Kino Lorber

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s
The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

10

Crash

In David Cronenberg’s Crash, the automobile transcends its usual associations with masculinity and status-symbol expressionism to become a psychological, near-literal extension of the body. The sensational obviousness of the subject matter has remained the biggest (usually only) point of discussion for what may be Cronenberg’s most underappreciated effort, a reductive perspective that overlooks the film’s necessarily disturbing and equally profound inquiry into human desire, however self-destructive. Foreboding shots of populated highways set the tone: These are avatars made decimators—and liberators—of the flesh. Sex and death have long walked a sticky line together in horror films, but Crash isn’t the Canadian formalist’s usual brand of New Flesh savagery. Beneath the blood, sweat, metal, glass, and semen, the film is tragic romance that goes out of its way to humanize something brutish, and cars are just a convenient package for exploring our tendency to kill ourselves, whether in the short or long term, imagined or real. The violence here is usually better anticipated than experienced, but for some—namely, Elias Koteas’s rustic, bemused mechanical fetishist Vaughan—the desire overwhelms the consequences. In the long run, most of us are no different, if considerably little less kinky about it.  Humanick

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

9

Taste of Cherry

It’s baffling that anybody anywhere could watch Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, love it enthusiastically, and then suggest that its life-affirming pomo coda be excised, as throngs of broadsheet admirers did after the film’s premiere at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival (even more perplexingly, Kiarostami actually heeded their advice, lopping off the ending for its theatrical run in Italy). Those precious final moments—a meta-textual break from the action, shot on video, in which the cast and crew are shown preparing a scene from the film to the sounds of “St. James Infirmary”—are a grand and graceful move beyond the text of both film and life, a liberation from a hero’s grave and a narrative’s closure. That’s where the long journey into night and death bring us: We awaken in daylight, outside the world of the film, rejoicing in the action of cinema. It undercuts nothing; it expands on, enriches, enlivens all that came before it. It’s the ultimate coup: A few minutes of Handycam video transform a very good film about death into a great film about life.  Marsh

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

8

Underground

Emir Kusturica’s Underground is a sweltering, morally inquisitive work of political narrative fiction that laments our propensity for self-destruction. “Once upon a time there was a country…” So begins this deliriously metaphorical, emotionally gut-wrenching, and jarringly funny chronicle of a death foretold. Possessed by the cultural beat of his homeland, the gypsy-loving Kusturica structures much of the film, a story of a family torn apart by politics and greed, as an apocalyptic block party, a testament to human perseverance. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. That’s the sound of one man’s perpetually swinging stopwatch, and it’s there to remind us that it’s only a matter of time before people and nation feel the portentous prick of doom. A unique blend of lowbrow slapstick and sophisticated war commentary, this randy peepshow invites and earns comparisons to To Be or Not to Be; as in Lubitch’s masterwork, art becomes indistinguishable from reality, and the art is big because the people live big. “There is no war until a brother kills a brother.” That’s Yugoslavia’s political and philosophical conundrum in a nutshell, but Kusturica intends his humanist masterwork as a time capsule for all nations. When does the party end and war begin? It doesn’t have to.  Gonzalez

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

7

Safe

There’s something in the air: In Safe’s somnambulant, sub-purgatorial Los Angeles, it’s a dense mélange of piss-yellow fog and intangible toxins, some clandestine environmental poison wreaking havoc on the mind and body of suburban homemaker Carol (Julianne Moore, wilting before the camera), though perhaps, as her doctors insist, it’s nothing at all. An oblique diagnosis validates Carol’s pervading sense that, deep down, Something Is Wrong, but we don’t need expertise on the subject of Chemical Sensitivity to suspect that, indeed, the endless fatigue of her comatic, dreary existence is more cause than symptom, and that the aid provided by a remote desert retreat is more social than physical. It’s telling that the lifeless sex scene near the beginning of the film is scarier, existentially speaking, than any of the tactile ailments afflicting Carol in the throes of her sickness; it’s a vision of life so completely drained of vitality and spirit that the only viable treatment could be drastic, permanent change.  Marsh

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

6

Sátántangó

Sátántangó sits at the axis of the 1990s like an immovable, miserable monolith. Béla Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour monument to suffering and deceit is, by most accounts, one of the bleakest films ever made. From another angle, however, Sátántangó is a comedy of darkly epic proportions. So, a dire evocation of Hungarian society, one seemingly sapped of all hope for cultural advancement, or an existential black comedy reveling in the despair and stupidity of a community spellbound by the reappearance of their village’s prodigal son, a self-styled prophet preaching a doctrine both hypnotizing and hazardous? For Tarr, the two are inextricable, perhaps one in the same. As we sit, equally entranced, as an overweight doctor drinks himself comatose in real time, or as a little girl tortures a cat just to feel something other than total loneliness, it’s impossible not to smirk in recognition at the hopelessness of such masochism, the absolute inevitability of this emotional and physical state we’ve chosen to call life. Tarr claimed at the time that he intended Sátántangó to represent the end of cinema, and though the medium lives on, it’s difficult to argue that it has again reached similar heights of psychological and spiritual transcendence.  Cronk

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

5

Goodfellas

The heir apparent to The Godfather II, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (co-penned by Nicholas Pileggi, based on his 1986 book Wiseguy) is a blast of nostalgia, thrills, and censure, all of it swirling around the true-life tale of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a hood born and bred in Brooklyn who slowly works his way up the mafia ladder to be a bigwig before, inevitably, crashing and burning. Scorsese’s style here is so exhilarating that—as with his famous tracking shot of Hill entering a nightclub—it’s become part of the modern cinematic playbook, just as Joe Pesci’s “What do you mean I’m funny?” rant has, alongside Robert De Niro’s Taxi Driver monologues, grafted itself onto the pop-movie psyche. Bolstered by Liotta’s ambitious ruthlessness, De Niro’s snake-like menace, and Pesci’s loose-cannon ferocity, the film sells crime as sexy and exciting before devolving into a speed-rush nightmare of paranoia, betrayal, and failure—in the process setting the template for the legion of gangster-cinema knock-offs that followed in its wake.  Schager

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

4

A Brighter Summer Day

Shaping the petty squabbles of youth gangs and the domestic woes of members’ families into an operatic cycle of people in exile, A Brighter Summer Day slowly accumulates its small individual parts into an epic story of the perils of displacement, with the suffering of the film’s parents passed down to their confused, embittered children. Forced out of their Chinese homeland by the communist revolution, the adults in Edward Yang’s film spend their time pining for their lost land, waiting for old scars to heal and adjusting to a new way of life. Their children, born into exile, spend their days roaming the streets, recreating the struggles of the past through brawls and territorial disputes, assembling into gangs for connection and shelter. Ten years before his equally, if not as nakedly thrilling, Yi Yi, Yang masterfully employs period music, neatly bisected compositions, and oppressively lurking shadows to show how a small flame of frustration can flare up into a terrible act of violence.  Cataldo

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

3

Close-Up

No one but Abbas Kiarostami seemed capable of recognizing the political provocation of Hossein Sabzian’s affront to realism in cinema when he took on Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s namesake. At its simplest, Close-Up tackles Sabzian’s moral justification for taking on Makhmalbaf’s identity (for him, it arose from his love of the arts), but the film’s genius is not that it suggests that there’s no legal or moral justification for Sabzian’s actions, but that Sabzian’s defense is impossible to fathom unless the spectator can share the man’s passion for art as cultural and intellectual emancipator. Just when you think you’ve figured the film out, a credit sequence challenges, blurs, and complicates any perception the spectator may have of realist cinema: Close-Up, cinema’s definitive film-on-film primer, may be based on a true story, but its actors are all playing themselves. Even if one doesn’t share Sabzian’s passion for the purity and urgency of his country’s cinema, one understands it, how taking Makhmalbaf’s name meant becoming part of an elite group of men responsible for indoctrinating people to art and, as a result, the world. Kiarostami, a man without judgment, sees in this story both the glory and sadness of a man who must pretend to be another man in order to be seen and heard.  Gonzalez

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

2

Eyes Wide Shut

Even after his death, Stanley Kubrick continued to court controversy. Eyes Wide Shut was subjected by the MPAA to the ignominy of digital alteration, having CG bystanders inserted over its (really rather staid) orgy scenes, in order to achieve an R rating. Kubrick’s swan song runs erstwhile power couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman through the emotional wringer, playing to the fissures that inevitably fracture the façade of any high-profile relationship, and then harnessing that dysfunction to fuel the nighttime odyssey through a world of pansexual possibilities (up to and including that aforementioned orgy) that Cruise’s Manhattan medico undergoes. Anyone who thinks Kubrick wasn’t interested in interiority should study closely Cruise and Kidman’s protracted, pot-laced confessional. Still, the dominant mode here, as the textbook displayed on a student-prostitute’s bookshelf helpfully points out, is sociological: the pecking order of cash and caste—or, to put it another way, who does the fucking and who gets fucked. Hardly surprising, then, that this versatile verb—in its distinctly imperative tense, uttered by Kidman’s über-hausfrau as a last gasp attempt at reconciliation—provides Eyes Wide Shut with its perfectly profane punchline.  Wilkins

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

1

The Thin Red Line

Terrence Malick could make a film about anything and it would still be about everything. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine a setting more conducive to his life-and-death ruminations than Guadalcanal Island, host to an oft-forgotten WWII battle that took place in 1942. That The Thin Red Line’s backdrop is an arguably inconsequential skirmish is no coincidence: Malick’s film is about war like Citizen Kane is about newspapers, which is to say that gunfire and explosions interrupt the soldiers’ lyrical pondering rather than the other way around. A lot emerges from the dozen or so narrators’ overlapping voices (memories of dying relatives, longing for the homestead, questions about what awaits them if and when they fall), none of which is more remarkable than the almost transcendent calm that colors even the most desperate of situations. Malick has seen another world, and in sharing a glimpse of it with us he provided viewers with the war movie to end all war movies, which is especially amazing given that The Thin Red Line is in some senses not a war movie at all.  Nordine

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