Volume #4: The Best Films of the 1990s

The 1990s are hot right now. Each decade seems to bring on a passionate push of nostalgia towards a decade from the past and it seems like the 1990s are particularly popular because:

1) Millennials primarily come of age in the 90s so they are looking back at their childhood/adolescence.

2) The decade almost represents the last time things seemed, on perhaps a superficial level, to be great before the tragedies of events like 9/11 in 2001 and the impeding wars and…god help us…the presidency of Donald Trump, which still seems like some sort of ridiculous nightmare come true.

The 90s were not perfect, but I also get the nostalgia factor…and a lot of things changed that decade with the onset of the Internet and Hollywood being taken over by the act of campaigning for awards, led by that lecherous troll known as Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Studios. 

I also feel like despite Miramax being horrible, they did bring indie filmmaking to a more prominent light in some ways to an extent that you could almost call them the A24 of the 90s.

The 90s were an improvement on film from the 80s and it gave us quite the array of content to choose from. Honestly, the more I think about this decade, the more I realize how much it gave us in terms of quality material. Sure, it may not have been on the level of the 1970s, but the amount of great films were still quite the embarrassment of riches…and I feel like so many films are going to be left off of here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Beauty and the Beast

Groundhog Day

Quiz Show 

Red

Boogie Nights

#10-Schindler’s List (1993-Steven Spielberg)

-I will be honest in saying that I have an erratic opinion when it comes to Spielberg as a director. I certainly can’t deny his pop culture appeal and I will definitely own up to the fact that he has made some of the most entertaining films ever made (JAWS is easily one of the most rewatchable movies to have come out of Hollywood), but Spielberg has a problem in that he can just be too saccharine for his own good. Frankly, his adaptation of THE COLOR PURPLE, while solid for what it was, just felt unworthy of the material and I feel like it is a project he shouldn’t have tackled. In the case of Schindler’s List, it is a topic of immense importance but it is also a topic that he feels deeply connected to due to his heritage: the Holocaust. Sure, the film is quite possibly the most uplifting film you can find about the Holocaust since it involves a man who tries to save as many Jewish people as he possibly can from extermination, Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the gritty brutality of this truly senseless and horrific event. You could argue that maybe he was still too sugary at times…perhaps that is true…but the film is still incredibly difficult watch…and it is very well made. And as a final postscript, it is a crime that Ralph Fiennes lost the Oscar for his performance as Amon Goeth. Considering he was an unknown at the time, it is remarkable how brave and relentless he is playing such a despicable human being…and yet, he imbues him with such charisma thanks to his great presence as an actor (and especially how sexy he was back then) that I almost resent how he made me feel….a truly lecherous and captivating performance of someone so vile and evil.

#9-Barton Fink (1991-The Coen Brothers)

-After giving us two great indie classics in the 80s with BLOOD SIMPLE and RAISING ARIZONA, the Coen Brothers were on the fast track to showing us that they would be the face of fantastic indie cinema going in the 90s. They began the decade with 1990’s MILLER’S CROSSING and then followed that with their truly masterful and underrated Barton Fink, a film that basically defied genre before many people were able to truly except genre-hyrbid movies. Barton Fink is played by the very eclectic character actor John Turturro, and he is a playwright who is hired by a Hollywood movie studio to write screenplays…and all the while, he strikes up a friendship with Charlie Meadows (played by the brilliant John Goodman), an insurance salesman who happens to be his neighbor in the run-down Hotel Earle in which they are staying. The film contains a lot of Coen Brothers’ favorites within its eclectic ensemble along with newcomers who would soon become famous in their own right: Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, and Steve Buscemi…and a lot of the story beats in this movie show great texture and originality that more than proved the worth and brilliance that the Coens would bring to Hollywood. Is it a buddy movie? Is it a film noir? Is it a horror movie? It’s everything, really.

#8-Secrets & Lies (1996-Mike Leigh)

-Many have called Mike Leigh the British Equivalent of Woody Allen…and I would say that is something of a fair assessment but Mike Leigh is also his own beast…and he is typically way more dramatic than Woody Allen (and he does drama better than Allen, who can often be off the mark in that genre). Mike Leigh actually shares a similarity with another brash Jewish funnyman: Larry David. This isn’t to say they are similar in content, but rather in how they construct a piece. Larry David is known for his work (more recently) on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, an absolutely brilliant HBO series, in which he writes an outline for every episode and then has the actors improvise the dialogue based on that. This is how Mike Leigh loves to make his films: extensive outlines but then lets the actors give life to the characters with dialogue…and it basically always works out well in the end. With Secrets & Lies, a black optometrist named Hortense, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, finds out following the death of her mother that she was actually adopted and she chooses to search for her birth mother. She discovers it is actually a white working-class woman named Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn, in a role that should’ve won her the Oscar), a very meek and somewhat odd woman who lives with her other illegitimate daughter Roxanne, with whom she doesn’t have the best relationship. A lot of the film simply delves into Hortense trying to quietly form a relationship with Cynthia (it is sort of implied that perhaps she was born out of rape, which makes this uncomfortable for Cynthia) while watching Cynthia’s family with their own struggles, which includes the insufferable Roxanne along with Cynthia’s brother and his wife, who are struggling to conceive a child. It is a movie that simply felt real and uncomfortable in the best possible ways.

#7-Ed Wood (1994-Tim Burton)

-In many ways, I feel like this is a highly atypical choice for a list like this…and I often feel like this film isn’t discussed in the same way other Tim Burton movies are. Actually, that is another thing: Tim Burton movies aren’t typically on lists like these. Well, in my mind, this has been the crown jewel of his career thus far and it is his most underrated film which also contains one of the best performances of Johnny Depp’s career before he eventually fell down a rabbit hole…or got sucked up into his own ass….one of the two. Ed Wood is based on the actual director Ed Wood, who was often considered the worst director of all time due to his incessant string of low budget sci-fi/horror films…and also his certain penchant for keeping up with his desire to live as a transvestite while also maintaining relationships with women. Perhaps the best remembered aspect of this movie by the general audience is that of the Oscar winning performance by Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, which is a true triumph on how to be theatrical on film and not come off as over the top. The movie may have bombed back in 1994, but it still remains a highlight to the say the least in my book.

#6-The Silence of the Lambs (1991-Jonathan Demme)

-The massive success of a movie like The Silence of the Lambs is rather surprising. I don’t necessarily mean the box office receipts but the fact that this rather grizzly suspense/horror/thriller film ended up joining the likes of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST as the only three films to win the top 5 Oscars is quite the fascinating feat. Up till then, The Silence of the Lambs was the first and it still remains the only film of its genre to actually WIN the Oscar for Best Picture. What is it about this movie that worked so well for genre bias to actually step aside and have it be crowned the best movie of 1991? The obvious answers lie in the iconic performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, not to mention a very solid script and direction…but I feel like it is simply a film that proves you can make magic out of what may seem like the least prestigious of topics: a rookie FBI agent consults an imprisoned cannibalistic psychiatrist in order to try to get his insight on how to catch a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill, who is kidnapping women and then skinning them. Yeah, sounds like the least typical topic for a film that went on to achieve Oscar success in a way that few films have…but the results are simply spellbinding. It is a film that met the great combo of pop culture icon/critical darling.

#5-The Truman Show (1998-Peter Weir)

-The Truman Show came out at a time where I was starting to become OBSESSED with movies as an art form and for that reason, I think it will always hold a special place in my heart. Jim Carrey was essentially going the Tom Hanks route in that he had been known for his comedic performances but here, he was taking something of a more dramatic approach…and this still remains one of his best efforts. I feel like the storyline of this film seems more relevant in today’s society because it taps into the obsession of how entertainment engulfs all of us and it is one man: Christof (played by Ed Harris) who decides to take an abandoned child, put him in a massive studio, and then have the entire world watch him grow up on hidden cameras with hired actors portraying his friends and family…and having those people do product placement to avoid cutting away to commercials. It was a fantastic concept…and so jarring to some that psychological breaks have occurred where people are convinced they are living out their own Truman Show scenario.This is another one of those films that seemed to be on the cusp of getting nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars only for it to be snubbed along with, more famously, Jim Carrey getting snubbed…yet another example of the Academy royally screwing up. Lastly, out of all of the films on this list, it is the one that I just happened to see again most recently and it still holds up remarkably well.

#4-Being John Malkovich (1999-Spike Jonze)

-Continuing the trend of quirkier or edgier material getting snubbed, Being John Malkovich followed the path of getting nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress while missing out on Best Picture…while the Academy nominated the syrupy THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and the gritty piece of fluff that was THE GREEN MILE in its stead. Sure, it sounds like a ridiculous concept: a portal that actually allows someone to enter the brain and be able to control the mind of actor John Malkovich. It is a truly original concept that was destined to fail…but we weren’t that familiar with the mind of writer Charlie Kaufman and what he was able to achieve with such outlandish concepts. The cast is phenomenal in this with the ensemble being led by John Cusack and a great supporting cast of Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, and John Malkovich himself…and we’d eventually see a lot more brilliance from Kaufman and Jonze going into the new millennium as well see a film from each of them on my upcoming lists for the next two decades.

#3-Three Colors: Blue (1993-Krystof Kieslowski)

-You haven’t quite seen raw and emotional heartbreak like when you are watching the luminous Juliette Binoche close herself off from the outside world while coping with the death of her husband and young son in an automobile accident…and all of that heartbreak is mainly internalized because we only see her actually cry twice in the film. Juliette’s Julie was married to a famed composer and it is implied that she actually helped him with his compositions…which she tries to destroy any evidence of his work or the life she had by selling of their possessions and moving to a new home…but one piece of music in particular will become key to eventually leading her out of her shell, and she will soon develop both intimate and platonic friendships along the way. This film was made by Polish director Krystof Kieslowski, who sadly passed away in 1996, and he isn’t as well remembered today…but before he died, he made this film trilogy based on three colors: BLUE, WHITE, and RED. My favorite of these is BLUE while RED got an honorable mention from me (WHITE is good in its own right though it doesn’t hold up to the other two in the grand scheme)…and a lot of that is due to the journey of this character, the performance of Binoche, and the dreamy atmosphere that Kieslowski gives us which matches the “Blue” that is its title. 

#2-Goodfellas (1990-Martin Scorsese)

-With his Netflix epic THE IRISHMAN currently in the midst of an award season in which it is one of the main Oscar frontrunners as of this writing, a lot of talk has been heaped upon it comparing it to Scorsese’s earlier mobster film GoodFellas, which was also based on a true story surrounding the life of Henry Hill, who began assisting the mob as a teenager before becoming part of the group itself and eventually going into Witness Protection to avoid getting whacked. THE IRISHMAN has been described as the calmer and more mature version of Goodfellas…and that may be true, but there is a certain sharpness and vitality to his earlier effort that still makes me view it as the crown jewel of his career…or maybe strictly based on his mob movies. The interesting thing about Goodfellas is that it simply doesn’t care what we think of these people and it never once asks for our sympathy…and even with the character of Karen (played by Lorraine Bracco), we may feel bad for her at times but she clearly chose this life…even owning up in narration that the fact that Henry handed her a bloodied gun after beating a guy that got fresh with her, it turned her on tremendously…so much so that the next shot is them getting married. The film practically got shut out on Oscar night at the expense of the expansive and overrated white savior movie DANCES WITH WOLVES, which was the directorial debut of actor Kevin Costner…and it made for the second time Scorsese lost the award to a lesser directorial gig by an actor (though Redford’s film ORDINARY PEOPLE was actually fantastic whereas Costner’s film is…fine…at best). The one Oscar win that Goodfellas did get is that of Supporting Actor for Joe Pesci, who played the hot-headed and despicable Tommy DeVito, which gave us the now iconic “Funny how? Like a clown? Do I amuse you?” scene. Pesci is fantastic in this film and it also probably didn’t hurt that he starred in the biggest film of that year giving an over-the-top comedic villain performance: HOME ALONE. Lastly, Goodfellas contains a very famous one-shot take of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Braccoentering through the back door of the Copacabana and zig-zagging through a busy kitchen and eventually a tight dining room area….that scene was worthy of Best Director award alone but no, let’s give it to Kevin Costner because it seems so important. Sigh….

#1-Fargo (1996- The Coen Brothers)

-“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

That is how FARGO begins…and guess what? That statement was a bold-face lie! Instead, Fargo was simply the brainchild of the brilliant Coen Brothers who have already appeared on this list and they too struck gold and gave us their best film to date. While they did get inspired by some actual criminal events, they tried to stick with their own true outline on the basis that if an audience thinks it’s a true story, they can get away with more than if they actual realized it was fiction. Much like their other films, Fargo has a dark comedic edge which is not often the kind of movie that the Academy goes for…and thus, they went with the movie they seemed more inclined to like: the dull but beautiful looking THE ENGLISH PATIENT (my #8 selection SECRETS & LIES was also nominated though left the ceremony empty-handed…Fargo at least managed wins for Original Screenplay and Best Actress-Frances McDormand. The true lead of the movie is that of William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, and he is stunning in this. Jerry owns a Oldsmobile dealership in Minneapolis and after failing pay back a $320,000 loan he took out in which he used non-existent cars as collateral, he is told by shady mechanic of his to contact two small-time criminals and with them on board, they stage a kidnapping. Jerry’s father-in-law is wealthy but he can’t just ask him for money so the plan is for these guys to kidnap Jerry’s wife, request ransom from his father-in-law, and then upon herreturn, Jerry will give them $80,000 and a car for their efforts. Needless to say, things go wrong and we get to watch as things crumble for Jerry and we get Frances McDormand in one of her most charming performances as a very pregnant police chief who is determined to crack the case. Fargo is a very intricate movie not just due to the script but also its performances. The reason the movie works so well is because of the perkiness of McDormand but also the unbelievably layered performance of Macy because while we may hate him, we also oddly enjoy watching him and you do perhaps care about him slightly thanks to the affability Macy gives him, but in the end, he deserves to face comeuppance for this…and the Coens do choose to go for a bleaker ending…at least in terms of Jerry…but we do know Marge and her husband are about to become parents and we can end on that happy note. 

IN CONCLUSION:

The 90s were a very vibrant decade and a lot of the sensibilities from the 90s seemed stemmed in how filmmaking was sort of becoming in the 70s….not to mention, there was a rather big push for 70s nostalgia back then just like we are getting a lot of 90s nostalgia now. The biggest thing about the 90s for me still remains the true beginnings of Indie filmmaking getting a more prominent push and eventually having those films gain an audience in the wake of premium cable. I do think, however, that the 90s were the true beginning of some of the more questionable political tactics that allowed for campaigning for awards to become the commonplace that it is today…which I brought up earlier as that was an effort that was passionately begun by the horrible studio head honcho Harvey Weinstein. While they helped push indie movies of theirs to the front of the line, a lot of their efforts helped shame the idea of awards and Hollywood more than it already had been. In truth though, awards don’t matter other than for promotion…and the average film goer isn’t going to remember what was voted as Best Picture of 1995 (for the record, it was BRAVEHEART and I loathe that movie…)…so in the end, just love what you love…and I still enjoy awards season coverage mainly because it can be fascinating to watch the trends form and it can be fun to root for the films and performances you love…and maybe on a sadistic level, one may love to complain about the snubs. Everyone is in love with their own opinion after all…

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