In my previous article, where I reviewed Silvio Soldini’s Bread and Tulips, I also mentioned my new subscription to MUBI, a streaming platform that hosts thousands of movies from different decades, with a particular attention to cult movies; I really appreciate this because I have been watching movies since I was very little thanks to my grandfather’s video-library (he was a huge cinephile who owned plenty of movies on DVD and would also record films to VHS tapes whenever they were broadcast on the Italian television).
MUBI also includes a series of movies from the 1990s and I truly love movies from this decade because I was born in the ’90s, which was a particularly prolific period for cinema, thanks in part to the popularity of home video; Taschen’s volume on the films of the ’90s reports Scorsese’s thoughts about the potential of the VCR, which led to a renewed enthusiasm for cinema, allowing audiences to see films as often as they would like. These films are worth studying and appreciating, and nowadays they are also being rediscovered thanks to streaming (in Italy I have had difficulty finding some sought-after films on DVD, such as the iconic 1988 black comedy Heathers, which is only available on the second-hand market at high prices. I have found some of these movies on the European marketplace and I now have the chance to stream them again thanks to MUBI).
The 1990s cemented cinema’s belonging to universal culture, making it a common good. I have selected five films from this decade that I love very much; they are all included in the Taschen series curated by Jürgen Müller and I hope you will enjoy them as well:
1) Goodfellas (1990): I must have been fifteen years old when I first watched Goodfellas. It was one of my grandfather’s favorite movies and I watched it on DVD, which I once borrowed from his video-library. I fell in love with this gangster movie; as a young girl it was almost considered strange because it’s part of a genre that teenage boys generally like. I have always enjoyed watching this type of movie and am also a big fan of the 007 series. Goodfellas is a quasi-biographical chronicle of the life of Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), an Italian-Irish gangster in New York, and it is based on Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 bestselling book “Wiseguy – Life in a Mafia Family.” The story begins in Brooklyn in the late 1950s, when 13-year-old Henry observes the neighborhood mobsters from his apartment, all dressed in expensive suits, and longs to become like them. He then neglects school and begins to be a messenger for the boss, establishing himself in the neighborhood and also becoming “a good fella,” as the mobsters like to call each other. Over the years, he becomes inseparable friends with Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito, played by Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci respectively; however, some signs emerge later on that crumble the façade of their seemingly perfect gangster world.
The film is told like a novel thanks to Martin Scorsese’s love of detail and historical accuracy in filmmaking; the soundtrack is wonderful (I own the CD), with pieces from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s that follow the various stages of Henry’s life, from simple Brooklyn guy to mafia criminal. It is one of the finest films of the ’90s and it won many awards (including an Oscar to Joe Pesci for Best Supporting Actor). It is at once comic and brutal; truly one of Scorsese’s best.
2) Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994): this is a little gem from British director Mike Newell (some of you may know him as the director of the fourth Harry Potter movie). It stars Hugh Grant as Charles, a staunch monogamist incapable of stable affection, who is invited to a wedding every week along with his friends, who one after another all get married. However, he meets Carrie (Andie MacDowell) in a love-at-first-sight situation; although it seems to end there, the two meet again at the next wedding. The series of weddings is interrupted by a funeral following the death of a close friend of Charles. Hence the title of the film, which is a satire of behavior and relationships in the British high society and shows how in the film the only couples truly in love are those who will never marry. The film has excellent writing and the screenplay was in fact edited by Richard Curtis, one of the most talented British writers. Made on a limited budget, it was probably the most successful British film of the 1990s before Notting Hill came out. A Time Magazine review wrote that: “Mike Newell’s film takes as its starting point one of the smallest realizations of modern life: exemplary of the yuppie species, the man spends most of his earnings on clothes to attend his friends’ weddings.” The director reveals very little about the characters’ daily lives, giving the viewer a chance to review these festively dressed people on their way to all these weddings and dwelling on the ones that are most interesting in terms of dialogue and mannerisms. The film is a perfect blend of comedy and melodrama to watch possibly on an evening with friends.
3) Interview With The Vampire (1994): before watching this movie I read the Anne Rice novel it is based on when I was still in high school and it instantly became one of my favorite books. I think the film does a great job of transposing the mood of the novel to the screen. The story begins in New Orleans, when a journalist is about to listen to the life story of the vampire Louis, played by Brad Pitt; Louis became a vampire in 1791, following an encounter with the vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise in the film), who encourages him to become like him. The vampires we see are very human and look a bit like outcasts of society (I found them pretty similar to the vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive from 2013). Louis and Lestat are very different from each other; the former is melancholy and immersed in his loneliness because he doesn’t like to kill people, while Lestat carelessly kills his victims like an animal hunting for prey. He turns little Claudia (played by a very young Kirsten Dunst) into a vampire in order to bind Louis to hims but the relationship between the three soon becomes a nightmare, especially for Luis who misses his own human life and Claudia, who is locked in an eternal present and denied the chance to grow up; the only one who seems to enjoy his condition is Lestat.
Interview with the Vampire is a film full of sumptuous images that make the whole experience of watching it very exciting, thanks in part to the stunning cinematography and set design. It stands the test of time and is to date one of the best vampire movies ever made.
4) Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996): my mother gave me the special DVD edition of this film as a birthday gift during my high school years. I generally love Baz Luhrmann’s films very much, and this is considered a ’90s classic. A modern take on William Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet (of which we did a school play in my last year of primary school), it was one of the first films to feature Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role (he is still one of the actors I love the most, both for his talent and his environmental commitment). The story is set in the fictional town of Verona beach (reconstructed mostly in Mexico City), and the guerrilla warfare between the Montagues and Capulets families from which Romeo and Juliet respectively come from is expressed in modern contexts, like the fight at the gas station. The entire reinterpretation of the play is totally radical, with a prologue acted out via television, seen as the symbol of the 20th century decadence. Verona Beach is a multi-ethnic megalopolis full of skyscrapers, sunny beaches and two shopping malls owned by the families. The opposing families are depicted as gangster dynasties and there is also subtle reference to the matter of race; the Montagues are white Americans and the Capulets are Hispanic Americans. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet is an ode to pop culture and a true homage to youth culture; I have always found it beautiful and extremely moving at the same time.
5) Pulp Fiction (1994): how can you exclude a Quentin Tarantino film from a top five on films of the ’90s? He is probably one of the directors who most influenced and represented this decade through his works. A black comedy about gangsters that won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Pulp Fiction is still one of the most widely seen and appreciated films today. It weaves three main stories together but not in chronological order; only in the finale do we learn how these stories are interconnected. The most iconic episode is probably the one in which professional hitman Vincent Vega (John Travolta) must take care of Mia (Uma Thurman), the wife of boss Marsellus Wallace; the two take part in a twist contest in a ’50s-inspired Los Angeles restaurant, and the dance scene is one of the most famous in film history. The movie takes up so many pop culture clichés by making them parodies, and if you are a fan of pop culture you will surely adore it. Quentin Tarantino has a great cinephile past, and many of his masterpieces wink at famous movies that have had a great influence on his body of work. His films are characterized by epic dialogues and scenes of brutal violence; violence that is not, however, an end in itself but treated as something aesthetic and shocking, without any particular ethics but with the purpose of generating a response in the viewer. The excellent quality of Tarantino’s works is also due to the talented actors who have worked with him throughout the years and to the director’s accurate attention to detail. I think Pulp Fiction remains a movie which is unique in its genre and that will surely inspire the new generations of filmmakers for many years to come.
Five Honorable Mentions: it is impossible to include all the ’90s movies I have loved through the years because there are so many, since it was one of the most productive decades for moviemaking. I want to mention Schindler’s List (1993) also because I am writing this article on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day; Spielberg’s movie is one of the best to narrate the Holocaust in a different key without trivializing it. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) is one of the masterpieces of David Lynch, a director I love very much, and it takes up the world and characters of the famous Twin Peaks series, born from the talented director’s incredible mind. Magnolia (1999) is a wonderful episodic film by Paul Thomas Anderson, the plot of which is impossible to summarize without spoilers, and it is essentially a film about human existence. However, I think Paul Thomas Anderson deserves a section of its own as well. The Big Lebowski (1998) by the Coen Brothers could be defined as a postmodern comedy and it is incredibly comic, at times surrealistic. The character of the Dude is certainly one of the most successful and it sticks with the viewer.
Last but not least, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is a film about relationships in the upper-middle-class society, focusing on the dynamics within a marriage and touching on issues of fidelity and forbidden desire. Although there are conflicting opinions about it, I believe it is one of Stanley Kubrick’s best films precisely because it allows viewers to ask questions and then find the answers.
In conclusion, there are multiple films that I could not include in the list but I will definitely come back to them in the future (such as American Beauty, which will definitely be included among my favorite dramatic films of the ’90s decade).
In the meantime if you haven’t seen them you can catch up on the movies I have mentioned on streaming or DVD/Blu-Ray; I personally love physical copies because they often allow behind the scenes access in the Special Features section.
All the movies I have selected are also included in Taschen’s Movies of the ’90s curated by Jürgen Müller.
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