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Essays & Articles

The 1990s: The Decade in Film
by Dustin Putman

    With the 1990s coming to a close and 2000 upon us all, film critics inevitably will be devising lists of "The 100 Films of the Century" or "The Best of the Decade," as they attempt to put the vast array of motion pictures they have seen into some sort of practical order. With so many movies, and so many great and diverse ones, a numerically numbered list probably will not work as smoothly as the thought of it might be, since it really is difficult to choose one over the other for, say, the #18 and #19 spots. In my attempt at making things a little more fair with my list, I will be pinpointing what I think is the absolute best film I saw each year, followed by an alphabetical listing of Runners-Up, and finally, an Honorable Mentions section. Why bother babbling any further? Let's get on with the list...

    1990 - "Mermaids," directed by Richard Benjamin, is an exquisite and often very funny dramedy set in the 1960s, that features a wholly honest and memorably quirky portrait of the relationship between an eccentric, flirtatious mother (Cher), and a confused teenage daughter (Winona Ryder), one of the most on-target of such portrayals in years. Christina Ricci, in her film debut, stars as Ryder's nine-year-old sister, a thriving swimmer set on breaking the world record for longest time one can hold their breath underwater.

    1991 - "Dogfight," directed by Nancy Savoca, is one of the most intimately written and powerful love stories of the decade. Set almost exclusively during one night in the early 1960s before a group of young men enter into the Vietnam War, the late River Phoenix stars as a Marine who decides to play along with his friends in a game of finding the most unattractive woman to take to a dance and, in the process, falls in love with a plain-looking and lonely cafe waitress (the extraordinary Lili Taylor, in her finest performance to date). Lovely, subtly bittersweet, and unexpectedly existential, "Dogfight" is one of the decade's most overlooked gems.

    1992 - "Love Field," directed by Jonathan Kaplan, stars Michelle Pfeiffer is a stunningly capable performances as a bored housewife who, after learning about President John F. Kennedy's assassination in her hometown of Dallas, decides to drop everything and travel to his funeral, out of deep respect for the President's wife, Jackie Kennedy. Through unexpected circumstances, she ends up traveling with a kind black man (Dennis Haysbert), and his young daughter (Stephanie McFadden). A road movie, in nature, "Love Field" easily transcends the genre by also being a compelling human interest story and a nostalgic and historical look at a certain moment in time.

    1993 - "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," directed by Lasse Halstrom, with a gently flawless screenplay by Peter Hedges, is one of the very first films that pops into my mind whenever I think about the best films I saw this decade. A critically-heralded slice-of-life tale about a young man (Johnny Depp), growing frustrated in the small town where he is constantly depended on to take care of his family, including an extremely obese mother (Darlene Cates), and a mentally challenged brother (Leonardo DiCaprio), "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" was mishandled by Paramount Pictures upon its theatrical release but has since gained a highly favorable following from those who have seen it. A remarkable achievement that is delicately beautiful and truly poignant on every level, with a long line of wonderful performances, from Depp, to DiCaprio, to Cates, to Juliette Lewis, as a young woman traveling with her grandmother, whose trailer breaks down in the town.

    1994 - "Intersection," directed by Mark Rydell, is a sorely underrated masterpiece about the fragility of life, and the choices we all constantly make that decide our fate. Ambitious and clearly unconventional for a Hollywood movie, the picture effortlessly moves in and out of the past, lying flashback upon flashback until everything comes together in the present day. Richard Gere stars as a successful, middle-aged architect torn between his cold, bitter wife (Sharon Stone), and sultry, fun-loving girlfriend (Lolita Davidovich), at the exact moment when his life literally and figuratively hits a crossroad. Visually gorgeous, with Vilmos Zsigmond's incomparable cinematography of British Columbia, and overshadowed by an ominous urgency that leads up to a heartbreaking, provocative finale, with the simple final image of a metal ball rolling on a clock's bottom pedestal saying it all.

    1995 - "Wild Reeds," directed and co-written by Andre Techine, is, by far, the best foreign-language film I saw in the decade. Set in France, circa 1962, the film transcends all sense of time and place to tell a story that can be identified with in any country, in any time period. Following four teenagers through a portion of a year, the picture centers on Francois (Gael Morel), a confused 18-year-old struggling with his sexuality, and what his relationships with his female best friend (Elodie Bouchez), and the new boy in school (Stephane Rideau), whom he feels a deep love for, mean to him. Beautifully acted and affectionately told by Techine, "Wild Reeds" is a truthful and deeply affecting drama, the most subdued coming-of-age picture since 1986's "Stand by Me."

    1996 - "Walking and Talking," written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, is an absolute, unadulterated charmer from the first frame to its last, 85 minutes later. Out of the countless Gen-X movies of the mid-'90s, "Walking and Talking" is the one that gets it exactly right, as it accurately views its twentysomething characters as sympathetic, realistic human beings, rather than exaggerated caricatures. Catherine Keener is exceptionally winning as a single woman in New York City who feels a little abandoned and lonely when her lifelong best friend (Anne Heche), announces she is engaged to get married. A thoughtful, yet very funny look at the way people eventually have to naturally grow up and accept change.

    1997 - "Gummo," directed by Harmony Korine, is the most perverse and wildly audacious motion picture of the decade, instantly garnering a cult following and severely dividing audiences from those that loved it and those that loathed it with a passion. Either way, one cannot deny its invigorating originality, as the film, shot in a sort of cinema verite style, centers on the inhabitants of the grimy town, Xenia, Ohio, which has been stuck in a sort of eerie limbo since a fatal tornado passed through a couple years before. Tough to take at time, but always fascinating, with vignette after vignette putting a rapturous spell upon the viewer.

    1998 - "Rushmore," directed by Wes Anderson, is a prime example of the perfect film about a teenager, a sort of slightly more sophisticated and thought-provoking version of a John Hughes movie of the '80s, a la 1984's "Sixteen Candles" and 1985's "The Breakfast Club." A sharply funny character study, "Rushmore" takes a look at 15-year-old overachiever Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), and the hurt he feels when his new mentor (Bill Murray), starts to vie for the affections of a beautiful elementary school teacher (Olivia Williams), whom he has a crush on. Anderson's previous film, "Bottle Rocket," may have been overly slight, but he proves here that he, along with Owen Wilson, are magnificent writers who have an ear for dialogue and a way of injecting freshness into what could have, otherwise, been a cliched, overly familiar teen movie.

    1999 - "American Beauty," directed by Sam Mendes, is a groundbreaking triumph, an examination of the American family, and a contemplative, heart-rending look at life, in general. Kevin Spacey, in a tour de force performance, stars as Lester Burnham, a 40-year-old man stuck in a joyless marriage with his dehumanized wife (Annette Bening), and the father of an insecure teenage daughter (Thora Birch), whose whole outlook changes when he gets an indomitable crush on his daughter's beautiful, blond 16-year-old friend (Mena Suvari). Sam Mendes, making his feature film debut, along with Alan Ball's phenomenal, multi-layered screenplay; Thomas Newman's poetic, unforgettable music score; Conrad L. Hall's atmospheric, highly focused cinematography; and an amazing ensemble cast, make "American Beauty" the most exquisitely on-target portrayal of the human condition since Robert Altman's 1975 masterpiece, "Nashville." Runners-Up of the Decade

    If the 10 aforementioned titles were the best I saw each year of this decade, there are many more motion pictures also deserving of mention, all of which received the highest-possible 4-star rating from me. In alphabetical order, they are:

    "Affliction" (1998), directed by Paul Schrader, with a career-revitalizing performance from Nick Nolte, in the unflinching tale of a man battling with his past demons, including the frightening realization that he is slowly turning into the abusive, hot-tempered monster his father (James Coburn), is.

    "Alive" (1993), directed by Frank Marshall, tells the tragic true story of an airplane full of Uruguayan rugby players and their families traveling to Chile, that crashes in the Andes Mountains, leaving them to fight to survive for 72 days in the freezing cold, snowy atmosphere. Perhaps best-known for what the surviving people eat to stay alive (the deceased bodies), this film is so much more than that--a truly powerful documentation of unexpected dire circumstances and the struggle of the human spirit to survive any way possible.

    "Beautiful Girls" (1996), directed by Ted Demme, is a delightfully well-written ensemble comedy, sort of a '90s answer to "The Big Chill"--only superior. Timothy Hutton stars as a man returning to his Massachusetts hometown for his 10-year high school reunion, with a supporting cast that includes (all in memorable performances), Matt Dillon, Michael Rapaport, Rosie O'Donnell, Uma Thurman, Mira Sorvino, Annabeth Gish, Lauren Holly, Noah Emmerich, and Martha Plimpton. In one of the best supporting performances I've seen, Natalie Portman is a godsend as a 13-year-old neighbor of Hutton's family whom he forms a close bond with, despite their noticeable age difference.

    "The Blair Witch Project" (1999), directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, is the ultimate, groundbreaking horror film of the decade--a claustrophobic, brilliantly eerie motion picture about three college students who travel into the Black Hills Forest in Burkittsville, MD to make a documentary on the local legend of the Blair Witch, and are never seen again. The film is composed of the footage that was found, culminating in their ultimate demise. With performances that surpass acting and come off as nothing short of authentic and an ingeniously creepy storyline, the $35,000 "The Blair Witch Project" became the most financially profitable film in history, and rightfully so. It captured audience's imaginations like few films do.

    "Boogie Nights" (1997), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a superb, sprawling expose of the porn industry in the late-'70s/early-'80s, as seen through the eyes of a young dishwasher (Mark Wahlberg), who is swayed into the business, and eventually loses sight of himself. Julianne Moore costars in a heartbreaking performance as a veteran porn actress torn from her child because of the path she has chosen in life.

    "Boyz N the Hood" (1991), directed by John Singleton, is a serious and important drama about the deteriorating, drug-and-violence-infested environment of South Central L.A. Thoughtfully scripted and intimate in its sympathetic portrayal of the characters, including two young men (Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut), who have grown up together and are determined to break out of the neighborhood and do something with their lives (if they can survive long enough to see that happen).

    "Breaking the Waves" (1996), directed by Lars Von Trier, is an uncompromisingly devastating drama about a well-meaning, but slow-witted young woman named Bess (Emily Watson), who is willing to do anything for her husband (Stellan Skarsgaard), after he is paralyzed in a freak accident. Filmed with shaky hand-held cameras that places you "in the moment" of each scene, "Breaking the Waves" is an honest, spiritually commanding motion picture with a brave, one-of-a-kind performance from Emily Watson.

    "Dead Man Walking" (1995), directed by Tim Robbins, is the stirring true story of a Louisiana nun (Susan Sarandon), who becomes the spiritual advisor of a death row inmate (Sean Penn), convicted of rape and murder. Without aiming for easy sentimentality or melodrama, director Tim Robbins has fashioned an emotional powerhouse, all the more so because of its sincere, unaffected screenplay, also by Robbins, and the career-high performances from Sarandon and Penn.

    "Election" (1999), directed by Alexander Payne, is akin to my favorite film of 1998, "Rushmore," in that it is a terrifically scripted and acted comedy that far surpasses all of the other recent "teen" movies, as it aims higher than answering a petty question like, "Who is going to take who to the prom?" Director Alexander Payne is razor sharp and unrelenting in this marvelous, and marvelously funny, satire about the fight for student council in an Omaha high school, with Matthew Broderick as a fed-up History teacher set on destroying the hopes of the overachieving Tracy Flick (the always-reliable Reese Witherspoon). Payne is not making a movie about a high school, but one that makes a far bigger statement about politics and elections, in general.

    "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999), directed by Stanley Kubrick, is the year's most enigmatic and deliberately paced masterpiece, a two-day journey through the internal struggles of a conflicted, married doctor (Tom Cruise), and into the sexual underworld of New York, after his wife (Nicole Kidman), confesses almost having an affair with a naval officer the Summer before. Master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who ultimately died mere days after its completion, has woven what could very well be his most personal motion picture, an original, sumptuously filmed thriller that puzzled mainstream audiences (after all, it is basically a big-budget art film, and not your average Cruise-Kidman starrer), but delighted most Kubrick enthusiasts and fans of more unconventional filmmaking.

    "Fargo" (1996), written by Ethan Coen and directed by Joel Coen, is about as excitingly inventive as films can get, a hilarious black comedy-thriller with a stunningly sweet-natured, noteworthy turn by Frances McDormand, as determined (and pregnant), police officer Marge Gunderson, who is investigating a double-homicide and the kidnapping of the wife of a loser car dealer (William H. Macy). Written to pitch-perfect perfection, and with one bracing character or story development after the other, "Fargo" is, to put it in the simplest terms, brilliant.

    "In the Company of Men" (1997), directed by Neil LaBute, is a savagely courageous example of independent filmmaking at its best, in the story of two office workers (Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy), who conspire to sweep a kind, deaf coworker (Stacey Edwards) off her feet, and then cruelly throw her to the curb, all as a joke. Eckhart is absolutely frightening playing one of the most cold-hearted, calculating characters probably ever committed to film, and the movie itself leaves an undeniable emotional wallop.

    "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995), directed by Mike Figgis, offers two virtuoso performances, by Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, in what is surely the most heartbreaking love story of the decade. A terminally depressed man (Cage) who has stumbled into the abyss of alcoholism, to which there is very little to no hope for him, decides to travel to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, and meets an internally trapped prostitute (Shue) that is his match in every way.

    "Lost Highway" (1997), directed by David Lynch, is about as purely Lynchian as a film can possibly get. A jazz player (Bill Pullman), and his wife (Patricia Arquette), start receiving videotapes on their doorstep that feature them being voyeuristically recorded while they are asleep in their bedroom. Before long, his wife is found murdered and Pullman is sent to prison. One day, his physical appearance completely changes to a younger auto mechanic (Balthazar Getty), who later meets the doppleganger of the jazz player's wife. One could try to figure out the story, but that would be missing the point. "Lost Highway" is extraordinary, a prime study in style and atmosphere, and there is no filmmmaker more imaginative in his work than David Lynch.

    "My Girl" (1991), directed by Howard Zieff, is a tender, lovingly told coming-of-age story, with Anna Chlumsky a real find as 11-year-old Vada Sultenfuss, circa the Summer of 1971, who is crying out for attention from her widowed mortician father (Dan Aykroyd), while spending time with her best friend, Thomas J (Macaulay Culkin). Director Zieff captures the time and mood, as well as the interactions with all four central characters (the other being Jamie Lee Curtis, as a recently divorced, aspiring make-up artist who gets a job at the funeral home), exactly right. Fully accurate without being superfluously nostalgic, "My Girl" is a pensive examination of the process of life, and treats the subject of death with surprising depth.

    "Paradise" (1991), directed by Mary Agnes Donoghue, is a captivating, alternately funny and moving drama about a 10-year-old boy (Elijah Wood), who is sent to stay with his mother's old friends for the summer, a couple (Melanie Griffith, Don Johnson), whose child's death several years before has left their marriage dead inside. Charming through-and-through, without a lot of unneeded baggage in the plot department, the film is especially worthwhile for its two key relationships, one between Griffith and Johnson, and the other between Wood and 9-year-old Thora Birch (absolutely terrific here), as a neighbor girl without any other real friends.

    "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" (1996), directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, is easily the most unforgettable, thought-provoking documentary I saw of the decade, about three teenage boys convicted of the heinous murders of three children that took place in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas. "Paradise Lost" leaves a deep, genuinely lasting impression on the viewer that most fictional films couldn't ever possibly hope to achieve.

    "Ruby in Paradise" (1993), directed by Victor Nunez, with a breakthrough debut performance by Ashley Judd that only needs to be referenced to (1), see why she is quickly becoming one of the most popular current actresses, and to (2), prove that she hasn't made a film nearly as good as this one since. Judd stars as Ruby, a small-town girl who escapes her life up north and goes to live in Panama Beach, FL, where she gets a job as a retailer at a clothing store and begins to live her life the way she wants to. Humane and naturalistic, "Ruby in Paradise" is a luminous character study.

    "Short Cuts" (1993), directed by Robert Altman, enters back into the similar territory he tread in 1975's "Nashville" (one of my personal all-time favorites), with this unusually ambitious three-hour-plus tale interconnecting the turbulent lives of 24 people in Southern California. Altman treats each one of his characters with complete maturity and a heavy heart, and never loses sight of any of the conflicting storylines, key to the overall power this film ultimately holds.

    "There Goes My Baby" (1994), directed by Floyd Mutrux, is a saddeningly overlooked drama that was lost from the public eye after its distributor, Orion, went bankrupt, but it is out on video and more than deserves a look. Similar to "American Graffiti," but more compassionate and flavorful of the time period, 1965, as an ensemble group of graduating high school classmates prepare to go in their different directions, just as their local hangout (a hamburger joint), is getting ready to be torn down to make way for a mall. Historically accurate, memorably and three-dimensionally characterized, and with a delightful soundtrack full of hit '60s tunes.

    "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (1996), directed by Todd Solondz, is a painful black comedy that is so achingly true you never know when to laugh or shudder, as an 11-year-old girl (Heather Matarazzo), who is constantly tormented by classmates and neglected by her parents, struggles just to make it through her penultimate year in junior high school. Wickedly funny, while at the same time accurately cruel, director Solondz proves here that he is a master of differing tones and genres, and doesn't take a wrong step once through his clearly sympathetic material.

    "Whatever" (1998), directed by Susan Skoog, is a disturbing high school movie, as far removed as one could possibly get from the Hollywood "teen" movies of today's times, but startlingly more realistic. Set in New Jersey in 1981, a 17-year-old aspiring artist (Liza Weil), hoping to be accepted into a prestigious art school in NYC, starts to get pulled down by her loyal, but reckless best friend (Chad Morgan), who is already involved in a dangerous life of sex and drugs. Harsh and unblinkingly honest, with a fabulously assured performance by Weil, "Whatever" involves you and makes you care so much that how things turn out really does mean something, and the final image is one of hope and true poignancy.

    "When a Man Loves a Woman" (1994), directed by Luis Mandoki, is an irrefutable, frank portrait of alcoholism, and the damage and strain it puts on families, with Meg Ryan (in a tough performance, showing great range from her romantic comedies), as a wife and mother who is in danger of losing everything she has ever cared about if she doesn't seek help for her alcohol addiction. Andy Garcia is effective as Ryan's husband who suddenly finds himself surprisingly not being able to adapt to her after she gets sober and he isn't depended on as much, as are Tina Majorino and Mae Whitman as their young daughters.

    Honorable Mentions

    Although an avid filmgoer does have to constantly wade through the mediocrity that sometimes infests theaters, there were many more films of the decade that were also great achievements, worthy of mention on an essay about the best of the '90s. They are, in alphabetical order:

    Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990, dir: Akira Kurosawa), Awakenings (1990, dir: Penny Marshall), Back to the Future III (1990, dir: Robert Zemeckis), Being John Malkovich (1999, dir: Spike Jonze), The Celebration (1998, dir: Thomas Vinterberg), Chasing Amy (1997, dir: Kevin Smith), Clockwatchers (1998, dir: Jill Sprecher), Clueless (1995, dir: Amy Heckerling), Crooked Hearts (1991, dir: Michael Bortman), The Doom Generation (1995, dir: Gregg Araki), Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999, dir: Michael Patrick Jann), Exotica (1995, dir: Atom Egoyan), Fearless (1993, dir: Peter Weir), Ghost (1990, dir: Jerry Zucker), The Hanging Garden (1998, dir: Thom Fitzgerald), Happiness (1998, dir: Todd Solondz), Heavy (1996, dir: James Mangold), Husbands & Wives (1992, dir: Woody Allen), The Ice Storm (1997, dir: Ang Lee), I'll Do Anything (1994, dir: James L. Brooks), Limbo (1999, dir: John Sayles), Living Out Loud (1998, dir: Richard LaGravanese), Love Serenade (1997, dir: Shirley Barrett), Luther the Geek (1990, dir: Carlton J. Albright), The Myth of Fingerprints (1997, dir: Bart Freundlich), The Opposite of Sex (1998, dir: Don Roos), Philadelphia (1993, dir: Jonathan Demme), Poison (1991, dir: Todd Haynes), Pulp Fiction (1994, dir: Quentin Tarantino), The Rapture (1991, dir: Michael Tolkin), Red (1994, dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski), Schindler's List (1993, dir: Steven Spielberg), Scream (1996, dir: Wes Craven), The Sweet Hereafter (1997, dir: Atom Egoyan), Thank You & Goodnight! (1991, dir: Jan Oxenberg), Thelma & Louise (1991, dir: Ridley Scott), This Boy's Life (1993, dir: Michael Caton-Jones), To Die For (1995, dir: Gus Van Sant), Trick (1999, dir: Jim Fall), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, dir: David Lynch), Waiting for Guffman (1997, dir: Christopher Guest), When the Party's Over (1992, dir: Matthew Irmas). * These lists consist of my opinions only, and do not cover every film that was released in the 1990s; only the movies I, myself, saw. Accordingly, year-end films that have not been released wide yet, I have not seen, and so they cannot be included.