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30. Happy Together (Wong, 1997)

Bathed in a blue light, probably by night, the water of the Iguazu Falls jumps slowly into the void, as the voice of Argentinean singer Caetano Veloso performs an impossibly gentle version of “Cucurrucucú, paloma.” This mysterious, iconic image is the motif Happy Together uses to represent both what the protagonists could never have as a couple, and the enigma of the reasons why they couldn’t. It is such a powerful moment that it casts a spell in the rest of the movie and makes the rest of the scenes look sadder, more disquieting.

As are most protagonists of Wong Kar Wai’s films, Ho (Leslie Cheung) and Lai (Tony Leung) are displaced individuals looking for a place to travel to and become something or someone else. In this movie, unlike in others by the director, they are already a couple when the film starts, and they travel from their home place, Hong Kong, to Argentina, to try and find a new life far from everything they knew. In Argentina they only have each other, but certain relations cannot last for long and soon they start breaking up, and coming back together, time after time, so as to be able to stand the loneliness. This allows Wong to express and question, in the most poignant way, how close sometimes happiness seems to be, and how far some other times it presents itself to us; how companionship sometimes is the key to find it and how some other times it’s precisely what keeps us far from it; how we run in circles trying to find what we think we are missing, only to find we weren’t really missing that, or to find that we can only have it for a limited time.

Achingly beautiful, capturing all the lovely melancholy of the places it’s filmed in and pairing this with the sadness of its characters, digging deep in the ups and downs of life as a couple, Happy Together marked the beginning of Wong’s maturity and definitely established him as one of the best poets of the current film scene. -Jaime Esteve, Spain

29. Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997)

Defined by its creators as a “psychogenic fugue,” whatever that means, Lost Highway left most critics puzzled if not baffled when it opened in 1997, only to be rediscovered by many just a few years later, after Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire revealed more about how Lynch’s narrative structures work.

However, as is the case in most works by the American director, this film’s themes and suggestions can be savoured also without decoding the possible plot: it’s easy to detect soon the influence of film noir and, later, of pulp noir myths, and to go along in its exploration of such myths and how they come from and are deeply ingrained in old male myths, desires and insecurities. Despite not knowing what exactly is happening to the characters, you perfectly feel the protagonist’s lust, his insecurity, his jealousy, his sense of inferiority or superiority when he’s with other men, his wish to be other men, his wish to possess different women that represent different aspects of the concept “woman” in pop culture and in male-oriented fiction. And, more importantly, it is possible to feel with the protagonist and to join him in his trip, because nobody can communicate a sense of fear, a sense of terrible tragedy or loss, a sense of desire or a sense of frustration with the intensity of David Lynch, who makes you suffer all these things even when you don’t know exactly why, or what exactly is happening in the plot that would cause such emotions. -Jaime Esteve, Spain

28. Ed Wood (Burton, 1994)

Visions are worth fighting for… that's what a dream-like version of Orson Welles says in Tim Burton's Ed Wood. And if Edward D. Wood, Jr. is still remembered today it is because he firmly believed in that. Ed Wood was a devoted reader of comic books, a horror movie buff, basically what we would call a "geek" today. Oh, and he liked to wear angora sweaters. One day he got to meet his idol, an old Hungarian actor whose name would be mostly forgotten if it wasn't for a certain sharp-toothed character he used to play. In the same years when Orson Welles produced, wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, Ed Wood produced, wrote, directed and starred in Glen or Glenda. A turning point of sorts, since most people at the time didn't think Ed could be capable of something even worse. But he did believe in those words, "Visions are worth fighting for," and his response to all those who described Glen or Glenda as the worst movie ever was, "My next one will be better." A response given with the widest and most endearing of optimistic grins. The rest is Hollywood legend.

In a strange way Ed Wood is both Burton's only realistic film and also his most surreal. The concept of alienation is brought to an extreme within the walls of reality, and while most of Burton's fantasy creatures (from Edward to Batman, and Ichabod Crane, and all those apes!) are widely seen as symbols of brooding angst, Burton's only real-life hero is also his sunniest, happiest creation. The world is against him, but Ed Wood smiles and goes on. He has no money, his movies are constantly bashed in the most ridiculous ways, but he smiles and goes on. "Action! Cut! That was perfect, let's print it, let's move on," and he goes on, and on, and on, scene after scene, dialogue after dialogue, joyous like a child in a candy store, becoming the cartoon version of a real director, thinking that all that is needed to make a good movie is a megaphone, a lot of love for what you're doing and the opportunity to yell "Action!" at a small crew of outcasts.

A crew of people as unfortunate as Ed Wood himself, people who've been thrown out of showbiz because of what they think (Vampira is a communist), because of the life they lead (Bunny is gay), or simply because no one cares about them anymore (Bela Lugosi), people who have to trust each other and put all their hopes in each other just to survive in that shimmering, lethal jungle called Hollywood. Of course, Ed Wood is not a biopic, not a traditional one at least. It's a romanticized version of Edward Wood, which helped in creating and increasing the aura of "campy cult" that brought him to fame since the '80s. But then again, the movie never wants to show the facts about Ed Wood's life. It just wants to tell the story of a man and his dreams. It's a "love letter" to all those unknown people who lived the Hollywood dream in its prime, and died because of it, died of too much passion, too much devotion to an industry that wants to present itself as a dream factory. A love letter filled with melancholy and childish admiration for the forgotten dreamers who never made it. -CD, Italy

27. A Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997)

It could be argued that there was no director in the '90s who was more prevalent and pervasive to the cinematic language than Abbas Kiarostami. A thoughtful, even meditative filmmaker at times, Kiarostami's trademark long cuts and minimalist refinement carry on the tradition of previous masters, most notably that of Yasujiro Ozu.

A Taste of Cherry is certainly his best-known work, having tied for the Palme d'Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. It is the story of Mr. Badii, an apparently well-off middle-aged man who drives through Tehran looking for someone to bury him in his pre-made grave after he commits suicide. Kiarostami never tells us exactly why he wants to commit suicide (indeed, we never really know whether or not the man kills himself at the end). Throughout the course of his hunt, Badii comes in contact with three individuals. The first refuses to do the job, but offers no consideration against Badii killing himself. The second refuses, and attempts to convince Badii not to go through with it for seminal reasons, which do not move him. It is only after the third individual, who agrees to help but recounts his own circumstances with suicide, that Badii possibly begins to think twice.

Kiarostami argues that it is in life's simplicities that we can find the meaning to live. But he is always cognizant of the fact that he is making a movie, reminding us of that in the end with a jarring ending sequence that shakes out what we've seen before, particularly given the closeness we feel to Badii, even without ever knowing why he wanted to kill himself or his ultimate fate. This is Kiarostami's message: that ultimately it is not the why, but the what and the now that we can live in. And the universal argument is just that: to live. -Jason K. Darby, USA

26. Secrets & Lies (Leigh, 1996)

He may not be everyone's cup of tea but Mike Leigh has had a spectacular career (albeit not a prolific one). Objectively speaking, I do not think he has ever made a bad film. Such films as Life is Sweet, Career Girls, Naked, Topsy-Turvy and Secrets & Lies allow Leigh to stand alongside the true masters of the '90s like Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Mike Leigh is renowned for making penetrating dramas about relationships and he does this with such honesty and humanity. This is very evident in his soap-opera masterpiece, Secrets & Lies.

The tagline for this film is a simplistic summary of the plot. "Roxanne drives her mother crazy. Maurice never speaks to his niece. Cynthia has a shock for her family. Monica can't talk to her husband. Hortense has never met her mother." But instead of turning this into a sappy kitchen-sink drama, Leigh elevates the soap opera into a cinematic realm where the genre has never been before. This is mostly thanks to Leigh's precise but empathic perception of human attitudes and also to the memorable performances of the actors involved, who even improvised most of the dialogue.

Brenda Blethyn is Cynthia, a working-class white woman whose life is basically drowned in its banality. Everything changes when she meets her long-lost and now successful black daughter Hortense, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste. These two actresses are just on fire whenever they are on-screen. Blethyn gives a riveting portrayal and just explodes with emotion. Jean-Baptiste exudes a cool presence to counter the former's fiery temperament. In a way, the two form a thespian yin and yang in this endearing relationship drama.

Reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's deeply emotional chamber dramas, Secrets & Lies is ultimately a touching and uplifting film about the interactions and decisions we make as human beings. Yes, we may become entangled by the secrets and the lies in our lives, but in the end there is hope that our honesty and humanity prevail. Mike Leigh perfectly captures the socio-familial dynamics with real integrity, making this film a definitive one for the decade and a treasure to be kept in the canon of cinema. -CDMC, Canada/Philippines

25. The Piano (Campion, 1993)

“I am afraid of my will, of what it might do, it is so strange and strong.” Despite all that has been written of the female as victim in this film, Ada, a woman traveling to meet her husband in New Zealand after an arranged marriage, is imprisoned not by patriarchy or the mores of Victorian society — but by her own dark will. The film opens on a view of what might be prison bars, the camera retreating to reveal Ada’s fingers, as she peers between them at the outside world. Rendered mute since childhood — by an act of will rather than any physical disability — she speaks through her fingers. At the piano she has, in essence, created for herself a perfect solipsistic world.

Water symbolizes the feminine, love, the duality of word and will. Replete with ocean imagery, Campion’s camera shows us huge waves towering over the piano, left stranded on a desolate New Zealand beach where two tiny female figures await Ada’s new husband, only to find that he cannot be bothered to carry her piano home. Stewart doesn’t listen, doesn’t comprehend that the piano is her voice. Ada (a fiercely compelling Holly Hunter) once had a brief romance with a music teacher, who fathered her illegitimate child. In voiceover, she dismisses her old lover tellingly: “He became frightened and stopped listening.” Everyone fears Ada’s strange intensity, including Ada.

“’Twere good he had God’s patience, for silence affects everyone in the end.” But Stewart does not have God’s patience, and when he learns that Ada is selling herself to Baines, the man who fetched her piano, in order to earn it back one black key at a time, he metaphorically castrates her by chopping off her finger. Yet this bloody act finally awakens Ada. She begins to see the harm her self-repression has done. To the tiny mirror-image daughter whose head tilts in unison with her mother’s, like two black birds in a gaudy forest. To her impotent husband, driven mad by silence. Even to Baines, the easygoing lover whose sexual bargaining allowed her to undo the stays of her Victorian passion.

As her piano sinks into the cold, deep sea, Ada is revealed as one of the most intransigent women in film. The masterly Campion ends as she began, with a voyage to a new life, precariously afloat on the seductive undertows of silence. -Beth Stevens, USA

24. Barton Fink (Coen & Coen, 1991)

"I will show you the life of the mind!" yells a character during the apocalyptic climax of Barton Fink, and this is exactly what writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen have been doing for the previous 100 minutes, plumbing the depths of the subconscious to a level unequalled in their diverse filmography, at times veering into David Lynch territory, but never without their patented brand of absurdity.

The film begins as a fairly direct story: a New York playwright and "voice of the common man," the title character (played by John Turturro and clearly modeled after Clifford Odets) is seduced by an offer to come out to Hollywood and lend (some would say denigrate) his talents to the movie business, something not uncommon in the 1930s, the period in which the film is set. What follows is a struggle to adapt to a factory system where original or challenging voices are often stifled, portrayed mainly by scenes of Fink sitting awkwardly at meetings with studio representatives, or impotently at the typewriter in his hotel apartment, unable to summon his muse for a wrestling film screenplay.

Barton is soon joined by the female secretary (Judy Davis) of an alcoholic fellow writer, who offers her assistance in ways work-related and otherwise, as well as a neighbor at the hotel (John Goodman) who works as a door-to-door salesman, a member of Barton's supposed blue-collar constituency. As his new friends reveal their deeper secrets, we see exactly what Barton has sacrificed in his vocational deal with the Devil, a notion that slowly seems to be realizing itself literally as the story progresses. The film concludes with a transition from funhouse frenzy to the tranquility of a beach on the California coast, and we're left with open-ended questions and an unopened box which might belong to Pandora herself, the grace note of the Coens' cinematic mail bomb addressed to the movie business in lieu of a poison valentine.

In their first film with master cinematographer Roger Deakins (in what would become one of the great modern collaborations), the Coens present their most atmospherically palpable setting, a world where hotel walls seem to sweat from the heat along with the occupants between them, and a Hollywood so grotesque the typical broadly drawn characters of the Coens blend right in. The dialogue is pure noir, drawn from the same Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler well the Coens dipped into on earlier films Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing, but this time with a more flippant and satirical edge. The film also features some of the Coens' most creative compositions and images, their anything-goes aesthetic this time paired with a story that practically demands the eye-popping visuals, and the result isn't a cold admiration of their technique, but an unsettling effect on the viewer as the world created for the film is peeled away, rendered topsy-turvy, and set aflame.

The origin of Barton Fink stemmed from a bout of writer's block the Coens had themselves with a previous film project, and so it's not surprising that this film comes off as more reflective and abstract than the rest of their work. While its function as a parable is something the Coens would likely be loathe to discuss, especially as it seems to hint at several different subtexts, there's certainly more to chew on than simply a good yarn. The jury at the Cannes Film Festival must have thought likewise, as they unanimously awarded Barton Fink the Palme d'Or for Best Film, with additional honors for Directing and Lead Actor, the first time any film won all three. While the Coens became the toast of Hollywood several years later with Fargo, Barton Fink made it clear in advance that their association with the industry would be on their own terms, and always held somewhere between an arm's length and a wink. -NC, USA

23. The Grifters (Frears, 1990)

Everything is between the lines in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters. The only time anybody means what they say is when Roy (John Cusack) falls ill and is rushed to hospital. Lily, in a peerless portrayal by Anjelica Huston, turns to the doctor and says, “My son is going to be alright; if not I’ll have you killed.” You know by the cool, calm, measured and icy delivery that she means it. Otherwise everything is subtext. Lily and Roy communicate through expressions, gestures, money, physical injury, and Myra (Annette Bening), who is merely their toy.

More disturbing than oranges and head explosions is the sexual attraction between mother and son. The source of that frisson could be the delight of the ultimate score, because the greatest high for a grifter is taking on someone who knows you and has their eye on you. An old grifter advises the willing Roy and gives the audience a tip. Never be partners. This rule locks in a sense of foreboding that lurks over the characters' every move. What increases the pleasure of this betrayal is its emotional sense of payback. You just know Roy and Lily are not destined for a happy reunion.

The cinematography not only captures the underhanded nature of their trade but also another era. Oliver Stapleton’s hues embody old film noir in 1980s America. The characters' dress suggests they were cut out of an old crime novel and pasted into a more modern world. Their garish appearance undermines any rules about not attracting attention. Elmer Bernstein’s vivid score creates an atmosphere all on its own and grips you at critical points of the film.

Frears keeps the tricks to a minimum, for this is a human study. In an interview, Cusack sees Roy as motivated by a sense of peace that grifting affords him. As a grifter he loves the feeling of being able to take back and get things back in his life. And after witnessing this mother-and-son estrangement, it is easy to understand why.

In a closing scene that mirrors their first encounter, Lily and Roy exchange an awkward, ambiguous kiss framed in non-space. Once again the focus is on paintings and a suitcase, but now the glances and subtle hints turn to outright bloody desperation. Frears superbly builds Lily’s vulnerability from the visitor who controls the meetings to someone being invaded or caught out. In the end she gets the ultimate score, but for the ultimate price. -Kylie Little, Australia

22. Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1990)

In 1995, an essay entitled "An Unfinished Cinema" was distributed at the Odéon Theatre in Paris, written by the zenith of the Iranian New Wave, Abbas Kiarostami. The title alludes to a major highlight in his work: selective ambiguity. That is to say, certain narrative elements in Kiarostami films are left unexplained for the sake of leaving it to the audience to devise an explanation or character motivation. Ideally (if not even intrinsically), one's answer to these "empty spaces like in a crossword puzzle," as he calls them, would be aroused from one's own personal experience. "Otherwise," he notes, "the film and the audience die together."

On the micro level, Kiarostami's "unfinished cinema" is marked with characters that are never shown on screen and missing details (from the small to the very provocative) distributed throughout any given work. But the broader aim of his "unfinished cinema" is perhaps the most significant ambiguity that any film could establish: whether or not the events occurring on screen are fictional. 1990's Close-Up is one of his most rigorous exercises of the technique. Because of this, it may be one of his least subtle films, but stands as one of his most accessible, influential and best.

Close-Up's basic premise calls attention to the questions surrounding its authenticity: based on a true story and trial, a man impersonates filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, deceiving an affluent family into thinking they will be featured heavily in his next film. Mixing actual footage, reenactments and perhaps even entirely fictitious incidents with each character playing themselves, the film requires the audience to attempt to distinguish documentary from narrative. Is the trial-scene footage from the actual trial as some have reported? Did the heart-pounding ending really occur or was it a reenactment, or even a fabrication?

There's a brief sequence near the beginning of Close-Up in which Kiarostami cuts to a plane that is flying overhead. This seemingly unplanned moment, briefly intervening in the narrative, speaks directly to the very real events occurring around the film's set. There may be more noteworthy instances in Close-Up, in which the ambiguity surrounding its reality strengthens some very genuine emotional moments. But this little instant highlights the spirit of the aims of Kiarostami's films: even when it doesn't mean to be, all cinema is improvised by an interjecting reality. The beauty of Kiarostami's work, and specifically Close-Up, is that it embraces the interruption. -JE, USA

21. Chungking Express (Wong, 1994)

With a list dominated by films with deep meaning and heavy themes, having Chungking Express make the final cut is almost refreshing. Unabashedly light and cute, it’s hard not to fall in love with another one of Wong Kar-Wai’s atmospheric and infectious masterpieces.

Featuring exquisite performances from Brigitte Lin, Faye Wong, Tony Leung, and Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chungking Express zips along at a quick pace, employing dizzying camera tricks and angles from cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Wai-keung Lau and fast-paced, electric editing from William Chang, Kit-Wai Kai, and Chi-Leung Kwong. Woven throughout the film are clips from popular music, from the Mamas and the Papas' “California Dreamin’” to Faye Wong’s own cover of “Dreams” by the Cranberries. Altogether, the pulsating energy of Hong Kong is brought to vivid life and we become so immersed in this world that Wong Kar-Wai has created for us that we hang on each character’s movements and decisions. When He Zhiwu attempts to hit on Brigitte Lin’s character in a bar, we can almost feel the grime, smell the smoke. Likewise, when Faye begins to ransack Cop 663’s apartment, the fast-paced camera movements give us such a complete tour of the apartment it’s as if we were there along with her.

Wong Kar-Wai has been called the world’s most romantic filmmaker, and it isn’t hard to see why. Though Chungking Express may not focus on the melancholy passion of his later films like Happy Together and In the Mood for Love, it remains a sensual and evocative film, focusing more on romance than tragic love. Though neither story ends on a particularly happy note, there remains a sense of happiness, a feeling of fulfillment from the characters: they may not get what they want, but they do get what they need.

Because of the charismatic performances of the lead actors and Wong’s ability to duplicate the pulsating, energetic street life of Hong Kong, Chungking Express more than deserves a spot among the very best films of the '90s. -N. McIntyre, USA

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