This afternoon, in descending order of preference, here are my selections for the ten best films of the 1990s, beginning with one of the ten best films of all time. — Dennis
1. D’EST (Chantal Äkerman, Belgium, France, Portugal, 1993). Like Dziga Vertov’s lyrical Three Songs of Lenin (1934), From the East is a photographic essay—a documentary survey—of humanity. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Äkerman traveled from Germany to Poland to Moscow. She had always wanted to make a film about the diaspora of the Eastern European Jews, and, in a transfigured form, D’Est became this for her. In each face she encounters throughout her journey she feels the history with which she, Jewish, is investing it, and this history includes the death camps and Stalin—like Hitler, an anti-Semite. “Road pictures” are drifty things reflecting the impermanence and uprootedness of human lives, and the “impermanence” and “uprootedness” of Äkerman’s tracking camera destabilizes figures in often stationary positions, transforming them into a metaphor for lost and scattered Jewry. Äkerman also films numerous people walking, which contributes to the same thematic result.
Äkerman’s dark of night resonates with a sense of Jewry’s eternal tragedy: one’s home, or even someone’s life, always being taken away—the nothingness to which the rest of the world is ever poised to consign Jews by scattering them or their ashes to the winds. The Soviet Union has ended, but its former citizens, apparently unfazed, go on with their mundane lives. They, too, are scattered to winds, and thus this continuation of ordinary existence cocoons them from the sea-change that has taken place, as Äkerman’s camera penetrates and deconstructs the event of their survival, wringing from it her metaphor for Jewish endurance.
We feel the loss of each face, each form, that the camera passes by, and, because there are so many of these souls, we are never passive in watching this nearly wordless film, for we are always catching up with it.
2. THE WALL (Jürgen Böttcher, Germany, 1990). The final days of the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Berlin, East and West Germany: this is the subject matter of a tremendous work, perhaps the last important East German film, by painter-filmmaker Jürgen Böttcher.
Die Mauer is without commentary, music, “talking heads.” It is pure cinema. It opens with a series of panning shots of dismantled pieces of the wall, their graffiti broken up. A skyward pan discloses a flock of birds; the camera descends to the wall—solid, but in the process of being deconstructed and memorialized by cameras. Pans to the right, pans to the left: the eerily deserted Postdamer Platz subway station encapsulates the moment of transition: everyone, except two subway workers, is aboveground, witnessing history.
Celebratory fireworks light up the sky, echoing the time when Allied bombs rained upon Germany.
Intermittently presented, the film’s most haunted/haunting material also unfolds in the darkness of night. Black-and-white newsreels—Böttcher’s film is in color—are projected onto a still standing portion of the wall. There is Emperor Wilhelm riding through the Brandenburg Gate; there are the Nazis again, in a torch-lit procession: the Wall has become a repository of German history leading up to it. People smiling in the street at the end of the war: Böttcher segues from this, startlingly, to the current, more youthful celebration.
Through a hole in the wall, people test the air on the other side. Into the next night, heavy equipment continues the job of creating an uncertain future.
The Wall is becoming part of the history the film projector projects onto it. The past possesses insufficient allure to contest the sensationalism of the moment, in this case, fueled by a media frenzy to which the young are highly susceptible—ironically, an echo of the Hitler phenomenon.
3. THE WIND WILL CARRY US (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, France, 1999). In Bad ma ra khahad bord, a fish-out-of-water comedy, a man from Tehran arrives in Siah Dareh, a small, backward village in Iranian Kurdistan, along with a crew. While he waits to record the anticipated death of a 100-year-old resident, Behzad encounters strange people and customs, and copes with the failure of modern technology in so remote a place, encapsulated in his ringing cellular phone, which compels him to seek ever higher ground to try to find the signal that will enable him to hear whoever is calling him. This running gag befits a film that keeps significant action offscreen; very often we must glean what we can from the sounds that we hear. In this, the film is indebted to Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), whose method, however, writer-director Abbas Kiarostami extends, alienating even more decisively passive viewers who demand plots with the dots connected.
Kiarostami is as sensitive to the arid landscape as to the animals crawling across it; but what engages him most is humanity. One of the characters whom Behzad encounters is a ditch-digger. We hear the ditch-digger’s voice; that’s it. Eventually, the hole the digger is digging collapses on him, and Kiarostami’s unorthodox presentation—not only no closeups of the man, but no shots whatsoever—conveys a searing sense of the victim’s reality. Pursuing fresh milk, Behzad also meets this man’s fiancée, deep down in a dark family cellar, where she is milking a cow—a stunning visual descent into the very idea of how people, how whole peoples, remain hidden to us, invisible.
The Wind Will Carry Us moves us to believe in the reality of other people(s). Once we do, we can better grasp that their lives are no less important than our own.
4. FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1998). We do not expect a “period piece” from Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien, but Haishang hua, an exquisitely wrought film about the hapless lives of prostitutes, is set in China in the 1880s. We follow a number of prostitutes in elegant, richly upholstered “flower houses”—brothels—as they try to eke out a bit of self-determination in claustrophobic surroundings, where their destinies are at the whim of madams, clients, and their own schemes and anxieties. The entire action of Flowers of Shanghai unfolds within windowless brothel walls.
Beautifully lit, the film is formally brilliant. The rigorous sculpting of each image is correlative to the restricted lives of the “flowers,” but it also, ironically, consigns the men to a structured existence—this was colonial China—in which the women who serve them become an index of the men’s also limited possibilities. The central relationship is a long-term one; but Wang (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, superb), taciturn and in the grip of melancholy, is tiring of Crimson and dallying with Jasmine, who is younger, much to Crimson’s dismay. The bonds that tie these individuals together are what they have in lieu of love, and their temper-tossed intrigues play out against another prostitute’s circumstance: Emerald buys her freedom from the brothel where she works. It is a meticulous arrangement.
Austere, relentless, nearly merciless, Flowers of Shanghai lacks the tenderness and overflowing ordinary humanity we associate with much of Hou’s work. It is a portrait of blighted lives. Behind their polite, efficient veneer, the brothels hide beatings and instances of sexual sadism. It is hard to believe that Hou isn’t groping for a metaphor for Communist China. (Artists often venture into the past to comment on the present.) In any case, Hou’s least typical film is devastating.
5. THE SALTMEN OF TIBET (Ulrike Koch, Germany, 1997). Ulrike Koch’s Die Salzmänner von Tibet documents elemental, nomadic existence. Four tribal men—Old Mother, Old Father, Lord of the Animals, the Novice—journey to a lake in northern Tibet in order to extract salt to sell for grain. The day before, there is a communal discussion; the price of salt currently being very low, how many yaks can they spare, if necessary, to sell for barley? (Seemingly offhanded; actually, life-and-death.) The trek itself is punctuated by religious rituals, singing, cooking, meals, conversations, and recollections spoken into the camera. A bus passes the quartet on a nearby road, disrupting our sense of theirs being a world unto itself. Indeed, a tribal woman earlier prayed for world peace.
Because it is packed with purposeful activity (including startling shots of people’s hands at work), the tribe’s existence, as represented by the salt-traders, seems sturdier than that of Werner Herzog’s Herdsmen of the Sun (1988). It isn’t. Koch and Pio Corradi, her brilliant color cinematographer, thus conjure images of ephemera. The camera rises to capture voluminous smoke rising from a cooking pot; shadows shimmer across the ground, their substance—yaks—lagging behind. We see the immense shadow from an overhead airplane, whose substance we only hear, its engine’s sound shattering silence. These saltmen shared their experience with the filmmaker, in fact, precisely because they fear that theirs is a vanishing life.
Koch details the arduous labor of raking the salt and collecting it into mounds for the gathering, sacking, and transport by yak. The conclusive shot of the return home, the longest take in a film full of long takes, evokes not only the slow, steady rhythm of tribal existence but also, powerfully, the hope of survival contained in the saltmen’s patience, tenacity, perseverance.
6. EUROPA (Lars von Trier, Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany, Switzerland, 1991). The conclusion of Lars von Trier’s stunning “European trilogy” that began with The Elements of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1988), Europa is like some ghastly prophetic warning that’s couched in such elusive, ambiguous terms that you don’t exactly know how to protect yourself. As Welles did in The Trial (1962), Trier captures, in a stream of highly suggestive, potent black-and-white (and, also, color) images, the helpless way many of us felt in our Century of Sorrows, the twentieth, which thus far is predicting the twenty-first as its unearthly continuation.
Defeated in the war, 1945 Germany is occupied. Leopold Kessler, an American of German descent, relocates to Germany, where an uncle gets him a job as a sleeping car conductor on the Zentropa train line. Soon, Leo becomes the pawn of two competing sides, the Hartmanns, who own the line, and the occupying forces ferreting out former Nazis. Leo’s neutral position becomes untenable once he falls in love with Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa, giving the decade’s most brilliant performance—as she had done in the previous decade, as Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemberg). Post-war, then, eerily feels like pre-war and wartime, with Nazism still an able, if, now, creepily insinuating, force. Max von Sydow’s disembodied narration looms as a voice of doom: European history, which is repetitive, compulsive, tragic. The Holocaust, in particular, strikes Trier as a nightmare there is no coming out of.
One of Trier’s darkest films, Europa (called Zentropa in the States) wraps one up in its grim, gorgeous images (Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse are Trier’s cinematographers), tightening the folds until one feels like a mummy. The glorious impish comic of The Idiots (1998), Trier’s Dogme 95 masterpiece, isn’t in evidence here. He shouldn’t be.
7. MOTHER AND SON (Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia, Germany, 1997). Mat i syn is about the familial bond between a dying mother and her grown son, who is her caregiver. It’s a visual poem, spare, spiritual, intense.
The setting is one of sublime isolation: a remote country home amidst ravishing landscapes and skies of pristine, unearthly beauty. (Outdoor space was shot by reflection in gigantic mirrors, giving the film a haunting glow.) These formidable surroundings set off the intimate humanity at the movie’s center. Enfeebled, the woman receives from her son the care she once gave him. He carries her outdoors and “walks” her in his arms.
Aleksandr Sokurov and his cinematographer, gorgeous colorist Alexei Fyodorov, have applied special lenses that appear to collapse space and remove depth, converging the two characters and thus distilling their close connection; as a result, their relationship seems to define rather than fill space.
Exhausted, the mother must take her leave; now her son must let her go. A peculiarly Russian form of irony—it soothes rather than pricks—translates the son’s assurances into the very comfort that the mother needs to pass freely from Earth. Son lays down Mother for her last nap. A butterfly lights on her hand. Walking outside, in sympathy and exhaustion, the son also lies down, while land and sky—rolling-off mists; in the distance, a train’s passing—relate to him his mother’s passing, her journeying out. He rejoins his mother; the butterfly hasn’t quite left her hand. Gently stroking her other hand, he whispers to her spirit, which is to say, himself, “Be patient, Mother; wait for me at the place we agreed on”—this, his final loving assurance.
Humane, mysterious, bathed in tenderness, Mother and Son evokes the stillness of a poet’s soul amidst the silent, steady passage of time.
8. DON QUIJOTE (Orson Welles, Spain, Italy, U.S., 1992). A “medieval dreamer in a sixteenth-century post-medieval world,” Don Quijote confronts present with past. His head full of books and in the clouds, trying to right the world’s wrongs, this noble knight is grounded by the humanity of his devoted squire, Sancho Panza. “I must follow my path despite all the world,” he says. Orson Welles might have said the same about himself.
Welles began shooting his film of Cervantes’ seventeenth-century novel in the mid-1950s. He died in 1985. In 1992 a version appeared in Spain, completed by horror filmmaker Jess Franco, who had assisted Welles on Chimes at Midnight (1966).
One of Welles’s most massively moving, gorgeous works, the stark black-and-white Quijote begins in the style of a Soviet silent; low-hung, upwardly tilted cameras frame bony Quijote on horseback against eternal sky, here, of legend, myth, literature. Ironically, this repeated camera ploy has the effect of destabilizing the image of Quijote, wobbling it, as though only his horse could manage to keep a nearing-fifty Quijote upright. Quijote has endured, we are later told, obscurity, repression, tyranny—a reminder that Francisco Franco (until his death in 1975) ruled Spain.
The first time Quijote, on horseback, confronts his Dulcinea, the creature of his imagination upon whom he wishes to lavish his chivalry, she is a present-day woman riding a motorcycle! Thereafter, periodically the past and the present intermix, as do the Cervantes film and Welles’s own stay in Spain while shooting it—a postmodernist delight, but again underscoring how out-of-place Quijote always was in time. Quijote concludes that humanity’s choice to be enslaved by machines, not progress, is modernity’s problem.
Missing is extraordinary footage wherein, watching his first movie in a theater, a battle epic, Quijote charges the screen, cutting it to shreds.
9. LOST HIGHWAY (David Lynch, France, U.S., 1997). David Lynch’s Lost Highway proceeds from the Western mind’s split into competing selves by dint of Darwinism and Freudian psychology, systems that objectified us for ourselves. The result has been nearly constant self-awareness, which can quickly turn to paranoia, which as quickly creates the need to justify the paranoia, even if this means bending reality to it. Our self-objectification led, politically, to the twentieth-century birth and growth of totalitarianism. In retrospect, Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) seems a gloss on Reaganism and related outcrops of reactionary thought and feeling.
Lost Highway’s opening movement is bone-crunching—spare, concentrated, almost intolerably intense. Minimal lighting, deep colors, the suspenseful use of negative space, inexorably slow camera movements, an ominous soundtrack: these and other elements collapse naturalism and surrealism in order to evoke, as if from within his tormented mind, a club musician’s suspiciousness regarding his wife. Videotaped evidence has him murdering her savagely—or is it an image of himself murdering an image of her? The man is tried, convicted, locked up. One morning, inexplicably, someone else is occupying his solitary cell. The law must release whoever has “replaced” him, on the grounds that this someone else must be occupying another life.
Working intuitively from his morbid yet salutary imagination, Lynch proceeds (with lowered ferocity) to interpret selfconsciousness through a crisscrossing pattern of lives where any soul can be instantly replaced by a “double”—sometimes a different mask, sometimes a different life. Brilliantly acted by Patricia Arquette in homage to Barbara Stanwyck’s phenomenal performance in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Lost Highway remains elusive where it isn’t unfathomable. The film suggests some anxious, violent, weirdly funny cousin of Jacques Rivette’s self-referencing “created realities.” It also suggests Poe and Pirandello.
Watching Lost Highway, I thought I had died and gone to hell.
10. OPEN DOORS (Gianni Amelio, Italy, 1990). Former documentarian Gianni Amelio’s Porte aperte is cinema’s most electrifying study of judicial process. In 1937 Italy, Tommaso Scalia, a former compliant Fascist accountant, murders within minutes the employer who fired him and the man who replaced him as a result of pervasive corruption for which he was scapegoated, and then rapes and murders his nagging wife, whom he had forced into prostitution to pick up some of the slack of their vanished income. The death penalty is almost certain for this “Beast of Palermo,” except that one of the three judges presiding in the case, Vito Di Francesco (Gian Maria Volontè, brilliant, at times manically so), who is opposed to capital punishment on the grounds it politically serves State interests, turns the trial into a probing investigation of the defendant and the complicated context of his actions in hopes of unearthing a mitigating circumstance that might justify a sentence of life imprisonment. It’s a tough patch to hoe. Even Scalia desires a prompt dispatch.
Based on a novel by Leonardo Sciascia, the script by Amelio, Vincenzo Cerami and Alessandro Sermoneta, among the dozen or so finest ever produced, encompasses vibrant exchanges among the judges, between Di Francesco and the enraged widow of one of the victims, between Di Francesco and the young boy whom Scalia’s execution would orphan, between judges and jurors. No film better demonstrates how human personalities, grounded in both common and widely differing individual experience, weigh in on legal process. Without resorting to the theatrics of rhetorical statement, Amelio has made a witheringly anti-fascist film, its visual aspect keyed to its profound humanism and analytical bent.
If I had to choose one film, had he lived so long, that Roberto Rossellini would have embraced as beautiful kin to his own work, this would be it.
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