Chad Byrnes’ “Best and Worst” of the ’90s
by Chad Byrnes
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The 10 Best Films Of The 1990’s
9. Quiz Show — One film that really shows the mindset behind the small screen, and does so without parody or slick tactics (e.g. predictable shows like Action). But Robert Redford is a Hollywood veteran and he knows the best way to expose the greed and bullshit behind the media is to contrast it with something of substance — namely, education. An English Professor, beautifully played by Ralph Fiennes, takes the easy road to fame, and consequently falls from grace. Based on the quiz show scandals in the late fifties, the film’s really about sacrificing integrity, primarily because of the temptation of money and fame. But in the end, the film really asks what kind of society we’ve become when we’ve given television, the ultimate medium, the power to overshadow our education and burn us at the stake?
8. Unforgiven — A subversive, gothic western about the nature of evil. Directed by the man with no name himself, Eastwood’s vision is stark, gritty and poetic. The film’s most interesting aspect is how every character, evil or not, is driven by the need to be something more than himself. Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), despite being a bloodthirsty killer and sheriff, wants to “build a house.” William Munny (Clint Eastwood), an ex-gunfighter and murderer, tries to convince himself that he’s been cured of his ails. But in the end, each character comes face to face with their mortality and, in doing so, truly understands their own nature. Great last lines, “I don’t deserve this, to die like this.” The response: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” A truly dark movie that shows us that we can’t change who we are, only how we do things.
7. The Thin Red Line — Terrence Malick’s vastly misunderstood war epic, is as much about war as it is about nature, simply because the two are linked. People flocked to the theaters to see Saving Private Ryan in Gaudalcanal and, as expected, they were crestfallen when the movie actually possessed, I mean, overflowed with substance. From the beautiful cinematography to the delicately wrought narration, The Thin Red Line is a different experience every time you watch it. Like an intricate painting, it covers about every part of human nature—love, psychosis, innocence, beauty, anger, and politics—and does so without judgement. Malick forces us to endure the hardships of war by making the experience a universal one. Each character represents a certain aspect of our psyches, so when someone dies it’s not, “Oh jeez I really liked that funny soldier from Brooklyn.” It’s actually a death of the spirit. And, as I’ve heard before, The Thin Red Line separates people into two camps: those who simply watch hundreds of movies and those who also read occasionally (and not Jackie Collins).
6.Leaving Las Vegas — Unlike the masses who fall in love with Julia Roberts and guffaw at musicals, my soft spot is for drunks and hookers. I don’t care about heroes, or do-gooders, or beautiful women in distress, simply because they don’t exist. When I first saw Mike Figgis’ masterpiece Leaving Las Vegas I wanted to kiss the sky, actually, the ground. Finally, I thought, an honest depiction of human depravity. Life is not a PG-13 film, or a science fiction wonder, or a cute little comedy, or The Wizard of OZ. More mystery reigns in a drunk’s glare than in a bunch of dwarves running around shining Dorothy’s slippers. So, yes, there are people who are lost, but damn, they exude beauty. Sure, I heard Republicans grumbling in the theater, “Disgusting,” “Terrible people.” But that’s the point, isn’t it? Some of the people we consider the dregs of our society are actually the most heartfelt and real. It is the best love story I have ever seen because the characters shine in their imperfections —- it’s what personalizes them — it’s who they are.
5. Fargo — There is nothing like a Coen brother’s film. The experience is as ridiculous, insane, fervent and poignant as life itself. “Fargo” is their crowning achievement. The opulent, magical setting of Brainard, the unique characters, the twisting story, the underlying darkness running through it all like a sewer — this is what good films are all about.
4. The Grifters — Oh yeah, LA stories (and not Steve Martin’s) are the most complex, and in the end, the juiciest. Based on Jim Thompson’s forties noir novel, The Grifters is a sexy, hard-boiled, contemporary thriller. Stephen Frears’s directing is straightforward and honest (we even forget there’s someone behind the camera), the acting is top-notch — Angelica Huston and Annette Bening haven’t topped this one — and the story unfolds just like the characters, glib and smooth, until the horrid and shocking last chapter. It’s the most gristly, dark noir novel ever put to film.
3. Goodfellas — Looking for a pretentious, facile examination of the Italian Mafia? Go rent The Godfather III, this is Scorsese land and he doesn’t sugarcoat his depiction of the real life key players involved in the Gambino family. One thing many people overlook in Goodfellas is how truly frightening it is. The film is so fascinating, fast-paced and downright real, we forget that these guys are cold-blooded murderers. Even more incredible, we like them! Just like the title suggests, they’re a bunch of good fellas. In reality, the Mafia is not an empire, or a James Cagney film — it is Goodfellas blue-collar, tough guys who love their wives, fuck their mistresses, do drugs and kill. They’re not easy characters to depict and even harder to make likeable. Scorsese overcomes both obstacles with flying colors. Whether you like this film or not, you simply can’t forget these characters: Tommy De Simone (Joe Pesci), an irritable little psycho who’ll plant an ice pick in your skull as fast as he makes you laugh; Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), our microscope into their world—he’s honorable and perilous simultaneously; and finally Jimmy Conway, the dapper thief who approaches his enemies with a smile. They embody the true Italian Mafia and it’s not a romantic portrait — but who the hell wants that? Give me reality, show me the truth, and stop worrying about how we view it. Scorsese did just that — he always has, and hopefully always will. Evil is as human and commonplace as a Sunday picnic. Scorsese knows this and it’s his and every filmmaker’s right to share their take on the subject. And who better to depict Italians, than an Italian? Hey, it’s better than the family friendly Goodguys, directed by Steven Spielberg.
2. Boogie Nights — Say what you will about Paul Thomas Anderson — he’s young, he rips off Scorsese and Altman, but keep one thing in mind, this kid knows character. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and my father had a few parties that resembled those in Boogie Nights, but this movie blew me away. The only ingredient I ask for in a film is character. Special effects, movie stars, even story, aren’t shit without some distinguishable, absorbing characters. I don’t even care that the film is about the porn industry, it could be about insurance salesman, but the people are all unique, beautiful (in their own way), and tragic. P.T.A manages to capture those small idiosyncrasies we possess and that’s the hook that drew me into their lives. Therefore when our heroes grapple with their demons, you feel their pain, because you’re intimate with their insecurities. P.T.A is a master at depicting behavior and that takes genius.
1. American Beauty — I bet you expected this movie to be number one. But really, how couldn’t it be? The films I mentioned merely touch on the themes American Beauty embodies. A perfect script. Period. It is complex and simple, beautiful and tragic, funny and sad, human and divine. It is the first film that really got under the surface of the American stance and exposed its muck for all to see. Many people don’t understand it and those are the folks this film depicts — those who just concentrate on the surface and never bother to see what’s underneath. I learn something more and ruminate harder every time I see it. American Beauty should’ve been a novel, but thank God for the movie industry it was an original script — because for a minute, I almost forgot films could be so brilliant!
Top Ten Favorite Films of the Nineties
10. The Virgin Suicides — Despite popular opinion, the nineties was probably the worst decade in history for “teen films.” They started to resemble bad soft-porn flicks where the guys spout ghetto talk (even though they’re rich white kids, uhhhgg) and the female’s character is usually measured by how much silicone she’s packing. Sophia Coppola’s brilliant debut The Virgin Suicides reminded me that the teenage psyche is a vast and mysterious land. This film was poetic, beautiful, controversial and most importantly, salacious. Finally, a movie about teenagers in which sex isn’t depicted as a lame joke, but is actually an affirmation of life and death.
9. Se7en — David Fincher has proven to be the Alfred Hitchcock of the nineties. Numerous directors have attempted to walk in the master’s shoes, but failed (example: Brian De Palma) mainly because they tried to emulate him instead of honing in on their own skills. Fincher’s vision is twisted and sick, though it’s quintessentially his. Se7en is a charming little tale about a religious fanatic who models his finely wrought murders after the Seven Deadly Sins. But it’s message goes beyond one of a murder investigation, it is a truly harrowing look at modern society and how numb we’ve become to our moral decrepitude.
8. The Big Lebowski—One of the greatest films of all time. Perfect, original and hilarious. Jeff Bridges plays “The Dude” to sweet, stoner perfection. It’s Raymond Chandler meets Cheech and Chong placed in a world filled with feminists, pornographers, fascist cops, and at heart of it, a cowboy. It’s basically a trip through the bowels of Los Angeles in the early nineties, except your brain’s a little fried and eyes are pretty bloodshot. Pure Coen brothers genius.
7. The Talented Mr. Ripley—The only film in which the protagonist is actually the killer. Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel is nothing short of amazing. From the incredible Italian scenery to the lucid score and dazzling performances (most notably Jude Law’s), the film covers ground we’ve never seen before. But the film’s suspense lies in Ripley’s loss of identity and an underlying ambiguity. The lines that separate the good guy/bad guy vanish and we’re left with a question—what is murder? A very unsettling and powerful picture.
6. Nil by Mouth — Unseen by many, but hailed by critics, Nil by Mouth is Gary Oldman’s brilliant first outing as a writer/director. Set in modern day London and most obviously autobiographical, it is the disquieting study of an English family being torn apart by a disturbed, coke-fiend, drunken father. We’ve seen films about domestic violence before, but never in such a candid tone. Oldman holds his camera steady even as the carnage erupts. Everything in the film is blunt, harsh and stifling. A drunken father we empathize with, a heroine addict son who knows no boundaries and a mother who keeps faith even with the bruises. If you haven’t seen it, rent it.
5. Dazed and Confused—I know, I know, when you see the title, you almost want to sigh in disappointment, I mean, a stoner film? But Richard Linklater is extremely talented and would never merely whitewash Cheech and Chong. Sure, the movie is funny, but it’s not a series of reefer jokes. Weed is the backdrop, the reason many people break out of their preconceived high school molds, and allows them to investigate their stations in life. But the greatest aspect of Dazed is its keen eye for everyday life in high school. I mean it’s all there: the shit-talkers, jocks, stoners, intellectuals, even Mathew McConaughey as a twenty year old loser, who hangs out at his old haunts because, “Each year I get older, high school girls stay the same age.” We know the people because we’ve all known someone like them. This movie reeks of high school — and, of course, pot smoke. So kick back, light one up and enjoy.
4. Fight Club — A vastly misunderstood existential trip through modern society. Tyler Durden (Bradd Pitt) is the guru of material rejection, his understudy (Edward Norton) goes unnamed, but we know him well. Like American Beauty, this dark comedy gouges into our human psyche, ultimately forcing us to reevaluate our so-called values. Another perfect hit by Mr. David Fincher.
3. Glengarry Glen Ross — David Mamet’s greatest cinematic achievement and a cast you couldn’t find in any other film (Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, etc.). Not to mention, some of the greatest dialogue ever spoken.
2. Ed Wood — Tim Burton’s incredible biography on the worst director in history is simultaneously dark, psychotic and funny. Like the fifties itself it looks like a peppy, humorous, shallow film, but Martin Landau’s depiction of Bela Lugosi takes everything to a darker level.
1. Trainspotting — A visual ride that’s more about human suffering on a whole than just heroin addiction. The characters are all tainted one way or another and the narration is tightly packaged and hilarious. This movie will always be remembered for its neurotic vision and ambiguous ending.
Ten Worst Films of the Nineties
10. Godzilla — Why someone even attempted to recreate one of my favorite Japanese monsters (how many are there?) is beyond me. But this movie proved that a large budget is detrimental to a bad script. The worse the script, the less money makes it more interesting. And what was Ferris Bueller doing in it? He should truly be ashamed of himself.
9. Blair Witch Project — These filmmakers really pulled the wool over our eyes. They actually managed to get people (such as myself) to pay eight dollars so we could watch a home movie, filmed by a blind fool and starring two hippies and a girl with the most scathingly annoying voice I’ve ever heard. Oh yeah, and there’s this monster or something.
8. Wyatt Earp — Being an avid western fan, this movie sickened me beyond repair. When I mean beyond repair, I mean Lawrence Kasdan and his little wooden pal, Kevin Costner flushed the whole western genres down the toilet, probably for good. After this piece of sentimental garbage sank in the box-office, studio execs didn’t go near a western with a ten-foot pole. Thanks Kevin and Lawrence. Stick with yuppie trash like Grand Canyon and leave the westerns to those who can write them.
7. 8mm — I remember the first words I uttered after writhing through this piece, “Are you kidding me?” Then I remembered who the director was, that’s right, Mr. Hollywood Cheese himself, Joel Shumacher, the king of mediocre crap! Here’s a piece of advice Joel, when you try to get deep on us we can see how shallow you are.
6. Hanging Up — This movie never ended, I mean I’m still suffering from a throbbing headache after seeing it. Sometimes I wake up, sweating laboriously, hearing spoiled actresses screaming bad dialogue. It’s a shame that money is thrown into unimportant films like this when there are so many real people who would like to share their stories. Pull gets you everywhere in this town. Even though it came out in 2000, it was so bad, it made everything in the nineties look good, therefore it requires honorable mention.
5. Bicentennial Man/Patch Adams/Jakob the Liar — It’s a tie folks! And all of these sappy stinkers star a man with the worst decision making skills since Nixon. After regaining his foothold in Hollywood by winning an Academy Award, Robyn Williams goes and stars in Bicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar. I guess that Academy Award only helped for a few weeks. Better try and win another!
4. Anything by Jan De Bont — Who keeps hiring this guy and where did he come from? Lord, he’s like the horrible uncle at your family reunion, wearing cheesy leopard skin outfits, telling really bad jokes. From Keanu’s passionate performance in Speed to Sandra Bullock’s cute smile (puke!!) in Speed 2 to the cheesy special fx in The Haunting, Jan De Bont has shown us a world, well, we really didn’t need to see. Whoever hires this guy needs a lobotomy.
3. Scream 1 & 2 (and 3, in 2000) — I can’t believe people don’t know what a good horror movie is anymore. I heard so much yapping about how witty and sardonic the Scream trilogy was, you would’ve thought they collectively read a Kafka novel. Please! Scream is an expanded TV show with a lot of horror references. In the end all the self-parody was nothing more than an escape from being original. BOO! I scared you! That’s about as frightening the Scream series gets. Wes, you’re no Clive Barker.
3. Forest Gump — Overrated! Overrated alert! I laughed in a few scenes, but then they immediately try to get sentimental. But all Zemeckis managed to do is drown me in an ocean of cheese. What’s the significance of looking through Forests’ eyes? Things are simpler. Wow, amazing. Unfortunately that didn’t make the film complicated or interesting. Really, a very ridiculous film, the type of film Bob Dole would direct.
1. Titanic — The only respect I hold for this shallow vessel is how angry it actually makes me. Titanic is a perfect example of where Hollywood’s heart lies — in the money. Don’t let anyone fool you, this dumb extravaganza is not about love or tragedy or those who died on the Titanic, it’s about money. You can see it in the shitty acting, boring story, artless script, etc. Thanks, America — you just made Leonardo Di Caprio the most powerful player in Hollywood and validated James Cameron’s overwhelming ego. What a tragic film, it put a dirty mirror in front of our faces so we could see how cheesy we really are, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Chad Byrnes works in the film and television industry in Hollywood.
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