This is the fourth part of my blog article series examining the cinematic style of the 1990s, by sampling 25 representative films from the decade. This is neither a “best-of” list or a “my favorites” list, but rather it’s thematic and stylistic, so some of the choices may be unconventional. This article covers the years 1996 and 1997. For Part I (1990-91), see here. Part II (1992-93), here. Part III (1994-95), here.
Romeo + Juliet (1996, Baz Luhrmann, Director)
For being dead nearly 400 years, William Shakespeare had an excellent decade during the 1990s, as cinema suddenly rediscovered and reinvented his works in interesting ways. In 1990 Glenn Close and Mel Gibson did Hamlet, which was done again in 1996 in Kenneth Branagh’s sprawling full-text production; the decade also saw perhaps the best-ever film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Shakespeare himself even became a character in the 1998 Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. But this, Baz Luhrmann’s bizarre, lurid and totally over-the-top reimagining of Romeo & Juliet in a beachfront gangland setting, was the only one that dared to fuse the immortal Bard to the zeitgeist of the 1990s.
Leonardo DiCaprio, whose meteoric rise as a star began early in the decade, is Romeo, and Claire Danes is a somewhat unlikely Juliet. Here the Montagues and Capulets are mafia families, Tybalt and Mercutio pack gleaming 9mm pistols instead of swords, and the whole thing is suffused with more blazing glitzy images than even MTV, if it was still playing music in the 1990s, would have dared to serve up. Australian director Baz Luhrmann boosted his career by crashing through any remaining barriers of artistic restraint, but at least he’s got some taste, and coupled with an audacious cinematic vision, he comes off as sort of a cross between David Lean and Bob Fosse. Romeo + Juliet is not his best film, but it’s a great entry point into his unusual body of work, and it’s an extremely entertaining picture that’s utterly dazzling to the eyes.
Independence Day (1996, Roland Emmerich, Director)
Independence Day, the number 1 box office hit of 1996, is one of the most soulless and cynical films ever made, utterly lacking any shred of originality or artistic passion. The fact that it’s so enormously entertaining despite those drawbacks makes you almost feel guilty for enjoying it. When the phenomenon of the summer blockbuster first appeared in the 1970s, it emerged more or less organically: studios had no idea what would be a runaway hit and what wouldn’t, so it was largely a process of trial and error. By the mid-1990s, however, enough was understood about audiences’ economic behavior that blockbusters could be engineered from scratch, like cloning animals in a laboratory. Independence Day is just that sort of petri-dish experiment, and it’s just as counterfeit a life form as Dolly, the cloned sheep who captured headlines the following year.
Your standard issue alien invasion flick, Independence Day features a sudden onslaught of city-sized flying saucers that annihilate major landmarks around the world, until wisecracking scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and fighter jock Steven Hiller (Will Smith) figure out how to defeat them with an MacBook. Add a couple of spectacular air battles and a speech by the President (Bill Pullman) that is far more eloquent than any real life politician could give, and you’ve basically got the whole movie. This film basically went in one eye and out the other when I first saw it in 1996, and it was a fun experience but little more than that. Seeing it again 20 years later, my opinion hasn’t changed, but it does perfectly represent the kind of eye-candy fluff movies that were such big business then, and still are now.
Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino, Director)
You didn’t think we could do a series on 1990s cinema without mentioning Tarantino, did you? As his requisite entry in the history of the decade in film, I chose not Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, but Jackie Brown, which I believe is far and away his best film of that or any decade. As we’ve seen particularly since 2000, Tarantino tends toward excess. Jackie Brown, based on a novel (much inferior to the movie) by Elmore Leonard, shows what Tarantino can do when he reins himself in a little bit and remains tethered firmly to someone else’s story. The result is one of the most stylish, fun and thoroughly enjoyable films of the decade.
Here Tarantino reinvents ’70s blacksploitation icon Pam Grier, playing the title character, as a low-rent airline stewardess who boldly concocts a scheme to embezzle $50,000 from her gangster benefactor, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson, in perhaps his quintessential performance). The real treat is the chemistry between Jackie and her partner in crime, bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, in an Oscar-nominated role). Jackie Brown gives us the best of Tarantino’s style–the humor, the harsh and sometimes capricious violence, and especially the great dialogue–without the roaring excess that characterizes so much of his later work. Jackie Brown is about as perfect as 1990s films get.
Con Air (1997, Simon West, Director)
In contrast to Jackie Brown, which is a great film, Con Air is an utterly terrible one. Its plot is preposterous, its characters even less developed than cartoons, its action sequences confusing, and its explosions and violence mind-numbing. It’s pointless even to summarize the plot. Suffice it to say a bunch of prison lifers, including a psychotic killer (John Malkovich), are being flown across the country for some dumb reason, they get loose on the plane, and Nicholas Cage has to stop them. This is another film that’s less a film than a concept that emerged from a corporate boardroom, but it serves, perhaps even more starkly than Independence Day, as an unusually pure example of the vapidity of commercial blockbuster moviemaking in 1997.
I chose Con Air for this list partly for that reason, but also partly because of Nicholas Cage, whose brief honeymoon as a bankable Hollywood action star–a state of affairs completely inexplicable to us 20 years later–perfectly illustrates the bizarre head-space of 1990s Hollywood and how disconnected it was from reality. Today, in almost 2020, Nicholas Cage is a joke and his presence in a motion picture instantly marks it as of inferior quality (see USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, or actually don’t see it, it’s even worse than Con Air). But he, together with B-listers Malkovich, John Cusack and Steve Buscemi, rode this turkey to a $224 million worldwide gross. I felt cheated as I walked out of the theater. This film had nothing to say except “Give me your money” and little to give in return for it except tinnitus and mild motion sickness. But that was definitely part and parcel of movies in the 1990s; the real question is why we go to pictures like this, most of the time knowing in advance how dreadful they’ll be. Two decades on I’m still not sure I know the answer.
Titanic (1997, James Cameron, Director)
In a way, Titanic is the feel-good answer to Con Air. It proved that you don’t have to make schlocky crap to make big bucks in Hollywood. A cultural sensation when it came out, James Cameron’s Titanic was for a dozen years the highest-grossing film of all time, until surpassed by Cameron’s own Avatar. Though admittedly melodramatic, few films were crafted as carefully or as lavishly as this one. It did not emerge from a corporate boardroom. Titanic is a powerfully human story, and never lets the moon-shot caliber special effects overshadow its human characters, however imperfectly drawn. Cameron wanted to depict the 1912 ocean disaster with every digital blip of 1990s technology he could throw at it, but a film that could have been either soulless in its depiction of the catastrophe or over-the-top kitschy with its romantic melodrama came out balancing the scales of spectacle vs. romance pretty evenly. Audiences couldn’t get enough; unlike Con Air, a picture you only see once in a lifetime, people (including me) returned to see it again and again.
The story scarcely needs any introduction. Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a frustrated and bankrupt heiress betrothed to the abusive son (Billy Zane) of a steel tycoon, sets out on the doomed Titanic and promptly hooks up with penniless vagabond Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). Some bad navigation and a giant chunk of frozen water later, the world’s largest ship sinks on-screen in more or less real time, giving everybody a harrowing ride that makes your average Airport disaster picture look like a smooth first-class pampering. Everything hums about Titanic. But Cameron knew at the same time he was building an epic that would last as long as movies themselves, a Gone With The Wind (minus the racism) for a new generation. Titanic proved that the magic of truly wonderful movies, and the special enduring bond between such movies and the audiences who love them, was still alive and well, even in the most cynical and craven of cultural landscapes.