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Top 5 Best Films of the 90's

A few months ago I watched LA Confidential again. I love LA Confidential. That screenplay is kind of a miracle-- a dense, twisty, multi-faceted crime story that manages to put it’s four fully fleshed out main characters first, giving them all moments to shine and having it all work beautifully. Then it also gives us a multitude of well drawn supporting characters, an engaging romance, great action, and a plot that takes us all over 1950’s Los Angeles and yet it never feels rushed, lacking or confusing in any way. And manages to do it all in 138 minutes. It’s one of the best movies of the 90’s. "I'd even go so far as to say it’s in the top five", I said.

So I decided I’d put my money where my mouth was and do a list of the top five films of the 90’s, all for the purpose of showing everyone what an astute film enthusiast I was by giving LA Confidential a spot (and admittedly praising an already highly praised film, but that's what I was thinking at the time). And then I actually started compiling the list and realized why people seldom do top five lists of anything. Narrowing lists down to the five best of something is really, really hard. I should of picked ten. Ten is far less painful. But I didn’t do that. I set out to do five and, dammit, I was gonna limit myself to five! And then not even put LA Confidential anywhere on it. Because it turns out, there’s a metric crap ton of incredible movies that came out in the 90’s and trying to pick only five is ridiculous.

How ridiculous? These flims also didn't make the list: Boogie Nights, The Shawshank Redemption, Unforgiven, The Player, Three Kings, Malcolm X, The Big Lebowski, Saving Private Ryan, Silence Of the Lambs, Shorts Cuts, Rushmore, Barton Fink, The Piano, In the Name of the Father, Fight Club, Dazed and Confused, Forrest Gump, The Sweet Hereafter, The Fugitive, Election, Titanic, Miller’s Crossing, The Ice Storm, Boyz n the Hood, Glengarry Glen Ross, One False Move, Ed Wood, Reservoir Dogs, Dead Man Walking, The Thin Red Line, Good Will Hunting, Leaving Las Vegas, Being John Malkovich, Wayne’s World, JFK, Fearless, Jurassic Park, Office Space, Ulee’s Gold, A Perfect World, Lone Star, True Romance, Philadelphia, Bullets Over Broadway, Boys Don’t Cry, Secrets and Lies, The Straight Story, Armageddon, Clerks, Beauty and the Beast, Eve’s Bayou, Toy Story, Babe, Braveheart, Magnolia, Casino, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Clockers, Crimson Tide, Kundun, Heat, Out of Sight, Starship Troopers, Se7en, To Die For, The Truman Show, Scream, Jerry Maguire, Menace II Society, The Insider, The Full Monty, Jackie Brown, Men In Black, Ruby In Paradise, Waiting for Guffman, Buffalo 66, Dark City, The General, Happiness, Dogma, Eyes Wide Shut, The Limey, The Matrix, The Sixth Sense…and others I’m leaving out by accident. And some I’m leaving out just to be catty because I think they’re lame and pretentious (things with titles containing the words Bad and Lieutenant, and anything by Larry Sleaze Ball Clark. Yeah, I kind of hate that guy).


5. Schindler’s List

I agonized over putting this one on here. It meant I had to leave off Boogie Nights, the film that marked the arrival of one of the most vital filmmakers working today in Paul Thomas Anderson, and Rushmore, which did the same for Wes Anderson (no relation). But in the end I think it’s the correct choice. I’ve already kind of covered my reverence for this film. It’s a landmark. One of the most important films ever made. It also marked an important leap in sophistication and maturity for the most commercially successful filmmaker of all time. Spielberg showed he is indeed a great ARTIST with this one, worthy of the same greatness heaped on his more revered colleagues in that great 70’s auteur renaissance that also spawned Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma, Lucas, Altman, Lumet,…Cimino. So it’s a very important film and a very important moment in the career of a very important filmmaker. It’s also my favorite film.


4. Hoop Dreams

I’m putting a documentary on here instead of Unforgiven, the best film of Clint Eastwood’s career and probably the Western to end all westerns. It also means no room for The Shawshank Redemption and that’s one of the most beloved films of all time. Why? Because I never paid attention to documentaries before this one came out (and The Academy famously didn’t pay attention to it after it came out). And one really should pay attention to documentaries, because when they’re done right, it’s transcending. I don’t think you’ll find a more honest and thorough record of what inner city black youth were up against in the 90’s. But more than that, it’s a bloody entertaining film! You can’t script this kind of thing. The subjects’ lives take turns you’d call bullshit on if they happened in a narrative film. Small things turn out to be important and meaningful victories. Situations that seem predictable on the surface turn out to not be so clear-cut. It’s a documentary about two inner city kids chasing dreams of playing professional basketball. Yet you could just as easily say it’s about life in general with complete sincerity, that’s the scope we’re dealing with here.


3 & 2. Fargo & Pulp Fiction

I go back and forth on which of these is number 3 and number 2. It mostly has to do with my recent dwindling enthusiasm for Tarantino’s whole “thing”. You know, that thing where he has to take you out of the narrative to let you know that he’s Quentin Tarantino and he made this movie you’re watching. I used to think it was brilliantly original and when we get right down to it, the man IS brilliant when it comes to directing the everlasting crap out of a scene. I just, you know, find it off putting to have a whole elaborate “putting on make-up” scene, set to a David Bowie song, right before the climax of what is otherwise an insanely period specific WWII movie. But it’s almost as if he can’t help it. He just has to let you know, because he no longer actually puts himself and his awkward acting on the screen, "I’m Quentin Tarantino, I’m a very unique, one-of-a-kind human being and a genius filmmaker and this is MY film.” But I digress. We’re dealing with the 90’s and fewer films had the impact that Pulp Fiction had. It WAS brilliantly original and it was very exciting to see such a thing. Here was filmmaking from someone who didn’t play by the rules, but could still make a helluva an entertaining movie. Some aspects have not aged well and remain definitively of it’s decade (which was the 70’s-- I mean the 90’s) Also, the amount of wannabes this film unleashed on the world, filmmakers for whom lots of swears + pop culture + lot’s of violence = what made Pulp Fiction great (or most of the people I was in film school with, myself included) was very unfortunate. But that’s a part of its legacy best forgotten. There was and is only one Tarantino and only one Pulp Fiction.

Then we have Fargo. When we get right down to it, if I’m given the choice between watching Pulp Fiction and watching Fargo, Fargo always wins, hands down. Where Pulp Fiction is in your face, Fargo is elegant, it’s jet black humor so delicately balanced it’s a miracle it turned out as well as it did. And when I say well, I mean perfect. There’s not a thing that could be improved upon here. I used to quote Pulp Fiction all the time. Now I quote Fargo all the time. This was the statement that made damn sure we all knew who the Coen Brothers were and that they were a force to be reckoned with. They had great films before this, but there is something so singular and perfect about this one that, even if every once in a while they make something ponderous like The Man Who Wasn’t There, people are willing to go along with it. Because we now have such a singular and perfect thing as A Coen Brothers Film. There are many different types of Coen Brothers Film, but they’re all distinctly and awesomely Coen-y. And the Coens always get it done without ever pulling you out of the narrative to let you know who they are. They just kind of masterfully tell the story. So one of these is number 3 and the other is number 2.  I’ll let you decide.


1. Goodfellas.

This was the only easy choice on here. It’s an absolute no brainer. Just as Martin Scorsese arguably made the best film of the 80’s with Raging Bull in the first year of that decade, so too did he with Goodfellas in the 90’s. There really is no other 90’s film that achieves its level of craftsmanship, impact and sheer entertainment value. It’s one of the best films of the past century and films only became a commercial enterprise in the past century. If (if, because it’s yet to happen) someone tells me they don’t like Goodfellas I’ll assume they’re lying, confused, stupid or on some type of shitty, terrible drugs. Specifically shitty and terrible because I’ve watched Goodfellas with people on nice drugs and they had a blast. Scorsese got the idea to direct an entire movie like a trailer, where you’re given all the exciting stuff in as exciting a fashion as possible. That’s Goodfellas. And after a good but not great 80’s output from Scorsese, this was about as definitive a comeback as you could make, dropping what might be your best film in what has turned out to be one of the strongest filmographies imaginable. There really isn’t any praise I can heap upon this that hasn’t already been heaped upon it. The performances, the period detail, cinematography, sound design, editing, that soundtrack that is now forever linked with the images (like the end of Layla, which Clapton seemingly always meant to accompany people finding dead bodies all over the city), everything is executed as well as it could possibly be. Without the existence of Goodfellas, there are a lot of other great movies that wouldn’t exist. Including Pulp Fiction.

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