Sunday, November 18, 2012

My Favorite Films of the 1990s, Why the Hell Not?

In that long ago era known as the 1990s, I moved to the north side of Chicago (which for some may seem like no big deal (if you grew up out of state) but to those who grew up in the southwest side and surrounding suburbs (say that fast 10 times), it is something indeed, as, to my old pals from back in the day, I might as well be in another state, as another state was what it felt like).  My memory of that decade is largely shaped by the films that I saw, as well as a staggering series of moves and transitory employment.  But that’s for another day.

Let’s talk cinema of the ‘90s.

The real golden age of American cinema is debatable (most say it ran from 1929-1945; I still feel the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s is more accurate), but the 1990s wasn’t it.  Still, it was the time I was most aware of what was happening in film not only from my country but from around the world, and it was the time when I actively sought out films, read film reviews, engaged in film discussion.  I’ve stopped caring, though I still love to go to the movies.  I suppose I just expect less. 

Part of it has to do with me.  I’ve aged.  Whether or not Quentin Tarantino is a derivative hack (he is) is of less concern to me now than it was after discovering how much of his material is “borrowed” from other sources.  Life is just too short to spend thinking about that clown.  But I admit that I have been looking back on the films that meant so much to me when I was in my twenties.  

So here’s a quick list of some of the movies of the ‘90s that still mean a lot to me.  Forgive me for excluding Leaving Las Vegas, Titanic, and Independence Day.  They do, after all, blow.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover

Technically, this came out in 1989, but it didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 1990, so it’s on my list.  (That’s right, this is my list.  So shut the hell up.)  After I was gifted a DVD player, this was the first DVD I purchased (along with Dr. Strangelove).  I was anxious to see it again, as it had been some years.  It doesn’t pop up on cable often and has not, to my knowledge, been part of any retrospective or rescreening in the art houses.  I am tempted to say that it holds up, but that would sound trivial compared to the way I truly feel about this film.  Few other movies have had such an impact on me.  The film is equal parts vulgar and beautiful, at times erotic and often grotesque, occasionally at the same time blurring lines that already seem blurry. 

Pivotal scene: Georgina and Michael naked in a refrigerated food truck getting thrown around and smeared with animal blood as they make their escape from Albert who prophesies: “I’ll kill him and I’ll eat him!”   Bon Appétit!


Mike Leigh has made some good movies, but none quite like this.  Never mind the process that went into making the film (though you can read a bit about it here), it’s the end result that matters to me.  And the end result of my initial viewing of this film was complete silence.  I literally could not speak for about an hour after it was over.  I walked out of the 3 Penny theater with some friends, all of us stunned and not really sure what we just witnessed.  One of the more pompous of the crowd began his dissection.  I stayed out of it.  There was just nothing to say.  This is the sign of a great work of art.  Or a goddamn nightmare.  Naked is both.

I think it is my favorite film, along with the one mentioned above and The Third Man and Repo Man.  It’s hard to pick a favorite film, but this one is close.  I will say that there has never been a performance I have liked more than the one given by David Thewlis in Naked.  He could retire from acting and I would still say there has never been a better actor.   It’s just impossible to top. 

Pivotal scene: too many to name, but I’ll go with everyone’s favorite, Johnny in the office building at night debating god, time, and the end of the world with Brian the (in)security guard.  Watch it here, as it’s always a good time. 


Julianne Moore was the actress to watch in 1995.  I had seen her in Short Cuts, another great movie from the era, but it was her part in Safe that made me think she was going to be the biggest thing in the world.  Yeah, she might make a funny little romcom with Hugh Grant, but I figured that was just to pay the bills that a movie like Safe couldn’t.  All was forgiven, even her picking up the role of Clarice Starling in the Silence of the Lambs sequel.  And sure, she’s popped up in Children of Men, the best movie I’ve seen in ten years, but she’s also in Crazy, Stupid Love, not a terrible film by romcom standards, but still… we’re a far way from Safe.

Safe didn’t make a huge splash.  I don’t know a lot of people who remember it, even if they liked it, but I still think it’s one of the best films of the ‘90s and beyond.  Few films can communicate helplessness and fear the way this one does.  I’ve heard that Todd Haynes was aiming for a cinematic metaphor for the AIDS epidemic, and the film certainly works on that level, but I still see it as a story about powerlessness in general.  Of course, the pivotal scene where Carol gets a perm and, as she is viewing her new hair style, sees a trickle of blood run from her nose can be viewed in a number of ways, though it seems (pardon the pun) a bit on the nose to say this is a critique of the beauty myth and capitalism's emphasis on appearance.  Whatever… I’m less interested in deconstructing the film and happier to accept it for what it is: a chilling, damn near perfect movie.

Night on Earth

Ah, the films of Jim Jarmusch: quirky, funny at times, great occasionally, terrible very often.  I don’t dislike or defend Jarmusch, but I love Night on Earth even though I admit it is uneven, actually kind of a flop.  Still, I love it the way you love someone despite their imperfections.  Maybe I love it for its imperfections. 

I can cite a few moments that strike me as inspired (the exchange between YoYo and Helmut, the sunrise in Helsinki, the whole Roberto Benigni scene in Rome) but there are some clunky bits (the entire opening vignette with the great Gena Rolands and the horrible Winona Rider).  The movie is certainly helped by its locations and the music of Tom Waits, but in the end it is much like the best evening of Saturday Night Live you’ll ever see: a few highs and a lot of lows.  Why we still watch SNL, or Jarmusch, is beyond me, but I'm still compelled to defend this movie and even call it great.  It’s a great idea for a movie, even if the idea is better than the finished product.  Much like Four Rooms or Magical Mystery Tour, it must have looked great on paper.  But unlike those pieces of crap, Night on Earth rides on its own weird vibe and stays with its lesser moments until they are exhausted and sort of turned into something akin to gold.  Jarmusch never shied away from the awkward and unusual, both on display here.  He can be even be called brave and the bravery is palpable, often leading to satisfying moments that work in an inexplicable, even touching manner. 

Pivotal scene: Hemut driving away from YoYo, turning the wrong way, riding through nighttime Brooklyn with a clown’s nose, suddenly aware of how terrifying the city can be.  The vignette was mostly funny, but at its end I am left feeling scared for this poor immigrant who can barely drive and has no idea where the hell he is. 

Miller’s Crossing

We go from a flawed film to a perfect one.  (Well, near perfect.  I can’t buy Eddie Dane’s reference to Einstein, as this was supposed to be the prohibition era and I’m not sure how much a thug would know about the theory of relativity.) To say I was obsessed with this film would be like saying that Hitler had a small issue with the Jews.  I ate, drank, slept, shit, and showered with this film.  I watched it over and over, memorizing each line.  Though I have not watched it in years, I am fairly sure I could recite every bit of dialogue were I to sit down with it again.  

Tthere’s a lot to be said about it: visually it is a gorgeous film.  Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, and Albert Finney are all fantastic.  Jon Polito is superb as Johnny Casper.  It’s a great story with a convoluted plot and a gay love triangle only alluded to, never overt, as well as a true deconstruction of Dashiell Hammett.  It was released along with Goodfellas, which overshadowed it.  A shame.  As much as I love Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing remains the superior film; it's timeless, perfect in just about every way a movie can be perfect.   In that sense, I can’t pick a pivotal scene. 

The Big Lebowski

The one Coen Brothers movie I never thought I would love.  I saw it in 1998 and had no idea what to think.  As much as I loved the Coens, I was at a loss to explain this thing. It was weird, even for them.  As stated above, Miller’s Crossing is a favorite, as is Barton Fink.  I even love The Hudsucker Proxy for fuck’s sake.  I have to admit this one took some time to grow on me, approximately three viewings.  Maybe it was too packed with absurdity, too over-the-top for my sensibilities (I was, at the tail end of the ‘90s, beginning to feel that film was a sub-art, third behind music and literature—what a dick).  Whatever the case, the genius of this movie finally hit me and it just keeps getting funnier.

This one has been referenced, quoted, invoked, and lionized so much that I feel no need to provide any summary at all (though I’m not really summarizing any of these movies), but I will point to a joke that I feel is largely ignored in relation to the scores of other great lines.  Pivotal scene (not really): The Dude and Maude Lebowski are watching a bad porno about a cable repairman who walks in on two scantly clad women.  Maude: “You can guess what happens next.”  The Dude: “He fixes the cable?” 

Death and the Maiden

Ask any cinephile to name Polanski’s best film of the 1990s and they will probably say Bitter Moon.  I do love that film (though I have a bit of a problem with the ending) but to me Polanski’s Death and the Maiden remains not only his best film of the era but one of his best, period.  It has so many elements that run throughout Polanski’s finest work, highest among them being the disruption of domesticity.  The plot, which revolves around a victim confronting her rapist, seems particularly relevant to this filmmaker and, to some, can be viewed as Polanski admitting his own crimes.  I’m not so sure and really, I don’t care.  The movie stands as a compact, tense meditation on justice and understanding, if not acceptance.  It’s pacing is perfect, the acting is fantastic, and, though it was obviously a play adapted for the screen, it feels quite cinematic. 

Pivotal scene: I’ve never been able to watch Ben Kingsley’s final monologue without feeling shivers run over my skin.  Strong stuff.

The Three Colors Trilogy

In anticipation of the final installment in this masterpiece, which I’ve decided to include as one entity instead of three separate films, I caught a double feature of Blue and White at the Music Box on a Saturday, then capped the weekend off with a Sunday viewing of Red at the Fine Arts.  This stands as the best weekend of my cinema going life.  I had not heard of Krzysztof Kieślowski prior to that weekend, but there was buzz around the trilogy.  I had read that he was planning to retire from directing to spend his remaining years smoking.  (Who would have guessed that he’d die two years later?)  What he did was end on a high note, the highest note possible.  Red is considered by many to be the best of the trilogy, but I can’t agree.  For a long time it was Blue, which I suppose might be my favorite if I was forced to choose one, though White is underrated and holds up quite well.  It also has the most comedy, which really balances the trilogy nicely. So I can only say that the entire thing is worth considering as whole.  

If you’ve seen the films, you know all about them, how grand they are, how the underpinning idea of each film representing one of the three colors of the French flag, which represents the three ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity, never overshadows the stories, acting, or direction.  You’ve likely watched and rewatched them.  You might have the Blue soundtrack on your playlist.  You may have dug back to The Double Life of Veronique or The Decalouge.  You might pass by one of the new big belly garbage cans and think of elderly people struggling to recycle bottles.  Chances are, these movies have infected you. You could do a whole lot worse.

Pivotal scene: really, it’s all three of them coming together at the end of Red.  I get chills every time.

Okay, that’s a wrap.    

Friday, November 09, 2012

A Good Man

Go here to read a short piece by me about being married, cooking, and the way things have changed in regard to being married and cooking.