Kino Lorber

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

40

Bad Lieutenant

The crime at the center of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant sounds so sleazily sensationalistic that it borders on exploitation material, yet it was apparently “ripped from the headlines” of ’80s NYC: A young nun is raped at the altar by two local hoodlums, who proceed to vandalize and further profane the church. As anyone familiar with Ferrara’s Ms. 45 will doubtless recall, looks can be dangerously deceptive, so it comes as no surprise that Bad Lieutenant is at bottom an unabashed morality play, albeit one so steeped in degradation and willful self-destruction, epitomized in scenes like the notorious traffic-stop shakedown, that it was easy for contemporary viewers (those, at least, not already daunted by its NC-17 rating) to overlook its redemptive aspects. As the eponymous corrupt cop, Harvey Keitel burrows down to the marrow of his character in a performance so fierce and fearless that it’s often downright discomforting to behold. Keitel’s climactic showdown at the scene of the crime with a hallucinated Christ (“Where were you? You rat fuck!”) stands as a prime example of laying one’s soul bare on celluloid, long before the actor codified his regimen of tics and twitches (inarticulate yowls, gut-shot grimacing) into by-the-numbers emotional shorthand.  Wilkins

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

39

My Own Private Idaho

Its drug-fueled portrayal of queer experience notwithstanding, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho might be the perfect cinematic time capsule for ’90s aimlessness, universal in its details, itself something of a collection of artifacts and relics not unlike those referenced and relied on by its characters—souls in search of an identity, some of them simply lost without a clue. The filmmaker’s third feature revels in the weird, the spontaneous, and the unlikely: The encroaching future is regarded with amusement in folksy time-lapse transitions (the theremin adds a dash of sci-fi to the “anything goes” proceedings), roads seem to have faces while buildings fall from the sky, and Keanu Reeves gives a turn of calculated introspection and distant coolness. Van Sant’s search for the self is expressed most fully through River Phoenix’s performance as a narcoleptic prostitute (a turn indicative of great but tragically unfulfilled things to come), but similarly introspective is the filmmaker’s scintillating cultural potpourri, drawing on everything from Eisenstein to Shakespeare to The Simpsons.  Humanick

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

38

Irma Vep

The first, and most successful, of Olivier Assayas’s engagements with the world of global capital (present here in the form of an international coproduction, which also describes the film itself), Irma Vep is one of the few films explicitly about filmmaking that manages to transcend its inevitable narcissism. Maggie Cheung, superstar Hong Kong actress, is Maggie, superstar Hong Kong actress, brought to Paris to star in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires directed by past-his-prime René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud). The big showstopper, a dreamy nighttime sequence set to Sonic Youth in which Cheung dons her character’s black latex catsuit and steals a diamond necklace from another guest at her hotel, manages to make the tired theme of the collapsing divide between acting and living seem exciting again. But Assayas’s big ideas, fundamentally pessimistic and conservative, only come out in the final sequence, as the sacked Vidal’s footage is revealed to be a shock of avant-garde provocation modeled on Isidore Isou’s On Venom and Eternity: Even this once radical form can be squeezed by the weight of global corporate dollars into the shape of narrative resolution.  Coldiron

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

37

Bitter Moon

Roman Polanski’s 1992 epic of erotic obsession, jealousy, and control was not only a return to form for a director who wasn’t particularly productive during the 1980s, but a career-defining film for the kink-minded auteur. Presented as a lurid story narrated by a wheelchair-bound American (Peter Coyote) to a honeymooning Brit (Hugh Grant) aboard a cruise, the film mercilessly dissects Polanski’s signature themes as he presents a story of a wealthy U.S. national living in Paris, falling in love with a lovely French woman, indulging in erotic play of all kinds, becoming bored, treating the woman miserably, and, finally, becoming her physical and psychic captive. There’s enough material in the story-within-a-story to fuel two feature films and the teller spares no detail, but this is just the setting to an even more turbulent course of events that plays with and picks apart notions of American vulgarity, British reticence, and French eroticism. In its unflinching look at the fractured extremes of human desire and behavior, Bitter Moon is high art disguised as sensationalistic trash.  Schenker

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

36

Fargo

You could blame Shep, who told them that Jerry would be there at 7:30, and they’d been waiting over an hour, but that was a mix-up, and the Béla Tarr-esque opening image, showing Jerry’s car emerging from a wintry, snow-blind wall of dirty white, seals everyone’s fate to the tune of Carter Burwell’s funereal, mythic strings and percussion arrangement. With an apparently career-long ambition to restore film noir and black comedy to the popular imagination, the Coen brothers, as has been their habit, lay out a plan of narrative action in broad, sometimes caricature-heavy strokes, then work backward across it, plumbing for details and emotional truths. None of the chaos and mayhem that follows as a result of Jerry Lundegaard’s convoluted plan—to hire a pair of psychotic lowlifes, neither of whom even knows the other very well, to kidnap his wife, in the hopes of collecting enough to wipe out his debts—takes flight on its own power, without the grounding of sadness and longing that boils under every other scene that tends toward violent grotesqueries and teasing, provincial humor.  Christley

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

35

Breaking the Waves

Re-watching Breaking the Waves in the wake of Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Antichrist, it’s become retroactively clear that Lars von Trier’s 1996 landmark represents both the defining moment in his career and his oeuvre’s chief anomaly, thanks to the titanic central performance by Emily Watson (in her first feature film). Watson’s Bess, the intractable, naïf, dependent, fearless new bride in a simple Scottish town with perhaps the world’s staunchest Christian population, believes her prayer for her oil rig-working husband Jan to come back to her is directly responsible for the paralyzing accident that sends him home. Bess’s decision to do her immobile husband’s bidding—to sleep with strangers and arouse him with her subsequent reports—is both subordinate to his will and defiant in the face of religious patriarchies. Of the many transgressions in von Trier’s works, few seem as genuinely dangerous as this story of a simple-minded girl who maintains a direct line of conversation with God and is fucked to death. And among a long string of actress who fought von Trier and paraded their scars, Watson represents the exception. Having yielded to the steamroller, Bess emerges stronger and purer than all.  Henderson

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

34

Boogie Nights

Still Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film, Boogie Nights is also his most purely enjoyable: Tracing a Goodfellas-like progression from the golden age of porn in the 1970s to the shot-on-video lowlights that followed in the ’80s, the film is so pleasurably well-made that for much of its running time it can be difficult to realize just how dark it’s gradually becoming. But then, in his gunshot of a transition between decades, PTA gives us our most abrupt clue yet as to what his film’s latter half holds in store for us. It may be in its later sequences that Boogie Nights truly whips it out in a way few other films dare, but hindsight (not to mention subsequent viewings) reveal just how present the tension between its more brooding and glitzy traits was all along. The result is a big, bright, shining star of a movie, and one whose stature—unlike that of its characters—hasn’t faded with time.  Nordine

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

33

Hard Boiled

A master at crafting deceptive surfaces, John Woo is also a keen observer of social dynamics. The last film he made before leaving his native China for Hollywood, Hard Boiled stars Chow Yun-Fat stars as Tequila, a police officer who joins forces with a mysterious undercover agent, Alan (Tony Leung), in order to infiltrate a mobster’s secret lair tucked inside a hospital’s basement level. Throughout, females are subversives and men are only allowed to love each other after their unexamined male bonds have evaporated; masculine procedure is encoded in—and permitted by—femaleness (Alan communicates with the film’s police contingency via pop songs, flowers, and love letters) and violence becomes a kind of masochistic, almost homoerotic ritual. Every image is a ruse, a visual double entendre of sorts with an encoded moral, a romantic and social message. Building to an insanely frenetic, audacious climax unmatched in action cinema, the film, a stellar symbiosis of movement and morality, wit and balls, bounces its characters deliriously from one elaborate set piece to the next. Given the humor and unpredictability of Woo’s rhythmic action poetry, think of this as Karaoke action melodrama.  Gonzalez

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

32

The Big Lebowski

Taking potshots at a plethora of satirical subjects ranging from the first Gulf War to “vaginal” art, Kraut rock, and the porn industry (not to mention bowling), The Big Lebowski may be the densest, most intricately woven Coen brothers film yet. Scene after scene rolls down the lane packed with eminently quotable one-liners, evincing a structural classicism that harkens back to the heyday of the screwball comedy. And yet there’s an unshakeable shaggy-dog quality to the narrative, quite in keeping with its “stoner noir” takedown of post-Chandler L.A. (The obvious precursor here: Robert Altman’s smart-ass genre deconstruction The Long Goodbye.) The acting is uniformly spot-on, anchored by Jeff Bridges’s effortless-seeming incarnation of the Dude (“Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing”), and buttressed by Sam Elliott’s 10-gallon turn as the Stranger, while John Goodman swipes the show with his uproarious pastiche of writer-director John Milius. Although he’s allotted no more scenes than a bowling bowl has holes, John Turturro’s hair-netted, mock-Hispanic intimidator (“Don’t fuck with the Jesus!”) threatens to outdo even Goodman.  Wilkins

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

31

The Long Day Closes

The culmination of the autobiographical process begun in his famous trilogy of short films and continued in what remains his masterpiece, Distant Voices, Still Lives, Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes edged the British filmmaker toward slightly more approachable territory. With its golden, sparkling light and obvious emotional entry point in young Bud (Leigh McCormack as a young Davies), it’s much more inviting than the muted, diffuse world of Distant Voices. As in the earlier film, and his latest (fully fictional) feature, The Deep Blue Sea, Davies uses a sort of sliding-frame approach to narrative, constructing discrete scenes of personal and social life (the conversation between the two is Davies’s great concern) and stringing them fluidly together through both sound and camera movement. If The Long Day Closes doesn’t strike me as quite as emotionally perceptive as Distant Voices, I can’t deny that it features the pinnacle of his formal approach, a four-minute sequence set to Debby Reynolds’s “Tammy” that ties the entirety of life for an 11-year-old boy in 1950s Liverpool—play, cinema, church, school—into one modestly grand movement of the camera from right to left.  Coldiron

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