10. Defending Your Life (1991, directed by Albert Brooks)
Albert Brooks is a sadly underappreciated filmmaker. He's made other good movies, but Defending Your Life is his masterpiece. Daniel (Brooks) dies and is sent to Judgment City, where people from his part of the world are sent to find out whether they will be allowed to move on, or whether they'll be reincarnated on Earth for another go round. They have to defend the power that fear has over us in all its guises, from not taking a job you want because it'll be scary, to chickening out on making a move on the girl you really like. Daniel is assigned an attorney, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), and eventually meets another deceased person in the city, the fun and lovable Julia (Meryl Streep), also awaiting judgment.
Daniel's told that he will have to defend 9 days of his life while in Judgement City. "Is that a lot?" he asks. It's not a lot or a little, he's told, it just is. But to a neurotic guy like Brooks, that sure seems like a lot, and when he tells people how many he has to defend, people always give him a "Ooh, sorry" kind of response. But the city is nice, they can eat all they want without gaining any weight, and stay at hotels while they're there. Streep's character is booked at a Four Seasons type hotel, while Brooks is relegated to the local Holiday Inn type, only reinforcing his fears that he will be sent back to Earth instead of "progressing on". Streep's character is only defending 4 days, and when Brooks sneaks into her trial he sees things like her saving her family from their burning house and her prosecuting attorney crying and saying "I just wanted to see that again" after Brooks' prosecutor (Lee Grant) has been relentless in saying he doesn't deserve to move on.
The laughs come in all different ways here, some great one liners and set ups, but mostly I found them coming from the great characters Brooks sets up. He's his usual sarcastic neurotic self, but we feel some deep humanity in him as his life of second guessing himself may send him back to Earth just as he's met the love of his (after)life in Julia. And boy is Meryl Streep low key, warm, and altogether wonderful as Julia. It's not a flashy part like many of her Oscar roles, but it's a role that would've ruined the movie if it'd been cast with the wrong actress. Rip Torn is a hoot as the lawyer, and Buck Henry makes an always welcome and hilarious (but brief) addition to the cast Daniel's temporary substitute attorney.
Defending Your Life is a wonderful look at a possible afterlife, with many associated questions arising from the world Brooks creates. It's a terrific love story between Brooks and Streep. And above all it's just a damn wonderful comedy, and a terrific start to my 90's countdown.
9. Swingers (1996, directed by Doug Liman)
Swingers is an important movie for me in that I saw it as a young teenager, and it was one of the first low budget non-Hollywood type of movies I ever loved. It's funny to think of it now as non-Hollywood, since so many of the people involved went on to big careers, but at the time it was just a $200k movie that no studio wanted to make with the writer starring with a bunch of his friends and being directed by a guy, Doug Liman, who'd only made one movie before. But I'm glad things happened as they did, because Swingers is one of the great comedies if you ask me.
Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn play Mike and Trent, a couple of struggling actors who occasionally get auditions, but mostly just hang out, going to clubs all around LA with their friends Rob (Office Space's Ron Livingston), Charles (Alex Desert), and Sue (named after the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue", played by Patrick Van Horn), and cruising for chicks along the way. Mike's trying to get over his breakup with a longtime girlfriend, and Trent repeatedly and hilariously tries to get Mikey to follow his advice for how to pick up girls (whether he actually likes them or not is irrelevant). Against this aimless backdrop, Liman shoots a lot of handheld (and apparently often without filming permits) shots, giving the comedy a great homemade and gritty quality that is endearing rather than annoying to me.
Swingers launched both Vaughn and Favreau to much bigger things, both in front of and behind the camera, but I'm not sure either ever did anything better. Liman would go on to direct Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity, and the underrated Go, but I don't think he ever bettered this movie either. Whether it's Trent's "You're like a big bear" speech, Mike's incessant calling of a girl whose number he got earlier in the night, or even Favreau's little look when Trent says "Hey Mikey, it's been 2 days, you should call that Nikki girl", the humor comes in many ways, all perfectly delivered by the wonderful cast.
8. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993, directed by Steven Zaillian)
A fascinating movie with a lot of brains and insight, while also working on the level of being one of the great family movies ever made, Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie that I watch pretty much every time it's on TV, and it's on TV way more often than you might think. I just find it so challenging, yet so lovable. It's perfectly acted by everyone in the cast, subtly directed by ace screenwriter Steve Zaillian, and gorgeously shot by the legendary Conrad L. Hall (where, shamefully, the movie's only Oscar nomination came from). Although "based on a true story", much of what happens is fiction, except for the fact that it follows a chess prodigy. But I've never been one to demand facts from my fiction, so I wholeheartedly love this little movie.
Fred Waitzkin (a never better Joe Mantegna) is a sportswriter who slowly finds out his baseball loving son Josh (Max Pomeranc) innately understands chess, without ever having been taught. Josh learns from "watching the men in the park", like Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), who yells at Josh's frightened mom Bonnie (Joan Allen) that her son is special, as he writes down the date of the first time he sees Josh play. Thinking his son might be the next Bobby Fischer, Fred is able to secure the services of chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), who eventually molds Josh as a player in one way, while Vinnie molds Josh into his own vision of what's right in the game. Taking Josh around to competitions, Fred meets other chess parents, fights against the teachers complaining about Josh missing school, and runs up against another chess prodigy that frightens Josh. The supporting cast is filled with people like Tony Shalhoub, Dan Hedaya, William H. Macy, David Paymer, Laura Linney, and many others who populate this wonderful movie with a variety of characters.
It's a fascinating look into a world most of us are probably not familiar with, but at once is very familiar. That of parents pushing their children to do things and be things that the children may not want to do. Josh's mom never loses sight of the goal, and just wants her son to be a good person, but Fred gets caught up in winning at almost all costs because "he's better at chess than I've ever been at anything", while Josh is not always capable of knowing when to take Bruce's often harsh advice and when to take the more nurturing but less fundamentally sound advice from Vinnie. To see Max Pomeranc's tremendous performance as he's being pushed and pulled in all these directions while only 7-years-old, is truly extraordinary. It's probably the best child performance I've ever seen in a movie. Thankfully, it's not wasted in a lesser movie, but into one of the best movies of the 1990's.
7. Out of Sight (1998, directed by Steven Soderbergh)
It was a renaissance of sorts for Soderbergh, who'd made a big splash with his debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but had hit a wall both creatively and commercially afterwards. It also sparked a great artistic working relationship with Clooney, as the two would make 5 more movies together. But they never topped this initial collaboration (though their terrific remake of Tarkovsky's Solaris gets better every time I watch it). Like Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Barry Levinson's Get Shorty, Out of Sight might not be completely faithful to the source novel, but it "gets" Elmore Leonard. It has the distinctive dialog, an unforced cool, and a leisurely paced narrative that Soderbergh mixes up by telling out of chronological order. It's famous "locked in the trunk" meeting between Clooney and Lopez is justifiably famous as it's off the sexiness charts, but the Don't Look Now evoking sex scene later in the movie is equally as sexy and proves that sexiness can easily exist without nudity. It's fun, funny, violent, sexy, and proof of how great the 90's were that it's only #7.
6. Goodfellas (1990, directed by Martin Scorsese)
Now, speaking of fun and violent, Goodfellas is one of the breeziest 2 1/2 hours in movie history, but is one of the most profane and violent mainstream movies you're gonna see. Not talking about gore or blood necessarily, but violence in the way people speak and treat each other, in addition to the guns and bats and ice picks and whatever else that these gangsters use to dispatch of one another with.
“As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster” Goodfellas follows the story of the half-Irish Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his attempt to rise in the ranks of the New York mafia from the mid-1950’s through the late-1970’s. Being half-Irish is an important component in Henry’s story because it prevents him from ever becoming a “made guy”, as only those with 100% Italian blood can ever be “made guys”. The same hurdle blocks Henry’s mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) as well. However, as a child Henry is paired with the sociopathic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) who as a full blood Italian could one day rise to made status. The three friends begin to pull different jobs to try and make a name for themselves, including the infamous Lufthansa heist.
Henry soon meets a fiery Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and impresses her by taking her to the Copacabana but instead of going in the front door, he goes through the kitchen and comes out right in front of the stage as a table is placed there for them (this is where the famous tracking shot takes place, commonly considered the greatest of Scorsese’s career). Karen, taken aback by the treatment Henry receives asks him what he does for a living, “I’m in construction” Henry says without missing a beat. They’re quickly married and soon Henry has gained a mistress, begun the selling (and intaking) of cocaine, and has to deal with the repercussions of Tommy’s violent quick-trigger temper.
In addition to the flawless acting, Thelma Schoonmaker and Michael Ballhaus deserve infinite praise for their work on the editing and cinematography, respectively. Ballhaus’s roving camerawork helps us feel personally involved in these people’s lives, and Schoonmaker’s propulsive editing makes the movie feel alive with energy. The most obvious examples of Ballhaus’s great work is the famous tracking shot in the Copa, and the great camera work during a certain sequence of the movie scored to the piano section of “Layla”. Schoonmaker’s genius in particular shows during a bravura sequence where Henry spends a frantic, paranoid day where he believes an FBI helicopter is following him as he dashes all over town running guns, tries to organize some drug trafficking, and attempts to cook dinner for his family (“don’t let the sauce burn” he keeps repeating to his family).
That said, some people may be bothered by both the language (the “f” word is used an alleged 300 times in the movies 145 minutes) and the violence. These characters are not nice people, and the fact that they show no remorse for their actions may also disturb some. The movie is not overly graphic in terms of gore, but there is no shortage of violence depicted on screen. Still, it's to Scorsese and company's credit that I can't help but smile while watching all of that go down.
5. Dead Man Walking (1995, directed by Tim Robbins)
The story is that Poncelet is on Death Row for the murder of a teenaged couple and rape of the woman. Though he maintains his innocence, all evidence and testimony points elsewhere, and I never felt that the movie took Poncelet's declarations of innocence at all seriously. He asks local nun Sister Helen Prejean to help with his legal appeal, hoping to reduce his death penalty to life imprisonment, as his accomplice got. The families of the teenage couple gawk at Sister Helen through uncomprehending eyes, insisting she's taking "his side" while she tells them that everyone deserves a defense and killing another person won't bring back those already killed. But the final 30 minutes or so is the most destroying piece of cinema I've seen, as we see Matthew come to grips with the realization that he can't get out of his sentence, and Sister Helen's guides him through his final moments as she pleads with him to truly take responsibility for what he's done and have the possbility of redemption in God's eyes.
Flawlessly acted, written, and directed, the movie is never sensational about such an inflammatory subject. It sees everything the way it is, gives everyone their time, and simply regards the process of execution. Leaving the audience to make up their own minds about what they think. Robbins sidesteps every opportunity to preach to the crowd. He's much too smart for that. He knows that simply showing the story (adapted from the non-fiction book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean), and making sure to show everyone as a real person, we'll see that Matthew's death really doesn't bring back that poor teenage couple. All we're left with is another dead body.
4. Unforgiven (1992, directed by Clint Eastwood)
Little Bill: You'd be William Munny out of Missouri. Killer of women and children.
Will Munny: That's right. I've killed women and children. I've killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill.
My vote for Clint Eastwood's masterpiece as actor and filmmaker is the universally acclaimed western Unforgiven. The terrific characters set up in the original screenplay by David Webb Peoples people this movie with a lot of life, and Eastwood's flawless casting of great actors like Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris, in addition to himself in the lead role, really helps bring the story alive. Ultimately though, it's the story of William Munny, who'd been cured of the evil ways of his youth by his now deceased wife, leaving him with two young children, and a lifetime of guilt and frustration. When the opportunity to make some money comes up, taking revenge on a couple of guys who attacked some whores in a brothel in Montana, he takes it. We follow him on his eventual descent back into the William Munny of legend, as the job becomes much bigger than taking down a couple of hoodlums, when Hackman's corrupt Sherrif Little Bill doesn't take kindly to Eastwood trying to cash in the reward for these fellas he's given leniency to.
It's a gorgeously shot, wonderfully acted, and terrifically written elegy of a movie. Eastwood's farewell to the western genre that'd made him a household name. Almost noirish in its moral ambiguity, Unforgiven also works as a straight ahead western adventure, even if you don't want to look deeper at the things he's saying with it. One of the best movies to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars, Unforgiven stakes its claim as possibly the greatest western ever made too.
3. Pulp Fiction (1994, directed by Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction hit the moviegoing public like a lightning bolt in 1994. It's unashamed use of violence and creatively foul language offended a good deal of the people who went to see it (there were actually a number of boos from the audience when it took home the Palme D'or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival). It also hit me like a lightning bolt when I first saw it at about the age of 12 or so. It was the first movie I'd remembered seeing told out of order (no, I hadn't seen Citizen Kane by 12, nor had I seen Tarantino's debut, Reservoir Dogs) and the stunning dialog really lodged a place in my young brain. Tarantino's skills as director also had quite an impact on me, building tension in some scenes, hilarious comedy in others, and his use of music struck a significant chord with me back in those days of not knowing just how much he was stealing from Scorsese (in style and approach more than content).
So many movies that hit you at a young age simply don't continue having the same sort of impact as you get older. Pulp Fiction, though, still thrills me and makes me laugh (it's one of the great dark comedies at its core), nearly as much as when I was 12. There's not really a whole lot more to write about one of the most written and talked about movies ever made. Not for everybody, but definitely for me!
2. Dark City (1998, directed by Alex Proyas)
Dark City being advertised, but only knew one person who saw it in theaters and they told me it was just ok. So I was surprised when I saw at the end of the year that it landed at #1 on Roger Ebert's year end top ten list. That made me want to check it out and see what was up. I did, and just thought, "it was ok". But then I started thinking more about the philosophy behind it, and especially the images contained within it. I was caught by the incredible German expressionistic architecture, and the subconscious evocation of old school noir movies (subconscious to me, because I didn't know much about noir at the time) and the paintings of Edward Hopper. So I bought it on DVD, watched it again, and liked it a lot. Then a few weeks later watched it again, and loved it. A few months or a year or whatever later, I watched it again and decided it was one of my favorite movies. In 2008, director Alex Proyas released his Director's Cut of the movie. I'm not normally a fan of DC's, but this one took one of my favorite movies and turned it into an all-time top 5 for me. The theatrical cut is like a sprint, the quick cutting and relentless pacing rushing towards the final confrontation. The DC adds in just a few scenes, but Proyas cuts them in in a way that lets the movie breathe and not exactly take its time, since it is still paced quite rapidly, but feel like it's not the sprint to the finish line that the original cut is.
The first section of the movie is brilliantly constructed in a way to make a little off balance in our viewing. Our protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), doesn't know who is he, where he is, or why he's there. Proyas shoots with no camera movement, and the rapid cutting and seemingly disconnected storytelling putting us subconsciously in the shoes of our hero. Slowly, he begins to think more clearly and put together the strands of his life with the help of his wife (Jennifer Connelly), a mysterious doctor (Keifer Sutherland), and the detective (William Hurt) assigned to a murder case that John is the lead suspect in. As John does this, Proyas slowly starts letting shots linger a bit longer, move a bit more, and yet never lose the remarkable attention to visual detail that Proyas displayed in the earlier sections. The movie is chock full of references to other works, whether it's the landmark sci-fi epic Metropolis, the anime classic Akira, or the short stories The Tunnel Under the World and The Lottery in Babylon. Another influence, the French movie The City of Lost Children, is even quoted when one of the villains mentions that the people "Walk through the city like lost children."
The movie that Dark City most often gets compared with is The Matrix. They came out a year apart, in February of '98 and March of '99 respectively. They are both dark on a visual level, and deal with the central idea of "the world you live in isn't real," a classic sci-fi concept that both movies use as a launching pad. The Matrix uses it for half-hearted philosophy, but mainly for an action movie (which is all The Matrix is, no matter what any nerd tries to convince you otherwise), and even reused a few of Dark City's sets on its Sydney, Australia sound stage. Dark City uses it for philosophical contemplation and half-heartedly for an action movie. Proyas also uses the story as an excuse to have incredible image after incredible image on screen. Ebert said so eloquently in his original review (he's since written another one, when he added it to his list of "The Great Movies", as well as doing a commentary track for the DVD) and I can't top it, so I'll just close with this quote "If it is true, as the German director Werner Herzog believes, that we live in an age starved of new images, then Dark City is a film to nourish us. Not a story so much as an experience, it is a triumph of art direction, set design, cinematography, special effects--and imagination."
1. Big Night (1996, directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott)
I've written about Big Night over and over again, because it's the movie I most connect to on an emotional level. It's a terrific comedy, a heartbreaking drama, and an actors showcase as the ensemble put together by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, including the two of them, is simply extraordinary. I initially wrote that Big Night was about life, and I believe that more than ever now. It's about relationships, new and old, romantic and platonic and familial, beginning and ending. It's about trying to start your life, or a new life in the case of Tucci and Tony Shaloub's Italian brothers. It's also about food, that life giving nurturer that we disrespect so often. Tucci has said "I thought I loved food when I started making Big Night, but I loved it even more after. It was never my intention to make a food movie. The movie was about the relationship between art and commerce, the art being food." But no movie has ever loved food like Big Night. The cooking, the presenting, the eating, it's all here, it's all delicious looking, and it means so much. When Shaloub's character is disgusted by the "Italian food" served at the restaurant of Pascal (Ian Holm), he isn't just disgusted, he shouts "RAPE! RAPE! That's what that man serves every night, the rape of cuisine!"
It's a movie that is comforting to me. It's a movie that is moving to me. It's a movie that is endless in its humane depth of insight. It is my favorite movie and definitely the #1 movie of the 90's.