The Brady Bunch Movie (Directed by Betty Thomas)
Film parodies and adaptations of old television franchises were reasonably common in the 1990s. You had Dennis the Menace, Leave it to Beaver, The Flintstones, etc. My favorite of all these was The Brady Bunch Movie, which, without explanation, dropped its titular 1970s family into the contemporary 1990s. This leads to lots of culture clash with the Bradys being consistently oblivious to how they were getting it wrong, and it helps to underline the cynicism in the present-day characters. The movie is all about gags and bits with some very loose overarching character arcs. I think the picture was heavily influenced by Wayne’s World in terms of a comedic tone. I personally think it works and the actors cast as Marcia and Jan steal the show from everyone. They are so true to the characters they are playing yet also have great comedic timing playing off of modern tropes.
Babe (Directed by Chris Noonan)
From my review: When analyzing Babe, it’s easy to get caught up in the cuteness and lighter elements. But there are some profoundly deep themes running through the narrative, particularly when it comes to prejudice and the loss of innocence. The crucial second act moment where Babe learns what the “purpose” of a pig is, to be eaten, serves as a moment where things get pretty dark. However, the little pig, knowing that the world sees him as something to be killed and consumed, chooses to not accept this pre-determined life. Instead, it steels him to take on the role of a sheepdog and prove to the world that pigs cannot be reduced to a single label. The movie doesn’t soften the blow of this revelation, and I suspect kids then and now will be moved to tears at certain moments in this picture. Babe is a film about navigating how to still believe in people even when you have the dark truths of the world revealed to you. It would be excusable for Babe to hate humans after learning this fact and run away, hiding from what he’s been told is his fate.
Dead Man Walking (Directed by Tim Robbins)
From my review: Robbins asks us to consider what it means to take human life and if the state taking a life is a reasonable response to murder. The execution scene that ends the film is a rough emotional experience, and the director smartly intercuts between Matthew’s lethal injection with his crimes. Sister Helen tells him before they are separated for the procedure to begin that she will be the face of love to him as he leaves this world. That struck me powerfully, the idea that even the vilest human being deserves to see love at least once before they die. And it’s really fucking hard to give love to people who do so much harm and inflict so much pain; for those parents, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to have boiling anger. Sister Helen never chastizes the parents and gives Matthew assurance that his final wishes that his death gives them peace are a noble idea.
Leaving Las Vegas (Directed by Mike Figgis)
From my review: Leaving Las Vegas is one of the bleakest mainstream films I’ve ever seen, and there’s no way you could tell this story without that tone. Audiences are so conditioned by most wide release pictures that we expect Sera to give Ben a reason to stop drinking and keep living. Or we think she’ll give up sex work and get married and live happily ever after. That’s not this movie, and it would be dishonest to twist the story in that direction. I don’t think the film presents alcoholism in an entirely realistic manner, and doing so would cascade the story deeper into the hellish nightmare it already is. Director Mike Figgis tries to find organic moments of humor without being cloying and manipulative. The movie’s final scene doesn’t hold anything back and will shatter your heart without ever playing the moment as maudlin.
The City of Lost Children (Directed by Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
The worlds created by Caro & Jeunet are apocalyptic futures, unlike any you have seen before. In this second collaboration, after Delicatessan, we follow Krank, the creation of a vanished scientist, and his plans to harvest the dreams of children because he has never had his own. The children are brought to him from a nearby port city via the criminal cartel known as The Octopus. One of the most recent kidnapped is the little brother to One (Ron Perlman), a circus strongman who makes it his mission to stop Krank. Miette, an orphan who managed to escape, helps One find his brother on a journey that takes them through every dark corner of the city and eventually to a Gothic oil rig sitting out in the middle of the ocean where the truth about what is happening will be revealed. The City of Lost Children is such a personally aesthetically pleasing movie for me, I love the design of the water-logged city and the cramped nature. As with these directors’ other work, there are tons of ideas, and not everything is fully developed; some of them are introduced and are left for us to contemplate. It will take more than one viewing to fully grasp the plot, but the production design will keep you captivated.
12 Monkeys (Directed by Terry Gilliam)
From my review: Memory and misconception are a big part of the story, including the difficulty of communicating with others in a deluge of technological advancements. Cole ends up half a decade too far back and can’t use the messaging service his future handlers have put in place. There’s an encounter with a man in the asylum who has “divergent memories” and knows that his second life as a being on an alien world is false. This puts doubt in Cole’s mind about the future blight he comes from. Eventually, Cole becomes convinced he’s mentally ill and has imagined this entire virus scenario. This occurs at the same time Dr. Reilly encounters evidence that proves Cole really does come from the future. Because people are never aligned in their thinking, because they continuously misunderstand each other, the dark future comes to pass.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (Directed by Todd Solondz)
Todd Solondz’s work has always been intentionally divisive, and he started that way with this first feature film. Dawn Weiner is an eleven-year-old girl who is shy, unpopular, and not traditionally attractive. This means middle school is a living hell for Dawn. Her older brother, Mark, is a ball of nerdy neuroses and plays clarinet in a rock band and pretends that he’s shunning girls to focus on getting into college. Her little sister, Missy, is the beautiful girl that Dawn’s parents always wanted and is spoiled beyond belief. Eventually, Dawn becomes infatuated with Steve, one of her brother’s bandmates, and attempts to pursue him romantically. Solondz just keeps ratcheting up the misery for Dawn, which leads to her ultimate revelation that she cannot expect her family to ever really love her how she needs and that school is a nightmare she has to put her head down during and endure. Solondz is not a director that ever sugarcoats things and, in fact, adds a little needed poison to the batch.
Safe (Directed by Todd Haynes)
Safe is a horror film that never does jump scares or overtly reveals its evils. Everything simmers under the surface for the entire movie in such a subtle and unsettling manner. Carol (Julianne Moore) is a housewife in 1987 Los Angeles who suddenly starts showing symptoms of some unknown illness. She has trouble breathing, nosebleeds, and passes out. Doctors can’t find any physical abnormalities, and she turns to holistic psychotherapies. This leads Carol to leave her family and live in the eerie New Age commune Wrenwood where she is taught about the “psychological fascism” of the modern world by the cult leader. This isn’t a community of people working together, but those who all are ill and become more and more isolated from each other. No one is getting better, but they seem to find joy while dying as they become more alone. Haynes is saying a lot about the late 20th century that resonates strongly into the 21st and our current views of wellness and community.
Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
From my review: Heat is a movie about two people who have locked themselves in so tightly into their respective worldviews, ideologies, and careers that they are destroying themselves in the process. This becomes crystal clear in the middle of the film when Hanna and McCauley actually sit down across each other over a cup of coffee. They lay everything out, making it clear to the other person who they are. During this scene, I realized that while they were adversaries, neither one was the villain of the film, that honor belongs to some minor supporting characters. Hanna and McCauley see what they are doing as inevitable, they no longer remember how to stop the momentum of what comes next and so they are resigned to facing whatever the fallout might be.
Seven (Directed by David Fincher)
In a film landscape saturated with crime movies, David Fincher made something that brought a new aesthetic to the mainstream. A lot of this griminess and stylized violence had been present in music videos and seen in a few movies like Jacob’s Ladder. Here Fincher places the audience in an unnamed city and never tells precisely when this is happening. From this abstracted landscape, we follow veteran detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and his rookie partner David Mills (Brad Pitt) as they hunt a serial killer inspired by the seven deadly sins. They come across one horrific crime scene after another, inspired by one man’s poisonous misanthropic worldview. Seven continually finds ways to keep the detectives and the audience a few paces behind the killer until the third act when it all comes crashing down. The script by Andrew Kevin Walker is the best he’s ever written and paired with Fincher’s developing cinematic eye results in a crime film that flipped the table on what had come before.