Oddly enough, 1990s movies are a huge blindspot for me. I was very career-focused during that decade earning two graduate degrees and changing jobs four times. I also moved four times and got married. Since I didn’t see very many movies at that time, just about everything from the 90s is new to me. The following is a short list and some of the films will reappear on at least one other list. So here’s my brief look at the best films I saw from the 90s:
Chungking Express (1994) Wong Kar-Wai
The Criterion Blu-ray and DVD releases of Chungking Express have been out of print for quite some time, so unless you see it on the streaming service FilmStruck, the film might be hard to find. If you do see it, you’ll understand why the discs are out of print. Chungking Express is not what you would call a mainstream movie, but it has a kind of quirky appeal that playfully nudges right up against the type of movie mainstream audiences like, expanding expectations without causing the frustration that mainstream audiences experience from watching “art” films.
Chungking Express concentrates on two Hong Kong policemen. The first, a Taiwanese cop named He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is depressed after his girlfriend May breaks up with him on April Fool’s Day. Since He Qiwu’s birthday is May 1, he decides to wait for the girlfriend May for one month before he gets on with his life. He has a ritual of buying tins of pineapple with an expiration date of May 1, one for each of the 30 days. The story also involves a mysterious woman in a blonde wig and trenchcoat.
The second character is another cop, this one unnamed; we know him only by his badge number 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). He also has suffered a recent breakup. The owner of a local snack bar keeps telling Cop 663 that he should find another girl, perhaps Faye (Faye Wong), the new girl working for him. Faye is secretly smitten with Cop 663, but he doesn’t know it.
I defy anyone to not like this movie. It is filled with charm, comedy, and suspense. As odd as it seems, the first part of the film contains some very interesting crime/noir elements, while the second reminds you of the screwball comedies of classic Hollywood. Yet there’s so much more to the film. The people who see Chungking Express tend to see it over and over again, which probably accounts for the discs being out of print. If I ever see one for sale (at a reasonable price), I’m going to snag it. You should, too.
A Brighter Summer Day (1991) Edward Yang
Criterion Blu-ray (3:57)
This Taiwanese film certainly deserves much more consideration that what I’m giving it here, so I plan to watch it again and go into more detail. If you’re daunted by the thought of a four-hour film in Chinese with English subtitles, put your fears to rest and enjoy this spectacular film. Although there’s so much going on here – Taiwanese/Chinese cultural identities, coming-of-age, the influence of the West, love, sex, parenthood, totalitarianism, friendship and so much more – the film seems to fly by. I watched the film in two 2-hour segments and recommend others do so as well. (The film contains a natural “break” at about the two-hour mark anyway.) Highly, highly recommended.
Candyman (1992) Bernard Rose
DVD – library (1:39)
Graduate student Virginia Madsen begins working on a thesis on urban legends by investigating the story of the “Candyman” in Chicago’s North Side. The film works not only as a horror movie, but also fairly well as a social commentary. A fair amount of gore, but what did you expect? Nice score by Philip Glass, most effectively used in the first half of the film.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) Joel Coen
DVD – Interlibrary loan (1:51)
I absolutely love The Hudsucker Proxy and fail to understand why it may be the most unseen Coen Brothers movie ever. Tim Robbins plays Norville Barnes, a young business school graduate seeking to find work at the massive Hudsucker Industries, a company in trouble after the suicide of its founder and president Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning). Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), a manipulating member of the board of directors, moves Barnes into the position of the company president, making him a puppet while Mussburger controls the strings. Soon journalist Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) exposes Barnes as a total incompetent, but maybe she’s wrong about him…
To tell you more about the plot would be criminal. The Hudsucker Proxy works as satire, physical comedy, screwball comedy, and more with some of the fastest dialogue (especially delivered by Leigh) this side of His Girl Friday. Although only in a few scenes, Newman is excellent. Look for Bruce Campbell in a bit (but great) part. It won’t be for everyone, but you should at least give it a try. Also available as a Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) John Patrick Shanley
DVD – library (1:42)
When Joe Versus the Volcano was first released, everyone I knew who saw the movie said it was so bad I shouldn’t waste my time with it. I wish I hadn’t listened… The film is a real gem, an odd gem, but still a gem. Joe (Tom Hanks), hearing that he’s ill and has only got a short time left, agrees to a proposal from a strange millionaire (Lloyd Bridges) which involves jumping into a volcano to appease an island’s anxious natives. If you buy into it, it’s a strange, wonderful experience which includes Meg Ryan playing three roles. Recently released on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
Out of Sight (1998) Steven Soderbergh
America’s most famous bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) breaks out of jail only to be nabbed by Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). Or has he nabbed her? Soderbergh has a lot of fun adapting the Elmore Leonard novel, playing with linear structure, defying genre conventions, and simply having a great time. Clooney and Lopez are both excellent.
Matinee (1993) Joe Dante
Arrow UK Blu-ray (1:39)
Anyone who loves horror/science fiction films from any era is going to love Matinee, an homage to the types of films produced and shown by independent filmmakers like William Castle in the post-WWII era. John Goodman plays Lawrence Woolsey, a producer determined to break box office records with his new horror film Mant! (half man, half ant), but problems ensue… With the Cuban Missle Crisis in the background, we also follow the lives of two boys Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) and his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee) as they await news of their father who’s serving his country on a submarine. The film is great fun featuring Jesse White in his final film role, Naomi Watts in one of her first, and independent film director John Sayles in a cameo. (A Collector’s Edition is coming next month from Shout Factory.)
That’s it for the 90s. Stay tuned…