Ten essential films from thirty years ago
Tom Jolliffe ventures back 30 years to watch 10 essential films from 1991…
If it was depressing enough to realize that 2001 was 20 years ago, how about thinking a bit about the fact that 1991 is now 30 years ago. It’s terrifying how quickly time has flown. Yet, while it is with a certain melancholy that a time still so fresh in mind is somehow so far away, the year itself was blessed with an excellent selection of films. So great in fact that another piece looks specifically at the year 1991 in action movies. Here is the rest of the landscape with ten essentials from 1991 …
In 2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet gave the world Amelie, which featured in my previous look at that year. A decade ago he had this breakout film in France, the fantasy and surreal comedy, deli. This devilishly imaginative dark comedy has a lot of the visual fulfillment we’ve come to expect from Jeunut (here co-directed with Marc Caro) and is a real feast for the eyes. A landlord in a humid post-apocalyptic world prepares very “unique” dishes for his tenants. There is a range of loyal Jeunet (and even French cinema) loyalists here, including Dominique Pinon and the film held up wonderfully well. It’s macabre but never spooky and a lot of fun.
The late Alan Parker delivered another mix of high-energy soundtrack music and gritty drama with The engagements (as he had done before with Fame). Filled with Gaelic charm and kitchen sink drama, the film is charming, funny, and engaging. The actors are magnetic and the soundtrack is fantastic. It was an independent success in 1991, proving immensely popular. It has been somewhat unfairly forgotten in time and still has a lot of charm.
Oliver Stone’s long but gripping drama is, as the title suggests, centered around the Kennedy assassination as a District Attorney begins to examine the possibility of a plot behind the assassination. It’s impeccably directed, marking one of the most cohesive films Stone has made, and features Kevin Costner at his peak (at times, a little unfairly maligned as an actor). The supporting cast is absolutely loaded to the gills with the power of the stars, from Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Jack Lemmon, Walther Matthau, Sally Kirkland, Sissy Spacek, Michael Rooker, Joe Pesci and Breathe… and more. It’s a poster for the big Hollywood drama of the hit awards season and it keeps its promises.
This film found Martin Scorsese in the mood to take a free jazz approach to directing. He has a blast here in this luscious, sleek, and intentionally overworked thriller that marks an effective remake of the original. If Scorsese is having a blast, then its star attraction, Robert De Niro, is clearly in the mood to do it all and revel in its biting landscapes of heavily accentuated wickedness. Cap Fear isn’t as thorough as some of Marty’s best. It’s not as loaded with depth, but by Jove, it’s a great exercise in reveling in B-movie material and providing a supreme example of enjoyable escape. Alongside De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and a young Juliette Lewis are all stunning as the family De Niro terrorizes.
Something of an underground sleeper, Barton fink doesn’t always come to mind when Coen fans think about their favorite author work. However, it is a film that certainly surprises you more on repeat viewings and its unique quirk and style, and playful conundrum, is thrilling. It’s very underrated and maybe too smart to exploit on a first viewing. John Turturro as an in-demand writer in classic Hollywood times tasked with writing a wrestling film is superb. He’s ably assisted by an excellent supporting cast including Steve Buscemi, Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, John Mahoney and a particularly brilliant (as always) John Goodman. The film becomes more and more surreal as it goes and offers a lot to chew on for filmmakers and film theorists alike. It also marked a first collaboration between the brothers and extraordinary cinematographer Roger Deakins and of course it looks exquisite.
Jonathan Demme’s Outstanding Thriller was the Oscar hit of the year, winning 5 (including Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenwriter). The adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel is captivating and impeccably crafted. Foster’s performance is excellent, as is Ted Levine as the serial killer they are tasked with tracking down (aided by the expertise of sociopathic cannibal killer, Hannibal Lector of confidences from his maximum security prison cell). There were some great movies this year, but it was really head and shoulders above the rest. As a reader, Anthony Hopkins is iconic and although he has become a caricature in later films, he is as creepy as he is charismatic.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
It is perhaps the best action blockbuster of the past 30 years. Terminator 2 was not only revolutionary, but he made “big” the way forward with blockbuster cinema. He set the bar high for large-scale action pieces. The budget at the time was gargantuan and every penny is shown, whether it was the revolutionary liquid metal CGI villain or the amazing sets (and almost entirely behind closed doors). Very few of them have come close since for the level of action crafting, mixed with engaging drama, effective humor, and a heart. Schwarzenegger’s shift from villainous cyborg (from the first) to heroic protector works well and is almost meta, Edward Furlong almost literally ripped from the streets by Cameron has a lot of charisma, but the film really belongs to the stunning Linda Hamilton as Sarah. Connor. She draws her big arc from the original film and adds an engaging new journey here.
Boyz n the Hood
After the life of three young black men in an LA ghetto, Boyz n the Hood was an instant classic, hitting hard during a time when Spike Lee was making huge waves and opening doors for black filmmakers like Hood writer / director John Singleton. It’s raw, powerful and at times heartbreaking work backed up by some fantastic performances from the young cast. The nominations for Singleton as an Oscar writer and director were a huge moment in noir cinema, but one that ultimately didn’t turn out to be the kind of platform it should have been (notably the late Singleton itself). The film’s foreknowledge some 30 years later makes it a bittersweet viewing experience, but it hasn’t lost any of its ability to deliver an emotional punch.
My own private Idaho
Loosely based on Henri IV, Gus Van Sant’s original and engaging road movie has generated a lot of interest. On the one hand, it was an example of maturity to come for River Phoenix, on its way to becoming the kind of magnetizing and thrilling actor that his brother Joaquin has since become. So much talent, and full of exposure here as the narcoleptic rent boy on a journey of self-discovery with his best friend. This best friend was played by Keanu Reeves. It was a year to remember for Reeves. A crossroad. He also returned to the role of Ted Logan in Bill and Ted’s False Trip, the role that had shattered him a few years earlier. He went on to have a hit action film in the form of Breaking point which paved the way for a move to the high octane cinema which he would later visit successfully with Speed, The matrix and John wick. Here however, Reeves would prove that he was a young actor with a lot of promise to be more than a pretty boy. The film hits the mark, and much of the impact revolves around a vital scene that marked an afterthought from Phoenix himself. A campfire confessional. A moment of raw honesty within the film that turns out to be heart pounding. It’s an exceptional scene that ties the film together, proves it to be a success, and feels essential and perfectly illustrates why Phoenix was destined for greatness.
Terry Gilliam’s drama, loaded with whimsical moments, was a unique and enjoyable film. The main story dealing with guilt, loss, and the search for a renewed purpose (for several of the characters) felt distinctly grounded in comparison to Gilliam’s generally more surreal work. Yet against the backdrop of a very human story, steeped in tragedy, it is filled to the brim with Gilliam’s visual whimsy as whimsy permeates reality. Jeff Bridges is excellent as a loud voice radio host whose throwaway words cause very real and tragic consequences, and Robin Williams (who is depressed and a psychologically unbalanced vagrant suffered these very real consequences) is fantastic. Williams had already proven long ago that he was more than a rubber-faced comedian and King fisherman was another firm establishment of its capacity. Williams got a deserved Oscar nod for her wonderfully complex role here. Oddly enough, like Tony Hopkins, he was nominated in the Best Actor category (which Hopkins won), although he is most definitely a supporting actor. Williams truly deserved an Oscar, and in a supporting category that was there for the proverbial take, could have taken it.
SEE ALSO: Discover the Essential Films of 2001 and the Essential Films of 2011
What was your favorite movie from 1991? Let us know on our social media @flickeringmyth. Join me soon for a review of the selection of action films from the same year …
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. It has a number of films on DVD / VOD around the world and several releases in 2021, including Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and The War. of the Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more information on the best personal site you have ever seen … https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/