Kino Lorber

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

50

Life, and Nothing More

In Life, and Nothing More, Abbas Kiarostami charts the subtle human complexities and traumas within a region devastated by natural disaster, quietly developing theme by focusing intensely on the patterns of ambient sound. The lean plot consists of a film director and his son navigating the devastated roads of Guilan, Iran after an earthquake has left the region riddled with broken infrastructure. Crushed cars, massive boulders stripped from mountainsides, and deep crevasses help realize the mise-en-scène. Kiarostami’s protagonists experience countless moments of eerie reflection while considering their own survival, usually during long tracking shots that snake through the rubble-strewn roads with effortless precision. Here, Kiarostami bravely reflects on his own relationship with the non-professional actors/people he so often depicts, specifically calling attention to the segments of everyday experience that his medium of choice often ignores. The brilliant final image, without the hindrance of words or rhetoric, sums up Life, and Nothing More, and perfectly in one fell swoop as tragedy, comedy, hope, and fulfillment.  Heath Jr.

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

49

The Last Days of Disco

The period of the early ’80s that The Last Days of Disco covers, as Matt Keeslar’s Josh, a mentally ill assistant district attorney, notes in the film, is a combination of ’60s-era free love coming to an end (Chloë Sevigny’s Alice gets two STDs) and the beginning of ’90s cynicism (the film ends with disco dead and nearly all the characters on unemployment). This seems as fine description as any of the cultural shifts taking place beneath the well-heeled shoes of Whit Stillman’s lovable and gently mocked yuppies, two of whom, a manager for a Studio 54-like nightclub and a junior ad executive who sneaks clients into the disco, contest to being classified as such, though they admit it’s certainly not bad to be any of the things the word stands for. It’s that signature Stillmanesque dialogue, as witty and sharp as the electric gab from the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, that makes The Last Days of Disco so enjoyable; it offers some of Stillman’s most memorable writing, including a delicious discourse on the harmful example set by the relationship in the seemingly benevolent Lady and the Tramp. And including a lawyer’s suggestion that Bambi sparked the environmental movement and Alice’s line that Scrooge McDuck is sexy, that’s actually the third odd, but endearing connection the characters in The Last Days of Disco draw between themselves and Disney films, the effect of which brilliantly attests to the absurdity of this new class of adults.  Henely

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

48

The River

The purest distillation of Tsai Ming-liang’s signature approach to filming contemporary urban experience, The River finds the director’s perpetual stand-in, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), achieving a maximal state of estrangement, if not from the desiccated environments that mirror his own tightly constrained mental states, than at least from all the people that populate that world. Stripping his art of such superfluous elements as camera movement, music, and visual clutter, Tsai follows his protagonist as he fills in as a film extra, appropriately playing a dead body floating in a polluted Taipei river. Perhaps as a result of this dip, Hsiao-kang develops increasingly debilitating neck pain and, along with his father with whom he barely exchanges a word, he begins seeking various cures. Tsai’s symbolism, as always, is suggestive without demanding definitive readings, a means to heighten our sense of disjunction, whether between family members or between characters and their poisonous environment. A final misguided attempt by Hsiao-kang at release proves at once shocking and pictorially stunning in its red-tinged chiaroscuro. Finally, however, there’s no cure; in Tsai’s jaundiced vision, life is destined to go horribly, banally on.  Schenker

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

47

Magnolia

In which Paul Thomas Anderson sends ’80s babies to film school at a rate not seen since Citizen Kane. If we decided to measure a great film by the failures and embarrassments spawned by its critical and financial success, Anderson would surely have to stand against the wall for Crash, along with the whole “L.A. sprawl” and “everything-is-connected” subgenres. His work subsequent to Magnolia, stranger and stranger, forcefully bears out the impatience Anderson has, as an artistic catalyst, even with forms for which he’s arguably the responsible party. With ceaseless tracking shots, emotionally fraught conflagrations, and an intricate web of urban cause and effect, Anderson’s epic of total emotion manages to resemble both a Renoir film and the hospital massacre in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, though the seeds of his ongoing reinvention (with There Will Be Blood and The Master) can be seen here as well. An invigorating tapestry of shy, despairing, needful people, more than resting on the safety net of boring coincidence (which never, in and of itself, did any screenwriter any good), is better seen as an exuberant, unsuccessful attempt to catalogue the cosmos through a few, particularly striking, constellations.  Christley

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

46

Before Sunrise

Straddling the thin line between genuine invocation of dorm-room philosophy and wistfully affectionate evocation of the same, Richard Linklater’s talky romance between an American backpacker and a French student takes on the daunting subject of post-teenage angst from both inside and out. Briefly adrift in Vienna, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) spend one long night traipsing around the city, their instant chemistry tempered by the awareness that this will likely be the only moments they share: She’s on her way back to school in Paris, and his flight home leaves the next day. Seizing on the inherent romance of ancient cities and Eurail passes as a positional parallel to the director’s fixation with the confident, naïve ingenuousness of youth, Before Sunrise falls within the upper register of Linklater comedies, meaning the sentiment is earned, the political gabble never reaches the level of distraction, and the ever-flowing conversation is perfectly on pitch.  Cataldo

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

45

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.”  Coldiron

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

44

Histoire(s) du Cinéma

Although largely unavailable during the ’90s, when it was made for French television, Histoire(s) du Cinéma is one of that decade’s, and Jean-Luc Godard’s, crowning achievements. Susan Sontag once described Godard as being “cinema’s first consciously destructive figure,” and because of Histoire(s) du Cinéma’s insistence on adopting a vantage point that looks back on cinema as if it has died, one gets the impression that the increasingly post-cinematic Godard wishes to also be the last of cinema’s destroyers. Retorting to great critic Serge Daney in one of the eight episodes that make up the project’s 244-minute running time, Godard presciently claims that there are fewer movies being made than ever before because most are clones and not originals. If at first that sounds arrogant, it becomes comparably undeniable after viewing this sui generis, multifaceted, and very personal video (the better to montage spontaneously with) series that overlaps audio and visual samples of films and artworks from the 20th century into a kind of amorphous, prickly panoply rich in contrasts (high and low art, images of war and porn, dreams and reality, etc.) and full of Godard’s annotations, signature aphorisms, and contradictions and that reflects on the crossroads of history and cinema.  Henely

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

43

Exotica

With Exotica, director Atom Egoyan brought melodrama to new heights of insight and affect. This 1994 masterpiece, arguably the best film ever produced in Canada, took the tropes of a bygone art’s grandiloquence and reveled in the power of its own drama and the pain of its precisely fashioned narrative. Tracing the conjoined pasts of a dancer and the man who holds a unique power over her personal and professional life, Exotica examines the repercussions and transformative effects of human contact, as a tax auditor and the owner of a pet shop cross paths with the curious couple, triggering repressed emotions and igniting new passions. Egoyan unfolds this tale of secrecy and sexuality in a brave and intriguing manner, disclosing information through discreet gestures, allowing ambiguities to embolden the drama, turning each character’s every decision into moments of tactile consequence and import. It’s a perilous tightrope Egoyan walks, his best films skirting the line between the palpable and the preposterous. He may have subsequently found a certain transcendence in The Sweet Hereafter, but for the characters of Exotica, the passion of the present is preferable to the futility of a finite future.  Cronk

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

42

Lovers on the Bridge

Whatever your take on Léos Carax’s brashly overdriven pastiche style, or more specifically this scruffed-up reimagining of L’Atalante (and about a million other things), it’s hard to deny the irrepressible grandeur of the scenes where the director truly commits himself, rocketing into inspired stylistic tangents. The Lovers on the Bridge contains the most singularly transcendent of these Caraxian moments (the unbelievably orchestrated bridge dance/water-ski interlude), in addition to a host of others that defiantly stand out, from Denis Lavant’s fire-swallowing performance to his destruction of a procession of subway posters, a surging sequence that culminates with his deformed dragon of a protagonist setting a man ablaze. A collection of gaudy set pieces strung together by a thin connective tissue of film references and nihilistic romance, Carax’s film carries the ragged banner of the New Wave, looking fitfully to the future while keeping one foot in the past.  Cataldo

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

41

Groundhog Day

The definitive Bill Murray performance comes in the decade’s finest comedy, a pitch-perfect tale of repetition as both the lowest form of hell and an ideal means of self-improvement and actualization. Stuck reporting on Punxsutawney Phil’s annual shadow-check on the titular holiday, Murray’s smarmy news reporter finds himself reliving the same day over and over and over again, a terrifying fate that he uses as an excuse to have fun before misery and madness slowly take over, and he’s then struck by the revelation that, in order to woo co-worker Rita (Andie MacDowell), he must in fact find a way to legitimately change his bastard ways. Working from a crackerjack script by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, and aided by Ramis’s sharp direction, Murray’s droll wiseass routine has never been sharper, and yet the actor allows Phil’s transformation from prick to prince to develop gradually, and naturally. As befitting its subject matter, it’s that rare comedy so smart and amusing, it’s endlessly watchable.  Schager

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