Friday, December 17, 2010

MY FAVORITE MOVIES: 1990 to 1999

A number of unfortunate movie fads that had been around for fifteen or twenty years became commonplace by 1990.  Sequels like Rocky V, films modeled on television series like The Beverly Hillbillies, and remakes of classic movies like Psycho indicated that, besides poor judgment, what was wrong in the movie industry was a lack of originality.  Even the best of movies during the 1990s did not seem so remarkable.  Probably the most important movie of the decade was something I would almost rather have missed; Titanic was a long movie dealing with a sinking boat, a dopey romance, and class warfare that was simple mindedly portrayed.  Many other expensively made movies were also released, but the emotions elicited were cheap.  Storytelling played such a small part for each picture that one almost could become interested in the Oscar winners for cinematography, soundtracks and wardrobe.
Some oddities were released, however, that held my interest.  Most of these movies were stark and understated - much like the better movies of the 1930s and ‘40’s.  Except for Schindler’s List, none of the best movies could be considered epics.  The best movies of the 1990s relied on a small number of characters that had gone through personal and extreme struggles.  Most of the movies ended sadly, and few were gigantic in scope.  So here, in order, are what my favorite movies from the 1990s are:

(1) The Apostle (1997): This exceptional movie that’s directed, produced and starred in by Robert Duvall goes deep inside of the unsavory world of Evangelism.  Except this time the world of Evangelism is not painted as uncontrovertibly evil.  The character Duvall plays commits manslaughter that causes him to go into hiding.  This individual then returns to his roots in the Deep South, baptizes himself as an adult in a river, and takes on a job as a preacher in a small church that for years had been left abandoned.  The change that comes over himself and everyone around him is startling.  When the law finally catches up with him, he continues his preaching while working on a chain gang.
(2) Starship Troopers: Possibly my favorite science fiction movie of all time.  This movie goes so far as to even spoof the book on which it was based.  The deadpan characterization and dialogue is hilarious, and the athleticism and athletic appearance of all the characters is striking.
(3) Leaving Las Vegas (1995): One of the strangest love stories ever filmed.  Nicholas Cage plays an alcoholic on route to drinking himself to death, and Elisabeth Shue plays the prostitute who can’t look away as Cage, the man she loves, becomes a walking train wreck.  What usually is passed-off as Hollywood realism is generally a producer’s addled fantasy.  That’s not the case here.  This is too believable to be taken lightly.
(4) A Bronx Tale (1993): Robert De Niro directs and stars in this film about a boy’s torn allegiance between his upright and very tough father and his neighbor who also happens to be a mobster.  The boy eventually learns something from the both of them.  The sets look like what I’ve always imagined the Bronx to appear like in the early 1960s.
(5) Fight Club (1999): Probably the most unusual of "coming of age" movie for males since Deliverance.  With Edward Norton as a male ashamed of his own lack of masculinity and his alter ego (literally) played by Brad Pitt, this movie holds so many surprises that the viewer is not sure what’s up - until the whole New York financial district comes tumbling down (probably would be a little bit harder to get this script by the studios with the current state of the world).  At times the picture verges on being senseless, but the prospect of many men forced by finances and circumstances to live in frustration is equally senseless - and this frustration is colorfully brought out here.
(6) Dolores Claiborne (1995): The acting of Kathy Bates as an abused wife (Dolores) and David Strathairn as her drunken husband for once make a movie based on a Stephen King novel worth watching.  Incredibly sad, yet there is a sort of victory in Dolores being able to work things out despite all obstacles.
(7) Hoffa (1992): So many people went gaga over A Few Good Men (ignoring the fact that Tom Cruise plays the lead) that Jack Nicholson’s best role in the 1990s was almost ignored.  Nicholson comes across as just tough enough and shabby enough to make this story not seem so over the top.  This shows the good and the bad of the famed teamster who suddenly just disappeared.  (Despite rumors of being cut up and being fed to alligators or currently being buried in Giant Stadium in New York, don’t take it seriously when the movie pretends to know what happened to Hoffa in the end.)
(8) Fargo (1996): Sometimes funny and often unsatisfying black comedy.  The movie is saved by the acting of Frances McDormand and William H. Macy, and by the completely singular script.
(9) Schindler’s List (1993): Oscar Schindler was a rich playboy with close ties to the Nazi elite, and he was also a saint.  It’s difficult not to be moved by his story to save 1,200 Jews, but it was the role played by Ralph Fiennes as a sadistic Nazi Commandant that prevented this movie from becoming another dull epic movie like Gandhi
(10) Carlito’s Way (1993): Al Pacino, as a Cuban gangster who lives by a strict code of his own, and Sean Penn as his lawyer who turns bad, make this one gritty movie.  But even Carlito’s code can’t save him in the end from a violent death - because of the actions of other smalltime hoods and his lawyer that fail to share his sense of honor.
There are a number of honorable mentions – or in any case movies not much worse than some of the movies listed above - so I probably should give them lip service.  Pulp Fiction (1994), though much talked about is barely better than the low budget Reservoir Dogs (1992) (both movies directed by Quentin Tarantino).   Tarantino sometimes seems more intent on being cynical than good.  I’d almost rather as much see Babe (1995) or Forrest Gump (1994), with all the sentimentality, because these movies are not all about showing off their cleverness.  Pulp Fiction is able to upright itself by leaving room for redemption the character played by Bruce Willis.  Unforgiven (1992) comes close to being just another dull western*, but Eastwood aged into his role effectively and the characters of Gene Hackman and Richard Harris are unforgettable as miscreants.  And Robert Benigni’s Life is Beautiful can be forgiven for all of the sentiment because the story brought out how much a supposed buffoon had to lose while inside a Nazi concentration camp.
 There are a few notable movies I’ve left out.  There are some extremely violent films including GoodFellas (1990), True Romance (1993) and The Bad Lieutenant (1992) starring Harvey Keitel that are intriguing, but are greatly swallowed up by their own excesses.   And with Titanic (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and American Beauty (1999) winning Oscars for best picture towards the end of the decade, I’d have to conclude that this was the worst decade for movies ever.  Fortunately, some powerful foreign and independent films arrived in the 21st Century and have brought the movie industry back to where movies are once again watchable.
Movies I would still like to see during the 1990s include Blood and Wine (1997) starring Michael Caine and Casino (1995), though I could well be disappointed with the both of them.  I’m also hoping that there are some movies out there that I’ve never seen that could at least change my mind about the overall quality of movies from the 1990s.
* A reader expressed concern that I was implying by this statement that westerns are normally dull.  I did not intend to say that.  However, I may have implied that the people who spend their times watching westerns are dull.  There's a subtle distinction.
November 20, 2006  
© Robert S. Miller 2006

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