The Last Reel of the Century – The Films of the 1990s: A Retrospective – Column

The Last Reel of the Century

The Films of the 1990s: A Retrospective
by Christian T. Escobar

When I sat down and began compiling and researching films for this retrospective, one thing became apparent; it’s been an interesting decade, to say the least. Independent cinema assaulted the mainstream and then – eventually – became the mainstream, while the studio system (aka Hollywood) nearly imploded with copycat projects, genre pictures, and budgets beyond comprehension. The funny thing is, the decade didn’t start out bad – in fact, it began in stellar fashion. The first six years had groundbreaking work from some of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history. The first half also contained the premier work from the majority of the independent filmmakers who will take us deep into the next century.

Unfortunately, the film industry is still an industry and success breeds imitation. In art, imitation does not mean flattery, but instead, lower standards and inferior product. Replication and duplication means a lack of originality, and that alone damages the art form more than anything else. Those with optimism make the point that many of the filmmakers who gave this decade its greatest moments are still young, and therefore the chance for a superb start to the next century still exists. Those cynics will say that those same filmmakers have already shown they are unable to maintain consistency, and Hollywood’s relentless pursuit of the almighty dollar will continue to eat away at the heart of the art form. This summary is not perfect, and I will no doubt leave out an important picture or two, but the truth is that this piece really isn’t a “best of list” as much as it is a compendium of the films that made me enjoy going to the theaters every week.

What Are You Laughin’ At? – The Comedies
Perhaps the one name synonymous with this genre is Jim Carrey. His childish antics in Ace Ventura (’94) kicked it off, and a series of blockbusters followed. His highlight, and the funniest film of the decade, was the Farrelly Brothers’ debut, Dumb & Dumber (’94). Juvenile, immature and unstoppably funny, the idiot road trip from hell exemplifies Carrey’s God-given ability to warp comedic reality. Another road trip comedy came from unheralded David O. Russell. Flirting With Disaster (’96) did little business at the box office, but artistic success is seldom judged by dollar value. A sarcastic, Oedipal investigation involving adopted Ben Stiller is the shrewdest and smartest comedy of the decade.

Waiting For Guffman (’96) is Christopher Guest’s clever mock documentary about an anniversary play being put on in Small Town, Middle America. In a complete reversal of atmosphere, Steve Martin’s quirky and insightful L.A. Story (’91) is a witty and subtle attack on all things superficial. From the left coast to the South, the pleasing My Cousin Vinny (’92) made Joe Pesci a leading man and Marisa Tomei an Oscar winner. Meanwhile, across the ocean, Hugh Grant became famous (for the first time) in Four Weddings And A Funeral (’94), an English-spirited gallop through relationship etiquette. The comic and touching film The Full Monty (’97) soon blew English proper out of the water.

Albert Brooks’ brand of humor, dry and self-deprecating, is not for everyone, but his films Defending Your Life (’91) and Mother (’96) are perfect examples of well-written comedy. Both films revolve around a self-centered individual (always Brooks) who, in the first film, is forced to explain his actions in life to gain entrance into Heaven, and forced to get to know his mother in the second. In a similar, mid-life crisis vein, Billy Crystal’s delightful cowboy spree City Slickers (’91) is the quintessential adult comedy.

Idiocy may be the key word when describing Hot Shots (’91). The Charlie Sheen spoof is non-stop hilarity and features a faultless effort from the late Lloyd Bridges. Another parody, The Freshman (’90), is far more inventive than Hot Shots, and ultimately more enjoyable. Starring Matthew Broderick opposite a peerless Marlon Brando (imitating himself!), this picture may be the slyest parody ever made. Mike Myers’ wacky Wayne’s World (’92) was a dead-on parody of a whole generation of rock’n’roll offspring. Funny, and the perfect pop culture mirror, you could never dislike the film that gave us “schwing.” However, Mike Myers wasn’t through by a long shot. The zany and ultra-quotable Austin Powers (’97) wasn’t much of a hit in the theaters, but became a pop culture phenomenon after its video release. While school is never funny in real life, the films Election (’99) and Rushmore (’98) sure made it seem so. While Election makes itself at home between the subtle assaults on our political system, Rushmore is pure originality. Remarkably clever, using sardonic wit to slice through characters left and right, Max Fisher is one of the all-time great movie characters.

Welcome To Earth – The Science Fiction Fantasies
When it comes to science fiction, two men are responsible for revolutionizing the genre. The first is Steven Spielberg. Jurassic Park (’93), his film about modern day dinosaurs, may not be very good thematically, but what a ride! The vision of the T-Rex stomping the through the jungle is unforgettable imagery. The second is James Cameron. Cameron may be more responsible for special effects, since his Terminator 2: Judgment Day (’91) is the visual cornucopia of guns, fire, and morphing killer machines that pushed the boundaries of effects. Arnold himself kicked off the decade with Total Recall (’90), one of the most elaborate and mind-bending pictures in history. (Okay, so there’s that ending, but we’ll overlook that!) Independence Day (’96) wasn’t very good, but it had such huge public appeal, it deserves mention. Of course, I preferred the twisted Tim Burton invasion film, Mars Attacks (’97), but I may be alone on that one.

Visions of the future are a staple in the genre, and one film has developed a rabid cult following, despite it not being very good. The Crow (’94), starring the late Brandon Lee – who died during production – is a dank, nihilistic view of the future. Its greatest asset is set design and the spooky aura provided by Lee’s death. Another film that relies heavily on set design and aura, but at the opposite end of the spectrum, is the sterile Gattaca (’97). An inventive plot lumbers along, but the world created here is probably more frightening than the one presented in The Crow.

Is That A Gun In Your Pocket? – The Action Movies
Action and science fiction often go hand-in-hand these days, which is why I placed these sections back-to-back. Getting back to James Cameron and special effects, his super-sleuth epic, True Lies (’94), is one of the more underrated films of the decade. Earth-shattering stunts and effects, this is what Hollywood is all about. Cameron also had a hand in producing his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow’s surfing and sky-diving extravaganza Point Break (’91). Despite a wooden Keanu and a buff Swayze, this undercover cop picture rattles with efficiency and perfect execution.

The Hunt For Red October (’90) kicked off the Clancy hi-tech series with an underwater bang and proved that the Cold War still sells. But nothing sells better than Harrison Ford, and he confirmed it with his steam-rolling remake of The Fugitive (’93). A superb action picture, it did as much for train wreck prevention as it did for Tommy Lee Jones’ career.

Hollywood action movies owe a lot to the Hong Kong action films of the 1980s and ’90s, and John Woo finally jumped the ocean to show the Americans how it’s done. After a few ordinary releases, Woo rocked the screen with Face/Off (’97). Deceptive and kinky, it has since solidified Woo as the reigning king of action. But perhaps my favorite action picture comes from the mind of Quentin Tarantino and the hand of Tony Scott. True Romance (’93) is an exhilarating ride from start to finish, with stellar performances from everyone involved. In two words: electrifying filmmaking.

Who’s There? – The Thrillers
Do you remember Hannibal the Cannibal? It’s hard to forget Anthony Hopkins’ creepy portrayal of the serial killer from Silence Of The Lambs (’91). It’s also hard to forget Jodie Foster’s terrific turn as the rookie agent out to catch a raving lunatic. Yet, despite virtually no accolades, Basic Instinct (’92) made a bigger splash. A roughshod pseudo-psychological thriller, the film is better known for making Sharon Stone and her hoochie a full-fledged star. “Twisting” is a good word to describe the best thrillers and Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (’94) is a disturbing piece of work that absorbs and twists the audience completely. Dead Again (’91), Kenneth Brannagh’s slippery, multi-layered detective story, is another twister. The Spanish Prisoner (’98) is a David Mamet puzzler that keeps you thinking hours after viewing.

Some films are destined to remain fresh in the mind. Few films are as intelligent, emotional, surprising and as breathtaking as Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (’92). Multi-dimensional and involving, this thriller is the epitome of outstanding filmmaking. This is the type of film that reinvigorates the art form and those who love to experience it.

Boo! – The Horror Movies
It was not a strong decade for scary movies. The genre had been forgotten, left to rot on the direct-to-video shelf. Then came Scream (’96). Wes Craven, the man responsible for helping to define the genre a decade before, returned with a hip cast, hip dialogue, and a different kind of killer. The picture isn’t very good, but once again; Craven sparked a creative flood in the field. Another filmmaker that helped define the genre in the 1980s was Sam Raimi, who returned with a third installment to his Evil Dead series called Army of Darkness. While not your standard horror film, Raimi and Bruce Campbell make it the most quotable of any this decade.

The decade started off with a mild horror film, the Stephen King adaptation of Misery. The shocking and erratic behavior of Annie won Kathy Bates an Oscar, and probably caused most people to avoid number one fans.

In closing out the decade, there were a rash of putrid Scream rip-offs that almost sank the genre back to the video store shelf. That is until The Blair Witch Project (’99) swept its way through theaters and America. A cult phenomenon even before it was released, The Blair Witch Project was made on a shoestring budget and relied on imagination and originality to frighten viewers. Its only challenge was the horror-lite surprise The Sixth Sense (’99). It too became a phenomenon with audiences raving over the twists.

Bang. You’re Dead – The War Films
It was a slow decade for the war film. Perhaps there was hangover from all the Vietnam films of the ’80s. The two best films came from Steven Spielberg. Schindler’s List (’93), with its stark black & white photography and unforgiving visuals, is a painful reminder of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime. Spielberg revisited WWII with his flag-waving battle-strewn philosophical effort, Saving Private Ryan (’98). Neither film is perfect, but both are fine examples of Spielberg’s visual versatility.

Speaking of versatility, David O. Russell turned out a multi-layered, sub-textual masterwork in Three Kings (’99). Set during the Gulf-War, the film examines not just the wartime effort and situation, but American ideals and beliefs.

Nice Suit – The Period Pieces
Most people consider period pieces boring, and I don’t blame them. In truth, one of the more popular films of the decade, Braveheart (’95), is nothing more than a violent, smashing, manly period piece. The pseudo-factual biography of William Wallace is littered with flaws and, in turn, I prefer the luscious swashbuckling Rob Roy (’95). Less brute and more style, Rob Roy weaves a tapestry of honor and retribution. It also contains an amazingly powerful performance by Jessica Lange.

Putting aside swords for tea trays, The Remains of the Day (’93) is a touching and poignant story of unrequited love and affection. While not as exciting as battle, it does attempt to clash with the human heart. Jane Campion’s The Piano (’93) includes three fantastic performances to go along with its powerful story of love and insecurity. Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin both won Oscars, and Harvey Keitel proved he could carry a male lead outside of tough city streets.

Keitel’s old stomping partner, Martin Scorsese also put on the period piece shoes and brought out The Age of Innocence (’93). And, of course, it’s primarily about unrequited and unrealized love and affection. Okay, so period pictures never stray too far from the thematic centerpiece.

All For The Nookie – The Romances
The most romantic film of the decade was Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of The English Patient (’96). It isn’t often a man sells his soul to the devil in the name of love, and Ralph Fiennes gives an Earth-shattering portrayal of a man desperately in lust and love. Although he never sold his soul, Joseph Fiennes probably would have to capture the heart of Viola in Shakespeare In Love (’98). An inspired rendition of the Bard’s love life, few films capture chemistry as well as this one.

Before Sunrise (’95) takes place in one night and in two hearts. It’s the story of two people falling for each other during an all-night walk around Vienna. Simple and beautiful. Unlike Before Sunrise, Titanic (’97) is James Cameron’s epic tale of love and disaster and it is nowhere near simple. Its beauty lies in the small corners of a doomed ship. It’s unforgettable from the midway point until the predictable, yet emotional, ending.

Who’s Who? – The Biographies
If anyone is deserving of his reputation as a filmmaker it’s Oliver Stone. In 1991, his sexy and absurd bio of The Doors rekindled the band’s magic on contemporary radio. But it was his conspiracy-laced exploration into the assassination of John F. Kennedy that garnered him his current reputation as ’60s assessor and controversy magnet. JFK (’91) tore open old wounds with its theme, photography, and impressive editing. The next year, Spike Lee took on public debate with his informative look into the life of Malcolm X (’92). Denzel Washington rules the screen with a commanding performance. Tim Burton left behind dazzling sets and eccentric costumes for the world of the director who couldn’t afford either. Ed Wood (’94) is the story of one man’s dreams of Hollywood, and includes outstanding efforts by Johnny Depp and Martin Landau. The real Ed Wood eventually drifted into pornography, which is where Larry Flynt makes his bread and butter. The People vs. Larry Flynt (’97) is as American a film as Hollywood can produce. Based on the life and times of the pornographer, Woody Harrelson delivers a vibrant performance as the man who helped corrupt your local newsstand.

That’s Reality – The Documentaries
Real life is always a bit more fascinating than Hollywood magic, and that’s why people make documentaries. Looking for a little insight into insanity, Hearts Of Darkness (’91) is a swirling and disturbing look behind the scenes at the marathon-making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. From the battlefields to The War Room (’93), this intriguing peek into the 1992 campaign of soon-to-be-President Bill Clinton reveals just what it takes to become the world’s most important person. And while he never ran for office, it sometimes seems like Muhammad Ali’s life was one big campaign. When We Were Kings (’96) is a mesmerizing look at the Ali/Foreman heavyweight title bout.

Hoop Dreams (’94) was snubbed by the Academy Awards and, unfortunately, this marvelous inner city piece went unnoticed by everyone but the critics. Anyone who saw it was moved by the plight of two teenage basketball prodigies and their arduous journey towards the NBA. American inner cities may be poor, but perhaps none as poor as Havana, Cuba. That’s the setting for Wim Wenders’ magical look at the elderly (yet vital) Buena Vista Social Club (’99). Cuba comes alive through the elegant and timeless music. And while Madonna may not be so elegant, she certainly is timeless. Her flighty tour bus documentary, Truth or Dare (’91), assured her status as Queen Diva. Perhaps the most absorbing observation comes from the film Crumb (’94). A look into the abnormal family of cartoonist Robert Crumb, it’s a warped fable of how one man’s art saved him from a dreadful life.

Pardon My French – The Foreign Films
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s French trilogy Blue (’93), White (’94) and Red (’94) bursts off the screen with vibrancy and life, despite the subject matters being melancholy. Kieslowski alters moods and creates atmosphere with the camera alone. Creating atmosphere is also the strength of Delicatessen (’91), whose art direction boggles the mind.

John Woo’s final Hong Kong tour de force, Hard-Boiled (’92), is a rumbling display of intensity and ferocity. Far more graceful is Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China (’91), which featured Jet Li at perhaps his finest. Over on the main land, Zhang Yimou took ten years and made himself the finest director of the decade. Though he released five superb films, two stand out above the rest. He started the decade with the captivating Raise The Red Lantern (’91) and continued with the powerful epic, To Live (’94). Both feature amazing performances from Gong Li.

Lars Von Trier made more than ripples with his unsettling and intertwining approach toward religion, love, and mental instability; Breaking The Waves (’96). While not nearly as poetic as von Trier’s picture, Mike Leigh’s caustic, brooding, existential Naked (’93) is more powerful. Hard-edged and filled with brilliant dialogue, David Thewlis slashes through with his character. Of course, when it comes to UK films, most people want to experience Trainspotting (’96). An energizing (and moody) look at heroin use, this Danny Boyle pop culture classic brims with excitement and danger.

As poignant and moving as any picture released this decade, Roberto Begnini’s Life Is Beautiful (’98) deserves a little recognition for its ability to turn a concentration camp into a den of hope and love (albeit sparingly).

But Seriously… – The Dramas
When I watched Forrest Gump (’94) again a few months ago, I was astounded by the brilliance of Tom Hanks. Sure, I knew he deserved the best actor award when the film came out, but distance has made me appreciate the movie even more. A heartwarming look at Americana, Gump isn’t always the perfect mirror, but it’s always an entertaining one. Like Gump, The Shawshank Redemption (’94) is a film about the human spirit and its resiliency. Adapted from the Stephen King novella, director Frank Darabont molds the prison story into a powerful experience.

Small town America provided the home base for the moving and amusing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (’93), which owns the best Leonardo DiCaprio performance to date. Small town America is also home to Alvin Straight and David Lynch’s prosaic film The Straight Story (’99). It’s not often that a film about a man and his lawnmower could be so interesting.

John Sayles may be the world’s greatest screenwriter, and the general public wouldn’t know him from a hole in the wall. City of Hope (’91) and Lone Star (’96) are the two films that represent his versatile nature the best. Character-driven, intelligent, and expertly woven stories are what he does best. Sayles is also a master dialogue-smith who’s only one step behind David Mamet in the word department. Mamet’s vicious and acerbic adaptation of his play Glengarry Glen Ross (’92) proves that salesman can be just as treacherous as the devil.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s heavenly Boogie Nights (’97) puts ’70s pornography in a whole new light. Dreamy and goofy, it’s an enticing view of the sex industry’s triumphs and tragedies. In The Player (’92), director Robert Altman uses Hollywood’s other motion picture industry as the setting for his quirky murder mystery and all star cameo fest. While The Player is a good film, it’s nowhere near the level of his next film, the brilliant Short Cuts (’93). Set in Los Angeles and covering the lives of over a dozen people, the film wanders in and out of lives and yet ties them all together in stranger than fiction ways.

Budget, What Budget? – The Independents
Independent became very trendy and very fashionable as the decade wore on. But as the decade began, Richard Linklater’s tiny film, Slacker (’91), was a bit unique. Not a particularly good film, it did help to establish true indie filmmakers in Hollywood. Linklater would follow up with the hilarious Dazed and Confused (’93), a look back at one day in the life of graduating seniors in the late 1970s. Similar to Linklater’s roots, Kevin Smith’s seminal cheapie Clerks (’94) was a raunchy, in your face, vulgarthon. Not to mention, incredibly funny. But independent cinema began to grow, and the result was a number of small pictures such as Sling Blade (’96), Swingers (’96) and Big Night (’96). Basically, all three films were developed by struggling actors looking to make a vehicle for themselves. Billy Bob Thornton’s story of a mentally challenged giant may seem more intellectual than the affable and quotable Swingers, or the atmospheric and exuberant Big Night, but all three demonstrate how a little originality goes a long way.

One of independent film’s innovators, Steven Soderberg, returned to screen with one of the most charming pictures of the decade in King Of The Hill (’93). The story of a depression-era kid roaming around the city is both clever and satisfying. However, modern day kids roaming around the city is a bit more alarming. The realism of Kids (’95) is betrayed by poor writing, but is still a powerful picture.

Living In Oblivion (’94), Tom DiCillo’s razor sharp comment on low budget filmmaking, is the gem in your video store. Uproariously funny, DiCillo’s film takes a step toward dispelling the myth of indie moviemaking.

Bad Motherfuckers – The Crime Dramas
If this wasn’t the decade of the indie film, is was the decade of the crime drama. And it’s in this genre that the best film of the decade appears. Martin Scorsese’s groundbreaking tale of mobster Henry Hill is the basis for his electrifying picture GoodFellas (’90). Using his camera as a paintbrush, Scorsese reveals a moving portrait of greed, sex, and crime. It is a slice a cinematic perfection. Perhaps tired of only appearing in front of the camera, Robert De Niro took up directing for his debut film, the nostalgic and memorable A Bronx Tale (’93). Across town in Hell’s Kitchen, Gary Oldman and Sean Penn were tearing up the streets in the little-known fire-breathing film, State of Grace (’90). Another Scorsese mate, Harvey Keitel, gave the bravest performance of the decade as the title character in Abel Ferrera’s savage Bad Lieutenant (’92). The con artist is taken to new depths in The Grifters (’90). A web of crime, lies, and sex, the film is as provocative as it is sinister. As it is not nearly as dark, Paul Thomas Anderson’s affecting debut film. Hard Eight (’97), tops The Grifters in the heart department. Of course, the biggest con came from Keyser Soze. Usual Suspects (’95) riveted the nation with its twists and surprises.

Unlike most of the films in this genre, John Singleton’s straightforward Boyz N’ The Hood (’91) delivers the audience into a world most believe doesn’t exist. As startling as it is sad, Singleton’s debut smothers the audience in realism.

The Coen Brothers kicked off the decade with the trance-inducing Miller’s Crossing (’90) and shot themselves to stardom with Fargo (’96), the apex of all quirky crime dramas. While Miller’s Crossing hypnotizes with shadowy sets and characters, Fargo dominates the screen with idiosyncratic crooks, cops, and locals. It’s one of the most enjoyable films ever made.

Of course, the decade and genre would not be complete without mentioning the films of Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs (’92), his overrated sampling of Hong Kong cinema is a force that cannot be denied. While he only provided the story for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (’94), it was his idea that sparked (again) the swirling controversy over whether life imitates art or art imitates life. Then there’s Pulp Fiction (’94). A volatile blend of originality and borrowed ideas, Tarantino shaped himself a contemporary masterpiece.

This retrospective is by no means indicative of the only good films that were released this decade, there were scores of high-quality films and just not room enough to mention them all. However, these are the ones I enjoyed the most and all are worthy of a trip to the video store.