Wednesday, March 14, 2012

15 film gems of the 1990s

I've been watching a lot of 90s movies lately.  Here are some of my favorites from the decade that are either somewhat forgotten, underrated, or worth another look.

The Apostle (1997)

A preacher tries to start over after making a tragic mistake. A triumph of directing, writing and acting by Robert Duvall.

"Years ago, I was in a little town in Hughes, Arkansas, to do some research on a play. I wandered out one night and I saw this little Pentecostal church, and a woman preacher. I said, "I gotta put this on film someday. I've never seen this." It was a part of Americana—spiritual but also a cultural thing. It took me years and years to get it done, all with my own money and everything." - Robert Duvall

Beloved (1998)

I have to give Jonathan Demme credit for making a film from Toni Morrison's brilliant novel which didn't seem like a an easy project to translate into cinema.  Visually, I think, he really captured some of Morrison's details.  It has some great performances, especially Kimberly Elise and Oprah Winfrey who disappears in her role.

"The movie deals with a very difficult subject, and it's not a subject that America is dying for opportunities to confront and that is the unresolved, tragic subject of slavery in our country. It's arguably a subject that the entire world has to come to terms with appropriately. It's not just that we were a colonial territory where slavery, this horrendous thing between the races, was acted out. It started in other hemispheres. It's a deep, challenging piece that just, to me, had incredibly emotional rewards. And also it's a ghost story and it has a deeply suspenseful, deeply disturbing, supernatural dimension to it." - Jonathan Demme

Crooklyn (1994)

Spike Lee doesn't get as much love for this movie as he should.  It's a messy, rich coming-of-age tale filled with lots of specific details of 70s Brooklyn.  I also love the section of the film where complicated identity issues arise when Troy (Zelda Harris) travels to her relatives in Virginia.

"It really wasn't my intent to make a film that reminisced about this grand old time back in the 1970's... I just wanted to tell the story of this young girl who was coming of age during that time. And also to show an African-American family that was not dysfunctional; that was headed by two parents. The mother and the father were there and none of the children were on drugs or rapists or murderers, whatever. And despite the fact there's a lot of conflict amongst the siblings, there's a great amount of love in this family for each other."
- Spike Lee

Dogfight (1991)

This is another River Phoenix picture that makes me weepy.  He showed such promise and skill as an actor at a young age.  Here he plays a soldier in 1963 about to embark to Vietnam while having a sudden fling (and deep personal connection) with a coffee shop girl (an exquisite turn by Lili Taylor).

"Rose’s character wasn’t clear in the original script. She was a character that Rich and I developed with Lili Taylor as we revised the script. But I did respond to the potential that her character had, as well as the Eddie Birdlace character. I like exploring characters who struggle with the roles that society prescribes to them. In his case, it’s the macho soldier, in her case, her encounter with Birdlace reminds her that she should be trying to be attractive to men. And you can see it’s something she tends to forget because her focus is more on music than trying to get a boyfriend. These struggles make them both outsiders. And I like outsiders." - Nancy Savoca

Flirting (1991)

I'd like to go and revisit this sweetly done Australian movie of a boarding school boy (Noah Taylor) who falls in love with an African girl (Thandie Newton).  Also interesting to see a young Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts.

"... It’s not strictly speaking autobiographical, except in the most rudimentary way. His background is completely different from mine. The boarding school experience is very similar. I tend to give the characters certain experiences I had but I give them a lot I didn’t and a lot I would have liked to have had. Like meeting Thandie Newton at the sister school. It’s a liberating form of oblique autobiography because you can do anything." - Director John Duigan

Hard Eight (1996)

It's kind of stunning how mature Paul Thomas Anderson's (in his mid-20s at the time) work was here.  Hard Eight is sort of a neo-noir with a trio of wounded characters (all excellently played by Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, and Gwyneth Paltrow) who, in a way, form an unlikely family.  A quiet precursor to his sensational Boogie Nights.  

"I think [movies] shape the culture - and that, of course, means they have a responsibility to the culture. As a filmmaker, how much I feel the weight of that responsibility changes from one day to the next. If you feel it too heavily you're probably becoming pretentious; if you don't feel it at all you're probably a jerk." - Paul Thomas Anderson

King of the Hill (1993)

This could be my favorite Steven Soderbergh movie.  Jesse Bradford is left to fend for himself during the Depression. It's worth a revisit, such a fabulous cast, many who would later on become much more well-known (Adrien Brody, Lauryn Hill, a haunting Spalding Gray, and Elizabeth McGovern among them).  Everyone makes an impact in their roles and it's beautifully filmed and scored (by Cliff Martinez).

"King of the Hill could have been a family picture, or a heartwarming TV docudrama, or a comedy. Soderbergh must have seen more deeply into the Hotchner memoir, however, because his movie is not simply about what happens to the kid. It's about how the kid learns and grows through his experiences. It's about growing up, not just about having colorful adventures. And despite the absence of Aaron's family for much of the picture, it's about the support a family can give - even, if it's believed in, when it isn't there." - Roger Ebert

Last Summer in the Hamptons (1995)

What is it about this movie? I get lost in its spell.  I doubt many people want to be stuck with a bunch of neurotic, somewhat-annoying theater actors in the Hamptons doing ad-libbed scenes... but for some reason, I do!

"The Method [style of acting] is about getting to know yourself as fully as possible, paying attention to what's happening in the present moment. This was hugely important to me as a human being; it opened me up from a rather aggressive and one-dimensional young kid to somebody who for the first time was able to hear about other people's lives and pay attention. Until I was 20, I thought I was the only person who was alive. I thought other people were there to be mirror reflections of me, basically; and suddenly, I heard all of these other lives. I think of my films as Method films." - Henry Jaglom 

Liberty Heights (1999)

Barry Levinson's supple, engaging look at racial and anti-Semitic tensions in 1950s Baltimore.

"There was a comment in a review of Sphere which said that Dustin Hoffman plays a Jewish psychologist and then in parenthesis: "OK he's not officially Jewish, but as soon as he arrives on the boat, he wants to call his family like a nice mensch". And then it says, "You do the math". So I'm thinking, well if I do the math, what is the math? What math am I doing to figure out what? Is this some kind of code? It's hidden thing in the movie, that he's Jewish, but we don't want to reveal that he's Jewish? Is it a part of the plot, is that what's in the sphere? I mean, what the hell is it all about? I didn't understand it. I am sure that the person who wrote it can give me a reason that makes sense, but it didn't make any sense to me. But at the same time that I read it, and I was like, furious about it. Then I remembered, in a sense, like I was five years old, and as the movie begins, I thought the whole world was Jewish. Because everyone around me was Jewish. You go, "Well that's the world" because that's how little your world is. And then all of a sudden one day you realize that there are other people who are not Jewish and then you realise that almost no one in the world is Jewish. And that was the beginning and I wrote that down and I thought, the second I wrote that down, I saw the whole movie." - Barry Levinson

Passion Fish (1992)

An offbeat picture by John Sayles on the Bayou.  Mary McDonnell plays a soap opera actress injured from a car wreck and Alfre Woodward as her nurse.

"... I work more on my interests than my problems. Sometimes my movies are my problems. Sometimes it's the story that attracts me to a theme, and sometimes a theme attracts me to a story. Generally I carry it around for quite awhile thinking about it. For example, I had the idea for Passion Fish from the time when I worked in hospitals and was in college and saw Persona. I knew I would do an American version of two women somehow locked together. - John Sayles

Reversal of Fortune (1990)

I guess this was a big movie (and an Academy Award winner for Jeremy Irons) but damn, it's so good.  Glenn Close is unforgettable and spooky as brittle socialite Sunny.  And Ron Silver is great as Alan Dershowitz who helps piece her murder case together in the background. Warner Brothers doesn't make chilly, morally complex crime dramas like this anymore.

"Reversal of Fortune, to me, is a film about the unknowable nature of truth and the implications of that morally. My ambition was to have the audience split 50-50 at the theater exit and arguing over what happened – which from the point of view of Von Bulow was a big gain, because before the movie was made everybody thought he did it. And I was very sensitive to the humor and irony linked to the fact that you don’t know. So for me it is a comedy of manners, a strange comedy." - Barbet Schroeder

Smoke (1995)

Intertwined stories (by Paul Auster) revolving around a smoke shop in Brooklyn.  Some heartbreaking moments, especially in "A Christmas Tale," with an excellent Harvey Keitel.

"One day, when I was really running out of time, I looked down at my desk and I had a tin of these Shimmelpenninck's cigars, and I started thinking about the guy in Brooklyn I bought them from. It started generating thoughts about how you have, in a big city, relationships with people that are extremely friendly, but you couldn't call them friendships, because finally you don't know anything about the other person. This thought triggered the story." - Paul Auster

Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)

In Puget Sound, post-WWII anti-Japanese sentiments arise during a murder trial of a fisherman.  This one struggled a bit to gain its footing (it's based on the sprawling novel by David Guterson) but it's gorgeous to look at (the Oscar-nominated cinematography is by Robert Richardson).

"I think the richness of the visual texture of the movie is so endlessly satisfying. I've viewed it, as one does, hundreds of times, and when after hearing some negative feeling about it, you look at it with trepidation, thinking, oooh, what did I do? And when I see it again, I go, 'what're they talking about!? I love this movie!' [laughs] It's the marriage of design, cinematography, location….all those ingredients which are the end result of so many choices that you're presented with when you're directing a film." - director Scott Hicks

Strangers in Good Company (1990)

A group of elderly women become stranded in Canadian countryside after their bus breaks down.  They reminisce and reveal some of their stories in this poignant, beautifully-told film.

"The film makes no attempt to gloss over the infirmities of age, nor does it pretend that old people would not rather be young.... Told without condescension or cliches, it rejuvenates the genre. Seven old ladies sitting around talking -- why not hear them out? ." - Rita Kempley

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

Chekhov in an old, crumbling New York theater.  Just saw this for this first time recently and was so fascinated by it.  It's not a conventional picture, and requires some patience (like another film by Louis MalleMy Dinner With Andre) but it's worth sticking with, especially for Brooke Smith's moving monologue.

"At some point in the first act, we stop noticing that we’re not watching a fully designed production—or if the thought does occur to us now and then, it’s as an emissary from the real world pinching us to remind us that this is a movie of a rehearsal of a play, before we forget again and are swept up in the emotional turmoil of the characters’ lives." - Steven Vineberg


  1. geez, i haven't even watched most of them. how did i not?

  2. Excellent calls on these, Jeffery. Crooklyn, Dogfight, Hard Eight, Smoke and Vanya on 42nd Street are among my all-time favorites. And The Apostle was brilliant. I'm a major admirer of Robert Duvall, have a strong affinity for Southern culture, and great films (To Kill a Mockingbird and Sling Blade come immediately to mind) set in that part of the country always pull me right in.

  3. i love dogfight! river is one of my all time favourites!

  4. So happy The Apostle made this list. It is one of the most riveting performances I have ever seen and I have such a special place in my heart for this movie. What a GREAT LIST!!!