PICK 3, Vol. 1: ’90s Movies

In a new recurring feature, the FOTS staff picks out three favorites from a given category, which we may or may not have chosen out of a hat. To kick off, we talk our most beloved films of the 1990s:

NATHAN: Recently, when trying to be more clever than I have ANY right to be, I had this crazy idea that maybe some of the movies that I watched frequently that came from the 90s might have been preparing me for the future. I may end up completely overreaching here, but hey, what’s the internet for if not to publicly showcase failure:

The first 27 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) are some of the grittiest, most authentic minutes of carnage ever committed to celluloid (or so I’ve been told), and they will live on years after the rest of this great, but not legendary, film ever will. The invasion of D-Day was the most graphic and harrowing thing I’ve ever seen – in an instant, everything I thought I knew about the glory of the “greatest war of history” faded into a chaotic orgy of random death and wonky shutter speed. War, without the gloss and glory of Hollywood, is a horrible thing to behold. A handful of years later my generation was thrust into more than a decade of warfare – I wanted to be shocked by the coverage, the photos, the videos, all the un-edited truths of the internet, but I’d seen it years earlier. The implements of war may have changed, but the end result is always the same.

Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), Fincher’s ode to anarchy and alpha-males, was a whirlwind of slick editing, sweet Dust Brothers tracks and rather novel Palahniukian narration by Edward Norton. In said film, Tyler Durden, a madman made cool by Brad Pitt’s abs, in what seems like a surreal dream sequence, explains that his plan for society would be complete when the people of tomorrow were tanning their own deer hides and crowing crops around the ruins of the highways and skyscrapers of today. Fight Club was my first introduction to what would eventually be known as “the plight of the 99%”, a brewing class war fought by “the people who cook your meals, haul your trash, connect your calls”. Sure, Tyler Durden sounded crazy in ’99, but rhetoric like that wasn’t so uncommon ten years later.

When The Matrix (Andy & Lana Wachowski, 1999) came out in 1999 we were unknowingly at the end of two decades of being an uncontested superpower with solid economic growth and general peace. At the same time, the internet was an odd, yet wonderful, new world filled with mystery, knowledge and unexplored potential. The internet was the Wild West, hackers were its cowboys and The Matrix was its western. Sure, The Matrix brought bullet-time to the masses, but it also told us that we were being watched, that everything was a lie, and the people in charge weren’t to be trusted – but the hackers would set us free. I don’t think it takes too much of an imagination to connect the thematic dots on that one to today.

So, there’s that, me overreaching to thank the movies I grew up on.

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DAVID: While Nathan is embarrassing us all with his “thematic connections” and other grad school nonsense, I’m going to take you on a personal journey. My family didn’t own many VHS tapes when I was growing up, so the ones we had were highly valued: obviously the Disney clamshells, Original Star Wars Trilogy, and a few others I was too young to watch, but three stick out from this era: most importantly, the first home video I ever bought with my own money at the ripe age of 11, Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993). Up to that point, all we had was a VHS recording of a national broadcast, which was intermittently interrupted by actual storm warnings (I can still hear the “BOOP BOOP BOOP” during the baby raptor scene), so this was a very big deal. I’ve still got the film entirely memorized, my Jeff Goldblum and Mr. DNA impressions are down cold, and moment after moment formed my young film-loving self into who I am today. The primal fear of the raptors in the kitchen. Nedry’s magic word. Stupid, stupid Lex & Tim. “Hold onto your butts.” “Clever girl.” John Williams’s marvelous score. This film is, if you’ll pardon the pun, ingrained in my very DNA, and I owe it everything.

My other childhood interest (other than dinosaurs, which should be obvious because I was in fact a human boy) was the space race, specifically the Apollo program. I had a CD-ROM with photos and audio recordings from the missions, which I studied excessively. But it’s a genuinely underrated film triumph that sums up my fanaticism: Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995). Not only does it boast top-flight special effects and genuinely tense sequences laced with NASA parlance I loved to repeat around the house, it’s an engrossing, inspiring story about good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity — a love letter to “steely-eyed missile men” everywhere. The ensemble, led by Tom Hanks and Ed Harris, is fantastic (it won the SAG!). I read and loved the book when I was in middle school, but it’s the film (and it’s “gotta make this fit into this using nothing but that” ethos) that resonates. It’s a real pity we’re not into these kinds of manned missions anymore. I’m not as inspired by robots.

Finally, trading one ocean for another, few VHS tapes in my house got worn out like The Hunt for Red October (John McTiernan, 1990). Sure, Sean Connery’s Russian accent isn’t all there, but who cares? It’s another crazy-tense, nationalistic genre masterpiece with a terrific cast: Alec Baldwin, still the best Jack Ryan; James Earl Jones; Sam Neill (again!); Scott Glenn; Tim Curry! Eminently quotable (“Mosht things in here don’t react well to bulletsh”), and just a heck of a lot of fun — not to mention that it made Russia’s anthem one of three in the world that I can hum from memory. (There, now I’m doing it again. “We shail into hishtory!”) The best submarine film, bar none, and filled with unexpected directorial flourishes that showed McTiernan building on his post-Die Hard cred. A great film, comrades.

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CHASE: Ah, the 1990s. Too many wonderful films to choose from, but here are three of my favorites:

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)

Coming as a bit of a surprise twenty years after he’d made his last film, The Thin Red Line marked Terrence Malick’s return to film making. Ostensibly about the Guadalcanal Campaign during WWII, the highly fictionalized film is much more concerned with emotional truth than historical fact. Malick’s deeply spiritual film tells the story of Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), a disaffected soldier desperate to live in harmony with the world around him in the face of a horrific war. Gorgeously shot with a focus on nature, the film was subject to Malick’s notorious process of “finding” a story during filming which left performances by Mickey Rourke, Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, and a slew of others on the cutting room floor while original star Adrien Brody’s role was reduced to just two lines. A wildly divisive film with as many detractors as devotees, it’s often the “other” WWII film from the same year that gave us Saving Private Ryan, but I have no qualms embracing it: this is my favorite film of all time.

Barton Fink (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1991)

I’ve often called Barton Fink The Shining for English majors.” Written while the Coen brothers experienced writer’s block with Miller’s Crossing, the film details an acclaimed Broadway playwright’s (John Turturro) experiences writing scripts for a Hollywood film studio. The polished pastel feel of Hollywood stand in stark juxtaposition to Fink’s dilapidated, mysterious hotel room and the implied, but never seen, presence of the people who live there. Despite his claims desiring to write about “the common man,” Barton can’t manage to connect with Charlie, (John Goodman) his insurance salesman neighbor in the hotel who represents just that. Loaded with typical Coen-esque symbolism, The Hotel Earle might just be the eternal purgatory implied by its motto: A Day or a Lifetime. Also dealing with themes of artistic control, fascism, and religion, the film resists easy categorization and can be seen alternately as a noir, horror movie, and a buddy comedy. Writers themselves, the Coens made more popular and critically acclaimed films during the nineties, but this one is certainly their most personal.

Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

Rushmore is the last film Wes Anderson made before his oeuvre became an endless stream of celebrity cameos, and it marks the first appearances of frequent collaborators Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. Schwartzman stars as Max Fischer, a precocious, eccentric private school student who leads Rushmore Academy in club activities in tandem with being its worst student. Successful businessman Herman Blume (Murray) takes a liking to Max and takes him under his wing until they both fall for the same woman: elementary school teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). Not yet weighed down by Anderson’s soon-to-be trademark style, and buoyed by a career-changing performance from Murray (the path that would take him to Broken Flowers and Lost in Translation starts here), Rushmore is a delightful, quirky, British Invasion-fueled comedy about rebellion in the name of love – even unrealistic, unrequited love. The final scene showing Miss Cross and Max dancing in slow motion surrounded by friends and family as “Ooh La La” plays on the soundtrack is absolute perfection, and my personal favorite movie ending. Love. Expulsion. Revolution.

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RACHEL: Narrowing this list down to three is downright criminal.

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), the movie that redefined cool, was not the first film to utilize Rashomon-style non-linear editing, but it certainly made the form popular. Quentin Tarantino’s mind-bending San Fernando Valley trip not only inspired a group of budding filmmakers, myself included, but reanimated the listless careers of John Travolta and Bruce Willis, and made Samuel L. Jackson a household name. With lightening-quick dialogue, a carefully chosen soundtrack, and exceptional shot design that makes each frame like near-tangible storyboards, Pulp was a revelation of its time. Described as “innovative” and “ground-breaking,” the truth was far simpler. Tarantino, an obviously well-versed cinefile, knew all the tricks of filmmaking from his years studying his favorites meticulously. He was able to equally embrace and break genre archetypes at will, specifically because he took time to study film. Designed as neo-noir classic – I am aware that sentence is a contradiction in terms – Pulp Fiction is timeless specifically because it exists in a world void of time.

It has always been my assertion that The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) is the most complete film ever made. Directed by Frank Darabont doing what he does best – that is, adapting work by Stephen King – Shawshank is a story about redemption and friendship, about hope and love, set in a world of men left to die. Yes, it is at its core a simple story about a man wrongfully imprisoned and the corrupt system that keeps him there, but like the tagline “hope springs eternal,” there is just so. much. more. Morgan Freeman, the Epic Narrator – most likely to appear as his epitaph one day — details the life behind bars of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and his subsequent complex escape behind a poster of “Fuzzy Breeches.” The relationship between the two is one of the greatest familial love stories ever told. Period. Bolstered by the hypnotic Thomas Newman score, my favorite scene OF ALL TIME finds Robbins escaping a tunnel, in the rain, flooded with light, raising his hands to freedom as a crane lifts us up to the sky. It’s beautiful. Haunting. Perfection.

Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996) introduced me to the quietly violent world of complex characters in this gothic glacial fairy tale of greed, murder, and idiocy.  Never had I experienced such a connection with material as I had with the brothers Coen. In a star-making, Oscar-earning turn as Chief of Police Marge Gunderson, Frances McDormand puts on an acting class for all to watch. Desolate landscapes and sad color schemes immersed me into this world, and I was hooked. The ballsy idea to stamp the film as “based on actual events” promotes bar arguments to this day. With steady pacing and hilarious side-characters, Fargo takes great care in every single frame.

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SEAN: Surprisingly, these were the first three titles that came to mind when David gave us this assignment.  I could have easily picked dozens of others to exemplify excellence in 1990’s filmmaking, but there is something about these films that continues to grab me all these years after my initial viewing and I always find myself coming back to them on an annual basis.

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991) – In the late 1980’s, director Oliver Stone was coming off of two Best Director Oscar wins for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.  They were both controversial Vietnam War films with a deep liberal political slant, but they would do little to prepare viewers for Stone’s magnum opus – JFK. The film is based on former New Orléans district attorney Jim Garrison’s book “On the Trail of the Assassins” which highlighted his investigation into President Kennedy’s murder, the Warren Report findings, and the web of conspiracies surrounding that ill-fated day on November 22nd, 1963.  The film was denounced by many noted politicians and journalists before it ever opened, with the film’s insinuation that Lyndon B. Johnson may have been involved in the assassination drawing the most ire. Still, the film was rabidly devoured by an American public still searching for answers all those years later and it utilized revolutionary editing techniques mixing real documentary footage with staged historical recreations and traditional narrative film footage to deepen its impact.  The power of the film was so undeniable that it led congress to pass the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.  JFK remains one of the most oddly patriotic American films ever made and one of the few that not only affected public consciousness, but also led to real political ramifications.

Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) – For over ten years, Spielberg held the rights to Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical novel “Schindler’s Ark” in the hope that he would eventually mature into the type of director that could handle such a grim, yet still hopeful, Holocaust narrative.  He even tried to give it away to the likes of Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and Billy Wilder.  It is lucky that he was unsuccessful in those attempts as his direction of Schindler’s List is the most uninhibited of his career.  Combined with the talents of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg created a living portrait of one of the most atrocious crimes committed in living memory aided by documentary-style handheld black and white photography, shocking realistic violence, a precise no-nonsense script, and an ambiguous, charismatic, and committed lead turn by Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler.  The film also boasted one of the most detestable villainous roles in the history of cinema with Ralph Fiennes as Nazi Officer Amon Goeth.  Schindler’s List is historic, immediate, continuously relevant and vital cinema.  It serves as a reminder of a past we must never forget and a future we cannot ignore.

Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999) – It would have been easy to pick Anderson’s breakout (though not debut) feature film Boogie Nights for the purposes of this list, but there is a grand ambitiousness to Magnolia that is impossible to write off. At over 3 hours in length, it is a complicated web of an ensemble piece whose themes focus on sickness, death, forgiveness, and the inescapability of our past.  It features eight main characters with equal amounts of screen time, a dozen more supporting characters all tied directly to the plot, and an intriguing framing device that prophesies the film’s unlikely, but historically grounded climax.  It is possibly the most complicated work of Anderson’s career and he has never attempted a film this vast since.  There are obvious influences by Scorsese, Altman, and Kubrick here, but the final result was the emergence of a unique vibrant voice in filmmaking who continues to grow and surprise in his style with There Will Be Blood standing in stark contrast to the kinetic fire on display in Magnolia.

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CALEB: Long before the name M. Night Shyamalan inspired laughter and ridicule, there was the promising filmmaker who wrote and directed The Sixth Sense (1999). “I see dead people” is, of course, one of the great and most often recited lines in movies history, but it’s easy to forget the power of those words in the context of the film. Haley Joel Osment’s performance is incredible, and Shyamalan brought out great work from the entire cast, including Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, and – I’m being serious here – Donny Wahlberg. It’s premise has become something of a gag, as Shyamalan has beat his shock ending bit into the ground, but there’s no question that The Sixth Sense holds up. Even today, it’s hard to watch the film’s most important scene, a heartbreaking conversation between Osment and Collette’s characters, without recalling the movie’s heart. It was about a kid living with darkness, but we remember it because it’s also about a frightened kid eventually seeing the light. Where the Shyamalan who made this went is one of cinema’s greatest mysteries.

David O. Russell’s films are often a mixed bag, as his mix of very clear vision and loose approach to execution can easily lead a movie off the rails. (See: I Heart Huckabees. Spoiler: I Hate Huckabees.) 1999’s Three Kings fits somewhere in the middle of Russell’s filmography, less successful than a movie like The Fighter, but equally as compelling as American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook. It’s a commentary on war in the age of mass media, hardly a novel concept at the time, but its humor and stylistic novelty elevate it beyond similar films released in the decade. Much of the movie is carried by the bravado of George Clooney, but its best performance comes from Mark Wahlberg, who at the time was just barely breaking into serious acting roles. Wahlberg is fantastic as Troy Barlow, a magnetic personality that buys into a plan to steal Saddam Hussein’s Kuwaiti bullion. Yes, it’s as silly as it sounds, but it works. The movie remains great, but surprisingly, it isn’t Clooney or Wahlberg’s roles that stand out now, but the hilarious (and heartbreaking) performance of a virtually unrecognizable Spike Jonze.

For many, Titanic recalls fond memories of an epic love story set to the yearning vocals of an in-her-prime Celine Dion. For me, Titanic only brings to mind the kind of saccharine emptiness that one might find in a Hallmark card. (Heresy, I know.) So when I consider 1997, I don’t think about James Cameron holding a dozen Oscars. I think about my outrage that a film as unsettling and as beautifully constructed as L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson) walked away with only two awards. L.A. Confidential was in some ways ahead of its time and buried in the past, a gritty realization of James Ellroy’s novel of corruption in 1950s Los Angeles. It features incredible performances from Kevin Spacey (who was on a serious roll), a pre-Gladiator Russell Crowe, and an out-of-nowhere Guy Pearce. It’s setting and noir recalls The Untouchables and even Heat, but it’s hard not to watch it today and see its shadow cast across the work of directors like Christopher Nolan and Rian Johnson. More than its style, the ending of the film lingers on, a reflection on the depths of corruption and the painful cost of seeking justice.

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FILMS YOU CAN’T BELIEVE WE FORGOT: Goodfellas, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs, Boogie Nights, Silence of the Lambs, Ed Wood, The Big Lebowski, Princess Mononoke, Nightmare Before Christmas, Miller’s Crossing, Edward Scissorhands, Waiting for Guffman, The Insider, Heat, Good Will Hunting, Terminator 2, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Truman Show, Galaxy Quest, The Lion King, Toy Story, Braveheart, etc., we know — give us your list in the comments!

One thought on “PICK 3, Vol. 1: ’90s Movies”

  1. I did love your first 2 choices, Sean. I have not seen Magnolia so I was unable to comment. I do feel your critiques are extremely well written and detailed. Screenfellows is very deversifed. I continue to read every online posting. Great job!!!!

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