Oh, what a painful experience this can be. It's like that outfit for the first day of high school: chosen ever-so-carefully to give all of the other kids the right impression of you. Are you some Poindexter in plaid? A geek in a grey sweat suit? Too cool in your t-shirt and jeans? Biffed out in your button-down attire? Choose wisely or make yourself an object of derision. Luckily, in this case I can offer a bit of explanation in preface for my choices of "Best Films of the Decade". I may be just as geeky afterwards, but at least I can defend my choices a bit.
The films I've gathered may not be the most technically brilliant, they may not even be the artistically challenging or dramatically flawless. What I'm going for here is repeatability. On any given day I could pop any of the following films into my VCR and watch them with joy.
Goodfellas (1990) - The film so nice that Scorsese's tried to make it twice (Casino). Often imitated but never duplicated, Goodfellas was groundbreaking in its portrayal of gangsters as "working class guys" more than insidious underworld types. Chocked full of wonderfully quotable dialogue and beautiful set pieces ("Layla" playing over the discoveries of the Lufthansa heisters), Goodfellas is an epic of macho strutting that always leaves me scratching my head over what became of Ray Liotta after his turn at Henry Hill.
JFK (1991) - It's a shame that Oliver Stone's subversive portrayal of the greatest cover-up in US history has become a punchline instead of an inspiration for social revolution. Certainly, Stone has done little to sway public opinion of his paranoia nor has he continued to push his artistic boundaries with his now-overused mixed-media style. JFK is a tremendous patchwork examination of various assassination theories. Stone painted his film in broad strokes of shadow figures, over-idealized family life and nefarious homosexuality, using as much subtlety as Robert Redford. Yet, weaving those elements together is a respectable, zealous passion. While questioning the Warren Report and its ridiculous single-bullet theory, Kevin Costner manages to capture the disillusionment and fear of the revelation of Truth.
Reservoir Dogs (1992) - A few years ago I made a little film (I consider it an "experimental narrative documentary") cutting together Reservoir Dogs with Ringo Lam's 1989 film City on Fire. For this I've been accused by staunch Tarantino fan(atics) of not understanding or enjoying Tarantino's work. The "not liking" may be applicable to Jackie Brown and Four Rooms but neither is true when it comes to Reservoir Dogs. No matter how dubious its origins, Reservoir Dogs is always favored viewing in my house. The terrific combination of fractured narrative, character development, and ironic dialogue was a breath of fresh air (and an inspiration to countless hackneyed imitators). Reservoir Dogs spotlighted the talents of several under-appreciated actors; breathing new life into old careers and catapulting younger ones. Tarantino gave actors the kind of Mamet-ian dialogue that thespians only dream of. Between his knack for capturing ear-pleasing, quotable lines and his undeniable gift for collage, Tarantino proved himself to be a formidable talent. Perhaps in the next millenium he'll present audiences with another challenging delight.
Freaked (1993) - It's shameful how few people got an opportunity to see this film in a movie theater. It's picked up a little life on video and, luckily, has been had a good run on cable television. Yet, if there were a comedy I should like to shout about from the treetops, it'd be Freaked. This film, cleverly directed by Alex Winter and Tom Stern, Freaked is densely layered, clever, gross, and hilarious.
Schindler's List (1993) - After fucking around for years with crap like Hook, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Steven Spielberg finally showed film folk that he's more than just some push-ins on awe-struck faces. Likewise he demonstrated that not only can he direct a serious film well but that Nazis aren't just buffoonish bad guys. Restrained and respectful, Schindler's List ranks as one of the best films about the Holocaust and handles a sensitive topic intelligently. Spielberg manages to convey the horror of Nazi Germany with the narrative equivalent of Alain Resnais's Night and Fog (as opposed to the bloated and boring Shoah).
Living in Oblivion (1995) - With Living in Oblivion, director Tom DiCillo managed to give life to an otherwise tired an overused cinematic clich√?¬©: the movie within a movie. Blending painfully realistic performances with dream imagery, Living in Oblivion captures the creative turmoil of the filmmaking process with characters who aren't defined purely by their quirks.
Scream (1996) - This film single-handedly signaled a resurgence in the horror genre. Unfortunately, since its release none of its predecessors have properly captured its hip, self-reflexive commentary on a genre long-thought washed-up (much like its director, Wes Craven). Even its sequel(s?) have missed the mark in being as cleaver and cheeky. Despite the occasional television cross-overs (Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox), Scream was intelligently cast with "Hollywood outsiders" (Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, David Arquette) and given witty dialogue and clever scenario.
Swingers (1996) - When one thinks about "guy movies", usually visions of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson come to mind. Yet, Doug Liman's Swingers is a true "guy movie" in that it's one of the few films to portray the relationships of men both with the showboating bravado and the fragile egos underneath. Not only that, but the dialogue crackles with life and the soundtrack positively swings.
L.A. Confidential(1997) - Even before reading the phenomenal James Ellroy novel from which this film was loosely adapted, I was entirely impressed. Despite the presence of the malignant dwarf Danny DeVito and the uncharismatic Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidentialsoars on the strengths of stunning performances by Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and James Cromwell. Writer/Director Curtis Hanson culled together a tightly knit script along with the oft-untalented Brian Helgeland. In other words, L. A. Confidential was a success against the odds. Who'd have thought that Hanson would have helmed a taut modern police drama that carefully balances the lives of three distinct protagonists? Not me!
The Matrix (1999) - A perfect mix of John Woo-style gunplay theatrics, superhuman Yuen Wo-Ping choreographed kung fu, cyberpunk chic, and Zen Buddhism, The Matrix is a guilty (but undeniable) pleasure. Leaving the gory details of its sci-fi mechanics by the wayside, The Matrix is a smart film crafted to finite perfection by The Wachowski Brothers, who not only know an amazing visual flair (employing special effects in perfect proportion) but also managed to ply Keanu Reeves's Little Buddha persona to their own ends.