As we’ve mentioned, we’re undergoing a bit of a 1990s revival in theaters at the minute, with last week seeing “Beauty And The Beast” and “Trainspotting” getting remakes or follow-ups, and you-know-you’re-a-’90s-kid faves “Power Rangers” returning to theaters in rebooted form this Friday. And we’ve decided to mark the occasion of this odd time with some nostalgia of our own: we’re going to spend the next two weeks running down our 10 favorite films of every year of the 1990s.
We began yesterday with 1990 and “Goodfellas” taking the top slot. Today, we move onto 1991. In world events, it was the year that saw the first time that a President named George Bush would instigate war in Iraq, the collapse of Yugoslavia, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was the year that Emma Roberts; Tyler, The Creator; and Shailene Woodley entered the world, and David Lean, Jean Arthur and Frank Capra exited it. And at the box office, two rival “Robin Hood” movies battled it out (with one very clear victor in Kevin Costner’s ‘Prince Of Thieves‘), Steven Spielberg debuted his take on “Peter Pan” with “Hook,” and Disney reinvented the animated film with “Beauty And The Beast.”
But cinematically speaking, the true riches were mostly to be found elsewhere, with the year proving to be a great one for mainstream Hollywood fare and world cinema alike. Find our 10 favorites below, and let us know your own picks of 1991 in the comments.
10. “Boyz N The Hood”
When John Singleton was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for his debut “Boyz N The Hood,” he smashed records in the process — the first African-American to achieve the feat, the youngest-ever filmmaker in history at just 24. But the reason we still talk about the film isn’t because of the groundbreaking nature of that nomination, but because it’s really, really good. A taut, wrenchingly powerful drama, with an assuredness that belies Singleton’s young age when he made it (indeed, an assuredness that he’s rarely matched since, unfortunately), it focuses on high schooler Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), whose attempts to avoid violence in Watts and move onto a better life are threatened by both the systemic racism of society around them, and his brash Crip friend Doughboy (Ice Cube, in an impressive debut acting turn). Nodding to, among others, “Mean Streets” and “Rebel Without A Cause,” it updates the classic angry-young-man bildungsroman for early ’90s Los Angeles (it would come to feel deeply prescient just a year on when the L.A. riots took place). But what it might lack in surprise in the plot, it makes up for with the specificity of its detail, and the ferocious depth of feeling it holds.
9. “The Fisher King”
The kind of film that would literally never be made (at least by a studio) in 2017, and yet a critical and commercial success back in 1991, winning five Oscars, “The Fisher King” was, after the fiery behind-the-scenes battles over “Brazil” and the major flop of “The Adventures Of Baron Munchuasen,” the film that suggested that Terry Gilliam might thrive within the studio system, and then some. The great Richard LaGravanese script sees Jeff Bridges as a shock-jock radio DJ left guilt-ridden and suicidal after accidentally instigating a mass shooting, who forges an unlikely friendship with a mentally troubled homeless man (Robin Williams) who believes he’s on a quest to find the Holy Grail. In the wrong directorial hands, it might have been maudlin and sentimental — and with a less assured bit of writing, it could have become Gilliam’s later “Tideland” — but the writer and director balance each other perfectly (so too, do the cast, with the Oscar-winning Mercedes Ruehl and Bridges grounding zanier moments from Williams and Amanda Plummer). The final product proved to be a genuinely strange, truly affecting picture with moments of real magic — the Grand Central Station waltz scene is maybe Gilliam’s finest hour.
8. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”
For the umpteenth time in recent years, attempts are being made to revive the “Terminator” franchise, with “Deadpool” helmer Tim Miller the latest person linked to the robo-killer series, going where Jonathan Mostow, McG and whoever directed “Terminator: Genisys” all failed. It’s a franchise that has generally seemed like it shouldn’t be a franchise, except that in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” it has one of the greatest blockbuster sequels ever made. James Cameron’s return to the property that made his name is like a textbook lesson in how to give new lease to your series: a transformed, ass-kicking Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), Arnie reprogrammed as a good guy, a terrifying shape-shifting villain (Robert Patrick) who’s even more unstoppable. The most expensive movie up to that point, it more than delivers in spectacle, with T-1000 effects that still hold up, and any number of totally thrilling action sequences. But crucially, it has heart in spades, thanks to a relationship between young John Connor (Edward Furlong) and his cyborg protector that has more in common with “E.T.” than the original. More than anything, it’s that that makes it a prince among blockbusters.
7. “Raise The Red Lantern”
He might have just directed flop-buster “The Great Wall,” but few can match the run that Zhang Yimou had at the start of his career: winning the Golden Bear for debut “Red Sorghum,” Oscar nominated for “Ju Dou” (which made our list yesterday), a Golden Lion for “The Story Of Qui Ju,” the Grand Prix at Cannes for “To Live,” and a second Golden Lion for “Not One Less” in 1999. But his finest hour, many would argue, is “Raise The Red Lantern.” Based on a novel published the year before by Su Tong, it tells the story of Songlian (Gong Li), who become a concubine to the wealthy Master Chen, finding competition and kinship in the other woman in his life, with eventually tragic consequences. A bleak, haunting melodrama (briefly banned in China for its political allegories) of real richness and nuance, it could be an unpalatable watch in some hands, but Zhang makes it into a thing of almost unfathomable beauty, shot in three-strip Technicolor and every element on screen meticulously color-coded to the extent that you could take every frame of the film and put it on your wall.
Given that it displays many of the things that have been his downfall in subsequent movies — the indulgence, the paranoia, the spotty relationship with reality — you would think that Oliver Stone’s “JFK” would be a hell of a mess. And yet for all its flaws, it might just be Stone’s masterpiece. Detailing, over 188 pleasingly bum-numbing minutes, New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison’s years-long investigations into the assassination of the titular president, uncovering a conspiracy that may have included the CIA, the Mafia and even LBJ (spoiler: It probably didn’t), it’s shoddy history but masterful filmmaking. Stone treats it more as pulp thriller than as stodgy biopic, with unconventional, star-packed casting (Joe Pesci, an unusually foul-mouthed Jack Lemmon, Ed Asner, John Candy) and a frantic pace ensuring that you’re never bored, even when he makes a real gambit, like the archive-footage montage set to the monologue by Donald Sutherland’s mole, or the almost play-like courtroom finale (“Back and to the left, back and to the left”) that features the best acting of Kevin Costner’s career. You might not completely buy the argument that it’s making, but boy, does it make it stylishly and persuasively.