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100. Edward II (Jarman, 1991)

Christopher Marlowe's 16th century play, based on the 14th century monarch Edward II, is the basis for director Derek Jarman's film Edward II. Jarman sets the film's time period ambiguously, hints of the 14th century in its palace settings, as well in the 20th century with sounds of modern weaponry. In this mix Jarman manages to achieve a timelessness to his central themes of intolerance, homophobia, and class tensions.

Jarman asks the viewer to decide, is King Edward merely an obsessed and incapable ruler, uninterested in his inheritance? Or is Edward a victim of his own social elite and their moral norms? Edward's gay shallow lover Gaveston is of the peasant class and anti-church. Edward, who has done his upmost duty with his wife, the French Isabella, in producing an heir, elects to be upfront and "out" with his homosexual relationship. What is worse, Edward shows intentions of allowing Gaveston equal say in governance. This threatens his nobility, the church, and his queen. Thus the stage is set for Edward's downfall: a monarch may not rule without the support of at least part of his or her church elite, military command, and noble classes.

For its appearance, Jarman mixes minimal with dreamlike to excellent effect giving the viewer a sense of intrigue and oppression, central to his themes. His entire cast delivers excellent work. Steven Waddington presents an Edward who as the film continues, allows the polarization of the viewer into the hero or wicked camp. Tilda Swinton, beautifully dressed by Sandy Powell, is powerful as Queen Isabella. Swinton, winner at Venice for this film, moves from a wife and loyal ally to fierce enemy with complete conviction. Jarman creates a monster in Isabella, and we find ourselves asking, is her Regency any better for England? -EFH, USA

99. A Summer's Tale (Rohmer, 1996)

For the third of his four “Tales of the Four Seasons,” nouvelle-vague veteran Eric Rohmer identified the season of summer with youth (as in others of his summer films, Claire’s Knee or Pauline at the Beach), and made a film that, perhaps just because of that, sneaks in our list as the only representative for the oeuvre of this prolific man, despite being the one that got the most limited release in the US among his movies of the '90s. Perhaps it is that small but decisive extra bit of vitality, perhaps it’s that the characters are slightly more defined than usual (with a Gwenaëlle Simon who is close to stealing the film, not because of her charm or acting, but because of her more imposing, assertive character) or perhaps it’s simply that beaches bring out the best in Rohmer, but the fact is that Conte d’été is one of the loveliest films of the master.

And that happens with a male protagonist who’s even less active and even more stuck in indecision than most of Rohmer’s characters. He’s even more silent, and silence is not something very common in the director’s films. There are many unusual shots of him being quiet, melancholically sunk in his thoughts, or playing his guitar for himself, and that makes for a first third of the movie that’s calm and slightly vague, but that makes us create a more vivid connection to the world of this guy, before we enter in the heart of the story. This means, before the girls appear in the story and with them, the fun: between the lively and friendly Margot, the passionate and demanding Solene and the elusive Lena, our protagonist becomes as confused as, Rohmer tells us, young love not only is, but also must be, so that we can enjoy it and taste all of its forms while we’re in summer, whether it’s the real one or the metaphorical summer of our lives. -Jaime Esteve, Spain

98. JFK (Stone, 1991)

Who killed JFK?

And does it matter who did it, so long as the deed was done? For once the blow is struck, the damage is done, and nothing can stop the tide of history from rolling on. Oliver Stone's daring epic boldly plunges into the middle of one of the darkest moments in American history — and he is not, as some have said, propounding wild conspiracy theories about who killed JFK. Instead, with the aid of Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing on editing and Robert Richardson's cinematography, all of whom do work worthy of all-time-greatest lists, Stone beautifully conveys the mindset, the nagging fear that the official story is not true, that we have been lied to, that our government has been stolen from us.

Kevin Costner is the American Dream personified in this film. He is Law and Order with exactly the right number of children and financial success. He loves his wife; he is a normal, decent citizen. But when Camelot falls, the American Dream is slowly subsumed into paranoia over all the bogeymen of the 1950s. Did Cuba do it? The mobsters? The homosexuals? Russia? Or did we do this to ourselves? Costner's performance ably portrays this slow corrosion. The American Dream, JFK postulates, died on November 22nd, 1963, and Costner's performance is ground zero for that death.

Stone takes Costner on an extraordinary ride over the course of the film, letting him encounter the whole range of American society, from senators to prostitutes, supreme court justices to housewives, from those who would prefer to get on with their lives (Sissy Spacek, Michael Rooker), to those who may know more (Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci), to those who do know more (Oscar-nominee Tommy Lee Jones) to the two men standing at the other edge of the abyss, and the two key performances of the film: Donald Sutherland as Mr. X and Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald. Sutherland has only one scene in the film, but it's a doozy, conveying in one 15-minute monologue the tale of the government conspiracy that may have done the deed, allowing all our darkest fears to be realized on screen. And as Oswald, Oldman is nothing short of a revelation. Oswald is the ultimate, final enigma of the mystery, and Oldman both humanizes him and keeps him at arm's length. We will never know, and Oldman and Stone do not let us.

Scalia and Hutshing's dazzling editing counterpoints Richardson's magnificent cinematography, always keeping us feeling as though we are caught up in something larger, grander and more terrifying than can ever be told onscreen. And then it hits us — we are. In JFK, Oliver Stone has created the tragedy of the American Dream. We sally forth with great hope, tinny trumpets blazing, and then we devour our own. We mire ourselves in bland platitudes that it can never happen here, or we actively participate in its downfall.

Who killed JFK? America killed JFK. That is the only answer we can take away from Oliver Stone's masterpiece. -Christopher Dole, USA

97. Dong (Tsai, 1998)

Director Tsai sets his film in a time when a plague has ravaged Taiwan. In a dilapidated Taipei apartment building two survivors, a male upstairs and a female downstairs, reside.

They live side by side seemingly trapped in their spaces by the environment itself. The woman’s pipes are leaking; she calls a plumber. The plumber accidentally knocks a hole between her space and that of the man upstairs. Tsai then takes us through a slow process of the characters awakening to one another.

It is a slow yet satisfying story. The director sets up nicely a study of the human condition with alienation, the difficulty of communication, and if you are inclined, hope. All done with little dialogue, wonderful long shots, strange music and a sense of dark humor. -EFH, USA

96. The Straight Story (Lynch, 1999)

In what looked like (but probably wasn’t) a reaction to the many harsh reviews his previous and very experimental film, Lost Highway, got in 1997, David Lynch decided to make for the follow-up in 1999 a much simpler movie, something that looked as classic as it gets, as if he was trying to prove that he had made experimental movies only because he wanted to, but that he could out-do Spielberg and Eastwood in the race to become John Ford’s heir to the throne of classic American filmmaking if he chose.

And yes, he succeeded and showed everybody that he had never forgotten the human element, that it was present in his complicated stories as well as in his simpler ones, that he was still the same man who could move everybody to tears in the old way as he had done in 1980 with The Elephant Man.

But in David Lynch everything rings truer than in most of the other contenders for the title of “the classic American director” mentioned above: precisely because he often digs in the darkest corners of the human soul, when he decides to look at the brightest side it never seems calculated, he never falls into the cheap, Hollywoodized version of sentimentality, and he never seems to be purposefully pushing buttons. When the protagonist of his 1999 film, Alvin Straight, marvels with his daughter at the beauty of a lightning storm, when he shows the depth of the wounds World War II caused in him, or when he speaks about the importance of family ties, Lynch places the camera quietly, and with his uncanny sense of what (and how) things have to be framed, they come off as sincere existential concerns that are as serious and important as the terrible things he chooses to show in most of his other films. -Jaime Esteve, Spain

95. Un cœur en hiver (Sautet, 1992)

Claude Sautet’s Un cœur en hiver (“A Heart in Winter”) opened in 1992 and has intrigued and puzzled viewers ever since, producing multiple, conflicting interpretations of the film. The plot is simple: Stephane (Daniel Auteuil) is a brilliant restorer of violins who works for a gregarious, engaging shop owner, Maxime (Andre Dussollier). The latter, who is married (we never see his wife), falls in love with Camille (Emmanuelle Beart), an up-and-coming, extremely talented violinist. Maxime leaves his wife to move in with Camille, all the while conveying his joy to Stephane, whom Maxime clearly considers his friend. Stephane reacts by seeming to seduce Camille emotionally, and he succeeds — she pursues Stephane and intends to seduce him sexually. At that point, Stephane tells her not only that he does not love her but that Maxime is his partner, not his friend. This rejection devastates Camille. Shortly afterwards, Maxime, who has been aware of the developing relationship between Camille and Stephane, attacks Stephane physically. In the end, Camille returns to Maxime, who seems to love her unconditionally, and Stephane sets up his own successful business restoring violins.

However, describing the story arc explains almost nothing about the film, which is the least plot-based one might find. Rather, it is overwhelmingly a character study, especially of Stephane, though not limited to him. Auteuil is mesmerizing in the role, combining a surface lack of emotional involvement in anything other than his work with a sagging posture and a cherubic, basset-hound face that at first would seem to indicate a sort of defeated temperament, but never does so — he is a forceful, if intensely enigmatic, personality underneath. Even the title of the film refuses to be straightforward: does it apply to Stephane or is it making a subtle allusion to Camille or Maxime, or perhaps in different ways to all three? Above all, why does Stephane go out of his way to attract Camille only to push her away? Is Stephane simply a cold man who chooses to be cruel to Camille because he enjoys it as a game or maybe because it enables him to exercise power? Or is Stephane in love with Maxime and wishes to separate the lovers for that reason? Or is it a mistake to focus on Stephane at all, as he might merely be a catalyst for revealing the calculating aspects of the other two principal characters? The film itself answers none of these questions nor a host of others — it is up to the viewer to discover for himself why these characters act as they do.

The key to much of the film could lie in the relationship between Stephane and his old teacher and friend, who is painfully sick. When the old man wants to be put out of his misery by lethal injection, only Stephane has the control (or is it the courage?) to do so. Can Stephane perform this act because of his lack of feeling or because of his empathy? It is up to the viewer to decide. It is in brief dialogue that Stephane most reveals himself, though again enigmatically. When informing Camille that he does not love at all, he slips and acknowledges that “I love to watch you talk.” Also, when she asks him, “Yet you love music?” he replies, “Music is the stuff of dreams.” What do these statements mean? Interesting question.

The acting by all the cast is superb, the direction sure, and the camera work focused relentlessly and unforgivingly on close-ups of the main characters' faces. Who these people are and why they do what they do might remain a mystery, but it is one that compels and delights as the viewer seeks to unravel it. -DEG, USA

94. Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (Mirkin, 1997)

I wish that Romy and Michele's High School Reunion had a bit more straight man appeal. That way it could be the biting satire of buddy films it truly is.

Buddy films were invented in the '70s to fire against the onslaught of feminism. They would remove the female characters from the center and replace them with a male friend. And most of the time the female characters were forced to be a hot piece of ass or a bitchy significant other role who "smothered" the male before his journeys to self-discovery.

Would the men care, though? I'm not sure. Comedies can be like nuggets. Chicken or Fish. Most people like chicken nuggets but not a lot of people go for fish nuggets. I think RAMHSR is more of a fish nugget. (No pun to women.) And it's found its place as a sort of cult film amongst funny women and gay men.

I also love that this film isn't particularly flattering to women but it's never exactly insulting. Romy has a cashier job at a car lot and supports her best friend Michele, an aspiring fashion designer. The two go out clubbing, looking for fun, and occasionally worry that they may never be married. What makes it unique is the treatment of what could have just been DUMB BLONDE routine but this movie actually cares about both of the blondes and invests in their situation. Maybe it's that the screenwriter based this film on characters featured in her stage play "Ladies' Room."

93. Carlito's Way (De Palma, 1993)

Bang Bangyou're dead. And just like William Holden at the start of Sunset Boulevard, Al Pacino lies dying, yet promptly begins narrating the tale of how he arrived at this unfortunate place. Brian De Palma is at his peak in this opening credit sequence, with his fluid, floating camera putting us right in Carlito Brigante's body, and then ethereally… out of it. Rarely have one's dying moments and unfulfilled dreams been so tragically, operatically evoked.

A decade after their Scarface teaming, Pacino and De Palma abandon the flashy cartoon violence that made that film a cult hit and evoke a lusher, romantic, more fatalistic tragedy — the tragedy of a man trying futilely to do the right thing. As the former kingpin of the Spanish Harlem hood, just sprung on a technicality from a 40-year Sing Sing sentence, Carlito vows to go straight, patch things up with his ex, and start a new life together in the Bahamas. As in many a Western or '30s gangster film, Carlito lives by a code of honor where loyalty and friendship drive one’s actions. But the new generation of street punks (as exemplified by John Leguizamo's "Benny Blanco from the Bronx," himself a Tony Montana-esque character), could care less about such antiquated platitudes.

Pacino here gives one of his greatest, least blustery performances — his expressive eyes registering a resignation and world-weariness to the anachronism he has become. Matching him every step of the way is Sean Penn (almost unrecognizable with perhaps the worst cinematic hair this side of Anton Chigurh). His coked out, weaselly lawyer Kleinfeld is an indelible performance, and Pacino and Penn's scenes together just pop. In his one extended scene, Viggo Mortensen shows why he too is destined for greatness.

No De Palma film would be complete without his audacious cinematic set pieces, and he concludes Carlito's Way with a doozy — a chase on the N.Y. trains leading to Grand Central Station. Though our knowledge of the film's outcome may limit some of its suspense, the sense of romantic ache and the futility of fighting the headlong rush of Fate more than compensate. The raw emotion of a life's final moments with its overreaching sense of great loss as rendered at the film's start and finish, floored me. That and the bittersweet optimism of a small boy shown in silhouette dancing with his mother on a beach in Paradise… -Steve Striegel, USA

92. Se7en (Fincher, 1995)

Don’t you also think that in the hands of another director with a less stylized and rougher approach, Andrew Kevin Walker’s script would be material for an extremely terrifying horror film? But still, “Fincher the Esthete” created one of the strongest thrillers of our times, and probably a milestone in the genre.

Se7en is exquisitely made, with its detailed sound work, Howard Shore’s thrilling score and the Academy Award nominated editing. Everyone’s at the top of their games here. Fincher is known to always get the best out of his cinematographers, but we should never underestimate Darius Khondji’s part in the success of this film. The city is a character here and he makes us become a part of the journey… from the darkness to the light. Se7en is both beautiful to look at and deeply disturbing at the same time.

But let me add that there has always been one thing in the script which bothered me: Tracy did not commit any sins and that’s a contradiction in John Doe’s actions… While the filmmakers try to hide this flaw quite effectively, it’s still a weak point in an otherwise powerful finale and thrilling movie. -Ali Ercivan, Turkey

91. Goodbye South, Goodbye (Hou, 1996)

Much has been made of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's (sometimes controversial) status as an observer. For international audiences — who have given him his greatest success — his seemingly hands-off observation partnered with the beauty of his imagery and the allure of lifelike scenes of everyday people have accelerated the reading of his films as universal human dramas concerned with people over history. It's true that his films function magnificently on this level, but more often than not, they are entrenched with historical context — sometimes even quite explicitly so, with the use of intertitles and narration.

Even in the few occasions when he has left his native Taiwan for other environments, the island still lingers. Take, for instance, his most recent film (to date), the Paris-set The Flight of the Red Balloon. Here the Taiwanese film student and baby-sitter, Song, stands in as a metaphor for Hou as observer. Nationality plays a key role here in this reference — we're reminded that such observation is coming from Taiwanese eyes. As such, cultural and historical background can never be escaped in Hou's work no matter how well the films function in ignorance of this broader context. His observation is specifically aimed at documenting, however supposedly stoic and realist, the influence shifting historical events have on ordinary people. But even as an observer, Hou offers both commentary and critique.

One such observation Hou has repeatedly made in his work is that Taiwan's political and cultural shifts from its various occupying powers throughout the past century and current uncertainty have led to confused, fragmented (and even hypocritical) identity. 1996's Goodbye South, Goodbye, one of his very finest films to date, focuses heavily on one of his preoccupations — the influx of crime from Mainland Chinese immigrating to the island after the end of its Japanese occupation. In an interview with The Monthly Film Bulletin, he discusses the crime-driven Chinese immigrants:

They didn't understand the social system built and left in place by the Japanese. The criminals, mostly from Shanghai, formed into gangs and behaved outrageously… The conflicts between Mainland and Taiwanese gangs began in small towns and gradually spread to the cities. Nowadays, they're all mixed together and it's impossible to say who's who.
This historical context is not explicitly stated in the film — much of his prior work at the time was focused on historical recreation; Goodbye South, Goodbye marked Hou's first foray of the decade into a feature that is entirely contemporary. It implies constant movement, its title even saying farewell as it speeds ahead — the film opens with a train, ends with an abrupt halt in motion and features a stunning long take midway through of its characters riding on motorcycles towards the camera. But Hou's characters are tied down to the past. What has become the steady critique in his contemporary observation is that Taiwanese youth have lost a sense of identity and history as a result of the island's fragmented history, but that they are still unknowingly attached to it and influenced by it. The above historical background serves as an explanation for the desires and goals of its lead character Gao, a wannabe gangster whose criminal ambitions never quite work out. These aren't dreams that come solely from him as an individual — they're the product of decades of cultural shift in relation to crime. Goodbye South, Goodbye is one of Hou's most potent examples of contemporary youth who are barreling toward a future without taking the time to look back. -JE, USA

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