This past fall, the editors, staff, and some friends of this magazine sent out letters to a blue-ribbon panel of critics, filmmakers, authors; archivists—people with a serious personal and professional investment in film -inviting their selections of the film of the decade and the film person of the decade. We weren’t necessarily after the “greatest” film, “most creative director,” or “brightest star.” Rather, we asked, “Zero in on the film of the Nineties, from any nation, that casts the longest shadow for you, whether in terms of excellence, power, visionary quality, symbolic importance, influence, or epically destructive badness—this is entirely your call. Same with the individual who, for better or worse, most decisively defines film in the Nineties. And we’d appreciate a brief statement why.” Additionally, we suggested that they send their lists of the Ten Best films of the decade, or the Ten Most Underrated. That part was optional, but as it turned out, most respondents gave it a whirl, and very provocatively, too.
BRUCE JENKINS curator, Harvard Film Archive
Close-Up—Made at the start of the decade, Kiarostami’s reenacted documentary perfectly interweaves a surface simplicity with a rigorous conceptual sophistication. In the process Close-Up prefigured a significant cycle of independent productions that have attempted to resolve the often contradictory demands of articulating a progressive politic while deploying new formal, genuinely alternative means.
Ten Best (alphabetical): An Angel at My Table, Archangel (Maddin), Blue (Jarman), The Book of Life (Hartley), Close-Up, From the East (Akerman), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Herzog), One False Move (Franklin), Silent Movie (Marker), The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye)
KENT JONES Film Society of Lincoln Center
A tie between Eyes Wide Shut and Independence Day. The first is a lasting work of art that was completely misunderstood; the second, an instantly disposable piece of garbage that was instantly understood and consumed.
A tie between Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jack Valenti. Hou represents artistry in the cinema, unafraid of anything and mindful only of what’s vital to that artistry. Valenti represents, around the world, everything wrong with movies today: American domination, and all that implies.
Most Underrated: Les Voleurs (Téchiné), Nil By Mouth, Dazed and Confused, Dr. Akagi, Georgia (Grosbard), Starship Troopers, Kundun; Goodbye South, Goodbye; Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson); Eyes Wide Shut
LAURENCE KARDISH Museum of Modern Art
Pulp Fiction—”for better or worse.” Runner-up: Safe, because it is very good, tantalizingly ambiguous, and thoroughly resonant, and because it comes up as a positive reference in about a third of the conversations I have with independent American filmmakers….
Martin Scorsese—for his body of work both on and offscreen. Ten Underrated Films (off the top of my head): For Ever Mozart (Godard), A Perfect World, Three Colors: White, Work (Reichman), Sitcom (Ozon), Fate, Madagascar (Pérez), Brother’s Keeper (Berlinger & Sinofsky), The Oak, The Eel (Imamura)
DAVE KEHR contributing editor, Film Comment
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, a monumental work of tremendous formal, moral, and dramatic sophistication.
Clint Eastwood, last of the larger-than-life movie stars, presiding with grace and wisdom over the disappearance of his own breed, though a series of bravely self-reflexive works: White Hunter, Black Heart; Unforgiven; A Perfect World; The Bridges of Madison County; Absolute Power
Ten Most Underrated (chronological): To Sleep With Anger, Where the Heart Is (Boorman), Men Don’t Leave (Paul Brickman), Point Break, Naked Lunch (Cronenberg), Matinee (Dante), Wild Bill (Walter Hill), Bottle Rocket, Ulee’s Gold (Nunez), Capitaine Conan (Tavernier)
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI filmmaker
Underground—because of some kind of mischievous Energy and zest that reminds me of my childhood.
STUART KLAWANS film critic, The Nation
If “film of the decade” means a picture that encompasses the world’s situation in the Nineties, then I might point to Lamerica (Gianni Amelio), a semidocumentary drama about the end of Communism, the onset of gangster capitalism, and the movement of masses of people. Better still: A Moment of Innocence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)—half documentary and half conjuring trick—which transforms a past act of political violence into a present vision of gifts offered and veils removed.
If the “person of the decade” is to be an allegorical figure of American popular film in the Nineties, then I nominate Sharon Stone, or The Expense of Talent in a Waste of Shame. Clever, energetic, and slickly beautiful, Stone became famous through a gloatingly cynical movie and spent the rest of the decade in well-publicized vacuity, somehow unable to put her gifts to good use (though maybe Albert Brooks at last rescued her, through failure, for the decade to come).
JOANNE KOCH Film Society of Lincoln Center
Pulp Fiction—an extravaganza of possibly unprecedented originality that carries an established genre to new heights of imagination. Appearing halfway through the decade, its success encouraged more mainstream producers to support innovative concepts and subject matter they would hitherto have rejected.
Quentin Tarantino—As the writer-director of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, surely the most original talent to appear in the Nineties.
Ten Best—The Grifters, Naked, Red, Hoop Dreams, Pulp Fiction, Flower of My Secret (Almodóvar), The Match Factory Girl (Kaurismäki), The Silence of the Lambs, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty
DARRYL MACDONALD Seattle International Film Festival
The one I can’t shake is Breaking the Waves. It was brave and foolhardy, sublime and ridiculous, sacred and profane. I cried so hard I laughed. And Emily Watson is the only actress on earth who could make me believe that character.
Lars von Trier—For many of the reasons stated above, but also for Dogme ‘95, for dissing the Cannes jury to their face, and especially for The Kingdom. He’s the Erich von Stroheim, the Orson Welles, and the Werner Herzog of the Nineties, all rolled into one.
Films of the decade? As always with lists, this one requires context. As a film programmer, my bent lies in trying to engage an audience. All I care about is that they use the medium in fresh new ways, and make me feel … SOMETHING! Preferably something unexpected. In no particular order: Trainspotting, Run Lola Run, La Promesse, All About My Mother, The Piano, Antonia’s Line (Gorris), The Crying Game, Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom, The Usual Suspects
DEREK MALCOLM film critic, The Guardian
Breaking the Waves—as a successful Dogma epic that has inspired European filmmakers to attempt highly personal films of emotional strength rather than budgetary excess.
James Cameron—for realizing that general audiences want budgetary excess coupled with simplistic romance more than highly personal films of emotional strength!
Many of these ten best are also among the most underrated. In no particular order: Breaking the Waves, Naked, Hana-Bi, Dreamlife of Angels (Zonca), GoodFellas, Three Colors: White, Pulp Fiction, Close-Up, The Puppetmaster, Raise the Red Lantern
GREIL MARCUS critic/author
Dead Man (Jarmusch)—When, right from the start, Crispin Glover appears on a train heading west in 1875 and starts ranting like the prophet who sticks his head out of an alley at the beginning of Moby-Dick, you know you’re in for trouble. This mystical fable is always funny—right up to that point where hero Johnny Depp finally begins to get the joke, and by that time all the very fin-de-siècle irony that had previously driven Jarmusch’s work (not to mention that of countless others) has completely burned off.
Bill Pullman—In all of Pullman’s best roles (in The Last Seduction, Malice, The End of Violence, and most of all Lost Highway) he plays a cuckold. But he’s not just been tricked and betrayed by whoever’s playing his wife in any given moment; somehow he’s gotten it across that he’s been cuckolded by promises he bought long ago and could never quite surrender, that he’s been cuckolded by the time and place those watching share with him, by the history the America of the last ten years has failed to make.
Most Underrated: Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—The terror in her eyes, around her mouth, in the scene when her father berates her at the dinnertable is what Norma Desmond meant when she said, “We had faces then.” As is the look on Jodhi May’s face just before she jumps—or, really, floats—off the cliff at the end of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans.
ADRIAN MARTIN film critic, New Age, Australia
Underground (Emir Kusturica)—As passionate, energetic, sprawling, reckless, mad, and divisive as the cinema must be.
Abbas Kiarostami—The filmmaker who has used the humblest, most modest elements of life, landscape, and cinema to generate the most profound, moving, and radical artistic gestures of our time.
Ten Best: The Age of Innocence, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Carlito’s Way (De Palma), Caro Diario, Clueless, Crash, Eyes Wide Shut, Hana-Bi / Fireworks, King of New York (Ferrara), Unforgiven
MARIAN MASONE Film Society of Lincoln Center
Being John Malkovich—All right, it seems as though I was too lazy to think back on the past ten years. But here is a film unlike anything we’ve seen before, that may very well bring us to a new level of storytelling/filmmaking for the next century. How appropriate, then, that it has appeared on the horizon at the end of this decade.
Lars von Trier—With his films, his television extravaganza The Kingdom, and Dogma 95, he has stirred the cinematic pot to a boil, forcing us (like his work or not) to rethink our own cinematic ambitions.
Ten Best (some underrated), no particular order: La Belle Noiseuse, GoodFellas, La Haine (Kassovitz), Ma Vie en Rose (Berliner), Exotica, Ed Wood, Boyz ‘N the Hood, Chacun Cherche Son Chat (Klapisch), Breaking the Waves, The Crying Game
LUC MOULLET filmmaker / film critic
Go Fish (Rose Troche). A tie between Catherine Breillat and Darezhan Omirbaev. Films: Trust (Hartley), Deconstructing Harry (Allen), Conte d’Hiver (Rohmer), Le Garçu, Je Meurs de vivre (Hanoun), Caro Diario, Benny’s Video (Haneke), Flowers of Shanghai, God’s Comedy, The Last Dance (Itami)
LAURA MULVEY theorist / educator
Close-Up—brings reality back to the cinema but subjects it to the cinema’s ambivalence, masquerade and illusion.
Abbas Kiarostami—revives, in a new guise, André Bazin’s question What Is Cinema? … raises the difficulties surrounding the representation of women in cinema, which, although grounded in an Islamic context, strike a chord as well as a discord with the iconoclasm of Seventies feminist film theory and aesthetics … represents the problems of producing an art cinema today, its dependence on economic protection and state support at home, and international festivals and specialized exhibition abroad.
KATHLEEN MURPHY contributing editor, Film Comment
Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, because it renewed my faith in miracles that reinvent mise-en-scène and the soul.
Jane Campion and Neil Jordan—for their careerlong celebrations of language and image, and the power of novel and film to fictionalize the world; for their faith in the primacy of story/journey, performance and dream; and for their stubborn island independence and brave romanticism.
GEOFFREY O’BRIEN author
Jeanne la Pucelle—Ignoring contemporaneity (the screenplay adheres rigorously to the language of his 13th century sources) and steering clear of his forebears Dreyer, Preminger, and Bresson, Jacques Rivette makes the history film of one’s dreams. Sandrine Bonnaire’s embodiment of matter-of-fact sanctity is more unsettling than a dozen futuristic apocalypses.
William Shakespeare—For his continuing efforts on behalf of Kenneth Branagh, Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino, and others, as if to demonstrate the ultimate relativity of such things as decades.
Ten More or Less Underrated Films of the Nineties: Miami Blues, The Rapture (Tolkin), The Blue Kite, The Long Day Closes; L’Arbre, le Maire et la Médiathèque (Rohmer), La Reine Margot, Destiny (Chahine), Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Same Old Song, Eyes Wide Shut
DOMINIQUE PAINI Cinémathèque Française
Histoire(s) de Cinéma—impossible to avoid.
Jean-Luc Godard—who, forty years later, continues to be the greatest artist. Most Underrated (no particular order): Parfait Amour!, The Convent, Babel (Boril Lehman), The Quince Tree Sun, Age of Innocence, Mars Attacks!, The Last Days of Disco (Stillman), A Couch in New York (Akerman); Khroustaliov, My Car! (Guerman)
MILAN PAVLOVIC editor, Steadycam
Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (Leos Carax)—This unique piece of art has everything a film can possibly offer: passion, madness, comedy, tragedy, realism, surrealism, and a wild, freewheeling inventiveness that pushes moviemaking to another level. So stunning it can make you cry out of pure joy.
Martin Scorsese—He started out as the best director of the decade and fittingly had an incredible one-two-three punch with GoodFellas, Cape Fear, and The Age of Innocence. Now he’s the most visible, honored, and recognizable one, appearing in commercials and in cameos as if he had been reborn as Harvey Keitel. And yet he’s still capable of a Bringing Out the Dead.
Five Favorites: The Age of Innocence; Heat; Edward Scissorhands; Nikita (La Femme Nikita), (Luc Besson); Nobody’s Fool (Benton)
Five Most Underrated: every Coen Brothers film except for Fargo; Mary Reilly (Frears); Strange Days (Bigelow); Havana (Pollack); Lorenzo’s Oil (Miller)
RICHARD PEÑA Film Society of Lincoln Center
Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep—Certainly not the best film of the past ten years (although one of them), but no film seemed to speak to me more intelligently about filmmaking and even more especially film culture in our time.
Abbas Kiarostami. With the possible exception of Hou Hsiao-hsien, no artist for me stood more powerfully this decade as a symbol of cinema as a vital, provocative art.
Ten Most Underrated, no particular order: Idiots, Rodrigo D. (Victor Gavíria), High Heels (Almodóvar); Khroustaliov, My Car!; To Live; Miller’s Crossing; Le Garçu; Goodbye South, Goodbye; Dr. Akagi, Starship Troopers
CHRIS PETIT filmmaker / novelist
The Film of the Nineties was in fact TV: Homicide: Life on the Street. It worked hard, it took risks, wasn’t ingratiating like NYPD Blue and ER, had great camera, and I was rarely bored the way I am with most movies now.
Individual of the Nineties was in fact a company, Miramax—It shanghaied art cinema and turned it into a supermarket.
Ten films of note, not necessarily the best, some of which I saw, and some I didn’t (in no particular order): 1) King of New York, 2) Histoire(s) du cinéma, 3) Dead Man, 4) Hana-Bi, 5) The Celebration, 6) Mother Dao the Turtlelike (Monnikendam); 7) Credits—several striking credit sequences promised more than was delivered by what followed, particularly Seven, JFK, and The Sopranos; and three movies I should’ve seen, 8) Lost Highway, 9) Spiritual Voices: The Diaries of War (Sokurov video), 10) Where Is the Friend’s House?
JOHN POWERS film critic, Vogue
Chungking Express—Time, love, memory, yearning, and loneliness: Wong Kar-wai gives us the modern city in all its giddy, melancholy beauty. I’ve watched this movie over and over, and it always makes me happy.
Hou Hsiao-hsien—From The Puppetmaster to Flowers of Shanghai (masterworks both), Hou was the deepest, richest, and most daring filmmaker working anywhere. And it’s a measure of our film culture that his work was simply ignored by many big-name critics and never had a chance to reach American audiences.
Ten Underrated/Neglected Films (alphabetical): The Age of Possibilities (Pascale Ferran), Aprile (Moretti), Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne), Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa), Jackie Brown, The Portrait of a Lady, The Quince Tree Sun, Strange Days, Stuart Saves His Family (Harold Ramis), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
JAMES QUANDT Ontario Cinémathèque
Histoire(s) du Cinéma—Jean-Luc Godard Figure(s) of the Decade—Abbas Kiarostami & Jean-Luc Godard Ten Best (alphabetical): Flowers of Shanghai, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, The Last Bolshevik, Nouvelle Vague, The Quince Tree Sun, Sicilia!, Taste of Cherry, Valley of Abraham, Van Gogh, Vive l’amour
PETER RAINER film critic, New York magazine
Pulp Fiction—because, with its hype and maverick freewheelingness and movie-movie obessiveness and bloodletting, it influenced a whole new generation of filmmakers to be both the best and the worst that they could be.
Robin Williams—because, in his capitulation to lucre and luscious sentimentalism he typifies the lost promise of the most highly gifted film artists of the Nineties.
I will list only two underrated beauties from the Nineties: The Whole Wide World (Dan Ireland), starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renée Zellweger at their best; and Jan Troell’s Hamsun, the best film I saw in the Nineties, with a performance by Max von Sydow that is one of the very best ever put on film.
MARK RAPPAPORT filmmaker
Underground (Kusturica). For me, the most important, most moving, most entertaining film of the decade. The ambitiousness, the epic breadth of it, and the brilliant way in which it reimagines history makes it, for me, a very great film. Runner-up: Crash (Cronenberg).
Quentin Tarantino has to be the most influential person of the decade, certainly on films made in the West. Success always brings flocks of imitators and retreads of films that were retreads in any case continue to litter the landscape. It’s a pity that so much movie emulsion had to die so that these knockoffs could be made. But this too shall pass. America’s love affair with hitmen and drug deals gone bad will wane. But obviously and unfortunately the female protagonist-as-hooker, a hardy ever-blooming perennial, will be with us well into the next millennium and beyond.
TONY RAYNS critic / filmmaker / programmer
Gohatto (Nagisa Oshima)—Just under the wire (it’s a December ‘99 release in Japan), Oshima’s elegy for gay passions within a Shogunate militia of the 1860s looms back to the forgotten virtues of “classical” filmmaking—and forward to a cinema in which thought and action are one.
Jang Sun-Woo—South Korea’s most adventurous and independent-minded director never makes the same film twice: each represents a fresh formal, political, intellectual, and emotional response to subject matter as topical and relevant as all get-out.
PIERRE RISSIENT producer
My discovery of Hanns Schwarz’s Melodie des Herzens (Ufa, 1929)—maybe the film where, also, the notion of mixing, which will slowly develop from the mid-late Sixties, is already present.
Abbas Kiarostami—and even more the projects he is dreaming while telling their stories … as Eastwood was the person of the previous decade, at his peak with Bird. Also I feel like saluting the memories of Ellis St. Joseph, Abraham Polonsky—and Lino Brocka, who in my opinion was the person of the late Seventies, early Eighties.
Ten Best: The Elder Daughter (Sumitra Peries, Sri Lanka), Kaki Bakar (U Wei Haji Daari, Malaysia), Sopyonje (Im Kwan Taek, South Korea), The Day the Pig Fell into the Well (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea), …And the Moon Dances (Garin Nugroho, Indonesia), ABC Manhattan (Amir Naderi, USA), Post Mortem (Louis Bélanger, Québec), The Quince Tree Sun, and the second part of John Berry’s Captive in the Land
HOWARD RODMAN novelist / screenwriter
Most Nineties cinema was a machine for extracting emotions from your soul and money from your wallet. Not Todd Haynes’s Safe. Anchored by Julianne Moore’s astoundingly unfussy performance, Safe was a film that resolutely refused to tell you how to feel—and ended up being the most moving film of the last ten years.
I’m partisan; but I still think it’s Steven Soderbergh. From the giddy pretension of Kafka to the beautifully earned emotions of King of the Hill, from the icy formalism of The Underneath to the wackoid lexical silliness of Schizopolis, from the studio-size drolleries of Out of Sight to the asynchronous poignances of The Limey, Soderbergh never shoots a dull or unoriginal moment, and never, never makes the same film twice.
Ten Most Underrated: A Trick of the Light / Brothers Skladanowsky (Wenders), La Vie de Bohème (Kaurismäki), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Gumby: The Movie (Clokey), Suture (Siegel & McGhee), A Little Princess (Cuarón), Train of Shadows (Guerin), The Miracle, Beyond the Clouds (Antonioni), The Blood Oranges (Haas)
JONATHAN ROMNEY film critic, The New Statesman
Film of the Decade: Martin Scorsese’s Casino—also the most underrated. I remain awestruck by this film’s energy, ambition, encyclopedic scope, and lucid faith in the delirium of seeing. It’s also the nearest Nineties U.S. cinema has produced to a Zola novel.
Figure of the Decade: I regret to say, Robin Williams, the single most glaring example of Hollywood’s misuse of talent and abuse of charisma. His films are fascinating texts if you’re a student of Nineties Hollywood ideology at its most infantile—I’d write about them if only I could bear to watch them again.
Monstrosity of the Decade: Life Is Beautiful (don’t get me started).
Ten Best (alphabetical): The Adjuster (Egoyan), After Life, Bad Lieutenant, A Brighter Summer Day, Casino, Close-Up, Hotel E (Priit Pärn); Khroustaliov, My Car!; Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana; Ulysses’ Gaze
Ten Most Underrated (alphabetical): anything by Claire Denis; Brigands: Chapter VII, A Bug’s Life (Lasseter), Circus Boys, Haut / Bas / Fragile, Jerry Maguire, Journey to the Beginning of the World (Oliveira), Regarde les Hommes Tomber (Audiard), Suture, Tierra (Julio Medem)
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM film critic, Chicago Reader
The Wind Will Carry Us—Kiarostami. City / country, rich / poor, modernity / antiquity, onscreen / offscreen, fast / slow, media / nature, private / public, documentary / fiction: an accurate and very funny report on the current state of the planet.
Hou Hsiao-hsien. The 21st century belongs to Asia, and Hou is its historian, its prophet, and its poet laureate.
Ten Best/Most Underrated (alphabetical): Actress, A Brighter Summer Day (230-minute version), Dead Man, From the East, Histoire(s) du Cinéma (final version, eight parts), Inquietude (Oliveira), The Puppetmaster, Sátántangó, When It Rains (Burnett, 12 minutes), The Wind Will Carry Us