This is the second part of a projected 5-part series showcasing the cinema of the 1990s, which is a unique lens through which to view this tumultuous decade. I’ve chosen 25 films that I think embody the values, style and characteristics unique to 1990s cinema. Part I, the first five films (from 1990 and 1991), is here. Keep in mind this is not a “best-of” list, or a “my favorites” list. It’s thematic and analytical. Some of my choices may be unconventional. This article deals with films from 1992 and 1993.
Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton, Director)
In the early part of the 1990s, films broke decisively from the style and cinematic values of the previous decade. That break is no more starkly evident than the difference between Batman Returns from 1992 and Tim Burton’s original Batman from 1989. Returns is darker, grittier, more nihilistic, much more brooding and introspective, and, at least from the standpoint of many filmgoers, a lot less fun. In many ways Batman, the alter-ego of rich playboy Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), is a minor character, with most of the focus on the tormented villains: the orphaned Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) who becomes the Penguin, power-hungry department store magnate Max Schreck (Christopher Walken), and especially Selina Kyle who becomes Catwoman, in a show-stealing performance by Michelle Pfieffer. Far from being a superhero romp, Batman Returns is a trip into the darkest sort of urban fantasy, dominated by resentment and psychosis.
Batman Returns also epitomized the uneasy marriage of filmmaking and commerce, or perhaps the final conquest of the former by the latter. Pushed on the public by a marketing onslaught–involving Diet Coke and McDonald’s–as awesome and relentless as the Normandy invasion, parents of small kids were baffled and disturbed by the dark reaches of Burton’s excess, to the point where McDonald’s pulled out of its Happy Meal promotion. (Horrors!) In the end, though, all that seemed to matter was the money. Batman Returns raked in $266 million, Burton was handed his check and abruptly cashiered from the series, and Warner Brothers took the Batman series into a ludicrously campy direction mainly to chase higher toy revenues. Welcome to 1990s Hollywood.
Sneakers (1992, Phil Alden Robinson, Director)
The 1990s was a decade of technology. It was the decade when most of the public was introduced to email, when the World Wide Web debuted, and when we began to realize–belatedly, perhaps–that the interconnectedness of computers was going to change our society forever. Phil Alden Robinson’s Sneakers is an early and perhaps too innocent and naïve look at that process, but it’s one of the first mainstream films ever to deal with those issues in a serious way, and it’s also an extremely fun movie and a rollicking good time.
Sneakers is carried by its stellar cast. Robert Redford plays Martin Bishop, a former ’60s radical who now earns a living as a “security consultant,” breaking into high-tech banks to test their security and IT protocols. But Redford, a milquetoast actor at best, would have no hope of sustaining such a complex picture without help from Mary McDonnell, Dan Ackroyd, River Phoenix (a year before his tragic death), Ben Kingsley as a tech-savvy villain, and especially Sidney Poitier as a quirky ex-CIA agent. The MacGuffin of Sneakers is a high-tech “black box” that can break any code mathematically. Despite the set-up that could easily have been a dull paint-by-numbers techno-thriller, Sneakers dares to be buoyant and funny while still interrogating the implications of technology we don’t yet fully understand. This film could only have been made in the early 1990s, and we would only have reacted to it the way we did then.
Last Action Hero (1993, John McTiernan, Director)
Although it proved one of the most notorious box office bombs of the 1990s, John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero is such a quintessential 1990s movie that it alone could serve as a treatise on Hollywood cinema in that decade. Last Action Hero is much more interesting as a metafictional story of its own making than it is as a film in its own right, which is quite aggressively mediocre and as ephemeral as a fart in a hurricane. I highly recommend Kelly Konda’s fascinating “oral history” of Last Action Hero to fill in the gaps about what went wrong on this astonishing movie, which was supposed to be the uber-blockbuster and wound up being a fiasco so legendary it’s still talked about in hushed tones 26 years later.
Last Action Hero is about a Brooklyn kid, Danny (Austin O’Brien) who uses 1990s-style Hollywood cop-movie blockbusters, particularly those involving his hero Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger), to escape from his depressing real life. When Danny gets a magic ticket that grants him entry into the odd universe of Hollywood action movies, all the clichés and limitations of the genre become starkly evident. With a premise so clever it’s a shame the film turned to be such a mess, ultimately undermined by exactly the same greedy, tone-deaf Hollywood studio bunglers that it set out to satirize. In that sense, Last Action Hero is something of a Greek tragedy played out in real 1990s life and to the tune of (officially) $26 million in losses. Yet curiously it has since emerged as a cult classic and easily recouped those losses on video and residuals. One could do worse than to study the failures–and successes–of Last Action Hero as a microcosm study of commercial filmmaking in the final decade of the 20th century.
Falling Down (1993, Joel Schumacher, Director)
The 1990s was a time in which a wave of random public violence, fueled by desperation, grievance or mental illness and made more lethal by easy access to guns, achieved epidemic status. Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down was a gutsy and controversial film that tried honestly to interrogate this phenomenon, but ultimately failed to comprehend it. Michael Douglas stars as a man known as D-FENS (from his vanity license plate), an ordinary schlub who’s out of work, estranged from his wife and very high-strung. Frustrated by the seething hellscape of early 1990s L.A., D-FENS abandons his car in the middle of a traffic jam and tries to get home to his family on foot, ultimately amassing a portable arsenal and killing several people who annoy him along the way.
By painting D-FENS as an ordinary man who “snapped” from the strain of of everyday stresses, Schumacher wanted us, the audience, to see ourselves in him, essentially asking, “What would it take to get you to behave like this?” The problem is, though, that by portraying D-FENS’s grievances as essentially reasonable–like wanting to have a productive job and a healthy family life–the film places its emphasis not on the grievances but on whatever fuse has blown in D-FENS’s mind, causing him to react insanely to understandable problems. The harder question that Falling Down avoided was, what do we make of random violence that’s fueled by unreasonable, delusional or incomprehensible grievances? The 1990s contained many examples of this, from Timothy McVeigh’s bomb at Oklahoma City, to the horrifying mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. Falling Down shies away from that question, but at least it tries something few other films dared to.
Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg, Director)
For all the talk about commerce, cynicism, greed and Hollywood bungling, one of the amazing things about 1990s cinema was what it could do truly right. There was seldom ever, in any time, a film made more perfectly than Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, an immensely personal as well as epic and accessible reckoning with the enormity of the Shoah (Holocaust). By 1993, when Spielberg somewhat reluctantly made the film following his shadow-jousting with comic-book Nazis in the 1980s Indiana Jones films, the technology existed to show the Holocaust onscreen in all its cold eviscerating horror. Societal attitudes had also evolved to be able to understand what the Holocaust really meant, in that brief moment of time before the rise of neo-fascism in the 2010s again rendered the event the ancient, inscrutable mythology that modern racists desperately want it to remain.
Schindler’s List scarcely needs a synopsis. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a callous German war profiteer, seeks to make a quick buck in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1939, but the better angels of his nature ultimately persuade him to save hundreds of Jews from transportation to the death camps by employing them in his factory. Spielberg, an American Jew born after World War II ended, bravely sought to embrace the Shoah in an intensely personal way, rendering some parts of Schindler’s List–especially the long sequence of the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto–virtually unwatchable. Schindler’s List forces us to confront the terrible demons that lurk within the human soul, and at once our enormous capacity for destruction and hatred, and also for compassion, mercy and understanding. Few films are as perfect or heartfelt as Schindler’s List. And such a movie could never have been made in any decade but the 1990s.