Counterpoint: An Alternate “90’s” List

We like to give room for dissenting opinions, so here’s one from our good friend and co-host Caleb Stewart (@JCalebStewart):

Hey guys – great job so far.  Listening to episodes makes me both glad I wasn’t able to sit in as it would have taken way too long and sad that I didn’t sit in as your lists are stupid.

I’m kidding.  It wouldn’t have taken too long.

Making my list has me buying into Thomas’ notion that it was a great era for cinema.  I would offer that this is true in part because in the 90s we simultaneously see the end, and some of the best examples, of the Hollywood Epic and the emergence of the breathtakingly fresh indie-cinema that replaced.  That juxtaposition is remarkable.  So remark we shall.

Honorable Mentions

White:  My favorite of the Color Trilogy.  I’m choosing one here (even though Ebert saw no need to), so I don’t have to listen to Thomas talk about it.  Great films they all are – the humor and charm of White stand out to me – lovely stuff.

Glengarry Glen Ross:  I love screaming-yankee Al Pacino (he makes several appearances below) and when matched with David Mamet’s beast of a script and Jack Lemon’s hapless counterpoint he’s at his obnoxious and heart-bursting best.  On a personal note, I’ve met Alec Baldwin and his portrayal of a tamer version of himself in this film is spot-on.  Very Baldwin-esque.

The Big Lebowski:   I love this movie, but saw it long-after falling in love with other Coen Masterpieces, so it holds less sway over me than it does over my peers who came to the Coen’s because of it (and thankfully there are many).  The Dude does indeed abide.

Dumb & Dumber: I remember seeing this in the theater with my brother and dad.  My brother and I laughed until we nearly threw up.  My dad’s only comment was a strait-faced, “that was so stupid.”  I knew then that some generational line of humor was drawn and that the Farely Brothers had given us something special – a masterpiece for 11-year old boys that we’re still quoting today.

The Godfather III:  This movie raises a lot of ire.  Does it live up to it’s predecessors? No.  But the actual plot is a near perfectly conceived cap to the saga and despite some of the worst performances in film history, the film actually contains some of the trilogy’s finest moments, including what are for me the best scenes Al Pacino and Diane Keaton ever shared.  Plus, Gordon Willis’ sun-kissed photography alone makes it worthy of an honorable mention, if not an official slot on my list.

20.  Run Lola Run: One of my first forays into both foreign and independent film, this movie blew the doors off of what I thought a film could do and still stands out to me as a hallmark of possibility and style.

19.  Metropolitan:  Whit Stillman’s deft handling of the shockingly clever banter of an upper-crust set of New York City coming-of-agers is nearly flawless.  Erudite, yet accessible – this is the film Woody Allen meant to make and that John Hughe’s far inferior work somehow got the credit for.  Part of its charm lies in the bland-left-over-from the 80s camerawork which actually compliments the piece by staying out of the stunningly quick-witted dialogues way.

18. Ed Wood:  Probably the two most important social aesthetics to emerge from the 90s are hip-hop and grunge.  And no one better captured the later (especially its Gothy fringes) than Tim Burton. Ed Wood is my favorite of work in his canon.  It’s defiantly anti-mainstream, obsessively self-aware and nearly drunk on it’s on myopic world view… in other words, it’s the 90s (or at least my share of it) in a blissfully metaphorical nutshell.  I’ve seen this movie multiple times and I can never get over the silky black & white, Depp and Martin Landau’s unbelievable performances and the complete reordering of 50’s America around its perverse and ostracized underbelly.

17.  Sweet & Lowdown: My favorite film from what was a pretty good decade for our favorite neurotic Manhattanite, brings together nearly every talent Woody Allen has to bare: unabashed comedic romping, seamless and vibrant dialogue and characters who somehow manage to break the heart they’ve crept into through their funny.  Plus, the innovative swipe at the PBS-style documentary is a priceless technique that perfectly suits the story.

16.  A Simple Plan: Perhaps one of the single most over-looked and under-rated films I can think of, the airtight screenplay is an indie-wet-dream of irony, humor and comeuppance.  Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Pullman are astonishing and the ending is all but Biblical in it’s completeness.  It’s a real gem.

15.  Bottle Rocket: When I saw this film, sick with a stomach virus and laying pathetically on a friend’s couch, I was so happy I was nearly healed.  Prominently featured on Martin Scorsese’s top-10 of the 90’s list, it is a revelation of promised autuer-ism (that I’d say has since been fulfilled).  Funny and poignant, this film never looses it’s way and manages to create massive stakes for little characters.  There’s a reason Wes Anderson is still around – and it can clearly be seen in his debut film.  Also, who knew how badly we needed Luke & Owen Wilson?!

14.  Quiz Show: Rob Morrow’s performance alone wold put this film on my list (If Northern Exposure was a movie it would be in my top 10).  The phenomenal thing about this film is that almost every other element is just as good!  The themes of the film, I think, perfectly sum up the suspicions of gen-xers: there’s no way we’re as happy, as good or as deserving as everyone (especially the government) is making us out to be.  And Redford, well-versed in those ideas from his own dissident past, nails those themes to cinematic floor.

13.  Youe Got Mail: Norah Ephron’s effervescent, infinitely quotable script and delightful presentation may be my favorite romantic comedy of all time.  It encapsulates the process of love through friendship in the best of the hollywood tradition, but through the then-budding digital scope of the information age.  The Harry Nielson laden soundtrack and cleaner-than-reality NYC photography combine to paint a picture of a world in which lasting love is not only possible, it is attainable.  I’ve seen it more than any other film and it leaves me a believer every-time.

12.  Heat:  Michael Man is my favorite “style-as-substance” director in large part because he never uses that approach as a reason to actually eschew substance.  Wrought with scene after logical scene of sin sown and justice reaped, this movie is an opus to crime & punishment in post-vietnam America, where bad-guys can be confused as brave because they do dangerous things.  In Heat we see that even when they’re smart, they’re wrong.  And even when the law is flawed, it will still chase you across an air port landing strip and cap your ass.

11.  Barton Fink: The first Coen film to blow my mind, the opening act of their inadvertent Job trilogy packs the perfectly balanced punch of character motivated humor & desperation.  They unhinge our worst fears of our own tendencies to sell out and reward the protagonist, a perfectly cast John Toturro, accordingly.  But its the eery, quasi-supernatural and super-creepy emergence of the sub-conscience into an otherwise very real world that sets this film apart from the other psychosis-of-a-writer tales that abound in nearly every era, but seem particularly prevalent in the 90s.  As Tony Shalhoub’s character bemoans in the film, “you can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting a writer.  And, Fink, throw it hard.”  The Coen’s do and it hits with a real wallop.

10.  Saving Private Ryan: Just listen to Dan & Thomas and ignore the first and last scenes.  The movie is devastating in the best sort of way.  You’ll be hearing the bullets whistle by for years after encountering this film.

09. Goodfellas:  Perhaps Martin Scorsese’s most approachable film (that isn’t Hugo), Goodfells is a roaring master-work that, in my opinion, is seminal among what has since become his early catelogue.  It brings to fruition the restless energy of Thelma Spoonmaker’s inimitable editing and introduces an increased scope of world that Scorsese never looks back from.  Plus, it’s a ton of fun – perfectly capturing the motive behind America’s fascination with the criminal sub-set: if you’re lawless, you can do what you want.  And that feels good – at least for a while.

08.  Dances With Wolves:  I saw this in the theater at the tender age of 11 or 12 and quite literally had to be carried out, paralyzed with sobbing.  I’ve seen it since and, at least for me, it holds up.  No one shoots wide-open space better than Kevin Costner.  And few do a better job of inhabiting those spaces with fully-realized characters who, often silently, choose principle over patriotism.  It’s a master-piece.

07.  Waiting for Guffman:  The Mockumentary is among the genres of film that are easiest to ruin.  But Christopher Guest’s undeniable masterpiece of spontaneity doesn’t have a false or flat moment.  It’s hilarious – constantly.  Every line and nuance feels like it’s happening in front of you for the first time… because it is!  That the unparalleled troupe of impromptu performers sustain the creativity, hilarity and undertones of pathos for 90 side-splitting minutes without so much as a blink is beyond incredible.

06.  Fargo:  The Coen’s haunting ode to the mid-western normalcy of their youths sets up the contrast between good & evil in as clear, funny, sad & beautiful was as I’ve ever seen.  It is elegantly shot, flawlessly acted and still surprises.  As Rodger Ebert said, “To watch it is to experience steadily mounting delight, as you realize the filmmakers have taken enormous risks, gotten away with them and made a movie that is completely original, and as familiar as an old shoe – or a rubbersoled hunting boot from Land’s End, more likely.”

05.  The Insider:  Michael Mann’s 1999 human drama about a big-tobacco whistle-blower coming clean offers the ideal bridge between 20th & 21st century views on corporate america.  Profoundly well-acted, immaculately stylized, Mann clearly articulates what it feels and looks like to the right thing when you have nothing to gain but a clear conscience.  I genuinely love this movie.

04.  Ground Hog Day:  It’s hard for me to even think of a comedy with a more tightly-woven, heart-felt or funnier script.  Bill Murray, eternity and a very attractive girl-next-door played by an on the money Andie MacDowell make for a cocktail of comedic and sentimental dreams.  Harold Ramis outdid himself with this one.  Just leave it on repeat for a couple of days and you’ll see what I mean.

03.  Unforgiven:  I love westerns – I would even say I’m a student of them.  And if westerns are teachers, then Unforgiven is the dean.  Deadly quite, routed in unquestionable character motivation, Clint Eastwood’s take on the genre that made him is at once confirmation and subversion of the form.  Flawlessly lit, expertly cut and tight as new leather chaps, this story is runaway train that moves as stealthily down the tracks towards the unavoidable consequences of timeless social wrongs set in a fully realized and ver specific moment in US history.  It is truly genius.

02.  JFKWhile Pulp Fiction gets rightful credit for a sudden quantum leap in cinematic story-telling, JFK continues to steadily push it along the track that Oliver Stone had been laying for the likes of up & coming “rebels from the backlot” like Quentin Tarantino for decades.  With more subtlety, more alarm and I dare say more class, JFK uses the gambit of cinematic techniques to delve not only into the deliciously complex plot of our nation’s most infamous murder, but into the psychology of those responsible for, and sucked into, the vortex it triggered.  It is what Blake Snyder accurately calls a “why-donit.”  The “who” is merely an excuse to explore the more ominous curiosities of the human heart: why, why, why would someone do this?  And Stone does so with steady and unflinching artistry.  He forces us to admit we don’t want all the answers, only the ones that are convenient.  And as an adept artist with a true conviction he can’t let it rest until we’re asking of ourselves, “why, why, why would we let someone do this?”  And, I think, in JFK Stone is at the height of his vision, and succeeds above his peers in doing exactly that.

01.  Pulp Fiction:   Quentin Tarantino’s seminal work really is all that it’s cracked up to be.   In a way, it is the Citizen Kane of modern movies.  It didn’t invent the form, but it moved it forward in so strident a step that it would be hard to deny that it permanently changed it.  It retaught a generation what movies could do in a way that they could both understand and embrace its lessons.  His later works show that this wasn’t an accident.  But they likewise show that the stars aligned for this one in particular.  Like Nirvana’s Nevermind, which was not the only great rock album to emerge from the 90s, Pulp Fiction holds a special place in the American filmography precisely because the right elements all hit the screen precisely when their audience was ready to experience them.  That doesn’t take away from the genius of the artists.  But it does contextualize it.  Still, for me, its the right “perfect-storm” and it continues to instruct on what films can, and in many ways probably should, do.  It’s success stands out as a hallmark of what the 90s offered and it’s continued influence provides a privileged place for the 90s in contemporary cinema.  And I approve.



Episode #27: Best of the 90’s (#10-1)

banner build finalOur countdown reaches its surprising, but inevitable conclusion with Dan cheating and Thomas going left field in our final ten picks.

Lots of personal stories about the movies that shaped our adolescence and some musings about what makes a film timeless.


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Opening Music: Closing Music:
Zbigniew Preisner
It’s a Life
Burkhard Dallwitz