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.
MANOHLA DARGIS film critic, Harper’s Bazaar / film editor, LA Weekly
Chungking Express (1994)—A bliss-out of time and space, men and women, Mamas and Papas, poetry and pop, the blurred blue night: after Godard, this is what movies could be, should be, and finally are.
Wong Kar-wai is one of the few filmmakers alive who makes films, not just words into pictures, which is why I could have as easily, and happily, selected Happy Together, Fallen Angels, Days of Being Wild, even Ashes of Time.
Steven Spielberg—If Spielberg’s natural-born talent were simply in the service of his imagination, and not so perfectly aligned to the very logic of the sausage business we call the movie industry, he could be as great a director as any who lived. (This is one lesson of our American art at the end of this movie century: Native genius must not simply defer to the ever-lower bottom line, it must become it.)
Ten Great Neglected Feature Films of the Nineties: Babe: Pig in the City, Flowers of Shanghai, The Portrait of a Lady (Campion), Happy Together, Mars Attacks!, Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle) (Desplechin), Parfait Amour (Catherine Breillat), Vive L’Amour (Tsai Ming-liang), Dead Man; S’en fout la mort/No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis)
DENNIS DOROS & AMY HELLER Milestone Film & Video
Fireworks / Hana-Bi (Takeshi Kitano) Jane Campion + John Woo + Tim Burton + Lars von Trier Ten Best Releases: Fireworks/Hana-Bi, Maborosi (Kore-eda), Edward Scissorhands, I Am Cuba (Kalatozov), The Puppetmaster, Happiness, American Beauty, One False Move, The Thin Red Line, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf
ROGER EBERT film critic, Chicago Sun-Times
The film of the decade was the brilliant Pulp Fiction, not only because it was a tour de force in its own right, but because it was so enormously influential (not always for the better) as it skewed American independent filmmaking in general toward funky retro dialog, seriocomic violence, and plot and timeline trickery.
The person of the decade was Jack Valenti, who singlehandedly stood between American filmmakers and their potential audiences, keeping them apart through his stubborn defense of a bankrupt ratings system that made it impossible for the director’s version of an adult film to be successfully released through ordinary theatrical channels. The decade ended as it began, with the United States the only major filmgoing nation with no workable adult rating.
KLAUS EDER FIPRESCI
Ulysses’ Gaze by Theo Angelopoulos—It transforms the Balkan and its history and present into a unique filmic universe.
Krzysztof Kieslowski—He asked questions.
Ten Best: Rhapsody in August (Kurosawa); Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, Rouge; Schindler’s List, Central Station, Breaking the Waves, The Story of Qiu Ju (Zhang), La Belle Noiseuse; Ladybird, Ladybird; The Player, Through the Olive Trees
ATOM EGOYAN filmmaker
There are a number of filmmakers whose body of work in the Nineties has left an indelible impression on me. These include Mike Leigh, Abbas Kiarostami, Olivier Assayas, Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, Béla Tarr, the Coen brothers, Harmony Korine, Claire Denis, Hal Hartley, Todd Haynes, Pedro Almodóvar, David Lynch, and Kitano.
CLAUDIO ESPAÑA film critic / educator, Argentina
Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier)—A renewed form that recalled the old Carl T. Dreyer’s style, and anticipated the very new Dogma.
Quentin Tarantino—He was a new breath for Hollywood, but where’s Tarantino now?
DAN FAINARU editor, Cinematheque, Israel
A Moment of Innocence—On a budget that would not cover the cost of canapes at an average Hollywood première, it manages to say so much about truth and fiction, reality and art, emotions and politics, the essence of cinema and the dignity of man. And Mohsen Makhmalbaf does it with a profound respect and affection for human nature. If there is any future for personal cinema as opposed to assembly-line cinema, it lies with films like this one.
The Hollywood tycoon—any tycoon. Naming one would do injustice to all the others and anyway, it is so difficult to tell them apart. They should take full credit for the victory of concept over content, of size over emotion, of noise over wit. Welcome back to the Dark Ages—only now we’re supposed to enjoy it.
Ten Best (chronological): An Angel at My Table, La Belle Noiseuse, The Quince Tree Sun (Erice), Short Cuts, Naked, Ulysses’ Gaze, A Moment of Innocence, Hana-Bi / Fireworks, After Life (Kore-eda), All About My Mother
THIERRY FREMAUX Institut Lumière
The best film of the decade is also the most underrated film of the decade: Casino! (Plus the new Lumière movies in new prints we discovered during the centennial in 1995.)
The filmmaker of the Nineties is Kiarostami. If not, it’s Kitano. Or Aki Kaurismäki (but he’s from the Eighties). Personally, my people in the Nineties are André de Toth and Michael Powell—and I hope for more French people, too.
JEAN-MICHEL FRODON film critic, Le Monde
Idiots (Lars von Trier)—Not a better film than some of Godard’s, Kiarostami’s, Oliveira’s, or Eastwood’s, but the one that, symbolically, confronts with grit and obstinacy the narrative, aesthetic, and technical limits of contemporary filmmaking and breaks ways toward new possibilities.
Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien—Because he is one of the best directors presently at work, because his films show how the modern invention of filmmaking can improve storytelling and the understanding of (historical and contemporary) reality, because he is deeply Chinese, Chinese culture being the strongest potential alternative to the Hollywoodian aesthetic hegemony, and because he is an artist exiled in his own land, which seems a rather accurate metaphor.
ROY FURMAN motion picture financier
Titanic—Simultaneously the best and worst of Hollywood. Uncontrolled spending on a scale that will never recur in the service of brilliant filmmaking and digital technology that will.
Harvey Weinstein—His Miramax reconfigured the “independent” landscape, along with Bob Shaye’s New Line. By dint of aggressive and imaginative approaches to film marketing and Academy Award voting, he turned a quality artistic vision into commercial success, transforming industry practices.
Ten Best (alphabetical): All About My Mother, Breaking the Waves, L.A. Confidential, Les Misérables (Lelouch), The Player, Pulp Fiction, Schindler’s List, Shakespeare in Love, To Live (Zhang), The Usual Suspects
NANCY GERSTMAN Zeitgeist Films
Pulp Fiction—Now that we’ve gotten that over with, I can vote for Poison, a film that admittedly we distributed, but which had and continues to have long-ranging effects on independent production, distribution, and ultimately exhibition.
Christine Vachon—for the quality, and sheer quantity, of her achievements.
Nine Most Underrated: Casino, Close-Up, Dolores Claiborne (Hackford), Deep Crimson (Ripstein), Hoffa, Jackie Brown, Kingpin (Farrellys); White Hunter, Black Heart (Eastwood); Whore (Russell)
OWEN GLEIBERMAN film critic, Entertainment Weekly
Natural Born Killers—The tale of two brashly hellbent outlaws who turn mass murder into a kind of bloody channel surfing, Oliver Stone’s brilliant, hypnotic, revolutionary head trip is the spectacle of our time, a Moebius strip of madness, mayhem, and hallucinatory pop imagery that flows into your head and then back again.
Oliver Stone—see above.
Ten Best: Natural Born Killers, Boogie Nights, Saving Private Ryan, Pulp Fiction, Ed Wood, The Sweet Hereafter, Titanic, The Player, Dazed and Confused, Breaking the Waves
STEFAN GRISSEMAN film critic, Die Zeit, Austria
Through the Olive Trees—By radically cutting back on stylization and fabrication, the Iranian Cinema—and especially Mr. Kiarostami—set the pace, the looks, and the preoccupations of the worldwide New Realism, from Dogma to Not One Less to The Blair Witch Project.
Jean-Luc Godard—for keeping on defining and reshaping the history (the Histoires) and the future (Nouvelle Vague) of that thing called Cinema (and: for obsessively loving it). If anybody is well prepared for the cinephilia of the upcoming century, it is he.
Ten terribly underrated films: The Convent (Oliveira), Crash, Le Garçu (Pialat), Gummo (Korine), The Long Day Closes (Davies), Psycho (Van Sant), Queen of Diamonds (Nina Menkes), Safe, Sonatine (Kitano), Vive l’amour
TOM GUNNING educator / curator
Eyes Wide Shut—partly because of the lukewarm response most critics gave a true masterpiece, and because as a film it offers elements of style from every decade Kubrick worked in: from the Fifties to the Nineties, summarizing half a century of film styles and genres. In terms of dealing with performance, lighting, color, the construction of space, and in general providing one of the true explorations of film form, this is a film that will endure in film history, I have no doubt.
Jean Luc Godard—for his video work Histoire(s) du cinéma more than his films of this decade, and because his work and comments are not only the strongest statements being made about the nature of the moving visual image, but in many ways a protest against the energies of the Nineties.
Ten Best: La Belle Noiseuse, Side / Walk / Shuttle (Ernie Gehr), Once Upon a Time in China (series, esp. those by Tsui Hark), Chungking Express, Flirt (Hartley), Eyes Wide Shut, Breaking the Waves, The Pharaoh’s Belt (Lewis Klahr), Crash, Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige)
HOWARD HAMPTON film critic
The Last Bolshevik (Chris Marker)—The most haunting, corrosive, and thoughtful exploration of the train wreck we called the 20th century, and a reminder that so much of what passed for cinema in the Nineties was really amnesia with an inhuman face: a single frame of Medvedkin’s Happiness is worth a hundred reels of Todd Solondz.
David Lynch—A maker of unruly, scattershot, and sublimely fetishistic images, he stood as a true American visionary, and as such was despised by dour cineastes who wouldn’t recognize American culture if it bit them in their uptight Eurocentric asses. Which in Lynch’s omnivorous films—whether masterpiece, calamity, or both—it did, repeatedly. Most Underrated: Lost Highway, Dead Man, The Wife (Noonan), Actress (Kwan), Up / Down / Fragile (Rivette), Kundun, Three Kings, The Nasty Girl (M. Verhoeven), The Oak (Pintilie), Vanya on 42nd Street (Malle)
PIERS HANDLING Toronto Film Festival
Breaking the Waves—Not groundbreaking (it looks to the past—Godard, Fassbinder, Cassavetes) but seminal because it forced a reevaluation of production practices at a key moment.
Person: a tie between Krzysztof Kieslowski, the great Polish humanist whose Decalogue illuminated the Nineties even if it appeared in the late Eighties, and Abbas Kiarostami, whose stately rigor scarcely concealed another great lover of the human condition. Ten Best: Drifting Clouds (Kaurismäki), Mother and Son, The Celebration, Calendar (Egoyan), Benny’s Video (Haneke), Red, Sátántangó, Taste of Cherry, The Thin Red Line, Breaking the Waves
JOHN HARTL film critic, Seattle Times
Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which Julianne Moore also gives the performance of the decade as an incredible shrinking housewife who may just be allergic to the 20th century.
Steven Soderbergh, who keeps reinventing himself, flying right off the diving board with Schizopolis, flirting with disaster with Kafka and The Underneath, and coming back to earth with King of the Hill, Out of Sight, and The Limey.
Ten Best: Safe, My Own Private Idaho, La Promesse (Dardennes), Unforgiven, Gods and Monsters (Condon), Lone Star, Queer as Folk (BBC), Leila, The Thin Red Line, Schindler’s List
MOLLY HASKELL author / film critic
From Tale of Springtime to Tale of Autumn, Eric Rohmer has created a quietly astonishing series of films that both record and illuminate the lives of young Parisians. Through the elegant geometry of his triangles and quadrangles, he has bequeathed us a gallery of women whose minds are as beguiling as their faces as they ponder and plot their amorous fates.
J. HOBERMAN film critic, Village Voice
Film(s) of the Decade: Jean-Luc Godard’s ongoing Histoire(s) du Cinéma and its Hollywood evil twin Forrest Gump: the history of movies merges with the movie of history.
2. Person of the decade: Hou Hsiao-hsien: Having only gotten better and made three masterpieces this decade—The Puppetmaster, Goodbye South, Goodbye, and Flowers of Shanghai—he seems not to have gotten the message that the golden age is over.
ALEXANDER HORWATH curator / critic
Flowers of Shanghai—A somewhat symbolic choice: for me, the 1990s were defined by Western film culture’s new attention toward the astounding Asian cinemas. The Nineties oeuvres of (for instance) Darezhan Omirbaev, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kitano, Tsai Ming-liang, and Hou Hsiao-hsien belong to the great achievements of all cinema—and Hou’s Flowers is the opium den where they should all meet. (Come to think of it, the little hill with a tree and a hole and a mobile phone in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us would also make for a perfect spot).
Quentin Tarantino—For better and for worse. A strong debut; followed by a decade-defining “important” and actually very good film that soon became “weaker” in many people’s minds because of its immense and mostly disastrous effects on the whole of film culture; and, finally, a true masterpiece that most humanely and intelligently talked about American life in the late 20th century—by talking about les flaneurs du mal(l).
Ten Most Underrated: Nouvelle Vague, The Two Jakes (Nicholson), The Comfort of Strangers (Schrader), Actress (Kwan), Dazed and Confused, M. Butterfly (Cronenberg), The Postman (He Jianjun), Casino, illtown (Gomez), Idiots, Rosetta (Dardennes)
MARCUS HU Strand Releasing
Wild Reeds by André Téchiné is probably the most delicate and thoughtful coming-out/coming-of-age tale from any country, that captures the frustration3 and beauty of an unrequited love.
Film Person is a three-way tie: Christine Vachon, James Schamus, Ted Hope—all colleagues who have worked together on various projects. Collectively, their work of the decade includes films by Todd Haynes, Hal Hartley, Ang Lee, Tom Kalin, Kimberly Peirce. They are fixtures of both the independent world and the studio system without ever compromising their visions. Ten Most Underrated: Safe, The Ice Storm, King of the Hill, Carne & I Stand Alone (Gaspar Noé), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Hudsucker Proxy (Coen), Happy Together, La Sentinelle (Desplechin), Light Sleeper (Schrader), Love Is the Devil (John Maybury)
KEN JACOBS experimental filmmaker
Fred Worden’s One is the breakthrough film of the decade for me in terms of passage to undreamt-of cine-phenomena/esthetic experience. Loosens the brains good. His current work-in-progress Automatic Writing looks to be an equal achievement.
Stan Brakhage Stan Brakhage Stan Brakhage, America’s Picasso, still the biggest and most potent filmphallus ever, still coming through each year with the equivalent of an ordinary film-genius’s lifetime of works. The man who more than anyone is summing up film before its regrettable electrocution.
Movies: Appreciated King of Comedy and GoodFellas (despised Cape Fear), Ed Wood, Mistress, The Truman Show, Groundhog Day, Dead Man, Gulliver’s Travels, Italian film The Starmaker, Seinfeld (esp. last episode) and Frasier
NICK JAMES editor, Sight and Sound
Heat—because it’s a brash but beautiful epic meta-Western that cogently describes an amoral workaholic universe in which off-duty pleasure only messes you up—and that’s what most of us now expect to live like. I even love its streaks of bombast and vulgarity.
James Cameron—because his two films Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic represent the best and worst, respectively, of the Nineties blockbuster, a form that remains, however regrettably, “king of the world.”
Ten Best: Clueless (Heckerling), Cyclo, A Brighter Summer Day, Heat, Nil By Mouth, The Piano, La Reine Margot (Patrice Chéreau), The Thin Red Line, Trois Couleurs Bleu, And Life Goes On
Ten Most Underrated: Aux yeux du monde-/-Autobus (Rochant), Fearless (Weir), The Fifth Element (Besson), Light Sleeper, Nightwatch (Bornedal), Circus Boys (Hayashi Kaizo), Point Break, Portrait of a Lady, Riff-Raff, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
RICHARD T. JAMESON editor, Film Comment
Miller’s Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen)—The best film of 1990—a masterpiece of storytelling, visual elegance, the mystery of character, genre exploration, and moodmaking—was variously underrated, dismissed, or scorned outright by the majority of American critics. The rest of the decade was going to be lonely.
Clint Eastwood—An actor-director of whom I was never more than a casual admirer in the Seventies and Eighties just kept getting better and better. I’d salute him as a virtual one-man last stand of American classicism, except that he also keeps surprising us the way an indie is supposed to.