Dan Einav, Jack Godwin, Gabriela Helfet, David Jenkins, Elena Lazic, Manuela Lazic, John Wadsworth, Adam Woodward
Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodóvar make the cut in this part of our ’90s ranking.
After you’ve read through this part of our 100 best films of the 1990s ranking, check out numbers 100-76, 50-26 and 25-1.
Not satisfied with changing the face of horror just once, Wes Craven combined black comedy and whodunit? mystery with classic slasher in Scream, an imaginative revitalisation of a genre that had been in steady decline for over a decade. The structure and conventions that had become tiring to horror-savvy modern audiences are ingeniously reworked to create new thrills. The balance struck between fourth-wall-breaking comedy and a compelling narrative still stands tall above its many imitators. From the iconic stalk-and-slash opening sequence to the bloody conclusion, this film paved the way for modern horror to not only survive, but prosper. Jack Godwin
Funny thing, fate. Had things gone Ed Catmull and John Lasseter’s way, for instance, Toy Story would not have been the first fully computer-animated feature film. Back in 1989, Pixar began developing a TV special based on their popular short, Tin Toy, from the previous year. It wasn’t to be: the network pulled the plug and the project was shelved for two years. But out of despair came… even more despair. On 19 November, 1993, Pixar screened a crude mock-up of the film that would eventually become Toy Story to a roomful of Disney executives whose feedback haunts Lasseter to this day. That the director was forced to literally go back to the drawing board is an anecdotal but crucial footnote in the story of a film that took audiences – and the cinematic medium – to infinity and beyond. Adam Woodward
Once you’ve entered adulthood, changing your innate personality flaws becomes increasingly difficult. Thankfully movies devise out-of-this-world circumstances that leave characters no other choice but to confront how awful they are. In the case of Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, miserable weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is forced to live the same odious 24-hour period over and over and over again. This inherent tedium could easily become unbearable to watch. But even when he’s acting like a complete asshat, Murray still manages to be endearingly snarky, in that way only Bill can, which makes his gradual transformation into a decent human all the more satisfying. And, though you won’t relive the exact same day of your life more than once, everyone has most definitely experienced their own personal groundhog day. Gabriela Helfet
The infamous thief Irma Vep is skulking on the rooftops of Paris, painstakingly yet graciously fighting to keep her balance. Olivier Assayas’ movie is itself all about the difficulty of finding equilibrium, especially when it comes to filmmaking, but also when simply dealing with people. The ego-driven director clashes with his crew members, his remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial film Les Vampires must at once respect the original and offer something new. The great Chinese actress Maggie Cheung finds herself both revered and clearly used only for her beautiful body (the remake, like the original, is silent, and puts Cheung in a Catwoman-inspired suit). But Assayas avoids arrogance with humour, and in the end, it’s all a joke – an absurd, sometimes dark but funny one. Manuela Lazic
Long before Michel Hazanavicius decided to reclaim (and reframe) silent cinema’s glory days in his soppy award season spritz, The Artist, Spanish director José Luis Guerin was posting gorgeous love letters back to the medium’s formative years. Gérard Fleury was a Parisian lawyer in the 1920s who died suddenly and left behind him some reels of amateur footage of his family frolicking in a plush garden. Guerin then uses suggestion and recreation to try and discover the true cause of his untimely demise. But the mystery element to the film is more a delightful excuse to riff on the preciousness of celluloid and the volatility (and fragile beauty) of the images captured within its frames. David Jenkins
For his second feature, Paul Thomas Anderson decided to focus his attentions on the porn industry. But there was reason behind his madness. In Boogie Nights, late ’70s adult cinema is presented as Hollywood’s little sister: more accessible, more fun and more irresponsible. Through it, the director explores the fantasy of success and fulfilment sold by the movies (of all types) and America in general. Dirk Diggler is determined to pursue a dream, and with Mark Wahlberg’s cute face and his “one special thing,” he will have it all: sex, drugs, and a giant disco ball. But by 1980, actions begin to have consequences, and this truly alluring fantasy life evaporates into ridiculous violence and heartbreaking misery. ML
Robert Altman’s meta portrait of the Hollywood film industry feels at once realistically awful and awfully realistic. He plunges us directly into this ruthless and frenetic world – his roaming camera fine-tunes the focus, and the film ends up working less a satire than a realistic document of back-lot intrigues. Indeed, The Player always strives for harsh reality rather than classic narrative or moral satisfaction. Studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) has always gotten away with being a prick thanks to his position as professional moneymaker. But isn’t there a limit to what power allows a person to avoid, and isn’t justice bound to strike eventually? Playful and philosophical, funny and distressing, it’s a film that zeroes in on a small coterie of people to explore the human condition with unblinking exactitude. ML
Pulp Fiction should have faced a debilitating backlash by now, stifled by the tension between its immense popularity and an air of calculated cult cool. When even Marvel movies start referencing Jules Winnfield’s raging biblical invention, it suggests another cinematic tombstone is soon to be raised alongside Nick Fury’s. But every repeat viewing of Tarantino’s magnum opus is an act of invigorating resuscitation – an adrenaline shot to the heart if you will. Whether you consider the time-hopping, overlapping storylines ingenious or gimmicky, the technique is undeniably effective at binding the film’s killer vignettes. There are plenty of neat details to discover on repeat viewings, too. To give a low-key example, note which crew member’s name is on screen when the radio station switches during the opening credits. John Wadsworth
At the request of her paralysed husband, Bess scours her small Scottish island for sexual partners, acting in the name of love and God. Ostracised by her fellow Christians, she is left feeling more sinner than saint. Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves is fraught with such polarities. Sweeping landscape shots of Bess travelling alone contrast with claustrophobic scenes of intimacy. The glam rock soundtrack, with its suggestions of sexual liberation, sits uncomfortably with the muted rural setting. Emily Watson delivers a devastating, career-best performance – she anchors and embodies the film’s slippery exploration of morality, flitting between vulnerability and malice in the blink of an eye. JW
Is there anyone in the world who loves something more than Guillermo del Toro loves clockwork? With his miraculous debut feature, Cronos, he retooled the timeworn tropes of the vampire genre to tell a story of an elderly antique dealer who has everlasting life foisted on him when he accidentally discovers a scarab-shaped device which, when wound up, injects him with a strange solution. This is cinema made with an abundance of TLC, and every beautifully rendered frame feels like a director striving towards a grand, overarching vision. Everything that del Toro has made since – in some small way or another – harks back to this astounding first feature. DJ
Proof of Pedro Almodóvar’s mastery existed long before the end of the last century. Yet it was with this AIDS-themed anti-melodrama – his fifth film of the decade – that the Spanish writer/director announced himself on the world stage, some 20 years after the release of his ultra lo-fi debut feature. It’s not hard to see why All About My My Mother proved so successful in its day – it is at once a sobering and sublime work that boasts one of the all-time great performances from Almodóvar regular Cecilia Roth. Not his best film, but maybe his most revealing and tender. AW
It’s hard to explain what Shane Meadows’ A Room for Romeo Brass is actually about, as it’s one of those movies that creeps up on you from nowhere. The moral is, be careful who you make friends with, as Andrew Shim’s lovably mouthy schoolboy Romeo pays heavily when allowing local weirdo Morrel (Paddy Considine) into his inner circle. What begins as a whimsical afterschool relationship takes a dark turn when Morrel reveals his true, quasi-psychotic colours. Meadows’ knack for whipping up rich characters, rowdy comedy and naturalistic dialogue is confirmed in the very first scene, but this brilliant film also showcases his predilection for building up a paradise in the first half of a movie, and then knocking it all down in the second. DJ
Weird things tend to happen in the films of Werner Herzog, yet he is a director who is always in search of earthbound exoticism. Lessons of Darkness is one of his great documentary features (and he is no slouch when it comes to that particular form), a heady fusion of bombastic sound and retina-scorching imagery which reframes our verdant planet as a fiery passageway to hell. Much like Godfrey Reggio’s time-lapse study of human life as an ant colony, Koyaanisqatsi, this film reframes reality to expound upon the dark void of our near future. Its images of burning oil fields, many of them captured from sinister helicopter shots, are intended to synthesise the perspective of an alien visitor. Suffice to say, whoever or whatever is watching would be suitably appalled by the apocalyptic sights down below. DJ
Jesus lives! And he’s wandering around the grim expanses of the northern French countryside pretending to be a police detective. He’s maybe the worst, most lackadaisical and disengaged police detective in the history of cinema. Director Bruno Dumont made waves with his extraordinary 1997 debut, La vie de Jésus, a film which took the violent teen ennui of Rebel Without a Cause to a new level of insouciant transgression. L’Humantié is the director’s similarly stark take on the classic-era noir. It’s a purposefully slow and stilted tale which conceals its mordant sense of humour beneath thick layers of faux-Euro arthouse pretension. And yet it remains one of the director’s most strange and beautiful works – each new scene brings with it immaculate visual composition which leaves a skewed brand upon the brain. DJ
The opening minute of speech in Husbands and Wives could slot into most other Woody Allen scripts. Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) prepare for a double date, exchanging the usual spousal chatter: a one-liner about God; references to Dostoevsky and deconstructionism. Yet the handheld camera is both unsteady and unsettling. When the guests do arrive, in the form of married couple Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), they drop a bombshell that leaves the hosts equally shaken. What follows is one of Allen’s best and most brutal films – an exploration of matrimony that holds back on the punchlines but pulls no punches. JW
At his most misanthropic, Noah Baumbach turns the inadequacies of verbal communication into an art form. He is an expert at writing dialogue that meanders off on distracted tangents, or collapses due to the spite or self-centredness of those involved. Though Kicking and Screaming’s title evokes a vocalised conflict, its characters (effete college students in search of love and understanding) are more interested in fending off the arrival of adulthood than fighting each other. Here, conversations descend into listing monkey movies, witty asides and premature nostalgia. The central group of graduates may mimic quiz show customs and reel off quotable quips on cue, but the game of life still leaves them lost. JW
When we talk about “the power of cinema” what do we actually mean? It’s the power to redeem an out-and-out shitbag. In the caustically funny and gently sad Buffalo ’66, said shitbag is played by director and writer Vincent Gallo. The film follows the snivelling, obsessive and quick-to-anger Billy Brown as he attempts to reconnect with his psychotic family following a stretch in jail. He is living a lie, having told his folks that he’s a corporate big-shot with a wife. And so to extend his ruse, he kidnaps Christina Ricci’s cutie-pie dance instructor and forces her into the role of loving spouse. The joke is, his parents don’t give two hoots what he’s been up to or where he’s headed. Even though it appears to encapsulate many stylistic and thematic themes of ’90s indie cinema, this is a work that is really like nothing else before or since. DJ
Hell hath no fury like Tracy Flick scorned. Reese Witherspoon’s aspiring politician is the ruthless yin to Legally Blonde star Elle Woods’ sunny yang in Alexander Payne’s superlative high-school take on student government. In her forthright formidability, Flick exposes male anxiety about driven women – and she knows it. She strains to keep her boiling temper at bay, lest she be branded with another B-word. Witness the glare from the school bus window, the slam of the badge-maker and the gritted teeth. When her adversary Jim’s (Matthew Broderick) face swells after a run-in with a hive, it is a sign of further suffering to come on election day. When you mess with the queen bee, you’re going to get stung. JW
Whisper of the Heart is pensive even by Studio Ghibli’s contemplative benchmark. Most promotional posters show Shizuku, its 14-year-old bookworm protagonist, soaring through the sky hand-in-hand with a feline baron, but don’t let that fantasy fool you. It is a brief daydream placed within a work of remarkably restrained naturalism. As we watch on, Shizuku struggles to balance her creative ambitions and the excitement of first love. Director Yoshifumi Kondo – in his first and, sadly, only film – positions viewers as concerned parents, well-wishing from the sidelines. Beauty is here found in the small-scale: the stumble of shoes on the street; the joy of music shared; the sweet swell of silence. JW
A US Marshall falling for the bank robber she caught may seem a slim and crude synopsis for a film starring Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney. Yet in Elmore Leonard’s source novel, those assumptions are however taken into consideration by the witty characters themselves, and director Steven Soderbergh fulfils the story’s potential with his dynamic and controlled filmmaking. What happens between Jack Foley and Karen Sisco is ludicrous yet simple: their paths cross – absurdly – and they feel a mutual attraction, overwhelming and total. Amusingly and tragically, each is trapped in personal circumstance, she a disillusioned (police)woman, and he a notorious and intelligent criminal surrounded by idiots. Nevertheless, the time out they manage to share burns out with a genuine and sensual abandon to what could have been. ML
Leave it to David Cronenberg to explore the intrinsic link between human pathology and the mechanics of pornography – and this at a time when the internet was still very much in its infancy. Crash wasn’t ahead of its time as such, but it is a film that feels eerily pertinent today, especially when viewed as a comment on our increasingly codependent relationship with technology. The jury at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival awarded Cronenberg’s suitably provocative adaptation of JG Ballard’s source novel the Special Jury Prize “for audacity”. They were not wrong to do so. AW
Set in 1920s China, Raise the Red Lantern follows the life of 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) after she reluctantly agrees to become the fourth wife of a wealthy lord. None of his previous wives even like this man, who is barely visible on screen, yet gaining his favours is the only way for them to recover any respect as human beings. Soon, even the initially serene Songlian engages in the wives’ ruthless competition to become, if only for a day, more than a mere possession. Yimou Zhang masterfully fills the screen with detail relating to the film’s historical context, even as he touches on the universal theme of internalised misogyny. After a shocking descent into horror and violence, the beautiful and calm surface which conceals these mind games cracks under the unbearable cruelty of ingrained tradition. Elena Lazic
Isn’t it awful to be a perfectionist? To value quality over quantity? To plunge your time and resources in search of something original and profound, to want an audience to swoon over your creations? Stanley Tucci’s Big Night follows two Italian brothers – Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci) – who run a modest trattoria in the US. They are unable to drum up customers despite the fact that Primo is something of a whizz in the kitchen, but the “night” of the titles requires all the stops be pulled out as an opportunity arises to get their name on the restaurant map. Though this is one of the great foodie films, it’s also secretly about the pains of independent movie making, with skilled artisans producing high quality goods that no-one can be bothered to look at. DJ
The film that finally allowed Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to share some screen-time, there’s more to Heat than the endlessly pastiched “diner scene”. In fact, its real triumph is the way in which Michael Mann separates the two leads, building the anticipation of their confrontation, all the while drawing attention to the overriding similarities between these men who operate on either side of the law. As for action, few films can rival the pulsating bank heist set piece or the drawn-out cat-and-mouse finale accompanied by the unmistakably ’90s sound of Moby’s soaring ‘God Over the Surface of Water’. Dan Einav
Christopher Walken is one complex cat. He’s at once dashing, with his beady blue eyes and slim figure, and menacing thanks to his tendency to keep still before shifting suddenly and awkwardly, He’s a real movie star, and one perfectly suited to Abel Ferrara’s baroque vision of ’90s NYC. Frank White (Walken) occupies a dual position. He’s fresh out of prison and stunned by his experience, so devotes himself to “doing something good.” Yet he doesn’t follow Carlito’s way: Ferrara’s realist tendencies mean that Frank won’t try to escape the streets, but instead preside over them once more. The director’s taste for gothic imagery and atmosphere shines starkly through when bad criminals and worst cops get in the King’s way. As a righteous, dark-suited criminal who doesn’t believe in the system or in the underground, Frank White just may be the best Dark Knight in cinema. MLNow read numbers 50-26
Published 15 Mar 2017
Co-star Zach Galligan reveals the inside story of ‘lost masterpiece’ Nothing Lasts Forever.
The great Guillermo del Toro talks about his magnificent Gothic ghost story.
By Thomas Hobbs
The director’s satirical 1994 horror explores what happens when society embraces its worst monsters.