Kino Lorber

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

60

Goodbye South, Goodbye

Perfectly poised between motion and stasis, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1996 triumph watches as its small-time gangsters alternate between just hanging around, waiting for something to happen, and traveling (via train, motorcycle, whatever) in lovingly composed compositions that bring both modes indelibly to life. Boredom and desperate economic transaction are the defining features of the film’s characters—and arguably of the late-20th (and early-21st) century—and Hou’s achievement is to get at this itchy restlessness while giving the viewer ample space to luxuriate and observe. If Hou’s distanced, long-take aesthetic was one of the defining modes of 1990s cinema, then it never feels more purposeful than in this film, whose exactly modulated rhythms speak to the experience of not simply a few Taiwanese hustlers, but to a shared sense of global discontent.  Schenker

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

59

Vive L’Amour

There’s a certain tendency among art-house movies to use long takes of their protagonists crying as an emotional, sometimes even narrative, climax. A strange habit, perhaps, and one that few use to fuller effect than Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour, a film in which a shared loneliness would unite the characters if any were aware how close they are to others in the same situation. That the three leads all unknowingly live in the same Taipei apartment amplifies this irony, but not in a way that makes us laugh; ditto the title, which similarly underscores just how alone everyone is. From this communal isolation comes a great deal of beauty as well, much of it wordless as people drift past one another like ghosts. Tsai trusts his actors (not to mention his audience) enough to let their gestures and expressions mostly speak for themselves, hence the cathartic importance of the scene alluded to above: In a film so beautifully restrained, such an outwardly emotional act as this speaks volumes.  Nordine

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

58

Fight Club

At the risk of violating the first rule of Fight Club, we assert that David Fincher’s film has emerged as something of a generational touchstone among that crop of formally and thematically innovative cinematic works unleashed on the cusp of Y2K. Moreover, Fight Club still exhibits its fair share of pre-millennial tensions: As a mindfuck film, it boasts a Godzilla-sized act-three twist that’s both thoroughly prepared as well as thematically resonant. As a satirical indictment of a certain cult of machismo, the film nevertheless spawned emulators and copycats. (It also contains the risibly disingenuous scene where flawlessly chiseled Brad Pitt scoffs at media depictions of fashionable masculinity.) As an exemplar of Fincher’s pyrotechnical inclinations, Fight Club stands as the director’s most successful meshing of style and substance to date, with none of the unwarranted showboating found in, say, Panic Room’s CG-enabled zoom into the inner workings of a flashlight. Here, CG effects work to embed characters within a digitally expressionistic background, as in the scene where the nameless narrator (Ed Norton) walks through his apartment, which morphs around him into an itemized, price-tagged IKEA ad.  Wilkins

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

57

Paris Is Burning

Some documentaries explore their subjects with the rigor of an anthropological study, inviting audiences to peer into lives or a system like detached impartial observers. Paris Is Burning, by contrast, plunges us into the world of ball culture like it’s an inclusive party to which we’re welcome to belong. The ever-increasing remoteness of the time and place of its setting lends the film the necessary significance of a historical document, informally ratifying its status as a snapshot of a subculture’s golden age before the decline, but its portrait of drag, balls, and voguing (and the legendary practitioners of same) isn’t articulated from a remove. This film exists, crucially, well within the borders of the world it celebrates, joyously flaunting its triumphs and touchingly sharing its pain—and though it often brushes up against tragedy, the vision of life it offers is practically utopic.  Marsh

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

56

Flowers of Shanghai

Flowers of Shanghai capped off a remarkable decade for Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, a period over which he would consider a wide-range of historically veiled yet vital instances in China’s evolutionary advancement. Marked by a patience and fluidity he’d spent the last 15 years perfecting, the film both refined and predicted the stately demeanor he’d carry into the new millennium. This simultaneous feeling of arrival and transience was reflected in the film itself, a lushly rendered fever dream detailing the changing role of prostitution and companionship in late-1800s, fin de siècle Shanghai. Confined to candle-lit, golden-hued quarters, these courtesans and the masters they serve are reflected upon in meditative visual strokes, Hou’s camera gliding amid their mansion’s chambers with a gentle sense of the inevitable. A formalist masterwork, Flowers of Shanghai brought Hou’s aesthetic to its logical and most sublime plateau up to that point, richly rendering the specificity of his unique serenity, the revelatory texture of his quietly disarming observations.  Cronk

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

55

Happy Together

“Let’s start over.” One might argue that this haunting line, first uttered during the breakneck opening of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, encapsulates the director’s entire oeuvre in three simple words. Past and present heartache blurs any hope for the future in Wong’s intensely heated melodrama about two lovers (Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Leslie Cheung) from Hong Kong who escape to Argentina, hoping a change of scenery will save their self-destructive relationship. While Happy Together is just as formally audacious as Chungking Express, and every bit as emotionally devastating as In the Mood for Love, it’s also uniquely sad. Wong doesn’t create one of those classically weepy romances tragically hindered by social formalities or hierarchies; his two characters are simply mired in a stagnant and masochistic relationship from which they can’t or want to escape. But their extended downfall is devastating nonetheless, mostly because the performances by Leung and Cheung are so deeply felt and psychologically intertwined. Happy Together, which envisions emotional addiction as a series of heightened freeze frames, jump cuts, and pop-music cues, is melancholia incarnate.  Heath Jr.

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

54

Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood had spent the better part of a decade investigating and deconstructing his iconic Man With No Name/Dirty Harry persona when he made Unforgiven, which remains—20 years, and countless thematically similar films, later—his ultimate statement on the ramifications of violence. Again strapping on his gun belt and saddling up for a tale of Wild West vengeance and regret, Eastwood assumes the role of an aged outlaw convinced to shrug off retirement and reteam with his old partner (Morgan Freeman) to help avenge a whore victimized in a town run by a wicked sheriff (Gene Hackman). Those three actors lend the material a gravity that’s furthered by Eastwood’s concise, unfussy direction, which places the focus on his protagonist’s moral struggle with his own brutal past while also allowing tension to mount slowly, until, in the wake of a murder, it erupts in a conclusion of explosive intensity that only augments the final, overarching sense that violence, even when justified and necessary, never proves to be a means to any sort of positive end.  Schager

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

53

Metropolitan

“The cha cha is no more ridiculous than life itself,” says debonair but “tiresome” Manhattan socialite Nick Smith, and neither are debutante balls, black-tie tuxedos, the tenets of Fourierism, or life among the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” a loose cluster of affluent intellectuals content to drink, date, and sling clever barbs back and forth for hours. For sure, it’s all rather droll (“I don’t read books; I prefer good literary criticism,” and so forth), but perhaps less apparent are the depths of melancholy coursing through it, occupying its silences, filling the negative space between witticisms. Tom Townsend, U.H.B. outlier and our gateway into this world, finds an abandoned box of childhood toys beside his father’s front steps, the loaded bric-à-brac of an adolescence lost and never to be regained, and in one wistful look there’s more longing and sadness than in the whole of the dozens of refined indie comedies Metropolitan inspired.  Marsh

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

52

Lost Highway

The lynchpin of David Lynch’s transition to full-bore, intensely intangible abstraction, Lost Highway is his first film to exist entirely under the sway of dream logic, rather than just feeling strikingly dream-like. Pushing further the successes of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which upended the expectations of the sequel by first embarking on an startling digression, then progressively imploding the format of a series of which he’d long grown tired. Lost Highway does the same for narrative structure, indulging in a two-part story that’s a puzzle box of discarded noir tropes and horror-movie cues, with a sense of creeping dread signaling Lynch’s move beyond the realm of traditional storytelling. Once again cataloguing the dark passage of a protagonist discovering the capacity for evil within himself, the film achieves this transformation through a baffling bit of character-swapping, one of the many subtly disconcerting elements in this influential work of mad, disturbing beauty.  Cataldo

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

51

The Puppetmaster

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.  Henely

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