“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
From the East
It’s hard to imagine two masterpieces from one director that are quite so complementary as Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and From the East. Against the shallow-box cinema of the former’s fixed-camera domestic specificity, From the East sprawls out into the post-Soviet landscape in a restless series of tracks and pans, the camera rhyming the larger journey from East Germany to Russia. Any attempt to construct a historical narrative—the above movements contrasting with the relative stasis of its subjects, wandering or waiting in bitterly cold weather, seeming to pull them forward toward a post-Soviet future—is undermined by the immediacy of a glance into the camera, the sound of a pop song from a passing car, the alien blue-green of cheap artificial light. As such, as much as Jeanne Dielman offers a model for narrative in contemporary slow cinema, From the East is a key film for all those directors populating Rotterdam and Locarno who no longer even acknowledge categories like “narrative” and “documentary.” Phil Coldiron
A Perfect World
Clint Eastwood’s films overflow with violence and trauma, and none are as emotionally devastating as A Perfect World. This 1960s-set road film about two convicts who kidnap an eight-year-old boy during a daring escape is essentially a tale of paternal connections made and torn apart. Throughout, Eastwood fixates on the nature of evolving relationships, none more heartbreaking than the bond that develops between the charming and volatile murderer Butch (Kevin Costner) and his sheltered young hostage, Phillip (T.J. Lowther). Their short but potent time together spent evading lawmen on the backroads of Northwest Texas is full of striking moments stretched out to convey the young boy’s impressionable and incredibly lucid perspective. Eastwood allows his two leads the necessary space and time to develop a wonderfully complex chemistry, one forged through the power of shared subjective experience. This is a sundrenched Americana made up of conflicted men trying to be good fathers, and naïve boys desperate to be devoted sons, if only they were offered the chance. Glenn Heath Jr.
The Last Bolshevik
Residing deep in the shadow of Sergei Eistenstein and Dziga Vertov’s massive reputations are the works of Russian filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin. It isn’t just his lack of exposure that enticed French director-essayist-poet-alien Chris Marker to craft a two-part documentary about the man’s films, though one could fairly say there aren’t many things that capture Marker’s interest as surely as the things that somehow failed to capture everyone else’s interest. The Last Bolshevik, built around a series of six letters addressing a dead man (one typical observation: “Only later did I understand his tragedy: the tragedy of a pure communist in a world of would-be communists”), sees in Medvedkin’s life, times, and traveling cine-train the sadly concluded story of the 20th century’s socialist movements, and marvels (in the film’s irresistibly funny-pithy final statement) over humanity’s ability to simultaneously eradicate living history and deify anything that has been consigned to the safety of chronicle. Few beyond Marker can bridge the gap with a single phrase as Marker does when musing about dinosaurs: “Kids love them.” Eric Henderson
Dazed and Confused
Though calling Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused the ultimate hangout movie might seem like a backhanded compliment, it in fact speaks to how slyly the deceptively clever writer-director is able to infuse his more ambitious agenda into his Zeppelin-, booze-, and water-tower-party-inflected vision of a nameless Texas town in 1976. Linklater’s take on the first-night-of-summer party somewhere in the Lone Star State that accounts for the bulk of his narrative is laced as much with unspoken fear as it is with nostalgia and affection. He lets the good times roll while also making it clear enough that, for many of the jocks and nerds who make up his cast, life after high school probably won’t be too groovy. Rather than cause for dismay, this ends up being more reason to enjoy this one carefree night: In the face of an uncertain future, there’s really nothing to do but keep L-I-V-I-N. Michael Nordine
As a nation that was historically dominated by more powerful ones (Japan, China), it’s obvious why Taiwan’s history plays such a prominent role in many of their best films. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s trilogy on this history is indispensable, and the second entry, The Puppetmaster (City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women are the others), spans from 1895 to the end of WWII, elliptically recounting the life Li Tien-lu, a puppeteer whose personal story parallels the struggling country’s in many respects. As in A Brighter Summer’s Day, which covers a period of Taiwan not long after the events in this film, darkness shrouds the frame both to convey the feelings associated with the past and to give scenes an opaqueness (aided by Hou’s use of long, static shots that require the viewer to patiently scan for meaning within them and Li Tien-lu’s compelling and embellished narration) that speaks to the way history is often a gray area between fact and fiction. The Puppetmaster’s slow-burning and uniquely structured expression of the passage of time subtly suggests the intricacies inherent in the fabric of memory and time. Kalvin Henely