Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number One

goodfellas

#1 — Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
For me, the moment that best demonstrates the brilliance of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas isn’t one of the most commonly cited. It’s not Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito asking “Funny how?” to Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, making a gag out of his own unpredictable rage, a bit of self-spoofing made even more chilling when DeVito attacks the bar’s owner moments later for the the transgression of asking for the bill to be paid, an act of actual violence met with the same laughter by his gangster friends as the prank he’s just pulled. It’s not the cascade of fatalities after a big score as the various figures with a claim on the spoils are dispatched to increase the main share, the mounting array of bodies revealed to the sounds of the piano part of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. It’s not the bravura extended sequence leading up to Henry Hill’s final arrest, as he juggles a busy day of cooking and drug drops while coked into a state of peak anxiety, a showcase for the astounding editing skills of Scorsese’s regular collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s not even the famous tracking shot that follows Henry and his future wife Karen, played by Lorraine Bracco, as they enter the Copacabana nightclub through a labyrinthine back door route that takes them through busy hallways and the kitchen to emerge in the main room where they’re given not just an open table, but a fresh one, placed next to the stage just for them, a perfect evocation of the privilege and suspicious sordidness that go hand-in-hand in Henry’s world.

Great scenes all, but the moment that really gets me comes near the end of the film. Henry has been arrested and chosen to become a witness against the mob as a plea bargain, spilling everything he knows from a life that’s been immersed in that world since he was a kid. The details of this are conveyed, as is much of the information in the film, via voice-over narration delivered by Liotta as Hill. The film shifts to a shot of Henry on the witness stand, continuing a thought that had begun as part of the voice-over, a seamless shift from a filmmaking device to a sort of storytelling fully grounded in the reality of the film. Suddenly it seems that the entirety of the narration could have been Henry’s testimony. That thought only has a fleeting moment to register, however, before Liotta breaks the fourth wall, getting up from his seat and addressing the camera directly, striding through the courtroom as the action within it continues, the other characters onscreen seemingly unaware that the central figure of the scene has broken away. In the time it takes to breathe in and out, Scorsese wrenches his narrative from a commonplace cinematic contrivance to a more literal rendering of the story to an even more pronounced bending of reality that belongs most firmly, if not solely, to the movies. He’s already violated a convention earlier in the film when the narration briefly shifted from Henry to Karen, but at this moment he completely tosses out the rulebook. Without being showy or pushy in the manner of some other directors willing to make their films into hyperactive freak-outs to prove their creativity, Scorsese simply and confidently asserts that he can do anything if it serves the film.

Based on the non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas was adapted for the screen by Scorsese and the author, transforming the lengthy reportage about mob life into a stunning piece of film art that subverts every expectation about gangsters and hoods established by decades of movie fascination with their powerful and frightening society. Scorsese directs with the headlong passion of someone with nothing left to lose, and a command of structure that rivals that of anyone who’d ever peered through a camera before him, a skillfulness that reflected both his own experience and his efforts as a tireless, lifelong scholar of film. There’s an incredible mix of the regimented and the unleashed within the film, as many scenes have the satisfying smack of improvisation to them, even as there’s never a doubt that Scorsese is always fully in control, actually orchestrating the sorts of happy accidents that will add authenticity to the work. The movie is brash and tough, but never resorts to becoming a mere wallow in the messiness of the gangster life, scoring cheap points with celebratory depiction of violence. Everything is purposefully, included out of a duty to get the story right, to be accurate, to be honest. There’s no showboating or judgment, just a driven filmmaker’s constant push to properly understand the characters he trains his lens on.

As I’ve written previously, I was literally trembling when I left the theater after seeing Goodfellas for the first time. I’d seen great films before, but they hadn’t impacted me like that, in part because the sense of discovery with Scorsese’s film was so profound. It was as if the great director had given me the code to see movie the way that he did, as an endless realm of opportunity. From there on in, the good movies looked a little better, the noble failures looked a little braver, and, yes, the bad movies looked a little worse, like villainous and thoughtless refutations of the possibilities of film. This was right at the beginning of the time when I officially moved from casual, devoted moviegoer to someone spouting my opinions on the radio, someone who was going to wrestle with the films I saw in an effort to name what did and didn’t work within their frames. I couldn’t ask for a better film to usher me towards this more engaged way of approaching the artistry of cinema. It was utterly transformational for me. And now, with the safe hindsight of twenty years between that first viewing and the moments I tap out these words, I think it’s safe to evaluate the excellence of Goodfellas without fear of rushing to judgment and say that it’s one of the three or four best American films ever made.

Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Two

#2 — Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
In Max Fischer's dreams he can liberate his classmates from the tyranny of homework with some concerted strokes of a piece of a piece of chalk. In the waking world, triumph is a little more elusive.

So begins Wes Anderson's second feature, and, with a burst of ecstatically funny creativity, the life and aspirations of his main character are laid out. As played by Jason Schwartzman, Max believes in his own greatness with only the most simplistic idea as to what that means–the only occupations he considers viable aspirations are senator and diplomat–and he proceeds as a genius among philistines. He is an overachiever at school with no apparently ability to achieve the necessary minimum in his classes as he represents Russia in the Model U.N., serves as president of the Calligraphy Club or, later, creates the Kite Flying Society. Most notably, he's the creative force behind the Max Fischer Players, mounting elaborate theatrical productions, including a stage adaptation of Serpico. Max has the narcissism that’s typical of a high schooler enhanced by a sense that he’s a junior misunderstood artiste. He is nestled within the chill satisfaction of someone who sees nothing but genius reflected in the eyes of others, including the pretty new school teacher who inspires him to save Latin and the local industrialist who becomes his friend.

Rushmore is a landslide of inspired details, each one offering some fresh insight to Max Fischer and the small brigade of characters that surround him. It is as precise as Max himself, who offers to retrieve a dictionary to help prove that “relationship” is a fairly innocuous word. Anderson and his screenwriting collaborator Owen Wilson make the film both warm and biting, following Max’s trajectory with uncommon keenness, portraying his passive aggressive jockeying with an amused understanding. He is just a boy, lost and adrift, but probably smart enough to find his way out, discovering the sort of selflessness and generosity that he previously only feigned by trying to establish his benevolence by buying root beers for his hardworking theater crews.

Anderson frames every image with care, employing some conceits like the stage curtain that open to each new act, but always mixing the controlled with grounded, deeply felt insight. One of the prime examples of this is the portrait of manufacturing tycoon Herman Blume, portrayed by Bill Murray with a sardonic melancholy that has practically defined the remainder of the his career. The weight of his disappointment is crushing and Murray shows how it has worn him down, and, movingly, how little chances at happiness can revive him in unpredictable ways. The film drags him down to the lows of emotional destitution, but eventually allows him the grace of a tentative rejuvenation, a journey that Murray underplays beautifully.

Everything in the film is perfectly staged, carefully constructed, and ideally realized, all adding up to an intricate artistic vision. The music, cinematography, costumes, art design, editing, casting stand as an unique expression of Anderson. The films that followed cemented his style, but the personal nature of it–how clearly it belongs to him–was apparent from the moment this effort started to spin off of its reels. It is that distinct and boldly original.

Putting it plainly, Rushmore is a movie that I adore.

Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Three

#3 — Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Before he was a brand, Quention Tarantino was just a filmmaker, and when Pulp Fiction arrived in 1994 he still had the capacity to surprise. It was only his second movie, after all. Certainly his fine debut Reservoir Dogs was distinctive and stylish enough that it created some expectations for is follow-up. And then there was the unexpected approbation of the film winning the the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the fourth American film to snare the honor in a six-year span. So it was hardly some anonymous feature that completely snuck up on people, but it arrived with expectations rather than preconceptions.

Pulp Fiction is a vividly alive pop culture gem, an exuberant blast through everything that movies can do with Tarantino exploring all the shifting facets of his complex towering puzzle like an excited dog racing through his new home, sniffing every corner. He directs like a guy who thought he’d never be given a big fancy movie camera, and is so, so certain that someone’s going to rip it out of hands forever at any minute. He shoves in every influence he soaked up at that Manhattan Beach video store that famously served as his self-administered film school, but manages to keep the finished product from feeling derivative. It’s the complete opposite, in fact. It’s a delirious, exuberant celebration of film itself and the endless possibilities it holds when a band of sharp-tongued, colorful characters are set interacting with one another like tricked out bumper cars. Tarantino tells his story with rigor and respect from the useful confines of narrative norms wile managing to play around just enough to keep the film devilishly off-kilter. It had the feel of a careening vehicle that go anywhere at any moment with the wheels often liberated from the pavement in such a way that defying gravity itself seemed as plausible as could be. Sometimes the correct answer to the question of whether or not a samurai sword should be inserted into a scene is a plainspoken “Why the hell not?”

Generally though, plain speaking is not the approach the film takes. Tarantino and his screenwriter collaborator Roger Avary create a symphony of the verbally ingenious and profane. If the film noir classics contain dialogue that sounds like the way people should talk, then Pulp Fiction is populated by characters who’ve taken that wish as a personal directive and then manifesto. Scene after scene is filled with inspired exchanges of tough, sharp dialogue. Unlike many of the films that followed in Pulp Fiction‘s wake, desperately trying to evoke it’s style and crispness (including, it should be noted, a couple of offerings from Tarantino himself), this grand cascade of language isn’t delivered at the expense of character. Even though the dialogue is all recognizably crafted by the same pen, everyone on screen speaks with their own distinct voices.

The acting helps that along, of course, and Tarantino pulls pure acting genius out of his accomplished cast, many who’ve rarely topped their work here. John Travolta finally achieved his comeback-for-life with his turn as hitman Vincent Vega, especially working the character’s edge of impatience and expertly showing how a trip to his dealer could dull it down nicely. He’s matched beautifully with a partner played by Samuel L. Jackson, easily imparting intimidation to make the fearsome concept of furious anger fully knowable. The remainder of the cast is equally exceptional, from seasoned hands like Christopher Walken, Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel who come across like born residents of Tarantino country, to the smallest bit players. With very little prompting, I can come with a few hundred pointed words about the usual shortcomings of Eric Stoltz’s acting, but damned if he isn’t note perfect in his couple of scenes as Vincent’s dealer Lance.

Pulp Fiction is built with an unique command of the medium, a desire to master it while in the process of learning it. The images are framed with great creativity and respect for the need to convey information, the cinematography is sharp and evocative, the editing is brisk without being clumsy or overly anxious. It looks great and arguably sounds even better. Tarantino builds up a fully formed world and then clearly relishes playing within it. Pulp Fiction represents one of the clearest instances of loving movies inspiring a whole new flush of affection for anyone who witnesses it with the same openness that its filmmakers had in the first place. Every fresh joy Tarantino felt upon making some discovery in that old video store is translated, repurposed and presented anew in his film. The movie is his own racing heartbeat, keeping time with a dark Dick Dale surf rock song.

Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Four

#4 — Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
In Empire magazine a couple of years ago, Francis Ford Coppola condescendingly asked Steven Spielberg (buffered by the safe distance afforded by an interlocutor) if he was going to ever make a “personal” film. Spielberg was understandably taken aback, insisting that every one of his films could be described that way. It sure seems to me that Spielberg wins that argument. I think there are few filmmakers whose individual works are so inextricably entangled in their creator’s place in the world at times they were made. Each film comes across as a precise statement on the concerns he’s grappling with, the problems he sees as he clenches an eye shut and peers into his viewfinder, and, more often than not, overt self-commentary on his own attempts to comes to terms with who he is as an artist.

In that context, Schindler’s List is commonly considered Spielberg’s first “adult” film. His prior stab at serious fare, 1987’s Empire of the Sun, is seen through the eyes of child, and its predecessor, 1985’s The Color Purple, may as well have been according to its many detractors, usually citing Spielberg’s timidity about depicting human sexuality to seal their argument. That holds up nicely if the film is considered in tandem with the candy-coated popcorn that is Jurassic Park, released earlier in the same year, as the decisive split between the two sides of his nature–childlike wonder and the solemn responsibilities of adulthood–that were explicitly at odds with one another in the otherwise negligible Peter Pan update Hook, released in 1990, and, in some ways, the strange sire of these two films that followed. Jurassic Park is the part of Spielberg that wanted to remain a kid forever, engaging in Play-Doh colored food fights with the other Lost Boys, and Schindler’s List is the part that longed to grow up.

There’s a clear appeal to that reading, but I think it’s also overly reductive. Schindler’s List isn’t a pivotal film for Spielberg because it represents him finally embracing maturity of mind and thought, considering the Nazis of World War II in a context other than cardboard villainy or deflective comic relief. What really sets the film apart from all those that came before it in the director’s filmography is that Spielberg has abdicated his self-imposed responsibility to be an entertainer, turning his astonishing technical acumen to the task of telling his story in a way that is harsh, probing and, in the end, completely devastating.

Adapted from Thomas Keneally’s biographical novel with consummate skill by Steven Zaillian, the film is about Oskar Schindler, a German manufacturing magnate who used his influence with Nazi authorities to get hundreds of Jewish people redirected from concentration camps to his factories. In the film, he positions himself as an opportunist profiting from slave labor, but his true intention is saving lives. Spielberg and his collaborators use the story as a pathway to a film that aspires to a greater understanding of the brutal horrors of The Holocaust. Gripping as the primary tale may be, the most memorable moments often arrive as the focus drifts ever so slightly to consider the broader impact of the tragic passage of history it depicts. No amount of drama can carry the same weight as the stark imagery of mountains of personal belongings at the station that’s the departure point for tightly packed trains to Auschwitz, items being sorted through with detached efficiency. Spielberg resists any temptation to soften the material, pushing himself and his film to capture the sorrow, pain and fear to the fullest extent possible.

The clearest example of cinematic invention within the film is also its most contentious scene. As the war is ending and Allied forces are approaching the factory, Schindler’s false persona as a stolid backer of the Nazis means he must flee. Right before he does, he addresses those he’s saved and laments all his small choices that could have been made differently to provide safe asylum to additional people. It’s pure fiction, and even feels like it in the moment. However, even if Spielberg is eschewing his entertainer instincts, he doesn’t dismiss his unmatched understanding of the emotional arcs of a film story, specifically the need for a moment of pure catharsis after the hours of grueling misery he’s presented. The characters need it, the audience needs it, and, most likely, the director needed it too. Spielberg spoke sincerely and openly about the ways in which making this film helped him connect to his own Jewish heritage as never before. The moment is Schindler’s tearful confession, but it’s Spielberg’s as well. Schindler’s List was a film that Spielberg tried to give away many times, offering it to Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese to direct before his guilty conscience drove him to decisively reclaim it, finally ready to devote his gifts to making a film of great challenge and import. It’s not hard to detect a quiet echo of regret for art unmade in Schindler’s anguished monologue.

Spielberg’s films that followed all live in the shadow of this one, not because of the importance of its subject matter, but due to the disciplined conviction of its telling. Spielberg directs as if this could be his final artistic statement, as if he recognizes the difficulty of speaking of anything else again once this has been said. It may not be his very best film, but it could be the truest expression of himself, his voice raised without reticence or guard.

Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Five

#5 — The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but, looking back, Jonathan Demme wasn’t the most obvious choice to helm the film adaptation of Thomas Harris’s grim novel about an FBI trainee who helps hunt down a serial killer, enlisting the assistance of an incarcerated mastermind in the process. Certainly, Demme had cut his teeth on this sort of material, directing revenge fantasies and women-in-prison pictures for Roger Corman in the seventies, but he’d spent the years after–years in which he presumably had a little more choice regarding his projects–in a far gentler mode, largely alternating between insightful, humanistic comedies and nonfiction films that celebrated striking, unique live performances. The Silence of the Lambs may not seem that grisly compared to the torture porn that regularly gets stamped with a nice safe R rating by the MPAA these days, but the violence in the story was significant enough to scare off previous filmmakers. Maybe it wasn’t odd to me because I already believed in Demme as one of those rare directors who could do just about anything.

Using Ted Tally’s expertly adapted screenplay, Demme tracks through highly fraught terrain. There’s always the danger that the film can became too lurid, or overly enamored with the darkness at its core. It’s easy to lapse from uncompromising views of the lurking evil undulating in basic human nature to cheap shock or callous manipulation of the audience. Rather than defaulting too much the other way and letting the film become cold and clinical, Demme finds an ideal middle ground. He’s fully invested in the humanity of everyone on screen, not necessarily trying to understand them–there are no excuses offered for the crimes of the serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill–but observing them with a probing curiosity. To a degree, he settles himself and the audience directly into his protagonist’s person, building the shots around her own keen, thorough observations. Portions of the film are literally and figuratively from Clarice Starling’s point of view, making it all the more chilling when the moment arises when she’s robbed of her sight and we finally see her through another’s eyes.

Starling is played by Jodie Foster in a sharp, inventive performance. She plays a young woman whose flight from her personal demons has led her all the way to the FBI, and is discovering and developing her own sense of authority on a moment by moment basis. Every encounter she faces as she works a case above her stature impacts her, shapes her. Foster conveys that shifting sense of self while also holding tightly to the pole of Starling’s inner being. In one of the finest acting duets in all of film, she faces off in quid pro quo conversations with Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist with an uncommon grasp of the workings of damaged, criminally-inclined minds, in no small part because he has an intimate connection to the urges that drive someone to see their fellow man as a negligible creature, suitable for striking down and perhaps repurposing to better pair with a nice red wine. Anthony Hopkins tears into the role with something like the thespian equivalent to his character’s blazing intellect, crafting a portrait of a man that is equal parts terrifying and alluring. Lecter is a poised, dutifully respectful man, who will gladly toy with someone, wrapping them up in his poisonous charisma, until their emotions collapse in on themselves. In the role, Hopkins absolutely commands the screen. He’s like hot embers in the most vivid colors, beckoning to the be touched despite the clear damage it will do. When he and Foster trade words, every sentence holdings its own challenge, it’s breathtaking.

I’m not sure what drew Demme to this film in the first place, although his complete lack of interest in realizing the grotesqueries of Harris’s sequel Hannibal might hold a clue. In essence, Demme found in The Silence of the Lambs the exact same sort of story that he found in the earlier Melvin and Howard and the later Rachel Getting Married, films that are drastically different at first glance. He found stories of struggle, pain, shafts of hope, and finally the realization that personal journeys don’t wrap up neatly. He found another path to examining the troubling vagaries of life. He found what a great filmmaker wants above all else: a story worth telling.

Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Six

#6 — Fargo (Joel Coen (and Ethan Coen)
Fargo begins with a sly gag. Maybe it’s more appropriate to say it begins with a bit of a prank. A title card appears, asserting that the film that follows is based on a “true story,” and everything onscreen is presented “exactly as it occurred.” While a few lurid tales from the back pages of the newspaper may have helped shape the carnage in the script–most notably the use of a wood chipper as means for evidence disposal–everything in the film is immediately identifiable as pure fiction. Better, it’s immediately identifiable as the sort of dark, droll, warped, ingenious pure fiction that only the Coen brothers could pull together.

The film is built around a kidnapping, as is often the case in films by the Coen brothers. A scuffling car salesman needs an influx of cash. His father-in-law has plenty, but the snarly skinflint won’t offer up a loan. So the salesman orchestrates the kidnapping of his wife, sure that papa will unhinge his wallet to set his darling daughter free. Naturally, complications ensue, including one that snags the attention of the noble law enforcement officials of Brainerd, Minnesota, including one of the most chipper badge-wielders ever to cross a movie screen, Margie Gunderson. As played by Frances McDormand with a pronounced accent that she named “Minnesota nice,” Margie is a wondrous, delightful character, approaching the dourest of tasks with a plucky cheerfulness and veiled deductive genius. The performance is a comedic triumph, but it’s also sweet and true. When Margie surveys the criminal mayhem she’s been investigating with and laments the futility of it all, it’s a simple as can be, and yet as profound as an anguished diatribe from a learned philosopher. By then, she’s operating on earned trust, having demonstrated an open-hearted appreciation of the world that makes her seem uniquely qualified to render judgments. Pretty impressive for a character whose most famous line may very be “I think I’m gonna barf!”

Joel and Ethan Coen are originally from Minnesota and they film the frozen winter of the upper Midwest the way Oliver Stone filmed Vietnam in Platoon. The imposing white tundras of the rural areas and frosted crusts over every landmark of city civilization are so perfectly captured by Roger Deakins’ typically sterling cinematography that viewings of the film practically require the addition of an extra layer of clothes. It’s also nicely evocative of the engulfing, inescapable troubles faced by the characters in the film, particularly the plot’s mastermind played by William H. Macy. Whether he’s sitting behind his desk at the dealership scribbling furiously on a notepad, feebly trying to get a potential customer to see the value in undercoating, or grinning unconvincingly when faced with Marge’s friendly interrogation, Macy strikes the right balance between painful comedy and palpable anxiety. When he’s finally faced with the bloody remnants that are the inevitable result of his machination, the moment has the chill of January air.

Fargo is a key film for the Coens. Much as I love their previous efforts, this was the first time they completely struck the right balance. Their penchant for visual inventiveness is channeled into artfully constructed storytelling without any distracting flourishes, and the find themselves on the right side of the line between broad and cartoonish. It was maybe their first outing that was purely a great film, without any moments that slipped more towards an exercise, towards a sort of safeguard detachment from their own creation. It’s as if they were finally ready to plant their flag in the sand and declare themselves real filmmakers. Actually, make that planted their shovel in the snowbank.

Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Seven

#7 — Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
There are an abundance of reasons why sports stories work so well in the movies. The nature of the games themselves offers up a nice clean narrative line, and the duel of opposing teams offers a delineation between protagonists and antagonists as clear as anything since cowboys of conflicting temperaments donned ten gallon hats in black or white. The contests are fraught with tension, suspense, momentum, personality, and drive. In other words, everything that filmmakers try to create is built right in to the very endeavor that will naturally be the centerpiece of the story. Sports films can evoke strong reactions with the simplest of structures.

I suspect that’s representative of the sort of film Steve James and his collaborators thought they’d wind up with when they embarked on the project that eventually yielded Hoop Dreams. It seems modest enough on paper: follow two basketball players and they journey through their high school years. The film introduces Chicago youths Arthur Agee and William Gates, whose aspirations towards escaping the grinding poverty of their station in life are predicated entirely on parlaying their considerable neighborhood basketball skills into NBA careers. They are in the city that Michael Jordan presides over, after all, although it’s a different NBA icon who looms even larger for them. Isiah Thomas once lived a life not unlike theirs, commuting across town to play for a powerhouse private school, an effort that started him on a path that led to the Detroit Pistons and two championship rings. Both Agee and Gates start playing for that school, but then their paths diverge in unexpected ways.

Hoop Dreams is one of those documentaries that inspires constant marveling at the good fortune of the filmmakers. They couldn’t have possibly known all the fascinating turns these two boys’ tales would take the first time they trained their cameras on them. Injuries and championship runs, familial triumph and pain, moments of immeasurable pride and shifts that produce heartbreaking sadness are all present across the film’s nearly three hour running time. That’s enough to make a movie about basketball entertaining. Hoop Dreams, however, is about much more.

It is about lives lived teetering on the precipice where possibility slopes down into abject hopelessness. It is about the extreme difficulty people face in extricating themselves from dire circumstances in a culture that is designed to perpetuate personal circumstances. It is about the way talented young men are elevated for the physical skills only to be quickly discarded as those skills erode. It is about the contrast between cheering masses for boys playing a game and the rows upon rows of empty chairs when a middle-aged woman truly defies the odds and earns her nursing assistant certification. And it is about how people of wildly different backgrounds, who would never connect under any other circumstances, can have a friendly, affectionate conversation together when they’ve all traveled to watch their respective offspring take to the floor for a run at the state championship. The initial goal may very well have been modest, just a simple movie about basketball. The end result is profoundly different, stunning in its scope and thrillingly complex.