Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Decades: 1990s

A lot of people like to bad-mouth the 1990s. It was the decade that started the culture on a downward spiral, some might say. The music sucked, others might posit. Too many yuppies. Too much malaise. And the movies...well, many would argue that the decade is still too young to determine the true classics from the 1990s.

I don't buy that. The country was actually on the rise throughout the 1990s, and the movies reflect that upward mobility. Year after year delivered classic after classic. The decade started with a massive behemoth of a classic -- Goodfellas -- and ended with a flourish of virtuoso creativity with titles like Magnolia, American Beauty, Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, and many others. In between, the decade was marked by countless other films, simultaneously beautiful and daring, challenging and entertaining. Movies to make us think. Movies to make us cheer. Movies to dazzle us. Movies to change our lives. Yes, it happened in the '90s.

And setting aside any high-brow criticism and focusing solely on the personal heart of a lifelong movie lover, the '90s hold a special place in my heart. It was the decade I came of age as a writer, a critic, a filmmaker, a film scholar, a film-obsessed nut. It was the decade I grew up, and I grew up with these movies.

The list follows after the jump...

First, check out's collective list of the decade's best.

And now, with love (and much frustration, since there are so many favorites to choose from that the list could literally change hour by hour, based on mood), my personal list:

1. Goodfellas (1990) -- The greatest mob film of all-time, and one of the most visceral expressions of pure cinematic ingenuity that will ever grace the silver screen. Scorsese is the King of Filmmaking, and this might just be his grandest gift to his loyal subjects.
2. Dead Man Walking (1995) -- One of the most emotionally wrenching, politically absorbing, complexly thoughtful films ever made. Not at all a soapbox diatribe, but a story of a lost boy, a wisened woman, and the powerful journey they trek before his imminent death. What their discoveries say about them, and about us, is almost too much to bear, but it is ever-so-important.
3. Magnolia (1999) -- Another movie that uses the standard filmmaking tools to completely blow our minds, and another movie that uses the cinema as a harsh mirror for the audience to stare into, contemplating the intricacies of life. Paul Thomas Anderson, still so young, is an unparalleled virtuoso among the directors of his generation. If there is a rightful heir to King Scorsese's throne, it is him.
4. American Beauty (1999) -- A jaw-dropping classic of astonishing beauty and enormous thought-provoking power. Funny but painful, sad but joyous, the film is one of the great cinematic journeys of all-time, and may possess the most beautifully, hauntingly lyrical ending of any film ever made.
5. Boogie Nights (1997) -- Paul Thomas Anderson's other sprawling masterwork of the decade is an epic pastiche of the '70s porn scene in the San Fernando Valley, charting an industry's path from theatrical entity to home video staple and a young man's journey from eager, humble boy to strung-out, narcissistic man. The film, made with extraordinary vision and vibrant passion, is not merely about salacious sex, but about the fall of humanity and unlikely possibility of redemption.
6. Breaking the Waves (1996) -- Lars von Trier's greatest achievement is one of the cinema's richest and most painful experiences. Bess, our heroine, is slavishly devoted to God and her husband. When he is rendered unable to walk, her strange psychosexual journey exposes the perversion of male sexuality and the hypocrisy of the modern religious institution. And yet Bess' pure faith somehow carries on. Maybe it's not the female believer who's crazy, but the earthly men who bind her.
7. Fargo (1996) -- Can this possibly be this low on the list? The Coens greatest masterpiece is a joyous expression of good-humored friendliness and violent villainy, a riveting thriller but also a hysterical human comedy. Like the greatest films, Fargo creates its own uniquely oddball universe, populates it with some of the most iconic characters ever put on film, and tells a story with the intensity and charm of a classic fairy tale.
8. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) -- Stanley Kubrick's final film is a meditation on sex, love, the marital contract, and the human contract. Some dismissed it as salacious, but those people obviously never saw the movie, which is so dense and thought-provoking that it takes multiple viewings to fully process its challenging themes and loaded imagery. The legendary filmmaker's last movie is one of his absolute best, a hypnotic journey into the wounded soul of humanity.
9. Pulp Fiction (1994) -- One of the great instant classics of all-time. Absolutely the most influential film of the decade. And, simply, Tarantino. Just Tarantino. I close with a passage of scripture:

"Ezekiel 25:17: The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the Valley of Darkness; for he is truly his brother's keeper, and the finder of lost children. And, I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers! And, you will know my name is The Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!"

Thanks, Jules.

10. Thelma & Louise (1991) -- One of the great entertaining joy rides of all-time, and the fierce, defiant, feminist masterwork of our time. Thelma and Louise break the law, they go on the run, they kill, steal, lie, and blow stuff up real good...and they laugh all along the way. And yet we cheer for them, for this is their escape, their freedom, their awakening.

Honorable Mentions:
American History X (1998) -- One of the most important films of our time, rendered with ferocious passion and visceral immediacy. An amazing directorial debut from Tony Kaye, who has still never made another narrative feature.
Being John Malkovich (1999) -- We received the combined gifts of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze all in one ingenious headtrip of a masterpiece.
Casino (1995) -- Scorsese's bold epic about crime and punishment in Las Vegas.
Jackie Brown (1997) -- The most engaging and lyrical storytelling Tarantino has ever done. Really. Where Pulp Fiction was about itself, Jackie Brown is about a joyously engaging crime story unfolding with glee.
Jerry Maguire (1996) -- The great coming-of-age romance of the decade, and probably the last two decades. Cameron Crowe's masterful touches are inimitable, and this story of a man finding love and himself is a heart-rending classic.
Rushmore (1998) -- A vivid, colorful storybook of a movie, with a story simultaneously cynical and sweet, by the modern master of quirky, Wes Anderson.
The Sweet Hereafter (1997) -- Atom Egoyan's painful film about a community's painful loss and what happens next.
The Truman Show (1998) -- One of the great character journeys in cinema history, about a celebrity culture gone wrong, and a man who doesn't realize he is captivating a nation. His journey to find the real world is brilliant, tender, funny, and riveting.
The Thin Red Line (1998) -- One great war picture from the '90s, made by a true poet, Terrence Malick. It is a meditation on life and serenity in the midst of the most agitated, inhumane circumstances.
Three Kings (1999) -- Another great war picture from the '90s, this one an off-the-hook amazing expression of gut-wrenching emotion, gut-busting humor, and gut-punching style. Visually breathtaking, politically angry, and unexpectedly emotional, Three Kings is a masterful meditation on the spoils of war.

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