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Best Discoveries of 2021: The 1990s

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

I saw so few movies during the 1990s that practically everything is new to me, so you’ll see a little bit of everything here.


My Best Fiend (doc. 1999) Werner Herzog (Amazon Prime)

My Best Fiend explores one of the greatest and strangest creative working relationships in cinematic history between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, who worked together on five feature films, somehow without killing each other. Watch at least one Herzog/Kinski film first, perhaps Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo.

Queen of Diamonds (1991) Nina Menkes (Criterion Channel)

This tale of a Vegas blackjack dealer (Tinka Menkes) is an extremely slow burn (spoiler for the tree scene, which is a fast burn in comparison). The long, static shots of little or no movement are obviously meant to convey the drudgery of a prolonged Vegas existence, but for some, Queen of Diamonds will move much too slowly. Many compare this film to Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) and Wanda (1970), but I found those films far more compelling than Queen of Diamonds. Yet something about Menkes’s film is pulling at me to revisit it.

Bad Lieutenant (1992) Abel Ferrara (Amazon Prime)

A powerful, unsettling performance by Harvey Keitel makes Bad Lieutenant unforgettable. Definitely not one for the kids or the easily offended. I wrote about this film, Ordet (1955), and Flannery O’Connor, and believe it or not, all of those have something in common.

Exotica (1994) Atom Egoyan (Criterion Channel)

Exotica is one of those fascinating mosaic movies like Short Cuts (1993) or Magnolia (1999) where we meet characters who seemingly have no connection to each other, until they do. In fact, in his review, Roger Ebert says that “By the end, it is revealed that these people are so tightly wound up together that if you took one away, their world would collapse.” Most of the film takes place at a “gentleman’s club” where these characters all converge. It would be pointless to go into the details of each character, why they’re here and what they really want, but the structure and performances are fascinating. This is only the second Atom Egoyan film I’ve seen after Remember (2015). Perhaps I will see more.

Thelma & Louise (1991) Ridley Scott (Criterion Channel)

I missed many movies in the ‘90s, and this was one of the biggest. One of the greatest road trip pictures, Thelma & Louise had a lot to say in 1991 and still does now. I’m not sure we’ve been paying attention. If we have, the film acts as a reminder that we haven’t paid close enough attention. If we haven’t we’re not trying hard enough.

What Happened Was… (1994) Tom Noonan (Criterion Channel)

Although they’ve worked together in the same law firm for quite some time, Jackie (Karen Sillas) and Michael (Tom Noonan) have never seen each other outside the office. When Jackie invites Michael over to dinner, she’s not quite sure what to expect. I found this movie fascinating, somewhat similar to My Dinner With Andre (1981), but far more compelling.

The Hot Spot (1990) Dennis Hopper (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)

Another one not for the kids. (In fact, most of the films on this list are not for the kids.) Don Johnson plays a drifter named Harry Madox, who wanders into a small Texas down and finds work at a used car dealership owned by a man named George Harshaw (Jerry Hardin). It’s not long before Harry is sleeping with both his boss’s wife Dolly (Virginia Madsen) and has his eye on an accountant named Gloria (Jennifer Connelly). But that’s not enough. Harry’s got bigger plans - to rob the town bank. The big question here is who Harry’s going to take with him after the heist: Dolly or Gloria? This film is total noir without the Production Code.

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) John Sayles (Kanopy)

Fiona (Jeni Courtney) is a young Irish girl with a strange family history which includes a missing baby brother that no one wants to talk about. When she moves in with her grandparents on the west coast of Ireland, Fiona hears the story of the selkies, unusual mythical folk who may hold the key to her background. This film is beautiful, odd, and compelling.

Hard Boiled (1992) John Woo (Fox Lorber DVD)

I’d seen some of Woo’s Hollywood films, but Hard Boiled marks the first time I’d seen one of his Hong Kong projects. Now I see what all the fuss is about. “An insane, high-energy crime/action movie” doesn’t even scratch the surface. I never thought I’d see a shootout, especially one of this magnitude, in a hospital, but man, what a movie!

Buried Alive (1990) Frank Darabont (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)

This TV movie (with better-than-expected results) stars Tim Matheson as Clint Goodman, a contractor who loves his small-town life. His wife Joanna (Jennifer Jason Leigh), however, doesn’t love the house or Clint, not anymore. Joanna’s lover Dr. Cort Owen (William Atherton) knows how to help her get rid of Clint. But as you can tell from the film’s title, Clint’s not so easy to do away with. The first two-thirds of the film are familiar, but handled well. It’s that last third that makes this movie soar. Recommended by my good friend Tim.


Breakdown (1997) Jonathan Mostow (HBO Max)

Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) break down while driving their Jeep through the Southwest. A trucker (J.T. Walsh) stops to help, offering to take Amy to the nearest town where she can call a tow truck. Reluctantly Jeff agrees, this discovers and fixes the car's problem. Once in town, no one can remember seeing Amy, including the trucker. This is an intense, fun thriller, and while it's not totally logical or believable, it's a pure thrill-ride.

That’s going to do it for the ‘90s. Next time, all of the 2000s.

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