Monday, November 24, 2003

At the request of my friends at MilkPlus:

Top Ten: 1990-1994

1. The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992) is one of the rare films in this period which has my total and whole-hearted enthusiasm. It’s an A+ example of a certain type of movie I like, that I guess we all like: what I call an "unexpected journey" film. These are movies that start out in a somewhat familiar place, and instead of taking that straight road, take a wild turn toward a place that couldn’t have been imagined. Two other examples come to mind, both wildly different, come to mind: Psycho and L’Avventura. These are stories where we find ourselves as surprised as the characters in them, as surprised as the people who made them; what is revealed to them is revealed to us. I knew there was going to be a surprise midway through, but I thought it was political; I didn’t know it was going to be sexual -- more than that, I didn’t know it was going to be about love and sacrifice, and I certainly didn’t know it would move me the way it did, or that it would end with such a perfect snap. I just can’t say enough good things about The Crying Game.

2. Life is Sweet – (Mike Leigh, 1991) Federico Fellini once titled a film "the sweet life," but he was just kidding – there was nothing dolce about his vita. The title of Mike Leigh’s film is a little more straightforward, but with an edge; the middle-class Middlesex family he depicts here do not, in the usual sense of the word, have a sweet life, but they do, kinda. Wendy and Andy (Alison Steadman and Jim Broadbent) have no money to speak of, although they do have an abiding love and friendship. Their twin daughters are studies in contrasts: Natalie (Claire Skinner), a hard-working plumber who saves her money and never has an idle thought, and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a bulimic little bitch with a permanent scowl and an addiction to chocolate. The plot of the film, such as it is, is rather cinema verite: we follow the giggly and plucky Wendy as she good-heartedly helps a family friend (Timothy Spall) open a restaurant that is doomed to failure, Andy as he naively blows good money on a broken-down van pawned off on him by his weasely pal Patsy (Stephen Rea), and Nicola – a knock-out performance by Horrocks, by the way – as she wolfs down chocolate bars, alienates her boyfriend (David Thewlis) and her sister, and slides further into depression. As the film lopes along, it also gradually builds to a confrontation between the happy-go-lucky mom and her woe-is-me daughter that is so emotionally shattering you’re reminded that this is what movies are all about: palpable human drama, shot and edited with utter simplicity. Leigh, in his usual improvisational style, sets out to find the drama of ordinary life, and when he does, it takes your breath away. It’s a bravely sweet film – although some may find it a little too feel-good. The director may have been in that camp; he followed this with Naked, which may have been his own way of puking after eating too much candy.

3. In its own strange way, the Southern California of Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993) resembles nothing so much as William Blake’s “London” -- it isn’t the outer world that’s eating them up, but the world of other people, particularly significant others. Blake’s people are stuck in a “marriage hearse,” and so are Altman’s -- they’re in dead or dying relationships of one kind or another, full of secrets, lies and -- in a couple of cases -- mutually assured destruction. This cross-cuting series of storoies adapted from raymond Carver starts with insecticide-spraying helicopters descending like locusts on the Southern California landscape, and it ends with an earthquake; people endure both, but it’s anyone’s guess how long they can endure each other. The plague of modern life has them in its grip, and Altman captures them with bitter sympathy, irony, and a cold unblinking eye. Put this film in a time capsule: it’s America at the end of the millenium.

4. La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)– With Camille Claudel, the best film about art I’ve ever seen. As soon as I saw it, I called a sculptor friend of mine and told him he had to see it -- then i went over to his house and watched it with him again. This story of an artist and his model is four hours long and never feels like it; it’s one of those odd films that moves at an ordinary pace without ever being the least bit boring. Part of the reason is obvious, as the model is one of the most beautiful women in the world, Emmanuelle Beart, and she spends most of the movie completely naked. This is where the length of the movie works in its favor; as the artist dawdles around, adjusting this and that, gradually starting to work and finding his focus, he becomes our source of interest -- no small trick.

5. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)– I guess this is the most influential film of the decade, and certainly one of the most entertaining. It’s a work of art, and quite useless.

6. Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994) -- A car hits a dog and the driver seeks out the owner, thereby bringing together a young woman and a retired judge with a voyeuristic interest in the lives of others.

7. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

8. Schindler’s List (Stephen Spielberg, 1993)

9. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)

10. Exotica (Atom Egoyan, 1994)

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