Revisiting The Sweet Hereafter – The Best Film of the 1990’s

There is no such thing as a simple list.

The 1990’s proved to be as ponderous as it was wondrous when looking back on its contributions to cinema.  It was the decade where I came of age as a film buff, but many of its films that seemed at the time to speak so strongly to my generation just haven’t held up that well to scrutiny as years have passed.  It was a decade that saw one of the most original filmmakers of the 1980’s, David Lynch, do his most astounding work on television with Twin Peaks.  In film, the Coen Brothers hit their stride while a contemplative Canuck (Atom Egoyan) and an insane Dane (Lars Von Trier) reached career pinnacles.  Meanwhile, emerging from the British Isles were the classically refined works of Anthony Minghella and Sam Mendes.  But it was in the Coen Brothers’ America where many saw a mini-Renaissance.  Unlike the 1970’s, which produced a plethora of auteurs (Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, Coppola, Lucas) who were birthed in formal film schools, the 1990’s saw the emergence of a new generation of auteurs (Tarantino, PT Anderson, Fincher, Spike Jonze) who developed their styles first by working in music videos or by being products of their own self-guided fan-boy obsessed film clubs after dropping out of film school.

I wrestled with my desire to put a film from the decade’s infancy, Lars Von Trier’s trippy post-WWII German train-based thriller, Europa, at the top of my list.  Yet every time I watch that film, it grows more tiring to examine.  It’s almost too audacious, self-conscious…avant-garde, yet I can’t deny a love for its style and themes.  Released in 1990, it was a harbinger of the type of cinema that would dominate the end of the decade, most notably in 1999; a year claimed by many from my generation to be one of cinema’s greatest.  1999 was a dizzyingly invigorating year to be a 20 year-old film buff.  It seemed every niche market was being conquered by young up-and-coming auteurs, mainstream films were more daring and imaginative than usual, and every so-called great film from that year was speaking directly to me — to my generation.  But films like Fight Club, Being John Malkovich and American Beauty, while worthy of making the list, aren’t the type that hold up very well over time.  They are at once dated and defined by their audacity and generational context.  And fittingly, it’s the even odder (Ravenous) or unfairly little seen films (The End of the Affair) from ’99 that I find myself wishing to return to over and over again.  Back in ’99, I was sure a film from that year would top my list of Best Films of the 1990’s, but alas my love affair with ’99 died quickly, and it was the films from 1996 and 1997 that soon emerged as the most memorable.

As I racked my brain trying to compile my list, one film from this decade kept creeping in…slowly, quietly, like a melancholy dream or a welcome ghost…and thoughts of it drape over me like a warm blanket.

That film that still haunts me more than any other from the decade is Atom Egoyan’s 1997 adaptation of Russell Bank’s novel, The Sweet Hereafter.  With its “Pied Piper” motif, elliptically intertwining plotlines and astutely revealing study of grief, Egoyan, who had hinted at something masterful earlier in the decade with Exotica, reached a rarified artistic zenith, and though not for lack of ambition or trying — witness Ararat or the more recent Adorationhasn’t approached these heights scaled since.

In 1997 Egoyan’s masterpiece made its way through the art-house circuit on waves of rapturous fanfare and was most notable for being the film that finished second to LA Confidential in almost every ballot for the end-of-the-year critics’ awards.  I also still vividly recall an article that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer when The Sweet Hereafter came to the Ritz Theaters in December of ’97.  The film critic compared Egoyan’s low-budget indie film with James Cameron’s Titanic (which at the time was the most expensive film ever made) on the basis of an opinion that the two films represented the differences in how Canadians and Americans viewed death.  While Titanic was smothering multiplexes and making everyone swoon with its bombastic and epic view of death in cold waters, The Sweet Hereafter was taking a more restrained approach to tragedy and large vehicles sinking in the ice.  A crass luxury ocean-liner with two star-crossed lovers versus a school bus full of children…both sank, but only one transcended the popular notion of cinema as entertainment.

“With enough rage and helplessness…your love turns into something else.”

“Let me direct your rage.”

Unlike many other buzzed about films from the decade, The Sweet Hereafter grows richer and more rewarding with each viewing.  Here are some things that one becomes more in tune with each visit:

  • the delicately fractured structure of Egoyan’s layered screenplay
  • the subtle cinematography of Paul Sarossy
  • the heartbreak in Mychael Danna’s lute-laden score
  • the stinging dialogue from Russell Banks channeled perfectly through Ian Holm and Bruce Greenwood
  • the hardened and reckless fragility of Sarah Polley’s performance

In 2003, not long after I first began posting my amateur movie reviews on the IMDB, I posted a review of The Sweet Hereafter, some six years after first experiencing it, that was brief and to the point.  I chose at the time to title the review simply, “The Best Film of the 1990’s”.  I was as sure then as I am now of that declaration.  The Sweet Hereafter is a film that is best left to speak for itself.  The less said about it, much like death itself, the better.   After watching it, you too will understand when I say…

“We’re all citizens of a different town now.”

Written by David H. Schleicher

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Lightly edited for the “readability” factor…here is my original review from February of 2003 in all its glorious brevity:

The Best Film of the 1990’s
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

Brutally honest, haunting, cold, austere and elliptical in the unfolding of plot and story, Atom Egoyan’s restrained but powerful look at a small Canadian town ripped apart by tragedy and now invaded by a troubled lawyer (played expertly by Ian Holm) looking to make a killing off their grief is one of the most artistic portraits of the sorrow of everyday people ever conceived. The scene where Bruce Greenwood’s character witnesses the school bus carrying his two children and all the hopes and dreams of a small town skid nonchalantly off an icy road and onto a frozen body of water that can’t possibly hold the vehicle’s weight is among the most chilling, heart-wrenching and gut-dropping scenes ever put on film. The revelations unearthed during the lawyer’s investigation are both quietly disturbing and all too true to life. The intertwining tales of the townsfolk and the ultimately heartbroken lawyer are exquisitely handled by Egoyan and leave the viewer feeling the same loss as the characters. Tragedy befalls us all. Luckily, every once in awhile, so does great art.

Originally posted on the Internet Movie Database.

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And now, David H. Schleicher presents his Top 25 Films of the 1990’s, followed by a chronological list of honorable mentions:

  1. The Sweet Hereafter (1997, Atom Egoyan)
  2. Europa/Zentropa (1990, Lars Von Trier)
  3. Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)
  4. Fargo (1996, The Coen Brothers)
  5. Secrets and Lies (1996, Mike Leigh)
  6. Breaking the Waves (1996, Lars Von Trier)
  7. The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
  8. Short Cuts (1993, Robert Altman)
  9. Kundun (1997, Martin Scorsese)
  10. Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)
  11. Braveheart (1995, Mel Gibson)
  12. Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson)
  13. The Thief (1997, Pavel Chukhraj)
  14. King of the Hill (1993, Steven Soderbergh)
  15. Toto the Hero (1991, Jaco Van Dormael)
  16. American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes)
  17. Miller’s Crossing (1990, The Coen Brothers)
  18. The Truman Show (1998, Peter Weir)
  19. Twelve Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)
  20. Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze)
  21. Ravenous (1999, Antonia Bird)
  22. Three Colors:  Blue (1993, Krzysztof Kieslowksi)
  23. Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson)
  24. The End of the Affair (1999, Neil Jordan)
  25. Exotica (1994, Atom Egoyan)

Honorable Mentions from the 1990’s:

  • Wild at Heart (1990, David Lynch)
  • Barton Fink (1991, The Coen Brothers)
  • The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Michael Mann)
  • Twin Peaks:  Fire Walk With Me (1992, David Lynch)
  • Groundhog Day (1993, Harold Ramis)
  • The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
  • Heavenly Creatures (1994, Peter Jackson)
  • Casino (1995, Martin Scorsese)
  • The City of Lost Children (1995, Caro & Jeunet)
  • Heat (1995, Michael Mann)
  • Eve’s Bayou (1997, Kasi Lemmons)
  • LA Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)
  • Lost Highway (1997, David Lynch)
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg)
  • Fight Club (1999, David Fincher)
  • The Limey (1999, Steven Soderbergh)
  • Office Space (1999, Mike Judge)
  • The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch)

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To view a full archive of my favorite films by decade, click on My Favorite Films  – also on the sidebar.

Or go 80’s style and click on Revisiting Paris, Texas – The Best Film of the 1980’s.

Also be sure to check out the polling for Best Films of the 1990’s soon to be going on at Wonders in the Dark pending the results of their 1980’s polling.

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12 comments on “Revisiting The Sweet Hereafter – The Best Film of the 1990’s

  1. Aiden R says:

    This really is an absolutely phenomenal movie. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it and I really need to revisit it. Good review and a solid choice for best movie of the ’90s.

    Aiden, thanks for visiting. I love the title of your film blog! –DHS

  2. Great stuff, David. I am in full agreement with you here about the power of Egoyan’s film. It’s not hyperbole when I say that this film invaded my dreams after I saw it. I especially like your comparison between Egoyan’s film and Cameron’s.

    Like you I don’t think he’s been able to match the success of this film, but I quite liked this years Adoration.

    Great thoughts as always, David.

    Kevin, Adoration was interesting, but it didn’t quite carry the same emotional weight and was more clumsily structured. –DHS

  3. DeeDee says:

    Hi! D.H.,
    Thanks, for your very impressive film list…because now I can use it as a guider as I prepare my list for WitD 90s countdown next week.

    By the way, will it be all right with you, if I sent you an email?

    Take care!
    DeeDee 😉

    DeeDee — Glad to be of service as always, and, oh, you make me laugh. It’s always okay to send me an email 🙂 –DHS

  4. Debra says:

    Dave,
    Thanks for the trip down the 90’s Memory Lane of films. It is nice to throw those films around in my mind again. Most of them I have only viewed once. Your list creates a desire to check a few of them out again. There are even a few I have not seen. Of your list I think my number one is a tie between Boogie Nights and Goodfellas. Two totally different films and I enjoyed them both for different reasons.
    As always your post is fun to read and well written.
    P.S. Today I reached my 53rd film.
    Finally went to see District 9.(Better late then never.) I found it very humorous and original.

    Debra, I would argue Goodfellas and Boogie Nights are actually quite similar — they way Scorsese and Anderson both use pop music throughout as an artistic device, the editing, the way both films look at a “family” of criminals or near-criminals through the eyes of one man over the course of many years. But, wow, 53 films in the theater this year! I don’t think I could ever catch up. I’m glad you enjoyed District 9. –DHS

  5. DeeDee says:

    By the way, will it be all right with you, if I [sent] send you an email…

    Oops, D.H., I’am so sorry I meant to say send you an email.
    DeeDee ;-(

    DeeDee – I wait with baited breath for that email 🙂 –DHS

  6. Horse Apples says:

    A good list, but one submission that I feel strongly about: A River Runs Through It.

    A River Runs Through It is a really good movie, Horsie, but not one of my faves. Others that fit the “really good but didn’t make the list” mold: Unforgiven, The Shawshank Redemption (aka the Skrimshank Refraction) and Almost Famous — which almost made the list — oh I crack myself up. –DHS

  7. Rebecca says:

    Holy smokes, Dave! Someone mentioned the memory lane, above. Right on! I don’t watch too many movies anymore. Mostly because Hollywood’s junk ain’t worth my time. I’ve been focusing on smaller independent films and have been entertained quite nicely over the past. If I may, I need to add one, eh two, of my 90’s faves to your wholesome list. The Negotiator with Kevin Spacey and Samuel Jackson (1998) And for the viewers with a tendency for naughtiness; Wild Things with Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon and Neve Campbell (1998).
    Talk soon,
    Rebecca
    http://www.rebeccalerwill.com

    Rebecca, Wild Things had a certain appeal that can be enjoyed when in the right frame of mind…a nice, dirty little ’90’s twist-thriller for sure! –DHS

  8. Sam Juliano says:

    Ha David!!! Jumping the gun, eh?? Just kidding. i applaud you for diving right in, and I must say THE SWEET HEREAFTER has an excellent chance to make my #1 position as well!!! It is one of the three finalists that I am currently wrestling over. Your list here is magnificent, I will be including a number of these on my own Top 25! I will have more to say next week, but let’s just say that your choices, your main review and that terrific on line comment have combined to produce one of your greatest posts here, and you’ve had a number of them!

    Sam, I honestly had no idea how many people loved The Sweet Hereafter until I posted this — every reaction from readers both public and private has resulted in nothing but love (and even more importantly, respect and reverence) for the film. I knew it was universally praised by critics, but it’s not a film I’ve heard continued talk and debate about. Maybe it’s because of the subject matter people find it too painful to elaborate on, or maybe it’s because people don’t have anything to say about it because it’s as close to a perfect film as one will ever find. And yeah, I just had to jump the gun on this one. As always I look forward to your list! –DHS

  9. A wonderful list. Very pleased to see ‘Secrets and Lies’ get a mention, although I think ‘Naked’ stands as Leigh’s best work of any decade. It’s still a travesty that Goodfellas didn’t win Marty his first Oscar- for me this is his creative peak, where his technical abilities and nose for a great tale really came together. Lovely to see the criminally undervalued ‘Groundhog Day’ get a mention; I only wish that Ramis had built on it.

    I know this a purely subjective thing, but I was rather shocked that ‘Pulp Fiction’ didn’t make it in. It’s been talked about ad nauseam of course, but I watched it recently and it’s a film that has long outlived its initial impact value: a genuinely trailblazing piece of cinema.

    I also have to say that I’d have had Buffalo 66 at #1. Gallo’s persona seems to have detracted from his talent, which is a real shame. Pretty much everything about this film is beat perfect for me: funny, sad, wise. But this is your list, after all.

    Andrew, would you believe I have never seen Naked? I shall have to remedy that! I have talked about Pulp Fiction in other posts…I am not a fan, though it certainly has its appeal beyond my humble opinion. I did enjoy Buffalo 66, but it’s not the type of film I clamor to return to and I think you are right about Gallo…I despise his persona so I can’t deny that coloring my overall opinion of his work, though I do think Buffalo 66 is a fine film. –DHS

    • rorydean says:

      I know this thread is most likely logged and filed, but I just had to comment on your opinion that Buffalo 66 be at #1. What? Gallo’s infatuation with himself and inability to coherently tell a story, let alone direct, is example enough that is talents – if any – should be as an actor with a talented director guiding him to some sense of acting. I think his best work might just be in The Funeral – though admittedly, I don’t follow his career much. And dare I mention his flick, The Brown Bunny? Rubbish.

  10. Dan Stephens says:

    Naked is definitely one of the best films of the 1990s but then again you could argue the case for everything Leigh did in the decade. Secrets and Lies deserves its place though. Good call to leave Shawshank off. 🙂

    Thanks, Dan! –DHS

  11. John says:

    At least you have Heat on your honourable mentions, but that’s definitely a top 3 movie of the 90’s. And I know these were the critics words, but how could Titanic represent American attitudes to death if James Cameron is Canadian?

    John – interesting point there about Cameron’s Canadian heritage. I would not want to speak for that writer/critic, but I imagine when they made the American claim they were referencing Cameron’s enormous success in the mainstream Hollywood system, which caters to American sensibilities. –DHS

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