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 Adoration — hasn’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
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
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.
And now, David H. Schleicher presents his Top 25 Films of the 1990’s, followed by a chronological list of honorable mentions:
- The Sweet Hereafter (1997, Atom Egoyan)
- Europa/Zentropa (1990, Lars Von Trier)
- Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)
- Fargo (1996, The Coen Brothers)
- Secrets and Lies (1996, Mike Leigh)
- Breaking the Waves (1996, Lars Von Trier)
- The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
- Short Cuts (1993, Robert Altman)
- Kundun (1997, Martin Scorsese)
- Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)
- Braveheart (1995, Mel Gibson)
- Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson)
- The Thief (1997, Pavel Chukhraj)
- King of the Hill (1993, Steven Soderbergh)
- Toto the Hero (1991, Jaco Van Dormael)
- American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes)
- Miller’s Crossing (1990, The Coen Brothers)
- The Truman Show (1998, Peter Weir)
- Twelve Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)
- Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze)
- Ravenous (1999, Antonia Bird)
- Three Colors: Blue (1993, Krzysztof Kieslowksi)
- Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson)
- The End of the Affair (1999, Neil Jordan)
- 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)
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.