The writings of Bill Mousoulis
Some films of the '90s
Before I begin, a qualifying note or two.
As an overview of cinema in the '90s, this piece is limited in many respects: I am a film-maker, not a film critic; I have only seen about 50% of the films I should have seen; and I am biased towards a certain type of film.
Thus, the following is far from an objective critical analysis - it is simply a listing of the films that have meant something to me in the '90s, as a cinephile.
As will become apparent, I love realist cum humanist cum formalist work. In other words, if a film has some kind of truth to it, I'll love it. If it has some heart, I'll love it. If it has a startling or interesting form, I'll love it. And if it can somehow combine all these three ...
To sort all the films
into thematic or formal groupings is beyond me, and so I simply go on
a world tour, checking what was made in the various countries.
Okay, I know it's a cliché starting off with Iran, but the films are there, they are incredible, one has to acknowledge them. But I do sense a lot of hype-merchants around when it comes to these films, and that makes me lament, i.e. for the cinema of other countries. Every country, big and small, has interesting film-makers working away at an underground level producing eclectic art films, but we don't get to see the majority of that work at all. Somehow, the forces within the international film festival circuit in the '90s conspired to bring the Iranian work to the surface (note how nothing of the sort happened with the Iranian work of the previous two decades, some of it by the same film-makers).
One theory about this Iranian art cinema (of course, at the mainstream level, Iran is full of melodramas, comedies, musicals, etc.) is that the Islamic Revolution 20 years back placed strictures on the film-makers, strictures which have caused the work produced to be more allusive, metaphorical, poetic than it otherwise would have been. Film-makers such as Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos have also spoken of similar factors at play in their own work, and Hollywood circa the Hayes Code was also known for causing film-makers (such as Lubitsch) to come up with crafty ways of getting their messages across.
I must admit I've come to this Iranian work late, only in the past few years, so I actually haven't seen most of the films from 1996 and prior.
Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (1997) is a startling work, especially compared to his previous film, Through the Olive Trees (1994), which is really only a mildly-pretentious, "fat style" art film, albeit with some interesting themes. Taste of Cherry seems to come from a different film-maker: it is lean stylistically, it has genuine compassion, its view is relentlessly close-up. Its boldness is in its total use of the in media res effect, never leaving the device's boundaries. And the controversial coda to the film, with its other-worldly aura and strange happiness, is the perfect conclusion to a film full of pain, confusion, contradiction (mind you, the film is such a dare to audiences - it needs to be felt, never "understood").
Taste of Cherry has been lauded by critics, and won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1997, but another film with similar themes has been lambasted by the critics: The Pear Tree (Dariush Mehrjui, 1998). I think this is a wonderful film, really adventurous and very moving. Starring Taste of Cherry's Homayun Ershadi as a troubled writer, it can practically be seen as a prequel to the Kiarostami film. Unlike Mehrjui's previous film, Leila (1997), which is dense, detailed, analytical and somewhat sober, The Pear Tree is spacious, lush, lyrical and very poignant. How The Pear Tree doesn't fall into pretension and cliché (the charges most bring against it) is one of its miracles. Proustian reveries, childhood sweethearts, the wonders of nature - all these are potential disaster areas, but this film pulls them off marvellously.
Of course, most Iranian
films are different to the aforementioned ones because of their subject
matter: children. The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995)
is the well-known film here. I haven't seen it, but the film-maker's
subsequent The Mirror (1997), starring the same little girl, is
a delightful (if ultimately light) study of both a child's anxiety and
the cinematic apparatus. (Speaking of which, Iranian directors often
explore the connection between reality and cinema, and in many ways.
See Mohsen Makhmalbaf's work, especially A Moment of Innocence
 and Salaam Cinema .) Far deeper and more resonant
portraits of children exist in The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998)
and The Silence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1998), two quite ingenious
films, the first raw and unblinking, the second calm and mysterious.
But I'm afraid I have no kind words for Children of Heaven (Majid
Majidi, 1998), the one film to be a commercial success: this is
a terrible film, full of ungainly images, a pandering narrative, and sentimental
whitewash. Oh well, even the Iranians are human.
In the history of cinema, Japan must rank as the country with the most vital and varied film-makers. There is great range from Ozu to Mizoguchi to Kurosawa to Ichikawa to Oshima to Terayama. In the '90s, Takeshi Kitano seems to be trying to replicate that range. From the brutal violence of gangsters to the sweet and tender love between a man and a woman, Kitano's range marks his work. He has already delivered two masterpieces - A Scene at the Sea (1991) and Hana-Bi (1997) - and one hopes he will deliver one or two more.
Japan is currently blessed with some promising younger directors. Hirokazu Koreeda (Maborosi , After Life ), Naomi Kawase (Suzaku ), Masato Harada (Kamikaze Taxi ) and Shunichi Nagasaki (The Drive ) have already made some interesting films, and could make a number more.
For me, however,
the top films from Japan are from a couple of lesser-known directors:
This Window is Yours (Tomoyuki Furumaya, 1993) and Squareworld
(Kenji Onishi, 1995). The first film is a sensitive study of teenagers
on summer vacation - a beautifully sweet and uplifting film. The
second is practically the opposite - a stunning experimental narrative
that glimpses a lonely violence, made by a young and prolific underground
film-maker who deserves to be recognised.
Ah, the beautiful Jackie Chan. Okay, that's a joke. Now, where was I? Ah, Wong Kar-Wai. Surely one of the decade's great and original film-makers. His work is uneven, but that's part of the fun. Ashes of Time (1994) is lugubrious and inaccessible; Chungking Express (1994) is light and quirky; Days of Being Wild (1990) is melancholic and urgent; Fallen Angels (1995) is sassy and dream-like. In this context, Happy Together (1997) is a triumph, Wong taking his cinema to a new level. Here he uses his cinematic techniques (such as slow motion, under-lighting, narrative fragmentation) in a thoroughly controlled way, making them best fit the patterns of the emotions presented. Both yearning love story and cosmic road movie, Happy Together is a mature, touching, exhilarating film.
There are also other
directors in Hong Kong who specialize in character studies. Allen
Fong made a couple of lovely films in the '80s, Ah Ying (1983)
and Just Like Weather (1986), but I haven't caught his more recent
work - Dancing Bull (1990) and Little-Life-Opera (1997).
Stanley Kwan has been more active in the '90s, his Hold You Tight
(1998) quite an engaging matrix of people and feelings. Clara Law
has also made some interesting films, Farewell, China (1990) probably
the pick of them. Her work is saturated with themes of displacement,
and she herself now lives and works in Australia, where she made Floating
Life (1996). And Ann Hui has probably been Hong Kong's major
female director, but I haven't seen any of her work.
China / Taiwan
If Wong Kar-Wai is one of the decade's great original directors, then Zhang Yimou must stand as one of the decade's great classical directors. Starting with a trio of ravishing and dynamic period dramas - Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) - he then took a breather with the simplicity and realism of The Story of Qui Ju (1992), before returning once again to the larger canvas of war and death in To Live (1994), before then attempting a stylized gangster film of all things - Shanghai Triad (1995). Keep Cool (1997), which I haven't seen, is apparently a light, off-the-cuff film, and his first film without the actress Gong Li.
Hou Hsiao-Hsen is
a director who has now made about a dozen films, many of them well-regarded
by critics, but I'm afraid I have only seen one of his films, so I can't
comment. Other film-makers from China and Taiwan have also eluded
me thus far - Chen Kaige, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang.
France is surely cinema's dream. There was Lumière and Méliès, Feuillade and Gance, Renoir and Vigo, Cocteau and Ophüls, Bresson and Melville, and then the New Wave. Maybe it is this background that has propelled French cinema to the position it's in today, as the world's richest film-making country.
What else could explain that even the original New Wave practitioners of 1959 are active and productive as we enter the new century? Jean-Luc Godard (Helas Pour Moi , For Ever Mozart ), Jacques Rivette (La Belle Noiseuse , Secret Défense ), Claude Chabrol (La Cérémonie , Au Couer du Mensonge ), Eric Rohmer (Les Rendez-vous de Paris , Conte D'automne ), Alain Resnais (Smoking/No Smoking , Same Old Song ) and Chris Marker (Level Five ) have all made films that, whilst not as good as their very best work, still resonate with their distinctive styles and themes; films that provide a great background on which to place the younger directors' work. Eric Rohmer's Conte D'automne in particular is one of his very best - it would be a fitting way to cap off his career.
Of the younger directors, where to possibly begin? Maybe with Phillipe Garrel, because he's so unknown. Not a single film of his makes it into the Time Out Film Guide (Penguin, London, 1999). J'entends Plus la Guitare (1991) and La Naissance de l'Amour (1993) are downbeat but tender character studies, far superior to most of the other character studies France produced in the decade, films such as C'est La Vie (Diane Kurys, 1990), J'embrasse Pas (André Téchiné, 1991), Trop de Bonheur (Cedric Kahn, 1994), Nenette et Boni (Claire Denis, 1996). I'm thankful for these type of films, I just wish this particular lot weren't as bland as they are.
The lauded André Téchiné is a main offender here, actually, I'm afraid to say. A film such as Les Roseaux Sauvages (1994) is immaculately well-written, but such a sluggish affair to actually sit through (cinematically, that is). His latest, Alice et Martin (1998), is a marked improvement, especially thanks to an intriguing performance by Juliette Binoche, a performance that recalls Ingrid Bergman's in Viaggio in Italia (Roberto Rossellini, 1953) in its fragility and awkwardness.
Don't get me wrong: many of France's character studies are just incredible films. The Disenchanted (Benoit Jacquot, 1990), Aux Yeux du Monde (Eric Rochant, 1991), Will it Snow for Christmas? (Sandrine Veysset, 1996), A La Place du Couer (Robert Guediguian, 1998), Seul Contre Tous (Gaspar Noé, 1998), Sombre (Philippe Grandrieux, 1998), La Vie Rêvée des Anges (Erick Zonca, 1998) and Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999) are all very striking films for one reason or another.
Finally, a quick
mention of two enfant terrible types: Olivier Assayas and
Léos Carax. I think Carax made only two films in the decade,
both of which I haven't seen, but I must say quite categorically that
I had to walk out of his Mauvais Sang (1986) recently (it was like
a bad Beinex or something!) As for Assayas, I can say that I quite
like him. He interviews well. And L'eau Froide (1994)
and Irma Vep (1996), quite different films, are intelligent and
very engaging works of cinema.
For me, Italian cinema has always been French cinema's necessary partner - the French veer towards being fanciful and excessive, whereas the Italians are primarily cool and dispassionate. Compare, say, Rossellini, Visconti and Rosi to Renoir, Truffaut and Chabrol. The same split can be seen in the '90s.
Some of the Italian directors from decades ago are still working. Michelangelo Antonioni, rapidly ageing and in poor health, completed (his very own "being John Malkovich" movie) Beyond the Clouds in 1995, an elegant if somewhat muted exploration of love and cinema. Bernardo Bertolucci, on the other hand, despite being seen as an "old master", is still young (58) and very active; he made a number of films in the '90s, including the intriguing and at times beautiful Besieged (1998).
Vittorio and Paolo
Taviani, Ermanno Olmi, Francesco Rosi, Lina Wertmüller, even someone
like Liliana Cavani, continued making films in the '90s, without much
recognition or profile. Newer names, such as Gianni Amelio (Porte
Aperte , Il Ladro di Bambini ) and Mario Martone
(Morte di un Matematico Napoletano , L'Amore Molesto
) came to the forefront of Italian art cinema during the decade,
with their highly intelligent and incisive dramas. And then there
was the anarcho-politico-comic Nanni Moretti, with his prickly yet lovable
nature, in the delightful Caro Diario (1994) and the lesser but
still engaging Aprile (1998).
I've actually seen about 30 recent films from Greece, some are not too bad, most do not require mentioning here. The two Greek masters, Theo Angelopoulos and Pantelis Voulgaris, deserve a mention however. The former's Ulysses' Gaze (1995) is an overblown and awkward metaphorical romp, but still quite a spectacular piece of cinema. The latter's It's a Long Road (1998) is a great film: three separate stories of loss and grief, all beautifully realized, painful and moving.
One or two film-makers seem to stick out in every European country. In the '90s, Chantal Akerman kept her Godard-like career (mixture of fiction features, short docos, autobios, etc.) going with some fine additions to her now-impressive body of work: Nuit et Jour (1991), D'Est (1993), Portrait d'une Jeune Fille de la Fin des Années 60 à Bruxelles (1994), Un Divan à New York (1996). Speaking of impressive bodies of work, the Hungarian Martá Mészáros continues to make films pretty much unrecognised. An important figure in women's cinema, she has made many films since the '50s, but few get released or shown much. I've seen the more recent Diary for my Father and Mother (1990), and it is an intelligent work: detailed, meticulous, well-structured.
Who else to mention briefly? Well, Victor Erice for one. Known primarily for The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), he made one film in the '90s - The Quince Tree Sun (1992). This is a slow but beautifully modest portrait of a painter in his last days. Also brimming with sadness, but mostly with exquisite joy, is Tony Gatlif's Gadjo Dilo (1998), the latest in a series of Gypsy films from its film-maker. Benny's Video (Michael Haneke, 1992), to look at some different emotional states, is a genuinely chilling work, superior to the film-maker's later Funny Games (1997), which runs like an American thriller for much of its duration.
Europe is blessed
with other interesting film directors also, people like Alain Tanner,
Emir Kusturica, Lars Von Trier, Pedro Almodóvar and Aki Kaurismaki,
who made numerous films in the '90s (but I won't comment as I've only
seen a few of them). And then there's someone like Krzystof Kieslowski,
who died recently, with his ambitious and quite successful (both commercially
and artistically) Three Colours trilogy (1993-4), a highly watchable
and engaging trio of films.
Other Non-English Speaking
If there's any director clearly designed to fit into an "other" category, it is Wim Wenders. It's not just that he has made films in different countries, it's more the peculiar vision of human nature that exists in films such as Until the End of the World (1991) and The End of Violence (1997). These films have such strange characters in them - alienated, displaced, crazy characters. But then, on the other hand, there is such simplicity and wholesomeness and sheer human joy in The Brothers Skladanowsky (1995) and Buena Vista Social Club (1998). That's Wim for you - you've gotta love him.
Another clearly "other"
director in more ways than one is the Russian Aleksandr Sokurov.
A classical "art" film director, drenched in Russian literature and painting,
Sokhurov's films are haunting, poetic and minimal. For many, he
is the new Tarkovsky, and films such as Whispering Pages (1993)
and Mother and Son (1997) stand up nicely to such a comparison.
But Moloch (1999), a portrait of Adolf Hitler of all things, is
in a different register, going more for farce than grace. Its subject
matter is grotesque, and so is the film too, I'm afraid.
I must admit I have not seen films such as Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1995) and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998). Have I missed much? Also, at the high-brow end, I've only seen a couple of Peter Greenaway's films, and none of his '90s work (such as The Baby of Mâcon  or The Pillow Book ). I'll therefore reserve comment. (But, of course, as everyone knows, to comment that one has not bothered to check out the work of a readily-available director is somewhat damning comment enough.)
I am reasonably familiar with the work of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, however. Leigh seems the greater to me, making three stunning films in the '90s - Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1995) and Career Girls (1997). These three films are so different to each other, yet each of them is a piercing and illuminating study into human nature. Loach is patchier. Land and Freedom (1995) is a moving and interesting blend of personal story with war story, but a similar blend is quite awful in Carla's Song (1996). The working-class studies such as Riff-Raff (1990), Ladybird Ladybird (1994) and My Name is Joe (1998) are acute, energetic and humane, but, unlike with Leigh, Loach's best work is in the past (Family Life , Looks and Smiles ).
Leigh and Loach have
obviously been influential on the UK film scene, evidenced by a number
of other realist works in recent times. Stella Does Tricks
(Coky Giedroyc, 1996) is perhaps a quite minor film, but Under the
Skin (Carine Adler, 1997) is brave and unsettling, and Nil By Mouth
(Gary Oldman, 1997) is powerful and uncompromising.
U.S.A. / Canada (sorry Matt and Trey)
Only in America. God Bless America. USA! USA! You're the man! Chill, baby ...
No, I can't chill. I stopped following American mainstream releases about 10 years ago. Before that, I was into it - how can one not be, with the sheer saturation of the stuff? In the '80s, I used to almost eagerly follow the careers of Steven Spielberg (my favorite director around 1983), Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, John Hughes, even others such as John Badham, Joe Dante, Clint Eastwood. After awhile, I just got sick of the stuff.
But America is, as they say, abundant. The number of incredible films that were made in America in the '90s is impressive, although most are at the independent/underground level. The one clear-cut mainstream film I loved was My Best Friend's Wedding (PJ Hogan, 1997). Of course, the mainstream/independent line blurred in the '90s, but you won't see me at any Titanic/Star Wars/John Woo/Jim Carrey/action/sfx type film.
Let's start at the "top". Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990) is a sumptuous tour-de-force, but his later films such as Casino (1995) and Kundun (1997) seem curiously flat, possibly because the film-maker overuses his famous stylistic devices. Scorsese's right-hand man of the '70s, Paul Schrader, chimed in with two eerie works, The Comfort of Strangers (1990) and Light Sleeper (1992). (I haven't seen his more recent films.)
Quentin Tarantino burst onto the cinema scene in the '90s with the clever Reservoir Dogs (1991), followed it up with the immensely entertaining and experimental Pulp Fiction (1994), then hit pay dirt with the loving, tender, restrained Jackie Brown (1997), which is practically a character study beneath its plot, with its exquisite close-ups of the human face a highlight. The Tarantino-like Paul Thomas Anderson made Boogie Nights (1997), a surprisingly touching look at an assortment of low-life characters, done with such dazzling cinematic skill that one is hypnotized watching the film.
Also more mainstream than alternative, Joel Coen's career kept building with colourful works: Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1995), The Big Lebowski (1998). David Lynch's too, with a couple more testaments to the weirdness of life, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Lost Highway (1996). Abel Ferrara, on the other hand, used the decade to establish himself as a determined and intelligent auteur: Bad Lieutenant (1992) is a fine film, but simply a realist film, the psychodrama Snake Eyes (1993) then ushering in the moody The Funeral (1996) and The Addiction (1994), which I haven't seen, but which apparently is a very striking film.
Is it worth mentioning Kevin Smith, Edward Burns, Richard Linklater? Maybe Linklater it is - I enjoyed Dazed and Confused (1993) and SubUrbia (1996). I have much more time for Hal Hartley, though, one of my favorite '90s American directors. He has an unmistakable form, combining minimal aesthetics with outrageous narrative details. That he is a disciple of Godard and Bresson is plain. But not all of his films work. Trust (1990) and Surviving Desire (1991) are beautifully tragic and uplifting explorations of the human heart, and Amateur (1994) and Flirt (1995) are wonderful art films, but with Simple Men (1992), Henry Fool (1997) and The Book of Life (1998), Hartley simply rehashes what he's done before, and the films become tiresome.
Let's go further left. This is where things become interesting. Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998) is an assured but inconsistent look at loneliness and pained human interactions. Sometimes it's black, sometimes straight; sometimes disparaging, sometimes compassionate. Ultimately, this flaws it. No such problems exist for Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995). Another critique of American suburbia, this time the mode is consistent, transcending any notions of "sympathy" or "derision" for its characters. The film charts the breakdown of a woman with inexorable logic. It's a frightening film. (Haynes also made Poison  and Velvet Goldmine .) Another one-word-titled film from a director called Todd was impressive: Frisk (Todd Verow, 1995). This is more like a B-grade/underground slasher film, but as a study of serial killing, it's quite illuminating. The opening scene, just of a man in a room with a typewriter, is chilling. Kids (Larry Clark, 1995) is also quite chilling, and Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997) deserves some sort of attention.
Also left, but more underground, the original no-budget king Jon Jost kept making films in the '90s, but with more production values at his disposal. Sure Fire (1990) and The Bed You Sleep In (1995) are further meditations on the American male psyche and familial relations from this soothsayer of a film-maker. The sheer control he has over the medium is heartening: he will let the stories unfold gradually, but he will also punctuate them with hyper-real experimental touches. At the feminist end of things, there were several active directors in the '90s: Yvonne Rainer (MURDER and Murder ), Su Friedrich (Sink or Swim , Hide and Seek ), Sadie Benning (Flat is Beautiful ) - Hide and Seek, for one, is a wonderful film.
In Canada, a couple
of elegant and partly-disturbing films were made: Crash (David
Cronenberg, 1996) and The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997).
And the quite unique Guy Maddin continued making films - his The Twilight
of the Ice Nymphs (1997) is as purpley baroque as they come.
Only in Canada.
And never in Australia. It is when undertaking an exercise such as this that one can truly see the paucity of Australian cinema. Does any Australian film from the '90s match any of the above films?
Well, I guess if we include New Zealand in this section, Jane Campion has to be reckoned with. The original Australian "quirk"-meister, she made some wonderful shorts in the '80s, along with Sweetie (1989), before consummating all that talent with the biopic An Angel at My Table (1990), a typically skewed and fragile work, but also a very satisfying and moving work. The Piano (1993), with its jump to glossy Gothic art production values, I'm less crazy about, and I haven't seen her more recent films.
Back to Australia. No film in the '90s matches Ray Argall's Return Home (1989) for sheer depth, humanity and inventiveness (what a lead performance by Dennis Coard!), not even Argall's second film, Eight Ball (1991). Brian McKenzie's Stan and George's New Life (1992) and Sue Brooks' Road to Nhill (1997) come close though.
Paul Cox's work in the '90s took, for me, an interesting turn. Leaving behind some of the more arch qualities of his '80s work, films such as A Woman's Tale (1991), The Nun and the Bandit (1992) and Exile (1993) are simple and lovely character studies. The Nun and the Bandit in particular dares to mix genres and, ultimately, becomes a "transcendental" spiritual drama, with similarities to Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959). But it is Rolf de Heer who has undoubtedly now taken the mantle from Cox as Australia's one art auteur, with films such as Bad Boy Bubby (1993) and Dance Me To My Song (1998).
Some other interesting film directors got to make a feature or two in the '90s: David Perry, John Hughes, Susan Dermody, Ross Gibson, Tracey Moffatt, Philip Brophy, Margot Nash, Leo Berkeley, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Aleksi Vellis, Monica Pellizzari, Rowan Woods. This lot were mainly in the early '90s. The late '90s films and directors leave a lot to be desired.
But that's okay -
desire is what the cinema is all about, and I look forward to its next
Top Ten films of the '90s, my picks:
Together (Wong Kar-Wai, 1997, Hong Kong)
In the recent Village Voice Take One poll, 50 critics nominated thus for the best films of the '90s:
(Todd Haynes, 1995, U.S.A.)
and Hou Hsiao-Hsen was nominated as the director of the decade
© Bill Mousoulis Jan 2000
This article first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.2, Jan 2000.