Who doesn’t love a good list?
This week, as part of our new weekly feature Top Ten Tuesday, Chris Shortt continues his retrospective of the decades of modern cinema with the Top 10 films from the 1990s.
Blockbusters continued their firm grasp on Hollywood, but the ‘90s are perhaps most distinguished for their proliferation in the indie – a wave of-sorts that in many ways echoed that of the homage-paying New Hollywood in the late-60s.
The ‘90s also saw a boom in animation filmmaking, and major growth in special effects more generally – a development reflected throughout this list.
10. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Often overshadowed by both the original and the long-awaited third instalment, Toy Story 2 cemented Pixar’s status as one of the most exciting and innovative studios around (not much has changed).
You can’t talk about this film without discussing the mending of Woody – perhaps the most therapeutic couple of minutes in cinematic history. “You can’t rush art!”, Al is told by the toy fixer. Clocking in at a brisk 95 minutes, Toy Story 2 proves that evidently you can.
9. Rebels of the Neon God (1992)
Tsai Ming-liang’s debut feature is a sublime rendering of alienation in the early modern age. Set in the urban hub of Taipei, the film follows the opposing paths of two teenagers – the deprived delinquent Ah Tze, and the privileged (though just as confused) student Hsiao Kang.
In both its narrative and its visuals, the film seems to heavily borrow from the work of Wong Kar-wai – though the Hong Kong director is just as likely to have taken from Tsai. Indeed, much like Wong’s films, Rebels is able to transcend its cultural specificity – and is one of the youth genre’s most stirring entries.
8. Pulp Fiction (1994)
A defining figurehead for ‘90s filmmaking, Quentin Tarantino’s appropriately ambitious second feature tells you everything you’ll ever need to know about the director (for better or worse). For many, he’s still yet to outdo himself.
There are overindulgent monologues aplenty (it’s a Tarantino flick, of course there are), and yet Jules’ iconic oration nevertheless remains a triumph of tension and bravado. Its cultural impact, meanwhile, has ironically mirrored that of the films that it pastiched in the first place.
7. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Now, Terrence Malick and a war epic might not immediately strike you as being wholly compatible. That’s because they aren’t – and it’s precisely this discordance that makes The Thin Red Line (Malick’s third film after a 20-year hiatus) so moving.
All the Malickian traits are still there – poetic musings in the narration, wheat fields, hand gestures – they’re just used in a WW2 setting, at the Battle of Mount Austen. The film also boasts some of Hans Zimmer’s best work – if you liked Inception’s “Time”, just listen to “Journey to the Line” (it’s not plagiarism if it’s your own work, apparently).
6. Heat (1995)
Al Pacino. Robert De Niro. If nothing else, Heat was always going to live long in cinematic memory for finally pitting these two titans of criminality head-to-head (they elude each other by about 25 years in The Godfather Part II). Luckily for us, Heat happened to turn out a rather good film on its own merits – the best in the crime drama genre, even.
With these two leads obviously on-form, it’s actually Val Kilmer who emerges as the film’s real takeaway performance – miles away from his Bruce Wayne in Batman Forever (released just a few months prior).
Indeed, the Batman link doesn’t even stop here – Heat’s influence on The Dark Knight is immediately apparent upon watching Michael Mann’s drama. There’s the bank robbery shootout, the blue-tinged metropolitan cityscapes… but also the sparring of two seemingly black-and-white individuals into an increasingly grey territory.
5. Magnolia (1999)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature is an ambitious, intertwining tale of fate, loneliness and childhood traumas. The film follows several narrative strands, but they all essentially overlap through a kids quiz show, a dying father and a conference for wretched bachelors.
In an ensemble cast this good, it seems unfair to single out any one performance – but I can’t talk about Magnolia without mentioning Tom Cruise’s motivational speaker/misogynist bro (you wonder how on earth the Scientologist poster-boy ever agreed to it).
4. Léon: The Professional (1994)
Now a cult classic for introducing the world to Natalie Portman (still one of her best performances), Léon should arguably be more renowned for the maniacal turn of Gary Oldman – or perhaps we’ve just come to expect it.
Oldman plays a corrupt DEA agent who goes after the 12-year-old Mathilda, after she witnesses him massacring her own family. Hong Kong-inclined action sequences are aplenty, as Mathilda is taken in by Jean Reno’s titular hero – the most skilled (and effortlessly cool) hitman around.
3. Jurassic Park (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s seminal dino romp completely changed the game in terms of special effects – and though it may be to blame for George Lucas’ prequels epiphany, it also spurred Peter Jackson on to make The Lord of the Rings. We’ll take that.
John Williams’ iconic score demonstrates exactly why the director rarely works without him – never lacking originality, despite juggling at least two films a year. Jurassic Park’s sequels aren’t terrible, but this first entry is the peak of rousing entertainment that only Spielberg can do.
2. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Another list, another Kubrick – but if Barry Lyndon is only recently gaining its plaudits, it’s surely this other overlooked gem that will be next. Marketed as a saucy romance between the real-life darlings Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut is certainly not that film. Instead, it’s a twisted erotic drama that feels more like a spiralling nightmare than a smutty fantasy.
Like the New York nightscape presented in Taxi Driver, the film is best viewed when in that particular ‘after-hours’ state of mind – as we join Cruise in his alarming descent into paranoia. I’d love to have seen Kubrick’s A.I., but this seems a fitting conclusion to both the 20th century and the director’s inimitable career.
1. Boogie Nights (1997)
The film that gave him complete freedom to make the 190-minute Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sophomore feature is a witty exploration of the ‘Golden Age of Porn’ in the 1970s – through to its demise in the ‘80s with the rise of amateur videotape.
Mark Wahlberg stars as the goal-driven dishwasher who – after being spotted by Burt Reynolds’ porn filmmaker – becomes the wildly successful film star, Dirk Diggler. It’s a stellar portrayal of the hedonism of the entertainment business, which reaches an explosive finale when Diggler tries to swindle Alfred Molina’s drug-dealing lunatic.
It’s the best film of the ‘90s, boasting some of the most impressive camera work around (if a little poached – that opening tracking shot is straight out of Goodfellas). Did I mention the soundtrack?