Combustible Celluloid

The Best Films of the 1990s

Ten Years of Sitting in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I was working for, I was a bit rushed to get in my list of the ten best films of the 1990s by December 31, 1999. I regret the list I posted there now, and I think now that the smoke has cleared, I ought to post a more definitive list. Here's what I came up with now that I've had time to really think it over.

The Thirty Runners Up:

40. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
39. Madadayo (Akira Kurosawa, 1993)
38. Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
37. Voyage to the Beginning of the World (Manoel de Oliveira, 1997)
36. Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer, 1998)
35. Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 1990)
34. The Godfather Part III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1990)
33. A Perfect World (Clint Eastwood, 1993)
32. Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen, 1992)
31. Fireworks (Hana-bi) (Takeshi Kitano, 1998)
30. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1993)
29. Les Amants du Pont-neuf (Leos Carax, 1991)
28. Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1992)
27. Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, 1995)
26. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
25. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (Errol Morris, 1997)
24. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
23. Vanya on 42nd Street (Louis Malle, 1994)
22. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
21. The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
20. Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller, 1998)
19. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998)
18. Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)
17. Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)
16. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1996)
15. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
14. Kundun (Martin Scorsese, 1997)
13. Mother and Son (Alexander Sokurov, 1997)
12. Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
11. Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991)

- The Top Ten -

10. Histoire(s) du cinema
With Histoire(s) du cinema, Jean-Luc Godard has turned in his greatest work of criticism. Rather than any kind of "thumbs up" or an appreciation of great movies, Godard burrows inside images and sounds, talking about multiple meanings (sexual, political, international, etc.), and even the meanings that are not represented. The title itself has several meanings -- history of cinema, story of cinema, more than one of each -- which covers just about everything, and nothing. It's a bit cranky, but it's a never-ending barrage of ideas that -- even if it often flies right by -- will sometimes stick in a most profound way. It's maddening and brilliant, pure Godard.

9. Fargo
When Fargo opened, it was instantly declared by Siskel & Ebert and others as the best movie of its year. This kind of instant-classic status doesn't occur often, and usually doesn't stick, but in this case, it did. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Fargo is a magical combination of twisty crime film and grisly dark comedy, but also with unforgettable characters that face anguish and doubt on their snowy roads through life. The insidiously clever screenplay pauses here and there for surprisingly touching moments (William H. Macy scraping the ice from his car windshield, Frances McDormand's weird lunch, Margie's husband rising early to "fix some eggs," etc.). It's a great film.

8. A Brighter Summer Day
Set over the course of most of a year in 1961, Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day (1991) deals with a subculture of Mainland Chinese who fled to Taiwan after the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949. Yang's film doesn't waste a single second of its four hours, and taken as a whole, reveals a beautiful, intricate, masterful tapestry that is as accomplished in its grand, quiet way as is The Godfather trilogy.

7. La Belle Noiseuse
The French New Wave was still alive in the 1990s, and Jacques Rivette gave us a masterpiece equal to his seminal Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). A four-hour meditation on the nature of art, old age, and sensuality, La Belle Noiseuse did that thing that most movies don't dare to do now, slow down -- and almost stop completely -- to think.

6. Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick's most human work, more sexual, emotional, and dreamlike than any of his previous works. Disguised as an "erotic thriller", Eyes Wide Shut was wrongly advertised and misunderstood by nearly everyone who saw it. It's a brave, powerful, and beautiful work that will take another decade or more before it gets its due.

5. Close-Up
Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990) is one of the great Iranian filmmaker's most remarkable movies, and indeed one of the most remarkable of all movies. The story of a fraud who impersonates a famous filmmaker, it cannot be easily labeled; it's a documentary, a docudrama, a drama, and also something entirely new. Most movies simply reflect other movies, and some movies try to re-create life, but Close-Up is about that mysterious place where movies and life collide.

4. Unforgiven
If Clint Eastwood is the true heir to John Wayne, then Unforgiven is his The Searchers (1956), a supreme study of lifeless violence and gutless revenge. It's a western disguised as a parable, with a living legend stalking through the lead role, old, dealing with a pen full of sick pigs, and eventually suffering from sickness himself. Could this dark, brilliant, elegy really have won four Oscars, when the usual winners are so much fluff?

3. Crumb
The documentary of the century, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb gets closer than any other film to actually documenting a man's soul. It becomes frighteningly clear that Crumb's art is practically pure exorcized demons, captured on paper. Even the small details, such as the tecnhique of filming comic strips for viewing on a screen, are superb.

2. Sátántangó
Film buffs know that Bela Tarr's Sátántangó is a 7-hour, black-and-white film, in Hungarian with English subtitles. For years it has been one of those movie "fish stories"; the few that have seen it get boasting rights, not only that they managed to find it, but that they had the endurance to watch the whole thing. Yet it's funny, beautiful, exasperating, horrible and suspenseful, but any viewer may walk away with any of a number of different impressions. It also requires a little faith, and though viewers may experience uncertainty going in, this film cannot be just any casual, or forgettable moviegoing experience.

1. Pulp Fiction
The ultimate movie-movie of the decade, an enthusiastic essay on the nature of movies and the possibilities still unexplored. Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was criticized for its violence and lack of emotional content, but many of us could hardly fail to miss the sheer excitement for the fabric of celluloid itself, the look, the feel, the sound, and the smell. It provided for us in the 90's what Godard's Breathless must have provided in the 1950s.

And here are some other worthy opinions...

Wes Anderson
Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara)
Buffalo '66 (Vincent Gallo)
Un Coeur en hiver (Claude Sautet)
The Daytrippers (Greg Mottola)
Flirting (John Duigan)
The Ice Storm (Ang Lee)
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
Little Odessa (James Gray)
Un Monde sans pitie (Eric Rochant)
Olivier Olivier (Agnieszka Holland)

James Berardinelli
  1. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg)
  2. The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan)
  3. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese)
  4. Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh)
  5. Three Colors Trilogy (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
  6. The War Zone (Tim Roth)
  7. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou)
  8. Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner)
  9. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
10. Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise)

David Bordwell
An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion)
The Blade (Tsui Hark)
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang)
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai)
Heat (Michael Mann)
A Scene at the Sea (Takeshi Kitano)
Simple Men (Hal Hartley)
The Suspended Step of the Stork (Theo Angelopoulos)
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick)
Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami)

Georgia Brown
Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier)
Bullet in the Head (John Woo)
Caro Diario (Nanni Moretti)
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai)
Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami)
Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano)
Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov)
The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
The Quince Tree Sun (Victor Erice)
Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino)
Satantango (Bela Tarr)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)

Cahiers du Cinema
  1. Carlito's Way (Brian De Palma)
  2. Goodbye South, Goodbye (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  3. The Bridges of Madison County (Clint Eastwood)
  4. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
  5. Twin Peaks (David Lynch)
  6. Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami)
  7. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)
  8. Crash (David Cronenberg)
  9. Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton)
10. The River (Tsai Ming-liang)

Michel Ciment
Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton)
Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Miller's Crossing (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen)
Naked (Mike Leigh)
Smoking/No Smoking (Alain Resnais)
Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami)
Ulysses' Gaze (Theo Angelopoulos)
Underground (Emir Kusturica)
Valley of Abraham (Manoel de Oliveira)

Mike D'Angelo
  1. Exotica (Atom Egoyan)
  2. Truly Madly Deeply (Anthony Minghella)
  3. Barton Fink (Joel Coen)
  4. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino)
  5. Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson)
  6. Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
  7. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Berlinger & Sinofsky)
  8. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg)
  9. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)
10. Miami Blues (George Armitage)

Manohla Dargis
  1. Beau Travail (Claire Denis)
  2. Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano)
  3. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  4. The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion)
  5. My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into an Argument (Arnaud Desplechin)
  6. I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov)
  7. Underground (Emir Kusturica)
  8. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai)
  9. Satantango (Bela Tarr)
10. The Lovers on the Bridge (Leos Carax)

Roger Ebert
  1. Hoop Dreams (Steve James)
  2. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
  3. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese)
  4. Fargo (Joel Coen)
  5. Three Colors Trilogy (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
  6. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg)
  7. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier)
  8. Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis)
  9. Malcolm X (Spike Lee)
10. JFK (Oliver Stone)

J. Hoberman
Conspirators of Pleasure (Jan Svankmajer)
Crash (David Cronenberg)
D'est (From the East) (Chantal Akerman)
Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai)
Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog)
The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies)
The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Satantango (Bela Tarr)
Side/Walk/Shuttle (Ernie Gehr)
Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (Craig Baldwin)

Phillip Lopate
  1. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  2. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)
  3. My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into an Argument (Arnaud Desplechin)
  4. Un Coeur en Hiver (Claude Sautet)
  5. Kundun (Martin Scorsese)
  6. Public Housing (Frederick Wiseman)
  7. Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen)
  8. Caro Diario (Nanni Moretti)
  9a. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg)
  9b. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick)
10a. Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer)
10b. Le Garcu (Maurice Pialat)
10c. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
10d. There's Something About Mary (Bobby & Peter Farrelly)

Derek Malcolm
  1. Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier)
  2. Naked (Mike Leigh)
  3. Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano)
  4. The Dreamlife of Angels (Erick Zonca)
  5. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese)
  6. White (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
  7. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
  8. Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami)
  9. The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  10. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou)

Jonathan Rosenbaum
Actress (Stanley Kwan)
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang)
Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)
Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
D'est (From the East) (Chantal Akerman)
Inquietude (Manoel de Oliveira)
The Puppet Master (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Satantango (Bela Tarr)
When It Rains (Charles Burnett) [12 minute short film]
The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami)

Richard Schickel
Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen)
Fargo (Joel Coen)
Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis)
L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
Live Flesh (Pedro Almodovar)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg)
Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg)
True Romance (Tony Scott)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)

Paul Schrader
  1. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou hsiao-hsien)
  2. Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov)
  3. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese)
  4. Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Peirce)
  5. Fearless (Peter Weir)
  6. Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann)
  7. Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld)
  8. Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh)
  9. Maborosi (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
10. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)
11. Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader)
12. Richard III (Richard Loncraine)

Martin Scorsese
  1. The Horse Thief (Tian Zhuangzhuang)
  2. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick)
  3. A Borrowed Life (Wu Nien-Jen)
  4. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
  5. Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara)
  6. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier)
  7. Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson)
  8. Crash (David Cronenberg)
  9. Fargo (Joel Coen)
10a. Heat (Michael Mann)
10b. Malcolm X (Spike Lee)

Susan Sontag
  1. The Second Circle (Aleksandr Sokurov)
  2. Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami)
  3. The Stone (Aleksandr Sokurov)
  4. Naked (Mike Leigh)
  5. The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  6. Satantango (Bela Tarr)
  7. Lamerica (Gianni Amelio)
  8. Joan the Maid (Jacques Rivette)
  9. Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami)
10. Goodbye South, Goodbye (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Michael Sragow
Babe (Chris Noonan)
Cobb (Ron Shelton)
Henry and June (Philp Kaufman)
In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan)
L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
Life Is Sweet (Mike Leigh)
Six Degrees of Separation (Fred Schepisi)
Three Kings (David O. Russell)
Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)
The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer)

Chuck Stephens
  1. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  2. Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai)
  3. Actress (Stanley Kwan)
  4. Cold Water (Olivier Assayas)
  5. Satantango (Bela Tarr)
  6. Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (Craig Baldwin)
  7. Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano)
  8. Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara)
  9. Cyclo (Tran Anh Hung)
10. Vive L'amour (Tsai Ming-liang)

Charles Taylor
  1. Vanya on 42nd Street (Louis Malle)
  2. Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas)
  3. Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater)
  4. Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller)
  5. Three Kings (David O. Russell)
  6. Cobb (Ron Shelton)
  7. Kundun (Martin Scorsese)
  8. Backbeat (Iain Softley)
  9. Mon Homme (Bertrand Blier)
10. Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh)

Amy Taubin
  1. JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December (Jean-Luc Godard)
  2. The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion)
  3. The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese)
  4. Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai)
  5. Goodbye South, Goodbye (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  6. Safe (Todd Haynes)
  7. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)
  8. Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott)
  9. Coming to Terms with Death (Pascale Ferran)
10. Crash (David Cronenberg)

The Village Voice Critics' Poll
  1. Safe (Todd Haynes)
  2. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier)
  3. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  4. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)
  5. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese)
  6. Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano)
  7. Naked (Mike Leigh)
  8. Underground (Emir Kusturica)
  9. Satantango (Bela Tarr)
10. Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai)

Movies Unlimtied