Recently, IndieWire’s Matt Singer, in the site’s weekly critics’ poll, asked online journalists to name their picks for the best film of the last 25 years. It’s an entirely arbitrary question (25 years takes us back to 1988 – why not go back to 1980? Or just settle on 1990?), but it got me thinking about this (entirely arbitrary) period of cinema, and what films from the last quarter century would qualify for such a list. I mean, of course “Greatest Movies” lists are stupid, and I gave up trying to take them seriously a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the exercise itself can’t be intriguing. And when the goal is to celebrate quality movies, where’s the harm?
Pundits like to drone on about the deteriorating quality of Hollywood storytelling (an argument for another day), so it’s refreshing to survey recent history and discover, contrary to popular and critical opinion, there’ve been some really great freaking movies made in the last 25 years, and more than a few that I need to revisit. Here are a few that, if pressed, would make the list for me:
1) Bull Durham (1988)
I had the chance to re-watch this one in its entirety recently, and remembered what a pitch-perfect (heh) comedy it is, to say nothing of being the best baseball movie ever made (which it is). The performances from Tim Robbins as the dimwitted pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh, Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy and Kevin Coster’s “Crash” Davis make the most of the beautifully textured and hilarious script by former minor-leaguer Ron Shelton, and this time in particular I was struck by the detail of the characterizations, many of which are marvelously understated. Crash’s alcoholism, for instance, is never referred to, but becomes more acute as the film progresses, and even as Crash and Nuke form a mutual respect between them by the movie’s end, the script never feels the need to make them like each other. The last 20 minutes, especially, approaches some kind of poetry. Great movie, and I anticipate it’ll only continue to look better as the years pass.
2) Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The finest film ever made by the Disney in-house animation studio (which doesn’t include Pixar). The film takes the classic framework of the original story, previously (and iconically) brought to the screen by Jean Cocteau in 1948, and updates it with exquisite hand-drawn animation and one of the best musical scores since the Arthur Freed MGM era of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Made at the peak of the Jerry Katzenberg reign at Disney, it still stands as one of the best animated films ever made.
3) Jackie Brown (1997)
The last quarter century saw the rise of a major filmmaking power in Quentin Tarantino, who exploded onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Jackie Brown felt like a comedown from these highs when it was released in the 1997 Holiday season, but now it feels like the better and more resonant film, for the simple reason that it’s really about something. Certainly it’s still indulgent, as Tarantino peppers the script with copious references to other films, and the casting of Pam Grier in the title role is a throwback to the Blaxploitation era, yet Tarantino employs all of this in service to a thoughtful meditation on aging, and the lengths people will go to protect themselves from the ravages of time. It also features the best single performance in any Tarantino film from Robert Forster, whose lovesick, world-weary bail bondsman Max Cherry radiates a quiet, sad dignity. Tarantino often lets his movie geek impulses get the better of him, but Jackie Brown shows just how good he can be when his incredible filmmaking skills are working with a screenplay that’s more than just a collection of references. Terrific movie, and one I could watch all day long.
4) Out of Sight (1998)
The late ‘90s saw a bevy of terrific Elmore Leonard film adaptations, from Barry Sonnenfeld’s terrific Get Shorty (1995) to the aforementioned Jackie Brown. This may be the best of them. Under Steven Soderbergh’s direction, it’s a whip-smart and dead sexy heist film about a bank robber (George Clooney, in his first true movie-star performance) and a federal marshal (Jennifer Lopez, in her best screen role) torn between her desire to bed him or lock him up. The film features sensational supporting work from Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks and Steve Zahn, but it’s Clooney and Lopez who elevate it to classic status, as their on-screen chemistry recalls the greatest of the golden-age screen pairs like Bogie and Bacall or Gable and Harlow. Hyperbole? Sure, but watch the “time out” sequence again, then come back and tell me I’m wrong.
5) In the Mood For Love (2000)
Wong Kar-Wai has fallen out of favor in the world cinema community, after delivering the critical and commercial failure My Blueberry Nights in 2007. In the Mood for Love remains his masterpiece. Breathtakingly filmed in tight, cramped interiors, and clocking in at a mere 90 minutes, Wong’s film is achingly romantic and one of the most beautiful movies ever shot. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are perfection as star-crossed (and unrequited) lovers who develop a complete romance out of a few touches, longing looks and some small talk. One of those films that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible to be truly appreciated.
6) Moulin Rouge! (2001)
When Baz Luhrman’s helzapoppin’ musical was released in May of 2001, audiences didn’t know what to make of it and critics were equally baffled. But those who “got” held on and didn’t let go. I saw it twice that summer, and have only grown to appreciate it more after countless DVD and TV viewings. It’s nowhere near the incoherent mess some have called it, and is instead a completely original vision from one of the most unique voices working in modern cinema. Nicole Kidman has taken most of the film’s praise as doomed courtesan Satine, though to me it’s Ewan McGregor’s lovesick puppy dog of a writer, Christian, who carries the film (a criminally underrated performance that was sadly overlooked at the Oscars). It’s also funny to note that, as much as Terence Malick is heckled for his slow directorial output, he’s had three movies released since Moulin Rouge! to Luhrman’s two, making him, by Luhrman’s standards, prolific. But if Luhrman had never made another film, Moulin Rouge! would still be an all-timer.
7) The Pianist (2002)
Many felt that Schindler’s List was the definitive feature account of the Jewish Holocaust, and so few felt that Roman Polanski would have anything to add when he made The Pianist nine years later. Then they actually saw the movie. Polanski’s film is a towering achievement, a film that stands alongside Schindler (and, many would say, eclipses it) as a visceral and heart-stopping chronicle of this still-too-recent tragedy. Polanski’s genius, like Spielberg’s, is to personalize the terror, centering on the plight of one man (Adrien Brody) struggling to survive the Nazi horrors. In that sense, it turns into not merely a horror film, but a film that that moves and inspires, and Adrien Brody earned every bit of his Best Actor Oscar in an astounding and physically demanding lead performance.
8) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro made some excellent and spooky genre pictures prior to Pan’s Labyrinth, but nothing that prepared the movie world for this profoundly beautiful, sad, haunting masterwork. Set during the Spanish Civil War, it’s a coming-of-age story, a horror film and a fairy tale all wrapped into a completely original vision, with one of the best child performances (from Ivana Baquero) ever committed to film. The first time I saw it, I remember being glued to my seat for a good 10 minutes after the conclusion, unable to move and utterly shaken by what I’d just seen. The Blu-ray from Warner Bros. unfortunately leaves much to be desired, which is a shame, because this is a film that demands to be viewed in the best conditions possible.
9) Up (2009)
I’ll go to bat for this as the best Pixar film, even among the computer animation giant’s long list of classics. Much has been written about the simple perfection of the silent five-minute sequence that opens the film, but there’s just so much more to it than that – thrilling action sequences, comedy that recalls Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, and the most complete and resonant story of any in the Pixar stable (which, again, is saying a lot). It’s everything I go to the movies for, and I still argue that it should have beaten The Hurt Locker for 2009’s Best Picture Oscar.
10) Never Let Me Go (2010)
There are some films we enjoy, some we love and cherish, and then there are those that actually make us see the world differently. Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2006 novel, for me, is one of these. It’s a devastating and contemplative allegory about nothing less than the nature of human existence, yet it never feels oppressive, and it reveals its secrets so gradually that the full weight of it continues to linger long after the final scene. I won’t reveal much about the story, except to say that it’s an entirely accessible story about a group of children in an English boarding school, stars three of our finest young actors (Cary Mulligan, Andre Garfield and Keira Knightley) at the peak of their powers, and, though it’s a science fiction film in the truest sense, doesn’t feature any aliens, starships, or light sabers. Perhaps for these reasons it was ignored in 2011, but it absolutely demands to be seen, and often. To me, this is probably the best single film of the current decade.
In thinking back and looking over this list, I’d put any of these 10 films against the greatest movies from before 1988, including Hollywood’s golden era of the 1930s and ‘40s. And there are plenty of other worthy candidates as well – Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Goodfellas, Unforgiven, Hoop Dreams, Babe, Toy Story, L.A. Confidential, Boogie Nights, The Insider, Almost Famous, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lost in Translation, Pride & Prejudice, The Lives of Others, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and on and on. Yet even amidst such a breathtaking list of incredible movies, in the last 25 years I don’t know that I’ve seen a better film than this one:
- Fargo (1996)
The last quarter century has seen the rise of Joel and Ethan Coen to the forefront of the cinematic landscape, a true gift to movie fans. Fargo remains their masterpiece. This tale of crime and punishment in rural Minnesota (and North Dakota) gave us Marge Gunderson, a very pregnant police chief who unravels the ludicrous scheme of car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) to have his wife kidnapped so he can split the ransom money with the kidnappers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare). Even today, Fargo’s appeal remains difficult explain, as it is at times laugh-out-loud funny, terrifying (hello, wood chipper scene), touching, clever, beautiful (Roger Deakins’ glorious cinematography remains unparalleled), and moving, often all at the same time. Even 17 years on, there’s simply never been a film like it, and even 25 years from now it will still probably stand as a true American classic.
Twenty-five years and a long list of truly extraordinary films, all made in the “age of the blockbuster.” If the last 25 years of cinema have really been as lackluster as many critics are fond of pointing out, then let’s hope the next 25 years are as poor.