THE SMOKE's 50 FAVORITE FILMS OF THE 90's
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>>>
15. TOY STORY (1995, John Lasseter)
I don't mean to sound like a crotchety old man but most family-oriented movies are loud, bright, blinking Burger King advertisements designed strictly for little kids (the irony of course is that Burger King was the main product/advertisement in Toy Story.) Since the 90's, rarely has there been a true family film. The kind of movie that can be enjoyed by a 5-year-old just as much as a 45-year-old. That's what Toy Story is. Toy Story is one of the more special movies on this list. I mean, who are we kidding? Part of this "Favorite Movies of the 90's" thing is to create a comprehensive yet not-so typical or predictable list of great movies from the 90's to serve as an alternative to all those safe, run-of the mill AFI/Entertainment Weekly movie lists where Forrest Gump and The Matrix ruin everything. I realize there's some pretty standard movies on our list like Pulp Fiction (which I wholeheartedly defended a few entries back) but at the same time how many best of the 90's movies lists have you seen that puts a Steven Segal movie on the same playing field as a Mike Leigh or Claire Denis movie? Or for that matter, Toy Story next to the films of Hal Hartley? No matter how many elitist or underrated movies from the 90's that we pick to be on this list, Toy Story is so good and so important that we had no choice but to include it (I imagine the majority of us had this on our individual lists.) No matter how many standard movies like Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump we avoided for various reasons, Toy Story - a movie I consider to be part of that group of standard 90's movies - is so timeless that it couldn't be left out by film snobs like us. Another reason Toy Story is such a special movie on this list is because it's the only animated feature. It goes without saying that Toy Story paved the way for future movies like Monsters Inc., Wall-E and The Incredibles. Some purists feel that Pixar movies are slowly killing the traditional art of animation. There is some validity to that, but no matter what way you cut it, Toy Story, The Incredibles and Wall-E are all timeless stories that anyone can relate too no matter if it's generated by a computer and not drawn by hand. Plus, in every era there's always going to be an Akira, Spirited Away or The Triplets of Belleville that not only keeps traditional animation alive but pushes the envelope as well.
Not since Fred Savage's character in The Boy Who Could Fly has the relationship between a young child and his toys been explored so extensively. But Toy Story took it one step further by giving the action figures and dolls a soul and actually bringing them to life (and a lot of that life had to do with brilliant voiceover work from Tim Allen, Tom Hanks and the rest of the actors who all went perfectly with the characters.) At its core, Toy Story is about the rivalry between two toys: Woody - the old favorite cowboy doll of the bunch and Buzz Lightyear - a more modern, sci-fi action figure that threatens Woody's status as the favorite toy. Toy Story was the opposite of popular horror movies from a few years earlier where the evil toys come to life to wreak havoc like Child's Play and Puppetmaster (coincidentally, the child protagonist in both Child's Play and Toy Story is named Andy.) In Toy Story, the toys come to life when humans aren't watching but they don't have evil intentions like trying to kill people. Instead of the one dimensional evil demonic persona like Chucky in Child's Play, Toy Story gave action figures genuine personalities and humanistic traits like jealousy and insecurity (exhibited by Woody and his worry of being upstaged by Buzz) to narcissism and denial (exhibited by Buzz, who's not only arrogant but thinks he's really a space fighting, laser gun shooting astronaut and not a piece of plastic.) It's a cliché statement, but Toy Story really does tap into your inner child and explores the attachment a kid has with his or her toys. Anyone who was fortunate enough to have pile of toys as a kid knows what it's like to have those one or two special action figures (actually, it makes sense that I was picked to write about Toy Story as I was an only child who had just about every toy I wanted.) There's always that toy you took with you when you were going out to run errands with your mom or to your friend's house or kept in your backpack at school. To this day I still remember that comforting feeling of digging through my toy chest in the morning to try and decide what toys I'm going to bring to school with me to show off to the other guys, or the feeling of that plastic ninja turtle or G.I. Joe in my hand when I was stuck in church or on a long car ride with my parents. These are the feelings Toy Story brings out of me. And what makes Toy Story such a timeless and relatable movie is that all the toys (or characters depending on how you look at it) represent just about every era. You got traditional toys like Mr. Potato Head, the plastic green army men, the cowboy doll and the Etch A Sketch to the more modern toys that Buzz Lightyear represents.
Toy Story also didn't just give depth and emotion to fictitious animated plastic toys - it also brought depth and a little bit of drama to family-oriented/child-friendly films. Had it not been for Toy Story (as well as its sequels) we wouldn't have all the dramatic, slightly dark, touching and heartwarming moments in stuff like The Incredibles or Monsters Inc. It's only right that Toy Story is in the top half of this list. Like Pulp Fiction, I couldn't imagine the 90's without Toy Story.
14. LESSONS OF DARKNESS (1992, Werner Herzog)
"Are they going to rekindle the blaze? Has life without fire become unbearable for them? Seized by madness, the others follow suit."
In 1992, Lessons of Darkness debuted at the Berlin Film Festival to the jeers of an enraged press corps. They demanded to know what gave director Werner Herzog the right to take footage of devastation and horror from the recent war in Kuwait and re-appropriate it as a science fiction. What right did he have to mix footage of torture victims and oil field fires with a poetic narrative about inscrutable creatures who crave the overwhelming majesty of the oil field flames? Herzog's answer of "Bosch aestheticized hell, Milton aestheticized hell" so why should he not be allowed to do so, only served to inflame their ire. In 1992, the implication that has was an artist on the stature of Milton and Bosch seemed like yet another example of a director imbued with more megalomania than talent. Herzog had long since been dismissed as a charlatan, a purveyor of hyperbole and misinformation, an opportunist with a knack for exploiting the weak, needy and insane - from schizophrenic Bruno S. to the indigenous peoples killed during the filming of Fitzcarraldo to the dwarves that started small to even the wildly unbalanced movie star Klaus Kinski, no human grist was off limits for Herzog's mill. In Herzog's world, chickens would be slaughtered, monkeys crucified, the deaf and blind forced to read from scripts written by the director only to have those words passed off as their own. At a certain point, the cineastes of the world had had enough. Between Fitzcarraldo in 1982 and Invincible in 2001, Herzog made only two feature films: his final collaboration with Kinski (1987's Cobra Verde) and an adventure film co-conceived with renowned mountaineer Reinhold Messner (Scream of Stone.) Cobra Verde never received a theatrical release in the U.S. and only came out on home-viewing formats in 2000.* Scream of Stone is the sole film Herzog disowns. When Herzog compared himself to Bosch and Milton at Berlin in 1992 to a chorus of boos and rolled-eyes, the moment came at the nadir of his career, at almost the exact mid-point of a twenty year slump. He had been making tv documentaries and shorts for the better part of a decade and the embarrassing Scream of Stone had been made just the year prior to Lessons. He was an artist of no relevance and making a film filled with such provocations - narrative, philosophical, spiritual and otherwise - as Lessons of Darkness must have seemed like a final act of career suicide to journalists in Berlin.
Instead, in Lessons of Darkness, the faint pulse of Herzog's genius could still be weakly felt pumping. It proved he still had some fight in him, some impulse to reveal ecstatic truths and explore undiscovered landscapes, that to his last bitter breath he would still be Herzog, until they pried the camera from his hands and tore the Mahler from his soundtracks. In many ways, Lessons remains the most purely Herzogian film he ever made. To take a crucial example, one of Herzog's primary virtues as a filmmaker and particularly as a "documentary" filmmaker has been his willingness to put himself in harm's way in order capture images rarely seen by human eyes. A film like La Sufriere, where Herzog journeyed to an island evacuated in light of an impending volcanic eruption, couldn't have been made by anyone not literally willing to risk death to make their film. He's filmed under the frozen surface of the Antarctic ocean, amidst the collective murder of the Amazonian jungle, in the lawlessness of the Central African Republic, in the depths of Australian mines, on the peaks of the Gasherbrum mountains. In Lessons, he headed to the front lines of the oil-field fires in post-war Kuwait and stood alongside the legions of firemen as they attempted to wrangle the geysers of flame and tar-black smoke that dotted the countryside, rendering it a truly awe-ful hellscape. He holds a camera as the fire fighters hide behind tin shack-like barriers and point a half dozen firehouses at the gushing infernos, not to dampen the flames, but to keep their equipment from melting as they deliver barrel-loads of dynamite to extinguish the fires in spectacular oxygen-starving bursts. To the strains of Wagner, Verdi and, yes, Mahler, Herzog's camera at times float serenely above the carnage, surveying the wasteland of skeletal remains, bunkers laid-waste and oceans of oil as the Eye of God looking down upon what He hath wrought. It is easy to forget there is someone in a helicopter braving the smoke and chaos of a post-war zone to do a hubristic impression of our creator. Herzog treads a scorching desert so intense that the rivers of oil boil on its surface in a dance of other-worldly "protuberances" (to use Herzog's word) and refuses to flinch when others would be forgiven for running for cover. Above all, Lessons of Darkness is an impressionistic collage of these images, a document of a landscape out time, a meditation on images of a fleeting moment of environmental catastrophe and military wreckage in the unforgiving loneliness of the desert. Needless to say, you won't find Ross McElwee or Lauren Greenfield out there.
The film is jam-packed with Herzog's signature cinematic idioms. The film opens with a quote attributed to Pascal that Herzog himself simply made up.** He offers a false translation of the testimony of a woman holding her child, replacing her words with a perfectly Herzogian tale of the boy's refusal to speak ever again after intense abuse at the hands of jack-booted military thugs. He attributes fanciful motivations to the activities of the firefighters, suggesting the standard procedure is anything but when they reignite the blaze. Wonderfully, the film also features his hallmark deliriously poetic narration, delivered in Herzog's unmistakable deadpan - at one point he describes the still, mirror-clear ponds of oil thusly: "The oil is treacherous because it reflects the sky. The oil is trying to disguise itself as water." But the now common (for Herzog, anyway) gesture that so irked the press was his presentation of everything as a science-fiction film. He treats the fire-fighters as fire-obsessed aliens and refuses to provide any context, political or otherwise, to a small museum of torture implements or the lives of two women interviewed for the film. He plays the footage as an invasion and its aftermath, a splotchy green night-vision battle in the sky that flattens a city and leaves a landscape of devastation and inhuman desolation in its wake. It is an apocalyptic vision that intentionally blurs the truth of the socio-political circumstances on which it is built - of course indignant journalists felt like Herzog had committed an artistic crime: he put his art above real human suffering, above political "truth," above environmental do-gooder-y, above the story of just what it is to which we're all bearing witness, above the Earth itself. Of course, Herzog has never operated by making distinction between narrative fiction and documentary. The wrinkle he finds with Lessons is a way to make his dubiously-labelled "documentary" into an even more fevered revery than even his greatest purely fictional work; every Herzog enthusiast knows that his docs, especially post-Lessons, are more essential than his narratives - who wouldn't rate Wheel of Time, Little Dieter Needs to Fly or Encounters at the End of the World above Rescue Dawn, Invincible or My Son My Son What Have Ye Done? Of course, Herzog has always been unconcerned with the difference between "fiction" and "documentary." It would be tough to characterize the films starring the volatile, illiterate, schizophrenic Bruno S. as "scripted" or to say that the tenuously orchestrated chaos of Even Dwarves Started Small is anything less than the act of a director filming an unpredictable world as it unfolds. When we see Klaus Kinski struggle through the muck admire of the jungle in Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, the resulting artwork is as much a document of Kinski's real struggles and frustrations with a natural environment as Land of Silence and Darkness or The Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner's scripted, fancifully conceived structures and dialog are a real representation of their subjects. Amdist the flames, smoke and deceitful oil spills of post-war Kuwait, Herzog finally found a way to bring the full-force of the best of his uncontrolled narrative fiction to the his heavily mediated documentary work. To walk into the fire and say you own it, to declare it is your right to bend it to your will and force it to submit to your artistic vision did, in fact, take a hubris on the verge of megalomania. But the blaze didn't consume him - the suicidal gesture of creating Lessons of Darkness saved Herzog's artistic life.
* Herzog's renaissance can surely be attributed in part to Anchor Bay's aggressive re-releasing of his work on vhs/dvd in the late 90's. A whole generation of film enthusiasts such as myself first saw Herzog's work on Anchor Bay's widely released dvd's. After decades of not being able to find New Yorker's crappy vhs releases of films like Aguirre and Stroszek, you could buy even obscure works like Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Even Dwarves Started Small at the local mall. I bought almost all of my copies of Herzog work from the Suncoast Video in the Westchester Mall in White Plains. They also released Lessons of Darkness in a double-disc set with Fata Morgana, which is just unbelievably awesome if you stop and think about it. I even had the vhs box-sets of Nosferatu (their first big Herzog release) and Fitzcarraldo. The unavailability of Herzog's work up until that point only further demonstrates just how out of critical fashion Herzog had fallen.
** "The collapse of the stellar universe will occur - like creation - in grandiose splendor."
13. THE BUTCHER BOY (1998, Neil Jordan)
"I come from a country where people pray to wooden statues that talk back to them." - Neil Jordan
Neil Jordan's Northern Ireland has always seemed strangely sprightly. That is to say, despite the decidedly dark nature of the stories he tells, there's usually a theatrical, almost jaunty vibe to his work. One need look no further than the goofy sunglasses Bob Hoskins dons as he's having his giddy breakdown in Mona Lisa,* or Stephen Rea ending The Crying Game by re-telling Forrest Whitaker's creepy parable of the Scorpion and the Frog with funny cartoon voices. On the one hand, this would appear to be a wise approach - the director risks too gauche an ambience if he dealt heavy-handedly with a country already famous for its fractured and turbulent history - but the meticulous off-setting of tone is one the most fascinating aspects of Jordan's best movies. These films are dark fables set in the real world, one of scary, even supernatural threats born from actual psychological traumas; the freedom of existing in this fantastical world is escaping into the dream comfort of it, in which reality is whatever the character desires it to be, and even murder is nothing but downright mischievous (again I direct you to Stephen Rea's boyish grin as he trains his gun on Whitaker; their playful chase through the woods that ends in sudden and awful violence.) Jordan is, arguably, the most prominent Irish filmmaker of the last 25 years if not to date,** but at heart he's a fabulist more on par with David Lynch or Terry Gilliam than his more grounded, politically-oriented contemporaries. At the same time, his fantasies blend so perfectly with the real world threat of organized violence, sexual terror, growing pangs and the fear of/regret over failure that they never tend towards obscurity. Maybe because he made his mark with the prestigious, Oscar-winning The Crying Game, critics seem more comfortable associating Jordan with safe, less personal efforts like Michael Collins or The End of the Affair and forget what a remarkably complicated storyteller he can be (even when he belly flops with films like In Dreams and Breakfast on Pluto, the intent is always visible if not successful.)
Whereas the miracle of The Miracle happens at the end of an otherwise realistic film and the dreamlike imagery of The Company of Wolves is prevalent throughout, The Butcher Boy finds Jordan at his most consistent mix of real world horrors and miraculous fantasies. At its center is Francie Brady, a cocky and obstreperous youth living in a small Irish town in the early 60's who in quick succession loses his suicidal mother, his alcoholic father and - most traumatically - the companionship of his bosom buddy of a best friend. Assigned to Catholic schools and various insane asylums, Francie grows increasingly lonesome and estranged and dangerously unhinged until his frustration culminates in the murder of the exasperated Mrs. Nugent, his own Miss Gulch in the warped Wizard of Oz of his shattered reality. Watching the movie again was interesting: I remember Mrs. Nugent being portrayed as sort of one-sidedly evil, which would make sense in the longer run of Jordan's filmography, in which women are often the source of confusion and frustration for his male leads.*** But watching it again, I realized she's actually not represented as anything more than a protective mother who, though admittedly uptight and judgmental of those around her, is really just watching out for her son. Although the character and the movie (which, really, is all this character) move at an exhilirating pace, Jordan's hand is so delicate that it's just as easy to sympathize with Francis as it is plainly understood that his perception of reality breaks down at an alarming rate. Mrs. Nugent's not really the problem and is finally just a victim rather than a bully. Most of the time she's simply trying to steer clear of Francie and his indeed very troubled family. It's a testament to the great balancing act achieved by Jordan and Patrick McCabe (who co-wrote the script from his novel) that you side so unflinchingly with Francie that you want to see something bad happen to that uppity Mrs. Nugent, yet when it does you are rightly shocked and appalled. This could only be pulled off by a man who can make you care about blood-sucking vampires and I.R.A. terrorists, who doesn't look for easy targets to blame for the disaster of Francie's life.
The adults in the film, even those who mean well and try to help, are both ignorant of Francie's problems and significantly behind him on a mental level: he's so effortlessly ahead of the game they just can't keep up. But at the same time he maintains an untarnished optimism, it's through being almost psychotically incorrigible as his grip on his own innocence becomes more and more tenuous. He spirals into uncontrollable outbursts and cheerfully violent acts condemned by a town free of anyone to access Francie's rebellious flight from having to face the horrible truth of his situation. Left alone, he manufactures his own version of a childhood from the frenzied environment that surrounds him: in place of fairy tales and cartoons, Francie is surrounded by a culture obsessed with imminent nuclear war, the dubious threat of communist usurpation and sinister science fiction threats of apocalypse. He relates strongly to Richard Kimble, the famous falsely accused underdog hero of the Fugitive tv show. He wears a dress while cleaning the house like he's Leatherface (he's even got a corpse in a chair he's treating like it's alive) and fosters an unhealthy obsession with his own abhorrent behavior. The Catholic church are particularly unable to help in this department and instead promote the notion of extreme self-guilt over things all young boys should be doing like stealing apples and picking on weaker kids, all met with the same embroidered condemnation. At one point, his victimization (at the hands of a horny priest) is ignored and Francie is rewarded (anything to keep his mouth shut.) The most compassionate thing anyone says about him comes from a lady in a shop off-handedly commenting "Sure what chance did he ever have, the poor creature?" And since Francie can't communicate the pain he feels over his tragic upbringing and the loss of his parents, it all comes out in a misguided act of vengeance against the person he blames for taking his best friend away from him. He'll never understand that he's been stifled by his experiences; that the impulses of a child in the body of a maturing adult is what frightened his pal and prompted the end of their friendship.
This great film (have I mentioned it's great?) has a lot in common with other great 90's movies: the reprehensible smalltown existence and danger of drowning (also from Jordan's High Spirits) reminiscent of Ratcatcher (#47 on the Smoke's list), the intensely fantasy-based and ultimately homicidal friendship between kids similar to the one in Heavenly Creatures, the oddly sympathetic lonely future murderer kept company only by his own ambiguous narration to The Young Poisoner's Handbook (itself a decendent of A Clockwork Orange, which Jordan includes visual links to.) But I think this might be the best child-based movie of the decade, such is its insight and interest in what's going on in the young hero's head, the way it perfectly captures how kids see the world as their own and somewhat explains if not excuses their inherent cruelty. It has obvious homages to The 400 Blows, but it's actually more comparable to Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood or Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum - Francie is living a life during wartime, albeit it a fabricated war pent up inside him that plays out fictitiously as the communist "threat" takes over the town gossip line. Francie's energy-clouded anguish is both dizzing to watch and somehow incredibly subtle thanks to the amazing acting of Eamonn Owens (it's not often said of Jordan, but he's a masterful director of children; just witness the incredible maturity he milked out of 12-year-old Sarah Patterson in The Company of Wolves, 11-year-old Kirsten Dunst in Interview with a Vampire and, most recently, young Alison Barry in Ondine.) Even when Francie is at his most deranged and obnoxious, Owens' performance is never less than heartbreaking, particularly in his tender scenes with drunken "da," played by Stephen Rea as yet another in a long line of Jordan's failed/frustrated musicians that started with Rea himself in Angel (Rea pulls double if not triple duty by also narrating and appearing as older Francie in the film's epilogue) and in a notably harsh scene on the seaside boardwalk a'la Mona Lisa and The Miracle that, like those films, is the bleak, sunny setting that matches the lead character's quiet breakdown after learning something disappointing about someone he loves. But the best recurring Neil Jordan moments are the dream and fantasy sequences that escape from the minds of The Butcher Boy's young hero - Francie remembers those who've died or left him like Fergis imagining his dead friend running at him with the cricket ball in The Crying Game, and sees adults as pigs and aliens the way Rosaleen relates the story of a wedding party transformed into hairy beasts in The Company of Wolves. Like in that previous masterpiece, a superstitious town becomes plagued with the fiction of popular culture becoming real, hence the inspired stunt casting of controversial rock star Sinead O'Connor as the Virgin Mary: pop culture translated into the mysticism of religion.
Actually, The Butcher Boy managed to rekindle my faith in a way: I remember seeing it right after the disastrous Emmerich-Devlin Godzilla remake on a night when my trust in cinema was demolished like a crumbling CG-constructed landmark, only to be rebuilt by Jordan's spectacular film. As a bonus, the movie was released in America in 1998, the same year as another terrific Irish film, The General. That one was directed by John Boorman, who gave Neil Jordan his first job as a script consultant and second unit crew member on Excalibur in the early 80's. Amazing facts!
* Technically set in the U.K. but you get the idea. By all means, feel free to substitute "the culminating miracle in The Miracle."
** Keeping in mind that many recent high profile Irish films like The Commitments, The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Hunger were made by British filmmakers. Jordan's main competition for "most significant modern Irish director" would be Jim Sheridan, in which case I'd say it's probably a matter of personal taste (they did both make a terrible American horror film with "dream" in the title, although Sheridan was the one who made a 50 Cent movie.)
*** His most female-dominated film, The Brave One, is also arguably his greatest failure (I say arguably because Jordan's discomfort with straight genre films, as evidenced by comedies High Spirits and We're No Angels and horror-thriller In Dreams, is another huge detraction.)
12. GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990, Joe Dante)
For some reason I have watched Gremlins (a childhood favourite) hundreds of times over the years and have only fairly recently became fully acquainted with the many pleasures of its sequel. I was too young to catch it in cinemas in 1990, as it had a 12 certificate in the U.K. Whereas I was always happy to give Gremlins another watch whenever it was on TV, a viewing of the sequel from start to finish eluded me all those years and I only caught snippets of it here and there. I have bigger regrets in life, but to deny myself the peerless entertainment of Gremlins 2: The New Batch for about 20 years does seem rather foolish with hindsight and I'm a little sore about it. While I still love the original film, its joys are more straightforward and it can't help seeming a tad uneven in comparison with its successor. The sequel is the one that I really should have been watching and re-watching all those years. It's a rare achievement - a sequel that outdoes the original for invention and wit and a cinephile's dream that is also great entertainment for the less obsessive filmgoer. The sequel gets the cute/nasty and funny/scary mix better than the original, the satirical bite is much sharper and like with George Romero's zombies, the Gremlins have become more sympathetic over time. They are after all wreaking havoc in an establishment that hosts and represents so much that is horrible about the modern world: TV cookery shows, automated buildings, a disregard for the values and culture of the past, deluded moguls like Daniel Clamp and highly superficial but nevertheless extremely attractive people like Marla Bloodstone.
In Scream 2, a group of college kids talk about movie sequels and how seldom a follow-up is superior. Many of us have heard that discussion a million times before, but it's surprising how little a title like Gremlins 2 pops up in these conversations and Kevin Williamson obviously didn't see fit to mention it. It came at the start of a decade where being referential in film went from being fun and affectionate to snarky and cheap, as exemplified by Wes Craven's film. Sequels are a much frowned upon part of movie lore. I remember critic Barry Norman bemoaning the state of the industry at the start of the 90's. Studios were returning to safe properties at a time of great uncertainty and escalating budgets, does this sound familiar? Seen at the time as a sign of diminishing returns and creative bankruptcy, 1990 was actually a vintage year for sequels in hindsight. There were films such as Back to the Future Part III, Predator 2, The Exorcist III, Die Hard 2, The Rescuers Down Under, Basket Case 2, Maniac Cop 2 and Class of 1999, none of which shamed their predecessor.* All these films go against the idea of a sequel being a formula thing and gleefully rewrite the rules established by the first in the series but none of these do it with the panache of Gremlins 2. It's the sequel to end them all, which it seems is what director Joe Dante intended it to be.
Gremlins is still Dante's signature movie. It's his biggest commercial success to date and is pretty representative of what makes him arguably cinema's greatest popcorn post-modernist. The sequel is probably the closest thing we have to a latter day Bride of Frankenstein (a film that Dante greatly admires), in which an initially reluctant director was persuaded by the studio to do a follow-up to an earlier success on the condition of doing it on their own terms. Here Dante was allowed to do pretty much whatever he wanted provided it was finished on schedule. It's the most remarkable and artistically successful example of subverting a commercially hot property that I know of. It's hard to believe now that such a popular movie took six years to spawn a sequel but there are many tales of torturous routes to the big screen from this time, Alien 3 for example. Dante later admitted that they had perhaps waited too long to capitalise and the first film was too distant a memory for it to achieve the success it deserved. He has also joked that his aim with Gremlins 2 was to stop there being a Gremlins 3, and after all the breathtaking audacity of this film you feel pretty sure that no one could ever top this or should even attempt such a feat. Of course such considerations never bothered Hollywood and a "reboot" is surely inevitable at some stage. Nostalgia informs the director's work and we can certainly look back affectionately at this, which together with his previous masterpiece The 'burbs represents his crowning achievement. When it came to picking the highlights of the 90's I found it to be a decade that has many films that I admire but few that I am particularly fond of. Gremlins 2 is definitely among the select few that is worth cherishing.
Some very disparate careers converge here: wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan, screen legends like Christopher Lee and Tony Randall (as the voice of the Brain Gremlin), B-movie icons like Kenneth Tobey, character actors (Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, Robert Prosky and John Glover all do some of their best work here), comic performers like Kathleen Freeman and Rick Ducommun - even film critic Leonard Maltin appears in what he described as a "gratuitous cameo." Female lead Phoebe Cates, who showed great comic timing, had just married Kevin Kline and would quit screen acting a few years later. The animatronics work is an incredible showcase for Rick Baker's team towards the end of the pre-CGI age. It grants each Gremlin as much character as their human co-stars. Executive Producer Steven Spielberg lost his sense of fun not long after Jurassic Park in 1993 and sadly became increasingly obsessed with earning the respect of Academy voters. The great composer Jerry Goldsmith, who does his usual sterling work here, would soon become something of an anachronism. Although still in demand and a class act to the very end, he had recently faced rejection over scores like Legend and Alien Nation and would find himself working in an age of increasingly youth-oriented jukebox soundtracks (Reality Bites, Empire Records, Pulp Fiction etc.). I do wonder what became of screenwriter Charlie Haas, who had previously scribed teen classics Over the Edge and Tex. He worked with Dante again on his delightful following feature Matinee** and the 1994 TV movie Runaway Daughters, but hasn’t been heard from since. Dante meanwhile would find working in the studio system more and more frustrating. He had already had his 1985 feature Explorers released in unfinished form, but still to come were his turbulent involvement in The Phantom and the torturous production of Looney Tunes: Back in Action. He has since sought refuge in television and has more or less abandoned feature films. It seems that his 1998 film Small Soldiers is probably the closest we will ever come to a proper Gremlins 3.
* Let's try and ignore the same year's Rocky V, Another 48 Hrs, Bride of Re-Animator, The Godfather Part III and probably about a hundred others I've conveniently forgotten about as they slightly discredit my statement.
** Matinee inexplicably didn't feature on my top 75 list. Consider this a correction of that error.
11. HENRY FOOL (1997, Hal Hartley)
With my usual lousy sense of timing I became properly acquainted with the films of Hal Hartley, one of the defining figures of nineties cinema, in the mid-2000's. By this time he had not only become unfashionable but almost looked to have fallen off the map completely. Cinematic cool can be a mixed blessing. The 90's were particularly ruthless in this sense with several formerly hip auteurs falling in to a kind of oblivion. In France for instance, Leos Carax disappeared for several years after his grand folly Les amants du Pont-Neuf and things went quiet for Jean-Jacques Beineix after IP5. Around the same time, Wim Wenders attempted to make his "Ultimate Road Movie" with Until the End of the World and, certain documentaries aside, lost the international audience that had embraced his work of the previous decade. In these and many other cases those concerned seemed to lose their way. What's puzzling about Hartley's own slump is that it happened so soon after he seemed to have achieved a major breakthrough with Henry Fool.
The film was the culmination of Hartley's output of this era, which had begun at the end of the previous decade with his exceptional debut The Unbelievable Truth. The only feature of this period that I'm not so keen on is Flirt, and I feel like I should give it another try as it seems he could no wrong at this stage. Trust, Simple Men and Amateur certainly wouldn't be out of place on a best of the decade list and it's perhaps because Hartley was on such a winning streak at this point that I omitted them from my own selection. For me Hartley's presence on this list is probably more essential than any other U.S. filmmaker of the period. It's one of my favourite golden runs of any director and makes it all the more difficult to come to terms with what followed. In Henry Fool, Hartley was able to combine his experimental side with his more playful qualities. In many ways it's his most accessible film and, along with Surviving Desire, also his most profound.
In another sense, seeing Henry Fool for the first time circa 2005/6 was very good timing for me, as I certainly wouldn't have appreciated it as much in my teenage years when it was first released. I think it's a good one to see in your 20's. I was becoming a more avid reader at this time, and it is great viewing for literary enthusiasts and aspiring writers. The joys of reading and the act of writing are in my opinion incredibly hard to depict well in films. David Cronenberg admitted that one of the biggest challenges in making Naked Lunch was figuring out how to portray writing in a way that was cinematically interesting. Hartley's approach is to describe the process of becoming a writer in simple and clear terms. The studying, reflection, solitude, inspiration and criticism all come in different stages. There are also references to Socrates, Wordsworth and Milton along the way. The growing levels of recognition Simon achieves – from high school publication to a local newspaper article, internet sensation to a publishing deal and finally a Nobel Prize winner – all come at a certain personal cost. What starts as a story of a stranger who moves into a dysfunctional household and transforms the lives of its inhabitants slowly becomes a tale of artistic awakening, jealousy and broken friendship. It also becomes a kind of satire, noting the growing celebrity culture of writers and the pretensions of literary types. The different responses to Simon's obscene poem (which the viewer never gets to read) are also very funny. There's an awareness and newfound maturity that his three main characters (garbage man Simon Grim, his sister Fay and their mysterious border Henry) achieve which feels incredibly honest and sincere. Teachers should show this film in writing classes. I'm not sure how many valuable lessons it contains, but in its own unusual way there's a good deal of wisdom here.
Watching it again recently, the film seemed to contain a cautionary tone in places. Briefly mentioned is the idea of reinventing the publishing business for the electronic age, which for someone like me who has a dislike of e-Readers feels more relevant than ever. At one point Henry talks about fads, specifically the local craze for poetry that brings revellers to his local cafe. It almost feels like a comment on the 90's independent film craze and the Miramax/Sundance age. Cinephilia had sort of become fashionable at this point and many young film enthusiasts fancied themselves the next Quentin Tarantino or Jim Jarmusch. Of course it didn't last and it was the genuine independents like Hartley who struggled with the consequences when much of it dissolved or became absorbed by the mainstream. The writer/director became marginalised in the U.S. independent scene under which he had initially flourished. Like Henry, he would go into exile, increasingly alienated from American cinema and having witnessed the scene or "fad" thrive was probably left feeling a bit bitter when it all came to pass as he had predicted.
I'm possibly too harsh on Hartley's subsequent work. They're not all bad films, but they're certainly harder to like and less approachable. Maybe it was all about the timing but his 90's films and Henry Fool in particular had a cathartic quality for me; it's unreasonable of me to expect all of his work to have that same effect. This is something I came to realise when I saw the Henry Fool sequel Fay Grim, which appeared almost a decade later. Henry is a terrific creation and one can see why Hartley felt compelled to revisit the character, albeit in a drastically different context. Fay Grim was an attempt at something new (his work has become more political over the past decade) but also hoped to remind audiences of what had made him so great to begin with. The subsequent fates of these particular characters though is perhaps best left in the minds of its viewers; something that had been so perfectly achieved in Henry Fool's poignant final act.
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