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|40. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang, 1991)
Raise the Red Lantern is a women's prison film. As much as it dazzles, and it does, the film is a claustrophobic and tragic study of sexual enslavement. Few films of the 1990s can rival its opulent beauty. Sumptuously filmed with an intoxicating color palette and luxurious sets and costumes of the Chinese Warlord Era (1920s), the film is hardly a romantic period piece.
The beautiful and fiercely willful Gong Li stars as Songlian, a young Chinese college student, forced after her father's death to become a concubine of a wealthy nobleman. Trapped in a gilded prison, Songlian must compete for her master's favors with his three other mistresses. This competition soon leads to jealousy and culminates in a savage, bloody rivalry.
Although Zhang Yimou denied the film had any political intent, this unflinching study of oppression, obedience, cruelty and deceit might be read as an indictment of the authoritarianism of Communist China in the years following the debacle at Tiananmen Square.
The film was awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was honored by the London, Los Angeles and New York Film Critics, as well as the British Film Academy as the Best Foreign Language Film.
Enthralling and disturbing, it is a work of sublime beauty and assured confidence.
39. Lone Star (Sayles, 1996)
Fontera is a border Texas community haunted by its past and troubled in its present. Director/writer John Sayles gives us a breathtaking, intelligent, and beautifully layered look at Fontera in his film Lone Star. Sayles starts us off with a murder mystery, which is retained as the main plot, whilst bringing on many rich and complex subplots. Rather than getting bogged down by these, Salyes maintains clear sailing and allows the subplots to enhance the main story. Brilliant writing and editing (Sayles was also the editor) keep Lone Star from becoming heavy-handed in its storytelling. And storytelling rarely gets better than this film.
Sayles' mature look at racism goes beyond trans-cultural; while addressing border-crossing illegals Mercedes Cruz tells her daughter Pilar, "We are not Mexican, we are Spanish." It is intelligent writing such as this that gives the film a superior edge, with excellent characterizations. Sayles tells the story, but doesn't permit the viewer to look too forward in its development. Fontera has many secrets and they are revealed bit by engrossing bit.
Along with stellar editing, writing, and direction, the acting is universally superb. Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey, not always known for consistent work, really deliver. Chris Cooper, Ron Canada, Elizabeth Peña are superb, and Frances McDormand in a cameo is simply amazing. The scene between ex-spouses (Cooper and McDormand) could have been reduced to simple two dimensions, but Sayles' writing and the acting sear the scene into quite a memorable moment, just one of many in this film.
Lone Star delivers on its first viewing, yet is one of those rare films which deserves, and is enhanced with, multiple viewings.
38. Heavenly Creatures (Jackson, 1994)
Christianity is the familiar oppressor in Heavenly Creatures: even as two rebellious schoolgirls wage war against 1950s Anglican morality, they constantly incorporate it into their own spiritual kingdom, the Fourth World. The cleansing of sin is suggested in three eerily lit bathing scenes, crucial stages of the girls’ deepening psychosis. By the time we reach a tragic last supper at the tea house in Victoria Park, we too feel crucified.
The film's mock chamber-of-commerce prologue extolls the delights of Christchurch, New Zealand — but not the dark hypocrisy underneath. Shockingly, we are ripped away to the aftermath of a true-life murder as the girls, bloody and screaming, run up a wooded path where they have bludgeoned Pauline’s mother to death. With obvious irony, Christchurch is referred to as “gay” in the innocent '50s meaning of the word, presaging the public scandal and rumors of homosexuality brought up later at the girls' murder trial. But we don't see the trial. Peter Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh (a fortunate pairing for this material) focus instead on the girls’ need for each other, their joyous friendship which grows more obsessive as the other linchpin of their lives, parental support, erodes.
Juliet (blond and sarcastic Kate Winslet) and Pauline (darkly sullen Melanie Lynskey) discover the psychic doorway to the Fourth World on an Easter trip. Their saints are noir movie villains and the “world’s greatest tenor,” Mario Lanza (whose pop music is used throughout the film to both comic and impassioned effect).
Pauline: "Oh, I wish James Mason would do a religious picture! He'd be perfect as Jesus."
Juliet: "Daddy says the Bible's a load of bunkum."
Pauline: "But we're all going to heaven?"
Juliet: "I'm not! I'm going to the Fourth World… it's sort of like heaven. Only better, because there aren't any Christians!"
Behind their public masks, people wear multiple identities and multiple genders. Like Paul’s opera, it's a three-act story with a tragic end. We know the outcome — still, an ungodly tension builds as the fantastic and the real begin to merge. From the savage Borovnian murder of Nicholas (John in real life, who has just "lovingly" deflowered 14-year-old Pauline), a pretty gem rolls away to land at the girls’ feet in the real world. The magical kingdom of Borovnia with its creepy plasticine statues, its orgies and violence, has penetrated every aspect of quiet Christchurch. Unicorns and lesbians, bliss and sin, blood and death… where were these in the sunny prologue? Like the Fourth World, right beside us all along, if we only knew.
|37. Naked Lunch (Cronenberg, 1991)
Who could better manifest an ugly spirit than David Cronenberg? The venereal dedicatee aptly dispensed with the idea of a straight book-to-film translation and who could blame him? Based on the William S. Burroughs novel of the same name, Naked Lunch doesn’t re-tell the untellable but more stunningly combines Cronenberg's body fascination with a mosaic of events that sheds vivid, cinematic light on Burroughs' journey towards his controversial masterpiece.
At the film’s heart, and played fantastically by Peter Weller, is Bill Lee. Lee is exterminator, writer and very much Burroughs’ agent in the Interzone and beyond.
In the now infamous game, the real William Tell was promised freedom should he shoot the apple. Bill Lee is not as fortunate. For Burroughs, it was losing this game that forced him into writing and that grim dichotomy is grasped by Cronenberg and informs the underlying narrative of the film and the life.
With visceral menace, Cronenberg unleashes Lee’s "algebra of need" with gigantic insects, Mugwumps, and Kerouac- and Ginsberg-inspired dialogue. It is terrifying, at times extremely funny and achingly sad because Lee’s need is Joan.
Suschitzky’s cinematography creates a chimera atmosphere that snares the viewers’ senses like a bug powder shot to the breast. The flat, muffled colours tighten the fluctuation between reality and fantasy. For Burroughs and indeed Cronenberg, inner and outer realities are blended and almost interchangeable, where a conversation with a talking asshole, literally, sets off this bewildering and rambling journey from the central vibration and shattering reality of Joan’s death.
Peter Weller astutely carried off the Burroughs-inspired figure of Bill Lee by avoiding the mythos and transforming himself into El hombre invisible. Weller’s Lee has a kind of guarded and firm presence that belies any hippy or beat notions. Judy Davis stunningly plays the dual roles of Joan and Joan Frost like an eerie old-school femme fatale.
This is a huge ask of any director, but Cronenberg recognises his own sense of illustration in Burroughs' work and with Naked Lunch he triumphs by immersing in and extending this cultural landmark to the screen.
|36. The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991)
In an opening shot suggested by Jodie Foster, director Jonathan Demme illustrates a young woman's path of endurance in a male world. As Clarice Starling navigates the hilly terrain, at once it feels lonely, dangerous and foreboding, but she makes it. The camera watches over our protoganist in a way that covets and protects.
The Silence of the Lambs is about metamorphosis contrasted with those in our world who cannot relinquish their innate impulsions. Clarice's journey of change, characterised by geography and education, abruptly switches to an all-encompassing investigation of her being that entails greater agony and fulfillment than anything Buffalo Bill could artificially design. From "the rube" roots to FBI star pupil, Clarice learns that the men around her limit and reduce her. They all seem to level a stare that shifts between disapproval and condescension; all except one.
Anthony Hopkins' spellbinding Dr. Lecter is the only man who can help Clarice find the Senator's daughter and is also the only man who demands her intelligence and honesty. As Clarice sits with intense uncertainty in front of Lecter, even the clear Plexiglas cell cannot protect her as she starts to unveil the mosaic of her childhood. The good doctor relishes her confessions and takes in the sounds of her candor like a Bach aria. He, in effect, pushes her through a terrain of self-discovery, delivering her from cynicism and mediocrity. He gives her new self-realisation by helping her shed her old skin and thus own it. Her metamorphosis is most profound.
Demme correctly departed from the novel by making the bond between Clarice and Dr. Lecter the focus, in place of Jack Crawford. This produced classic, old-fashioned cinematic magic between the two outstanding leads. Unlike the awful Hannibal, there is regard for the mental exploration that underlies the drama. The real terror is witnessing Dr. Lecter's intelligence descend from the upper echelons like a surgeon's scalpel onto the unsuspecting. His ability to read people can cut through our projections, and the film's quid-pro-quo showdowns entwine us. Demme does retain the point-of-view perspective from the book that ensures the audience is always in the know and gripped in a vise. It says something about us, I don't know what, that we champion Lecter's antihero, but maybe it's simply because he champions Clarice.
|35. The Long Day Closes (Davies, 1992)
British director Terence Davies looks back on his Liverpool childhood with tenderness in his exquisite and poetic "Memory" film, The Long Day Closes.
A lonely 11-year-old boy, Bud Davies (Leigh McCormack), prone to daydreaming and watching other people's lives happen through his bedroom window, is a stand-in for the young Davies. A perpetual outsider, Bud lives with his widowed mother (Marjorie Yates) and three older siblings. Separated from his brothers and sister by a wide gap in age and rejected by the other neighborhood boys for being a "fruit," he finds escape and solace at the movie theatre.
The film is an expressionistic reverie. Movie dialogue and pop songs from the '50s (Debbie Reynolds, Nat King Cole, The Platters) are juxtaposed with nostalgic boyhood images, recollections of family gatherings, festive holiday meals, neighborhood celebrations and a bright carnival. The screen images are lush and dreamy but sharpened by an acute sense of alienation and heartbreaking loneliness.
The Long Day Closes is a celebration of the imagination and its power to save one from the realities of hardship and squalor. Moviegoing is a communal escape in this hardworking town. A fascinating overhead shot shows the heads of theatre-goers sharing this joint experience in the dark under the flicker of a movie projector. The overhead shot shifts to other communal events, namely a church service and a classroom. Davies contrasts the stern atmosphere of the latter two with the smoke-filled mystery of the theatre and suggests that salvation lies not in the rigidity of dogma and discipline but in the fluid and shadowy realm of the senses.
|34. Les amants du Pont-Neuf (Carax, 1991)
Five years after pairing Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche in his second feature film, Mauvais sang, the demiurgic Léos Carax reunited the couple in what was to become the most chaotic shooting of the '90s in France — and a major financial disaster — but also one of the most flamboyant filmic experiences of the decade.
Set on the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf, Les amants marks a radical departure from Carax's previous aesthetics in its jaw-dropping first ten minutes. After a gloomy opening scene in a tunnel under the Seine on a Shostakovian air, we meet a dazed Alex (Denis Lavant). He has been run over by a car on a nocturnal Parisian boulevard under Binoche's right eye, for she appears to be half-blind. What comes next as a total sensory shock is a long graphic sequence à la Raymond Depardon during which the viewer is plunged in the underworld of some vagrants' shelter in Nanterre, where Alex was taken after being found inert by a medical night patrol. This ultraviolent prologue abruptly cuts to a close-up on a notice board informing us that the Pont Neuf is currently closed for repairs. Les amants may now start, and Michèle, a painter who lives on the streets because of a disastrous relationship, is filmed lying on the bridge that both Alex and Hans, an older vagrant, have made theirs. "I thought you were dead," are her first words to Alex when the latter wakes her up. The city is about to celebrate the Bicentennial of the French Revolution.
From that moment on, Carax gives free rein to his elated imagination by juxtaposing dreamlike sequences of Binoche water-skiing on a Seine ablaze with fireworks, with eerie sequences of Parisian underground corridors covered up by huge posters of Michèle that Alex sets fire to. These forked aesthetics of the cinéma du look punctuate Carax's narrative of tormented love discourses, and can be falsely interpreted as escapism. Some critics wrote that Carax was blinded by his love for Binoche and that he needed those sequences to alleviate the pain he suffered when filming her more intimate scenes with Lavant. In fact his film is nothing but a love letter from a director to his actress, a man to the woman he passionately loves in the very shooting of his film. Alex, as Carax's blatant alter ego, deploys an infinity of tricks — fire-eating, ventriloquism and poetic devices — to seduce Michèle, in the mimetic fashion used by Carax as a director to stun his actress. Maybe the secret of Les amants is to be found in the scene where Alex procrastinates declaring his love to Michèle. At night on the bridge a voice coming from Alex's closed lips utters the words, "The sky is white. If you hear those words tomorrow and you love the person, you'll answer: But the clouds are black." And so it happens. Running against conflicting forces, be they social or psychological, the wounded, marginalized couple bridges over alcoholism, blindness, manslaughter, imprisonment, neurotic insomnia, social determinism and ghosts from their respective pasts to triumph eventually on a barge, à la Jean Vigo. Time Will Crawl.
33. Howards End (Ivory, 1992)
Upon the release of Howards End in March of 1992, New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote, "It's time for legislation decreeing that no one be allowed to make a screen adaptation of a novel of any quality whatsoever if Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are available, and if they elect to do the job." He then concluded, "Trespassers should be prosecuted, possibly condemned, sentenced to watch 'Adam Bede' on 'Masterpiece Theater' for five to seven years."
While such a statement may induce an eye roll or shoulder shrug, Canby does not miss the mark. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the above-mentioned filmmaking trio was responsible for some of the most elegant and complex literary adaptations to grace the silver screen. Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala first found major success with 1986's Oscar-winning A Room with a View and later struck gold again with 1993's The Remains of the Day. However, it is 1992's Howards End which represents the crowning achievement amidst an impressive collection of vital feature films.
Based on E.M. Forster's 1910 novel of the same name, Howards End is a richly textured film that is brimming with wit and life. At its core, the production serves as skillful and fascinating critique of the rigid English class system. Ivory's direction and Jhabvala's Oscar-winning script masterfully juggle the various levels of English society, seen through the interactions between the aristocratic Wilcox family, middle-class sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, and the working-class clerk Leonard Bast. As they engage in a summer of romances, affairs, and deceptions, Howards End, both the Wilcoxes' seasonal manor and a symbol of England, serves as the arena in which class position is reevaluated and reconciled.
Howards End is decidedly a period piece, but its themes still resonate today. Ivory, Merchant, and Jhabvala have crafted a film that feels fresh and entertaining nearly a century after its source material's initial publication. Every aspect of the film, from the direction and screenwriting to John Ralph's art direction to Jenny Beavan's costume design and so on, is breathtaking. The acting ensemble also deserves praise, as respected actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and Samuel West flawlessly capture the spirit of the text. However, Emma Thompson rightfully won an Academy Award for her standout, multi-faceted performance as elder sister Margaret Schlegel. She imbues her character with a strength and wisdom that is endlessly impressive.
Overall, James Ivory's Howards End is a remarkable piece of cinema. Sumptuous, charming, and heartbreaking, it serves as the premiere example of a literary adaptation that does not buckle under the weight of its source material, but exists as a fully realized equal.
32. Magnolia (Anderson, 1999)
A decade that started with the TV hit "Twin Peaks" (a show which relished displaying the very dark side of the seemingly idyllic American provincial life) had to end with films like Happiness, American Beauty and Magnolia, that viciously made a mockery of the American bourgeoisie (and by extension, the bourgeoisie of any developed country), living a seemingly placid, conventional dream life in the suburbs, but secretly filled with dissatisfaction and outrageous hidden behaviours.
As is always the case with art, it is impossible to determine which of those was the best (or was it Altman’s 1993 Short Cuts, Magnolia’s clearest influence?), but we can perhaps say that Magnolia is the most intense of them. The characters’ desperation is more acute, the events and traumas depicted more tragic or spectacular, and there’s an emphasis on a sort of spiritual redemption that’s more pronounced than in the rest of the films. At one point, a character speaks a revealing line: ”I'll tell you everything, and you tell me everything, and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.” It sums up very well the running theme of the desperate need for a human connection that is sincere and can understand and forgive what we hide. From this premise, the topics Magnolia deals with seem to explode and run in all directions and to touch all human relations (father-and-son relations and vice versa, abuse and child abuse of very different kinds, unrequited loves, reciprocal loves, humanitarian love, marriage, adultery, homosexuality, casual sexuality…) in a tapestry of many interconnected stories which echo each others' themes and expand their meaning in an infinite geometric progression that could only be artificially finished with the apocalyptic deus ex machina of the ending.
But it is easy to get lost while praising the thematic depth and complexity of Magnolia and forget its style, the powerful direction that unifies it and makes it not only coherent, but also incredibly affecting. From an ever-moving camera and dynamic editing that switches and connects the different storylines to a peculiar use of music (a whole, incredibly long segment that jumps from scene to scene is glued together by the steady inclusion of a repetitive atonal theme), Anderson shows a command of the medium that presages the overwhelming mastery of his later work, There Will Be Blood. His imagination to express his many themes runs wild, and he doesn’t renounce the use of fantasy, silent film techniques in the prologue, or even a musical sequence in which all the characters, despite being distant from one another, sing along about the loneliness and dissatisfaction of their fake imitations of life. They need to wise up, they sing, but it seems in the late '90s (and still?) we were so sunk in our inability to break from social conventions that only an apocalyptic event could wake us up.
|31. Mother and Son (Sokurov, 1997)
Alexander Sokurov has stated that his goal in making Mother and Son was to have its viewers "be more sensitive to human relationships."
He also believes that the purpose of art is "to quell the rage of the times and to soften human feelings." Perhaps, in order to escape the angst-filled present, Sokurov looked back to the German Romantic Period of the 19th Century, especially the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, as inspiration for his deliberately slow-moving and intimate portrait of the most primal love, that of a mother and child. The German Romantic Movement championed feeling against form and the expression of personal experience as representative of human commonality. The amorphous landscapes of dreams were explored and the dazzling and mysterious beauty of nature was celebrated as artists of this movement sought new methods to express the language of the human soul. In Mother and Son, nature is a dynamic presence. As we witness a woman's final journey in life, a loving farewell between son and mother, it is nature which serves as our guide. The wind, the flapping wings and cries of gulls, the chirping of crickets and the sounds of a faraway sea create an atmosphere of harmonious existence with the natural world. We are privy to a moment of intense intimacy, the moment between existence and non-existence, as we witness a person's life naturally expire. This moment of sacred transition is given expression by the use of amarmorphic lenses that distort the screen images and convey a feeling of eternal other-worldliness.
A central image of the film is a close-up of a delicate moth on the mother's papery hand. Is it nature once again serving as symbol for the fragility of human life? Or perhaps the moth represents transformation/metamorphosis to another stage of existence. Both mother and son seem assured they will meet again at a determined place and time. We are asked to reflect on this conversation, as we are many times throughout the film, as all action stops save for breathing and the screen seems to freeze into a living painting. The image remains. The narrative comes to a halt. Now we too are caught between worlds. Isolation, loneliness and human impermanence are explored. A faraway train cuts through the countryside. A schooner on the nearby sea sails off into the horizon. Everything leaves us, they seem to suggest. Although incorporating imagery that is often considered religious in nature, Sokurov instead is concerned with something more universal and philosophical, that is, the invisible ties that link us together and to the universe. Poetically, in a whisper, his film asks us all to consider what these ties may be.
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