Kino Lorber

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

30

Carlito’s Way

Carlito’s Way was, first and foremost, if circumstantially, a post-Oscar victory lap for Al Pacino. And with Brian De Palma at the helm, the halo of “unofficial, alt-timeline Scarface sequel” seemed to hang right. Out of leftfield, the film emerged as the director’s masterpiece, and by leftfield I mean that De Palma was working a vein of his previous work that, on the surface, seemed simultaneously more mainstream-baiting (The Untouchables) and more liable to blow up in his face (The Bonfire of the Vanities). Reminiscent of Preminger at his most deceptively artificial, courting glory and derision in the same broad strokes, De Palma employs meticulously storyboarded ’Scope frames, then fills them with untenable confrontations and unsustainable excess. Sean Penn’s incognito turn as the avaricious attorney Kleinfeld won plaudits and helped validate the post-Spicoli phase of his career, but new viewers may be equally astonished by Viggo Mortensen’s electrifying single scene as a skeevy, wheelchair-bound turncoat.  Christley

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

29

Lessons of Darkness

In repurposing footage of burning Kuwait oil fields in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Werner Herzog crafted a stunning vision of apocalypse that doubles as a commentary on madness and the inexorable nature of human folly that allows for the perpetuation of armed conflict. Although long stretches of Lessons of Darkness are given to mind-blowing aerial shots of the decimated landscape set epically to Wagner and Mahler, Herzog also affixed a minimal narrative to the movie, about a planet destroyed by nuclear war, a story the director relates in his legendary Germanic drawl. Marking the most perfect synthesis of fiction and documentary in the Herzog oeuvre, the movie draws its power from the interplay between the two modes, bringing us back to ground level (both literally and metaphorically) as the film stops to listen to the real-life testimony of two women who’ve suffered horrible fates as a result of the human cruelty that finds its greatest expression in war and for which the director finds an astonishing visual correlative in the flames spewing from the black pools of oil which the firemen reignite, if only to have something to put out again.  Schenker

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

28

Chungking Express

Stylish, romantic, and self-consciously cool, Chungking Express is like an impressionistic watercolor hung on the wall of a trendy dive bar: It’s a taste of the foreign art house for hip domestic crowds still acquiring a taste for it, and it remains Wong Kar-wai’s most widely popular import by far (courtesy at least in part of Quentin Tarantino, whose Rolling Thunder arm of Miramax helped introduce it to North American audiences). Its surfaces, of course, are enormously seductive, the frame fit to burst with the vibrancy and restlessness of free jazz, but it’s Chungking Express’s generous, sentimental spirit that makes it more lastingly resonant. A fleet, delirious love story of the highest order, its major heart is ultimately proof positive that a slight film needn’t be a minor one.  Marsh

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

27

Hoop Dreams

The ’90s saw an influx of films set in American ghettos, and at least three notable ones were filmed in Chicago: Candyman played on audiences’ fears of miscegenation and the areas of cities where they’d never venture into; Public Housing traced the complex relations between poor residents and the government supporting them; and Hoop Dreams marvelously captured the hearts and souls of two poor African-American families through their sons’ aspirations of Nike-sponsored basketball glory. We take it for granted in today’s digital world, but filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx broke ground by filming on video (which, over the five-year production, visibly evolved from Beta to Beta SP), a financial necessity that bolsters the doc’s striking rawness. Culled from footage of young Arthur Agee and William Gates, NBA hopefuls who must try and overcome the constrictions of their disadvantaged class, Hoop Dreams brims with an astonishing wealth of material that’s both heartbreaking and uplifting—and the way events unfold over the film’s longitudinal-study span defies human writing capacity (Stuart Klawans famously quipped that the script was written by God). This is the standard to which all socially conscious documentaries are compared.  Henely

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

26

Through the Olive Trees

The concluding title in Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy, Through the Olive Trees exemplified both the power of the Iranian iconoclast’s ideology and the reach of his meta-cinematic, self-reflexive discourse. At once a tale of faith in the promises of love and a deconstruction of his own creative process, this multi-faceted, disorienting fictionalization of a key interpersonal relationship in Kiarostami’s prior film, Life, and Nothing More, brought a career’s worth of aesthetic advances to a place of both reconciliation and vast new narrative potential. The perseverance of his protagonist in the face of defeat finds its cinematic analogue in Kiarostami’s dismantling of his own methodology, a scene of unacknowledged import revealing a dense subtext and unforeseen consequence in its workshopped application. Casting an actor to play himself, directing a film that itself was a eulogy to the villagers he honored in Where Is the Friend’s House?, all atop a new narrative that culminates in one of cinema’s most heartrending finales, Kiarostami utilized Through the Olive Trees as a very pointed means of self-criticism and closure. Very few films can claim a similar functionality, let alone yield rewards on the viewers behalf of such endless intrigue.  Cronk

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

25

Mother and Son

The notion of cinema as a kind of living artwork is omnipresent in Mother and Son, a quality reinforced thematically by the titular figures’ methodical, heartbreaking march toward shuffling off this mortal coil, and stylistically via director Aleksandr Sokurov’s elemental use of perspective and image distortion to collapse both space and time. The effect is often that of a literal moving picture, and Sokurov’s somnambulistic use of the camera frequently suggests a master painter pausing for minutes, if not hours or days, between each devastating brushstroke. This slanted and enchanted subversion of traditional composition is both a testament to and elevation of the universal language of cinema, and Mother and Son’s elemental purity is such that it often suggests a weathered artifact left over from some forgotten civilization. Life and death merge in the film’s isolated, windswept landscapes, where the fully grown child now tends to his ailing parent much as she surely did to him in the first years of his life. So is the circle of life regarded with a seemingly eternal gaze, at once life-affirming and fearless of that which lies beyond.  Humanick

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

24

Husbands and Wives

A chronicle of a split foretold, Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives catalogues the insecurities that rock a marriage when another dissolves. Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) announce their breakup, and Judy (Mia Farrow) elevates the pair’s amicable decision to the level of tragedy. And when Sally’s husband, Gabe (Allen), falls for a student who loves older and men and looks for reason (read: God) in Time magazine, something close to tragedy ensues. The film is shot like a documentary, though Allen’s camera doesn’t observe marital chaos so much as it queasily instigates it. The thoughtful framing, as in a scene in which the viewer adopts Gabe’s point of view as he and Judy spar over a diaphragm, is a paranoiac’s gaze, and it’s unparalleled in Allen’s canon, matched only by the dialogue’s funny, sad, often depressing insights. Allen understands the emotionally fragile, confusing period after a breakup: the jealousy of an ex-lover finding love with another too soon; the desire to return to an ex-lover when a new lover disappoints; and the comfort we find in a loveless but comfortable state of constancy. Metabolically, it’s everyone’s rhythm.  Gonzalez

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

23

Jackie Brown

After Reservoir Dogs’s gut-punch fatalism and Pulp Fiction’s mesmerizing dynamism, Quentin Tarantino surprised everyone by going all Douglas Sirk on audience’s asses with Jackie Brown. The film’s crime-saga façade hides an emotionally complex love story between the titular Jackie (Pam Grier), a sexy stewardess embroiled in a dangerous drug ring, and Max (Robert Forester), an old-school bail bondsmen who can’t help but fall head over heels for her imposing beauty. This amazingly sincere pair resides at the center of a sublime and mournful melodrama draped in jive talk, double-crosses, and thematically resonant soul music. Fate and chance seem to inspire every vibrant scene, from the audacious set piece inside the Del Amo Mall to the final parting moment shared between two lovers who never were. Like most films that examine the mysteries and disappointments of unrequited love, Jackie Brown ends with a fleeting goodbye and an infinite sense of yearning. Yet this one stings. No single moment in the Tarantino canon has held so much unresolved emotion.  Heath Jr.

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

22

Rushmore

Wes Anderson’s oppressively set-designed films may resemble stuffy dioramas more than any semblance of reality, but the heightened versions of kid lit he explores in them contain a distinct emotional through line, with characters inventing their own bubble kingdoms to block out the harsh realities of the outside world. Rushmore served as our initial introduction to this style, after the comparatively helter-skelter Bottle Rocket, and the singular character of Max Fischer—preternatural overachiever, frustrated genius, and nasty martinet—is still probably the most realistic distillation of the director himself, who himself uses these cute capsule realities to avoid confronting the messier vagaries of life. Yet despite their borderline preciousness, Anderson’s worlds aren’t idylls, containing bittersweet stories that build to the inevitable intrusion of real, muddled emotions, deteriorating the sanctity of these color-coded, fussily framed worlds. It’s this condition that grants Rushmore an autumnal air of melancholy.  Cataldo

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

21

A Moment of Innocence

Culminating in one of the most breathtaking final freeze frames this side of The 400 Blows, A Moment of Innocence is Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s fabricated attempt at an authentic mea culpa. Or his complex, tortured admission that such an attempt would be impossible. Either way, you know his penitence must be real, because Makhmalbaf’s distancing techniques give his audiences every reason to mistrust his intentions as he works with young actors to recreate the life-altering moment that sent him to prison for four years (he stabbed a police officer under the Shah prior to the Islamic Revolution). A Moment of Innocence knowingly skirts the line between documentary and fictitious representation as Makhmalbaf recruits the man he stabbed into selecting actors to represent them during that fateful moment, and the dialogue it draws between the past and the present (as both Makhmalbaf and his young actors attempt to right wrongs like Dr. Sam Beckett) emerges as if not an explanation for the cycle of violence, then at least an empathetic reckoning.  Henderson

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