5. “Days Of Being Wild”
Wong Kar-Wai‘s second feature feels like the first true expression of his dreamily erotic vision, singularly suffused with doomy, delicious, desperate romance. Not coincidentally, it’s also his first collaboration with DP Christopher Doyle, and the more fanciful among us might detect a kind of rapturous love affair evolving between cinematographer and director here, in tandem with the tangled skeins of desire that twist and knot between the sinfully telegenic stars onscreen. A boyish Leslie Cheung (the Hong Kong singer and actor whose 2003 suicide adds another layer of tragic resonance to an already melancholic story) stars as a dissaffected serial seducer of women. First Maggie Cheung‘s quiet shopgirl falls for him, and then Carina Lau‘s chatty cabaret dancer — he will disappoint both (though each has other suitors in the wings) while listlessly investigating his unhealthy relationship with his ex-prostitute adoptive mother (Rebecca Pan), who refuses to reveal the identity of his biological parents. ‘Days’ is the first in a loose trilogy including “In the Mood for Love” and “2046,” but here, amidst all the exquisitely deliberate, drippingly sensual imagery that would become Wong’s trademark, there is still the grit and grain of real life, and it makes this perfectly enigmatic film feel somehow thrilling.
4. “The Grifters”
Revel in the bright, tacky sleaze of Stephen Frears‘ brilliant adaptation of one of Jim Thompson‘s most depraved pulp noirs. Scripted by writer Donald E Westlake, featuring three standout performances from Annette Bening, Anjelica Huston and John Cusack, “The Grifters” is a slick, sick Oedipally twisted plot embellished with the kind of wonderfully grimy detail that makes the lives of these low-level LA hustlers feel so lived-in. Bouncing along under a terrific, oddly jaunty Elmer Bernstein score that brilliantly counterpoints the characters’ dark, downward-spiral arcs, it follows estranged mother and son Lily (Huston) and Roy (Cusack), and Roy’s prostitute girlfriend Myra (Bening), as the three of them attempt to work out who they want to con and who they want to screw, and what to do when they want to con and screw the same person. It’s a squalid Greek tragedy that builds to one of the most dumb-luck endings in cinema, but it deals out its vicious justice so even-handedly that the rhythm of seduction, betrayal and anticlimax becomes incredibly gripping. Perhaps it’s simply that there’s a certain satisfaction in watching these transfixing but inherently horrible characters get their comeuppance, or perhaps it’s simply that the film exudes such sublime, effortless cool.
3. “Miller’s Crossing”
“Look into your heart,” begs a sniveling Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), on his knees in an autumn forest as Gabriel Byrne‘s Tom Reagan debates whether to carry out the execution order of Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). It’s a scorching, unforgettable scene, the greatest in the Coen Brothers‘ immaculate gangster noir. But more than that, in retrospect it feels like it marks the very moment at which the Coens went from emerging talents whose offbeat sensibilities had yielded nasty little crime flick “Blood Simple” and loopy cartwheeling comedy “Raising Arizona,” to simply the pre-eminent independent American filmmakers of their generation. The future would hold a Palme d’Or, a Best Picture Oscar and several mantelpieces’ worth of silverware, but “Miller’s Crossing” feels like the place that trajectory truly launched. The gangster movie exerts a tidal pull for many burgeoning filmmakers, but nearly as many come unstuck in their ambitions, overshadowed by the all the bona-fide classics that have come before. Somehow, “Miller’s Crossing” (as exemplified in that terrifyingly brilliant mercy scene) manages not to be slavishly beholden to any of the films it homages — instead, we get the Coens’ re-envisioning of the gangster flick as a quasi-religious exploration of morality and turpitude, loyalty and betrayal, and snap-brim fedoras blown about by an intemperate wind.
The phrase “blurring the line between documentary and fiction” has become a tiresome cliche at this stage. But for anyone who’s seen Abbas Kiarostami‘s masterpiece (one of several, but probably the one title whose masterpiece status everyone can agree on with equal fervor), it’s been that way forever: what “Close-up” does so magnificently is prove there was never such a line to begin with. An endlessly rewatchable, infinitely layered, constantly provocative story that investigates modish ideas about art and artifice, truth and deception in a thrillingly direct manner long before they became modish, the film is partly a re-enactment of the true lies told by cinephile Hossein Sabzian, who was arrested in 1989 for impersonating Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. But Kiarostami’s approach, which is to cast the real-life players, including the imposter Sabzian and the filmmaker Makhmalbaf as themselves, and then further to interpolate himself and his crew into the story as it is still unfolding, means it’s also partly — indeed mostly — an exploration of the nature of filmmaking. Through repeatedly overlaying new levels of artifice only to immediately expose them as such, Kiarostami somehow delivers a electric jolt of truthful insight into social injustice, mythmaking, class inequity and the fragility of the socially constructed persona. It is, simply, essential.
“Perfection” is a dodgy concept to throw around in film criticism. Not only does it imply that there’s some sort of objective checklist that a film can adhere to and get 100% like it’s a multiple-choice test, but it discounts the subjectivity of different people’s responses to the same text and the fact that context can change and…but fuck it, Martin Scorsese‘s “Goodfellas” is a perfect film. It’s perfectly of its genre — an ur-gangster movie delivered with the kind of verve and wit not usually accorded such films. And it’s also perfectly of its maker, coming at the point that the opposing sine waves of Scorsese career — the future “elder statesman” tag and the prior “firebrand ’70s pioneer” label came for a brief moment into exact alignment, and allowed him to achieve the best-ever balance between electrically charged, urgent, vital storytelling and polished, consummately confident filmmaking. Getting career highs from every member of the cast, particularly Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, and creating another indelible role for his alter ego Robert De Niro, Scorsese is absolutely guilty of glamorizing the gangster lifestyle, but for anyone not shackled to the idea that the purpose of of a movie is to be an instruction manual on how to live your best and most useful life, “Goodfellas” is a kilo of pure cinema that you want to fall face first into and inhale all in one go. It’s perfect.
We’re being strict about the 10-entry limit, but were we to extend this list to 25, the subsequent 15 titles would probably run along the lines of: “Mo Better Blues“; “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!“; “King Of New York“; “La Femme Nikita“; “Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer“; “Jacob’s Ladder“; “Misery“; “Edward Scissorhands“; “Tremors“; “Life Is Sweet“; “Cyrano De Bergerac“; “Longtime Companion“; “Truly Madly Deeply“; “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” and “The Witches.” Obviously any 1990 film from anywhere in the world not mentioned there or above is terrible and awful and we hate it.
So over to you — which of our picks have you more blissed out than Evan Dando tickling his Elmo, and which have you more irate than George Costanza installing Windows 95? Rate us below, from Shagadelic, baby! to majorly as if, and don’t forget to tune back in tomorrow when we’ll be doing it all over again with 1991.