The ’90s are here…again. Last weekend, the live-action remake of 1991’s “Beauty And The Beast” Stockholm Syndromed its way into the record books, while the sequel to the iconic ‘9os favorite “Trainspotting” also rolled into cinemas. “Power Rangers,” based on a franchise that first bowed in 1993, hits theaters this week, the live-action remake of 1995 anime “Ghost In The Shell” arrives next week, and with the news that 1999’s “The Matrix” is being rebooted, it seems everything two decades old is new again. And that’s not even getting into the “Baywatch,” “The Mummy,” “Flatliners” and “Jumanji” remakes, all of which are coming before the end of this year. Man, the movies are straight-up bugging for the ’90s right now.
It’s a phenomenon we find pretty gnarly in that it’s of course a signal of the intensely risk-averse nature of Hollywood that they’d rather try to reanimate the still-warm corpses of existing ideas than back something new. But it’s also, in a way, gnarly! in that it’s giving us a chance to look back at a decade that we often kind of scurry over in our retrospective analysis: before now, the ’90s have felt too recent to qualify as “classic,” but too far back to be current.
However, this explosion in ’90s revivalism is an opportunity for us to spend the next 10 days going through the decade year by year and picking our 10 favorite films from each. We’re strictly limiting ourselves to 10 picks, no cop-out joint positions and no more than 15 further also-rans, because we’re masochists and we had been enjoying a period of unprecedented harmony backstage in the Playlist features department. That’s come to a discordant end now, so we hope you at least enjoy the fruits of these arguments (there are a lot of people talking to a lot of hands right now) with the first of our flashbacks to the 1990s in film: the 10 best films of 1990.
10. “Ju Dou”
Initially banned in China, possibly because of its frank sexuality or because it can be interpreted as an anti-Maoist allegory, Zhang Yimou‘s second film as director (he had been a cinematographer to Chinese directing giant Chen Kaige just prior), is a sweeping, lusty, almost sinfully bold-face melodrama the likes of which it’s hard to find this side of Douglas Sirk. In fact, at least some of its rapturous overseas reception may have come from classic weepie nostalgia: “Ju Dou” was shot using the actual Technicolor process that had long since been abandoned in the U.S. But credit has to go to Zhang for finding such an inventive way to maximize the format’s lurid, eye-poppingly saturated palette: here he devises a sweepingly tempestuous story of love, lust, cruelty and generations-long betrayal set against the literal backdrop of billowing reams of brightly colored cloth as a young woman (Gong Li in the second of six consecutive star-making movies she’d lead for Zhang) is married off to the embittered, sadistic owner of a silk-dye mill. Li’s absolute conviction and the breathtaking, swoony imagery elevate its soap operatics to the status of arthouse melodrama, and despite, or possibly partially because of, its non-grata status at home, “Ju Dou” earned a competition slot in Cannes and went on to pick up a nomination for Best Foreign Language film — the first Chinese film ever to do so.
It’s pretty ironic that one of the best-ever dissections of dissolute privilege among the wealthy upper echelons of New York’s social elite was made for a mere $100,000 after director Whit Stillman sold his apartment and got friends to help out with financing his debut film. Set at the beginning of debutante-ball season in late-’80s Manhattan, it follows a middle-class Princetonian outsider with socialist pretensions who falls in with a group of young, Upper West Side UHB’s (“urban haute bourgeoisies,” as coined in the film) and is gradually seduced by their lifestyle despite himself, especially by wittily obnoxious de facto leader Nick (Chris Eigeman, oozing acerbic charm) and loftily unavailable man-eater Serena Slocum (Ellia Thompson). Across his whole career (until very recently, when his Jane Austen adaptation “Love & Friendship” received near-universal acclaim), Stillman has been accused of viewing the world through a very rarefied lens, but that overlooks the caustic critique embodied in each of his investigations into the aimless and uselessly overeducated lives that his characters are doomed to lead in this extravagant, decadent milieu. Perhaps that’s simply because Stillman’s way with an acid retort or a quotable aphorism (“Metropolitan” picked up a Best Original Screenplay nod) makes his films such fizzily enjoyable entertainments that it’s almost possible to miss their more tragic aspects.
8. “An Angel At My Table”
The trajectory of Jane Campion‘s stellar career is such that her Palme d’Or win in 1993 (she’s still the only woman director to have won Cannes’ top honor, smdh) has somewhat overshadowed her earlier films — at most, “Sweetie” and “An Angel At My Table” are regarded as stepping stones en route to “The Piano” and beyond. But if Campion had never made another film, her second feature would be regarded as a pinnacle — originally designed as a TV miniseries, it’s the story of New Zealand writer and square peg Janet Frame, played in three different time frames by three different actresses, most memorably Kerry Fox as the adult Janet. The most surprising thing about ‘Angel’ is how deceptively absorbing it is, and, even with only one prior feature under her belt (and indeed working in a made-for-TV format that, certainly back then, could have easily translated to a more slipshod approach to storytelling), just how calmly assured Campion feels. Without ever dipping into sentimentality (the film is, like its brilliant and troubled protagonist, completely without self-pity or self-indulgence), it’s a tremendously moving and beautifully shot celebration of the potentially life-saving power of creative expression.
7. “Total Recall”
Paul Verhoeven‘s Mars-based sci-fi doesn’t have the sleek, high-concept leanness of “RoboCop,” or the all-out arch subversion of “Starship Troopers,” or indeed the weirdly moreish kitsch of the lately reclaimed “Showgirls” to recommend it. As a star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, then one of the biggest stars in the world, and an effects-laden blockbuster based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, it’s among Verhoeven’s least idiosyncratically Verhoeven-ish movies. And yet it’s still an absolute barnstormer, and Verhoeven’s impish presence tells in how it’s almost giddily packed with the kind of ideas and inventiveness that few Hollywood tentpoles ever bother with. Both intentionally and unintentionally funny (it’s unlikely Arnie meant for “Give these people air!” to become quite such a cultishly quotable line), bristling with genius practical special effects and salacious asides (occasionally both at the same time, as with the three-boobed hooker), yet powered by incisive themes of identity and memory that are very much Dick’s perennial concerns, the truly great thing about “Total Recall” is how you get the feeling that we are getting away with something that wasn’t intended by the moneymen at the time. It’s a smart, ambiguous and provocative movie smuggled into a dunderheaded megabucks Arnie vehicle, and it’s so much fun.
6. “Wild At Heart”
At the time simply too odd, too richly elaborate, too queasily mystifying to wholly connect, as the years have passed and “Mulholland Drive,” “Lost Highway” and “Inland Empire” have appeared, “Wild at Heart”‘s story of star-cross’d lovers, vengeful mothers and sadistic hitmen has started to seem like a model of narrative coherence by comparison. And that’s enabled it to take its place in the sun as one of David Lynch‘s very best films, a garishly beautiful homage to the trashy “doomed outlaw lovers on the run” genre as Sailor (Nicolas Cage) a savage, oversexed, Elvis-aping bad boy, and Lula (Laura Dern), his insatiably lusty, permanently peri-orgasmic girlfriend, try to flee the ever-extending reach of Lula’s maniacal family. Leaving corpses and rumpled bedclothes in their wake, the pair encounters cowboys, rocket scientists, John Lurie and a leering assassin named Bobby Peru, played with malicious relish, and questionable oral hygiene by Willem Dafoe. The world of Lynch has never seemed so seductively sleazy, so twisted and violent, yet so romantically, crazily immersive. “This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top,” moans Lula in her little-girl Southern drawl, and that’s true not only of this movie, but of every film Lynch has ever made — as such, “Wild At Heart” deserves to be regarded as a keystone title in one of the most singular and exciting filmographies of all time.