Top 25 of 1992
25. Man Bites Dog
Man Bites Dog grows prescient thanks to it predating the original mainstream and American reality TV show in Survivor by about eight years, but you have to wonder just how far ahead the cast and crew were looking when they created this. The black and white aesthetic seems to hint at a certain timelessness attempting to be captured even though back then it was most certainly out of date. Is it an attack of the nature of genuine documentaries as a whole? Possible but unlikely, as there had rarely been so much probing of a subject done in so much bad taste, not to mention the lack of interviews with the filmmakers themselves within such matters. No, in the sense of indicting today’s reality television viewer, what this does is break down the barrier between filmmaker and subject so completely that we really only notice it by the time the inhibitions of everyone involved in the production have been dropped for good. The killer Benoit (or Ben) uses the crew to go ahead and kill people, some in very sickly funny ways (screaming at an old woman to give her a heart attack is certainly inspired), but where things get really twisted in the dynamics is in the gradual poisoning of the documentarians themselves, who either wind up dead or joining him in his exploits of rape and murder. Worst of all is that Ben is such a charismatic asshole thanks to director/star Benoit Poelvoorde’s fantastic performance his countless observations on every topic or matter you could imagine, that we find ourselves rooting for him even when he does things as depraved as hunting down a child. The three directors-Poelvoorde, Remy Belvaux, and Andre Bonzel-never stop laughing at the abundance of horrible shit that is occurring (and bizarrely, they never went on to direct anything else), whether it’s in the gentle cluelessness of Ben’s mother or the fact that yep, you have totally crossed the boundary as a viewer and are going to be fucked up on the way home because of how we took on the way your lizard brain works. Enjoy your filth and violence, especially since Tarantino is going to burst through the line to do it all on a higher level two years later. This is as base and upsetting as it gets, and to top the horrors off, it looks absolutely gorgeous while doing it.
Favorite Moment: The child murder.
24. Strictly Ballroom
Thank god for Strictly Ballroom which is Baz Luhrmann’s perfect starting spot for his madcap early films, a glittery fantasy debut that proudly, joyously flaunts its cliches while wearing an expensive and sparkly outfit, and loudly proclaiming that yes, it is cliched and melodramatic and cheaply romantic and all the things you could accuse it of. So what if it is all those things and many more? It then it rips up all the tropes it’s stealing from while setting off fireworks or something equally ridiculous and climatically appropriate. But the point is, even when the director chooses to paint his characters with shades of grey it’s the prettiest and most eye popping damn version of that color that is possible in a film that tries to cram in all the colors of the rainbow via the power of sequins, and has no time for basic shades like black, white, or grey anyway. It’s also arguably his funniest film in terms of the sheer volume of absurdity coursing through the veins of the script and the foundation of his now trademarked shooting style. I mean, the title alone and how it gets used throughout? No one should be taking this movie as seriously as something like Glengarry Glen Ross after that. That Time After Time montage in front of a sparkling, bright red advertisement for Coca-Cola seals the deal. Anyone who can watch all of Strictly Ballroom without feeling like a small teenage girl just swooning over how pretty and talented Paul Mercurio (now that’s a name that fits right into the Luhrmann filmography, shocked he didn’t return for Romeo + Juliet) is, or how lovely Tara Morice’s dresses are, or how amazingly sensual the dancing is…well, they’re just not the kind of person I’ll ever truly click with when talking about these things. Pat Thomson’s final role is a real delight too, for she shows no restraint and feels like a Moulin Rouge! character trapped in a low budget indie with glamorous aspirations, albeit one who is still a living breathing person with all the delusions that accompany her faded career. Ultimately, the nicest thing about this movie is that it’s not even the best part of the Red Curtain trilogy. The best is yet to come even if it would take almost a decade to reach it. This is catnip for anyone above a 1 on the Kinsey scale.
Favorite Moment: The Time After Time montage after the glasses are removed.
23. A Woman’s Tale
Movies that exist solely as a showcase for a particular performance, which usually consist of character studies, are fairly risky since so much rises and falls on the power of the actor or actress’ performance. A Woman’s Tale sounds like Australian Academy Awards bait on paper, featuring a dying elderly woman with cancer…who is played by just that. Sheila Florance, thankfully, rises to the occasion in truly spectacular form thanks to a script that draws on the very thing that makes the elderly interesting: life experience. With all doubt that this would be her final hour on film erased, her Martha is just as lively as any lovable older lady in films that we’ve seen countless times, but she feels like a twenty year precursor to Sadie from Sean Baker’s Starlet. She possesses the same kind of stubbornness, but she is stubborn in a different way, namely in how even with cancer, she refuses to stop smoking and takes a sort of warped pride in it even when she’s at a restaurant. She also won’t be moved into a home, and plays matchmaker with her nurse even though it is technically an affair she’s culpable in. She’s also surrounded by death thanks to director Paul Cox’s smart writing, with a senile neighbor (Billy) who she must help out, and a friend who’s even older and far nicer than she is. (In the closest the movie gets to being overly cutesy, they make friends with a prostitute.) Florance is past the point of vanity, not hiding the fact that her body is totally decrepit and filled with a sort of pride over the fact that she continues to put too much strain on it by helping Billy or taking a nasty fall at one point. She doesn’t want to be young for the sake of it, she wants to be young so she can continue to help others. Most touching is the moment when Martha tries to assist a suicidal 16 year old girl via a radio show. Also a standout is her nurse, acted by Gosia Dobrowolska in the very definition of a great supporting role for our lead. They both insist on trying to keep Martha’s dignity in a world that doesn’t understand why it’s so valuable to her. From the first shot to the last, A Woman’s Tale doesn’t try to be anything other than its title, and yet it still covers so much more. It’s as merciless a take on a very nice person as you could think of.
Favorite Moment: The call in to the radio station.
22. A League of Their Own
Why hasn’t Penny Marshall made more movies? She’s not a groundbreaking director but she’s consistently fun and she broke 100 million dollars at the box office twice, for films that people still look back on fondly. Women watch (and make) films, they make money, and in the case of a movie like A League of Their Own they certainly deserve it. Yes, it’s a film designed to appeal to everyone in a rather safe way (the Tom Hanks/Geena Davis casting in particular), but I don’t mind that sort of thing at all when something tries to go for this on every possible level from the script down to things like actually caring to make the photography pretty to look at, as opposed to just creating a pleasant script and calling it a day. It’s a good piece of corporate product, and it’s hard to imagine a better version thanks to all the actresses and Hanks being game for anything, complete with getting real injuries that the crew cheerfully used to add some realism. Besides, League of Their Own is secretly a very sardonic piece of work, with a certain eye rolling tolerance of the idiocy of the men who are running the teams and the world, and a grim nod in the direction of the racism of the leagues (could be more but I suppose there’d be anachronism). Hanks doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of his character, and Davis, as per usual, comes across like the smartest person in the room even though on paper, her role makes her look a little dumber. Lori Petty is the standout of the supporting group and was sadly underused even with her arguably being the protagonist-one of League’s issues is Rosie O’Donnell getting the most airtime outside of the stars despite being a fairly bad actress with an abrasive role. Still, Marshall brings a certain snappiness and liveliness to these characters, so it doesn’t feel like a hagiography until the final scene, which is far more tolerable in the context of the film building up a lot of momentum in the far stronger second half. This is not exactly a great piece of cinema, but I’d safely call it among the best from this year anyway, and it’s top notch family entertainment (I think it might be this high because I have fond memories of watching it with my sisters).
Favorite Moment: The newsreel.
21. Muppet Christmas Carol
Maybe The Muppet Christmas Carol isn’t the best adaptation of the Dickens story, but it comes damn close, and it’s easily the most fun for me and almost anyone else with a sense of humor to watch simply by virtue of having the Muppets doing their act with a particularly catchy soundtrack (the opening number is the highlight). Even before I’d seen this in full, I had fond memories of Muppet Christmas Carol because of the Paley Center’s Christmas Carol mashup of media adaptations of the story (movies, television, etc). After a whole series of scenes ranging from the classic versions for Scrooge’s refusal to give money to the poor, to the Flintstones version when Fred doesn’t get his uncle to come to visit, the scene where Tiny Tim is revealed to have died…consists of the Muppets, with Miss Piggy sobbing. It was as funny a reveal as anything I could think of after a truly gloomy entrance from The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shown earlier. And then I finally watched the movie itself and had a lovely time even with Michael Caine being a most unconvincing Scrooge, enjoying himself far too much. Outside of his performance, there’s only the faintest effort to shave off the darkest parts of the fable, with our narrators electing to leave during the Yet to Come sequence just because of how alarming it is (and it so isn’t). More importantly, it’s endlessly funny, with the characters throwing joke after joke at us, with most sticking the landing. Funniest joke would have to be Statler and Waldorf as “Jacob and Robert Marley” just because it’s so subtly handled that I had to wonder for a few seconds if the writers knew what they were doing, but the boundlessly strange sense of humor that the television show had at its best is on full display here. There’s also far more clever stuff about deconstructing narratives going on here than one would expect thanks to Gonzo and Rizzo as the storytellers who keep getting into antics, even if the movie wisely keeps a lot of Dickens’ dialogue intact just to make the drastic tonal shifts a little more appropriately discordant. All this from a film featuring animal puppets supposedly aimed at children! Filled with anarchy and heart, like all the best kid’s movies, and the sort of thing that would make Jim Henson proud.
Favorite Moment: Scrooge learns about Tiny Tim’s death (sorry, this is hysterical to me).
20. Husbands and Wives
Husbands and Wives is the nastiest, misanthropic piece of work ever produced by Woody Allen. He may grant a few of his characters a happy ending in this but even though it totally isn’t, he loves framing it as at the cost of some others. The former group is Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis), who start off the film getting separated. The latter is Gabe and, slightly confusingly, Judy (Allen and Mia Farrow), whose anxiety over the breakup and their own marital troubles causes a massive self-destruction over the course of the movie. Filled with all the scars and personal traumas of the dissolving marriage in the backdrop (shame this one didn’t get a making of documentary ala Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now, but I suppose it qualifies as its own version of that), Husbands and Wives is a tough sit, but the lacerations it causes the viewer are the kind to take pride in. Battle scars of the movies! They take the shape of Allen and Farrow constantly testing each other in increasingly flammable ways, their marriage on the verge of igniting and going up in smoke, playing confidant with Jack/Sally in their schemes. Appropriately, let’s pass the baton to the latter, who is the type of misanthrope who no one really would call that, with more common man’s complaints like “cold in bed” getting used. Davis is just superb here and probably should’ve won the Oscar, intellectualizing away all her romances and taking exception to nearly everything she hears (“I’m only yawning because I’m hyper-oxygenating”), with pitch perfect line deliveries each time. The flare-ups, squabbles, and outright nuclear war of the more canon coupling as Juliette Lewis becomes a pawn in their fights takes center stage and captures how intimacy is something you fall into rather than construct. That you don’t even need to read a tabloid, you can just watch this, to understand the cause of things, is the icing on the bitterest cake ever baked, complete with deliberate ugly cinematography and faux-documentary aesthetic to really drive home the Scenes from a Marriage ripoff. The ultimate irony? Everyone in this wants the others to be happy. They just have such different terms for it, and they all ruin things by their own selfishness. Watch it with someone you love on Valentine’s Day, and then have an honest discussion afterwards. Truly any person’s dream date.
Favorite Moment: Sally’s delivery of the line “He weeps?”
19. Porco Rosso
Sometimes Hayao Miyazaki wants to comment on the nature of something, usually to do with a specific time and place and how they relate to the world around them, and other times, he just wants us to go on an adventure, but even then he doesn’t skimp on the subtext of things. Porco Rosso actually barely qualifies as an adventure what with how little distance is covered despite it being so focused on planes and flight, but in spirit it fits the mood as well as something like Angels with Dirty Faces or an Errol Flynn yarn…except with a man who happens to look like a pig for reasons that never go fully explained but are beautifully hinted at thanks to a cartoon that is both a great homage to a dead style of animation and tease at some great implications. Fascism is also always in the background even when the lead, Porco himself, is learning a little something about morality from the girl Fio. This is Miyazaki trying to make us examine how slowly these sorts of things can arrive, even at a place as calm and idyllic as the Hotel Adriano. The very best part is that all this heavy sounding stuff is hidden way underneath the glossy sheen of nostalgia for the old times of flyboys and pilots with personality. You can enjoy this movie purely for its abundant surface pleasures, with ridiculously detailed, gorgeous flight sequences and character animation, with sun kissed, warm colors everywhere to be found-if movie had a scent, this one would smell like sea salt. Porco Rosso may like to rely on the past too much to stand on its own two feet as much as something like Spirited Away, but when even a middling Miyazaki is a film that I can find minimal faults with, you know you’re in the hands of a master. Something as simple as putting the movie in a real historical time elevates it by this much. Perhaps the film being a little less elevated is because of the male protagonist, who falls into the same gently chauvinistic vein as some of the minor antagonists in Ghibli films, but there’s no lack of interesting women here either in the shape of Fio and glamorous bar singer Madame Gina. They may be there to draw reveals out of the protagonist but they do it while having their own personality.
Favorite Moment: The clouds.
18. The Long Day Closes
The magic of Terrence Davies movies is that they’re all the same yet totally different, blurring together in an odd way like what happens when you see too many similar movies from the same era or director. They are a blend of memories and highly personal introspection with a healthy sized dollop of old favorites like Young at Heart covering everything. His most autobiographical work that isn’t a flat out autobiography (Of Time and the City is the film that renders the last six words in that part of the sentence necessary), it’s primarily concerned with remembering an era simply by having the most casual of references in the form of a song, a movie ticket, whatever else would be tossed around a house. It’s a perfectionist’s vision, but the details are like something out of a great science fiction universe rather than Liverpool in the 50s. It’s fiercely personal in ways that become even more obvious if you’ve seen Of Time and the City, what with the fledgling gay child protagonist, Bud, whose family places a lot in the Catholic Church and is very much involved with the community at large. It’s a time of great joy with a fast moving current of sadness underneath. His home life is warm thanks to his relationship with his mother but he is truly devoted to the movies. In contrast, school is a dreary place. This all sounds like standard coming of age stuff, but Long Day Closes is more concerned with how Davies’ stand in became who he was and a deep sense of sadness over so many years passing by, both for himself and the woman playing his mother in the very sad final song at the sink. Everything in Bud’s imagination bleeds into the real world in a very casual way, and then comes the “a-ha!” moment for the viewer, most likely to kick in during the shot of Bud staring at a movie screen happily: this is a movie about the development of a moviemaker’s mind. And when that moment kicks in, the simplest thing like a shot of rotting flowers becomes that much more poignant, as you try and twist the layers of memories apart and it all becomes something like a fictionalized version of Sans Soleil. Not even Davies could solve this puzzle, though. It’s as seductive a vision of a passing moment as anything I can think of.
Favorite Moment: Song at the sink.
17. Malcolm X
The year’s Token Biopic That Doesn’t Suck. Actually, no, fuck that, Malcolm X is a legitimately great piece of film making and features Spike Lee at the top of his game (he has a “one total knockout per decade” rule, this is it for the 90s). I normally do not offer up this high a level of praise for something like a Richard Attenborough hagiography disguised as a movie, for this is the kind of creative work that preserves the voice of a great man while also breaking some new ground in terms of how biopic form is played with-in other words, Lee’s voice is just as important as X’s and we don’t realize it until it’s over. The film starts out like an MGM musical, all saturated pastel colors for the present day scenes of Malcolm becoming a gangster and faded ones, usually in fall shades, for the flashbacks to his childhood, a mix of dazzling highs and sad lows. Everything glows like something shot in a Technicolor musical, and it’s shot in suitably melodramatic fashion to portray a heightened reality (see how my favorite moment of the film is shot to see what I mean) Then he goes to jail, and everything becomes more realistic looking. He sees the world as it is, and while this all sounds a little stupid on paper, it’s done so subtly in practice that it results in something that works as both a biography and a character study-I truly believe this movie could’ve been fantastic even if Malcolm X was a fictional construct. Anchoring it all is Denzel Washington giving a truly jawdropping performance. This is no mimicry, but still the kind of role the Academy would go for nine times out of ten. And yet this was the year they decided Pacino needed an Oscar. Whatever. I didn’t even mention the most shocking part, which is that this movie more or less totally justifies a 200 minute running time. When it’s not Washington serving up a stunning performance, Angela Bassett and Al Freeman Jr. take the reins, as well as some cues from the star about how to make their characters individual while also capturing the truths of the real historical figures. A rarity among directorial passion projects in how successful it is, both creatively and in Spike Lee successfully grabbing the zeitgeist in times that may have appeared rosy but in retrospect, were appalling.
Favorite Moment: Courtroom verdict.
16. Batman Returns
Remember when Tim Burton’s passion projects all contained different forms of weirdness rather than the interchangeably DARK aesthetics of the Christopher Nolan age? I miss the days when a huge comic book blockbuster sequel that was marketed en masse could be significantly better than the original just by virtue of the sort of deranged mayhem that Marvel would never, ever approve of except in the tersest of nods. Michael Keaton’s talent for making all his characters come across as total weirdos no matter how normal serves him beautifully even when he’s clearly halfassing it a bit, but this movie has endured because of the villains. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is practically a forerunner to Frank Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in his casual grossness and very special brand of sexual repression, with the only difference being the makeup job. Watching him hiss about the heights of erogenous zones and bite off a man’s nose while slobbering everywhere never fails to impress in some strange way, fitting right into the heightened theatricality of the Gotham sewers. But it’s all about Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, the kind of performance that deserved just as much of a reputation as Heath Ledger’s Joker even in a year where she had something easier to swallow for the Academy’s pleasures. Sure, she plays every scene heightened even before she gets killed off and revived (by cat tongues! I miss when comics had that kind of origin story), but the desperate melodrama of Selina’s early scenes recalls Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz since she sells the helplessness so well. And then HELL HERE happens and we all know the rest, with an outfit that matches her newfound confidence and a way of, well, purring out her lines and embracing things like swallowing birds. Every line she spits out, like damn near everything else in the movie, is a rampaging Freudian slip from the mind of a Goth. Her “A kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it” with the red-rimmed eyes after Bruce Wayne’s lonely flirt at the ball, or her final countdown, are a potent dosage of tragic fatalism. She elevates what’s supposedly a kid’s film into something far more pornographic and has Batman and the Penguin on a firm leash as she struts through the snow, pausing briefly to look at a cat-patterned pane of glass that really is just a mirror, winking at the audience. Also: bird suicide bombers!
Favorite Moment: The masquerade.
The Leopold and Loeb murder case was always acknowledged to be rooted in an emotionally unhealthy homosexual romance thanks to their attorney’s infamous defense. Hitchcock’s Rope, no matter how fictionalized, didn’t help matters by throwing in enough gay subtext underneath those long takes to the point of the best kind of politically incorrect shadings. You shouldn’t revel in the depiction of such stereotypes, but they’re just so savory. Swoon goes even further in the debauchery, with the closeted notes turning into a gay pride parade symphony of sorts. But it’s not a fun one to listen to underneath the gorgeous black and white photography and clever period anachronisms that don’t draw attention to themselves (although the editing very much does). Leopold is submissive and desperate for approval (he’d fit right into the Deladonchamps part in Stranger by the Lake), Loeb is a monster who enjoyed exerting what he perceived as a higher intellectual power. What initially appears to be two handsome, glamorous men turn out to be awful and you should be ashamed for sympathizing with them, right? Nope. The thesis is much more complicated once the trial starts up. The female jurors being forced to leave the court once the details of the killing get graphic even if they have every right to stay, the very defense of homosexuality equaling insanity, the judge’s blatant bigotry…well, no shit that two male homosexuals in the 1920s never had a chance in the justice system, but it’s told visually, with a bed in the courtroom for the two men to make love for…what? Do we take it as romantic, a fuck you to the judicial system, a display of gayness being put on trial? Loeb’s subsequent death in prison via a white man strangling him and the press’ take on it (“a frenzied Negro”) are as clear a message from Tom Kalin on those kind of attitudes as anything. Everything in Swoon is incongruous, with contemporary attitudes being imposed on past values, things that don’t belong being casually fitted into the mise en scene, the raw passion of a film like Bonnie and Clyde married to an ancient avant-garde work. Leopold and Loeb don’t fit in either, and the way they see the world is a little like a French New Wave film in a world that only has time for old-fashioned theatricality. The cherry on top: look out for Todd Haynes as one of the phrenology heads (pre-Safe to boot).
Favorite Moment: The bed in court.
14. A Tale of Winter
A Tale of Winter isn’t the most accurate title, a better choice would have focused on the protagonist Felicie, played by a deliberately self-absorbed Charlotte Very. She’s the sort of romantic that isn’t so easily painted as one even though on paper, she’s practically a Cupid. But she’s far too self-sabotaging for that kind of simplification. Her behavior starts off as being unintentional with her giving the man she’s convinced is the love of her life the wrong address, resulting in a depressing title card reading “Five Years Later” that wrecks all of our illusions as far as that hope goes. Not only has she gotten pregnant and given birth to his child, but she’s dating two men at once (who both know about each other and the lost lover Charles, and don’t seem to care much except in the sense of genuinely caring for her), and she’s secretly determined to break up with them just for the sake of a man who may or may not still be interested in her. If you thought the ending of Before Sunrise was a bit foolhardy and the beginning of Before Sunset a lie, this is either a dream or a nightmare of a movie for you. Mistaken lookalike cliches, among many others, get totally skewered and Eric Rohmer takes pleasure in gently mocking the unrealistic nature of Felicie’s self sabotaging behaviors and how they will lead to nothing on her end…right? Well, yes and no. We finally, eventually realize that our lead is simply not ready to move on even with full awareness of Charles potentially being out of the picture and the needs of having another person around to provide for her daughter, and the situation becomes incredibly sad rather than mildly screwy, like a wife trying to deal with her husband’s death on a much more minor scale. And then (spoilers ahead) Felicie’s faith pays off and she does, in fact, meet Charles again and they wind up happily together and in love to boot. It’s a total cheat of an ending, but it feels so well-earned in the moment…unless you think about it, simply because we want to see these people be happy for some reason, any reason, just give them what they want even if I’m sure they’ll throw it away ten minutes after the movie ends. And we love them for it and their labyrinth schemes.
Favorite Moment: The breakup.
It’s a real shame that such a wonderful coming of age movie like Flirting has basically been forgotten by almost everyone when it could practically be something done by John Hughes with different accents and uniforms. The predecessor to it, The Year My Voice Broke, is a nice little lightweight comedy that didn’t do anything I could criticize other than be enjoyably fluffy and not really go anywhere outside of its slice of life boundaries. This one somehow tackles underlying racial issues, masculine posing, teenage sexuality, and social groups among private school kids…and it does it with droll wit and without its young teen male narrator ever obliquely saying something along the lines of how Thandie Newton’s Thandiwe is being treated differently (by a group that includes a young Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts to boot) because she’s a black exchange student from England. She’s clearly the most intelligent one there even though Noah Taylor’s lead fancies himself an intellectual in the making as his way of dealing with bullies, and the romance is put under so much pressure partially because it’s interracial. The teenagers in this film have a lot more fun than you would expect, curfews and ridiculous school dances be damned, but they also take themselves so overly seriously and want to have it all. Most Hollywood films about adults could stand to learn something from this movie’s sex scene, too, with the lovers being in their own little world emphasized above all else. (The whole movie has a shocking amount of creativity in how it looks despite taking place in such a stodgy, shooting unfriendly location. Most of the frames are cluttered, so when it goes sparse it pops.) It’s more than a little mind blowing that this film was a sequel, and that the full trilogy never panned out when both movies won the Australian equivalent of Best Picture (Australian films had a big renaissance in the early 90s). It’s a minor miracle and an exponential improvement. I’ll quietly mourn Danny Embling never getting his life story told in full over here, not to mention Thandie Newton never reaching this height again. She gets in plenty of wonderful line readings but her at the debate is a particular marvel of the titular flirting, mixed with a certain smug attention seeking. The entirety of the runtime is spent in that sweet spot of acknowledging that these teenagers are just more emotional adults.
Favorite Moment: The breakup.
12. Bad Lieutenant
New York has almost never been as hellish as it’s been portrayed in Bad Lieutenant, with Harvey Keitel’s agonized moaning as he stands around naked post-drugged out threesome setting the tone and echoing throughout as we follow a man so venal and rampaging that he doesn’t even deserve a name. Another sort of screaming follows when a gorgeous nun is raped in a scene that uncomfortably straddles the line between the kind of exploitative trash that the director was unfairly associated with, and deeply empathetic defilement of innocence. Then there’s the cries of the women who the Lieutenant forces to perform for him on the side of the road in a moment that practically spray paints in bright red “PARALLELS!”, and thank god for that since the film only needs to be subtle sometimes. Abel Ferrera, wringing every bit of brilliance out of Zoe Lund’s script, is absolutely intent on suffocating us in misery and putting in a ticking, World Series shaped clock. Somehow, it works, for the desperate scratching at the walls on the part of our titular character, looking for some kind of redemption after a lifetime of gambling, drug use, and corruption, makes only the poor nun appear more likable than anyone else in this disgusting world of men who pillage without discrimination or fear of the consequences. Even that gets thrown back in our faces when our lead tries to drag a confession out of her regarding her attackers that goes to a very grim place when she expresses nothing but sincere forgiveness (how oddly fitting that even a quiet scene of forgiveness comes across just as lurid as something like a female corpse getting a once-over) for what they did. It’s a simultaneous attack on the Catholic Church-hell, all belief systems-and a downright optimistic belief in the power of absolution no matter how great the crime. Reality itself begins to collapse on our hero, and Keitel reacts appropriately. He bares all physically, yes, but emotionally he’s just as willing to scream himself raw. His three 1992 turns all seem like an exorcism in preparation for The Piano in retrospect. Everything about this is a cesspool picture, and we’ll all dip our heads underneath the muck at one point. Yet this is the waste of someone refined and with a very intelligent, refined form of anger that takes the form of a bump of cocaine off a picture of a child at communion.
Favorite Moment: The Lieutenant confronts The Nun.
11. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
For a movie that has exactly one good performance (which has the incredible, award winning makeup as a crutch to boot) and several deficient ones, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is truly alive. Everything about it is steeped in shades of colors that we don’t see often enough. Glowing oranges that always make it look like the set has been painted with fire, life-drained whites, perverted reds. Sex in this movie takes the form of dreams that quickly become nightmares (Jonathan getting raped by the brides before they eat a baby may have been ripped from the book but it’s far more lurid than anyone’s wildest flights of fancy could be) and the spilling of fluids, with the generous blood flow from the crucifix in the earliest scenes setting the stage for sights like the razor licking or a particularly gratuitous cut from a decapitation to a slice of roast beef. More importantly, Francis Ford Coppola knows exactly what to aim for with the telling of this oldest of horror stories, namely in the shape of a certain incoherence like the kind caused by absinthe or Japanese horror, both immersing us in the artificiality of this universe while also pointing it out at all times to help take us out of it. The classic novel’s Victorian stance on sexuality (it’s bad and it will kill you!) gets twisted into something else here, with the past versions of the tale reappearing in the form of early zoetrope cinema, but whatever it is trying to communicate can be lost when looking at the splendor of the visuals that communicate so much livelihood for a take on the living dead and their deranged romances. Another way that the sexuality is twisted comes from the take on Lucy’s, who doesn’t change much between life and death except in costuming. In some ways this film grabs hold of the strongest aspects of Coppola; the incoherent madness and blistering colors of Apocalypse Now/One from the Heart mixed with the ramifications of the past generations from The Godfather trilogy, while also proudly using those traits as a noose to hang itself with (along with Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, with the former at least having the excuse of the director wanting to play on his limitations). The film doesn’t aim for perfection so much as it vomits it after eating it and finding it not to its liking.
Favorite Moment: The razor licking.
10. Story of Qiu Ju
I have seen The Story of Qiu Ju described as a comedy, insofar as a man getting kicked in the groin and going down in pain is usually played for comedy. The rest of this movie’s humor is a little like what would happen if The Comeback wasn’t about a rich white lady but a poor Chinese one who’s pregnant to boot, with a huge chunk of Brazil’s immature bureaucracy mocking that’s too relevant to be truly comedic thrown in. The laughs are more vaguely acknowledged than actually felt, for this is a painful situation and the world outside of this film is unpleasant. Watching Gong Li with a pregnancy belly is strange (it’s like something out of an Academy Awards campaign), but even though she’s clearly still pretty, she also looks so much more worn out than we’re used to seeing her, with not a trace of glamour in her life or bearing. Her simpleminded seeming sister in law getting lost at the most inopportune moment and ruining their pointless purchase of a painting is a masterclass in microscopic reactions, but she also has a sense of great dignity that she clings onto like a flotation raft. She doesn’t have a whole lot else with her husband’s injury and the police chief insulting her at every step when she makes the tiniest of gains. The little indignities continue to pile up, costing her way more money than the small payments she gets from each attempt at proper compensation, and most depressing yet admirable of all is Qiu Ju’s laser focus on wanting an apology rather than something she can use. Zhang Yimou usually doesn’t go in for anything approaching social realism but he shows a real knack for it. The final twists of the knife, however, are filled with all the melodrama that you’d see in something out of his crazy colored masterpieces, except nowhere near as operatic and just plain grim. Our lead’s birth goes badly, and she’s forced to rely on the very same chief who’s made things impossible to help her save her life. Thankfully, this doesn’t end as brutally as one would expect for a director who’s gone in some very hard directions. What comes after, however, is something that approaches nihilism were it not for Li finding the most dignified reaction of horror to a situation like something out of Tracy Letts or Kafka.
Favorite Moment: Meizi gets lost.
9. Edward II
Trying to explain why Edward II works so well for me is a bit of an exercise in futility even when there’s so much to love. It’s gloriously campy trash on the surface but underneath, it’s an incredibly serious venture. Or maybe it goes the other way around? Well, to recap the highlights: there is a scene of two gay men dancing while Annie Lennox randomly sings a song while everyone ignores her existence (and said song really sounds more like a dirge). Tilda Swinton plays the Queen, a Margaret Thatcher far more memorable than Meryl Streep’s, whose homophobia is rooted in abandonment issues and a sex drive that’s insatiable but then proceeds to turn into a literal vampire in a scene that no doubt inspired Only Lovers Left Alive. Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan hang around and plot while wearing no shirts and usually having orgies with sailors to boot. Scenes are frequently lit like they’re doing the theatrical version. The resistance movement is comprised of LGBT rights protesters. It’s actually sadder than I’m making it sound, homophobia is terrible and was a problem even in the 1990s, etc. but I’m too busy enjoying the fact that this is basically a Gay Disney movie, with the heteronormative villains playing into such cartoony, evil stereotypes of the ideal that I’m laughing at their ridiculousness, or just enjoying the bitchy repartee straight out of Shakespeare. However, Edward II plays into my niche the most via the revolutionary aspects of it, with Derek Jarman’s radical aesthetics informing every frame. It’s a casual revolt, and if there’s something I’m a sucker for it’s a doomed attempt at overthrowing a system. It’s made all the more impressive when you note that the original play portrayed everyone in the cast as completely without merits, while Jarman doesn’t shy away from the fact that Edward/Gaveston are fairly awful humans but still makes it crystal clear that they are the victims of bigotry with the most hilariously heavy handed symbolism you could ask for, complete with childlike glee in showing that all the bigots are just as kinky as the main couple themselves. The happy ending, totally unearned, is as risky as you could think of for something that lets the good people off the hook easily. Maybe the future will consist of androgynous boys who love ballet but it’s a blatant fantasy in a film that is already suffused with magic rather than realism.
Favorite Moment: Annie Lennox’s song.
8. Passion Fish
One of the rare cases of the Academy giving a film that genuinely deserved more attention a higher profile! Hooray for their appreciation of Passion Fish, which has raw material that’s very easy to embrace but does it so damn well. Mary McDonnell gets a role that begs to be taken with the obvious route in the shape of a bitchy, demanding, and alcoholic/TV addicted soap opera star whose lower body is paralyzed in an accident and then softens up with the help of her new nurse after some initial resistance. The same applies to Alfre Woodard’s part of caregiver Chantelle, who helps McDonnell’s May-Alice Culhane, and which was just as deserving of a nod even with the potential category confusion. Yet John Sayles’ script and direction firmly buck what would be easier for an audience to swallow a few minutes into Chantelle’s arrival at the half hour mark after a parade of caregivers get abused off the Culhane property. Chantelle turning out to be a detoxing addict isn’t groundbreaking stuff on its own, but with the full weight of Woodard letting her be a person who’s still struggling to get back on her feet and will happily indulge in petty behavior, while McDonnell doesn’t shy away from throwing away a few shades of minor, near-unconscious bigotry into the early meetings when she’s already filled to the brim with denial and cynicism. She also has the tricky challenge of playing a lousy actress who must nevertheless play countless roles whenever her friends and family come to visit her, with said friends getting enough juicy material in just a few lines that the actors can reveal entire life stories. It’s a great ensemble for what’s essentially a two-hander film. Passion Fish doesn’t deny the characters uplifting moments, but May-Alice is more concerned with getting her way than making a friend, and the resulting battle of wills flirts with both sweetness and sourness. One uses money as a weapon, the other uses their basic ability to walk. And then they slowly meet in the middle even with all their differences, together for better or for worse. Sequel, please? We need more portraits of race relations and women that are this wonderfully evocative. Or at least team up the cast and crew again for a few more pieces of work. Characters shaped by a real world are rare, and most of these women deserve reactions to what’s happening now.
Favorite Moment: Chantelle leaves May-Alice stuck outside.
7. Rebels of the Neon God
The long silences and unpleasant, rotting houses of Tsai Ming-liang’s films got a truly auspicious debut in Rebels of the Neon God, which promptly floods the lead character’s apartment with water and calls it the most exciting thing to ever happen to him. His encounter with a pair of thugs that smash the windows of his father’s car in an intersection is fairly close to being the sole plot point of this movie. Except it’s really the entire world on display here, with the hustle and bustle of the city being a melting pot of isolation. The characters have sex and drink water but neither one gives them any more livelihood. Revenge doesn’t help much either, and neither does wasting away the nights at places like roller discos, playing Streetfighter, or committing get rich quick schemes. The titular neon god, Taipei itself, has never looked more beautiful yet more grim, full of hustle and bustle, slimy and shiny, reflecting all its lights. The camera frequently searches the sky, searching for meaning, and finding nothing but a source of problems. The cast themselves is perfect for Tsai’s obsession with the ambiguities within the watery world, frequently committing random acts of pettiness that don’t benefit anyone and from which we can only draw their emotional lives from their lonely glances. Wang Yu-wen does wonderful things with an underwritten role (her jean shorts uniform gives her a visual boost), while the two leads in Chen Chao-jung and Lee Kang-seng are fleshed out studies in contrast. The latter, Tsai’s perpetual star, shows his chops quickly with his James Dean impersonations and phony possessions in between bouts of depression. Everything about this film feels like it’s laying the groundwork for a beautiful capturing of alienation, stuff that would go on to be explored in much weirder ways in the later career of Ming-liang, with things like homosocial bonds (that threeway relationship provides enough material to be dissected for ages) and isolated pleasures being conveyed as both something to keep the characters afloat and something that is merely a form of procrastination for their problems. It also feels like a dream even when watching it and in some ways it’s just as difficult to grab onto the memories of it. This film is pure cinema with its shots of various objects drifting by as the result of a clogged drain overlowing, it’s just sneakier about it.
Favorite Moment: The opening watery apartment.
6. Reservoir Dogs
One of the most fully-formed and ballsy debuts ever made, and shockingly professional for something that was shot on such a crappy budget, Reservoir Dogs feels like a very fitting debut for that most populist of auteurs, Quentin Tarantino, among the very first lines spoken by the director himself: “The entire song is a metaphor for big dicks.” Fitting for an auteur where you cannot say that there’s a lack of personality in his works, ever, not to mention one whose cameos as an actor are universally agreed to be the weak link in his films. From there on out, we get a dick waving contest with guns and straight razors, with horses of different colors hissing and shouting out obscenities at each other in a runtime that makes every second count with a tightness that is even more refreshing nowadays. Fittingly, the director himself is the only member of the brilliant ensemble that doesn’t sound totally authentic, especially with actual criminals in the cast. We don’t get a whole lot of individual personality traits for these men save Mr. Orange and some broad strokes for the others within the script, so thank god the cast fills those shoes and totally sells the minor nuances in their different handling of the mole situation, all while ignoring the bloody corpse in front of them except when they don’t. For all the first-time helmer symptoms contained within Reservoir Dogs, it’s still electrifying to watch simply for how propulsive it is. Not a single frame is wasted, there’s a lot of creativity in the sound for a film that spends the bulk of its time in a rather ugly warehouse, and when Tarantino indulges in his most violent tendencies it’s nowhere near as quick or easy as something like Beatrix Kiddo slashing her way through the Crazy 88s or the pointlessly drawn out material of Django Unchained’s slave fights. Mr. Orange spends the whole movie on the verge of dying from blood loss (one of the few flaws is just how unrealistic his liveliness is even if Tim Roth sells it hard), and Michael Madsen’s career defining Mr. Blonde taking the slowest route possible to hack off the ear, thankfully with offscreen restraint. The bubble of its own iconography and pandering to a certain class of film fan may have been around from the very beginning but it sure was a warranted sphere.
Favorite Moment: Stuck in the Middle With You.
5. The Match Factory Girl
Barely an hour long and mute for a large chunk of it (the first words spoken are, at first glance, hilariously insignificant until they repeat themselves near the end), The Match Factory Girl allows for no idle moments even if the first glances at the tedious life of the titular character, Iris, feel like a very minor way to set the stage. But they are hugely loaded displays of a life that is both boring (who wants to work at a place that produces something so small and cheap, yet so constantly utilized by the smoking men?) and demeaning, with even the lead’s small portion of soup being mooched off of her by her mother, a woman who spends all day doing nothing alongside her equally nasty boyfriend. Kati Outinen doesn’t have to do much acting in the conventional sense of the word, but her reactions are so layered that it becomes an unforgettable performance. She has the sort of face that’s memorable enough already even when you factor in just what happens to her, and what she does in retaliation, in the last act once she becomes devoted to lashing out at the world that got her pregnant and treated her like shit for it. This is explicitly feminist stuff, but one that doesn’t exactly praise Iris for it. Her very existence causes her pain and she lashes right back. In terms of technique, this is a remarkable feat of lengthy takes and subtle color coding (pink has never been so sad), and it doesn’t settle for being easily defined. Our lead is too plain to be a hero or a villain, and her situation is too never ending to allow it to be categorized as a comedy or a tragedy. Aki Kaurasmaki clearly cares for her in his own strange way, but what is really worth celebrating is that he thinks a person like Iris deserves a movie all to herself, even if the amount of material initially doesn’t seem like it could justify an hour. But the thinness of The Match Factory Girl is like a razor, sharp and ready to cut deep. It’s not the kind of story that could ever justify a happy ending, with everyone being a different breed of sadsack, but what it does manage to earn is the lead carving out a slightly better niche in the world if only for a little bit.
Favorite Moment: The small smile upon filling up her parent’s water glass.
4. The Player
Robert Altman described The Player as a “very mild satire,” which was a complete lie unless you consider a satire of something like the entertainment industry to be inherently minor because, well, it’s just movies. But man, do the films work their way into people’s lives in ways both uncomfortable and thrilling. That opening long take that blatantly references that it’s from Touch of Evil within the opening minutes alone is proof that the director was going to take no prisoners, and then he puts his money where his mouth is after Tim Robbins’ wonderfully terrific douchebag Griffin Mill kills off a screenwriter who wasn’t sending him threatening postcards. Maybe this wasn’t the term screenwriter Michael Tolkin was going for, but the awareness of white male privilege is off the charts, with the Hollywood boys club mentality and vicious top class circle jerking getting mercilessly displayed and thus skewered at near every turn. The fact that Altman had been on the outskirts of the inner circle for years because he was too edgy just makes the bitterness over the death of classical cinema and the real talents and characters who everyone loves to evoke (and a lot of whom make cameos) more fun to savor. How much of this film was corporate product? Don’t know for sure, but it’s clearly aimed at lacerating just that brand of movie and the business based approach to such a thing. It all ends with the nastiest happy ending ever, one perfect for Whoopi Goldberg’s wonderful performance as the detective who clearly hates yet laughs at the whole situation, with a man who has already gotten away with murder also going unpunished for it, and rewarded to boot for being total human garbage. The final call from his would-be murderer that destroys the fourth wall in one quick stroke is the icing on the cake. The standard Hollywood model getting torn open and played with is just what the doctor ordered…and yet, certain voting bodies dubbed Scent of a Woman a better work? Hopefully the poster’s noose of celluloid was swiftly deployed, or just Griffin himself, to stifle those particular voices, even if those types of voters are the kind to be rewarded under the new system of cheap, easy pictures. They got it in the form of this one and how it shoves it in their faces, and they no doubt choked on it.
Favorite Moment: The opening shot.
3. Howards End
Merchant Ivory admittedly had a great piece of source material to mine when adapting Howards End to the big screen in all its classical period piece glory, but plenty of literary adaptations have been flubbed thanks to how the internal realizations of the characters are handled in the transition. Not this one. One of the most remarkable, across the board great ensembles ever assembled helps, along with a well handled collaboration between the cinematographer and the production designer. Leading the aforementioned cast is Emma Thompson, giving one of the best performances to win an acting Oscar. She is supported by Anthony Hopkins as a man so fundamentally different from her in ways ranging from attitude to body language that it’s a miracle he converts, Helena Bonham-Carter as her wilder sister, and Vanessa Redgrave conjuring up a whole lifetime of loneliness and stodgy but well-meaning conservatism in a few short scenes (consider the actress’ political history and be further impressed by this feat). But despite the polite, British exterior this is a film that has numerous things to say about many things, most particularly class in England, and smartly uses E.M. Forster’s structure and allegories to tell it. Thompson’s Margaret Schlegel and her sister, Bonham-Carter’s Helen, move in entirely different directions thanks to the men they wind up loving. Yes, everything is used as an archetype here-just look at how the interiors of the houses are decorated-but it feels intelligent in how it is literary as opposed to rooted too firmly to the novel. The exchanges of names and titles and possessions and things are crucial, essentially making it all one long battle for property, but this subtext is never directly pointed at like a book might. Look at how Ruth Wilcox’s dying moments become less cluttered as she approaches her passing for a key example. Howards End may be a soap opera, but it’s too culturally aware and clever in how it plots its connections and dynamics to be dismissed as just that. Thompson is what really sells it, playing her scenes as someone who thinks she’s the most socially advanced woman in the room but fails to realize until very late that no, it might actually be Helen. Don’t be fooled by the classy exteriors, for there is a lot of emotional blackmail and humanist philosophy floating around these high-class mansions and estates populated by colliding cultures and attitudes.
Favorite Moment: Margaret and Ruth’s meetings.
2. The Crying Game
The Crying Game’s script is a mix of brilliant concepts (try recapping the plot of this film to someone who hasn’t heard of it, you’ll both wonder how the hell it came into someone’s mind even with Neil Jordan always being a bit more mad than most directors) and incredibly strange choices in dialogue (why does Jim Broadbent’s bartender tell Stephen Rea that there’s something he should know about Dil?) But my god, the way sexuality is woven into the basket of human problems that these characters face is something to behold. And not just in that big reveal that’s overshadowed all the other conversations related to it, try looking at how Rea and Forest Whitaker interact in their early scenes together both emotionally and physically. You can relate it to the prisoner and captor dynamic, I guess, but isn’t it more interesting to parse something sexual from it? Subtle connections are casually peppered in everywhere, and everyone save Whitaker gives some of their best work. Rea’s a total sadsack with nothing concrete to stand on, but one who is fundamentally decent in trying to hold on to anything good that enters his life in an attempt to parse meaning from it. Miranda Richardson, nominated for a different role that year, is far better here, genuinely spooky as a woman whose allegiances and motivations are never clear to the people surrounding her or even the audience, so well does she convey being off balance and practically addicted to the idea of pulling off her assassination. But even without that big reveal handed to him on a platter, it’s Jaye Davidson in his debut who steals the show, going from glamorous to hissing emotional breakdowns as smoothly as can be (particularly in the patchy points where the character goes through various pill popping freakouts and is forced to shave her head), all while giving us the titular song. One day soon I’m going to tell the moon about the crying game and how the tangled web that is the humans stuck within its plots and literal/figurative troubles results in humanism that may no longer seem quite as progressive but is still refreshing. The plot twist that is NOT related to Dil’s gender is when the movie pivots into being about something else that is still entirely the same subject matter because it’s all rooted in the main character, and what a refreshingly nuanced male role this is.
Favorite Moment: The titular song.
The very first words of Unforgiven crawl up the screen, grimly literate and informing us right away that while the story of William Munny may be ultimately all about the man himself, the women in his life and in this film are the real people of interest. This is the definitive revisionist work and one of the very best of the 1990s, focused on nothing more steeped in American legacy than the Western, beginning with how pretty yet washed out everything looks, for the end of days is coming for these men. The badass killer is nothing more than a mean, violent, recovering drunk who is getting too old for the game and is responsible for a whole lot of poison-his attempts at redemption are part sincere and partly a fig leaf for his past misdeeds. His trusty partner is simply in it for the money and pays for it with his life and a whole lot of racism. The young up and comer is nothing more than a tryhard suck up who is both literally and figuratively blind, except that last point is thankfully left unstressed. The sheriff is a venal, corrupt monster of authority who represents the banality of evil, his subjects are interchangeable goons who are no better than the Kid in how they look up to him. Only the whores are dignified (Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman are obviously best in show, but Frances Fisher gives them a run for her money with a significantly smaller part), but the town sure doesn’t cede any ground to them from that opening face cutting. Damn near every male in the cast, particularly the peddlers of lies and tall tales that have steeped into pop culture in English Bob and WW Beauchamp, is essentially a prostitute that actually gets valued somewhat more than a horse. The hookers don’t get that. For all of Eastwood’s Republican beliefs, this movie is remarkably liberal in its condemnation of the attitudes and delusions perpetrated, taking a firm stand against misogyny and guns in particular. Violence is the ugliest thing this movie can imagine, both destroying relationships (no one looks at each other in Unforgiven) and inspiring the best kind of humanistic nihilism, simultaneously a condemnation and a grim funeral. There is nothing but a void at the heart of this piece of work, and that final shootout refuses to let anyone escape the crater.
Favorite Moment: Final shootout.