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80. Kundun (Scorsese, 1997)
While a biopic of the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama might not at first glance appear to be tailor-made subject matter for Italian-American filmmaker Martin Scorsese, the acclaimed director proved with 1997's Kundun that he is just as adept portraying peaceful monks in the mountains of Tibet as he is with violent gangsters on the streets of New York City.
The film serves as a counterpoint to his 1989 film The Last Temptation of Christ, which also went beyond a simple depiction of a religious leader's life, and as with that film, Kundun raises more questions in the mind of the viewer than it attempts to answer. Scorsese's outsider position this time around enables him to peer into the world of Tibetan Buddhism with a fresh eye, where every ritual and custom holds a mystery, and the religion's mindset and outlook appear to have freed the filmmaker from leaning on any kind of traditional narrative. What results is a series of elliptical scenes, many without dialogue, inviting the (Western) viewer to immerse one's self in a foreign environment, something worthy of comparison to Jean Renoir's The River.
The use of non-professional actors was also new territory for Scorsese, working without his usual dynamos in front of the camera or any kind of kinetic lead character. When conflict does eventually come in the face of a Communist invasion, Scorsese captures the violence in a more abstract and restrained way than usual, and a pivotal meeting between Chairman Mao and the Dalai Lama is appropriately anti-climactic as passive tradition gives way to insistent change. Perhaps the timing of this project in Scorsese's resume, as films continued to get larger and louder, was his own non-violent resistance to working inside the expected boundaries of the studio system and his own branding as a director of mob movies. While Kundun failed to make waves upon its release (especially in the wake of James Cameron's just-released Titanic), it now stands as one of Scorsese's most hypnotic and daring works, atypical in description, but completely representative of his rare gifts as an artist.
|79. Dead Man Walking (Robbins, 1995)
Although certainly not as radical in its approach, Dead Man Walking seems to be stylistically inspired by Carl T. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and is beautifully structured as a chamber piece, a sarabande of close-ups for two soloists, Sarandon and Penn, at the peaks of their respective careers, with Tim Robbins delicately exploring all the emotions they go through in their faces and in the small nuances of their voices. Frankly, despite not being as formally daring and extreme as the 1929 film, Robbins' piece reaches similar spiritual heights through his relaxed contemplation of these two actors, of their sometimes mirroring, sometimes merging, sometimes opposing faces, in an exercise in contention that has however a very thoughtful and rigorous work of framing and editing behind so as to make everything work.
Tim Robbins said in interviews of the time that he had intended to present all possible sides of the conflict when speaking about the rather controversial issue of the death penalty, but he does not do so in a cold, analytic way. More than informing about the intellectual arguments on the different sides, he looks for the humanity in all the people involved in this sad story, allowing each actor, even in the most limited roles (I’m thinking of Celia Weston or Roberta Maxwell), to present a complex character with conflicting feelings and thoughts. Obviously, Robbins’ position against the death penalty, despite the film being actually balanced, comes across rather clearly, but who can fault him: when his camera has been able to capture, with such depth, the figure of Matthew Poncelet as a human, to display and present his feelings with such cleanness, nobody watching the film would be able to harm him, or anybody in his position.
|78. American Beauty (Mendes, 1999)
A critic once described American Beauty's screenwriter Alan Ball as a "peddler of smut," but that would be too easy.
Directed by Sam Mendes, the much-maligned American Beauty is more than just kicks for horny boomers. These ponderings of identity and happiness, as old as Greek mythology but with a '90s genesis, have a timely application to the now.
In an age where we scratch our heads in dismay at how a seemingly perfect person could betray his perfect life, American Beauty is a rich filmic flirtation about the forfeiture of basic human needs.
Driven from the point of view of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey at his most Spacey-esque), American Beauty contemplates the Burnham household and the lives that mirror and taunt their emptiness. The Burnhams' opulent home, full of "stuff" and its flourish of red roses, gives off the scent of contentment and bourgeois success. This is, however, one of the many facades that spectacularly implode during the film.
The animated characters are anchored and masterfully strengthened by Conrad Hall's exceptional cinematography. Hall's imagery impresses a sense of classicism where restraint and formality are the perfect companion to the actors and themes. His work is stunning in its beauty and temper.
And what of that plastic bag? Yes, it is comical and irksome in its lofty philosophy, but there is an earthy wisdom to be had. Our characters speak of the power of denial, materialistic trappings and selling an image like a wish fulfillment gone wrong. In the suburban world of American Beauty there is a fear of mundane things like freedom, growth and identity in lieu of conceits promising bounties. An inanimate object can lick the breeze and swirl miraculously, and like water into wine, the so-called mundane can resuscitate the living. That is the beauty of this film.
77. Boogie Nights (Anderson, 1997)
I was 17 years old when I saw Boogie Nights and it was the first film I ever had to show an ID to get in for. There was something really exciting about the movie that made me wonder if it must be similar to how movies affected audiences in the '70s, when this one is set.
Borrowing from many films of the past, Paul Thomas Anderson creates a family of characters we grow to understand and care about. Even if they're junkies, whores, and porno stars. By humanizing the characters, Anderson involves the audience as we watch their lives occur and in some cases, end. When Amber Waves misses a phone call from her child we feel like rushing through the house to find her and tell her because we know how important it is. This is a testament to great writing. Sadly, the 1997 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay went to a pair of frat buddies who sold the world their friendship and charisma. I do think Boogie Nights was the more solid and deserving choice. The movie is a fireworks spectacle of showy filmmaking — from bravely casting a star of yesteryear, Burt Reynolds, as the patriarch of porno, to the sex, drugs, rock music, and violence, to hiring Marky Mark as the leading man. The film tips its hat to several great films and their makers while displaying the arrival of cinema's new star: No, not Dirk Diggler. Paul Thomas Anderson.
76. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, 1991)
A Brighter Summer Day is one of the finest works of the decade. It may even be considered one of the towering cinematic achievements in any decade. Edward Yang gives so much with so little. He may not be prolific but whenever he makes a film, he really delivers the same way directors like Jean Vigo, Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick deliver. A Brighter Summer Day may be Yang's grandest and most ambitious delivery (with its 4-hour runtime), aptly serving as both an ode to Taiwan's youth and an elegy to Taiwan's ancestry.
The story unravels following a crime of passion committed by a teenager in the 1960s, amidst the social upheaval occurring in Taiwan back then. Xiao Si'r is a timorous boy who gets entangled with the local Little Park Gang. He also falls in love with Ming, the girlfriend of the gang's former leader. It is a love affair doomed from the start, but this film is less about romance (and its tragic consequences) than it is a social document. It shows how the macroscopic impact of history unfolds and unleashes its effect in the most microscopic aspects of society, of family and of the individual.
A Brighter Summer Day is a journey of the most intimate humanistic experience, fuelled by Yang's perfect clarity in capturing emotions and thoughts on film. Just like the subject of the film itself, Yang's aesthetic is something of a contradiction — a filmic paradox. He never places too much emphasis on close-ups and the emotional contrivance that may bring. Instead, Yang places the camera always at an objective distance, not judging but just observing. Ironically, the effect is more crushing since the audience's investment not only lies with the film's characters but also with the sheer beauty of Yang's mise-en-scène.
Unlike the mature and focused direction in Yi yi, this film is just beautiful chaos. It is a nostalgic rollercoaster of emotions but one that is not devoid of intelligence. An engaging and endearing epic filled with tribulations and tenderness, A Brighter Summer Day is a film that needs to be experienced and ultimately embraced.
75. Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995)
Jesse and Celine meet on a train. She’s coming from Budapest and heading to Paris, on her way back to school after a visit to her grandmother. He’s had a bit of a rough summer and is getting off in Vienna, which was the cheapest flight he could find to return home to Texas. They eye each other across the car and feign reading as they focus on each other and the German couple arguing their way down the aisle. They go get a snack and find there’s more than a little spark between them, but they’re pulling into the Vienna train station. What to do?
Jesse’s idea that they get off the train together and keep talking is the first of his particularly romantic notions in this utterly charming film from Richard Linklater. It also sets the tone for a fresh take on the romantic accidental meeting. (I maintain that Jesse and Celine do not qualify as a Meet Cute, though I’ve read it referred to as such.)
At this point, plenty of people will wonder why they’d want to watch two people in their 20s wander around and talk in pseudo-profound terms for 90 minutes. Cynics will be upset because they assume this is a strange roundabout way to show people falling in love. Jesse and Celine’s story is improbable, sure, but wasn’t your first love improbable too? These people, by the way, would miss the point. The film achieves its greatness in the moments in between. When Linklater’s camera catches one staring at the other or their feigned phone conversations with their best friends back home, you are watching two people honestly use these circuitous routes to reveal their burgeoning feelings. What sets the film apart is Linklater’s ability to capture the universality of these moments as he observes these two very specific young people.
Viewing Before Sunrise now, with the existence of Before Sunset, sheds new light on the film. Now we know the sad story of Jesse and Celine’s follow-up attempt at a meeting, though if you’re anything like me, you still watch the end of the film and believe they’ll meet again in six months. Viewing Before Sunrise now, however, is also a return to the comfort and excitement of youth which Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke bring to each moment of their outstanding performances. As you watch Jesse and Celine fall in love, you also watch an idea become one of the most brilliant films of the 1990s.
|74. Babe (Noonan, 1995)
The '90s saw a renaissance of great kids' films made within the American studio system. Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, A Little Princess, The Iron Giant and a host of others all have their partisans, but few came out of nowhere to as much acclaim as skillfully as Chris Noonan's weird, Australian-American hybrid, Babe, which was, perhaps surprisingly, one of two talking pig movies to come out in 1995, though the only one to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture and win the National Society of Film Critics' Best Picture prize.
One of the great themes of kids' entertainment in the '90s was that of tolerance, the idea that everyone has a certain amount of worth integral to their very existence as human beings, or the idea that anyone can be anything if they try hard enough. This idea was sniffed at by politicians and pundits at the time, dismissed as needless "political correctness" (a phrase that came to have less and less meaning as the decade went on), but Babe is a warm, occasionally thrilling defense of the idea that treating people with kindness is not a sign of weakness at all.
Wrapped up in the midst of the story of a pig who wants to herd sheep are a variety of intricately constructed comic set pieces, a plethora of memorable characters and a terrific performance from James Cromwell as Farmer Hoggett. But what makes the film memorable is its overwhelmingly humanist spirit, its belief that if only the world were as storybook kind as Babe, there would be far fewer problems. Real darkness creeps around the corners of Babe from time to time, allaying its whimsy, but what keeps the film alive is its simple faith in the power of being good to one another.
73. Van Gogh (Pialat, 1991)
Maurice Pialat's masterful film, Van Gogh, recounts the final months of the painter's life at Auvers-sur-Oise, a village outside of Paris. Not aiming for strict biographical veracity here, Pialat narrows his study wisely to focus on the process of creating art, a process that proved to be both joyous and debilitating for his subject. Pialat renders Van Gogh as a man still struggling to define himself as a painter. He is aided by a haunting central performance by the gaunt and charismatic Jacques Dutronc. Together, they present a ferocious inner wrestling match that fascinates, confounds and sometimes irritates. This Van Gogh is not ready to be sanctified. He is spoiled and insulting. What is shown is an illuminating but unfinished portrait of the artist.
The film is seductively shot with nods to the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. The rhythm of the film is interesting. Both fluid and choppy, its contrast in tone captures the turbulent nature of the creative process. Of particular interest are the scenes of the Paris demimonde; the world the artists inhabit is vibrantly portrayed with a delirious sense of debauchery and freedom. The brothels and dance halls of Montmartre feel vibrant and not at all like sets from a costume drama. This is an unusual and intimate portrait of a man that cleverly avoids the pitfalls of most biopics by deliberately sidestepping the "big moments" of Van Gogh's last days. No dramatic seizures or ear cuttings here. No operatic diatribes on the nature of art are presented. Instead, the painter is examined with a sort of peripheral vision. He seems to exist at the sides of the film's frame as if Pialat is suggesting that the true nature of the artist was and will remain a mystery.
72. Ulysses’ Gaze (Angelopoulos, 1995)
The scene in Theo Angelopoulos’ sacral Ulysses' Gaze where Erland Josephson’s Bosnian projectionist disappears forever into the mist brings a devastating finish to a long, desperate tale about losing identity. This loss is personified in Harvey Keitel’s Sisyphus-like filmmaker, who is trying to find something that may or may not be lost — and such is the exact question this ever pondering film asks regarding the Balkans' identity in the war-ravaged 1990s: Is it fragmented or is it crumbling?
Through his relationship with a mysterious, reappearing woman (Maia Morgenstern), Angelopoulos shows us that even love has grown cold, and he asks us tryingly if we can believe in its resuscitation as a necessity for civilisation’s survival. Filmed on location in the Balkans, Ulysses' Gaze presents us with striking imagery that is strangely barren and majestic at the same time, and so Angelopoulos’ film uses the Balkans as a looking glass for a discussion of humanity’s reciprocity. His sermon is haunting, patient and simply unforgettable.
71. Crash (Cronenberg, 1996)
David Cronenberg is cinema's agent provocateur. Yes, he makes very provocative films but his filmography is more than mere stimulation of the senses. He provokes our mind. He provokes our soul. In fact, Cronenberg provokes our very being. The pinnacle of this signature psychological deconstruction of sex and violence is his 1996 opus Crash.
Highly sexualized but never sexually erotic, Crash is based on J.G. Ballard's novel and tells the story of Toronto film producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), and how they devolve into a world of sexual perversion and hedonistic debauchery where ultimate satisfaction is achieved in car crashes. This underground group led by Vaughan (Elias Koteas) live their lives chasing after car crashes to derive sexual pleasure rather than avoiding them.
Filmed with clinical precision by Cronenberg, these scenes of unease are more than just provocations but a blunt social commentary on the fleeting and irrational nature of human carnality. Enhanced with an eerie musical score by Howard Shore and claustrophobic cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, Crash sets the atmosphere for and exposes a world of sexual taboo — immortalizing it in film.
Critics panned Crash because it is perverse, depraved, disturbing and yes, immoral. But Cronenberg's treatise on sex and violence does not strike one as immoral, for these themes are viewed with such scientific detachment. Indeed, Crash is ultimately an amoral film that perfectly encapsulates the alienation of the modern human spirit in a post-modern society.
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