Inventory: Rosenbaum’s best of the 90’s

I’ve already mentioned my love for film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s writing and his lists of favorite films, which I first discovered via his top-ten of the 1990’s (in an article that also reviews Cradle Will Rock, which I was crazy about at the time). But I never watched all ten movies on that original list until this year, having caught up with D’est earlier and rewatched Dead Man just now.

The top ten, with excerpts from Rosenbaum’s comments and links to my entries:

Actress/Center Stage
… the lack of a precise fit between these two actresses and eras is part of Kwan’s point, and the acute and moving historical pathos of Actress would be diminished by a better fit. (And anyway, what’s the point of wanting a precise duplication when we have the original Ruan Ling-yu?)

A Brighter Summer Day
All three of the Chinese-language works on my list are period films, set in the 20th century and made in places that until very recently have all but refused to recognize their own history … In the case of Taiwan, one can date the discovery of history – and hence an inquiry into national identity – to the recent birth of democracy in that country after half a century as a Japanese colony and then under the control of mainland China (1945-’49) and the Kuomintang (1949-’87). Prior to 1987, history was effectively a forbidden subject. For Edward Yang, the inquiry is autobiographical, harking back to his high school days in the early 60s.

Dead Man
Jarmusch’s crucial gesture–a simple yet highly significant step in the history of multicultural cinema–was to assume the existence of Native American moviegoers (a move signaled in part by his insertion of jokes addressed specifically to Native Americans), something no maker of westerns to my knowledge had ever done before; the implications of such a move are so far-reaching that many white spectators haven’t begun to sort them out.

Eyes Wide Shut
Kubrick’s adaptation of a masterful 1927 novella by Arthur Schnitzler. (Kubrick transplanted the action to 90s New York, but his movie has a great deal to say about every decade in this century except the 90s).

A virtually wordless film in which stasis and movement feel almost interchangeable–exemplified by a handheld camera endlessly scanning sprawled, sleeping bodies in a crowded depot–allows emotion to collect and build into a throbbing Jewish sorrow that mysteriously surrounds everyday images, such as cars driving through the snow or people waiting at night at a bus stop.

…combines the works of three authors, a one-act play and two stories, into an existential parable with every part welded into a single perfect shape … These three kinds of doom are seen meditatively through the telescopic lense of an angry yet reconciled wit, and the interlocking stories are inflected with a kind of magic that recalls The Arabian Nights.

The Puppet Master
…forming the middle part of a trilogy that begins with City of Sadness and ends with Good Men, Good Women. … The Puppet Master is only one of four masterpieces made by Hou in the 90s.

If it weren’t for the Kiarostami film, I’d be tempted to call it the funniest movie of the 90s as well. Part of its power undoubtedly derives from the long novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai that the author and Tarr adapted, but Tarr’s virtuoso, choreographed long takes are much more than translated prose.

When It Rains
Burnett’s astonishingly beautiful film compresses an extraordinary amount of what he knows about his hometown and the homeless into its 12 minutes, making it as succinct as a 12-bar blues chorus–and an implicit critique of the flab of most features.

The Wind Will Carry Us
Simultaneously a history of antiquity, the 20th century, and that endless stretch of time known as the present, it shows the interrelatedness of all three periods at practically every moment … As is always the case with Kiarostami, the innovative use of sounds and images makes them merely tools for articulating new kinds of content: we don’t see the offscreen characters because we don’t need to–Kiarostami’s movies are nothing if not focused. And the documentary techniques used to produce fictional details are as purposeful and suggestive as ever.

I would say I unconditionally love six of the ten (and need to see A Brighter Summer Day again; I watched the full-length version, but in VHS quality).

In Film Comment, his list is titled “Ten Best/Most Underrated”, omits Eyes Wide Shut and includes Histoire(s) du Cinema.

The “most underrated” tag makes sense. I couldn’t make a straight top-ten of an entire decade. I love some of the same big action flicks I loved then (Batman Returns, Terminator 2), plus the usual movies that my generation loves (Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects), the oscar nominees (The Thin Red Line, The Age of Innocence, Boogie Nights, The Fisher King), the great American/Canadian independents (Rushmore, Crash, Barton Fink, Archangel), the decade-defining foreign films (Kieslowski’s Three Colors, All About My Mother, Farewell My Concubine, Princess Mononoke) and comedies from Groundhog Day to Cabin Boy.

Still unwatched from the 1990’s: multiple films each by Allen, Brakhage, Campion, Denis, Egoyan, Ferrara, Greenaway, Herzog, Iosseliani, Jarman, Kaurismaki, Leigh, Makhmalbaf, Nair, Ouedraogo, Philibert, Ruiz, Sokurov, Téchiné, Van Sant, Wiseman, Yang and Zhang.

So not counting any of the above, here’s an alternate/underrated top ten, in order of title length:

To Live
Le Franc
American Movie
The Life of Birds
La Belle noiseuse
Storefront Hitchcock
City of Lost Children
Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America