Fixing the AV Club’s “50 Best Films of the ’90s”

This week, the AV Club rolled out its list of the best 50 movies of the 1990s. As with any list of this kind, there is much room for debate. It is not a definitive list – as if such a thing exists. It was compiled through a blind ballot vote of the site’s film-writing staff. But since the AV Club caters to – and is to some extent run by – the generation that came of age in the 1990s, the list carries quite a bit of weight.

The ’90s were an important era in movie history. It was a time when the independents merged with the studios, and young filmmakers who were raised on the mavericks of the 1970s (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Ashby) got bigger audiences than they could have imagined. There was Tarantino and “Pulp Fiction”; Paul Thomas Anderson and “Boogie Nights”; Wes Anderson and “Rushmore”; and David Fincher and “Seven.”

Predictably, all of these films are counted among the AV Club’s top 50. In recent years, the site may have transcended the geekdom of its namesake due to its ability to nab top celebrities for interviews and its consistent output of incisive film criticism. But at heart, it is still a place for young people interested in young filmmakers. Its writers have good taste, but they are still enthralled by violence, sex, and irony – much like teenagers. There is nothing wrong with those preferences. Indeed, one of the primary reasons we go to the movies is to escape the burdens of adulthood.

But sometimes the AV Club’s narrow focus precludes them from doing the good work for which they are known. The films in their list are certainly influential – their #1 film, “Goodfellas,” paved the way for “The Sopranos,” which paved the way for “Breaking Bad,” which the site and its readers have a fairly obsessive relationship with. But are these really the “best” films of the 1990s?  Not by any stretch of the imagination. As evidence, I present five films that the AV Club ignored but surely must be included in any comprehensive list of the best films of that important decade. They don’t all fit into the narrative of where the 1990s fit into the history of cinema, but they are examples of excellent and important filmmaking.

5. “JFK” (1991)

I wrote at length on how “JFK” influenced public policy here, but let me just say this: without “JFK,” there may never have been a “Zodiac,” one of the best films by David Fincher, a hero of the AV Club demographic. Let me explain. “JFK” was not just a film – it was a public trial in narrative form. This had never been done before. Stone used the medium of film to make a case to the American people and their government that Oswald did not act alone in assassinating JFK. In fact, he went even further, providing evidence that a New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw was instrumental in planning the act. It’s hard to imagine that Fincher did not look to “JFK” for inspiration when researching and writing the screenplay for his own whodunit. Like “JFK,” “Zodiac” uses narrative to build a case for one of the many suspects in an unsolved mystery: the identity of the Zodiac killer, who terrorized San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And like “JFK,” “Zodiac” is as much about the nature of obsession as it is about finding an answer to the question it asks – it’s just that “JFK” came a decade earlier. I would think that a website that prides itself on recognizing influential and experimental filmmaking would appreciate that.

 

4. “Quiz Show” (1994)

They say that we currently live in a golden age of television, so perhaps it is not surprising that most people have forgotten about Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show,” which mercilessly exposes the dangers of the medium. A dramatization of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, “Quiz Show” is nothing if not a subtle film – it contains zero violence, sex, or obscenity. It is filled with performances of quiet dignity, and it values integrity and honor. Most notably, it is the rare film that raises more questions than it answers – it quietly asks if the scandal portrayed in the film is the moment that ended the American post-war fantasy. It’s subtlety may be the reason it is frequently forgotten when the great movies of this era are discussed, and that’s a shame. I mean, just watch this scene between Paul Scofield and Ralph Fiennes. This is fucking acting:

 

3. “Jackie Brown” (1997)

I am going to keep saying it until someone believes me: “Jackie Brown” is Quentin Tarantino’s best film. Of course, this is another way of saying that “Jackie Brown” is an outlier in a career of violent and stylized movies. Yes, a few people get shot and the entire film is an homage to QT’s favorite blaxploitation films of the 1970s, but at its core this is a deeply-felt story of two people who have virtually given up on life falling hard for each other. “Jackie Brown” does not get much acclaim because no one cares about two middle-aged people falling in love, but it gives you everything you want from a QT movie – it’s funny, violent, and has lots of fun with timelines – but it’s his only movie in which I actually cared about the characters. The last scene is just heartbreaking and shows a sensitivity QT had never previously displayed – and hasn’t since.

 

2. “The Truman Show” (1998)

Film critic J. Hoberman has classified the late 20th century and early 21st century cinema as the era of the “New Real.” Whether it is a reaction to the pomposity of the 1980s or to the improvement in CGI technology that blurred the line between reality and fantasy, films of this era display a desire to break free from a seemingly false existence into something more immediate and, well, real. The popularity of reality television and movies like “The Blair Witch Project” (#39 on the AV Club’s list) are examples of this, as is “The Matrix” (#33), a heavily stylized dramatization of this idea that literally gives its protagonist this very choice. But people seem to forget that “The Truman Show” displays the exact same dynamic. It features a character who senses that something is inauthentic about his life, so he sets out, at first reluctantly, to find the truth. In the end, he makes the same choice that Neo made when he chose the blue pill – preferring to try the unknown reality over going back to his inauthentic but controlled life. Truman’s world is only a slightly exaggerated version of our own, molded by reality television and celebrity gossip, and like his, our choices are limited everyday by corporate interests. But there is a clear and important difference between “The Truman Show” and “The Matrix,” which was infinitely more popular and is considered revolutionary in its ideas and execution. In the latter, Neo leaves his world behind in the first act, and the rest of the movie is left to spectacle. But “The Truman Show” keeps us in this inauthentic world for a full two hours, and we share in Truman’s journey – his yearning for freedom, his anxiety over leaving the comfort of home, and ultimately his terrifying and joyful step into the unknown.

 

1. “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)

Have you ever met a single person who did not like this film? Currently the #1 rated film of all-time on IMDB.com, the only reason to exclude “The Shawshank Redemption” from a list of the top films of even its own decade is if you are just too cool for school. Adapted from a short story by Stephen King, “The Shawshank Redemption” is small story that evokes our deepest hopes and fears. Andy Dufresne is an innocent man who is wrongly convicted of murder and sent to hell on earth – a maximum security prison. Over the course of his decades at Shawshank, Andy learns to survive, facing down vicious gangs, tyrannical prison guards, and a corrupt warden.

It is an allegory for the struggle to keep one’s humanity in an unjust world, and it is marked by several, indelible moments in which Andy’s hope cuts through the gray prison bars.  Which is your favorite? When he wins an afternoon of beer-drinking for his fellow inmates by offering to help a brutish guard with his taxes? When he decides to blare Mozart through the prison’s speaker system? Still, nothing beats the film’s final third, which begins with the sudden disappearance of Andy from his prison cell and ends with Red (Morgan Freeman) meeting him on the beach in Mexico. It is masterfully-executed, cathartic filmmaking, and all the credit goes to writer/director Frank Darabont, who turned King’s pedestrian short story into a masterpiece and has not done anything nearly as good since.

But perhaps the reason “The Shawshank Redemption” was left off of the list is that it does not feel like a 1990s movie. In fact, it does not really belong to any single era. In other words, it’s timeless. Maybe we are too close to the era in which it is produced to recognize that. But we should take every opportunity to recognize movies like “The Shawshank Redemption” and the others included here. I have a feeling they will stand the test of time, and in twenty years, a list like the kind the AV Club has put together might look very different.

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