This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.
Bad Lieutenant - Harvey Keitel delivers one of the greatest screen performances of the 1990s as the title character, a New York cop with every imaginable vice. It's a soul shaking cri de couer that has him literally howling at the heavens at one point, railing against God. The prolific, provocative director Abel Ferrara built a starkly memorable film around the performance, portraying the degradation and the corruption of his characters in some pretty ugly terms. However, it's the moments of religious and spiritual transcendence that make this one so memorable.
Glengarry Glen Ross - It still feels more like a stage play than it should, but it's hard to complain with material this strong and an ensemble full of so many greats. Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, and Al Pacino all turn in work that can be counted as career highs, and David Mamet's dialogue was never better served. And it's worth reiterating that Mamet wrote the dynamite Alec Baldwin "brass balls" scene specifically for him. "Glengarry" deserves its reputation for being one of the great ensemble films, and for being a rare adaptation that leaves the stage version in the dust.
Lorenzo's Oil - I've seen so many of these "search for a cure" films that descend into feel-good treacle that it's astonishing to discover one as utterly harrowing and painful to experience as "Lorenzo's Oil." Director George Miller never lets up on the emotional devastation of the situation, and Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon wonderfully embody a desperate couple trying to endure under unimaginable stress and trauma. The film's biggest flaw, of course, is that its hopeful ending simply isn't true, but that doesn't take away from how effective and moving a piece of cinema this is.
My Cousin Vinny - Legal comedies are rare birds these days, probably because "My Cousin Vinny" raised the bar so high for the genre. Joe Pesci nails the nicest role he ever got, Fred Gwynne gets a lovely career capper as the exasperated judge, and Marisa Tomei genially steals every one of her scenes. Humor is deftly mined from clashing cultures, accents, worldviews, and even from the legal system itself. And to top it all off, all the legal procedure cited in the film is correct, making this one of the few courtroom movies that actually reflects how a real courtroom functions.
Orlando - Tilda Swinton's mysterious, intriguing title character is the centerpiece of Sally Potter's curious film about gender, identity, and the fickle tides of fate. Integrating visuals and poetry from many different eras, the film serves as an engaging tour of British history as it follows the strange life and career of Orlando through the ages. As the story functions by its own peculiar logic, so does the filmmaking, which finds ways to reference and incorporate artistic inspirations from a wide variety of sources. It's still a film that defies easy description or categorization.
Howard's End - One of the best Merchant Ivory films, those immaculately made British dramas that feature so much great talent both behind and in front of the camera. "Howard's End" delicately adapts the E.M. Forster novel with great fidelity and care. Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter are the main event here, as a pair of sisters who find themselves caught up in escalating social dilemmas involving class and privilege. It also has some of the loveliest images ever found in British cinema, particularly the bluebell sequence toward the end of the film.
Reservoir Dogs - Heralded the arrival of Quentin Tarantino to the cinema landscape. Though much imitated, the combination of visceral violence, casual dialogue, and an uncanny sense of style was something that couldn't be easily duplicated. There's no question that Tarantino borrowed elements from several other movies to make "Reservoir Dogs," but the execution is entirely original. The blackest black humor, the moments of unexpected whimsy, the irony-laced soundtrack, and casting exactly the right actors for each role were what made the film what it is.
The Story of Qiu Ju - Though better known for their heartrending melodramas and tragedies, Zhang Yimou and his greatest leading lady, Gong Li, also made this terribly pleasant, and almost sweet comedic feature. Poking very gentle fun and China's court system and endless bureaucracy, we watch the travails of a pregnant peasant woman seeking justice. Shot on location and set in the present day, with few professional actors, "Qiu Ju" captures the little idiosyncrasies and rhythms of modern Chinese life in these remote places better than anything else from that era.
Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood's most indisputable masterpiece has been called a subversion of the western genre and the western hero, particularly Eastwood's own role as the Man With No Name. Over the years I've come to appreciate its more darkly funny moments over the cold violence and brutality of the more famous shootout and confrontation sequences. And while Eastwood certainly does some of his best work here, as William Muny, it's Gene Hackman who frequently dominates the screen. Love or hate westerns, "Unforgiven" feels like the final word on the subject.
Lessons of Darkness - Werner Herzog's documentary on the aftermath of the first Gulf War is shot like a travelogue of hell. The burning oilfields become an alien landscape, which Herzog's narration marvels over for their disturbing beauty and terrifying inhumanity. I love all the little ways that Herzog finds to comment on the war without ever directly saying anything about the war, from the wryly humorous chapter titles to the musings on madness. The film is completely apolitical, but takes an unmistakably strong stance nonetheless.
The Crying Game
Last of the Mohicans
A League of Their Own
The Long Day Closes
White Men Can't Jump