Our two-week-long look at the best films of the 1990s, inspired by the wave of ’90s nostalgia in theaters at the minute like this week’s “Power Rangers,” has so far tackled the 10 best movies of 1990, 1991 and 1992, and today reaches 1993. It was a year that saw the swearing-in of President Bill Clinton, the Waco siege, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the de-penising of John Wayne Bobbitt.
In film, Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” became the biggest-grossing movie in history; Robin Williams in a dress, Harrison Ford on the run and Robert Redford making an “Indecent Proposal” ruled the box office; while we lost Brandon Lee, River Phoenix, Audrey Hepburn and Claude Renoir, but gained Adèle Exarchopoulos and, uh, Ariana Grande. As for the ten best films? You’ll find them below, though as ever, it was tough to narrow it down to so few in what was a pretty great year for the movies.
10. “Dazed And Confused”
His breakthrough feature “Slacker,” in 1991, undoubtedly put Richard Linklater on the radars of many, and it’s an endlessly influential film, one that felt achievable and inspirational to many of the indie moviemakers that emerged across the 1990s. But just as impressive is his third feature, teen classic “Dazed And Confused,” which feels like a quantum leap from the innovative but rough-around-the-edges feel of “Slacker” to an utterly assured movie that juggles a vast cast with the assuredness of the best of Altman. Based on his own high-school days in Austin in 1976, the film’s set on the last day of school, as Linklater surrogate Wiley Wiggins tries to avoid the hazing given to all incoming freshmen, star football player Jason London is asked to sign a no-drugs pledge, and various kids gets drunk, smoke weed and make out with each other. Capturing the era to a degree, like “American Graffiti,” where it feels like it’s from someone who lived it rather than ticking nostalgia boxes, with a warmth and humanity that we’ve seen from the director ever since, and with an eerily prescient cast of future stars (Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey and Renée Zellweger among them), it remains one of the best teen movies ever.
9. “The Scent Of Green Papaya”
Almost certainly the greatest Vietnam-born filmmaker (though he left the country aged 12 for France, where he’s been based ever since), Tran Anh Hung went on to great triumphs across the next 25 years (albeit only a few: he’s made just five films since), but his finest hour might be his feature debut “The Scent Of Green Papaya,” which came two years after he won the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes, and itself picked up the Camera d’Or for best debut at the 1991 festival. Just 29 when it premiered, Hung’s film takes place over a decade and a half from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s in Saigon (though impressively, it was shot on a sound stage in Paris), and sees Mui (Hung’s wife Tran Nu Yên-Khê) come to work as the servant girl for a rich family before falling for a young pianist who was a friend of one of the sons. It’s a familiar story, but told with such clarity, beauty and detail by the director, evoking so impressively colonial-era Vietnam, that it ends up feeling entirely fresh. No wonder that it went on to be Vietnam’s first-ever Oscar nominee, and set Hung up as a major international filmmaker.
8. “Carlito’s Way”
He’s become appreciated more in recent years thanks to things like the Noah Baumbach/Jake Paltrow doc about him last year, but Brian De Palma still doesn’t always get the respect that he deserves, due largely to the genre-heavy nature of his filmography. But operatic gangster epic “Carlito’s Way” makes the best argument, perhaps along with “Carrie,” as to why De Palma is a truly great filmmaker, especially to those who sometimes call him a Hitchcock copyist. Based on a pair of novels by Judge Edwin Torres, they see the titular Puerto Rican criminal (Al Pacino, on peak form) released from prison thanks to his attorney (Sean Penn, in a transformative turn) and determined to go straight, but finding the old life impossible to escape. Weighing in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, the film is closer in many ways to the classic 1930s gangster pictures than it is to, say, Scorsese, a certain classicism of storytelling melding beautifully with De Palma’s trademark flair (there are a number of suspense sequences as good as anything he ever did) to make it feel more substantial than the director and actor’s pairing on “Scarface”: pulp crime novel as Greek tragedy, or maybe Greek tragedy as pulp crime novel.
7. “The Wedding Banquet”
He’s gone on to one of the more extraordinary careers of any modern filmmaker, winning two Oscars and helming any number of big hits across a dizzyingly wide-ranging variety of subject matters and genres, but it all started for Ang Lee — at least in the U.S.: his debut “Pushing Hands” wasn’t released there until after “Sense And Sensibility” — with the utterly charming “The Wedding Banquet.” The second of his so-called family values trilogy (completed by “Eat Drink Man Woman” the following year), it focuses on New York gay couple Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein, who’d go on to direct horror “Teeth”), who are happy in their lives, but Wai-Tung’s traditional Taiwanese parents, oblivious to their son’s sexuality, keep pushing for him to get married. To get them off their backs, he decides to have a sham marriage with Chinese tenant Wei-Wei (May Chin — who’s now a politician in China), who needs a green card. Inevitably, Wai-Tung’s parents arrive to throw him the titular celebration, and things become increasingly complicated. The comedy as the film plays out, often in unexpected ways, both broad and subtle, is enormously effective, and there’s more going on under the surface, with a similar culture-clash dynamic to “Pushing Hands” surfacing. Lee’s humanism is firmly in place already, and the whole thing is just enormously likable.
6. “Farewell My Concubine”
What the Korean New Wave of filmmakers were to the 2000s, the so-called Fifth Generation were to the 1990s — an exciting group of young filmmakers whose work put Hollywood’s output to shame. And arguably the best film to emerge from that movement, and certainly the most successful, was Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine.” Still the only Chinese film to win the Palme d’Or, it adapts Lillian Lee’s novel that tracks a group of performers (including Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi and Gong Li) in the famous Peking opera across a 50-year span, tracking Chinese history (as the Cultural Revolution approaches) as much as it does the central relationship of Douzi and Shitou. It’s an epic in the truest sense of the word, brought to life (like “Raise The Red Lantern” two years earlier) on three-strip Technicolor, evoking Dickens and Lean in its sweep and scope but remaining utterly and resolutely Chinese. Not that it was entirely embraced at home: the film was banned not once but twice, due to its addressing of homosexuality and suicide. Nevertheless, it’s endured as an all-timer, though make sure you see it in the original 171-minute form and not Harvey Weinstein’s 157 minute re-edit (of which Louis Malle, president of the Cannes jury that gave it the prize, said, “The film we admired so much in Cannes is not the film seen in [the U.S.], which is twenty minutes shorter — but seems longer because it doesn’t make any sense.”