THE SMOKE's 50 FAVORITE FILMS OF THE 90's: THE TOP 10
Yep - lists. The internet's overflowing with them. "8 Best Pie Flavors from Central America"...you get the idea. But a discussion of notable films from the 90's came up years ago among future 'smoke writers (back in what is now being referred to as "the myspace days"), and we wanted to bring that discussion back. All five participants - John Cribbs, Christopher Funderburg, Ian Loffill, Marcus Pinn and Stu Steimer - were asked to come up with their 75 favorite movies from that long-ago decade: the results were then calculated into one master list of 50. Each film will be written about over the next five weeks as we draw out this self-indulgent entry into the endless abyss of movie lists, classed up thanks to contributions from some of our favorite film writers.
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'s 41 - 50>>>
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'S 36 - 40>>>
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'S 31 - 35>>>
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'S 26 - 30>>>
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'S 21 - 25>>>
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'S 16 - 20>>>
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'S 11 - 15>>>
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'S 6 - 10>>>
5. MIAMI BLUES (1990, George Armitage)
4 votes - #3, #7, #30, #64
While it got decent reviews, Miami Blues would underperform at the box office on its release and I think it's fair to assume that it found more fans on video and television than it did on the big screen. This was somewhat ahead of its time, as offbeat crime movies would prove to be a mainstay of nineties cinema, whether it was Red Rock West, Pulp Fiction, Bottle Rocket or Palookaville. It's alternately funny, unpredictable, tense, exciting and violent but is one of those curious films that never really found the wider audience it deserved. For some of its participants it has unfortunately been relegated to a relatively minor footnote in their careers. It seems a bit unfair that Jennifer Jason Leigh is better known for something like Single White Female than this. It was an early sign that Alec Baldwin wasn't suited to conventional leading man status. Although perfectly adequate in films like The Hunt for Red October and The Getaway, they undermine his versatility. His gifts as an actor really shine through in roles like this, The Cooler and Glengarry Glen Ross. Fred Ward, who was also an executive producer on the film, was never a typical Hollywood star either but had something of a vintage year in 1990 with a run of starring roles in this, Tremors and Henry and June.
More than twenty years later, Miami Blues remains ripe for rediscovery. I think the film's semi-obscure status is partly down to the low profile of writer-director George Armitage, who has to date given us only two more features in the years since. It wouldn't surprise me if there was some Poltergeist/Thing from Another World-type rumour circulating that the producer was actually the real director and nominal director Armitage took the credit. There are some surface similarities to producer Jonathan Demme's two previous films, Something Wild and Married to the Mob (which also featured Baldwin.) The film was shot by Demme's regular director of photography Tak Fujimoto and Demme stalwart Charles Napier makes an always-welcome appearance. Even the fondness for small character parts (Obba Babatunde as the blind police informant Blink, Paul Gleason's corrupt police Sergeant) shows an affinity with Demme's work. Whereas Demme has a very observational style, Armitage (a sort of would-be auteur) seems altogether more interested in what makes his characters tick. He's made only a handful of films over a span of decades, many of which are difficult to get hold of. He might not need the work or only does films when it suits him, but it's hard to believe that this and the more popular Grosse Pointe Blank didn't lead to other offers or potential projects given his deft handling of the material and his ability to get the best out of his cast.
This is a good film to round off the list for me. Far more than any other period in film history, I had to dig a bit deeper to find the highlights of the nineties and this was one such case. I did much of my groundwork for becoming a film buff in the 1990's, but it was the films of yesteryear that I enjoyed much more at that point. An interest in contemporary film came later on, and while trying to figure out what were the truly worthwhile films of this period the very origins of this poll emerged online in an online thread. Many of the suggestions made for "the best films of the 90's" were completely new to me, but Miami Blues was one like Gremlins 2 that I was aware of but had never gotten around to watching. This was around the time I switched from checking out films that I had read about in books to the internet becoming my main source of prospective viewing. I doubt I have any nostalgia for the nineties or much affinity with the films the decade produced, so I can judge the films of this era pretty objectively. It's still difficult to say what defined cinema in the 1990's, from what I've seen there was no exciting individual talent on the same level as Godard in the sixties or Fassbinder in the seventies. There were big successes like Jurassic Park and Titanic, but I don't think we got a new cultural phenomenon from cinema that was on the same level as something like James Bond or Star Wars. Was there a picture in that decade as monumental as Intolerance or Andrei Rublev? Not that I'm aware of. By and large, I have stronger memories from that time of the films that disappointed (Sleepy Hollow, The Phantom Menace, Eyes Wide Shut and The Thin Red Line spring to mind) rather than the ones I enjoyed. A good reason why lists of this kind are handy and why cinema is such an interesting art form to explore is coming across gems like this. If Miami Blues is an indication of the kind of 90's films that are underappreciated and deserve a bigger following, then I certainly hope that much of the real treasure of this period is still out there waiting to be found.
4. LA CEREMONIE (1995, Claude Chabrol)
5 votes - #4, #8, #30, #42, #51
"I think I'm changing my style, but I'm just writing with different ink." - Chabrol
By the time he cast her in La cérémonie, Claude Chabrol had led Isabelle Huppert to the guillotine twice: she managed to circumvent her fate in one movie, but wasn't so lucky in the next. In both cases, the path to her own personal ceremony - "ceremony" being an old French gangster's term for execution via guillotine - is forged from Huppert's resentful sense of injustice, leading to a renouncement of responsibility and resulting in a subsequent death for which Huppert is prosecuted. That the poisoning of Violette's father is intentional while the death caused by Story of Women's Marie an accidental consequence of her negligence, yet Violette's epilogue saves its conniving heroine and Story's condemns the misguided Marie (both films are loosely based on real people whose sentencing took place in pre- and post-war France, respectively) says a lot about late-period Chabrol's own sense of justice. When Huppert took over for Stéphane Audran* as the director's most reliable leading lady, she reinvented the Chabrol heroine - previously best characterized as a noble, suffering victim - as headstrong yet bratty, clever yet immature, adventurous yet impulsive (it's appropriate that Huppert was introduced to the Charol universe attempting to murder Audran in Violette Nozière.) Huppert set the tone for the director's best work in the latter half of his career, in which he celebrated women's essential independence while revealing the horrible (and often humorous) effects of their misguided (and often homicidal) rebellions. Whereas Audran was so often left hapless by her character's male counterparts, her successors targeted their oppressors: hence Cry of the Owl's Mathilda May or The Bridesmaid's Laura Smet turning the tables on would-be stalkers, or Marie Trintignant's Betty and her very different way of dealing with the attack by her estranged husband's rich family than Audran in La rupture. Stumbling a little moving into the decade with the unfortunate Dr. M/Club Extinction and underwhelming Madam Bovary adaptation, Chabrol soon found his stride and peaked in the middle of the 90's with his ultimate tale of women lashing out against their perceived oppressors, which he jokingly referred to as "the last Marxist film."
In La cérémonie, the crimes of Huppert's two earlier Charbol characters - patricide (specifically the father, possibly the most tormented and/or doomed figure in all of Chabrol's films) and infanticide (how the law regarded Marie's termination of pregnancies) - are respectively attached to the background of Sophie and Jeanne, and once again the father's death is strongly suggested to have been intentional while the child's, like the death of Marie's patient in Story of Women, accidental. Sandrine Bonnaire's Sophie has managed to escape prosecution and gossip regarding her father's demise in a fire, remaining solitary and withdrawn,** while Huppert's postmistress Jeanne responds to what she sees as unspoken communal judgment against her by being the town's most impertinent flibbertigibbet following the suspicious death of her child. Perhaps because of their shared past of suspected murder, the two women form an almost instant bond, like two mischievous schoolgirls who meet in detention, laughing away what other people may think of them and their alleged criminal acts: where's the proof, anyway? They wordlessly validate each other's actions while sharing an unimpeachable sense of righteousness over everyone around them, not least of all the wealthy family for whom Sophie works as a maid.
One of the most popular and erroneous claims made of Chabrol's work is that he satirizes the sheltered bourgeoisie, but that's not something he's all that interested in. What he cares about more are how the less-fortunate perceive those who are well-off, not only in stature but in confidence and social graces. Jacqueline Bisset's Catherine Lelievre and her family aren't bad people; they're very supportive and loving of each other. If they're somewhat aloof and inherently ridiculous, it's only the way that satisfied people who live in a big house naturally behave. They're guilty of the occasional thoughtless moment, most notably when daughter Melinda, having generously pulled over to help Jeanne fix her car, tosses the oily rag back in Jeanne's face: to Jeanne, it's worse than a slap. Suddenly, it's not a gesture of kindness on Melinda's part but a contemptuous chance to display her superiority over Jeanne. Moments like these create ripples on the surface of an orderly household as Chabrol explores the relationship of master and servant. While the Lelievres act appropriately and even over-friendly towards Sophie, it's a decency that's almost intrusive, forced upon, meant as a reminder of who's in charge so that offers to help her learn to drive, to take her into town and finally to teach her to read and write just become, in Sophie's mind, more orders meant to demonstrate their authority over her. For their part, the Lelievres want to pretend their paid servant is happy in her work, that she isn't being exploited - smile dammit! We're being nice to you! Don't just do what we tell you, be our little pal and confidant! The relationship is based on unavoidable dehumanization and personal invasion, although as it progresses it starts to occur on both sides as Sophie, prompted by Jeanne, becomes a spy within the household. "Class war will always exist for the lower class," Chabrol stated, and naturally the war must end with guns and bloodshed. What besides the chaos of destruction could be the result of a film so stringently centered around rituals: a job interview, a tour of the house, a birthday party, ordering groceries, sorting through donations for the poor and, ultimately, a mock repetition of the opening tour that culminates with murder. The ceremony itself is repeated, as the murderers find themselves as quickly and shockingly condemned as their victims, in an epilogue that suggests the only real equality these characters will find is in death.
Most of the New Wavers were still very active by the 90's. Truffaut, Franju and Demy had already passed away, but Rohmer managed to begin and complete his Tales of the Four Seasons cycle (and even snuck another film or two in there as well.) The always-prolific Godard averaged one movie each year, including his massive 8-part video project Histoire(s) du cinéma. Varda made two documentaries about Demy, then one other film before sitting out the second half of the decade. Resnais offered the ambitious and weird Smoking/No Smoking and Same Old Story; Rivette mounted the production and release of the interminable La Belle Noiseuse, then did four more that I've never heard mentioned anywhere by anybody (three of them starring Sandrine Bonnaire.) Louis Malle, hot off late 80's international successes, did Damage and Vanya on 42nd Street before dying of cancer in 1995, the year La cérémonie came out. For his part, Chabrol released eight, at least three of them essential installments to his sizable filmography, of which La cérémonie is the clear masterpiece.
* Audran does make an uncredited cameo in La cérémonie, in a clip from Clabrol's Wedding in Blood that plays on the same TV the family will be slaughtered in front of at the end of the film.
** Just recently I wrote a summary of this film for the Jacob Burns Film Center; I literally spent hours trying to think of a good adjective to describe Sophie. "Withdrawn" was the best I could come up with.
3. BEAU TRAVAIL (1999, Claire Denis)
5 Votes - #3, #10, #12, #19, #46
Billy Budd, the Herman Melville novella on which Claire Denis' masterpiece is based, revolves around two central elements: man's natural hatred/jealousy of physical beauty and the injustice inherent in bureaucratic systems. It is the story of a sergeant at arms who hates a beautiful sailor and the neutral bureaucrat who perpetrates an injustice by sticking to the letter of the law. Aside from moving the story from its original setting to the contemporary French Foreign Legion in Djibouti, Denis places almost all of her emphasis on the first part of the equation (the power, the sheer force of physical beauty) and all but ignores the second. Billy Budd loops around Melville's typical concerns about the dehumanizing nature of bureaucracy; just as much of his original tale is devoted to the mechanism of Budd's punishment as the initial conflict with his Master-at-Arms Claggart that leads to the execution. Captain Vere, the bureaucrat charged with meting punishment, matters to the story more than Budd himself; in Beau Travail, you could be forgiven for failing to remember if the character has even been included (he hasn't.) Denis has taken "the power of physical beauty" as her subject and explores every facet of the concept, not just the negative responses it provokes - she is interested in the overwhelming intensity it inspires, both awed and spiteful. Her camera crawls over the shirtless, sweaty, perfectly formed bodies of the young legionnaires, both wary and seduced by the mysteries of those bodies' power. It is a heightened, sumptuous take expanding on Melville's theme, an essentially cinematic exploration of beauty's irresistible power and the misery it can provoke in those in its throes. Denis' camera perches a strange placidity on the edge of a void, coolly contemplating whether to launch itself into total oblivion, whether to submit to the revery that those writhing, languid, tawny bodies exude with a natural force: this is the story of toned, tawny bodies and chiseled jaws as forces of nature. These physical forms are in no way out of place amidst the crags and shorelines and oceans against which they are set - if anything, the majesty of the surrounding mountains struggles to pull our attention away from striking contrast of Billy Budd stand-in Gregoire Colin's soft sensitive features and rippling abs.
What Denis has faithfully retained is the simple, almost primal, elegance of the original story - Melville's work rarely contains much in the way of plot, the real show being his ornate language in service of his surprising iconoclasm and the vigorous clarity of his ideas. Melville gets labelled a "cynic" and, sure, I suppose that's fair. But Melville has a real love for his most difficult characters, his most morally gnarled creations. Hopelessly broken men like Bartleby, Pierre and Captain Ahab aren't objects of derision or pity to Melville: his portraits of these men are laced with sympathy - he doesn't want you to hate them or fear ending up like them, but to understand them and the environments with which they clash. Denis has this trait in common with Melville - she perhaps takes it even further in films like I Can't Sleep and Trouble Every Day where vicious killers, self-pitying victimizers are treated with tenderness and compassion. In fact, the downplaying of a true villain in Beau Travail, her decision to eschew an infuriating human embodiment of institutional injustice, represents this tendency for a Melville-like generosity towards moral ambiguity and rotten souls. Denis Lavant plays the Claggart role in her version of the tale and he takes over the narrative in a way that the original character never does; he possesses the film as an average man who appears almost deformed in contrast with Colin. Naturally, as with the original character, he's motivated by a hatred of the physical perfection that oppresses him, tormented by the insistent landscape of male sex-power around him - his torments would be easy enough to label as "homoerotic" if his reaction weren't far more complex than that. Many reviewers attempt to reduce both Melville's story and Denis' film to a story of repressed homosexual desire, but that's far duller than what either artist is actually expressing. Beauty's power is transcendental, awe-inspiring well beyond mundane, earthly concerns like sexual impulse. It exceeds rationality, short-circuits our biological systems and then shoves a mirror in our face and forces us to contemplate our own short-comings, our own imperfections. Beauty's evil is the way in which it reduces Lavant to his pock-marked cheeks, inexpressive hooded eyes and bony arms. A beautiful man is in harmony with the universe, an expansion of the landscape, at one with nature's Godliness. An ugly man will be forever warped by his inadequacy, unable to find total peace, in ceaseless conflict with nature's majesty.
The sheer brilliance of Beau Travail's aesthetics can't be over-stated; it is likely the most gorgeous film ever made. Along with frequent collaborators cinematographer Agnes Godard and editor Nell Quettier, Denis has out of thematic necessity created a film of sheer, sublime beauty. It is a dazzling, miraculous thing to behold. Denis' most bold decision is to film the legionnaires and their exercise regimens as dance pieces, their movements and forms pointedly recalling dancers' movements, their fluid gestures swaying with the music from Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd opera. It is an abstract ballet of military men set against a back-drop of Africa's most harsh and unforgiving landscapes. Most poignantly, Denis ends the film on a more literal dance sequence, a leaping and manic solo number performed by Lavant memorable for its shocking grace and agility, a transformative performance that suddenly finds Lavant every bit as physically engaging and impressive as his peers. Despite likely being a symbolic representation of a suicide, Denis presents it as a moment of hope amidst desperation: it is a moment revealing hidden beauty, unexpected beauty, spontaneous beauty; Lavant's movements have an improvised, explosive quality that feels as though his melancholy gambol is rushing fourth from some unknown source, his grace the result of an internal combustion that can find no other release. It is in moments like Lavant's performance that Beau Travail severs itself entirely from Melville's story, so original and shocking is its realization of the physical truth of Melville's observations. It exceeds Melville's enduring, invaluable artwork to become its own enduring, essential fantasia of lean bodies, elegant motion and dark blues seas crashing into rusty red cliffs; it is the word made flesh, the flesh made celluloid. A transfiguration of abstraction into being. Melville has always been characterized a cold and cynical writer, that his work could be retained with a measure of faith and turned into a film like Beau Travail proves that description is somewhat off the mark. Denis has always been a poet, a sculptor of impressionistic montages - Beau Travail is the film where she silences any critical voice doubting there is a rigorous, analytical mind of which the poetry works in service. Before Beau Travail, who could have guessed Melville and Denis are mirrors of each other: the poet of white men in Africa (and black men in Paris) and the dark philosopher of the open seas. Melville called his work "the great art of Telling the Truth" and Denis' camera finds brutal, intoxicating truths in the void of beauty and desperation.
2. NAKED (1993, Mike Leigh)
4 Votes - #1, #2, #2, #9
A friend of mine once described Johnny, the haggard and aged 27-year-old transient scumbag from Mike Leigh's Naked, as the character every male in their late and aimless 20's imagines they are after killing off a few pounders. It usually happens around that time when the window to confidence and clarity begins to crack, where all your anxieties and insecurities that followed you into the tavern at the beginning of the night get swept away in the breeze and you start to feel like a stronger man, an intellectually advanced superior of the human race, hovering above all these drunkards and gutter trash that strolled in under the veil of night to discuss platitudes that are so infuriatingly tedious and insignificant that you have no choice but to get the hell out of that place as fast as you can, your ego is soaring and everyone is dragging in the mud behind you like an anchor of cerebral dead weight. It's nearly two in the morning and the stench from the bar follows you out the door – a fine smoky mix of bitters and turpentine with all the sinking weary hopelessness that comes from another Tuesday night/Wednesday morning lost to the deluge of human drudgery. But never mind that because you feel more alive now than you have in months. This isn't the place for you. No one here is interested in anything remotely real and meaningful, they're swept up in their own goddamn pitiful distractions and devices. You start walking, frustrated that with all these people around no one is sharing your reality, hoping maybe you'll come across someone – one of the few not sleeping at this hour – that will actually be willing to enter a dialogue, a dialogue of something real. The last thing you think before blacking out is maybe one of these numbers etched onto this bathroom stall will lead you somewhere. Hours later your wallet's missing and whatever few words that you're able to slip past your lips are now completely indecipherable, if there's a complete sentence to be constructed in that cluttered mess of vowels and consonants there would be no point in trying to make sense of it, all of it the verbiage of a drunken idiot. Whatever. Even if you can't remember the night behind you, at least you are certain that you did something, that you experienced life and essence. You walk out of the fetid and dimly-lit space preparing for the blinding flood of light before finding yourself in the bar again, not even closing time: you find out later all you did was make a string of belligerent nonsensical hand gestures before falling asleep in your own piss and sweat. None of it even well-earned.
Having directed a good half dozen feature films and about twice as many teleplays, Mike Leigh had already had an impressive career going by the time Naked was released in 1993 and although the film follows a similar structure to his earlier work (heavily improvisational pieces regarding the British working class), the avenues that Naked travels down are significantly darker and more brooding than anything he's created before or since. There's no reason why one should care about Johnny; he's a condescending manipulator, a probable rapist and a leech off the society and people he has no real use or tolerance for, yet there is a certain fascination and understanding with the charismatic anti-hero of Leigh's film. Johnny's ranting and the pomposity exudes from his impromptu soapbox canon becomes justified when one takes into account the world they are up against. Johnny, though intellectually evolved without the benefit of a solid educational history, is not necessarily "smarter" than the strangers and acquaintances he meets as he drifts to and fro on his aimless Candide-like ventures through afterhours London – which includes members of all wakes of life and economic classes – but it is their willful ignorance and unquestioning pedantic abeyance that becomes so deeply frustrating to the character; exploding in esoteric rages about life, meaning, the universe becomes the only way to combat it as such.
I put Naked as my pick for the second best film of the 90's, but in fairness it really is the film of the 90's, and I don't say that to garner any shallow diplomacy. Mike Leigh described the film as essentially being about the end of the world, and in many ways it is exactly that. All unfounded fears of Millennialism aside, there is something unquestionably brooding about it all, not just with the film itself but with the entire paradigm of the modern western world.
It's 2012, months before the next great apocalyptic date (be it of Malachi or Quetzalcoatl.) I look out the window and I see that the sun in shining and the weather is a reasonably imperfect 53 degrees – a true rarity in Pittsburgh; the days that aren't flooded with ominous gray skies are marred with summer humidity so intense that the implementation of a straight razor to the skin becomes to the only source of absorbing air and ventilation. I believe in science and observation more than prophecy and numerology, and I see no forecasts of planetary collisions in the near future: gamma ray bursts are unlikely though not impossible. Yet even with all of this relative security that the world will somehow go on past the new year, beyond the 13th bak'tun, I have never felt more dread. I suppose much of it is based on my innate pessimism – a trait I have never felt entirely proud of – but there always feels to be something dark and brooding lying in the folds of the horizon. The interconnected-cum-isolationist swill, and the increasing lack of patience of everyone around me (I can't think of the last movie I saw in theaters that wasn't accompanied by people fucking talking at any point of there being a few seconds of silence on the screen) have made me a very frustrated young man. Maybe I just need to drink more. Or get a response on casual encounters.
1. [safe] (1995, Todd Haynes)
5 Votes - #2, #3, #21, #25, #30
A "safe" choice for the #1 slot? It might seem so: in a lot of ways, Todd Haynes' movie represented the peak of the Amerindie moment that made up a bulk of us budding film enthusiasts' formative years. Although it's a film from the same school as the Van Sants and set the stage for the Solondzes, [safe] isn't hindered by its indie tag, being just as firmly planted in the worlds of Douglas Sirk and Stanley Kubrick and Fassbinder* by route of Red Desert (in other words, it has something for everyone who ever liked a movie.) And speaking of red, Haynes' first collaboration with muse Julianne Moore** is hardly far from heaven: casting her as the delicately wilting Carol White was one of many impeccable moves on the director's part. Everything about the film, from its intricately textured script to its meticulous shot compositions, is as perfect as anyone could hope for...but at the same time, there's really nothing safe about [safe]. For a movie that's so carefully and elegantly stated, it's been laden with a plethora of interpretations over the years, tagged as an allegory for AIDS, a disease-of-the-week movie about the dangers of chemical exposure, a criticism of consumerist lifestyles and the hypocrisy of New Age healing centers. You could say the movie has been subjected to the same kind of oppressive scrutiny as its heroine's unexplained illness, audiences as naturally demanding of answers as Carol's supportive yet befuddled friends and family members, frustrated physicians and psychologists inclined towards easy explanations, or as quick to provide them as a self-help guru with "incredibly vast" perspectives. And like the various evaluations as to what's wrong with Carol, there's a certain validity to almost any reading of the film...even though most of them are largely wrong. It's funny to think that a lot of people love the movie without necessarily agreeing what it's about, but the fact that it's constructed precisely towards that purpose is part of the reason why we at the Pink Smoke have concurred that it's close enough to perfect to be considered the best film of its respective decade.
So why do some people find the film confusing or have such misguided ideas about it? Probably because it's centered around a confused person with misguided ideas about her own life. [safe]*** is set solely and firmly in Carol's world, any audience confusion is her own. The open space surrounding her is suffocating; it would be tempting to call her agoraphobic, if any diagnostic label could be attached, but the point is that her telling symptoms are contradictory to any simple analysis. Those kinds of contradictions are what make up the movie: the character's threatening secure environment, its ample yet invasive expansions, tight framing that would feel confining if it wasn't catching Carol in rare moments of control and self-assuredness. Like the final scene, not ambiguous as it's often suggested, but a way to end the film on a stasis that's both horrifying and beautiful at the same time (only differing interpretations make the scene ambiguous.) Carol herself, physically feeble, is one solid contradiction: she lives in a big house filled with paid help and brand new furniture, she has lots of largely vapid friends and a successful husband, with everything in its right place but it's not the glaring superficiality on display that's causing her to spasm and hemorrhage blood. It's something more elusive and interior, a biological appraisal of her own self-worth where she's beginning to sense that nothing and nobody around her has anything to do with her. Everywhere and at all times, there's the reminder that she is out of sync with the fabric of the world; nothing belongs to her or fits her, new haircuts don't help and wedding photos seem like pictures of strangers. But because she's compelled to blame herself for her own displacement, the illness reveals itself as a crippling fear of imperfection: entering a room to find the wrong couches have been delivered draws the kind of reaction more befitting the discovery of a gruesome crime scene. From that point on she's an open wound, and it's only natural that any other environmental imbalance would unhinge her so that she see threats coming around every corner. Car fumes suddenly become noxious gases. She walks into a dry cleaners to find it taken over by menacing spacemen in masks. Her only slightly-altered routine at the beauty salon ends in blood. Allergic to the conditions of her own life, traumatized by the everyday existence of people and things that are overwhelmingly anomalous, but convinced she's the problem - that like the couches, she "doesn't go with anything" - Carol begins to crave sterility and isolation.
Does Carol realize what's happening to her? Of course not: it's easier and more comfortable to identify the illness and seek treatment, ignoring the suggestion that it may actually be a disease with a purpose, even a liberating one. That might seem like a funny way to characterize an illness that brings about violent seizures, but for Carol to suppress the disease is to ignore the natural signs that something in her life is wrong. Instead of bringing her to a better understanding of herself, the potentially redeeming disease is subjected to another impediment - the cure. The last thing Carol needs is another man telling her why she's sick and what she should do about it, and while Haynes doesn't really paint the retreat at Wrenwood as hypocritical (it's not exploitive to charge money for a service people think they need; if anything, he suggests that institutions are no more duplicitous than the patients themselves) he sticks to the idea of the things we surround ourselves with to feel safe that are in fact threatening, whether it's a flashy house or hermetically sealed igloo. Carol's cure isn't change, it's acceptance: taking responsibility for something that isn't her fault, to destroy the feeling of detachment and discomfort, but only to the extent where she doesn't have to feel guilty about her own inability to change. She's desperate to get back to an existence where she doesn't have to worry about her own problems, to get back on course on a life with no real promise or future - by refuting the illness, she's crying for normalcy. By showing Carol being coached on how to be normal, like there's some surefire instruction manual, Haynes expands on themes from Superstar and Poison, not just disease and infection as viral warning signs against harmful lifestyles but the cure as denial. Another contradiction in his films is a contrast of the positive with the negative, such as image and self-torture in Superstar, homosexuality and criminality/sex and disease/liberation and murder in Poison...in [safe], the disease has positive aspects while the cure presents hindering negatives, always stalking about in the background like Lester, a Frankenstein's monster of insularity. Carol's disease becomes her addiction, her identity, who she is - why cure it when there's so much personality to be cultivated from suffering? Not to suggest that it's all in her head, as her husband and doctors would like to believe, only rather than a product of chemicals or fabrics or dog hair or "the 20th century," it's a reaction to the cluttered, empty space around people who seem to have it all figured out, moving naturally from one step to another like there's a map laid out in front of them. The only way Carol begins to feel important, or that anything has to do with her, is by disappearing entirely within her disease ("The only person who can make you get sick is you, right?") Even at Wrenwood, she battles this need with the similarly unconscious need to give away control and let others determine what's best for Carol in a controlled environment dedicated to wellness and health. The more she buys into herself as a sick person desperate to see herself "more as I am," the further away she is from realizing that this is what she's become.
* I'm thinking specifically of Fear of Fear, although Carol also exhibits some of Martha's latent masochism.
** Moore's other two movies from 1995? Chris Columbus' Nine Months and Richard Donner's Assassins.
*** Do I feel silly including the brackets in the title? Hell no, it's arguably the most appropriate use of syntax applied to a 90's movie title...definitely more effective than the slash in Face/Off.
AND THAT'S IT! HERE'S THE FULL LIST:
1. [safe] (1995, Todd Haynes)
2. Naked (1993, Mike Leigh)
3. Beau Travail (1999, Claire Denis)
4. La cérémonie (1995, Claude Chabrol)
5. Miami Blues (1990, George Armitage)
6. Rushmore (1998, Wes Anderson)
7. In the Company of Men (1997, Neil Labute)
8. Crash (1996, David Cronenberg)
9. The Celebration (1998, Thomas Vinterberg)
10. A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Edward Yang)
11. Henry Fool (1997, Hal Hartley)
12. Gremlins 2 (1990, Joe Dante)
13. The Butcher Boy (1998, Neil Jordan)
14. Lessons of Darkness (1992, Werner Herzog)
15. Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter)
16. Surviving Desire (1991, Hal Hartley)
17. Poison (1991, Todd Haynes)
18. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999, Errol Morris)
19. Satantango (1994, Bela Tarr)
20. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995, Todd Solondz)
21. Breaking the Waves (1996, Lars von Trier)
22. One False Move (1992, Carl Franklin)
23. Out of Sight (1998, Steven Soderbergh)
24. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998, Stuart Gordon)
25. The Grifters (1990, Stephen Frears)
26. Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
27. Heat (1995, Michael Mann)
28. Barton Fink (1991, The Coen Brothers)
29. Buffalo 66 (1998, Vincent Gallo)
30. Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson)
31. Life is Sweet (1990, Mike Leigh)
32. Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-Wai, 1990)
33. Spanking the Monkey (1994, David O. Russell)
34. The Match Factory Girl (1990, Aki Kaurismaki)
35. Audition (1999, Takashi Miike)
36. Chameleon Street (1990, Wendell B. Harris)
37. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)
38. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, Carl Franklin)
39. The Rapture (1991, Michael Tolkin)
40. The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick)
41. Clockers (1995, Spike Lee)
42. The Insider (1999, Michael Mann)
43. 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994, Michael Haneke)
44. Naked Lunch (1991, David Cronenberg)
45. Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven)
46. Out for Justice (1991, John Flynn)
47. Ratcatcher (1999, Lynne Ramsay)
48. Black Robe (1991, Bruce Beresford)
49. Last Night (1998, Don McKellar)
50. Bad Lieutenant (1992, Abel Ferrara)
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