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.

Christmas is set up in the opening, like episode three of Dekalog, and there is an abundance of red here as well. We get the big red bus the first time she sees her double. The green van with the angels on hit is surrounded by red motorcycles at the 40-minute mark. The tea shot in close-up is blood red, the sweater she wears in the greatest frame in the film (here)- the window frame at the 45-minute mark- is red.

This dedication to a color aesthetic is certainly the visual trait most associated with Kieslowski. It happened before of course- perhaps Cries and Whispers is an influence. Bergman also worked with doppelgängers (Persona).

It doesn’t have the stylistically/visually quiet moments we see in a few episodes of Dekalog or certainly his work before. There are 40-50 jaw-dropping sequences, shots, and frames in the short 98-minute running time here.

  • 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.

 

Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is an audacious trip down the path of addiction. Cronenberg infuses his trademark body horror into the proceedings—just one of the many ways he makes this material his own.  It is a brilliant mess of weirdness and stands on its own as a great work of art (whilst being a meditation on creating  art) outside of the Burroughs book. Like mentioned above, the film is still overlooked by most critics and is not one of the five Cronenberg films currently in the TSPDT top 1000.

In The Fisher King Gilliam intercuts the main narrative with surrealism sequences much like Jonathan Pryce’s fantasy daydreams in Brazil– Robin Williams’ character is literally battling his demons here – in the form of the red knight character (the color red is featured predominately throughout in the design).

Gilliam moved on from trilogy of imagination in the 1980s (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) to a new trilogy- the trilogy of Americana in the 1990s starting strongly with The Fisher King. Gilliam goes full-bore in the Wellesian low-angles to powerful effect. It fits both the narrative (disorientation and distortion of reality is key for Gilliam) on top of being handsome to look at. It also fits Gilliam as an artist who views himself very much outside of the system—Welles has to be a hero to him.

 

 

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.

a thoroughly impressive composition in Yang’s A Brighter Summer’s Day

 

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

 

Backdraft

  • 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.

Speaking of the best directors on the planet- 1991 with Barton Fink marks back to back top five films of the year for the Coen brothers. If you’re keeping track of their career at this point, that is four straight films to start their career in the top ten of their respective of their year-amazing.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day is the box office champion of 1991. It is good film to bring up every time someone blanketly dismisses sequels. James Cameron has actually delivered now on two outstanding sequels with this and Aliens in 1986.

  • 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.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s unique voice is heard loud and clear with Delicatessen– his first archiveable film and true debut

  • 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.

 

Yimou Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern is surely one of the most beautiful films of the 1990s

Like Kieslowski’s 1991 masterpiece, it shares a commitment to a visual motif

It is not just the sublime use of color and the lighting- here- a skill at setting symmetrical compositions with changing elevations is on display

a candidate for the supreme achievement in mise-en-scene from the 1990s

JFK is a major artistic landmark when talking about the history of film editing. The obvious comparison is Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. These are both political films—arguments for their cause—and undoubtedly the dedication to the montage aesthetic is something they share. In JFK, Stone uses film stock, video, 8mm (Zapruder film), 16mm, black and white footage. It is such a gigantic and varied collection. I would love to see a Bordwell (the great Bordwell talks about JFK often) formal narrative breakdown—but it would almost be impossible to compile.

Jonathan Demme hinted at this level of artistry with the climax of Something Wild in 1986– but The Silence of the Lambs has a rigid dedication to Demme’s remarkable closeups

A shockingly high number of close-ups. The Lecter encounters, the finale with night vision, Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill putting on makeup through a mini-montage sequence. Foster is the film’s vehicle and her work should not be overlooked even if it is not remembered as often as Hopkins is for the film.  Clarice deals with male gaze throughout the film (cops at the funeral home, with Scott Glenn, with Lecter, the Dr. Chilton character).—she is a character with grit and backbone-—she is intelligent, ambitious, and inherently good.

 

 

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.

 

Hopkins performance lives up to spot it still holds in cinema history today and pop culture. It’s an unflinching and uncompromising performance. There is little blinking and the closeups from Demme help tremendously. It would be impossible to duplicate this performance without that decision with the camera. But every choice Hopkins makes works- the diction is just immaculate—words like “tedious” and of course popular ones like “chianti.”

John Turturro here in Barton Fink in that mystifying, genius ending

River Phoenix is My Own Private Idaho— a beautiful cinematic painting from Gus Van Sant

 

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.

in 1987 the Gong Li and Yimou Zhang collaboration began– and here, in Raise the Red Lantern, the partnership hits its pinnacle

Demme’s aforementioned dogmatic approach to closeups help capture every rich nuance in the performances of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. The critical and commercial success of the film (won the majority of the big Oscars: picture, director, writing, actor, actress– and was a top five box office success in North America) catapulted both actors’ careers.

 

 

top 10

  1. The Double Life of Veronique
  2. Raise the Red Lantern
  3. JFK
  4. The Silence of the Lambs
  5. Barton Fink
  6. The Fisher King
  7. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
  8. Naked Lunch
  9. The Lovers on the Bridge
  10. Cape Fear

 

Leos Carax’s madcap romance- The Lovers on the Bridge

Thelma & Louise is one of Ridley Scott’s better non-Alien/Blade Runner efforts—superbly acted, great Hans Zimmer Score, landscape photography in Utah. It owes a lot to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. It is a buddy movie of outlaws on the run, great star-power acting, they even joke about lying to each other as part of the denial of the fatal, freeze frame ending.

The stained glass window opening prologue in Beauty and the Beast is absolutely stunning.

 

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Brighter Summer Day- Yang HR
Backdraft – Howard R
Barton Fink- Coen MS
Beauty and the Beast – Trousdale, K. Wise R/HR
Boyz n the Hood- Singleton R
Bugsy- Levinson R/HR
Cabeza de Vaca – Echevarría
Cape Fear – Scorsese HR/MS
City of Hope- Sayles
City Slickers – Underwood R
Dead Again- Branagh R
Defending Your Life- A. Brooks R
Delicatessen- Jeunet HR/MS
Dogfight- Savoca R
Europa- von Trier R
Flirting- Duigan R
Homicide- Mamet R
JFK – Stone MP
Jungle Fever- S. Lee R
La Belle Noiseuse – Rivette R/HR
Let Him Have It- Medak R
Life on a String – Kaige Chen R
Mortal Thoughts- Rudolph R
My Own Private Idaho- Van Sant
Naked Lunch- Cronenberg MS
Night on Earth – Jarmusch HR
Only Yesterday – Takahata R
Poison – Haynes R
Prospero’s Books – Greenaway HR
Raise the Red Lantern- Yimou Zhang MP
Rambling Rose- Coolidge R
Shadows and Fog – Allen R
Sólo con Tu Pareja – Cuaron HR
Terminator 2: Judgement Day- Cameron MS
The Adjuster – Egoyan R/HR
The Commitments- Parker R
The Double Life of Veronique – Kieslowski MP
The Fisher King – Gilliam MS
The Indian Runner- S. Penn R
The Lovers on a Bridge- Carax HR/MS
The Man in the Moon – Mulligan R
The Miracle- Jordan
The Rapture – Tolkin
The Silence of the Lambs – Demme MP
Thelma & Louise – R. Scott HR
Truly, Madly, Deeply- Minghella
What About Bob? – Oz R

 

 

*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