Jon Bastian’s “Best and Worst” of the ’90s
by Jon Bastian
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So, once again, we look back at a decade in an attempt to catalogue and classify the best and worst. In doing so, I decided, first of all, that it’s much better to say this is my personal list of favorite and least favorite films released between January, 1990 and December, 1999. Your results may vary. Second, I know there are favorite films I’ve missed, and the original list was about thirty-five movies long. One day, I know I’ll suddenly shout, “Doh! How could I forget… blank?” Those are the risks of doing these things.
Both lists are arranged alphabetically because, once I honed things down, I really couldn’t give a numerical order to either list. I’d gladly watch any of my favorite films over and over. As for the least favorite list, some obvious choices are missing — Stigmata and Battlefield: Earth come to mind — but I tried to stick to films that I’m not fond of for reasons other than they’re terrible.
My Favorite Films of the 90’s
American Beauty — one of the most finely crafted scripts ever written, Alan Ball’s dark comedy holds the mirror in our face as his story unfolds just like the titular rose. And even though we know Lester Burnham is going to die by the end, we never see it coming but it all makes perfect sense when it does. All this, and some of the most memorable movie lines of the decade — you’ll be seeing American Beauty in revivals and retrospectives well into the next century.
Boogie Nights — Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth film and second feature is the epic-length saga of the rise, fall and redemption of the adult film industry, embodied by the well-endowed Dirk Diggler, as the 70’s melt down into the 80’s. With a cast as large, and a time span as long, as Mr. Diggler’s dirk, Boogie Nights is a kaleidoscopic yet dead-on evocation of the era when disco died and cynicism was re-invented. If you lived through it, you’ll recognize it. If you didn’t, you need to see this film.
The Coen Brothers’ Collected Works — one decade, five amazing films. Joel and Ethan Coen obviously love movies, and each of their ventures pretends to be a genre piece, which they joyously subvert to create something more than it at first seems. They gave us, in order, neo-gangster Miller’s Crossing; noir-on-crack Barton Fink; screwy screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy; warped crime flick Fargo, and hippie Raymond Chandler The Big Lebowski. Always starting from an established genre, they give it one big twist and then take off from there.
Eyes Wide Shut — a film that requires your close attention, but what Kubrick film doesn’t? On the surface, it seems like a simple story about a suspicious husband in over his head with a kinky group of swingers. But nothing is as simple as it seems. It’s up to the audience to decide what really happens and what doesn’t, whether we’re watching reality or a dream, and whether our hero is paranoid or prescient. It’s a film to start discussions that last long after the final frame has flickered. In other words, pure Kubrick. Boy, do I miss him.
Fight Club — this stunner from David Fincher is epic in scope and literary in nature, and tackles some really big issues in a story that oscillates between hilarious and scary. With style to spare, Fincher’s tricks nonetheless add to the story instead of distract. It all builds to an inevitable finale that is beautiful and apocalyptic.
Last Exit to Brooklyn — it took non-American director Uli Edel to turn Hubert Selby’s quintessentially American novel into an amazing film that captures the feel and prose of the original even as it turns Selby’s five disjointed stories into one coherent whole. The strike-bound docks of 1950’s Brooklyn are the lower depths of hell, populated by junkies, whores and straight sailors with their drag queen boyfriends. Holding it all together are devastating performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tra La La, the self-destructive prostitute, and Stephen Lang as Harry Black, the even more self-destructive and very confused union steward. This is the 50’s that Ozzy and Harriet never wanted you to see. In other words, it’s real.
Lone Star — John Sayles weaves an intricate tapestry around the lives of several generations of residents of a Texas border town as the current sheriff tries to figure out who killed an unpopular former sheriff years ago. What puts Lone Star several cuts above other films of this kind is the gradual way it cuts through many layers of truth. Each successive scene wrenches our perception of previous events until we’re left with only one devastating but poignant truth and our hero is stuck with one very difficult decision.
Richard III — Sir Ian McKellen brings us this sly update of my favorite Shakespeare, set in 1930’s England during an imaginary civil war. McKellen is joined by Annette Bening, Robert Downey, Jr., Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith and Dominic West, among others, as ol’ Humpback Dick connives and murders his way into — and out of — power. If you normally find Shakespeare inaccessible, this movie is a good place to start. If you’re already into the guy from Avon, it’s hard to find a better version of one of his works. In comparison, Olivier’s film performance in the same role was about as complex as his fake hump and wax nose.
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut — more than just a movie, it’s a political statement, a musical and the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, even on repeat viewings. The song Blame Canada losing the Oscar to that over-the-hill whining hack Phil Collins was one of the most heinous mistakes ever made by Academy voters.
Titus — a creepy, haunting, incredibly designed and perfectly cast extravaganza that overcomes the problems in Shakespeare’s weakest play. This one will linger in your head long after the last corpse hits the floor.
Twelve Monkeys — an utterly unique film from one of our most gifted auteurs, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys is a complex, multi-layered experience that reveals more of itself on every viewing while defying any effort to pull apart its logic. Part mystery, part race against the clock and part love story, it’s also one of cinema’s best uses of the knots of time travel, ending with the mother of all strange loops. Bonus: Gilliam brings us the best ever performances by both Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt — no mean feat, that.
Velvet Goldmine — a giddy, glammy trip through the early 70’s, with Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers starring in this “What If?” fantasia on the lives of Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Practically a musical and yet not, Velvet Goldmine’s story grows with liquid logic, and it’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a Ken Russell film that wasn’t made by Ken Russell. Keep an eye on director Todd Haynes to show up on all those decade-end “Best of the 00’s” lists.
La Vita é Bella — A sweet little tragicomedy that shows us how a man meets and woos his wife, then shows us how he uses his wits and sense of humor to save his family from death during the Holocaust. When I saw this film, the final seconds brought tears of joy to my eyes. If they don’t do the same for you, you have no heart.
Honorable Mention — it was difficult to hone this list down, and impossible to cut it to ten. A few movies that I include as my favorites, but regrettably had to relegate to slots below those already described: Dead Again, The Matrix, Naked Lunch, Pulp Fiction, To Die For, Total Recall and Trainspotting
My Least Favorite Films of the 90s
Any film with Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner in it — Costner is a wooden actor who lacks the talent to pull off the epics he attempts. I only need to mention two: Waterworld and The Postman. As for Gibson — he’s a homophobic asshole who could have just apologized for his comments over a decade ago. Instead, he continues to crank out jingoistic, mindless rightwing crap and goes out of his way to indulge his anti-gay stereotyping. Remember the future Edward II as depicted in Braveheart?
The Blair Witch Project — the emperor has no clothes on. You have to admire the makers of this dreck for creating the film and the hype on a zero budget, but only because they did it first.
Forrest Gump — the glorification of idiocy, drawn out beyond all coherent length. I’m not sure what the message of this film is, except maybe that it’s okay to be stupid. Perhaps Contact was Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to make up for this message but, to paraphrase Mr. Garrison from South Park, “The alien was her goddamn father. What a rip-off.”
Gladiator — an attempt to recreate the sword and sandals epics of the 1950’s that falls apart because its hero is left with only one emotion to play and the action sequences are so badly directed that you can only figure out what happened afterwards when the dust clears. The CGI models of Rome were pretty impressive, but they were the only thing in this movie with more than two dimensions.
Goodfellas — yes, that’s right, I hate this film. Let me give you a comparison here: what if Spike Lee only made movies about African American gangstas, glorified their lifestyle and made them the heroes, inspiring legions of African American teenagers to want to emulate these thugs. He’d get ripped a new one by public opinion faster than you could say “drive-by.” Martin Scorsese does exactly the same thing, but gets away with it by depicting Italian Americans. He only gets away with that because he’s Italian. When Spike Lee threw a few goombahs into Do the Right Thing, he got ripped a new one by public opinion.
Hurlyburly — an incoherent mess with some of the least attractive losers ever put on screen, it doesn’t help that this very 80’s story was plopped into the 90’s with little updating. The characters on display don’t make sense out of the context of the go-go Reaganomics era of venality. Imagine Wall Street set in the world of tech stocks instead of junk bonds; that would make about as much sense.
Jackie Brown — only a least favorite entry because it’s nowhere near as good as Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarentino took a great opportunity and blew it. Pam Grier is incredible on screen, as is Robert Forster, but the movie drags, and commits the cardinal sin of complicated plot flicks: it shows us the rehearsal for “The Big Heist,” then shows “The Big Heist” being pulled off flawlessly. In other words, we get to watch the same twenty minutes of the movie twice in a row. Boring.
Jurassic anything — it was a stupid concept the first time around, and then it just got worse. They’re making another one. Watch for it on my worst of list in 2010.
Pleasantville — a very promising premise that just didn’t pay off, although I don’t know why. I also hear that in real life Tobey Maguire is quite a dickhead, which shouldn’t have any bearing on this film, except that he’s supposed to be such a nice guy here. I couldn’t buy into that.
The Prince of Tides — one of the worst vanity projects ever made, starring Barbra’s hair, nails and nose. Somebody really has to remind her she’s just a singer.
Titanic — yeah, the effects were neat and the ship sank really well, but the ill-fated romance between Leo and Kate upon which James Cameron decided to hang this story really doesn’t do any justice to the scope of the project or the price tag of the film. And if I never hear Céline Dion hyperventilate her way through the title track again, that’ll be just fine with me.
The Truman Show — once again, a good premise utterly squandered. This film started out with a lot of promise, and then the story suddenly screeched to a halt and we were treated to a documentary that essentially told us everything we’d been watching up to that point. To compound the error, it was during this detour that our hero made his most important decision and took his biggest action — and we never fucking saw it happen! It would be comparable to, say, having Russell Crowe’s final Gladiator battle against Joaquin Phoenix happen offscreen. Hm. Then again, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.
Twister — a meandering mess with all the Hollywood-obligatory but unnecessary character crap thrown in — they’re going to get divorced but then they chase a tornado together. Will they get back together? Who cares. And when the payoff to your biggest special effect is that your heroes can survive it by holding onto pipes, well, you’ve pretty much taken the wind out of everything else you’ve built up before then.
Jon Bastian is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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