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|20. The English Patient (Minghella, 1996)
Here is a film that truly deserves the overused label "intimate epic," as writer/director Anthony Minghella proves himself adept at observing the small looks and gestures that shade substantial cinematic relationships, as well as providing Epic Movie Moments worthy of David Lean. But the logistics of shooting the film must have been a cakewalk for Minghella compared to the task of adapting Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel; almost all of the film's dialogue was created for the film, and the female romantic lead (Kristin Scott Thomas) fully fleshed out from the hazy, stream-of-consciousness recollections of the book's title character. Ondaatje's writing reads often more as poetry than prose, which presented another problem: how to capture the feeling of the source material while still delivering an engaging story?
In an abandoned villa in the Italian countryside, a badly burned man (Ralph Fiennes) is tended to by a Canadian nurse (Juliette Binoche) near the end of World War II. Medicated heavily with morphine, he recollects his past in a series of fever dreams, and a flashback structure intercuts scenes from various locations in Africa during peacetime, telling a story of an international group of archaeologists and a love affair that will disrupt a handful of lives, and perhaps alter the course of the coming war. Minghella uses creative visual and sound transitions to blur the line between the two periods, as well as a keen aesthetic choice to bathe the past in warm colors and the present in cool ones, which bring the Patient's memories back with full vibrancy, and give the Italian scenes an appropriate elegiac tone.
Ultimately, the film is as much about Hana (the nurse) and her shell-shocked grief as it is about the war-torn lovers, and while the grander themes deal with loyalty, ownership, and brotherhood that goes beyond borders, at its heart is a depiction of carrying on in the face of tragedy, and forging a new life from the wreckage of an old one. The film is certainly one that rewards repeat viewings; various details foreshadow and illuminate their counterparts in the other time period, and the story's intricate puzzle is something not easily regarded in full view, even at its completion.
Despite the heady mixture of a challenging narrative and Golden Age-style production values, the film managed to become a breakout independent hit, and went on to win 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as a slew of other industry honors. While perhaps not one of the more sentimental favorites on Oscar's mantel, it certainly deserves to be remembered as one of the more ambitious and richer experiences among its contemporaries and antecedents.
19. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994)
"I'm sorry, did I break your concentration?" Watch any of those "Back to the '90s" shows, and you're bound to run into Samuel L. Jackson uttering one of his oft-quoted lines. Pulp Fiction may not be the best film of the decade, but it is probably the most iconic, and certainly one of the most influential.
The film has entered pop culture in a way few films ever do. In an example of life imitating art, the film itself is a pastiche of pop-culture references, ranging from Godard to "Happy Days." Its unconventional structure and characters (hitmen discussing foot massages, anyone?) make this a postmodern classic avant la lettre. Pulp Fiction wears its postmodernity on its sleeve, and just about everywhere else.
Pulp Fiction also changed independent filmmaking. Because of its box-office success relative to its low budget, Hollywood suddenly realised there was money to be made in indies. The flurry of independent big-studio subsidiaries can be largely attributed to this film.
These facts alone should guarantee it a place on this list, but it's a damn good movie to boot. Pulp Fiction is pure cinema, film at its most entertaining, and viewing it for the first time, the audience feels like Uma Thurman after getting a shot of adrenaline. This certainly was the case at the time of its release. Quentin Tarantino took a stale crime genre, and used a nonlinear structure and superb dialogue to revive it, inspiring a wave of clones. Given the quality of some of these, it's debatable if that was a good thing, but it's hard to deny its influence on other filmmakers. Pulp Fiction brought fun back into film, and it did so with panache. It may pose as a B-movie, but it has A-quality.
18. The Remains of the Day (Ivory, 1993)
In 1992, the James Ivory-Ismail Merchant filmmaking team found enormous success with their beautiful E.M. Forster adaptation Howards End. The following year, they once again riveted audiences with another adaptation of a celebrated work, Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 novel The Remains of the Day. The film not only reunited the duo with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, but also the stars of Howards End, Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. While the scenario may initially appear the same (a period drama featuring a similar cast and crew), comparisons between the two films exist on a decidedly superficial level. With The Remains of the Day, Ivory and company deliver a fascinating character study that finds them stretching their artistic muscles in new directions.
The film tells the story of Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the head butler of Darlington Hall in the 1930s. Considered by many to be the "perfect" servant, Stevens is an absolutely loyal and tireless worker, suppressing his own needs and emotions in favor of a call of duty. Ivory brilliantly demonstrates this "call" with his close attention to detail, presenting us with various sequences that depict the daily activity of the house. The viewer not only experiences Stevens' fierce commitment to order, but also his satisfaction in maintaining it above all else.
With this attitude, Stevens may seem like an unlikely romantic candidate, but his relationship with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), Darlington Hall's new housekeeper, is the emotional center of the picture. The two characters hardly take part in a traditional love affair, however, as Stevens' commitment to his work and refusal to emotionally invest prevent the relationship from taking off.
Instead, it is the near-palpable sense of regret that haunts the film, which is made all the more clear by their reunion twenty years later. Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, has endured an unhappy marriage, and Stevens' world eventually crashed in tandem with his master's, alleged Nazi-sympathizer Lord Darlington (James Fox). The true power of the film is then found in their realization that their time has passed. Their situations cannot be altered. Mistakes were made, but Stevens, Miss Kenton, and even Lord Darlington are incapable of changing their way of life in the face of adherence to social tradition. As Stevens parts with Miss Kenton after their final visit, the viewer is merely left with the emptiness of regret. Cinema is rarely more powerful.
Once again, the Merchant-Ivory duo delivers a meticulously detailed production. Ivory's direction is particularly vital and interesting. Jhabvala's script is magnificent, perfectly balancing the wit, sadness, and historical detail. The technical elements, including John Ralph's art direction, Ian Whittaker's set design, Jenny Beavan and John Bright's costumes, and Richard Robbins' score, also contribute to the film seamlessly.
Further, the performances, particularly those given by Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, certainly deserve to be mentioned. Thompson, who had just won an Academy Award the year before for her performance in Howards End, is splendid as Miss Kenton, providing the character with a near-desperate passion. However, Hopkins is the true star of the film. Like Thompson, he was a recent Academy Award winner (for 1991's The Silence of the Lambs), but this performance is the pinnacle of his career and one of the greatest to grace the silver screen. His portrayal of the emotionally distant Stevens is marvelous. Even the smallest gesture carries enormous meaning, providing the viewer with a window into the humanity that Stevens works so diligently to cover up.
Overall, James Ivory's The Remains of the Day once again finds the director at the top of his game with a tremendously affecting film that earns every bit of its power. 1992's Howards End may remain the finest hour for the Merchant-Ivory duo, but this masterpiece is not far behind.
|17. Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992)
It is difficult to sum up nowadays, with the perspective of Clint Eastwood’s further career and the path a genre like the Western took since the early '90s, what this movie meant back in 1992.
The film was greeted as the emergence as director of an actor, an icon in front of the camera but not yet behind it; as a peak that garnered many awards including five Oscars; and as the promise of a master-to-be who, however, would need more than a decade to have a success as wide and universal. Seen in those terms, Unforgiven still delivers more than 15 years later. It was, indeed, the beginning of a new and most interesting stage of Eastwood’s filmmaking, in which he would turn his gaze upon his own image and, most importantly, upon the violence usually attached to such image. Unforgiven is still one of the most incisive and complex portraits of what violence means and what it has meant not only in the history of the USA, but also in its myths, perpetuated by the films of the past and by Eastwood’s own films as an actor. Eastwood himself would complete this portrayal with some other later works about similar issues, but perhaps he still hasn’t made something so well-rounded and perceptive about how violence is magnified and cheered by the people who don’t really take part in it (including the audience, to whom Eastwood adresses his questions), helped by the media (literature and other arts in the past, film or TV nowadays), and about how the reality of those who perform or suffer violence is very different and much tougher.
The film was also greeted as, perhaps, a confirmation that Dances with Wolves, which had even more success with the Academy only two years before, wasn’t just an oddity, and that the Western genre could live again and have, if not a new golden age, perhaps a silver one. In that regard, however, Unforgiven didn’t deliver. And although, of course, one cannot blame this great movie for it, one can’t help wondering how a movie that was attacking the mythology of its own genre so ferociously, a movie that seemed to want to kill and bury the Western (and show the corpse in its coffin, too), could be seen then as capable of revitalizing the genre. Unforgiven was a landmark, indeed, and a glorious one, but a landmark that signaled, precisely, the end of such land.
|16. All About My Mother (Almodóvar, 1999)
All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre) is Almodóvar’s tribute to all actresses and to all women in general. It is indeed a sincere effort from the critically acclaimed director that does justice to its grand ambitions, and certainly deserves to be one of the most awarded films in history.
Flying colors should be bestowed upon Cecilia Roth for her endearing performance as Manuela, a grieving mother who eventually finds happiness in the company of some eccentric friends. She is the zenith of the film. Her Mediterranean temperament combined with the deep nuance of a seasoned thespian create a character rarely matched in contemporary cinema.
Another prominent feature is Almodóvar’s visual imagery with its array of bright colors and dynamic shapes. People may complain of the many plot contrivances and shortcuts utilized in this film, but they worked perfectly. It did not feel as if Almodóvar was manipulating his characters; they just flowed seamlessly through the fabric called life. The film tries to combine screwball humor with touching melodrama and then some, as it leaves that unexplainably lasting and lingering power after the credits roll.
This film deserves a second viewing. A million viewings, perhaps, because one will discover something new every time. Its multifaceted treatment of women, and men who want to be women, is a cinematic marvel in itself. Its tagline says, “Part of every woman is a mother/actress/saint/sinner. And part of every man is a woman.” As the director's obra maestra, All About My Mother will convince you of this truth.
|15. Safe (Haynes, 1995)
I love how, in her two starring roles in Todd Haynes films, Julianne Moore's characters go to private places to cry. Crying, no matter how much we witness in public, is a very singular affair. Only we know exactly why we're crying, and articulating that is not always possible. Especially when you're not exactly sure what it is you're suffering from.
Todd Haynes expertly ups the ante of the psychological thriller by having Moore's Carol White among many apparently allergic to the 20th century. But what exactly was the trigger? Although Haynes offers explanations to the characters, I don't think the audience is meant to accept any one item as "the" cause of everyone's illness. In the manner of the best thrillers, Haynes instead scares us with excellent camerawork (note the slow zooms on Carol's face as she has an attack) and a fear-driven score to keep us constantly on edge, and constantly worried about what's wrong.
The film begins innocuously enough, although the score is warning us not to get too settled. By the time we cut to Carol and her husband Greg having the most one-sided sex I’ve ever seen on film, we are aware of Carol’s superficial marriage and the shallow level of enjoyment she is getting out of her otherwise pristine life. Spending a whole day quietly worrying that the couch that’s been delivered isn’t the right colour is another view of the gentle life Carol just might need out of. As the film progresses into Carol’s illness and the final sequence at a treatment facility with others just like her, Haynes delves deeper into the fear of the environment that is less about fumes, pollution and machines and more about lifestyle, people and our homes.
More than working as a thriller, however, Safe finds its brilliance in a refusal to give us the answers. Watching it a second time, I was more cognizant of what it says about the power of positive thinking. Now that self-help has exploded, in North America especially, and having had closer involvement with it than when I first saw the film, I felt I saw through the treatment practices at Wrenwood. The use of positive thinking in the group sessions adds to the sardonic tone of the film and strengthens its message about what Carol White is trying to escape, which may even be herself.
Through it all, there is Julianne Moore. Every once in a while, an auteur gets lucky enough to find a central performance in an actor that they can marry exactly to their singular vision. Todd Haynes has found that in Julianne Moore twice now, and their first collaboration is sheer brilliance. Together, they create a psychological thriller and an attack on suburbia that stands as one of the most difficult and unique films of the 1990s.
|14. The Double Life of Véronique (Kieslowski, 1991)
When Krzysztof Kieslowski approached his old film-school friend, cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, to ask him to collaborate on his upcoming film, Idziak inquired about the subject matter. Kieslowski informed him of a recently published scientific article he had read that described an experiment conducted on rats. Scientists had observed an awareness on the part of European rats in a controlled group of a new rat poison that had been recently released in the USA. "That," Kieslowski said, "will be the subject of my next film."
The Double Life of Véronique is a mysterious tale of parallel alternative histories. Weronika is a Polish singer in a choir in Krakow. Véronique is a singing student in a French province. The women share an identical likeness. Perhaps they are strangers. Perhaps they are the same person. For a brief moment, the two sides of a coin present themselves to each other in a town square in Krakow. Véronique is visiting Poland. She unknowingly takes a snapshot of Weronika from her tour bus window. Weronika sees her doppelganger snapping her photo as she is en route to a performance. She is taken aback. Shortly thereafter, she collapses and dies on stage in the middle of the concert. Véronique returns to France, unaware that she has come face to face with her double, and for some reason that she seems to not quite understand, she quits her pursuit of singing to settle into a more conventional life as a music teacher, hoping she will find both comfort and love.
This is a film about hidden things, chances, premonitions, intuitions, dreams. It is also a film about vocation, the paths we choose in life and how our choices influence both ourselves and others. Kieslowski takes you on a metaphysical journey down a rabbit hole to a netherworld where the time/space continuum is shattered. It is a world of pure awareness with fluid boundaries.
Cinematographer Idziak slyly makes use of glass orbs and golden green filters which enable him to turn things upside down and to distort and shower this netherworld with a shimmering radiance. Swiss actress Irene Jacob casts the brightest glow. In the dual role of Weronika/Véronique she is enchanting. Her ability to navigate the realms of sensuality and innocence is remarkable. A great discovery and an inspired casting choice on Kieslowski's part, she is hypnotic. Both actress and director seemingly have the ability to bring out the best in each other. This would be confirmed later in the '90s with Three Colors: Red. Kieslowski has assembled an inspired group of collaborators here, not least of whom is composer Zbigniew Preisner, whose sublimely haunting score facilitates the viewer's immersion into the film's netherworld by providing an ethereal aural landscape. It is an outstanding achievement. As is the work of Krzysztof Piesieuwicz, the flip side of the Kieslowski writing coin.
Ultimately, The Double Life of Véronique is a film about choosing and self-discovery. Our choices always demand that we acknowledge the multiple sides of ourselves. Whether we bravely choose a path that may be difficult and annihilate us, or opt for a life of comfort that may in turn leave us with a nagging sense that something is missing, our choices have power and far-reaching effects.
13. Sense and Sensibility (Lee, 1995)
I have never read a Jane Austen novel to completion. Not because they bore me; in fact my ex and I were reading Pride and Prejudice to each other when he broke up with me. I have found them delightful, but the right adaptation of her words has always grabbed me much more. Emma Thompson’s script under Ang Lee’s sensitive directorial hand is one of those adaptations.
The movie begins quietly at the deathbed of Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), who implores his son to care for Dashwood’s second wife and three daughters, none of whom can benefit from his grand estate. Instead, they will have to subsist on the few hundred pounds he can provide, which sets the basis for the struggles the Dashwood sisters will face as Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet) approach the time to marry.
Thompson gracefully captures Austen’s wit and makes several intelligent additions (an expanded role for the third daughter, Margaret, for one) which enhance the story. It helps that Thompson is almost as clever as Austen herself (few will ever match her in that department) and also that she has Ang Lee’s genius behind the camera to bring the story to life. Lee is masterful as he allows the story to unfold and he doesn’t intrude into it, rather letting us become quiet observers as we watch the Dashwood women attempt their new lives. In spite of the excellent work, it’s no wonder Lee couldn’t manage an Oscar nomination for his efforts. The Academy’s directing branch is generally more appreciative of a heavier hand.
Though purists often complain that Thompson was too old to play Elinor, I think it works because she captures Elinor’s essence. Her restraint is so outstanding that, late in the film, when Elinor has an outburst at Marianne, the only reason it wasn’t a surprise the first time I saw it is because they used it as her Oscar clip. However, when the final truth is revealed to Elinor, I dare you to say Thompson’s emotional shifts aren’t perfect for the role. Winslet, who by now has made a career of her free spirits, is astounding as Marianne. She gives a richly layered performance as the sister full of her youth, but with her very quick learning right under the surface. And enough cannot be said about the supporting work from so diverse a cast as Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Elizabeth Spriggs (her exuberant Mrs. Jennings is a standout), Harriet Walter, Gemma Jones, and the hilariously counterbalanced Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton. Going back over the film has, in fact, made me realise that it’s almost too crowded with talent. With so much happening, plenty of other filmmakers would have cut scenes or missed much of the comedy. Between Thompson’s script and Lee’s watchful eye, they capture it all and pull us into the goings-on to brilliant effect.
12. L.A. Confidential (Hanson, 1997)
You've got to ac-cen-tuate the positive...
So the first moments of Curtis Hanson's masterful noir tell us, with Danny DeVito's sleazy voiceover and Johnny Mercer's singing serving as our seductive tour guides down the road to hell. L.A. is bright. L.A. is beautiful. L.A. is the best damned place on the planet, and it's protected by the best damned police force. Just accentuate the positive, and don't notice the slime slowly creeping out. Because L.A. gets to be bright and beautiful because L.A. thrives on corruption, on organized crime. And once kingpin Mickey Cohen is removed, well, anything goes.
Every character in the film tries and tries to accentuate, to focus on the positive appearance rather than the negative reality until they are forced otherwise. In a memorably offhand moment, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) tells Bud White (Russell Crowe) about the positives of being a hooker under David Strathairn's slimy pimp Pierce Patchett: "He doesn't let us do drugs and he doesn't hit us. Can your policeman's brain understand the contradiction there?" Officer Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) thrives on his appearance, and his role in perpetuating the reputation of the LAPD as heroes. Threaten that and he'll fold like paper. In the end, even semi-heroic policeman Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is bought off by the appearance of heroism. The image must be protected. Accentuate the positive.
So I'll accentuate the positive here: L.A. Confidential is a masterpiece. Curtis Hanson's sharply insinuating direction brings an astonishingly sharp and fleet-footed adaptation of James Ellroy’s mammoth tome to vivid life. By cutting down at least half the book’s subplots, Hanson puts the focus more clearly on the three protagonists. Kevin Spacey does his finest work as the image-obsessed Vincennes who is still a good enough cop to realize when he’s gone too far. Watch his face crumble when he realizes he’s gotten an innocent man murdered, and you’ll realize how good an actor he really can be. Russell Crowe is all bristling, vital, ferocious energy as Bud White, and he gives the film its strongest emotional core. In an Oscar-winning role, Kim Basinger is surprisingly poignant as a femme fatale forced by circumstances into that role, who will play it to the best of her abilities despite her heart. James Cromwell is equal parts fatherly warmth and terrifying menace as Dudley Smith. And Guy Pearce astonishes as Ed Exley. At first he seems the natural hero of the piece, but even he has a price, and the lengths he is willing to go for what he wants, and the intelligence he puts into achieving those goals, are as frightening in their way as Bud’s physical menace or Dudley Smith’s plans.
The set pieces are full of suspense. Consider the final shootout, with the villains more felt than actually seen, with light and creaks of floorboards suggesting when and where they’ll appear. Or the triple interrogation, where Exley’s mind gets its fullest and most terrifying chance to show what it can do, only to be trumped by White’s rage. But, in the end, these are the things which must be done to keep the good citizens safe. Remember that. Accentuate the positive.
|11. Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999)
Before Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman was just a sitcom writer, and Spike Jonze was just a music video director. While the two did wildly inventive work in those fields, it wasn't a patch on what they could do when turned loose on the big screen. Kaufman's original Malkovich script contained the basic spine of what became the movie, but it also featured duels between stories-high puppets. The absurdist humor that makes the film so endlessly rewatchable and one of the great American film comedies was present, then, but none of the mournful, melancholy tone that makes the film stick with the viewer. That was all Jonze, a man uniquely obsessed with the way silver linings tend to have grey clouds attached to them.
Make no mistake. This film is endlessly funny and inventive, even aside from the wonderfully odd central notion of a portal opening directly into John Malkovich's head. There's the 7-1/2th floor, where everyone has to walk around hunched over, as glorious a sight gag as anything Tati could have come up with. There's hard-of-hearing Dr. Lester, who takes the old-as-time gag of a guy who keeps mishearing what other people say and drives it in weird, surreal directions. And there's all of the terrific business about how differently everyone sees the world through Malkovich's eyes and how he, finally, sees the world when he goes inside the portal.
Yet at the same time, it's that melancholy tone which makes the movie the classic it is. Malkovich captured the spirit of a nation concerned with its identity at the end of a long millennium. Was it really the benevolent father figure it saw itself as? Or some sort of adolescent tyrant wanting only its own way? A host of movies grappled with this theme in 1999 (Fight Club and American Beauty among them), but Malkovich was the best of them, fascinated by a species and a nation that would go out of its way to be someone — anyone — else.
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