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Laurence Station's Best Films of the 1990s

Top 10:

1. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, Taiwan / Hong Kong / China, 1991)
Director Zhang Yimou's masterpiece is a gorgeously staged, fascinating examination of a dying era, in which concubines viciously compete for the affections of a manipulative, faceless master. Gong Li's performance, as a college-educated woman forced to become a concubine by her greedy stepmother, is as affecting as it is flawless. Truly one of the great films of world cinema.
 
2. Short Cuts (Robert Altman, USA, 1993)
Transplanting writer Raymond Carver's short stories from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California pays off handsomely in this endlessly inventive examination of the trials and tribulations of 22 L.A. inhabitants over a 72-hour period. Altman rivals his 1970s masterwork Nashville, effortlessly and coherently connecting the many plot threads, aided in no small part by a uniformly excellent ensemble cast.
3. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 1995)
A surrealist western that says as much about late-20th century life as it does about its 1870s period setting. Jarmusch's visual storytelling is so strong that he could have conveyed his multi-part message (of man's mechanized destruction of nature and his bestial treatment of his fellow man) without words and lost none of its impact. Unflinchingly blunt and refreshingly non-ironic, Dead Man marks the maverick filmmaker's landmark achievement.
 
4. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 1994)
Unabashed movie geek makes good, combining great dialogue with a love for Hong Kong crime noir and the French New Wave. The danger of making so hip a film lay in giving lesser talents the opportunity to churn out lame imitations for the remainder of the decade. Fortunately, the original remains as fresh and wickedly inventive as the day it was released.
5. Fargo (The Coen Brothers, USA, 1996)
Few films have rarely fleshed out the truism that "Crime doesn't pay" better than this one. The quirky characters and complicated situations provide surface entertainment, but it's the deeper themes of greed, love and chaos that set this film apart. With its careful exploration of the moral cost one must pay for his or her actions, Fargo assumes a permanent place amongst the Coen's finest efforts.
 
6. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990)
The "mobsters-as-suburban-homeowners-who mow-lawns-and bicker-with-their-spouses" structure laid the groundwork for the current Sopranos phenomena. Of course this is the true-life story of one-time mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill, and what a frantic, drug-fueled ride it is. Scorsese's visual imprint stamps the film with a uniquely manic energy that takes us inside the chaotic lives of these incredibly ordinary yet lethally dangerous characters.
7. All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, France / Spain, 1999)
Shamelessly riddled with Spanish soap opera clichés and broadly drawn stereotypes of everything from transvestites to grieving mothers, All About My Mother is unquestionably the great cinematic love letter to motherhood, regardless of gender. Usually undone by his wilder impulses, Almodóvar maintains control and the end result is easily the mercurial director's greatest triumph to date.
 
8. Lone Star (John Sayles, USA, 1996)
Race relations are the real point of John Sayles' Texas border-town murder mystery, and it's to the director's credit that he allows his characters to be in on the deeper issues as the son of a revered sheriff investigates whether or not his father killed a vicious lawman 25 years earlier. Sayles never condescends to the townspeople and that is the most refreshing aspect of this tightly drawn, complicated yarn.
9. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 1994)
The frantic energy of Chungking Express perfectly captures the uncertainty preceding the 1997 handover of the British colony to the Communist Chinese government. Lives in transition, fueled by desires for companionship and a better place in the world, percolate beneath the surface of two interconnected tales centered around cops, criminals and the frenetic world of fast-food employment. The breezy spirit, undercut by an impending sense of dread, provide the film with a spirit and sadness that linger long after the final credits fade.
 
10. The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, Canada, 1997)
A small British Columbia community is devastated by a bus accident that claims the life of several children. The arrival of an out-of-town lawyer (brilliantly played by Ian Holm) hoping to convince the grieving families to join in a class action lawsuit only exacerbates the depth of the tragedy for all involved. Not an easy film to watch, but no less important for the way it deals with relationships and painful secrets brought to light by greed and loss.
 
Notable near misses (Alphabetically Listed):
 
  • Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, UK / USA, 1999) A quirky, fun film that explores the cult of celebrity and dangers of voyeurism in an utterly original and fascinating manner.
  • Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, France / Denmark, 1995) Distressingly bleak in tone, this tale of a woman who has sex with strangers to appease her paralyzed husband is the ultimate anti-matrimonial vow flick.
  • Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, USA, 1994) Dysfunctional families have been fictionalized before, but this brood would be considered too far out if based on the real life model of R. Crumb, his mother and two brothers. A disquieting yet compulsively watchable documentary.
  • Cyrano De Bergerac (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, France, 1990) The classic storyline and big-budget staging are nearly peerless in their execution. A marvelous cinematic treat.
  • Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1999) The great pro-monogamy movie, as envisioned by the late, great Stanley Kubrick. Bottom line: Sex with strangers is empty and unfulfilling, home is where true connubial bliss lies.
  • Farewell, My Concubine (Chen Kaige, Hong Kong / China, 1993) Too epic in scope for its own good, Farewell is nonetheless a fascinating look at pre-to-post Communist China.
  • Happiness (Todd Solondz, USA, 1998) Tough love from Solondz, a director clearly unafraid when it comes to exposing the darkest elements society can foster, no matter how uncomfortable or shocking they might be.
  • Hoop Dreams (Steve James, USA, 1994) An engaging look at two basketball phenoms who take seemingly opposite but inevitably parallel journeys through high school competition on to the college level and (hopefully) the pro ranks.
  • L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, USA, 1997) Edgy urban '50s noir set during Christmastime in the City of Angels. Great performances elevate what could have been a fairly pedestrian crime drama to a striking examination of loyalty, duality and big city corruption.
  • Men With Guns (John Sayles, USA, 1997) Inherently preachy subject matter deftly handled by Sayles, who explores Central American strife via a nearly-retired doctor compelled to make one final journey into the shadowy and dangerous world of rebels and victimized peasants.
  • Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1993) A powerful blend of historical facts combined with expert cinematic framing marks this as Spielberg's most intensely felt and personally affecting film.
  • Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton, USA, 1996) A small. distinctly Southern morality tale about doing the right thing, even if it involves murdering someone who's too uncomfortable with the thought of suicide to do it themselves. Thornton's lead performance is simply brilliant.
  • Three Colors: Blue, White, Red (Krzysztof Kieslowsk, Switzerland / Poland / France, 1993, 1994) The late Kieslowsk's final work before his untimely 1996 death, Three Colors wrestles with the notion of the European Union, its pros and cons, and ultimately decides unification might not be such a bad idea after all.
 
Outstanding Actors:
 
Daniel Day-Lewis - Key films: The Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Age of Innocence (1993), In the Name of the Father (1993), The Boxer (1997)   Gong Li - Key films: Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), Farewell, My Concubine (1993), To Live (1994), Emperor and the Assassin (1999)
 
Outstanding Director:
 
Zhang Yimou - Key films: Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), To Live (1994), Not One Less (1999)
 

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