The Decade’s Finest [The Ten Best Movies of the 90s]

From the December 24, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Ten Best Movies of the 90s

(not including but with notes on Cradle Will Rock)

Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.  — From the preface to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

A lot of havoc is wreaked by the usual annual ten-best lists. For starters, there’s the hard-sell behavior of publicists trying to get critics to see every major year-end release before December 31, even though most of these features won’t open in Chicago until at least January. This results in two time frames — one for national releases and another for local releases — which confuses everyone. If you play by the rules of the Chicago Film Critics Association (which should really be called the Chicago Film Publicists Association), you’re encouraged to act like a publicist and promote features on your ten-best list that haven’t opened in Chicago — but you’re strictly forbidden to act like a critic and review any of them. Then there’s the hard-sell approach of certain national magazine editors who feel they have to know what the “best movies of 1999” are by mid-November, long before most of the late entries have been screened.Behind both pressures — which squash the very possibility of what Andrew Sarris has called a “weighted critical valuation” while creating numerous deceptions — is the Oscars system. At the end of each year film companies send out dozens of videos of contending features not only to Academy members but to reviewers. This means that critics who play the ten-best game or collectively give annual awards are generally obliged to become part of the Oscars campaigns — months in advance of Oscars night — whether or not they want to be part of that nonsense. Unusual formats and deadlines that papers such as the Reader have for the holidays only make things worse. So it’ll be impossible for me to review any new features at length before mid-January.

So why am I proposing a ten-best list of 90s movies to precede a ten-best list for 1999? One reason is that this allows me to stretch the rules of the ten-best game and change some of its meaning and import, at least in this paper. Another reason is that even though I can’t quite consider every 1999 film for either list, a 90s list lets me go beyond Chicago and even U.S. openings to include new movies I saw anywhere between January 1, 1990, and mid-December 1999.

But first I want to stretch the rules another way, by forcing a few paragraphs about Tim Robbins’s Cradle Will Rock, which opens here on Christmas day, into my argument — because I want to write something more than a capsule review about the film before mid-January, by which time it may be gone. It’s not one of the ten best movies of the 90s, but it still has merit. Moreover, it breaks certain historical rules, making a few other historical achievements possible. Like all ten films on my 90s list, its strengths are ultimately grounded in its limitations, and, as Flannery O’Connor noted of Hazel Motes, the profoundly cantankerous hero of her first novel, its unusual capacities grow out of its no less singular incapacities. For the past seven months, ever since Robbins’s movie premiered in Cannes, friends and associates who saw it there have been warning me that I, as an Orson Welles specialist, would despise it. Writer-director Robbins does make the character of Welles (Angus MacFadyen) a silly boozer and pretentious loudmouth without a serious bone in his body — something closer to Jack Buchanan’s loose parody of Welles in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon than a historically responsible depiction of Welles in 1937. Yet Welles is a marginal character in Cradle Will Rock, and he had little to do with its subject, the short-lived glory of American socialist art. Furthermore, the film’s depiction of that subject is both historically defensible and rather gutsy.The heroes of Robbins’s movie are Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), head of the WPA’s Federal Theater, who defended state-funded art against the stupid (and very 90s-like) attacks of Martin Dies and his House committee; and Aldo Silvano (John Turturro), a populist everyman and somewhat fictionalized Italian-American cast member of Marc Blitzstein’s Marxist opera, The Cradle Will Rock, perhaps suggested by Howard da Silva, who opposed the sliding of his home country toward fascism. Welles, rightly, isn’t much more than an irritating speck in relation to these two noble presences. (More questionable is Robbins’s letting Dies be a more coherent and dignified character than Welles, though this suits his ultimate strategy.)

In 1937 Welles was a 22-year-old radio actor who was extremely well paid but usually unbilled; he was just starting to make a name for himself as an innovative theater director who sometimes acted in his own productions, but he hadn’t yet become a radio or film director. No matter how highly one ranks Welles as an artist — or as a “premature antifascist,” who spoke at a communist bookshop, wrote for the Daily Worker, and emceed a benefit concert for New Masses in 1938 — his importance in the history of socialist art is marginal at best. The same could be said of Welles’s producer John Houseman (played by Cary Elwes as an improbable blend of Tom Wolfe and William Buckley). Robbins is generally more respectful of Diego Rivera as a leftist artist of this period, but even Rivera, as played by Ruben Blades, comes across like a cartoon radical; Hank Azaria’s Blitzstein registers somewhat like an effete version of John Waters or Billy De Wolfe, a light comic actor in 50s musicals. Only Rivera’s and Blitzstein’s art are accorded any real integrity; the artists themselves are not, perhaps because Robbins hates elitism and star politics — one reason he may distrust Welles. If Robbins had more imagination and more capacity for nuance he might have appreciated the irony of Welles’s hefty salary as an anonymous radio actor being fed directly — albeit secretly and illegally — into his Federal Theater productions, making those productions, like all of his movies, unclassifiable hybrids of public art and private enterprise. But then Robbins already had a pretty complex story about art, politics, and patronage — one that doesn’t betray the significance of the spontaneous populist premiere of Blitzstein’s opera after the government shut it down. This premiere was essentially without a director or sets, and it brought more fame to Welles (who’d directed the production that was shut down) than Welles brought to it.

Welles fully recognized this paradox in his autobiographical and highly self-critical screenplay on roughly the same subject, The Cradle Will Rock, written in 1984 but published a decade later, after his death–a script Robbins says he deliberately didn’t read before writing his own. If Michael Denning, author of The Cultural Front, is right that Welles’s theater company “went from an experiment in people’s theater to a trademark for a star,” the contradictions and ambiguities of that evolution certainly weren’t lost on Welles. Perhaps because his script, unlike Robbins’s, is built on personal recollections, its nostalgia for the period registers quite differently: it’s the reverse of Robbins’s script in its warm treatment of individuals and its relative indifference to collective expression. Robbins gives the dated Blitzstein opera much more attention, plainly seeing it as the last hurrah of American collectivist art, and to build his case he takes a few pretty dubious historical shortcuts — such as making Nelson Rockefeller the godfather of American abstract painting. Yet regardless of his movie’s faults, Robbins’s real point is to show us what we lost when we abandoned socialist art rather than what we gained, and that’s an affecting and meaningful story. If Welles gets lost in the shuffle, you can’t have everything.


Comparable trade-offs can be found in all ten of my favorite films of the 90s. In alphabetical order they are:

1. Actress/Center Stage/Ruan Ling Yu (Stanley Kwan, 1991)

2. A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991, the 230-minute version)

3. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)

4. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

5. From the East/D’est (Chantal Akerman, 1993)

6. Inquietude/Anxiety (Manoel de Oliveira, 1998)

7. The Puppet Master (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1993)

8. Satantango (Bela Tarr, 1993)

9. When It Rains (Charles Burnett, 1995)

10. The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999)


Three of these — Dead Man, When It Rains, Eyes Wide Shut — are American, though the last might more properly be called English-American or stateless, given that it was made by an American expatriate in England with a mainly English crew. Two — A Brighter Summer Day and The Puppet Master –a re Taiwanese. The remaining five are from Belgium (From the East), Hong Kong (Actress), Hungary (Satantango), Iran (The Wind Will Carry Us), and Portugal (Inquietude). If I’d had room for a French work it probably would have been Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep, André Téchiné’s Thieves, Claude Chabrol’s The Ceremony, or the final version of Jean-Luc Godard’s eight-part Histoire(s) du cinéma (though this is a video, not a film — a distinction that’s still worth making).

The kind of trade-offs I see in these films are generally just as historical in their import as those in Cradle Will Rock. All three of the Chinese-language works on my list are period films, set in the 20th century and made in places that until very recently have all but refused to recognize their own history. This makes Kwan’s film about the great silent Shanghai film actress Ruan Ling-yu (exquisitely played by Maggie Cheung) a pioneering, passionate act of resistance to this tradition — and an expression of wonderment about the early part of this century and its unsounded depths that can no longer be found in Western cinema (one rare and mainly unheralded exception: Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys).The importance of such an act of resistance appears to have eluded Charles Tesson, whose review in the current issue of Cahiers du Cinéma comes close to dismissing the film — which has very belatedly opened in Paris this month and has yet to open in the U.S. — for its lack of historical rigor and the failure of Cheung to “live up to” Ruan Ling-yu’s example, as seen in the many clips of her performances in the film. But the lack of a precise fit between these two actresses and eras is part of Kwan’s point, and the acute and moving historical pathos of Actress would be diminished by a better fit. (And anyway, what’s the point of wanting a precise duplication when we have the original Ruan Ling-yu?) Far more illuminating is Cheung’s own recent testimony in the rock weekly Les inrockuptibles: “In Asia nothing is preserved, turning toward the past is regarded as stupid, abberant.”

In the case of Taiwan, one can date the discovery of history  — and hence an inquiry into national identity –to the recent birth of democracy in that country after half a century as a Japanese colony and then under the control of mainland China (1945-’49) and the Kuomintang (1949-’87). Prior to 1987, history was effectively a forbidden subject. For Edward Yang, the inquiry is autobiographical, harking back to his high school days in the early 60s; for Hou Hsiao-hsien, it’s a more comprehensive moral and existential inquiry into the social and political turmoil in Taiwan during this century, with The Puppet Master forming the middle part of a trilogy that begins with City of Sadness and ends with Good Men, Good Women. Covering the life of puppeteer Li Tien-lu from his birth in 1909 to the end of World War II, with the present-day Li appearing periodically to recount portions of his story, The Puppet Master is only one of four masterpieces made by Hou in the 90s. Before long, thanks to the heroic initiative of programmer Wendy Lidell at distributor Fox Lorber, Chicagoans will finally get a chance to see a proper Hou retrospective — a program that played to packed houses in New York a few months ago. The resounding success of this event proved that the idea that Hou — one of the two greatest working filmmakers in the world right now, along with Kiarostami — is esoteric and unexportable is basically an alibi concocted by lazy critics and distributors unable to get beyond old markets and convinced that moviegoers across the globe are numskulls. (Until the comparable success of a recent traveling Robert Bresson retrospective, he too was thought to be inaccessible, often by the same “experts.”) The event also offered striking evidence that the apparent xenophobia and isolationism of American audiences may be partly the self-serving invention of American publicists with million-dollar ad campaigns who don’t want to intimate that other cultures and aesthetic tastes exist.

It probably isn’t coincidental that all three American films on my list hark back to earlier eras — explicitly in the case of Jim Jarmusch’s radical western, implicitly in Charles Burnett’s jazz parable about locating common roots in contemporary Watts via the 60s (specifically, a “countercultural” jazz album of John Handy’s group at Monterey), and implicitly in Kubrick’s adaptation of a masterful 1927 novella by Arthur Schnitzler. (Kubrick transplanted the action to 90s New York, but his movie has a great deal to say about every decade in this century except the 90s. And just as we already “have” Ruan Ling-yu on film — or at least Kwan does — we already have certain notions about New York in the 90s, so why should we need to have them duplicated on film?)I suppose it could be argued that Jarmusch, Burnett, and Kubrick were in some fashion turning their back on the 90s, but the first two do have things to say about the present and its peculiar habits and customs. Jarmusch’s crucial gesture — a simple yet highly significant step in the history of multicultural cinema — was to assume the existence of Native American moviegoers (a move signaled in part by his insertion of jokes addressed specifically to Native Americans), something no maker of westerns to my knowledge had ever done before; the implications of such a move are so far-reaching that many white spectators haven’t begun to sort them out. (Native Americans were apparently hip to what Dead Man was doing from the beginning.) Burnett’s astonishingly beautiful film compresses an extraordinary amount of what he knows about his hometown and the homeless into its 12 minutes, making it as succinct as a 12-bar blues chorus — and an implicit critique of the flab of most features. Even Kubrick’s remoteness from what’s fashionable in the 90s might be construed as a critique of that.

The remaining four features on my list all come from countries — Belgium, Hungary, Portugal, and Iran –that are generally seen in the U.S. as marginal (a bit like the way film distributors regard Chicago relative to New York and Los Angeles). Yet it’s the Dardenne brothers’ marginal status as Belgians that makes their films — La promesse and the soon-to-open Rosetta — central to what’s happening in much of the world at the moment. Most of us are still catching up to the reality that the world no longer revolves around New York or Paris or Moscow or Beijing, no longer sees those cities as the key to the meaning of contemporary existence. Half of my 90s favorites are set in the sticks — because that’s where the action is now. The big cities now are responsible mainly for paper flow, national TV broadcasts, and movie premieres.

The marginality of Chantal Akerman — the daughter of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust and settled in Belgium – -is especially striking because her painterly, nonnarrative focus tends to rest on things most filmmakers wouldn’t consider worth their attention. Her most famous film, Jeanne Dielman (1975), focuses on a woman’s housework. In From the East, probably her greatest feature since then, her own words best describe her agenda: “While there’s still time, I would like to make a grand journey across Eastern Europe. To Russia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the former East Germany, and back to Belgium. I’d like to film there, in my own style of documentary bordering on fiction. I’d like to shoot everything. Everything that moves me.” (Later in the same text she asks herself whether by “while there’s still time” she means “time before the Western ‘invasion’ becomes too blatant,” even as she recognizes that “there is no pure ‘before’ that would now be perverted or contaminated.”) A virtually wordless film in which stasis and movement feel almost interchangeable — exemplified by a handheld camera endlessly scanning sprawled, sleeping bodies in a crowded depot — allows emotion to collect and build into a throbbing Jewish sorrow that mysteriously surrounds everyday images, such as cars driving through the snow or people waiting at night at a bus stop.

Bela Tarr’s view of postcommunist Hungary is considerably more sarcastic, partially because that Hungary is made to seem identical to communist Hungary: both are rainy and muddy, both are informed by drunken squalor, small-mindedness, gullibility, and greed. A seven-hour black-and-white feature designed to be shown with two short intermissions — actually the easiest and most immediately pleasurable film on my list to watch, apart from the Burnett short — Satantango is as mean, as precise, and as hilarious in its corrosive humor as the best comic works of Faulkner. If it weren’t for the Kiarostami film, I’d be tempted to call it the funniest movie of the 90s as well. Part of its power undoubtedly derives from the long novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (only a fraction of which has been published in English) that the author and Tarr adapted, but Tarr’s virtuoso, choreographed long takes are much more than translated prose.

The three-part — the penultimate feature in the current canon of the 91-year-old Manoel de Oliveira, the world’s oldest active director and certainly one of its wisest and most cultivated — combines the works of three authors, a one-act play and two stories, into an existential parable with every part welded into a single perfect shape. It begins as a lunatic stage farce in which an elderly father argues that his elderly son should commit suicide by leaping out of a window as a way to ensure his immortality. This becomes an ironic, philosophical tale about an aristocratic dandy attending the farce who falls in love with a dying prostitute. Then a friend of the dandy consoles him by telling him a sort of fairy tale about a girl who plans to leave her village to go see the Mother of the River; she discovers afterward that her fingers are made of gold and is transformed into the Mother of the River for the next thousand years, making it impossible for her to leave the village. These three kinds of doom are seen meditatively through the telescopic lense of an angry yet reconciled wit, and the interlocking stories are inflected with a kind of magic that recalls The Arabian Nights.

In The Wind Will Carry Us — which was recently picked up for distribution by New Yorker Films, having already opened to much acclaim in Tokyo and Paris — our other greatest living master is near the height of his powers (his 1990 Close-up, which belongs in its company, is also about to open in New York). It’s a comedy about city slickers, all but one of whom remain offscreen as they invade an ancient village in Kurdistan to await the death of a 100-year-old woman, who also remains offscreen; their reasons aren’t stated, though they have something to do with the media, probably a plan to tape or film the funeral ceremony. Apart from being gorgeous — Kiarostami is clearly the best landscape artist making movies right now — this picture is probably as accurate and as funny a report on the current state of the planet as we’re likely to get, expressed in a form as concise as Kiarostami can make it. Simultaneously a history of antiquity, the 20th century, and that endless stretch of time known as the present, it shows the interrelatedness of all three periods at practically every moment. To speak to people outside the village on his mobile phone, the city-slicker protagonist–not exactly a nice guy or a hero–has to drive up a hill to a cemetery overlooking the village, where he also converses with an unseen worker who’s digging a hole in the ground. The film’s only interior is a dark cave worthy of Plato, where the city slicker flirts with the digger’s fiancee, who’s milking a cow, by quoting from the Forugh Farrokhzad poem that gives this movie its title. As is always the case with Kiarostami, the innovative use of sounds and images makes them merely tools for articulating new kinds of content: we don’t see the offscreen characters because we don’t need to — Kiarostami’s movies are nothing if not focused. And the documentary techniques used to produce fictional details are as purposeful and suggestive as ever. Here’s one telling example: A schoolboy becomes the local guide for the protagonist, who asks the kid at one point if he considers him a good man; blushing, the boy says he does. We squirm at this trusting response, yet given everything we know about Kiarostami’s methods, it’s clearly Kiarostami who’s asking that question and getting that unscripted response. This single ambiguous exchange contains an encounter between adult and child, filmmaker and subject, well-to-do and poor, city and country, modernity and antiquity, media and nature, documentary and fiction, and truth and falsity. By keeping its expression elemental, Kiarostami allows this exchange to tell us more than most features.

When he premiered this movie last September in Venice, where it won two prestigious prizes (if not the top ones), Kiarostami announced that he would no longer enter any of his films in festival competitions. Many critics and interviewers assumed that some bitterness or disappointment must have been behind this decision, but it’s clear from recent interviews that this is not the case. Having by now won a total of 60 international prizes over the course of 30 years of filmmaking, he feels he’s got enough — certainly all he needs to go on making the films he wants to. (He says he also suspects that many filmmakers win prizes because of their names rather than their work; this limits recognition of new talent, and he’d like to widen the playing field.)

The best news I can think of to greet the new millennium is that Kiarostami has become a recognized master on a global scale — in spite of the efforts of Miramax to bury his work, the efforts of other studios to ignore it, and the efforts of some American critics to dismiss it for the sake of more studio garbage. Ironically, most of the remaining holdouts I’m aware of reside in Iran and the U.S. — two culturally conservative countries that are resistant to innovation. But in both change is already under way.

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