Kino Lorber

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

80

Rosetta

To watch the films of the Dardenne brothers is to bear witness. Fittingly, then, Rosetta’s incredible critical and festival reception was such that the film’s stark portrayal of an exploitative society compelled the Belgian people to pass a new law ensuring the fair pay of employed minors. Émilie Dequenne is Rosetta, on the surface a young girl trying to meet her financial responsibilities, yearning for freedom from her promiscuous alcoholic mother, but she’s really more of a force of nature struggling against barriers both seen and unseen. The breakneck opening sees her reacting to the unfairness of her newfound unemployment with infantile rage, a stark contrast to the ensuing heartbreak of watching her hold her head high despite the cruelties casually thrown at her. The Dardenne brothers are the torchbearers of raw and unfiltered humanism on screen, and in Rosetta they might have found their greatest beacon. The film may eschew explicit Christian symbolism, but there’s something genuinely religious in Rosetta’s stark portrayal of unyielding resurrection.  Humanick

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

79

Conspirators of Pleasure

Nearly a decade before John Waters let it all hang out to surprisingly tepid, normalizing effect in his A Dirty Shame, Czech animator Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure catalogued multiple sensual perversions that all make head-butting look like a backseat handjob, from violent papier-mâché poultry role play to compressing bread into pellets and then snorting them like cocaine through a set of giant tubes. Leaving aside the political subtext (the film’s frantic, motley masturbators are, indeed, “conspirators” in a sense), this is the erogenous zone depicted as a kind of uncanny valley, where every slurp, lick, and moan is recognizable, but mischievously flung from its normal context—and, of course, what is masturbation but sex without context? No doubt many viewers will find Švankmajer’s spank-meter on the far side of their OkCupid enemies rating, but to those of us who regard sexuality as both human existence’s greatest mystery and its startlingly primary driving force, the Buñuellian Conspirators of Pleasure is painful comedy.  Henderson

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

78

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 and they are for its audience.  Cronk

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

77

eXistenZ

eXistenZ answers the immersive anxieties of Generation Xbox in ways that are uncannily similar to how Videodrome affected those weaned on cable television: a dark fable about the pleasures and pains of media interface. As the title indicates, it’s also not exactly reticent about establishing clear “game = life” parallels. Not to mention, Cronenberg accomplishes the whole “levels of reality” narrative shtick with far more aplomb than 1999’s other sci-fi mindbender, The Matrix, and with far fewer bullets. Cronenberg has long been a master at constructing scenes that unspool slightly off-kilter (mannered dialogue, affectless reaction shots abound), and here that disconnect works perfectly to first delineate and then obfuscate the various levels of gameplay until neither the film’s viewers nor its characters can be entirely certain where simulation ends and so-called reality begins. Cronenberg also gleefully amps up the ick factor, even if eXistenZ is comparatively light on gore: Highlights include Jennifer Jason Leigh lasciviously tonguing Jude Law’s spinal-tapped bio-port, as well as the scene in the Chinese restaurant where Law pieces together an “organic gun” while devouring a platter loaded with slimy stir fry.  Wilkins

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

76

Blue

Blue is the best entry in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, and not just because it features a typically affecting performance from Juliette Binoche. (Indeed, Julie Delpy and Irène Jacob are equally fine in White and Red, respectively.) As much as the multifaceted symbolism of the color blue itself, it’s a recurring piece of music courtesy of Zbigniew Preisner’s weighty score that brings home the central concept of liberty: Binoche’s Julie is emotionally paralyzed in the wake of her husband’s untimely death, and the sudden crescendo that accompanies key moments acts as a sort of wakeup call that only we can hear. In focusing on such interior strife, Kieślowski manages to make what might otherwise feel like narrative baby steps—a tear here, an expression there—come across as leaps and bounds.  Michael Nordine

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

75

Schindler’s List

I understand the skeptics and the naysayers. I hear Jean-Luc Godard accusing Steven Spielberg of trying to rebuild Auschwitz, and Jonathan Rosenbaum (who included the movie on his 1993 best-of-the-year list) calling it a cartoon and dishing on it at every opportunity. The same red flags come up for me as they do for most people: the “I could have done more” bit, some of the forced drollery between Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley, the wink Schindler gives Stern after going all-in on a warehouse full of Jewish workers and Nazi machine guns, and so on. But this incredible story is transformed into the sublime by the camerawork and rhythm. It was a much-ballyhooed new look for Spielberg at the time, and, while cinematographer Janusz Kamiński borrows from elder masters like Roberto Rossellini (especially Il Generale Della Rovere, which tells a strikingly similar story) and Fritz Lang, it still looks like a new kind of cinema, unmistakable and inimitable.  Christley

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

74

Crumb

If truth is indeed stranger than fiction, than the story of Robert Crumb is just about the weirdest ever told. Indeed, Crumb, Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 portrait of the infamous cartoonist, is so bracing and unbelievable that it at times borders on the absurd. A misfit father and mother breed three unique and self-destructive sons, each attempting to channel their sexual and psychological impulses through art. At times, these lives feel unsustainable: Max meditates on beds of nails, feeding ribbon through his digestive tract; Charles still lives with his parents, wallowing in failure while contemplating suicide; Robert, it turns out, is the “normal” one, a world-renowned artist who utilizes his art to subsume his perversions, which play out across the frames of his comics in lurid and demented detail. As their warped tale unfolds, one gets the feeling that art is the only thing keeping any of these people alive, that without this particular outlet each would take their misery out on themselves or, worse yet, on another human life. Arguably the greatest of all nonfiction films, Crumb is crushing in its emotional and psychological insight, nearly Shakespearean in its tragedy.  Cronk

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

73

The Straight Story

David Lynch’s films are marked by a singular vision of the world as a sinister, foreboding place, sometimes full of grotesque wonder, sometimes just grotesque. In his worst movies (Wild at Heart in particular), this ugliness dominates, feeling like an imposed and strained set of weirdness offset by an unconvincingly banal love story. But between his astonishing 1977 shocker Eraserhead and his twin aughts triumphs, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, which took his art to strange and wonderful new places, Lynch’s best films were, perhaps surprisingly, his most empathetic. While Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me balanced a perpetually threatening world with a tragic focus on its troubled young protagonist, The Straight Story presents a no less tainted world (by greed, by petty quarrels) through which a curmudgeonly but admirably determined old man travels and observes. Lynch’s G-rated Disney film follows that elderly farmer as he makes his way on his tractor from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his estranged brother. It’s a gentler film for the director, but there’s little doubt that we’re in Lynch territory here, even as he hits new emotive heights in Richard Farnsworth’s late-film recollections about the senseless set of circumstances that led to his character severing relations with his brother decades earlier, and in the final fraternal meeting between the two reunited men, perfectly underplayed and left beautifully indeterminate.  Schenker

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

72

Three Kings

Remember when David O. Russell still made David O. Russell movies? Those were good times, and they peaked with Three Kings, the once-singular auteur’s Gulf War whatsit that brought three relatively untested big-screen actors (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube) to the fore in most convincing fashion. To say that this is the sort of genre-blending art film that convinces people they like art films is no faint praise; there’s something about it that sticks with viewers of all stripes, often in a way that doesn’t reveal itself for quite some time. Russell presents the occasionally ridiculous goings on of his third effort as something to be both mocked and mourned, which is to say he manages to be respectful and irreverent all at once. Somewhere between the bleached skies, fast-moving clouds, and oceans of sand are spare moments of bliss just waiting to be noticed. That the three eponymous soldiers are usually too busy daydreaming of days past or scheming for the future to do so just makes it more rewarding when they finally do.  Nordine

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

71

Cure

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a filmmaker for whom genre is merely the starting point for more oblique, existential questions about character and society, and none of his works are as hauntingly mysterious as Cure, a 1997 serial-killer thriller that cares less for typical police-procedural machinations than for raising confounding suggestions about what compels individuals and cultures to embrace and commit violence. Those issues are filtered through a detective’s investigation of a series of murders linked by the fact that each victim has had an “X” slashed into their throat, and which are eventually revealed to have been perpetrated by different strangers all working under the apparently hypnotic orders of a madman who answers queries with only more queries. That this lunatic seems to be the embodiment of larger societal decays becomes more apparent during a second half that operates at a detached remove and is tangled in identity-crisis horrors, culminating with a provocative final shot that remains a preeminently tantalizing talking point.  Schager

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