[Originally appeared in Popped in 1999, then rockcritics.com in 2000]
How Perfectly Goddamn Delightful It All Was: Movies in the 1990s
By Phil Dellio
If it seems premature for a best-films-of-the-90s list, don’t worry, it’s not: I phoned Hollywood and they assured me there would be no good films released in 1999. I don’t have any great theories about the course of film history over the past 10 years—no theories of any kind—but I am fairly certain it was a better time for movies than the ‘80s, at least in terms of a Top 10. My ‘80s list would include Raging Bull, Comfort and Joy, The Dead Zone, Lost in America, Heart Like a Wheel, My Life as a Dog, Broadcast News, Casualties of War, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Stranger Than Paradise…well, maybe it wasn’t such a barren decade after all. But my first three picks below would also top the ‘80s list. There, that’s my theory: the ‘90s was a great decade for a Top 3.
1. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997): I’m glad something finally came along to knock GoodFellas from my number-one spot, else the decade would have been a disappointing rerun of how Raging Bull set the standard for the ‘80s right out of the gate and then was never equalled the rest of the way. The music, the scope, and the overall swirl would be enough to put Boogie Nights near the top of this list, but where it gets better and deeper on subsequent viewings is how much goodwill is invested in the characters, how they continually surprise you and how attached you become to them. That’s what it has in common with Nashville—as Pauline Kael wrote in 1975 about Altman’s film, “the people here are too busy being alive to be locked in place. Frauds who are halfway honest, they’re true to their own characters.” When Burt Reynolds glides through his house in the film’s final scene, his signature smugness transformed into a kind of wryly abiding love for everyone who passes before him, it’s elating; the reconciliation between Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg is more moving to me than kids getting killed in The Ice Storm and The Sweet Hereafter, a couple of films from the same year that I believe critics shortsightedly—well, I won’t hedge; foolishly—deemed more complex. I don’t know what to expect from Paul Thomas Anderson from here on in; I rented Hard Eight one night, his debut from a few months earlier, and found it mannered and drained of all life. Boogie Nights is greater than the sum of its parts, and many of those parts—the “Best of My Love” opening, Julianne Moore’s “Compared to What” cocaine binge, the “Sister Christian” pyrotechnics, and especially the “Spill the Wine” pool party—are stunning.
2. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990): This joyous, knockabout distillation of all the themes and techniques that Scorsese has been pursuing since Who’s That Knocking at My Door was so far out there, I wouldn’t be surprised if he never catches up with himself; everything he does henceforth is either going to seem like a weak echo (Casino) or self-consciously fussy departure (The Age of Innocence). The extended tracking shot through the back corridors of the Copa that highlights GoodFellas has already become as much of a reference point for younger filmmakers as Welles and Ford were for Scorsese and his contemporaries (cf. Boogie Nights, Swingers, Big Punisher’s “Still Not a Player” video, and I bet it’s turned up elsewhere), while Joe Pesci’s opening monologue will be imitated by aspiring wiseguys like me through the next millennium. I was even tempted last year when a grade 3 student told me I was good at the board game we were playing: “Wait a minute, let me get this straight—what do you mean I’m ‘good’? You mean ‘good’ like, uh, I’m here to amuse you?…”
3. Miller’s Crossing (Joel Coen, 1990): I’m not really much of a Coen brothers fan. I’ve seen all their films except The Hudsucker Proxy, and I can’t connect Miller’s Crossing to any of them. Except for Barton Fink, I more or less like them all, but there’s a seriousness to Miller’s Crossing, a grim texture, a substance, that I just don’t see in even the best parts of Blood Simple or Fargo. I think it’s more dreamlike than Barton Fink without being so ponderous about it—I’m willing to believe that the whole conception of Miller’s Crossing began with that one single image of a hat blowing through a forest. Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro, they’re all amazing. (Turturro’s spinelessness is like a rough sketch of William Macy in Fargo, though they’re very different characters.) My favourite line from a perfect script is delivered by the terrifying Eddie the Dane, his explanation to a trapped hitman of why the hitman can be sure that Eddie won’t kill him if the guy tells Eddie what he wants to know: “Because if you told me and I killed you and I found out you were lyin’, I wouldn’t get to kill you again, would I?” The line comes at you so fast, I had to see the movie a few times before I could properly sort it out in my mind.
4. Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994): A couple of years ago, I was one of about 50 people interviewed for a Canadian documentary on record collectors. The director wasn’t sure if he’d be able to secure enough financing to finish the film, and I remember him saying to me at the time that I’d do him a professional favour if I were to kill myself, a gallows-humour reference to the unique set of circumstances under which Crumb appeared. And indeed, it’s hard to say if this documentary about cartoonist Robert Crumb would have had quite the same impact that it did absent the presence of his brother Charles. I do know that my own favourite scene involves Robert thumbing through an old sketchbook of girls he had crushes on in high school. “Jesus…Where are they now?” he wonders, speaking for himself, for Charles, and for the rest of us.
5. Smoke (Wayne Wang, 1995): Not long before Smoke appeared, I watched The Music of Chance on video one night, also based on a Paul Auster novel. The name didn’t mean anything to me at the time, and in fact I can’t remember what prompted me to rent it out; I do recall, however, that I came away from The Music of Chance feeling that I’d just watched one of the oddest things I’d seen in a while. Smoke shares some of that strangeness—William’s Hurt’s anecdote about Sir Walter Raleigh says a lot about the film’s elliptical appeal—but it’s much more grounded in the commonplace, in quiet disappointments and small victories. Smoke is also the story of two different kinds of artists, and it manages to surprise you with the depth of one of them without in any way diminishing the other.
6. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992): Pulp Fiction will top many decade-end lists; I’ll stick with its predecessor, which has better highs and none of the meandering glibness that drags down PF. (Or almost none—while I enjoy the Madonna round-table that opens Reservoir Dogs, it’s an omen of things to come.) Steve Buscemi’s at his weasely best here, but my favourite performance comes from Chris Penn, whom I’d all but forgotten at the time after laughing at his Belushi-like antics in The Wild Life a decade earlier: his befuddled tantrum when everyone reconvenes at the warehouse cuts sharper even than the infamous Stealer’s Wheel scene. Tarantino has received much deserved credit for resurrecting the careers of Travolta, Pam Grier, and Robert Forster, but what he did for Chris Penn (who went on to other good performances in Short Cuts, True Romance, and the otherwise inept Mulholland Falls) was just as valuable.
7. Boyz n the Hood (John Singleton, 1991): I don’t begrudge Cuba Gooding Jr. any of his recent success, but I have to admit those Jerry Maguire clips used to make me wince a little when I thought back to Gooding’s guarded vulnerability in Boyz—I hope he doesn’t get slotted into flashy sidekick roles for the rest of his career, having proven himself capable of so much more. Boyz’ awful, inevitable resolution, the death of Ricky (Morris Chestnut), gets to me on a purely emotional level more than any moment on this list, and it’s punctuated by a closing shot of Ice Cube that articulates, in a very simple way, a level of despair not matched by any ‘90s rap I’m aware of.
8. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991): The tawdry creepiness of this, along with the close proximity of the Jeffrey Dahmer case, must have spooked even Jonathan Demme judging from his subsequent output. Jodie Foster’s Agent Starling is appropriately grave and dogged, while Anthony Hopkins—basing the cadences of Hannibal Lecter’s speech on Katherine Hepburn, a great bit of acting lore—has a field day. One more thing: love the suit.
9. Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993): The Player was fine when it confined itself to the studio lot, but the romance and the murder mystery were clumsy, and television’s The Larry Sanders Show was much more withering (and funnier) in its treatment of show business lowlifes. Although Short Cuts didn’t garner as much attention, it was Altman’s real return to the offhanded intricacy of his early-70s heyday.
10. Clockers (Spike Lee, 1995): Almost all of Spike Lee’s films have sequences I love—the opening credits of Crooklyn, Mo’ Better Blues’ home-movie coda, “Erotic City” and “The Cross” in Girl 6—but in those three instances and others, Lee ends up undermining his best moments with grotesque caricatures and heavyhanded talkiness. The often compelling Jungle Fever is a perfect example, which is why I’ve relegated it to the runners-up list below: Sam Jackson’s crack odyssey is the scariest portrayal of drug addiction I’ve ever seen in a movie, but to get there you have to endure a women’s encounter group grappling with the subject of racial identity in a scene that cries out for an old Ellen Cleghorne Saturday Night Live parody. Working with Martin Scorsese (co-producer) and Richard Price (who wrote the source material) may have reined Lee in somewhat on Clockers, but in any event it’s a measured, absorbing, almost flawless case study of a neighborhood murder and its aftermath. Delroy Lindo should have won some kind of award for his work here.
Close: Big Night, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, JFK, Jungle Fever, Menace II Society, The Piano, Q & A, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, Trees Lounge, Wild Palms. It’s been a while since I last saw Q & A, a forgotten Sidney Lumet film from early in the decade, so I may end up second-guessing myself on that one; I remember it as a terse, moody throwback to some of the great film noirs of the ‘70s, with the recently resurgent Nick Nolte giving his best performance since North Dallas Forty. Wild Palms was Oliver Stone’s shameless made-for-television attempt to outweird Twin Peaks: mumbo-jumbo philosophy, exciting visuals, knockout soundtrack. JFK and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are similarly over-the-top directorial showcases, spectacular in the best sense of the word—Dracula brought back some of the same feelings I used to have as a kid sitting in front of the TV mesmerized by The Ten Commandments—rather than the numbing, mechanical kind of spectacle that has dominated movies for some time.
As for the many celebrated titles that I conspicuously haven’t mentioned yet—The Crying Game, To Die For, Hoop Dreams, Leaving Las Vegas, Safe, L.A. Confidential, Happiness, Schindler’s List, The Truman Show, and 101 others that will be regularly turning up on decade-end lists a year from now—I saw them, too, or at least most of them. Some I admired, most I thought overrated, and the supposed brilliance of a few escaped me entirely. I also saw Boxing Helena, the 1993 movie it cost Kim Basinger a few million dollars to back out of. Money well spent.