The best films of the ’90s: orphans, outliers, and personal favorites
Getting eight critics with disparate tastes to come together for our Best Films Of The ’90s list wasn’t easy, and it naturally resulted in some painful omissions—some great films that didn’t quite make the Top 50, others that didn’t survive the second ballot, and still more that are personal favorites but didn’t have a broad enough base of support. If the big list was about consensus, the outliers here are about passion. These are the overlooked, the underrated, the obscure—and often the films that mean the most to us personally.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
Although he’d been in the business for nearly 20 years, working chiefly for no-budget king Roger Corman, George Armitage entered the ’90s as a virtual unknown, then proceeded to direct two of the decade’s sharpest and most memorable movies. After the acidic, burnt-coffee satire of Miami Blues, it took seven years for Armitage to reach theaters with a new film, but his black-comic sensibility was a perfect fit for John Cusack’s hand-tooled satire Grosse Pointe Blank. Cusack, who reworked an existing script with several longtime friends, is a profoundly limited actor, but there’s one part he excels at playing, so much so that Say Anything…, Grosse Pointe Blank, and High Fidelity can be read as a continuous story despite the fact that they’re about different characters. Imagine Lloyd Dobler if he’d been dumped by Diane Court, drifting through his 20s, and it’s easy to accept him ending up as a morally flexible hitman, especially one conflicted enough about his life choices to end up at his 10-year high-school reunion. What could be a sniggering what-if blossoms into a sharply written, perfectly realized critique of post-collegiate amorality that also boasts one of the decade’s best soundtracks.
The Cable Guy (1996)
Jim Carrey’s then-unprecedented $20 million salary had critics waiting with knives out for The Cable Guy, and they slashed when the film underperformed. But with the black cloud of Carrey’s record payday dissipated by time, the film emerges as a sharp, blissfully black-hearted comedy, albeit one designed to give Ace Ventura fans the creeps. A desperately lonely cable installer who sees life only through the prism of TV shows, the title character is TV culture made flesh, a trenchant and sometimes terrifying comment on the disparity between small-screen life and the world outside the frame. The film’s failure sent Carrey scurrying for the safety of Liar Liar, and director Ben Stiller has never directed a film half as sharp since, but little-known producer (and uncredited screenwriter) Judd Apatow has done all right for himself.
Flowers Of Shanghai (1998)
A heart-stopping study in repressed desire, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien gives a tour de force exploration of a 19th-century Shanghai brothel in a string of achingly sustained sequence shots. Lit by the glow of oil lanterns filtered through an opium-smoke haze, it’s a more daring, and ultimately more caustic, cousin to Raise The Red Lantern, a crowning work by a master whose films remain far too hard to see.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that few wanted to see a movie about a man and woman grappling with the guilt of surviving a catastrophic plane crash, but it’s a tragedy of a different scale that Peter Weir’s great Fearless has never received its due. Rosie Perez has never reached deeper than she does as the distraught mother of a child whose body was ripped from her embrace on impact, and Jeff Bridges’ quiet anguish is the equal of any of his career’s high points. Currently out of print, and only ever issued in the U.S. as a pan-and-scan transfer, Fearless is long overdue for much-needed rediscovery.
Buffalo ’66 (1998)
Few movie scenarios are as noxious as the stunted man-child who’s saved by the unconditional love of a fantasy babe, but Vincent Gallo’s directorial debut pushes the conceit so far into absurdism that it seems to become self-aware, à la Skynet. Gallo himself plays a seething ball of reflexive hostility who, just an hour or two after being released from prison, kidnaps a young woman (Christina Ricci) and then talks her into posing as his wife for the benefit of his parents, who think he’s been away for years working for the C.I.A. As the title suggests, it’s a film about somebody trapped in the past, so conditioned to expect disappointment that he can’t perceive an improbable miracle standing right next to him. Bizarrely manic and/or stilted performances (Ricci is a wonder), expressionistic musical interludes set to prog-rock classics, and Gallo’s ludicrous vendetta against a Bills placekicker who missed a crucial field goal combine to create a jaggedly moody reverie that works hard to earn its unexpectedly giddy ending.
Miami Blues (1990)
Setting its plot in motion by having the antihero break a Hare Krishna’s finger at the airport for no reason, George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s first Hoke Moseley novel never gets within cab-hailing distance of predictability thereafter. Fred Ward plays the cop investigating the incident, but the film is just as interested in the perpetrator (Alec Baldwin) and his new hooker girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), somehow managing to acknowledge the former’s amorality and the latter’s stupidity without ever crossing the line into cheap condescension. All three actors give career-high performances, but the real star of Miami Blues is the little-known, criminally underrated Armitage, whose unique sensibility teeters between mordant comedy and barbed pathos. That he succeeds in putting an endearing, faintly amused spin on material this potentially seamy is nothing short of miraculous.
A Moment Of Innocence (1996)
In 1974, a young Iranian dissident named Mohsen Makhmalbaf stabbed a police officer during a demonstration. He was arrested, jailed, and eventually released, then became one of the country’s most notable filmmakers. Two decades later, he decided to seek out the policeman and collaborate with him on a dramatization of the incident. But A Moment Of Innocence isn’t a documentary (the cop is played by an actor, instructing another actor on how to portray him as a young man), and to say that the re-creation doesn’t go as planned would be an understatement. Every bit as richly complex and slyly self-aware as the more widely celebrated (in the West) films of Abbas Kiarostami, A Moment of Innocence is a dizzying hybrid of autobiography and mythology, in which Makhmalbaf takes the worst moment of his life and boldly reimagines it as a testament to our innate decency and capacity for love. If the final freeze-frame doesn’t swell your heart to bursting, consider an emergency cardiogram.
It’s probably safe to conclude at this point that Hal Hartley peaked early, which may explain why few seem to remember how gloriously daffy his second feature was. (Its continued unavailability in the U.S. on DVD or Blu-ray doesn’t help.) Fashioning a weirdly asexual romance between a pregnant high-school dropout (the late Adrienne Shelly) and an electronics repairman with severe anger-management issues (Martin Donovan), Trust saw Hartley achieve the best synthesis of his deliberately mannered dialogue, jarring tonal shifts, and off-kilter rhythms. (Editor Nick Gomez went on to become a notable director in his own right.) Its DNA is visible in the work of filmmakers as disparate as Noah Baumbach and Kevin Smith; hopefully, there will be a Criterion edition someday to influence the next generation of idiosyncratic artists.
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)
Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s vicious, drug-fueled screed about the meaning of Las Vegas and the corruption of the hippie ideal doesn’t just attempt to translate Thompson’s stream-of-consciousness prose into pictures; it also conveys the soul of Thompson’s writing, which at its best was about a chemically altered man seeing through all the fake politeness of the world and not knowing whether to laugh or puke. Most of Gilliam’s film consists of Johnny Depp (as Thompson surrogate Raoul Duke) rambling nonsensically and leaving a trail of destruction across Vegas, all of which Gilliam captures with a relentlessly wobbling camera and shifting color schemes. That Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is so watchable (and re-watchable) is a credit to Gilliam’s visual invention, as well as to Depp, whose bellowing narration explicates the action and whose sweet face belies Thompson’s rage and dementia. The writer’s loathing has always been easy to grasp; Depp gets beneath the fear.
Malcolm X (1992)
For Spike Lee to make his dream project, he had to fight with his studio for every dollar of budget and minute of screen time, but it was worth any bridges he had to burn. Lee’s Malcolm X covers the boyhood, criminal years, multiple conversions, and assassination of the controversial Nation Of Islam leader, with each section getting its own appropriate style—some very true to 1992, and others more reminiscent of classic Hollywood musicals, gangster pictures, and epics. Plus, Malcolm X contains the greatest screen performance of the ’90s, with Denzel Washington replicating the oratorical fire that swayed millions. Just as Lee’s sensibility suffuses the movie, so too is Washington wholly present—not just uncannily impersonating an icon, but making him a fully realized movie character. Ultimately, Malcolm X offers a nuanced, persuasive take on a volatile period in American race relations, using the changes that Malcolm himself went through as a way of showing that nothing is as static or fixed as it looks in a history book.
The Player (1992)
Robert Altman spent much of the late ’70s and the entirety of the ’80s on the outs in Hollywood, left to make movies with small casts and minuscule budgets. Then, out of the blue, he got to make a Robert Altman film again. Michael Tolkin’s novel The Player is a sly murder mystery that doubles as an indictment of Hollywood executives who believe themselves to be more brilliant than any of the writers, directors, or stars they employ. Altman’s version of the story—from Tolkin’s screenplay—downplays the crime-and-punishment angle and just romps through Los Angeles in the early ’90s, with dozens of big-name stars playing “themselves” as they interact with a slick, morally bankrupt exec played by Tim Robbins. Altman’s vision of Hollywood doesn’t have bustling studio backlots and fast-talking big shots; it has businessmen bullshitting each other in glorified suburban office-parks. And yet Altman also shows how fun movies can be, whether he’s engineering a lengthy tracking shot, playing with color and shadow, or demonstrating how a genuine star can light up the screen.
The Remains Of The Day (1993)
The arthouse went mainstream in the ’90s, led in tandem by edgy genre films and the kind of tasteful literary adaptations mastered by the filmmaking team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. Film buffs tend to have more respect for the former than the latter, which may be why The Remains Of The Day isn’t as canonical as it should be. Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains stars Anthony Hopkins as a butler so devoted to service that he leaves only a few hours and crumbs for himself. Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala gets to the meat of Ishiguro’s story, which is set primarily in the years prior to WWII, in a house where the gentleman politicians of Europe gather to hash out the rebuilding of Germany. The Merchant-Ivory touch—defined by restrained performances and lavish detail—jibes perfectly with the theme of irrational propriety, exemplified by a butler who can’t confess his feelings to housekeeper Emma Thompson. Subtly but surely, Hopkins becomes emblematic of the intractable British class system, and of the traits that led the UK to underestimate Hitler.
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
For most directors, just borrowing the narrative framework of Citizen Kane to tell the story of the rise and fall of a David Bowie-like rock star would be audacious enough. In Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ return trip to ’70s glam rock, it’s just one risky element in a film that mixes fact and fiction to unpack a genre that freely trafficked in fantasy. Offering a just-this-side-of-reality version of events, the film posits the explosion of glam as a moment of sexual liberation, a window that opened then narrowed as the culture changed before slamming shut in the ’80s, portrayed here as an almost-Orwellian dystopia of corporate rock and conservative politics. It’s a daring way of getting at the bigger truths by fudging the facts a bit.
The Rapture (1991)
No doubt inspired by the rise of the religious right in the previous decade, The Rapture takes Christian fundamentalism seriously and, unlike most critiques of the movement, engages it on its own terms. Mimi Rogers plays a hard-partying Los Angeles resident who falls under the sway of a church who believes in the imminent arrival of the End Times. Writer-director Michael Tolkin follows her journey of faith to its logical conclusion, up to a shocking finale that suggests even if fundamentalism is correct in every detail about God, it’s still, in a larger sense, immoral.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Harvey Keitel began the decade by taking a series of roles—in films like Reservoir Dogs, Thelma & Louise, and The Piano—that helped revive a career that had flagged a bit in the ’80s. None offered more challenges than his lead performance in Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara’s uncompromising portrait of a New York cop gone wrong. Addicted to drugs, in debt, and used to taking casual advantage of his position, he’s pushed into a crisis of faith while investigating the rape of a nun who forgives her attackers. Beneath the copious nudity, drug use, and abuses of power that earned the film an NC-17 rating and pre-release controversy, Ferrara’s film is a story of grace and faith, one that grapples with the idea that God’s forgiveness extends to even the seemingly unforgivable (making it an ideal companion piece to The Rapture, come to think of it).
Happy Together (1997)
Wong Kar-wai brought to Happy Together the same on-the-fly filmmaking brilliance that made him an international filmmaking star with the companion pieces Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, but applied it to less crowd-pleasing ends to tell a claustrophobic, circular tale of soured romance. Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung star as a Hong Kong couple living in Argentina and engaging in a seemingly endless cycle of breaking up and making up. The film is frank in its sexuality, raw in its emotions, weirdly thrilling in the way it plants viewers squarely in the middle of a love gone wrong, and, in the end, uplifting in the way it holds out a sliver of light after so much darkness.
Beyond The Mat (1999)
In the key moment in Beyond The Mat, a darkly fascinating inside-wrestling documentary by comedy writer Barry Blaustein, one-time World Wrestling Federation superstar turned crack addict Jake “The Snake” Roberts wearily discusses how he grew so debauched and extreme in his sexual tastes that it was no longer enough to sleep with one groupie after a match. No, he had to sleep with two, then three women. Eventually, Roberts’ predilections grew so extreme that he could only be satisfied watching groups of strangers get it on while he looked on sullenly. The bitterly funny monologue speaks volumes about the mindless, ultimately self-defeating and self-destructive hedonism of wrestling at the top levels, as well as the tortured souls drawn to a field where even the greatest champions endure all manner of physical and emotional pain. The film is unflinching and unblinking in its depiction of the seedy underbelly of a field that occupies some strange halfway point between a sideshow and a legitimate sport. Think of Beyond The Mat as a real-life version of The Wrestler; screenwriter (and friend of The A.V. Club) Rob Siegel has cited the documentary as an influence on his script, especially the scenes involving Roberts.
John Woo’s American career has more lows (Mission Impossible 2, Paycheck) than highs, but he broke through spectacularly with the wonderfully preposterous Face/Off. The big-budget action-adventure casts preeminent camp icons John Travolta and Nicolas Cage—neither of whom had yet worn out their welcome with critics or audiences—as an obsessed FBI agent and a dastardly international criminal, respectively, who trade faces and places thanks to the magic of a process known as “face transplant surgery.” “Over the top” doesn’t begin to do justice to the film’s hilariously excessive aesthetic and melodramatic contrivances. Woo pushes the insanity and shamelessness of his narrative to delirious extremes while giving his scenery-devouring stars an excuse to spoof each other’s well-defined personas, as well as their own. In the process, Woo transforms what could easily have been debilitating faults—over-acting, unapologetic kitsch, bad taste, a surreal disconnect from even the fuzziest conception of recognizable reality—into secret strengths.
Quiz Show (1994)
Robert Redford’s mesmerizing Quiz Show examines the American mania for success at all costs through the true story of an aristocratic professor and public intellectual (Ralph Fiennes) coaxed into cheating on a popular game show called Twenty One after audiences and sponsors tire of the show’s reigning champion, a grating Queens resident played by an uncompromisingly irritating John Turturro. Quiz Show has the suspense and tension of a top-notch thriller, but derives its most lasting resonance as an allegory for a fiercely competitive nation where the system is inherently rigged in favor of pre-ordained winners, everyone is compromised to one extent or another, and no one is truly innocent.
As a filmmaker, Richard Linklater is blessed with all-encompassing curiosity: The world and its colorful inhabitants are a source of enduring fascination for him. Linklater’s Slacker is motivated by such a profound and restless sense of intellectual curiosity that it can’t stick with any one character or subject for too long before it darts off in search of an exhilarating new idea or bold new figure. It’s ADD filmmaking at its most manic and inspired, a freewheeling, proudly plotless ramble through the collegiate world of ideas rooted in Linklater’s native Austin and populated by a vivid, colorful assortment of slackers, homespun philosophers, and out-and-out lunatics. In its own shaggy, meandering way, Slacker defined a generation while introducing arthouse audiences to an important new filmmaker who revisited this brainy, free-associative material with similarly spectacular, if darker, results in the animated 2001 quasi-sequel Waking Life.
Lone Star (1996)
Writer-director John Sayles is best known for his ’80s films (Matewan, Eight Men Out, The Brother From Another Planet), but he was doing more sophisticated, delicate work throughout the ’90s: Passion Fish, The Secret Of Roan Inish, and Limbo are among his best. And then there’s Lone Star, his complicated drama about a Texas sheriff (Chris Cooper) trying to unravel a 40-year-old murder mystery that almost certainly implicates his own father, former sheriff Matthew McConaughey. There’s far more going on than the whodunit: Sayles teases out a number of intertwined plot threads involving Cooper’s troubled relationship with McConaughey, the local mythology about McConaughey, and how Cooper’s own reputation as a lawman is affected by his father’s. It’s a beautiful puzzlebox of a movie, showing how one generation’s mistakes, risks, and daring gambits shape the next generation’s, but are often hidden from them. And the ending, while subdued and thoughtful rather than explosive, is among Sayles’ most powerful work.
After Life (1998)
Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-Eda makes memorable, closely observed films, but none of the others (like I Wish, Maborosi, and Nobody Knows) are as strange as his After Life, which posits an unusual view of existence after death. In the quiet, contemplative drama, the recently dead go to a run-down metaphysical facility where they contemplate their lives and pick their single most precious memory, which the facility’s staff then re-creates on a shoestring budget and plays for them in a final triumphant miniature film festival before they go on to the next step. It’s unclear what it all means: Do they take these memories with them? Or live on in them forever? Or are they just being given one last look at the best things they accomplished with their lives? And why is the afterlife run like a seriously underfunded civil-service office? Kore-Eda’s focus isn’t on the answers, though, it’s on the milieu and the emotions, both of people looking back on their lives for meaning, and of the good-natured, workaday afterlife employees gently trying to help them. It’s a sweet film, beautifully shot and as pleasantly melancholy as a late fall evening. But it’s also irresistibly unique, given the creative premise and idiosyncratic execution.
The Iron Giant (1999)
Brad Bird keeps hitting it out of the park with his films (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol), which manage to get action and heart into the same storylines without feeling forced. But there’s a special delight to his feature directorial debut, the animated children’s movie The Iron Giant. It flopped in theaters, but it’s taken on a considerable cult following since the ’90s. Set in the ’50s, and drawing on Cold War nuclear paranoia for its plot and some of its emotional intensity, it centers on an alien robot who forges an oddball relationship with a young boy, who tries to protect the robot from the U.S. military. It’s hard to convey through that description why the film works so well, but in part it has to do with Bird’s unhurried sequences of a lonely, imaginative kid thoroughly enjoying his unusual new companion, and Bird’s ongoing exploration of the idea that people can, with difficulty that always pays off, find their greatest fulfillment in resisting other people’s labeling. The climax of this film, where one of the characters makes that choice at great cost, is an indelible moment that belongs on the all-time great scenes in cinema lists.
The Last Seduction (1994)
Classic noir films usually stick by the hapless male patsy, following him through his mystery-solving paces and leaving the femme fatale offscreen as much as possible, to preserve her mystery and power. Director John Dahl and screenwriter Steve Barancik reverse the dynamic with The Last Seduction, which focuses far more on the knotty plotting of female lead Linda Fiorentino than on her catspaw, Peter Berg. While the camera watches her work—masterminding a drug deal with husband Bill Pullman, then ripping him off, embedding herself in a small town that crimps her style, and launching a whole new scheme—it still preserves her mystery. She never explains her plans, and she’s smart enough to stay a step or two ahead of the audience, not to mention the rubes around her. (While she never tips her hand, her occasional flicker of disbelief at just how easily she fools or manipulates everyone around her offers a hint as to what’s going on inside.) Fiorentino and Dahl have never been better, but Barancik’s script deserves a good bit of credit as well. The Last Seduction is an unusually tight, funny, but bitter neo-noir that plays malice for cruel laughs without taking the edge off it.
The Age Of Innocence (1993)
One of the great films about unrequited love, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel hews so closely to the text that viewers can practically hear the pages flipping in their heads. Yet The Age Of Innocence is a Martin Scorsese picture through and through, depicting the unspoken rules that govern 19th-century New York high society as no less unforgiving and life-wrecking as those that govern the mafiosos in Goodfellas and Casino. In Scorsese’s hands, the sumptuous trappings of New York’s elite are rendered suffocating and oppressive, and the polite parlor talk is laced with gossip-circle toxicity. As the engaged Daniel Day-Lewis and the scandalized Michelle Pfeiffer seek to act on the passion that develops between them, the film patiently and devastatingly reveals the forces that bear down on them. It is a world, in Wharton’s words, “balanced so precariously that its harmony could be shattered by a whisper,” and Scorsese conveys the emotional violence of those whispers just as forcefully as a bullet to the back of the head.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
When Warner Bros. decided, after a mysterious six-year lapse, to make a sequel to its 1984 hit Gremlins, the studio naturally turned to director Joe Dante, who could surely be counted on to deliver a second time under minimal supervision. But leaving a pop anarchist like Dante the keys to the studio kingdom is like trusting Lucy from Peanuts to hold the football straight—he’s going to swipe it away every time. Channeling the spirit of Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin, Gremlins 2: The New Batch uses the full resources of Warner Bros.—including some Looney Tunes—to unleash chaos, discarding conventional plot points in favor of inspired visual gags, layers of referential and self-referential jokes, and a deft commentary on the hiccups of mechanized modernity. Dante’s longstanding contempt for Gizmo—the cuddly, cooing, merchandisable Mogwai—leads him to champion the mischief-making gremlins and, by extension, the little rebels in his audience.
Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s 450-minute magnum opus may be the decade’s ultimate endurance test—“I survived Sátántangó” T-shirts would be popular among hardcore cinephiles—but it feels like a movie completely out of time, as transporting in its way as a piece of science fiction. Unfolding in a 12-part structure that mimics the tango—six steps forward, six steps back, with key scenes revisited from a different angle—Sátántangó visits a Hungarian collective-farming community that’s collapsing in the twilight of communism. From the famous opening tracking shot, Tarr and his cinematographer, Gábor Medvigy, give this locale the quality of a muddy, fog-swamped ghost town, populated by a handful of diminished spirits who scrap over the pittance they’re due to receive for shutting it down. It’s unremittingly bleak to be sure—the most gripping chapter has a little girl taking her powerlessness out on a cat—but it’s as singular an achievement as anything the decade produced.
The Match Factory Girl (1990)
The working-class politics of Aki Kaurismäki’s films are nearly always accompanied—and sometimes diluted—by a gentle, quirky humanism and cinema’s most eclectic soundtracks. Not so The Match Factory Girl, the third in Kaurismäki’s “proletariat trilogy” (after Shadows In Paradise and Ariel) and a welcome anomaly for its stark, uncompromising, minimalist take on the “Hell hath no fury” maxim. One of the director’s favorite actresses, Kati Outinen stars as a lonely, put-upon assembly-line worker who absorbs the abuses of her parents and a one-night-stand who cruelly dismisses her the next morning. Her response to all who have wronged her—and other collateral players—is Medea-like in its shocking resolve, made more powerful by the fact that Kaurismäki never did anything like it before or since.
Office Space (1999)
Mike Judge’s workplace comedy is more than just an immensely quotable basic-cable classic. It’s a genuine interrogation into what’s considered a successful life and the ways in which we resign ourselves to routines that make us miserable. That this concept comes packed amid some brilliantly comedic characters and sequences—including Gary Cole as the smarmy Bill Lumbergh, the hated fax machine, and the minimum required number of pieces of flair—is what makes the film so incredibly re-watchable. Office Space is a very funny movie with a very dark sensibility, and its world of Initech cubicles, morning traffic, downsizing consultants, thin-walled apartments, and chain restaurants is a stealthily grim portrait of modern life.
Point Break (1991)
Kathryn Bigelow’s surfers-turned-bank-robbers saga is a ridiculous action movie, but it’s ridiculous in all the best ways, fully committed in both its pulse-pounding moments and in its bromantic pairing between Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah and Patrick Swayze’s charismatic Bodhi. Bigelow has a gift for portraying male friendships with a particularly female gaze, which gives the relationship between the FBI agent and the suspected criminal an undeniable emotional resonance despite Reeves not turning in the most nuanced of performances. And sequences like the night surfing, the masked chase, and parachute-free skydive are fantastically directed, the low-IQ blockbuster as surprising cinematic poetry.
Comrades: Almost A Love Story (1996)
Peter Chan’s drama tracks not-quite lovers Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai over years and continents, first to Hong Kong, where she wheels and deals while he’s fresh from the mainland, and later to the U.S. It’s a bittersweet story of two people who never seem to get their timing right and a resolutely unromanticized look at leaving home to seek your fortune, with the two leads tracing a common immigrant path from China and experiencing ups and down as they’re buffeted by the economy and government regulation. Cheung’s failed plan to sell Teresa Teng cassettes at a festival and the subsequent reveal is an expressly poignant moment that comes back around to the film’s wonderful ending, in which the familiar can still be stumbled upon, no matter how far the characters have come from where they started.
The Piano (1993)
Jane Campion’s dark fairy tale has not only a great central performance from Holly Hunter, but also a fantastic and strange lead character in her Ada McGrath, who chooses to give up speaking as a little girl, has a daughter (a debuting Anna Paquin) outside of wedlock, and is sold off to marriage to a stranger in New Zealand. Filled with striking imagery, from the intricate coils of Hunter’s hair to the makeshift shelter of a hoop skirt to a note inscribed on a piano key, The Piano offers up a passionate and unsettling love story in a place barely touched by Western civilization.
Next: We share our most-hated films of the ’90s in AVQ&A. Read our first 20 films of the ’90s here, our second 20 films of the ’90s here, and our top 10 films of the ’90s here. Listen to what we have to say about how the decade changed cinema in Reasonable Discussions.