. Andrew Schenker
Life, and Nothing More
In Life, and Nothing More, Abbas Kiarostami charts the subtle human complexities and traumas within a region devastated by natural disaster, quietly developing theme by focusing intensely on the patterns of ambient sound. The lean plot consists of a film director and his son navigating the devastated roads of Guilan, Iran after an earthquake has left the region riddled with broken infrastructure. Crushed cars, massive boulders stripped from mountainsides, and deep crevasses help realize the mise-en-scène. Kiarostami’s protagonists experience countless moments of eerie reflection while considering their own survival, usually during long tracking shots that snake through the rubble-strewn roads with effortless precision. Here, Kiarostami bravely reflects on his own relationship with the non-professional actors/people he so often depicts, specifically calling attention to the segments of everyday experience that his medium of choice often ignores. The brilliant final image, without the hindrance of words or rhetoric, sums up Life, and Nothing More, and perfectly in one fell swoop as tragedy, comedy, hope, and fulfillment. Heath Jr.