Kino Lorber

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

70

The White Balloon

A director with a special talent for pulling the rug out from under his audience, employing unexpected tonal shifts and fourth-wall-collapsing left turns, Jafar Panahi crafts films in which deceptively gentle subject matter masks withering critiques of his nation’s rule of law. Like his countrymen Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, and Mohsen Makhmalbahf, he subverts the censorship of an oppressive political system by cloaking these attacks in seemingly innocent children’s tales. The White Balloon contains probably the slyest, most bracing of all Panahi’s reversals, as the story of a small girl hunting for a big goldfish on New Year’s Eve briefly gives way to that of a balloon-selling Afghan child, who we then realize has been lurking at the film’s margins all along, selling his wares while more fortunate kids run about in search of a pet. It’s a reminder that for every family just scraping by, there are others who are in even worse shape.  Cataldo

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

69

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.  Humanick

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

68

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.” Henderson

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

67

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.  Nordine

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

66

Se7en

The mild anticipation leading up to David Fincher’s sophomore effort was stifled by the presence of another serial-killer thriller, the Jon Amiel-directed Copycat. Also recall that Brad Pitt was still fresh from flipping dewdrops from the brim of his hat into the crotches of moviegoers worldwide. It seemed like it was going to be a line drive down the middle, and then we saw the sights (each victim’s demise one-upping the last, peaking, arguably, with sloth), smelled the smells (desperation, sweat, diesel fuel, marinara sauce), and heard the questions (“What’s in the booooox?!”). Beyond its legacy as the movie that resuscitated a debased genre, and following fast on the heels of his botched, meddled-with debut (Alien 3), Se7en, with its incredible sense of craft and rhythm, announced a major auteur whose work continues to surprise with each new release. Its icky tone and Grand Guignol style helped to feed rumors that Fincher, then an unknown quantity in the movie business, was some kind of cross between a hotshot ad man and a pervert. But subsequent features have helped many to see Se7en, in hindsight, as more than a dazzling and depressing one-off.  Christley

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

65

The Player

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.  Gonzalez

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

64

Miller’s Crossing

“Friends is a mental state,” sneers Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), an ambitious Italian gangster battling for control of an unnamed East Coast city in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1930s-set Miller’s Crossing. This casually threatening statement has deeply ironic and philosophical undertones, indicative of this crime film’s nasty worldview and cutting sense of humor. Johnny’s target is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a wise-talking gambler who pivots into survival mode when Irish patriarch Leo (Albert Finney) kicks him to the curb over a woman. Much of the film deals with the untrustworthy nature of friendship, how it can be used to manipulate, deceive, and ultimately destroy. The Coens have always had the gift of gab, and in Miller’s Crossing their dapper men and slinky women unload period-era colloquialisms as if their mouths were automatic weapons. But the film’s most lasting moments are dialogue-less explosions of revenge and solace, the most famous being the classic “Danny Boy” sequence where a nimble and ruthless Leo dispatches four armed men with a Tommy Gun. Like the Coens, the man’s a true artist with his weapon of choice.  Heath Jr.

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

63

Red

Red, the final chapter of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s homage to the French tricolor flag, was perhaps always destined to be the most striking of the three films; red, after all, is the most innately dramatic of the three colors. Coming off the heels of Blue and White, the film is particularly bracing, and the longer you consider its self-reflexive and labyrinthine self-awareness, the more Kieślowski and cinematographer Piotr Sobociński’s exquisite chromatography astounds. As in all of Kieślowski’s films, his microcosmic scrutiny of the world, sans judgment, suggests all things happen at once at a sub-cosmic level, embodying the notion of the filmmaker as a loving god. An opening phone call that echoes Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” sets the tone for this kinetically charged investigation of the spectrum of morality, a fitting swan song for a filmmaker intent on going out with a bang. Near-death experiences and unlikely friendships are just the springboards for his final gospel (Kieślowski would retire after this film, dying but 22 months after it premiered), and in Irene Jacobs’s soul-wrestling performance as Valentine, Red finds the necessarily enigmatic, literally hyperbolic figure on which to project its richly multifaceted metaphor of choice.  Humanick

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

62

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.  Wilkins

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

61

White Hunter, Black Heart

A gut-busting takedown, an elegantly articulated anecdote, a pithy critique of intolerance, a shocking stab of misogyny, some expertly ratcheted dramatic tension, and a handful of infinitely quotable one-liners—all somehow contained within a single scene in Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart, a show-stopping centerpiece which finds Eastwood himself, as a thinly veiled John Huston stand-in, taking a buxom blonde to task after she makes a vile anti-Semitic remark. It’s a standout number that steals the show, but it’s the scene immediately following, in which Eastwood’s John Wilson cooly drops a racial epithet before diving headlong into a drunken fistfight, that most clearly elucidates the film’s central theme. A sophisticated interrogation of hardlined American machismo, White Hunter, Black Heart is about our tendency to romanticize emphatic brutality, how we find the distorted charm of rogues seductive when we ought to be repulsed. Deeper still, we see the seeds of Western imperialism scattered across the African wild, apparent in the way Eastwood’s smarmy, likeable thug imposes himself on the land and on its resources. That the hero here is a director shows surprising self-awareness; that Eastwood cast himself in the role, confronting decades of influence and undermining his persona, is a stroke of genius.  Marsh

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