It is well overdue for another segment in FictionMachine’s 300-film countdown of the best of the 1990s. There are a lot of films from this decade that I still need to see – I didn’t watch anywhere near as much foreign language cinema back then as I do now. On the other hand, the 1990s was when I was a buyer for a suburban video library, so if there was a Hollywood production released that decade it’s more than likely I watched it.
#250. The Mummy
(1999, USA, d. Stephen Sommers.)
It stumbled a little with its script, but Stephen Sommers’ period adventure was still the closest any other film has come to Lucas and Spielberg’s celebrated Indiana Jones films. Great action set pieces and sparkling dialogue were enhanced by one of the most winning casts of its year: Brendan Fraser was the perfect matinee idol, Rachel Weisz a wonderful sidekick, Oded Fehr a great bad-ass warrior, and Kevin J. O’Connor the perfect character actor. In the busy summer of 1999 everybody had their eyes on The Phantom Menace and The Matrix. The Mummy managed to slip past the audience’s attention until it was suddenly on the screen: the perfect crowd-pleaser.
#249. Crimson Tide
(1995, USA, d. Tony Scott.)
A classic Simpson-Bruckheimer production, in which a commercial action thriller is elevated by a hugely talented cast: Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, James Gandolfini, Viggo Mortensen, George Dzundza, and many more. The basic conundrum at its heart – that a captain and first officer of a nuclear submarine disagree so fiercely that there are back-and-forth mutinies – is a bit of a nonsense, but when taken at face value the resulting string of tense moments is superbly watchable. Tony Scott directs in typically effective style; it is a shame that he never quite got the acknowledgements his brother Ridley did. Hollywood remains poorer for his passing.
(1995, USA, d. Paul Verhoeven.)
You heard me. It is such a shame that audiences who embraced Verhoeven’s strong talent for satirising American culture in Robocop never extended the same courtesy to Showgirls. This sleazy, wonderfully self-aware reworking of All About Eve addresses the country’s mad obsession with sex – simultaneously pornographic and puritanical – and its endless pursuit of celebrity culture. It is striking that the film begins with Nomi (an unfairly maligned Elizabeth Berkley) working in a seedy strip club before propelling her to a high-class Vegas revue, only for there to ultimately be no difference between them. Viewers who mock the silly bits often fail to question if a director of Verhoeven’s calibre would make them so ridiculous by accident.
#247. The Addams Family
(1991, USA, d. Barry Sonnenfeld.)
The popularity of The Addams Family always feels a little remarkable to me. The original Charles Addams comic strips lacked any strong sense of continuity, and the television sitcom – which essentially established the canonical family with which most are familiar – was axed after only two seasons. Adapted into a feature comedy by Barry Sonnenfeld, The Addams Family succeeds as a movie on the back of a very strong cast but particularly because of the passionate and eccentric love affair between leads Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston). Neither comic nor sitcom ever gave so strong an impression that it’s protagonists were likely to jump each other’s bones without a moment’s hesitation.
#246. Back to the Future Part III
(1990, USA, d. Robert Zemeckis.)
Zemeckis’ outstanding time travel saga just slips into the 1990s with the last instalment. It is definitely weaker than the first two parts, but that is hardly a big concern when the overall quality of Back to the Future is just so damned high. Interestingly Part III focuses more heavily on Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown – at some points he feels more like the lead than Michael J. Fox does. Plus it all looks wonderful, with cinematographer Dean Cundey giving everything a classical American western look throughout. It’s a love letter to the western as much as it’s a rousing science fiction finale.
#245. Once Upon a Time in China
(1991, Hong Kong, d. Tsui Hark.)
Tsui Hark directs one of Hong Kong’s great martial arts pictures: the phenomenally successful and influential Once Upon a Time in China. In Wong Fei-hung, a character that appeared in more than 100 films prior to this, Jet Li found his most popular and iconic character. In its wake, there was a mini-renaissance of historical martial arts pictures in Hong Kong and greater China. Once Upon a Time alone was followed by five sequels. This isn’t simply a kung fu movie. It feels like an enthused love letter from Tsui to movies in general.
#244. As Good As It Gets
(1997, USA, d. James L. Brooks.)
Time has not, perhaps, been the kindest to Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), one of the more repellent protagonists of recent decades. Nicholson certainly earned his Oscar playing the character, but his work largely results in making the intolerable weirdly entertaining, and indefensible somehow forgivable. Despite this, As Good As It Gets is still brilliantly performed by Nicholson, Greg Kinnear, and particularly Helen Hunt – who ably overstepped the risks of being dismissed as a “television actor” to win an Oscar of her own.
(1999, Canada, d. David Cronenberg.)
In the middle of a busy year of large-scale genre films, David Cronenberg’s Existenz managed to comfortably find itself a niche. Wedged between the likes of The Phantom Menace, The Matrix, The Mummy, and The Sixth Sense, Existenz was essentially the thinking person’s science fiction film. Smart, weird (what Cronenberg movie isn’t?), and excellently cast with the likes of Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sarah Polley, Ian Holm and more. It is interesting how it was released so close not only to The Matrix but Open Your Eyes and The Thirteenth Floor as well. Clearly there was something in the water back then that made us obsessed over our reality.
#242. Walking and Talking
(1996, USA, d. Nicole Holofcener.)
Nicole Holofcener grew up on movie sets, as her father produced most of Woody Allen’s early features. Her first movie gig was on Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in 1982. In 1996 she wrote and directed her first feature, and to be honest you can see much of Allen’s mid-career style there: the urban setting, the character interactions, the characters. She brought with it a fresh new voice that has since expanded into a unique voice in American film. Films like Friends with Money, Enough Said, and Can You Ever Forgive Me all have their origin here. Stars Catherine Kenner, Anne Hence, and Liev Schreiber are marvellous.
#241. Shark-Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl
(1998, Japan, d. Katsuhito Ishii.)
A gangster on the run (Tadanobu Asano) runs into a hotel worker (Shie Kohinata) fleeing her lecherous uncle. Together they make their way across Japan, henchmen and an amateur assassin in hot pursuit. Based on a popular manga, Shark-skin Man and Peach Hip Girl is a wonderfully stylish debut for director Katsuhito Ishii, who went on to direct Taste of Tea and Smuggler. Asano is in typically appealling form, and is well matched with Kohinata. It recieved a pretty tepid reaction in the West due to its lacklustre screenplay (a fair cop), but honestly the script isn’t the point here. This is a film for cool-looking people to do cool things with cool photography.
#240. The Prince of Egypt
(1998, USA, d. Brenda Chapman, Simon Wells, and Steve Hickner.)
What was intended to be Dreamworks’ first animated feature (ultimately they rushed Antz to the screen to beat Pixar’s A Bug’s Life) is an epic undertaking, which retells the Book of Exodus with tremendous hand-drawn animation boosted by CGI. The songs by Stephen Schwartz are wonderful, Hans Zimmer’s score is brilliant, and the vocal cast? Basically every element of the film deserves acclaim. Sadly the poor box office performance of this and other traditionally animated fare led Dreamworks to focus on smirking computer-generated comedies like Shrek and Shark Tale. The studio wouldn’t make an animated feature this good until How to Train Your Dragon in 2010.
#239. The 13th Warrior
(1999, USA, d. John McTiernan.)
Based on the Michael Crichton novel Eaters of the Dead, this John McTiernan action flick tested poorly with preview audiences, leading Crichton himself to force himself in as director for expensive reshoots that delayed the film’s release by a year. It didn’t work: general audiences stayed away and The 13th Warrior (as it was renamed) became one of Disney’s biggest commercial flops ever. Who knows if it was McTiernan’s contribution, or Crichton’s, but the film is actually a stunning adaptation of Beowulf with a winning Antonio Banderas heading a cast that includes Omar Shariff, Scotland’s Tony Curran, and a wealth of European talent. These days it’s a cult favourite, of course.
#238. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
(1990, USA/Hong Kong, d. Steve Barron.)
Pop culture crazes get transformed into movies all the time, but rarely in a co-production between puppet genius Jim Henson and Hong Kong martial arts studio Golden Horse. Add in the voice of Elmo the Monster as the rat Splinter, one of the Goonies as Donatello, and future Canadian arthouse darling Elias Koteas as Casey Jones. Director Steve Barron ran second unit on Labyrinth, giving him the needed experience to make this puppet-based superhero adventure pop off the screen. This was the last project Jim Henson worked on before he died. It’s a shame its two live-action sequels failed to recapture this one’s magic.
#237. Lord of Illusions
(1995, USA, d. Clive Barker.)
In a better world this hugely underrated Clive Barker dark fantasy would launched its own franchise for Harry d’Amour: hard-boiled horror detective. Instead the film came and went, never loved like Barker’s Hellraiser nor later reclaimed by fans a-a Nightbreed. Scott Bakula is a wonderfully enjoyable actor, and deserves a film role to really make his own. This honestly could have been it. This is a smart, atmospheric, and distinct story, well directed and nicely designed. Mandrills have never looked so frightening.
#236. Devil in a Blue Dress
(1995, USA, d. Carl Franklin.)
It’s entirely by coincidence that I’ve followed a failed franchise in the making with another no-brainer franchise in the making. Carl Franklin did a wonderful job adapting the Easy Rawlins character to the screen, and scored a coup with Denzel Washington in the role. That said, it is Don Cheadle who as good as steals the entire film playing Mouse. The film looked great, played great, but simply failed to find an audience. It did not even break even in the cinemas, denying us the tightly made film noir series that we all deserved.
#235. The Three Musketeers
(1993, USA, d. Stephen Herek.)
It is the cast that makes this Dumas adaptation sing. It is clearly riffing pretty extensively on Kevin Reynolds’ popular Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but embraces a ‘brat pack’ Athos, Aramis, and Porthos by casting Keifer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, and Oliver Platt. Tim Curry is a fabulously over-acted Richelieu, while Chris O’Donnell has a wonderful fresh-faced quality to his D’Artagnan. Add in Rebecca De Mornay as Milady and Paul McGann playing two roles almost in as many minutes (hardly anybody noticed), and you’ve got a fun slice of family entertainment. How much does this owe to Prince of Thieves? It genuinely lifts Michael Wincott out of one film and into the other; they barely bother to even change the character.
#234. Total Recall
(1990, USA, d. Paul Verhoeven.)
The satire is softer but still present in Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant blend of big dumb action and mind-bending Philip K. Dick science fiction. It’s funny: the script might suggest protagonist Doug Quaid would be better played by a less imposing actor, but this is honestly one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most enjoyable films. A strong supporting cast includes Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, and Ronny Cox. The way the film manages to provide populist big-screen action and thought-provoking science fiction makes one wonder why so many other feature films in the genre can’t do the same.
#233. Wayne’s World
(1992, USA. d. Penelope Spheeris.)
The first Saturday Night Live feature since The Blues Brothers to actually work on a creative and commercial level. Taking a string of moderately funny TV sketches and expanding them into a 90-minute narrative feature is an impressive feat, and launched Mike Myers’ career onto the big screen. A lot of the success of this first film can be put down to direct Penelope Spheeris; when Myers moved ahead on a sequel without her at the helm, the results were nowhere near as good.
(1996, USA, d. Jan de Bont.)
A Hollywood summer blockbuster distilled down to its simplest and purest form. The storyline (by Michael Crichton and wife Ann-Marie Martin) is wafer-thin, but exist as an excuse to trash the American countryside with then-cutting edge CGI tornadoes. It is simple stuff, but very satisfying – and relies on an excellent cast to bring it to life. Bill Paxton was never sufficiently appreciated in his lifetime, Helen Hunt is enormously charming, and you can even spy future critics favourite Philip Seymour Hoffman among the storm-chasing crew.
#231. Enemy of the State
(1998, USA, d. Tony Scott.)
Trust Tony Scott to direct a Will Smith action-thriller and, with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, use it to push an unofficial sequel to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation under the radar at the same time. Of course Gene Hackman’s Edward Brill isn’t Harry Caul from Coppola’s film. The very thought (winks conspiratorially). There is a bunch of great stuff in this slick commercial movie, from a strong musical score to the genius use of Gabriel Byrne in one of Hollywood’s cleverest-ever cameos.
#230. Six Degrees of Separation
(1993, USA, d. Fred Schepisi.)
There is a good argument to be make that Six Degrees of Separation, a 1993 adaptation of John Guare’s Pulitzer-nominated play, is the best film that Fred Schepisi ever directed. Part comedy, part social commentary, transformed Will Smith from rapper-with-a-sitcom to acclaimed dramatic actor so fluidly that it’s difficult to believe such a change happened at all. Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing are also sensational; the latter having played her role before in the stage version.
(1994, USA, d. Michael Almereyda.)
A story of Van Helsing chasing down Dracula’s daughter sounds relatively generic, but Michael Almereyda’s Nadja does it in present-day New York with stylised black and white photography reminiscent of David Lynch’s earlier features (Lynch was an executive producer here). He also does it in a flat, deadpan style that feels enormously like fellow indie director Hal Hartley (who, unlike Lynch, was not involved). Elina Löwensohn is great in the title role, with Peter Fonda standing out among the supporting cast – which also included regular Hartley performer Martin Donovan. Honestly I feel this movie gets overlooked a lot.
(1997, Canada, d. Vincenzo Natali.)
A group of strangers wake up in a shifting network of cube-shaped rooms, each packed with a variety of horrific deathtraps. It is a simple premise for a film purpose-built for its low budget: one set relit and redressed over and over, and packed with eye-catching moments of gory horror. Its writer/director Vincenzo Natali has done more complex and interesting SF films since – Cypher and Splice – but the purity of Cube makes it by far the most memorable of his works. There’s even now a Japanese remake.
(1998, USA, d. Wes Anderson.)
It’s amazing how fully-fledged Wes Anderson’s divisive aesthetic seemed to arrive in Rushmore almost fully-formed. The director has made numerous films since, each with their own odd setting and characters, and yet there is something to this, his second feature, that has kept it fresh in my mind for decades. It’s Jason Schwartzmann’s screen debut, and the first of many collaborations between Anderson and Bill Murray. I go hot and cold on Anderson, but I’ve always adored this one. The abstract tendencies of later works are not as evident here, and it’s all the stronger for it.
#226. Drop Dead Gorgeous
(1999, USA, d. Michael Patrick Jann.)
American beauty pageants get skewered in this wonderfully vicious satire, which came out in a year overloaded with quality American cinema and kind of got unfairly ignored in the process. It seems to be developing cult status now thankfully. Kirsten Dunst plays the lead well, but the film’s best elements are among the various supporting players: whether Alison Janney’s cynical friend Loretta, Denise Richard’s absurdly funny dance with a puppet Jesus, and basically absolutely anything involving co-star Brittany Murphy. Murphy was a sensational comic talent and went deeply underappreciated in her time. Her premature death in 2009 was a terrible loss for American comedy.
3 thoughts on “Favourites of the 1990s: #250-226”
We’re going to have to agree to disagree about the relative merits of Starship Troopers and Showgirls. Apart from Gina Rivera’s Molly, I found all of the characters in Showgirls so repellent that watching the film was a thoroughly unpleasant experience, though I blame Joe Eszterhas for this rather than Verhoeven or the cast (the only film with an Eszterhas script that I can stand is Costa-Gavras’s Betrayed). Showgirls reminded me of Stephen King’s description of Cruising: “like a dead rat in a block of lucite”.
I’m just going to note that likeability of characters is possibly not the best angle from which to claim Starship Troopers is the better film. 🙂
I’ll stand by it. It’s not All Quiet on the Western Front, but most of the soldiers in ST are unaware that (as Mitchell and Webb would say) they’re the baddies, and I could mourn the ones who die still relatively innocent. Granted, I’ve only seen Showgirls once and that many years ago, but IIRC, most of the characters are more like the villains in Robocop, rubbing their hands in glee at having found the most corrupt toxic slime pit in which to play and destroy other people’s toys.