Decade: 1990s

Favorite Films of the ’90s

Thanks to the AV Club, film nerds everywhere are declaring their favorite films of the 1990s. I spent all of five minutes on mine, which is why they’re alphabetized.

Tren de Sombras (1997)

This essay was originally published at Senses of Cinema.

Pedro Costa’s “Vanda Trilogy” and the Limits of Narrative Cinema as a Contemplative Art

This essay was originally published in Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (2008), edited by Kenneth Morefield for Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Life on Earth (1999)

Dir. by Abderrahmane Sissako “There is an organic unity to village life, but it is both fragile and alienating. In this regard Sissako refuses to either promote some pure, untouched pre-modernity or to mourn for some lost social integration. Sissako’s encompasser always has to make room for those transnational nomads who can’t quite pass muster […]

Casa de Lava (1994)

Pedro Costa’s second feature, Casa de Lava, opens with a barrage of arresting juxtapositions. The first few minutes pass in complete silence as we watch the simple white-on-black credits, followed by a montage of volcanoes.

Satantango (1994)

Like the coal buckets in Damnation, the opening shot of cows being loosed into the fields in Satantango is as beautifully strange and breath-taking as any image I saw all year. Following it with a hundred more long takes pushes, in interesting ways, the limits of the affect.

Showgirls (1995)

I can’t seem to find it now, but one of my all-time favorite Onion headlines is something like, “Area Man No Longer Able to Enjoy Ironically.”

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997)

When I was aware of Winterbottom’s mise-en-scene at all, I was frustrated by its haphazardness — odd cuts are scotchtaped together by forced music cues, the camera jumps too often into the subjective perspective of unimportant characters (an after-the-fact narrative justification for Winterbottom’s use of a hand-held, I suspect), and the central story gets lost in the noise of several side-plots.

Diving Deep into Caveh Zahedi’s In the Bathtub of the World

This essay was presented at the 2005 conference of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association.

Fifteen for Fifteen

In celebration of its 15th anniversary, the IMDb has invited its editorial staff to submit their Top 15 Lists: 1990-2005. Never one to pass up an opportunity to obsess for a few days over such a challenge, I’ve put together a list of my own — a list joyfully free of editorial imposition, meaning that I can stretch and/or ignore even the most basic criteria/rules.

Safeway Cart

The new Song of the Moment, Neil Young’s “Safeway Cart,” scores a scene in which the Legionnaires march through a rocky desert, one of their many meaningless exercises in the film. It plays like a dirge and is one of Beau Travail’s few explicit references to the Christian allegory at play.

Slacker (1991)

Linklater, perhaps more than any other contemporary filmmaker, is alive to the potential and the basic human value of the men and women who walk in and out of his films. And he seems to have a particular fondness for the folks who live on the margins, whether by choice or necessity.

Strange Waters

I asked Bruce about “Strange Waters” yesterday, and his answer was a tense, beautiful sermon.

Random Musings . . .

On some recent viewings . . . Shame (Bergman, 1968) — Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow star as Eva and Jan Rosenberg, cultured musicians who escape to a rural island when their orchestra is shut down during a war. Their new, more simple life as farmers is soon interrupted when their home is invaded, […]


Since watching Caveh Zahedi’s In the Bathtub of the World on Sunday, I have probably listened to The Innocence Mission’s “Snow” thirty times. Hopefully I’ll find time to write about Bathtub in the next day or two. It’s been a long time since I was so moved by a film.

Late August, Early September (1998)

Like, one of Rohmer’s late comedies, the charm of Late August is found almost entirely in its characters (all of whom are likeable enough and three-dimensional enough) and in the smart things they say to one another. They twist themselves in existential knots, struggling to balance their idealized visions of integrity with the muddy necessity: compromise.


I’m almost finished Dreamer, Charles Johnson’s novel about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggles in Chicago in 1966, and it’s amazing — the finest novel I’ve read in months. (Dreamer wants to become part of my stalled dissertation; I have, as yet, managed to fight that urge.)

Cross Bones Style

The oft-repeated but still-juicy line from Godard: “The history of cinema is boys photographing girls. The history of history is boys burning girls at the stake.” You can confirm the second sentence by watching TV for three minutes. To confirm the first sentence, watch the Cat Power videos available here at the Matador website.

I’ll Be Gone

I have no idea why I’ve been listening to American Music Club’s San Francisco so much lately — I mean, other than because it’s a great album. “I’ll Be Gone” is a damn fine song.

Calendar (1993)

Made for German television and with a budget of only $100,000, Calendar is one of the most compelling and stylistically inventive films I’ve seen this year.

The Wind

A friend and I exchanged mix CDs this week, and apparently I now have to go buy PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? You know you’re dangerously obsessed with a song when WinAmp is set to repeat and the playlist includes only one track. “The Wind” is totally that song.

Blood on My Hands

I just didn’t get the whole groupie phenomenon until about ten years ago, when I caught The Sundays at a club called The Moon in Tallahassee. Looking up at Harriet Wheeler, my elbows resting on the raised stage, I fell instantly and deeply in love. Or maybe it was lust.

Dream Brother

Even before Jeff Buckley drowned at 30, his voice was thick with melancholy and tragedy. Grace is without question one of the finest albums of the 90s, and “Dream Brother,” the disc’s closer, is proof. Amazing.

From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1996)

Journals is at its best, I think, when Rappaport intertwines the lives and loves of Seberg, Jane Fonda, and Vanessa Redgrave. All are of the same age, all made films directed by their husbands (another of the film’s more interesting concerns), and all participated actively in radical political movements.

Cupid’s Trick

“Cupid’s Trick” is my favorite Elliot Smith song, and I’ve been listening to a good bit of Elliot Smith lately, for what it’s worth.


What to hear a perfect song? “Resplendent,” by Bill Mallonee and Vigilantes of Love, is as close as it gets. There’s the Bruce Cockburn-like guitar, that sweet snare drum shuffle, and Emmylou’s harmonies.

Children of Heaven (1997)

While the film lacks the explicit political critique of something like Panahi’s The Circle (banned by Iranian officials) or Kiarostami’s Close-Up, it offers a wonderfully told story, and it also performs a service that is terribly important right now: Our hearts should be warmed to the people of the Middle East, the people who are (or who soon will be) hiding out under the devastation of our bombing campaigns.

The Sweet Sting

I’ve never been one to miss high school, but I do occasionally find myself longing for something from those days, something lacking in the day to day management of adult life.

It’s Alright, Baby

I found this song of the moment, “It’s Alright, Baby” by Komeda, on the Gilmore Girls soundtrack. It’ is Euro-retro-pop at its most infectious. Just a fantastic song.

Bathsheeba Smiles

I’m on a quest for the perfect pop song. “Bathsheba Smiles” isn’t quite perfect, but it comes awfully darn close: an infectious melody, a sing-along chorus, a simple chord progression, and a sweet lyric. Heck, you could almost dance to it.

Good Men, Good Women (1995)

The first cut in Good Men, Good Women establishes several dichotomies that, over the next 100 minutes, are beautifully dismantled for explicitly political purposes.

Grace, Too

It’s something about that bass line and the way that Gord Downie unleashes the line, “Armed with will and determination / And grace, too,” that rips me up.

La Promesse (1996)

La Promesse is a wonderful film whose beauty is born from the Dardennes’ suffusion of honesty and moral complexity into standard narrative conventions: the simple two-act structure, Igor’s bildungsroman, the basic quest for human connection.

American Pastoral (1997)

What most fascinates me about this novel—along, of course, with Roth’s beautiful prose—is its inability, ultimately, to make any sense of the Swede’s tragedy.

Black Water (1992)

But Black Water is first and foremost a novel about Kelly Kelleher and, by analogy, all other women who have been abused, exploited, and discarded by the powerful and by the media that report it.

The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)

The film actually becomes more interesting to me if I imagine Mui in twenty years, her beauty faded, her husband gone, and her spirit empowered.

Vive L’Amour (1994)

Walker Percy characterizes the 20th century American novel as a recurring investigation of “the essential loneliness of man.” It’s hardly an original conceit, but I was reminded of it constantly yesterday as I watched Vive L’Amour.

L’Humanite (1999)

Walt Whitman would be proud. It’s remarkable to hear echoes of Whitman in the voice of a contemporary filmmaker, but there he is, still singing the “body electric” and sounding his “barbaric yawp.”

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

There’s a scene in The Sweet Hereafter in which Mitchell Stephens — a big city ambulance chaser played to perfection by Ian Holm — sits in a cramped airplane seat, telling the passenger beside him a story from when his daughter, Chloe, was a child.

A Taste of Cherry (1997)

Mr. Badii (played by Homayon Ershadi, an architect friend of Kiarostami) is a middle aged man who spends much of the film driving through the hill country surrounding Tehran, looking for someone to help him commit suicide.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The following was written for a graduate seminar on James Joyce and W.B. Yeats. Please forgive the fumbling psycho-babble. I think it actually serves a very legitimate reading of this film.

The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue (1994)

Johnson’s and Petrie’s study is that extremely rare beast: an academic study that is informative, objective (or as close as anyone can get), and readable.

Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (1999)

Insdorf sets out with the right questions in mind: How was Kieslowski’s body of work shaped by personal experience, particularly by his life under Communism? What other directors, artists, and thinkers shaped his aesthetic? What preoccupations, both ideological and stylistic, form the backbone of his work? What precipitated his move from documentary to narrative film, and how did each influence the other? Unfortunately, in attempting to answer all of these questions (and in only 180 pages), she fails to address any of them adequately.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1992)

Note: These are my initial thoughts on Millennium Approaches, written as a journal assignment in the fall of 1998. I’m tempted to revise it or pull it down altogether, but I’ve decided to keep it up here as an artifact of sorts.

In the Time of Butterflies (1994)

“Why, they inevitably ask in one form or another, why are you the one who survived?” (page 5). Before meeting the sisters of In the Time of Butterflies, before even learning their names, we know that they have lived lives and died deaths worth telling.