Friday, February 9, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 1991

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.

Barton Fink - The Coen brothers' dramatic pictures and their comedies are usually easy to tell apart, but I'm not so certain about which universe "Barton Fink" inhabits. If it is a comedy, it is the darkest of dark comedies about a playwright too distracted and self-involved to realize he's careening toward his own destruction. If it is a drama, it's a gloriously weird one, full of heightened emotions, strange characters, and mystifying events. John Turturro and John Goodman give career best performances, and as for the Coen brothers, I can only hope that they get writer's block more often.

Beauty and the Beast - The height of the Disney animation Renaissance produced a charming musical version of the classic "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale. The lively music and the painstaking animation are sublime, but I found that the film has remained unusually resonant because of its startlingly complex characters. The Beast in particular is a masterpiece of visual design, inhabited by a guilt-wracked, rage-prone soul yearning for redemption. Even after decades of technological advancements, here are still few animated creations that can match him for sheer onscreen presence.

La Belle Noiseuse - There's something mesmerizing about seeing a work of art being created, so while Jacques Rivette's tale of a painter reinvigorated by a new muse runs nearly four hours in length, I found it a very easy watch. Large chunks of time are spent simply letting the audience see a painting being painted by abstract artist Bernard Dufour. And then there's the fascinating relationship between the painter and the model, a prickly, difficult thing. I've often found Rivette's work challenging, but here his musings on creativity, inspiration, and the artistic process hit very close to home.

Life, and Nothing More - Abbas Kiarostami revisits a previous film, "Where is the Friend's Home," with a meta narrative where he tries to find old filming locations and is reunited with some of the actors. This allows him to explore the aftermath of a recent disaster and his own relationship to his work. This is the second film of Kiarostami's Koker trilogy, where each film builds on the one before, blurring the lines between fiction and fact, documentary and dramatization. Full of little incidents and discoveries, there's no better example of Kiarostami's ability to find compelling stories in unusual places.

The Double Life of Véronique - My favorite of Krzysztof Kieślowski's features is a lovely, lyrical meditation on connected lives and inner worlds. Irene Jacobs plays both versions of the title character as they live out their ordinary, but haunting lives. Kieślowski's images have never been more stunning, his depiction of intangible spiritual forces never more powerful. "Véronique" was a stylistic turning point for the director, where he started to embrace more abstracted imagery and more sensual forms. It remains one of his most beautiful films, and one of his most haunting.

Raise the Red Lantern - I love Zhang Yimou films for their beauty and for their passion. Here, he constructs a gorgeous universe of luxury in a rich man's household, full of symbols and secrets. And it take our headstrong main character, played by Gong Li of course, far too long to realize that it's full of dangers too. It's fascinating to watch the various manipulations and machinations of the characters unfold in the tightly controlled hierarchy of the family. However, it's all the ways that Zhang finds to mirror this through his dazzling art direction that make this so memorable.

The Silence of the Lambs - Anthony Hopkins' disturbing turn as Hannibal Lecter is one of the great screen performances of the 1990s. He's an unspeakable monster, but such a charming one that it's easy to be drawn into his way of looking at the world, fantastically depicted by director Jonathan Demme. The mental battles between Lecter and Jodie Foster's Agent Starling are only a small part of a much larger story, but they're so electrifying that it's difficult to focus on anything else. It's no wonder that the film would go on to influence every depiction of serial killers that came after it.

Slacker - It's a gimmick film, but a gimmick that proves to be versatile, effective, and full of surprises. Instead of one film, it feels more appropriate to call "Slacker" a collection of nineteen short films all following the same template. Some of the actors are more engaging than others, and some of the monologues are definitely more interesting than others, but the film never compromises and it never slows down. And considered as a whole, the film paints a fantastic picture of a particular time and place and culture. So we shouldn't be surprised that it's also gotten awfully nostalgic with age.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day - I can think of few Hollywood blockbusters that still have the same impact as they did when they premiered, but thanks to magnificent effects work and an iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger role, "Judgment Day" has never lost a step. Sure, the CGI was revolutionary then, and still looks amazing today, but what was more important was that the underlying filmmaking fundamentals were rock-solid. James Cameron knows his way around an action scene like few others, and thus understood how to best deploy all the spectacle at his disposal for maximum enjoyment.

Thelma and Louise - After all this time, the adventures of two victimized women who go on the lam together still strikes a nerve. There's a giddy exhilaration in seeing the pair throw off societal expectations and fight back against all the forces of misogyny, even though we know it's all going to end badly. To date, it remains Ridley Scott's one great comedic film, and it works as a buddy road movie, a chick flick weepie, and as a bombastic revenge picture too. And while Susan Sarandon is excellent here, I don't think that Geena Davis ever gave a better performance - or had a better part.

Honorable Mentions

A Brighter Summer Day
Boyz n the Hood
Les Amants du Pont-Neuf
Defending Your Life
Point Break
Solo con tu Pareja
The Quince Tree Sun
Roujin Z
Van Gogh


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