best film: The Double Life of Veronique from Krzysztof Kieślowski
- Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique is so enigmatic and lyrical—it almost makes his previous films seem like prose and this is his first attempt at poetry (more description than praise or a critique). This has a melodic tone- and it is not just because Veronique and Veronika are musicians
- It does confirm that the visual director that emerged from Dekalog is the one from A Short Film About Killing– he brings back the color filter (this is green, but a softer dream-like almost transparent green hued mist—not the harsh dystopian green/yellow with the 1988 masterpiece).
- It is so opaque – it will frustrate some looking for harder forward-moving story elements to hold onto—it makes films like Camera Buff and the economy on display in episode one of Dekalog seem like a legal treatise in comparison. This floats away when you reach out to touch it. Kieslowski is not quick to offer answers.
- A key shot is the glass with the upside-down city- Kieslowski uses mirrors, reflections in glass, doubles, inversion…chance.
- A stunning of a shot a church at nine minutes- the sky is literally green—green is the choice here and it so brilliantly woven in to the décor and used in the lighting to drape itself on nearly every frame. Look at the spotlight used on her when she’s performing the concert.
- This is contemplative, metaphysical, the story of a ballerina morphing into a butterfly fairytale. The puppet maker with the two identical dolls. The idea of fate. The frailty of it all. They both have similar relationships with their fathers, one in Poland, one in France, both have a condition with their heart.
- Slawomir Idziak as the DP- also shot A Short Film About Killing and Three Colours: Blue
- Kieslowski takes his time- there’s very little plot—not a ton of dialogue (like A Short Film About Killing)—he’s ruminating- and there is so much to look at and be awed by as he does.
most underrated: JFK from Olivier Stone is underrated by the TSPDT consensus landing way down at #699 but I remember when it was not on the list at all so this is progress, I guess. Similar reassessments need to find Naked Lunch from Cronenberg and The Fisher King from Terry Gilliam- neither of their films here find the consensus top 1000 list at all.
most overrated: A Brighter Summer Day is #124 of all-time on the TSPDT consensus list- making it #1 for 1991. Admittedly, I have only seen the film once and I did not get to Edward Yang’s much beloved and ballyhooed film until 2017. The visuals do not bowl you over with a first viewing the way say I Am Cuba does (which I saw in 2016 for the first time and had no problem launching into my top 100 of all-time) so perhaps this one will grow on me with repeat viewings. Currently, I cannot even find a spot for it on the yearly top 10 of 1991 below.
gems I want to spotlight: Sólo con Tu Pareja
- Alfonso Cuaron’s visually accomplished, if not stunning, debut. The reviews seem to be weak because of insensitive nature of the film’s premise (changing someone’s medical chart to make them believe they have HIV when they don’t) and attempts at humor—regardless—the outstanding visuals are there.
- Shares both the immature/superficial sexuality and title structure with Y Tu Mama Tambien though very little else. This is a sea of green in terms of the color palette and it does not have the rigorous formal structure that makes Y Tu Mama Tambien transcend.
- Green font titles, green -ee Cummings poem- bathrobe, shoes, spiral staircase, green phone, jalapenos
- The director of photography is Emmanuel Lubezki- partners from the beginning
- The neighboring apartment is soaked in green- looks like jungle
- Great stain-glass doctor’s office
- Situation comedy- and the situation- again- bugged a lot of critics—but other than that it’s like a rawer old Hollywood comedy film like one from Wilder- Seven Year Itch
- Formally well structured- quotes (again) from Cummings, Newton, Itsy bitsy spider
- Green seats in plane, green paper
- Expressionistic gorgeous street light from above
- Helicopter shot on the tower as Cuaron turns the distant street lamps to green
- A very talented cast (sans William Baldwin in lead), gorgeous set-pieces, and a strong early Hans Zimmer score carry this film into the archives
- 3 Oscar noms for effects
- Could lose the “heat wave” song—brutally on the nose
- On location shooting in Chicago pays off with the set pieces
- Almost like a war film at times with Kurt Russell playing John Wayne- they even call their unit the “fighting 17th”—which makes William Baldwin more of a Montgomery Clift introspective type
- Kurt Russell is just a phenomenal actor- and he steals the show (though Donald Sutherland chews the hell out of his two scenes and gives Russell a run for his money)- he is genuinely worried sick about his little brother, he’s very believable as a firefighter for sure.
- Awful training montage to the Bruce Hornsby song
- Apparently Brad Pitt and William Baldwin basically switched roles here with Thelma & Louise– Baldwin won this role over Pitt (among others) and dropped his role in Thelma (which went to Pitt)
- Piercing blue eyes of Russell
- Sutherland and De Niro are great together in their scene- they were co-stars together in 1900 (1976) from Bertolucci
- Cannot help but think of Raoul Walsh, Cagney and White Heat which the big chemical plant gorgeous set piece finale—it’s just incredible photography and set piece set design
trends and notables:
- 1991 does not have a Goodfellas but it is a stronger year than 1990 with this top 10 and as many as four, or four and a half masterpieces
- This is Kieslowski’s second masterpiece (depending on how you categorize A Short Film About Killing/Dekalog) and it places him solidly as one of the greatest filmmakers on the planet in 1991.
- 1991 is clearly the peak of Oliver Stone’s career with JFK. JFK is a landmark in film editing. Stone as an incredibly low ASL- average shot length- and he does not use it for purposes of the action genre (where the ASL tends to be lower).
- One man is not a movement yet (he would need running mates Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu) but still- 1991 would mark the debut of Alfonso Cuarón at the age of 30. Todd Haynes has his first archiveable film with Poison.
- If 1990 was a quieter year for first time archiveable films for actors, then 1991 more than makes up for it. It is tough to pick a spot to start. I guess you cannot go wrong picking Brad Pitt for his auspicious start in Thelma & Louise. It is a star-maker of a role for Pitt. Rarely do small performances have a scene like the bank robbery with the hair dryer scene. He owns every scene he is in amidst wonderful actors (Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel) in an outstanding film. Reese Witherspoon (in a true debut) makes the next biggest splash in The Man in the Moon at the age of fifteen. Naomi Watts also had her first archiveable film- albeit in a quieter performance in Flirting (alongside her countrymate Nicole Kidman who made her first archiveable film in 1989). Benicio Del Toro has a small but memorable role in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner and who could forget young Jake Gyllenhaal (ten years old) in City Slickers as Billy Crystal’s son. Juliette Lewis technically landed in the archives for the first time in 1989 for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation but 1991 is her breakout in a very prominent role alongside Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte in Scorsese’s Cape Fear. Lewis did not have the staying power of Reese, Gyllenhaal, Watts, Pitt or Del Toro but for a few years in the early 1990s she was getting seemingly every good role that Wynonna Ryder passed on.
best performance male: There are as many as nine actors that deserve recognition for their work in 1991. I would be fine with any of my top three as an overall best performance. Forced to pick, I will go with the Anthony Hopkins as the deservedly iconic turn as Hannibal Lecter. It is a brilliant performance- an astonishing achievement of diction and facial work. Perhaps only second to Hopkins is Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. Like Hopkins with Lecter, it is another performance and character that deservedly entered the cultural zeitgeist. Arnold is no great thespian, but he has an undeniable physical screen presence –the perfect vehicle for Cameron’s film and character. Right there with Arnold and Hopkins is the sublime work by John Turturro as the titular character in Barton Fink. He is intelligent, insecure and, along with the Coen brothers, gives us a wild ride into a mind tortured with writer’s block. I am not sure historians will look back on this stretch of time as the John Turturro era but believe it or not, this is the third consecutive year for Turturro in this category after Do the Right Thing in 1989 and Miller’s Crossing in 1990. Turturro’s dueling partner is John Goodman in Barton Fink and Goodman deserves mention here as one of the honorees for the category. Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams both deserve slots here for their work in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. Bridges plays a Howard Stern-like radio deejay turned alcoholic. Williams is introduced tweny minutes in—and he is at his manic best here. This, like all of the 1990s Americana Gilliam films, is a male two-hander. The pitch-black humor in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is perfectly delivered by Robocop actor Peter Weller. Weller carves out a much-deserved spot on the list of great performances for the year. The last two performances that are certainly worth praising in 1991 are Denis Lavant in The Lovers on the Bridge and River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. Phoenix also impresses in Dogfight from 1991- but sadly he would only have one more archiveable film (1992’s Sneakers) before passing away in 1993 at the tragically young age of 23. We would all be robbed of what would probably have been a very Brad Pitt-like career from 1993 on.
best performance female: Some years it is a stretch to find five worthy candidates for either acting category but there is no such challenge in 1991- in fact, I had to make room for six. I would listen to an argument for Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs but ultimately Gong Li gives the best performance of the year here in Raise the Red Lantern. Foster, as mentioned, is a close runner up and she actually won the best actress Oscar for the second time in four years (The Accused in 1988) and though Hopkins’ role and performance is more dynamic, she is the film’s narrative vehicle and resting point. My next mention here goes to the Irène Jacob (A very fine achievement for Jacob—an introspective performance) in Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique. This is the first of two top tier auteur/muse or director/actor pairings between Jacob and Kieslowski. The other would come in 1994 with Red. Linda Hamilton is not overshadowed at all by Arnold in Terminator 2. This genre (with a big help from Cameron to direct both Hamilton here and Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens) has several stellar female performances and Hamilton’s work here has to be on the Mount Rushmore. Juliette Binoche lands here for her work in Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge. The final mention goes to a well-deserved Judy Davis. Davis is in both Naked Lunch and Barton Fink and slays it in both. She is magnetic in her few short scenes in both films.
- The Double Life of Veronique
- Raise the Red Lantern
- The Silence of the Lambs
- Barton Fink
- The Fisher King
- Terminator 2: Judgement Day
- Naked Lunch
- The Lovers on the Bridge
- Cape Fear
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|A Brighter Summer Day- Yang
|Backdraft – Howard
|Barton Fink- Coen
|Beauty and the Beast – Trousdale, K. Wise
|Boyz n the Hood- Singleton
|Cabeza de Vaca – Echevarría
|Cape Fear – Scorsese
|City of Hope- Sayles
|City Slickers – Underwood
|Dead Again- Branagh
|Defending Your Life- A. Brooks
|Europa- von Trier
|JFK – Stone
|Jungle Fever- S. Lee
|La Belle Noiseuse – Rivette
|Let Him Have It- Medak
|Life on a String – Kaige Chen
|Mortal Thoughts- Rudolph
|My Own Private Idaho- Van Sant
|Naked Lunch- Cronenberg
|Night on Earth – Jarmusch
|Only Yesterday – Takahata
|Poison – Haynes
|Prospero’s Books – Greenaway
|Raise the Red Lantern- Yimou Zhang
|Rambling Rose- Coolidge
|Shadows and Fog – Allen
|Sólo con Tu Pareja – Cuaron
|Terminator 2: Judgement Day- Cameron
|The Adjuster – Egoyan
|The Commitments- Parker
|The Double Life of Veronique – Kieslowski
|The Fisher King – Gilliam
|The Indian Runner- S. Penn
|The Lovers on a Bridge- Carax
|The Man in the Moon – Mulligan
|The Miracle- Jordan
|The Rapture – Tolkin
|The Silence of the Lambs – Demme
|Thelma & Louise – R. Scott
|Truly, Madly, Deeply- Minghella
|What About Bob? – Oz
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in