Seven unsung films from the first half of the 1990s, our generation’s gilded age.
To paraphrase the old cliche about the 1960s, if you can remember the 90s you probably wish you were still there. Described as “the best of times” by at least one historian, it was a decade of unheralded prosperity and at times tremendous naivete. It was also often much darker than that, an era whose popular culture was at times strangled by the superficial, obsessed with appearances, and in many ways the foundation of today’s cynical approach to nonthreatening, non-challenging entertainment pablum. Find a problem with mass culture today and it probably began in the 90s, including not least of which this damned Internet fad.
For film enthusiasts and scholars, the decade was a treasure trove. If not quite ever matching the artistic successes of the 1970s, the 90s at least offered a Silver Age of film craftsmanship and experimentation. The burgeoning indie film movement had yet to become the big business it’s mutated into now, and the major studios were still willing to take occasional chances on risky projects such as Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991) and Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995). New directing talent such as Quentin Tarantino, James Gray, and David Fincher all began their careers, while many of the veteran filmmakers and stars of the 70s continued putting out quality work.
The following are seven films that were released between 1991 and 1995, more or less the heydey of marketing strategies aimed squarely at the so-called Generation X, though this list is not limited purely to films aimed at that demographic. Rather, it’s meant to illuminate the lesser known but no less noteworthy films of the time, so more famous works – i.e. Pulp Fiction, Reality Bites and its imitators, The Shawshank Redemption – here suffer a small case of benign neglect.
Ruby In Paradise (1993): Among the earliest darlings of Sundance, this low-budget, low-volume drama about a Tennessee woman (Ashely Judd, in her breakout role) fleeing an abusive husband for the relative beauty of off-season Panama City, Florida won raves for its emotional honesty and realistic characterizations. Defying the modern female protagonist stereotype, Judd’s Ruby is not wise beyond her years, spunky, or even whimsical. She’s complex, clever, and curious instead – harder to demonstrate on film, though Judd nails her performance. It’s time for a DVD re-release.
Rush (1991): Remember Eric Clapton’s comeback song “Tears In Heaven”? It was actually composed as the theme to this bleak based-on-truth drama about undercover Texas narcotics detectives (Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh) falling in love and getting hooked on smack while trying to bust a local drug kingpin (Gregg Allman). Eventually, the strung out pair resort to falsifying evidence to close the case. Not a cheerful film to watch, and more in keeping with the gritty cop films of the 70s than the fast-talking wiseguys that comprised much of 90s crime cinema, nevertheless it’s still gripping viewing.
Patric was for many years a popular public choice to play Jim Morrison – a role that eventually went to Val Kilmer in Oliver Stone’s turgid The Doors (1992). The trailer above shows his uncanny resemblance to the dead singer in full effect.
Single White Female (1992): Leigh starred or co-starred in no less than ten films between 1991 and 95, so it was probably only a matter of time before she crossed paths with the era’s similarly prolific Bridget Fonda. That teaming came in Barbet Shroeder’s (Reversal of Fortune) psycho roommate thriller Single White Female. Playing with equal mean-spirited glee on Fatal Attraction-inspired genre expectations as well as Fonda’s and Leigh’s respective good girl and vamp screen images, it nevertheless falls apart near the end, when some unconvincing psychobabble tries to redeem the preceding tawdry fun. Still, it’s a great pastiche of the era’s twentysomething angst. The trailer below is virtually a time capsule, including voiceover (like many of the trailers in this piece) by the late, great Don LaFontaine.
Bob Roberts (1992): Tim Robbins’ creative output has dwindled in the current decade, and as a result his ballsy body of work from the late 80s and early 90s is slowly getting forgotten. Robbins wrote and directed this caustic, tortuously prescient mockumentary about a charmingly evil Senatorial candidate who wraps his neo-Nazi dogma in Bob Dylanesque folk songs and faux-rebellious swagger. No less than Gore Vidal portrays Roberts’ hapless opponent Brickley Paiste, a character based in part on Senator Ted Kennedy. Much of the film was improvised and drawn from both This Is Spinal Tap and the Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, weaving social and political commentary together with a wry assassination and conspiracy subplot that kept period audiences guessing and will keep current viewers ruefully shaking their heads. The film concludes with Roberts winning the election with 52 percent of the vote.
Dazed & Confused (1993): A sensation among critics who were just old enough by the mid-90s to remember what high school was like in the mid-70s, Richard Linklater’s nostalgic but honest look back at the summer of 1976 remains a mellow jolt of fun. And much like its spiritual ancestor Fast Times At Ridgemont High a decade before, the film was a finishing school for the decade’s indie film mainstays, including Parker Posey, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams and Nicky Katt, as well as featured appearances by bound-for-mainstream stars Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey. More about mood and setting than character or plot, the film remains merely a fun diversion, though its slacker aspirations never pretend to anything greater.
Kalifornia (1993): Stone’s Natural Born Killers got all the attention in the decade’s “serial killers hit the open road” sweepstakes, overshadowing this Dominic Sena (Swordfish) directed thriller. A pre-X-Files David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes (Homicide: Life On The Streets) play urbanite intellectuals (he’s writing a book on serial killers) who pick up redneck serial killer Brad Pitt and his girlfriend Juliette Lewis while visiting famous murder sites cross-country. The film is deliberately 70s-esque in its approach to its subject matter and showcasing realistic characterizations – probably why the more simplistic Killers got all the public adulation. Now, why Forbes wasn’t a bigger success as a femme fatale we’ll never understand.
Strange Days (1995): Exploiting the decade’s pre-millennial tension, Kathryn Bigelow’s taut near-future suspenser cast Ralph Fiennes as the awesomely-named Lenny Nero, an ex-cop turned dealer in illicit virtual reality videos. Stuck with a tape showing a powerful rapper/social reformer (Glenn Plummer) assassinated by the LAPD on the eve of the millennium, Nero tries to use the tape as leverage in getting back the singer ex-girlfriend (Lewis again) who dumped him years before, ruining his life. Even if the virtual reality angle is woefully outdated by now, Bigelow’s expert mood construction as well as ace acting by Fiennes, Angela Bassett and others – including Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner as the last cops in the world you want pulling you over – make the film unmissable, even a troubled decade-and-a-half later.
Next Wednesday we’ll return to the era of the early 90s and explore some of the worst films of that period. In the meantime, please post your own additions to this list in the comments section.