The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1990s (2024)

Table of Contents
100. Side/Walk/Shuttle 99. The Sweet Hereafter 98. The Iorn Giant 97. Santa Sangre 96. Naked Lunch 95. Drifting Clouds 94. Point Break 93. Babe: Pig in the City 92. Princess Mononoke 91. The Addiction 90. A Perfect World 89. Nouvelle Vague 88. La Cérémonie 87. Calendar 86. Spiritual Voices 85. Abraham’s Valley 84. Gremlins 2: The New Batch 83. The Last of the Mohicans 82. Glengarry Glen Ross 81. Central Park 80. Rosetta 79. Conspirators of Pleasure 78. La Belle Noiseuse 77. eXistenZ 76. Blue 75. Schindler’s List 74. Crumb 73. The Straight Story 72. Three Kings 71. Cure 70. The White Balloon 69. Terminator 2: Judgment Day 68. The Last Bolshevik 67. Dazed and Confused 66. Se7en 65. The Player 64. Miller’s Crossing 63. Red 62. Barton Fink 61. White Hunter, Black Heart 60. Goodbye South, Goodbye 59. Vive L’Amour 58. Fight Club 57. Paris Is Burning 56. Flowers of Shanghai 55. Happy Together 54. Unforgiven 53. Metropolitan 52. Lost Highway 51. The Puppetmaster 50. Life, and Nothing More 49. The Last Days of Disco 48. The River 47. Magnolia 46. Before Sunrise 45. From the East 44. Histoire(s) du Cinéma 43. Exotica 42. Lovers on the Bridge 41. Groundhog Day 40. Bad Lieutenant 39. My Own Private Idaho 38. Irma Vep 37. Bitter Moon 36. Fargo 35. Breaking the Waves 34. Boogie Nights 33. Hard Boiled 32. The Big Lebowski 31. The Long Day Closes 30. Carlito’s Way 29. Lessons of Darkness 28. Chungking Express 27. Hoop Dreams 26. Through the Olive Trees 25. Mother and Son 24. Husbands and Wives 23. Jackie Brown 22. Rushmore 21. A Moment of Innocence 20. Starship Troopers 19. Being John Mlkovich 18. The Decalogue 17. Heat 16. Short Cuts 15. Dead Man 14. Showgirls 13. Pulp Fiction 12. Naked 11. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me 10. Crash 9. Taste of Cherry 8. Underground 7. Safe 6. Sátántangó 5. Goodfellas 4. A Brighter Summer Day 3. Close-Up 2. Eyes Wide Shut 1. The Thin Red Line

By the current timetable of cultural recycling, pop artifacts tend to look their most dated—no longer fresh and new, but also not yet easily filed as products of their time—roughly 15 to 20 years following their initial conception. That became painfully clear when, and this isn’t to speak for the rest of the Slant writers, I set about the task of re-watching some of the 1990s movies I’ve long considered favorites, and even more so as I finally set about to catch up with some of the other movies my colleagues were endorsing. Beyond the leftover ’80s-hangover effect, there’s also the fact that some of the most beloved and influential ’90s movies helped kick off trends that have, in the years since, curdled into cliché and downright annoyance. Hence, over-familiarity and premature antiquity form a minefield that makes determining the last analog decade’s best films uniquely tricky.

Still, the further one sifts through the decade’s offerings, the more surprising its highlights seem. This is, after all, the decade during which Terrence Malick broke his two-decade-long sabbatical from filmmaking, a fugue only Stanley Kubrick came close to rivaling, both creating masterworks well worth the wait. The decade when all sorts of Eastern cinema broke through, from sensual Hong Kong mixtapes to cerebral Iranian puzzle boxes. The decade where Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, David Cronenberg, Steven Spielberg, and others who made their names during the American New Wave of the ’70s all broadened their horizons and confirmed their artistry, even with next-generation filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, David Fincher, Todd Haynes, and Quentin Tarantino all nipping at their heels. The decade where a commercial tie-in to a hit TV show could also be perhaps the strangest, most confounding wide-release film of its era (which should’ve surprised no one, given David Lynch’s involvement). The decade that saw a talking pig (Babe) competing against another one (Mel Gibson) for the Best Picture Oscar. The ’90s were all that and still found room for Aleksandr Sokurov holding a landscape shot for 40 minutes, James Cameron breaking the $100-million-budget ceiling, Chantal Akerman people-watching, and at least two anarchic, if not downright Marxist, sequels to hit children’s movies. Dated? This decade is daft punk. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the films that ranked 101—200.

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100. Side/Walk/Shuttle

Camera. Elevator. City. Ernie Gehr has always been adept at opening up the world in surprisingly simple ways, a trait that he shares with many of his fellow travelers from the realm of structuralist film (Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, George Landow, etc.): His great Serene Velocity is, very literally, the product of a guy moving a camera around in a hallway. In Side/Walk/Shuttle, he takes to the glass elevator attached to San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel and rides its 24 stories up and down, constantly shifting the orientation of his camera to offer images of the city as a site of flux, freed from gravity to rearrange itself in perpetuum. While the sensual and emotional experience of all these new views is enough to make one’s life richer (the phrase “city symphony” has never seemed quite so apt), Gehr’s film is also a deeply visceral reminder that the world contains so much more than we can ever know; written out, that’s just a cliché, but the experience of watching Side/Walk/Shuttle is so dizzyingly unforgettable that Gehr might’ve been better served borrowing a title from that other great San Francisco movie and calling it Vertigo. Phil Coldiron

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99. The Sweet Hereafter

Let’s face it: In the hands of a lesser director, Russell Banks’s novel about a bus crash that kills most of a small town’s children easily could have been played for weepy melodrama, whereas Atom Egoyan brings his decidedly chilly aesthetic to bear on this wintry tale of woe. By reshuffling the storyline into nonlinear building blocks, Egoyan allows a thematic and causative rhyme scheme to slowly emerge, analogous to the film’s recurrent use of Browning’s “Pied Piper” poem as a leitmotif, thus elevating the material into something truly “strange and new.” Witness the parallel opening scenes, both of which hinge on the endearment “Daddy”: In the first, Ian Holm’s lawyer must contend with his addict daughter’s abusive tirade, which repeatedly invokes the word as an ironic taunt. The second scene seems to portend a much more supportive, if not positively bucolic, relationship between aspiring young singer Nicole (Sarah Polley) and her father Sam (Tom McCamus), though, as it develops, their bond is far more troubling than it first appears. Budd Wilkins


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98. The Iorn Giant

As far back as the marvelously old-fashioned The Iron Giant, Brad Bird was envisioning nostalgia-rich universes rich in wit and moral inquiry. Hogarth, a B-movie-obsessed, coffee-drinking latchkey kid from 1950s Maine with a Pee-wee Herman bike, sees his sci-fi dreams come true after a big metal giant crash-lands in his hometown from destinations unknown. Bird doesn’t intend the film as Cold War allegory (the kids at school tellingly ignore a cutely alarmist newsreel about atomic warfare), but as a toothy commentary on the sometimes perilous consequences of our fear of the other. The finale is heartbreaking. As for the heart it breaks, it’s located in the message conveyed by very crucial two-become-one juxtapositions: Hogarth’s eyes lighting up when he hears about the robot for the first time inside his mother’s diner and the many shots of the giant’s eyes absorbing and registering life. “You are what you choose to be,” says Hogarth during a crucial scene, to which the giant responds, “Hogarth.” The Iron Giant is many things, above all else a poetic fairy tale about our essential goodness and friendship as a ritual of communion. Ed Gonzalez

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97. Santa Sangre

Puppetry and the penis come together in no laughing fashion in avant-crude cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s macabre circus comedy. Playfully toying with the madhouse-as-societal-microcosm template from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, more overtly, Tod Browning’s iconographic Freaks, Jodorowsky equates coming of age with coming into a state of inherited insanity. Though big-top brat Fenix has been marked early on (in excruciatingly bloody fashion) with the tattoo of his father, his soul remains in bondage and service to the will of his devilishly devout mother, who early in the film loses her arms in an act of seemingly self-provoked martyrdom. The conflict tears his allegiance asunder, and takes the film down with him. Santa Sangre, which sometimes suggests Fellini orchestrating a hallucinogenic slasher flick, leaves no communion wafer untarnished in its depiction of crazy, stupid faith. That the director cast his two sons to play the film’s tortured central character would have even Freud nervously looking down into his box of popcorn. Henderson

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96. Naked Lunch

Anyone who classified William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch as “unfilmable” clearly didn’t have David Cronenberg in mind when they read it, because the raw material of that gonzo epic couldn’t be more up his alley: bug powder, talking typewriters, sad*stic doctors, orgies-cum-bloodbaths, talking assholes, bountiful supplies of heroin, children “watching with bestial curiosity” as “flesh jerks in the fire with insect agony,” the lot of it a bizarre mélange of grotesqueries and nightmare visions inflected with the insight of Freud and a bit of folkloric William Tell grandeur. And so Cronenberg, naturally, bursts the whole thing apart from inside, transforming a trip through the mind of Burroughs into an oblique biopic about him, plopping the author into the text and letting him run wild. The film takes symbols and words and characters from the novel and imagines speculative real-world corollaries, drawing a through line from the drug-induced hallucination to the mundane thing that produced it. Calum Marsh

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95. Drifting Clouds

The cinematic world of Aki Kaurismäki is, like any true auteur’s, immediately recognizable: Infused with a deadpan humor that nearly balances out a cynical worldview, his films stand with Finland’s working stiffs (who are prone to an exaggerated stiffness), sympathetic characters set against colorful, slightly askew backdrops. Drifting Clouds, a succinct, deceptively simple tale of an unemployed married couple struggling to find work, is a fine distillation of this sensibility, notable for being one of Kaurismäki’s finest and most accessible films. Though the couple, potently played by Kati Outinen and Kari Väänänen, find themselves caught in downbeat circ*mstances, and the film is dedicated to Matti Pellonpää, a Kaurismäki regular who died before production started (and whose real childhood photo substitutes as a picture of the couple’s deceased child), Kaurismäki keeps his mournful film buoyed with humor. When Väänänen’s dissatisfied husband character demands his money back for a film he didn’t like, he’s reminded that not only did he not pay for it, he needs to pick up his dog from the concession stand. Like Chaplin before him, Kaurismäki uses this kind of bittersweet humor not only to laugh off the economic blues, but as the panacea for life. Kalvin Henely


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94. Point Break

Embracing and crystallizing countless macho-genre tropes in a way that’s simultaneously amusing and awesome, Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break provides the same type of high-octane thrills sought by its story’s crew of president mask-wearing, extreme sports-loving bank robbers. Those villains are led by Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, a surfer guru whose new age-y ethos (and long, flowing blond locks) are so inviting that even former football star turned undercover cop Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves)—sporting, without question, the best protagonist name in the history of action cinema—can’t fully resist his charm. Throw in Gary Busey as Utah’s sidekick, Lori Petty as the girl that woos Utah, and a host of robbery, skydiving, and wave-riding sequences that Bigelow helms with clean, forceful vigor, and it’s a film whose sillier elements find a way to coexist with its legitimately kick-ass action—never more so than in a superb foot chase through back alleys that concludes with an unsuccessful Utah firing his gun into the air and screaming in inadvertently hilarious frustration. Nick Schager

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93. Babe: Pig in the City

The success of Babe was unprecedented, not unlike its own central underdog character, but the audiences that flocked to the charming original couldn’t seem to take George Miller’s brilliant, twisted sequel. Drunk on more than a little of the then-brewing pre-millennium tension, 1998’s Babe: Pig in the City carries its predecessor’s torch into darker, quixotic territories, bursting at the seams with folkloric witticism and hellzapoppin’ imagery. Babe the sheep-herding pig must conquer the slings and arrows of the titular everycity (complete with the Statue of Liberty, the Hollywood sign, and the Sydney Opera House) when the bank threatens to take away his beloved farm, located as it is, “just a little to the left of the 20th century.” Singing mice and a noble, quotable duck are the most memorable of the film’s Homeric cast of outcast animals, and throughout their alternately delightful and frightful adventures, there’s no shortage of insight into life’s hardships and joys. Rob Humanick

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92. Princess Mononoke

Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is many things: fantasy, action adventure, a cautionary tale about man’s relationship with nature. But above all else, it’s a work of stunning visual artistry. The masterful Studio Ghilbi director’s 1997 animated film is awash in amazing sights, none greater than that of the Boar God, a creature whose skin is a tangled, flowing coil of serpents, and whose grip on hero Ash*taka’s arm injures him so badly that he must seek help in a deep forest where man, and his industrial revolution, seek to destroy the lands overseen by the titular princess, raised by a regal wolf god. Environmental desecration and the transition from a mystical fairy-tale past to a modern future underscore the action, but none of those themes would resonate nearly as strongly as they do were it not for Miyazaki’s visuals, which meld expressive facial features and complex CG-enhanced details to create a wholly unique and mesmerizing vision of wonders far beyond the scope of the rational world. Schager

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91. The Addiction

In The Addiction, Christopher Walken stars as a withered version of his drug lord from King of New York, a vampire king with all the knowledge in the world, but little power. His infection is political and personal awareness and Kathleen (Lili Taylor) takes to it with fear, then resistance, and finally rapture. She’s a foot soldier, helping to build an army with other HBO Stars of Tomorrow in order to preserve the integrity of a Big Apple that had more personality when it was a little more rotten. This stealth, beguiling creature of a film—so alternately jejune, funny, and scary—teems with big ideas about cultural and personal malaise. Through the film, Abel Ferrara extends a great line from one of Smashing Pumpkins’ most popular songs, released that very same year: “The world is a vampire, sent to drain.” The song’s title, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” like the movie, combines poetry and violence. A political song, a political movie—perhaps the most fabulously serpentine political one of Ferrara’s career, a quivering nexus of AIDS allegory, identity crisis, historical unease, and socio-economic panic. It’s a small world after all, but Ferrara’s is becoming the smallest of all. Keep it alive, by any means possible. Gonzalez


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90. A Perfect World

Clint Eastwood’s films overflow with violence and trauma, and none are as emotionally devastating as A Perfect World. This 1960s-set road film about two convicts who kidnap an eight-year-old boy during a daring escape is essentially a tale of paternal connections made and torn apart. Throughout, Eastwood fixates on the nature of evolving relationships, none more heartbreaking than the bond that develops between the charming and volatile murderer Butch (Kevin Costner) and his sheltered young hostage, Phillip (T.J. Lowther). Their short but potent time together spent evading lawmen on the backroads of Northwest Texas is full of striking moments stretched out to convey the young boy’s impressionable and incredibly lucid perspective. Eastwood allows his two leads the necessary space and time to develop a wonderfully complex chemistry, one forged through the power of shared subjective experience. This is a sundrenched Americana made up of conflicted men trying to be good fathers, and naïve boys desperate to be devoted sons, if only they were offered the chance. Glenn Heath Jr.

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89. Nouvelle Vague

Post-1968, Jean-Luc Godard’s work becomes a tangled web of cinematic, political, religious, and aesthetic allusions, cathedrals of self-reflexivity spoken in a tongue invented and arguably understood solely by the director himself. For its part, Nouvelle Vague stands at or near the pinnacle of Godard’s mature period, extending a perhaps unintentional streak of embarking on each new decade with a work of helpful thematic disclosure, a tact he’s tended to spend much of the subsequent years editing and expanding into hyper-sensory audio/visual explorations. Shot in and around the Swiss countryside he calls home, the film is noticeably rich and dramatic in a manner befitting its personalized origins. Ostensibly a depiction of the underhanded dealings of bourgeois society and, in particular, a young woman haunted by the specter of a man she may have once murdered, the film uses these fairly conventional trappings as a means toward reducing the narrative to a base text, which in this case amounts to an interlocking grid of literary interpolations. Nouvelle Vague, then, may be something of a coded language, but it’s a bracing and beautiful realization of one artist’s splintered past and uncertain future, a new wave all its own. Jordan Cronk

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88. La Cérémonie

The highlight of Claude Chabrol’s late career, La Cérémonie is a taut, chilling thriller that’s nearly perfect in every regard. The story, based on Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgement in Stone, sets up increasingly uncomfortable class tensions that pit a wealthy family against their new maid, Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and her new friend, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a postal worker the family distrusts. Thanks to stellar performances and a masterful script that Chabrol co-wrote with psychologist Caroline Eliacheff, La Cérémonie gives us characters who are elusive but nonetheless understandable; in the absence of details about Sophie and Jeanne’s culpability regarding their possibly murderous backgrounds, we still feel as if we could make up our minds about them. No second is wasted: Every line, scene, object, and expression makes narrative sense, connects with something else, or adds subtext (differences in the way characters watch TV speaks volumes about their place in the world). Illustrative of this connectedness is one of La Cérémonie’s best lines, a kind of blackly comic and ironic double entendre when you consider the film’s violent finale. After a priest scolds Jeanne for wicked behavior at a clothing donor’s house, she asks, “You don’t want our help?” To which the priest responds, “Maybe you should get some help.” Henely

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87. Calendar

Repetitive by design, Atom Egoyan’s precisely structured chamber film has an experimental constitution but a romantic heart, positioned as a direct conduit to the piercing pain of loss. Playing out across an economic 74 minutes, it hops between two discretely divided sections: 12 scenes set amid the quiet splendor of the Armenian countryside, interspersed with 12 set inside the cramped apartment of the unnamed protagonist (played by Egoyan himself). Employing a static camera, the film depends entirely on the placement of people and objects within its carefully defined tableaux. In the Armenia sequences, a flirtatious guide instigates the growing rift between Egoyan’s character and his wife as he works on a calendar shoot of old churches. In the home scenes, dinner dates with a dozen women are sabotaged by the intercession of a conveniently located phone and some inconvenient answering-machine messages, a scenario that grows more acute through repetition. Imagining both national and personal history as inescapable specters exerting a marked influence on our current lives, Calendar is a pointed inquisition on the eternal toll taken by the past. Jesse Cataldo


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86. Spiritual Voices

There are perhaps only a handful of great films that were originally made for television, and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov’s transportive five-hour-plus war diary from when he was stationed with Russian troops at the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, is in that league of giants that also includes Histoire(s) du Cinéma and The Decalogue. This poetic reverie, shot in sepia-toned Beta SP, may be languidly paced and filled with the mostly humdrum activities of isolated soldiers, but it’s aglow with an artist’s wonderment. If you can tune into Sokurov’s wavelength, which he tests you on at the beginning with a seemingly unrelated, extended shot of a snowy landscape set to Mozart, Spiritual Voices is a mesmerizing experience, one filled with immense beauty, silent curiosity, and, by way of the film’s uncanny ability to make you feel as if you’re really out in the elements, the occasionally terrifying sense that real danger is imminent. Henely

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85. Abraham’s Valley

Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira has the market cornered on impossibly old men who are even more impossibly still gainfully employed. It helps that his films are breathtakingly beautiful, puckishly challenging (bordering, for some viewers, on hermetic), and imbued with a personality that overwhelms even as it’s applied with genteel nonchalance. The three-hour-plus Abraham’s Valley locates these contradictions at a busy crossroads between Flaubert (the script is adapted from a Agustina Bessa-Luís novel, itself a riff on Madame Bovary), Bresson, and Max Ophüls—with more than a faint nod in the direction of Buñuel’s anarchic parting shots. Weaving a tragic tale of a woman who’s too beautiful for this world, the caustic l’amour fou wafts along by way of the film’s stately grace; eroticism bubbles acidly beneath the correct, dignified surface like a boner at a funeral, beholden to no civilized decorum dreamt of by modern man. Jaime N. Christley

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84. Gremlins 2: The New Batch

After rampaging through the American dream in his original Gremlins, Joe Dante set his cartoon anarchists free in the headquarters of a multinational corporation for the sequel. While the first film’s creatures functioned as, per Jonathan Rosenbaum, “a free-floating metaphor,” here they’re explicitly the giddy vengeance of the disenfranchised: Their introduction into Clamp Tower is the indirect result of the corporation’s tacky Chinatown development project. Dante, as ever, spins off from this central conceit to poke fun at everything in sight, from Turner and Trump (embodied in Daniel Clamp, with his insatiable hunger for real-estate development and colorized classic films) to narrative convention (the film ceases to even make an effort at plotting following a brief reflexive interlude in which the Gremlins break the projector and Hulk Hogan pops up to scare them into restarting the show) to himself (there are multiple discussions of the completely illogical rules for the Mogwai laid out by Gremlins). While Dante may have made more conceptually and formally audacious films in the ’90s, Gremlins 2: The New Batch is still filmmaking that’s as smart as it is fun. Coldiron

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83. The Last of the Mohicans

Considering Michael Mann’s recent decade-long foray into the realm of frenetic digital filmmaking, it’s easy to forget the director once specialized in sweeping genre spectacles like The Last of the Mohicans. Mann’s ravishingly kinetic and romantic adaptation of the classic James Fenimore Cooper novel envisions the dawn of American democracy in a deeply felt love affair between an embattled British woman (Madeline Stowe) and a colonial backwoodsman (Daniel Day-Lewis) raised to manhood by a Mohican father. Their burgeoning relationship develops within the context of the bloody French and Indian War of 1757, a volatile and dirty conflict that spawned the rise of guerilla warfare in the new world. Mann’s precise battle sequences begin in epic long shot, only to cut in closer to the carnage with each tomahawk swipe and musket shot. The close-contact action is always swept along by the film’s beautifully fluid score, which feels elementally connected to the dense forests and rolling hills of the Hudson River Valley. It all leads to a profound and deeply cinematic climax during which two characters’ devastating mutual sacrifice feels like the birth of a nation, and the demise of something far more spiritual. Heath Jr.


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82. Glengarry Glen Ross

It looks as though the unforgiving top-down system of quotas and steak knives and deadbeat leads has chewed up these tired and ever-weary salesman, ready to spit them out after years of dedicated service, all because, in the immortal words of Alec Baldwin’s brass-balled inspirational speaker, “a loser is a loser,” but the joke is that some guys just can’t cut it. The waft of desperation hangs around Jack Lemmon’s has-been schleper of land, permeating every word of his pitch, that affected put-on smile and plasticised ’50s charm almost painful to endure. But through the torrents of rain outside and Mamet-speak inside there are glimmers of light and vitality and talent: Witness Pacino, the poet laureate of sales-speak, as he zeroes in on his mark, the grace of the approach a thing of beauty. It’s a con, but we’re drawn to it for the same reason we find all cons seductive: The game, when played well, is an appreciable art. And we love to see people lose. Marsh

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81. Central Park

The variety and sweep of pre-Giuliani New York are on vivid display in Frederick Wiseman’s documentary via the microcosm of the eponymous expanse. One of a handful of essential films shot or released in the late ’80s and early ’90s that take the city’s evolution from drug-addled, subculture-rife urban sphere to obsessively regulated, Middle America-friendly metropolis as either text or subtext, Wiseman’s film deserves to be considered the quintessential New York movie of its moment—or perhaps any moment. Communists hold rallies in the park, an eccentric man teaches Shakespearean elocution, people roller skate, while in nearby buildings the Central Park Conservancy discusses how to regulate bike-riding and local residents weigh the merits of building a new tennis clubhouse. The conclusions are inescapable, though in Wiseman’s continued refusal of explicit authorial commentary, they’re left for the viewer to stumble across on his or her own. The changing conception of the city may make things more cosmetic and safer, but it threatens to efface the unique vibrancy of the town that is the film’s true subject and which has its glorious moment, in all its diversity and wonder, across the three unforgettable hours of Wiseman’s masterpiece. Andrew Schenker

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80. Rosetta

To watch the films of the Dardenne brothers is to bear witness. Fittingly, then, Rosetta’s incredible critical and festival reception was such that the film’s stark portrayal of an exploitative society compelled the Belgian people to pass a new law ensuring the fair pay of employed minors. Émilie Dequenne is Rosetta, on the surface a young girl trying to meet her financial responsibilities, yearning for freedom from her promiscuous alcoholic mother, but she’s really more of a force of nature struggling against barriers both seen and unseen. The breakneck opening sees her reacting to the unfairness of her newfound unemployment with infantile rage, a stark contrast to the ensuing heartbreak of watching her hold her head high despite the cruelties casually thrown at her. The Dardenne brothers are the torchbearers of raw and unfiltered humanism on screen, and in Rosetta they might have found their greatest beacon. The film may eschew explicit Christian symbolism, but there’s something genuinely religious in Rosetta’s stark portrayal of unyielding resurrection. Humanick

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79. Conspirators of Pleasure

Nearly a decade before John Waters let it all hang out to surprisingly tepid, normalizing effect in his A Dirty Shame, Czech animator Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure catalogued multiple sensual perversions that all make head-butting look like a backseat handjob, from violent papier-mâché poultry role play to compressing bread into pellets and then snorting them like cocaine through a set of giant tubes. Leaving aside the political subtext (the film’s frantic, motley masturbators are, indeed, “conspirators” in a sense), this is the erogenous zone depicted as a kind of uncanny valley, where every slurp, lick, and moan is recognizable, but mischievously flung from its normal context—and, of course, what is masturbation but sex without context? No doubt many viewers will find Švankmajer’s spank-meter on the far side of their OkCupid enemies rating, but to those of us who regard sexuality as both human existence’s greatest mystery and its startlingly primary driving force, the Buñuellian Conspirators of Pleasure is painful comedy. Henderson


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78. La Belle Noiseuse

In a career consisting almost solely of highly taxing and demanding works, La Belle Noiseuse would paradoxically prove to be Jacques Rivette’s most immediate and accessible film, a brisk four-hour sprawl of simmering emotion and artistic benediction. At once a celebration of the love of art and the art of love, the film explores in arrestingly simple fashion a series of interpersonal ruptures provoked by a single, otherwise harmless decision. When Marianne is volunteered by her boyfriend to pose for a respected, aging painter, her initial reluctance is temporarily alleviated by friends and acquaintances before a series of extended modeling sequences turn from unspoken tension to psychological foreplay (“I want everything. The blood, the fire, the ice. All that is in your body…I want the invisible”) to compassionate and deeply affecting spiritual sympathy between artist and subject. Rivette stages these passages with a patient, reverent touch, allowing desires to brood while outside relationships strain from unforeseen conflict. An unassuming, quietly shattering work, La Belle Noiseuse examines passion at the level of art, yielding passions as lasting for its characters and they are for its audience. Cronk

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77. eXistenZ

eXistenZ answers the immersive anxieties of Generation Xbox in ways that are uncannily similar to how Videodrome affected those weaned on cable television: a dark fable about the pleasures and pains of media interface. As the title indicates, it’s also not exactly reticent about establishing clear “game = life” parallels. Not to mention, Cronenberg accomplishes the whole “levels of reality” narrative shtick with far more aplomb than 1999’s other sci-fi mindbender, The Matrix, and with far fewer bullets. Cronenberg has long been a master at constructing scenes that unspool slightly off-kilter (mannered dialogue, affectless reaction shots abound), and here that disconnect works perfectly to first delineate and then obfuscate the various levels of gameplay until neither the film’s viewers nor its characters can be entirely certain where simulation ends and so-called reality begins. Cronenberg also gleefully amps up the ick factor, even if eXistenZ is comparatively light on gore: Highlights include Jennifer Jason Leigh lasciviously tonguing Jude Law’s spinal-tapped bio-port, as well as the scene in the Chinese restaurant where Law pieces together an “organic gun” while devouring a platter loaded with slimy stir fry. Wilkins

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76. Blue

Blue is the best entry in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, and not just because it features a typically affecting performance from Juliette Binoche. (Indeed, Julie Delpy and Irène Jacob are equally fine in White and Red, respectively.) As much as the multifaceted symbolism of the color blue itself, it’s a recurring piece of music courtesy of Zbigniew Preisner’s weighty score that brings home the central concept of liberty: Binoche’s Julie is emotionally paralyzed in the wake of her husband’s untimely death, and the sudden crescendo that accompanies key moments acts as a sort of wakeup call that only we can hear. In focusing on such interior strife, Kieślowski manages to make what might otherwise feel like narrative baby steps—a tear here, an expression there—come across as leaps and bounds. Michael Nordine

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75. Schindler’s List

I understand the skeptics and the naysayers. I hear Jean-Luc Godard accusing Steven Spielberg of trying to rebuild Auschwitz, and Jonathan Rosenbaum (who included the movie on his 1993 best-of-the-year list) calling it a cartoon and dishing on it at every opportunity. The same red flags come up for me as they do for most people: the “I could have done more” bit, some of the forced drollery between Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley, the wink Schindler gives Stern after going all-in on a warehouse full of Jewish workers and Nazi machine guns, and so on. But this incredible story is transformed into the sublime by the camerawork and rhythm. It was a much-ballyhooed new look for Spielberg at the time, and, while cinematographer Janusz Kamiński borrows from elder masters like Roberto Rossellini (especially Il Generale Della Rovere, which tells a strikingly similar story) and Fritz Lang, it still looks like a new kind of cinema, unmistakable and inimitable. Christley


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74. Crumb

If truth is indeed stranger than fiction, than the story of Robert Crumb is just about the weirdest ever told. Indeed, Crumb, Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 portrait of the infamous cartoonist, is so bracing and unbelievable that it at times borders on the absurd. A misfit father and mother breed three unique and self-destructive sons, each attempting to channel their sexual and psychological impulses through art. At times, these lives feel unsustainable: Max meditates on beds of nails, feeding ribbon through his digestive tract; Charles still lives with his parents, wallowing in failure while contemplating suicide; Robert, it turns out, is the “normal” one, a world-renowned artist who utilizes his art to subsume his perversions, which play out across the frames of his comics in lurid and demented detail. As their warped tale unfolds, one gets the feeling that art is the only thing keeping any of these people alive, that without this particular outlet each would take their misery out on themselves or, worse yet, on another human life. Arguably the greatest of all nonfiction films, Crumb is crushing in its emotional and psychological insight, nearly Shakespearean in its tragedy. Cronk

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73. The Straight Story

David Lynch’s films are marked by a singular vision of the world as a sinister, foreboding place, sometimes full of grotesque wonder, sometimes just grotesque. In his worst movies (Wild at Heart in particular), this ugliness dominates, feeling like an imposed and strained set of weirdness offset by an unconvincingly banal love story. But between his astonishing 1977 shocker Eraserhead and his twin aughts triumphs, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, which took his art to strange and wonderful new places, Lynch’s best films were, perhaps surprisingly, his most empathetic. While Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me balanced a perpetually threatening world with a tragic focus on its troubled young protagonist, The Straight Story presents a no less tainted world (by greed, by petty quarrels) through which a curmudgeonly but admirably determined old man travels and observes. Lynch’s G-rated Disney film follows that elderly farmer as he makes his way on his tractor from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his estranged brother. It’s a gentler film for the director, but there’s little doubt that we’re in Lynch territory here, even as he hits new emotive heights in Richard Farnsworth’s late-film recollections about the senseless set of circ*mstances that led to his character severing relations with his brother decades earlier, and in the final fraternal meeting between the two reunited men, perfectly underplayed and left beautifully indeterminate. Schenker

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72. Three Kings

Remember when David O. Russell still made David O. Russell movies? Those were good times, and they peaked with Three Kings, the once-singular auteur’s Gulf War whatsit that brought three relatively untested big-screen actors (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube) to the fore in most convincing fashion. To say that this is the sort of genre-blending art film that convinces people they like art films is no faint praise; there’s something about it that sticks with viewers of all stripes, often in a way that doesn’t reveal itself for quite some time. Russell presents the occasionally ridiculous goings on of his third effort as something to be both mocked and mourned, which is to say he manages to be respectful and irreverent all at once. Somewhere between the bleached skies, fast-moving clouds, and oceans of sand are spare moments of bliss just waiting to be noticed. That the three eponymous soldiers are usually too busy daydreaming of days past or scheming for the future to do so just makes it more rewarding when they finally do. Nordine

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71. Cure

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a filmmaker for whom genre is merely the starting point for more oblique, existential questions about character and society, and none of his works are as hauntingly mysterious as Cure, a 1997 serial-killer thriller that cares less for typical police-procedural machinations than for raising confounding suggestions about what compels individuals and cultures to embrace and commit violence. Those issues are filtered through a detective’s investigation of a series of murders linked by the fact that each victim has had an “X” slashed into their throat, and which are eventually revealed to have been perpetrated by different strangers all working under the apparently hypnotic orders of a madman who answers queries with only more queries. That this lunatic seems to be the embodiment of larger societal decays becomes more apparent during a second half that operates at a detached remove and is tangled in identity-crisis horrors, culminating with a provocative final shot that remains a preeminently tantalizing talking point. Schager


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70. The White Balloon

A director with a special talent for pulling the rug out from under his audience, employing unexpected tonal shifts and fourth-wall-collapsing left turns, Jafar Panahi crafts films in which deceptively gentle subject matter masks withering critiques of his nation’s rule of law. Like his countrymen Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, and Mohsen Makhmalbahf, he subverts the censorship of an oppressive political system by cloaking these attacks in seemingly innocent children’s tales. The White Balloon contains probably the slyest, most bracing of all Panahi’s reversals, as the story of a small girl hunting for a big goldfish on New Year’s Eve briefly gives way to that of a balloon-selling Afghan child, who we then realize has been lurking at the film’s margins all along, selling his wares while more fortunate kids run about in search of a pet. It’s a reminder that for every family just scraping by, there are others who are in even worse shape. Cataldo

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69. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The slick, digitized T-1000 to the 1984 original’s grungy, analogous exoskeleton, Terminator 2: Judgment Day set the standard for modern Hollywood’s F/X-driven mega-productions and cemented James Cameron’s dystopian vision as modern science-fiction’s saga par excellence. The 1991 sequel is best remembered for the groundbreaking CGI and puppetry work that brought its liquid metal villain to life, but all that cybernetic glamour would be for naught without the film’s overreaching humanitarian concerns: the insistence that, even at the brink of self-induced extinction, mankind is still worth saving. Replicating the chase-movie structure of its predecessor (and brilliantly echoing that film in many telling details), the equally breathless T2 suggests a maestro at the helm of a full orchestra, conducting the whole exhilarating piece without a single note out of place. The film itself is something of a perfect machine, albeit one with a beating, bleeding heart to go along with its relentless apocalyptic swell, the central, unlikely nuclear family anchoring the action with genuine emotional heft, saving the world and earning our tears in the process. Humanick

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68. The Last Bolshevik

Residing deep in the shadow of Sergei Eistenstein and Dziga Vertov’s massive reputations are the works of Russian filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin. It isn’t just his lack of exposure that enticed French director-essayist-poet-alien Chris Marker to craft a two-part documentary about the man’s films, though one could fairly say there aren’t many things that capture Marker’s interest as surely as the things that somehow failed to capture everyone else’s interest. The Last Bolshevik, built around a series of six letters addressing a dead man (one typical observation: “Only later did I understand his tragedy: the tragedy of a pure communist in a world of would-be communists”), sees in Medvedkin’s life, times, and traveling cine-train the sadly concluded story of the 20th century’s socialist movements, and marvels (in the film’s irresistibly funny-pithy final statement) over humanity’s ability to simultaneously eradicate living history and deify anything that has been consigned to the safety of chronicle. Few beyond Marker can bridge the gap with a single phrase as Marker does when musing about dinosaurs: “Kids love them.” Henderson

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67. Dazed and Confused

Though calling Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused the ultimate hangout movie might seem like a backhanded compliment, it in fact speaks to how slyly the deceptively clever writer-director is able to infuse his more ambitious agenda into his Zeppelin-, booze-, and water-tower-party-inflected vision of a nameless Texas town in 1976. Linklater’s take on the first-night-of-summer party somewhere in the Lone Star State that accounts for the bulk of his narrative is laced as much with unspoken fear as it is with nostalgia and affection. He lets the good times roll while also making it clear enough that, for many of the jocks and nerds who make up his cast, life after high school probably won’t be too groovy. Rather than cause for dismay, this ends up being more reason to enjoy this one carefree night: In the face of an uncertain future, there’s really nothing to do but keep L-I-V-I-N. Nordine


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66. Se7en

The mild anticipation leading up to David Fincher’s sophom*ore effort was stifled by the presence of another serial-killer thriller, the Jon Amiel-directed Copycat. Also recall that Brad Pitt was still fresh from flipping dewdrops from the brim of his hat into the crotches of moviegoers worldwide. It seemed like it was going to be a line drive down the middle, and then we saw the sights (each victim’s demise one-upping the last, peaking, arguably, with sloth), smelled the smells (desperation, sweat, diesel fuel, marinara sauce), and heard the questions (“What’s in the booooox?!”). Beyond its legacy as the movie that resuscitated a debased genre, and following fast on the heels of his botched, meddled-with debut (Alien 3), Se7en, with its incredible sense of craft and rhythm, announced a major auteur whose work continues to surprise with each new release. Its icky tone and Grand Guignol style helped to feed rumors that Fincher, then an unknown quantity in the movie business, was some kind of cross between a hotshot ad man and a pervert. But subsequent features have helped many to see Se7en, in hindsight, as more than a dazzling and depressing one-off. Christley

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65. The Player

I lost it at the movies long before seeing The Player, but this impeccably crafted poison love letter to Hollywood made me look at them differently. Robert Altman’s bemused condemnation of a world that wants to know only itself, where no private jab stays private and a lunch is a negotiation for status, is ultimately our own. We love these wolves because they gave us some of richest cine-memories of our lives; even their most absurd pitches (“It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman!”) speak to a desire to please audiences. But they repulse us at the same time, because they treat their moviemaking license as sociopathic triumphalism. There are references in this heavily coded satire I’m still unlocking, and for every wink and nod that continues to strain for reason (the delivery boy who knows Absolute Beginners but mistakes Alan Rudolph for Martin Scorsese), there are a dozen others that still send me to the moon, such as Detective Avery’s Freaks-referencing grilling of Griffin Mill. In one of the funniest, most sardonic scenes the movies have ever seen, an interrogation as calculated and condescending as some of the worst movies Hollywood have ever given us, even the good guys become wolves. One of us, indeed. Gonzalez

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64. Miller’s Crossing

“Friends is a mental state,” sneers Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), an ambitious Italian gangster battling for control of an unnamed East Coast city in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1930s-set Miller’s Crossing. This casually threatening statement has deeply ironic and philosophical undertones, indicative of this crime film’s nasty worldview and cutting sense of humor. Johnny’s target is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a wise-talking gambler who pivots into survival mode when Irish patriarch Leo (Albert Finney) kicks him to the curb over a woman. Much of the film deals with the untrustworthy nature of friendship, how it can be used to manipulate, deceive, and ultimately destroy. The Coens have always had the gift of gab, and in Miller’s Crossing their dapper men and slinky women unload period-era colloquialisms as if their mouths were automatic weapons. But the film’s most lasting moments are dialogue-less explosions of revenge and solace, the most famous being the classic “Danny Boy” sequence where a nimble and ruthless Leo dispatches four armed men with a Tommy Gun. Like the Coens, the man’s a true artist with his weapon of choice. Heath Jr.

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63. Red

Red, the final chapter of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s homage to the French tricolor flag, was perhaps always destined to be the most striking of the three films; red, after all, is the most innately dramatic of the three colors. Coming off the heels of Blue and White, the film is particularly bracing, and the longer you consider its self-reflexive and labyrinthine self-awareness, the more Kieślowski and cinematographer Piotr Sobociński’s exquisite chromatography astounds. As in all of Kieślowski’s films, his microcosmic scrutiny of the world, sans judgment, suggests all things happen at once at a sub-cosmic level, embodying the notion of the filmmaker as a loving god. An opening phone call that echoes Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” sets the tone for this kinetically charged investigation of the spectrum of morality, a fitting swan song for a filmmaker intent on going out with a bang. Near-death experiences and unlikely friendships are just the springboards for his final gospel (Kieślowski would retire after this film, dying but 22 months after it premiered), and in Irene Jacobs’s soul-wrestling performance as Valentine, Red finds the necessarily enigmatic, literally hyperbolic figure on which to project its richly multifaceted metaphor of choice. Humanick


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62. Barton Fink

Enter the headspace of Barton Fink (John Turturro). One of the Coen brothers’ more oblique mash-ups, Barton Fink combines classical Hollywood satire, healthy doses of surreal imagery, and psychological horror straight out of Roman Polanski’s “apartment trilogy.” (Fortunately for the Coens, Polanski headed the jury at Cannes that year, clinching them the Palme D’Or.) Drawing on the experiences of lefty playwright Clifford Odets during his sojourn in 1940s Tinseltown, Barton Fink adumbrates that old saw about commerce versus creativity with ready wit and a savage eye. (As Tony Shaloub’s harried mid-level producer phrases it over lunch at the commissary: “Throw a rock in here, you’ll hit a writer. And do me a favor, Fink. Throw it hard.”) On another level, how better for the Coens to overcome a case of writer’s block than writing about a writer suffering from writer’s block? Precisely that sort of meta-circularity is emblematic of their working method. Then there’s the doppelganger-like doubling consistently established between Barton Fink and fellow Hotel Earle resident Charlie Meadows (Coen axiom John Goodman). Indeed, a shamelessly psychological reading of the film would posit Charlie as some kind of projection or manifestation of Barton’s violently roiling unconscious. Wilkins

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61. White Hunter, Black Heart

A gut-busting takedown, an elegantly articulated anecdote, a pithy critique of intolerance, a shocking stab of misogyny, some expertly ratcheted dramatic tension, and a handful of infinitely quotable one-liners—all somehow contained within a single scene in Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart, a show-stopping centerpiece which finds Eastwood himself, as a thinly veiled John Huston stand-in, taking a buxom blonde to task after she makes a vile anti-Semitic remark. It’s a standout number that steals the show, but it’s the scene immediately following, in which Eastwood’s John Wilson cooly drops a racial epithet before diving headlong into a drunken fistfight, that most clearly elucidates the film’s central theme. A sophisticated interrogation of hardlined American machismo, White Hunter, Black Heart is about our tendency to romanticize emphatic brutality, how we find the distorted charm of rogues seductive when we ought to be repulsed. Deeper still, we see the seeds of Western imperialism scattered across the African wild, apparent in the way Eastwood’s smarmy, likeable thug imposes himself on the land and on its resources. That the hero here is a director shows surprising self-awareness; that Eastwood cast himself in the role, confronting decades of influence and undermining his persona, is a stroke of genius. Marsh

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60. Goodbye South, Goodbye

Perfectly poised between motion and stasis, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1996 triumph watches as its small-time gangsters alternate between just hanging around, waiting for something to happen, and traveling (via train, motorcycle, whatever) in lovingly composed compositions that bring both modes indelibly to life. Boredom and desperate economic transaction are the defining features of the film’s characters—and arguably of the late-20th (and early-21st) century—and Hou’s achievement is to get at this itchy restlessness while giving the viewer ample space to luxuriate and observe. If Hou’s distanced, long-take aesthetic was one of the defining modes of 1990s cinema, then it never feels more purposeful than in this film, whose exactly modulated rhythms speak to the experience of not simply a few Taiwanese hustlers, but to a shared sense of global discontent. Schenker

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59. Vive L’Amour

There’s a certain tendency among art-house movies to use long takes of their protagonists crying as an emotional, sometimes even narrative, climax. A strange habit, perhaps, and one that few use to fuller effect than Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour, a film in which a shared loneliness would unite the characters if any were aware how close they are to others in the same situation. That the three leads all unknowingly live in the same Taipei apartment amplifies this irony, but not in a way that makes us laugh; ditto the title, which similarly underscores just how alone everyone is. From this communal isolation comes a great deal of beauty as well, much of it wordless as people drift past one another like ghosts. Tsai trusts his actors (not to mention his audience) enough to let their gestures and expressions mostly speak for themselves, hence the cathartic importance of the scene alluded to above: In a film so beautifully restrained, such an outwardly emotional act as this speaks volumes. Nordine


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58. Fight Club

At the risk of violating the first rule of Fight Club, we assert that David Fincher’s film has emerged as something of a generational touchstone among that crop of formally and thematically innovative cinematic works unleashed on the cusp of Y2K. Moreover, Fight Club still exhibits its fair share of pre-millennial tensions: As a mindf*ck film, it boasts a Godzilla-sized act-three twist that’s both thoroughly prepared as well as thematically resonant. As a satirical indictment of a certain cult of machismo, the film nevertheless spawned emulators and copycats. (It also contains the risibly disingenuous scene where flawlessly chiseled Brad Pitt scoffs at media depictions of fashionable masculinity.) As an exemplar of Fincher’s pyrotechnical inclinations, Fight Club stands as the director’s most successful meshing of style and substance to date, with none of the unwarranted showboating found in, say, Panic Room’s CG-enabled zoom into the inner workings of a flashlight. Here, CG effects work to embed characters within a digitally expressionistic background, as in the scene where the nameless narrator (Ed Norton) walks through his apartment, which morphs around him into an itemized, price-tagged IKEA ad. Wilkins

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57. Paris Is Burning

Some documentaries explore their subjects with the rigor of an anthropological study, inviting audiences to peer into lives or a system like detached impartial observers. Paris Is Burning, by contrast, plunges us into the world of ball culture like it’s an inclusive party to which we’re welcome to belong. The ever-increasing remoteness of the time and place of its setting lends the film the necessary significance of a historical document, informally ratifying its status as a snapshot of a subculture’s golden age before the decline, but its portrait of drag, balls, and voguing (and the legendary practitioners of same) isn’t articulated from a remove. This film exists, crucially, well within the borders of the world it celebrates, joyously flaunting its triumphs and touchingly sharing its pain—and though it often brushes up against tragedy, the vision of life it offers is practically utopic. Marsh

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56. Flowers of Shanghai

Flowers of Shanghai capped off a remarkable decade for Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, a period over which he would consider a wide-range of historically veiled yet vital instances in China’s evolutionary advancement. Marked by a patience and fluidity he’d spent the last 15 years perfecting, the film both refined and predicted the stately demeanor he’d carry into the new millennium. This simultaneous feeling of arrival and transience was reflected in the film itself, a lushly rendered fever dream detailing the changing role of prostitution and companionship in late-1800s, fin de siècle Shanghai. Confined to candle-lit, golden-hued quarters, these courtesans and the masters they serve are reflected upon in meditative visual strokes, Hou’s camera gliding amid their mansion’s chambers with a gentle sense of the inevitable. A formalist masterwork, Flowers of Shanghai brought Hou’s aesthetic to its logical and most sublime plateau up to that point, richly rendering the specificity of his unique serenity, the revelatory texture of his quietly disarming observations. Cronk

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55. Happy Together

“Let’s start over.” One might argue that this haunting line, first uttered during the breakneck opening of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, encapsulates the director’s entire oeuvre in three simple words. Past and present heartache blurs any hope for the future in Wong’s intensely heated melodrama about two lovers (Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Leslie Cheung) from Hong Kong who escape to Argentina, hoping a change of scenery will save their self-destructive relationship. While Happy Together is just as formally audacious as Chungking Express, and every bit as emotionally devastating as In the Mood for Love, it’s also uniquely sad. Wong doesn’t create one of those classically weepy romances tragically hindered by social formalities or hierarchies; his two characters are simply mired in a stagnant and masoch*stic relationship from which they can’t or want to escape. But their extended downfall is devastating nonetheless, mostly because the performances by Leung and Cheung are so deeply felt and psychologically intertwined. Happy Together, which envisions emotional addiction as a series of heightened freeze frames, jump cuts, and pop-music cues, is melancholia incarnate. Heath Jr.


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54. Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood had spent the better part of a decade investigating and deconstructing his iconic Man With No Name/Dirty Harry persona when he made Unforgiven, which remains—20 years, and countless thematically similar films, later—his ultimate statement on the ramifications of violence. Again strapping on his gun belt and saddling up for a tale of Wild West vengeance and regret, Eastwood assumes the role of an aged outlaw convinced to shrug off retirement and reteam with his old partner (Morgan Freeman) to help avenge a whor* victimized in a town run by a wicked sheriff (Gene Hackman). Those three actors lend the material a gravity that’s furthered by Eastwood’s concise, unfussy direction, which places the focus on his protagonist’s moral struggle with his own brutal past while also allowing tension to mount slowly, until, in the wake of a murder, it erupts in a conclusion of explosive intensity that only augments the final, overarching sense that violence, even when justified and necessary, never proves to be a means to any sort of positive end. Schager

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53. Metropolitan

“The cha cha is no more ridiculous than life itself,” says debonair but “tiresome” Manhattan socialite Nick Smith, and neither are debutante balls, black-tie tuxedos, the tenets of Fourierism, or life among the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” a loose cluster of affluent intellectuals content to drink, date, and sling clever barbs back and forth for hours. For sure, it’s all rather droll (“I don’t read books; I prefer good literary criticism,” and so forth), but perhaps less apparent are the depths of melancholy coursing through it, occupying its silences, filling the negative space between witticisms. Tom Townsend, U.H.B. outlier and our gateway into this world, finds an abandoned box of childhood toys beside his father’s front steps, the loaded bric-à-brac of an adolescence lost and never to be regained, and in one wistful look there’s more longing and sadness than in the whole of the dozens of refined indie comedies Metropolitan inspired. Marsh

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52. Lost Highway

The lynchpin of David Lynch’s transition to full-bore, intensely intangible abstraction, Lost Highway is his first film to exist entirely under the sway of dream logic, rather than just feeling strikingly dream-like. Pushing further the successes of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which upended the expectations of the sequel by first embarking on an startling digression, then progressively imploding the format of a series of which he’d long grown tired. Lost Highway does the same for narrative structure, indulging in a two-part story that’s a puzzle box of discarded noir tropes and horror-movie cues, with a sense of creeping dread signaling Lynch’s move beyond the realm of traditional storytelling. Once again cataloguing the dark passage of a protagonist discovering the capacity for evil within himself, the film achieves this transformation through a baffling bit of character-swapping, one of the many subtly disconcerting elements in this influential work of mad, disturbing beauty. Cataldo

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51. The Puppetmaster

As a nation that was historically dominated by more powerful ones (Japan, China), it’s obvious why Taiwan’s history plays such a prominent role in many of their best films. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s trilogy on this history is indispensable, and the second entry, The Puppetmaster (City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women are the others), spans from 1895 to the end of WWII, elliptically recounting the life Li Tien-lu, a puppeteer whose personal story parallels the struggling country’s in many respects. As in A Brighter Summer’s Day, which covers a period of Taiwan not long after the events in this film, darkness shrouds the frame both to convey the feelings associated with the past and to give scenes an opaqueness (aided by Hou’s use of long, static shots that require the viewer to patiently scan for meaning within them and Li Tien-lu ’s compelling and embellished narration) that speaks to the way history is often a gray area between fact and fiction. The Puppetmaster’s slow-burning and uniquely structured expression of the passage of time subtly suggests the intricacies inherent in the fabric of memory and time. Henely


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50. Life, and Nothing More

In Life, and Nothing More, Abbas Kiarostami charts the subtle human complexities and traumas within a region devastated by natural disaster, quietly developing theme by focusing intensely on the patterns of ambient sound. The lean plot consists of a film director and his son navigating the devastated roads of Guilan, Iran after an earthquake has left the region riddled with broken infrastructure. Crushed cars, massive boulders stripped from mountainsides, and deep crevasses help realize the mise-en-scène. Kiarostami’s protagonists experience countless moments of eerie reflection while considering their own survival, usually during long tracking shots that snake through the rubble-strewn roads with effortless precision. Here, Kiarostami bravely reflects on his own relationship with the non-professional actors/people he so often depicts, specifically calling attention to the segments of everyday experience that his medium of choice often ignores. The brilliant final image, without the hindrance of words or rhetoric, sums up Life, and Nothing More, and perfectly in one fell swoop as tragedy, comedy, hope, and fulfillment. Heath Jr.

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49. The Last Days of Disco

The period of the early ’80s that The Last Days of Disco covers, as Matt Keeslar’s Josh, a mentally ill assistant district attorney, notes in the film, is a combination of ’60s-era free love coming to an end (Chloë Sevigny’s Alice gets two STDs) and the beginning of ’90s cynicism (the film ends with disco dead and nearly all the characters on unemployment). This seems as fine description as any of the cultural shifts taking place beneath the well-heeled shoes of Whit Stillman’s lovable and gently mocked yuppies, two of whom, a manager for a Studio 54-like nightclub and a junior ad executive who sneaks clients into the disco, contest to being classified as such, though they admit it’s certainly not bad to be any of the things the word stands for. It’s that signature Stillmanesque dialogue, as witty and sharp as the electric gab from the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, that makes The Last Days of Disco so enjoyable; it offers some of Stillman’s most memorable writing, including a delicious discourse on the harmful example set by the relationship in the seemingly benevolent Lady and the Tramp. And including a lawyer’s suggestion that Bambi sparked the environmental movement and Alice’s line that Scrooge McDuck is sexy, that’s actually the third odd, but endearing connection the characters in The Last Days of Disco draw between themselves and Disney films, the effect of which brilliantly attests to the absurdity of this new class of adults. Henely

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48. The River

The purest distillation of Tsai Ming-liang’s signature approach to filming contemporary urban experience, The River finds the director’s perpetual stand-in, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), achieving a maximal state of estrangement, if not from the desiccated environments that mirror his own tightly constrained mental states, than at least from all the people that populate that world. Stripping his art of such superfluous elements as camera movement, music, and visual clutter, Tsai follows his protagonist as he fills in as a film extra, appropriately playing a dead body floating in a polluted Taipei river. Perhaps as a result of this dip, Hsiao-kang develops increasingly debilitating neck pain and, along with his father with whom he barely exchanges a word, he begins seeking various cures. Tsai’s symbolism, as always, is suggestive without demanding definitive readings, a means to heighten our sense of disjunction, whether between family members or between characters and their poisonous environment. A final misguided attempt by Hsiao-kang at release proves at once shocking and pictorially stunning in its red-tinged chiaroscuro. Finally, however, there’s no cure; in Tsai’s jaundiced vision, life is destined to go horribly, banally on. Schenker

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47. Magnolia

In which Paul Thomas Anderson sends ’80s babies to film school at a rate not seen since Citizen Kane. If we decided to measure a great film by the failures and embarrassments spawned by its critical and financial success, Anderson would surely have to stand against the wall for Crash, along with the whole “L.A. sprawl” and “everything-is-connected” subgenres. His work subsequent to Magnolia, stranger and stranger, forcefully bears out the impatience Anderson has, as an artistic catalyst, even with forms for which he’s arguably the responsible party. With ceaseless tracking shots, emotionally fraught conflagrations, and an intricate web of urban cause and effect, Anderson’s epic of total emotion manages to resemble both a Renoir film and the hospital massacre in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, though the seeds of his ongoing reinvention (with There Will Be Blood and The Master) can be seen here as well. An invigorating tapestry of shy, despairing, needful people, more than resting on the safety net of boring coincidence (which never, in and of itself, did any screenwriter any good), is better seen as an exuberant, unsuccessful attempt to catalogue the cosmos through a few, particularly striking, constellations. Christley


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46. Before Sunrise

Straddling the thin line between genuine invocation of dorm-room philosophy and wistfully affectionate evocation of the same, Richard Linklater’s talky romance between an American backpacker and a French student takes on the daunting subject of post-teenage angst from both inside and out. Briefly adrift in Vienna, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) spend one long night traipsing around the city, their instant chemistry tempered by the awareness that this will likely be the only moments they share: She’s on her way back to school in Paris, and his flight home leaves the next day. Seizing on the inherent romance of ancient cities and Eurail passes as a positional parallel to the director’s fixation with the confident, naïve ingenuousness of youth, Before Sunrise falls within the upper register of Linklater comedies, meaning the sentiment is earned, the political gabble never reaches the level of distraction, and the ever-flowing conversation is perfectly on pitch. Cataldo

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45. From the East

It’s hard to imagine two masterpieces from one director that are quite so complementary as Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and From the East. Against the shallow-box cinema of the former’s fixed-camera domestic specificity, From the East sprawls out into the post-Soviet landscape in a restless series of tracks and pans, the camera rhyming the larger journey from East Germany to Russia. Any attempt to construct a historical narrative—the above movements contrasting with the relative stasis of its subjects, wandering or waiting in bitterly cold weather, seeming to pull them forward toward a post-Soviet future—is undermined by the immediacy of a glance into the camera, the sound of a pop song from a passing car, the alien blue-green of cheap artificial light. As such, as much as Jeanne Dielman offers a model for narrative in contemporary slow cinema, From the East is a key film for all those directors populating Rotterdam and Locarno who no longer even acknowledge categories like “narrative” and “documentary.” Coldiron

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44. Histoire(s) du Cinéma

Although largely unavailable during the ’90s, when it was made for French television, Histoire(s) du Cinéma is one of that decade’s, and Jean-Luc Godard’s, crowning achievements. Susan Sontag once described Godard as being “cinema’s first consciously destructive figure,” and because of Histoire(s) du Cinéma’s insistence on adopting a vantage point that looks back on cinema as if it has died, one gets the impression that the increasingly post-cinematic Godard wishes to also be the last of cinema’s destroyers. Retorting to great critic Serge Daney in one of the eight episodes that make up the project’s 244-minute running time, Godard presciently claims that there are fewer movies being made than ever before because most are clones and not originals. If at first that sounds arrogant, it becomes comparably undeniable after viewing this sui generis, multifaceted, and very personal video (the better to montage spontaneously with) series that overlaps audio and visual samples of films and artworks from the 20th century into a kind of amorphous, prickly panoply rich in contrasts (high and low art, images of war and p*rn, dreams and reality, etc.) and full of Godard’s annotations, signature aphorisms, and contradictions and that reflects on the crossroads of history and cinema. Henely

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43. Exotica

With Exotica, director Atom Egoyan brought melodrama to new heights of insight and affect. This 1994 masterpiece, arguably the best film ever produced in Canada, took the tropes of a bygone art’s grandiloquence and reveled in the power of its own drama and the pain of its precisely fashioned narrative. Tracing the conjoined pasts of a dancer and the man who holds a unique power over her personal and professional life, Exotica examines the repercussions and transformative effects of human contact, as a tax auditor and the owner of a pet shop cross paths with the curious couple, triggering repressed emotions and igniting new passions. Egoyan unfolds this tale of secrecy and sexuality in a brave and intriguing manner, disclosing information through discreet gestures, allowing ambiguities to embolden the drama, turning each character’s every decision into moments of tactile consequence and import. It’s a perilous tightrope Egoyan walks, his best films skirting the line between the palpable and the preposterous. He may have subsequently found a certain transcendence in The Sweet Hereafter, but for the characters of Exotica, the passion of the present is preferable to the futility of a finite future. Cronk


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42. Lovers on the Bridge

Whatever your take on Léos Carax’s brashly overdriven pastiche style, or more specifically this scruffed-up reimagining of L’Atalante (and about a million other things), it’s hard to deny the irrepressible grandeur of the scenes where the director truly commits himself, rocketing into inspired stylistic tangents. The Lovers on the Bridge contains the most singularly transcendent of these Caraxian moments (the unbelievably orchestrated bridge dance/water-ski interlude), in addition to a host of others that defiantly stand out, from Denis Lavant’s fire-swallowing performance to his destruction of a procession of subway posters, a surging sequence that culminates with his deformed dragon of a protagonist setting a man ablaze. A collection of gaudy set pieces strung together by a thin connective tissue of film references and nihilistic romance, Carax’s film carries the ragged banner of the New Wave, looking fitfully to the future while keeping one foot in the past. Cataldo

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41. Groundhog Day

The definitive Bill Murray performance comes in the decade’s finest comedy, a pitch-perfect tale of repetition as both the lowest form of hell and an ideal means of self-improvement and actualization. Stuck reporting on Punxsutawney Phil’s annual shadow-check on the titular holiday, Murray’s smarmy news reporter finds himself reliving the same day over and over and over again, a terrifying fate that he uses as an excuse to have fun before misery and madness slowly take over, and he’s then struck by the revelation that, in order to woo co-worker Rita (Andie MacDowell), he must in fact find a way to legitimately change his bastard ways. Working from a crackerjack script by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, and aided by Ramis’s sharp direction, Murray’s droll wiseass routine has never been sharper, and yet the actor allows Phil’s transformation from prick to prince to develop gradually, and naturally. As befitting its subject matter, it’s that rare comedy so smart and amusing, it’s endlessly watchable. Schager

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40. Bad Lieutenant

The crime at the center of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant sounds so sleazily sensationalistic that it borders on exploitation material, yet it was apparently “ripped from the headlines” of ’80s NYC: A young nun is raped at the altar by two local hoodlums, who proceed to vandalize and further profane the church. As anyone familiar with Ferrara’s Ms. 45 will doubtless recall, looks can be dangerously deceptive, so it comes as no surprise that Bad Lieutenant is at bottom an unabashed morality play, albeit one so steeped in degradation and willful self-destruction, epitomized in scenes like the notorious traffic-stop shakedown, that it was easy for contemporary viewers (those, at least, not already daunted by its NC-17 rating) to overlook its redemptive aspects. As the eponymous corrupt cop, Harvey Keitel burrows down to the marrow of his character in a performance so fierce and fearless that it’s often downright discomforting to behold. Keitel’s climactic showdown at the scene of the crime with a hallucinated Christ (“Where were you? You rat f*ck!”) stands as a prime example of laying one’s soul bare on celluloid, long before the actor codified his regimen of tics and twitches (inarticulate yowls, gut-shot grimacing) into by-the-numbers emotional shorthand. Wilkins

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39. My Own Private Idaho

Its drug-fueled portrayal of queer experience notwithstanding, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho might be the perfect cinematic time capsule for ’90s aimlessness, universal in its details, itself something of a collection of artifacts and relics not unlike those referenced and relied on by its characters—souls in search of an identity, some of them simply lost without a clue. The filmmaker’s third feature revels in the weird, the spontaneous, and the unlikely: The encroaching future is regarded with amusem*nt in folksy time-lapse transitions (the theremin adds a dash of sci-fi to the “anything goes” proceedings), roads seem to have faces while buildings fall from the sky, and Keanu Reeves gives a turn of calculated introspection and distant coolness. Van Sant’s search for the self is expressed most fully through River Phoenix’s performance as a narcoleptic prostitute (a turn indicative of great but tragically unfulfilled things to come), but similarly introspective is the filmmaker’s scintillating cultural potpourri, drawing on everything from Eisenstein to Shakespeare to The Simpsons. Humanick


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38. Irma Vep

The first, and most successful, of Olivier Assayas’s engagements with the world of global capital (present here in the form of an international coproduction, which also describes the film itself), Irma Vep is one of the few films explicitly about filmmaking that manages to transcend its inevitable narcissism. Maggie Cheung, superstar Hong Kong actress, is Maggie, superstar Hong Kong actress, brought to Paris to star in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires directed by past-his-prime René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud). The big showstopper, a dreamy nighttime sequence set to Sonic Youth in which Cheung dons her character’s black latex catsuit and steals a diamond necklace from another guest at her hotel, manages to make the tired theme of the collapsing divide between acting and living seem exciting again. But Assayas’s big ideas, fundamentally pessimistic and conservative, only come out in the final sequence, as the sacked Vidal’s footage is revealed to be a shock of avant-garde provocation modeled on Isidore Isou’s On Venom and Eternity: Even this once radical form can be squeezed by the weight of global corporate dollars into the shape of narrative resolution. Coldiron

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37. Bitter Moon

Roman Polanski’s 1992 epic of erotic obsession, jealousy, and control was not only a return to form for a director who wasn’t particularly productive during the 1980s, but a career-defining film for the kink-minded auteur. Presented as a lurid story narrated by a wheelchair-bound American (Peter Coyote) to a honeymooning Brit (Hugh Grant) aboard a cruise, the film mercilessly dissects Polanski’s signature themes as he presents a story of a wealthy U.S. national living in Paris, falling in love with a lovely French woman, indulging in erotic play of all kinds, becoming bored, treating the woman miserably, and, finally, becoming her physical and psychic captive. There’s enough material in the story-within-a-story to fuel two feature films and the teller spares no detail, but this is just the setting to an even more turbulent course of events that plays with and picks apart notions of American vulgarity, British reticence, and French eroticism. In its unflinching look at the fractured extremes of human desire and behavior, Bitter Moon is high art disguised as sensationalistic trash. Schenker

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36. Fargo

You could blame Shep, who told them that Jerry would be there at 7:30, and they’d been waiting over an hour, but that was a mix-up, and the Béla Tarr-esque opening image, showing Jerry’s car emerging from a wintry, snow-blind wall of dirty white, seals everyone’s fate to the tune of Carter Burwell’s funereal, mythic strings and percussion arrangement. With an apparently career-long ambition to restore film noir and black comedy to the popular imagination, the Coen brothers, as has been their habit, lay out a plan of narrative action in broad, sometimes caricature-heavy strokes, then work backward across it, plumbing for details and emotional truths. None of the chaos and mayhem that follows as a result of Jerry Lundegaard’s convoluted plan—to hire a pair of psychotic lowlifes, neither of whom even knows the other very well, to kidnap his wife, in the hopes of collecting enough to wipe out his debts—takes flight on its own power, without the grounding of sadness and longing that boils under every other scene that tends toward violent grotesqueries and teasing, provincial humor. Christley

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35. Breaking the Waves

Re-watching Breaking the Waves in the wake of Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Antichrist, it’s become retroactively clear that Lars von Trier’s 1996 landmark represents both the defining moment in his career and his oeuvre’s chief anomaly, thanks to the titanic central performance by Emily Watson (in her first feature film). Watson’s Bess, the intractable, naïf, dependent, fearless new bride in a simple Scottish town with perhaps the world’s staunchest Christian population, believes her prayer for her oil rig-working husband Jan to come back to her is directly responsible for the paralyzing accident that sends him home. Bess’s decision to do her immobile husband’s bidding—to sleep with strangers and arouse him with her subsequent reports—is both subordinate to his will and defiant in the face of religious patriarchies. Of the many transgressions in von Trier’s works, few seem as genuinely dangerous as this story of a simple-minded girl who maintains a direct line of conversation with God and is f*cked to death. And among a long string of actress who fought von Trier and paraded their scars, Watson represents the exception. Having yielded to the steamroller, Bess emerges stronger and purer than all. Henderson


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34. Boogie Nights

Still Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film, Boogie Nights is also his most purely enjoyable: Tracing a Goodfellas-like progression from the golden age of p*rn in the 1970s to the shot-on-video lowlights that followed in the ’80s, the film is so pleasurably well-made that for much of its running time it can be difficult to realize just how dark it’s gradually becoming. But then, in his gunshot of a transition between decades, PTA gives us our most abrupt clue yet as to what his film’s latter half holds in store for us. It may be in its later sequences that Boogie Nights truly whips it out in a way few other films dare, but hindsight (not to mention subsequent viewings) reveal just how present the tension between its more brooding and glitzy traits was all along. The result is a big, bright, shining star of a movie, and one whose stature—unlike that of its characters—hasn’t faded with time. Nordine

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33. Hard Boiled

A master at crafting deceptive surfaces, John Woo is also a keen observer of social dynamics. The last film he made before leaving his native China for Hollywood, Hard Boiled stars Chow Yun-Fat stars as Tequila, a police officer who joins forces with a mysterious undercover agent, Alan (Tony Leung), in order to infiltrate a mobster’s secret lair tucked inside a hospital’s basem*nt level. Throughout, females are subversives and men are only allowed to love each other after their unexamined male bonds have evaporated; masculine procedure is encoded in—and permitted by—femaleness (Alan communicates with the film’s police contingency via pop songs, flowers, and love letters) and violence becomes a kind of masoch*stic, almost hom*oerotic ritual. Every image is a ruse, a visual double entendre of sorts with an encoded moral, a romantic and social message. Building to an insanely frenetic, audacious climax unmatched in action cinema, the film, a stellar symbiosis of movement and morality, wit and balls, bounces its characters deliriously from one elaborate set piece to the next. Given the humor and unpredictability of Woo’s rhythmic action poetry, think of this as Karaoke action melodrama. Gonzalez

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32. The Big Lebowski

Taking potshots at a plethora of satirical subjects ranging from the first Gulf War to “vagin*l” art, Kraut rock, and the p*rn industry (not to mention bowling), The Big Lebowski may be the densest, most intricately woven Coen brothers film yet. Scene after scene rolls down the lane packed with eminently quotable one-liners, evincing a structural classicism that harkens back to the heyday of the screwball comedy. And yet there’s an unshakeable shaggy-dog quality to the narrative, quite in keeping with its “stoner noir” takedown of post-Chandler L.A. (The obvious precursor here: Robert Altman’s smart-ass genre deconstruction The Long Goodbye.) The acting is uniformly spot-on, anchored by Jeff Bridges’s effortless-seeming incarnation of the Dude (“Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing”), and buttressed by Sam Elliott’s 10-gallon turn as the Stranger, while John Goodman swipes the show with his uproarious pastiche of writer-director John Milius. Although he’s allotted no more scenes than a bowling bowl has holes, John Turturro’s hair-netted, mock-Hispanic intimidator (“Don’t f*ck with the Jesus!”) threatens to outdo even Goodman. Wilkins

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31. The Long Day Closes

The culmination of the autobiographical process begun in his famous trilogy of short films and continued in what remains his masterpiece, Distant Voices, Still Lives, Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes edged the British filmmaker toward slightly more approachable territory. With its golden, sparkling light and obvious emotional entry point in young Bud (Leigh McCormack as a young Davies), it’s much more inviting than the muted, diffuse world of Distant Voices. As in the earlier film, and his latest (fully fictional) feature, The Deep Blue Sea, Davies uses a sort of sliding-frame approach to narrative, constructing discrete scenes of personal and social life (the conversation between the two is Davies’s great concern) and stringing them fluidly together through both sound and camera movement. If The Long Day Closes doesn’t strike me as quite as emotionally perceptive as Distant Voices, I can’t deny that it features the pinnacle of his formal approach, a four-minute sequence set to Debby Reynolds’s “Tammy” that ties the entirety of life for an 11-year-old boy in 1950s Liverpool—play, cinema, church, school—into one modestly grand movement of the camera from right to left. Coldiron


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30. Carlito’s Way

Carlito’s Way was, first and foremost, if circ*mstantially, a post-Oscar victory lap for Al Pacino. And with Brian De Palma at the helm, the halo of “unofficial, alt-timeline Scarface sequel” seemed to hang right. Out of leftfield, the film emerged as the director’s masterpiece, and by leftfield I mean that De Palma was working a vein of his previous work that, on the surface, seemed simultaneously more mainstream-baiting (The Untouchables) and more liable to blow up in his face (The Bonfire of the Vanities). Reminiscent of Preminger at his most deceptively artificial, courting glory and derision in the same broad strokes, De Palma employs meticulously storyboarded ‘Scope frames, then fills them with untenable confrontations and unsustainable excess. Sean Penn’s incognito turn as the avaricious attorney Kleinfeld won plaudits and helped validate the post-Spicoli phase of his career, but new viewers may be equally astonished by Viggo Mortensen’s electrifying single scene as a skeevy, wheelchair-bound turncoat. Christley

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29. Lessons of Darkness

In repurposing footage of burning Kuwait oil fields in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Werner Herzog crafted a stunning vision of apocalypse that doubles as a commentary on madness and the inexorable nature of human folly that allows for the perpetuation of armed conflict. Although long stretches of Lessons of Darkness are given to mind-blowing aerial shots of the decimated landscape set epically to Wagner and Mahler, Herzog also affixed a minimal narrative to the movie, about a planet destroyed by nuclear war, a story the director relates in his legendary Germanic drawl. Marking the most perfect synthesis of fiction and documentary in the Herzog oeuvre, the movie draws its power from the interplay between the two modes, bringing us back to ground level (both literally and metaphorically) as the film stops to listen to the real-life testimony of two women who’ve suffered horrible fates as a result of the human cruelty that finds its greatest expression in war and for which the director finds an astonishing visual correlative in the flames spewing from the black pools of oil which the firemen reignite, if only to have something to put out again. Schenker

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28. Chungking Express

Stylish, romantic, and self-consciously cool, Chungking Express is like an impressionistic watercolor hung on the wall of a trendy dive bar: It’s a taste of the foreign art house for hip domestic crowds still acquiring a taste for it, and it remains Wong Kar-wai’s most widely popular import by far (courtesy at least in part of Quentin Tarantino, whose Rolling Thunder arm of Miramax helped introduce it to North American audiences). Its surfaces, of course, are enormously seductive, the frame fit to burst with the vibrancy and restlessness of free jazz, but it’s Chungking Express’s generous, sentimental spirit that makes it more lastingly resonant. A fleet, delirious love story of the highest order, its major heart is ultimately proof positive that a slight film needn’t be a minor one. Marsh

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27. Hoop Dreams

The ’90s saw an influx of films set in American ghettos, and at least three notable ones were filmed in Chicago: Candyman played on audiences’ fears of miscegenation and the areas of cities where they’d never venture into; Public Housing traced the complex relations between poor residents and the government supporting them; and Hoop Dreams marvelously captured the hearts and souls of two poor African-American families through their sons’ aspirations of Nike-sponsored basketball glory. We take it for granted in today’s digital world, but filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx broke ground by filming on video (which, over the five-year production, visibly evolved from Beta to Beta SP), a financial necessity that bolsters the doc’s striking rawness. Culled from footage of young Arthur Agee and William Gates, NBA hopefuls who must try and overcome the constrictions of their disadvantaged class, Hoop Dreams brims with an astonishing wealth of material that’s both heartbreaking and uplifting—and the way events unfold over the film’s longitudinal-study span defies human writing capacity (Stuart Klawans famously quipped that the script was written by God). This is the standard to which all socially conscious documentaries are compared. Henely


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26. Through the Olive Trees

The concluding title in Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy, Through the Olive Trees exemplified both the power of the Iranian iconoclast’s ideology and the reach of his meta-cinematic, self-reflexive discourse. At once a tale of faith in the promises of love and a deconstruction of his own creative process, this multi-faceted, disorienting fictionalization of a key interpersonal relationship in Kiarostami’s prior film, Life, and Nothing More, brought a career’s worth of aesthetic advances to a place of both reconciliation and vast new narrative potential. The perseverance of his protagonist in the face of defeat finds its cinematic analogue in Kiarostami’s dismantling of his own methodology, a scene of unacknowledged import revealing a dense subtext and unforeseen consequence in its workshopped application. Casting an actor to play himself, directing a film that itself was a eulogy to the villagers he honored in Where Is the Friend’s House?, all atop a new narrative that culminates in one of cinema’s most heartrending finales, Kiarostami utilized Through the Olive Trees as a very pointed means of self-criticism and closure. Very few films can claim a similar functionality, let alone yield rewards on the viewers behalf of such endless intrigue. Cronk

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25. Mother and Son

The notion of cinema as a kind of living artwork is omnipresent in Mother and Son, a quality reinforced thematically by the titular figures’ methodical, heartbreaking march toward shuffling off this mortal coil, and stylistically via director Aleksandr Sokurov’s elemental use of perspective and image distortion to collapse both space and time. The effect is often that of a literal moving picture, and Sokurov’s somnambulistic use of the camera frequently suggests a master painter pausing for minutes, if not hours or days, between each devastating brushstroke. This slanted and enchanted subversion of traditional composition is both a testament to and elevation of the universal language of cinema, and Mother and Son’s elemental purity is such that it often suggests a weathered artifact left over from some forgotten civilization. Life and death merge in the film’s isolated, windswept landscapes, where the fully grown child now tends to his ailing parent much as she surely did to him in the first years of his life. So is the circle of life regarded with a seemingly eternal gaze, at once life-affirming and fearless of that which lies beyond. Humanick

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24. Husbands and Wives

A chronicle of a split foretold, Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives catalogues the insecurities that rock a marriage when another dissolves. Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) announce their breakup, and Judy (Mia Farrow) elevates the pair’s amicable decision to the level of tragedy. And when Sally’s husband, Gabe (Allen), falls for a student who loves older and men and looks for reason (read: God) in Time magazine, something close to tragedy ensues. The film is shot like a documentary, though Allen’s camera doesn’t observe marital chaos so much as it queasily instigates it. The thoughtful framing, as in a scene in which the viewer adopts Gabe’s point of view as he and Judy spar over a diaphragm, is a paranoiac’s gaze, and it’s unparalleled in Allen’s canon, matched only by the dialogue’s funny, sad, often depressing insights. Allen understands the emotionally fragile, confusing period after a breakup: the jealousy of an ex-lover finding love with another too soon; the desire to return to an ex-lover when a new lover disappoints; and the comfort we find in a loveless but comfortable state of constancy. Metabolically, it’s everyone’s rhythm. Gonzalez

The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1990s (78)

23. Jackie Brown

After Reservoir Dogs’s gut-punch fatalism and Pulp Fiction’s mesmerizing dynamism, Quentin Tarantino surprised everyone by going all Douglas Sirk on audience’s asses with Jackie Brown. The film’s crime-saga façade hides an emotionally complex love story between the titular Jackie (Pam Grier), a sexy stewardess embroiled in a dangerous drug ring, and Max (Robert Forester), an old-school bail bondsmen who can’t help but fall head over heels for her imposing beauty. This amazingly sincere pair resides at the center of a sublime and mournful melodrama draped in jive talk, double-crosses, and thematically resonant soul music. Fate and chance seem to inspire every vibrant scene, from the audacious set piece inside the Del Amo Mall to the final parting moment shared between two lovers who never were. Like most films that examine the mysteries and disappointments of unrequited love, Jackie Brown ends with a fleeting goodbye and an infinite sense of yearning. Yet this one stings. No single moment in the Tarantino canon has held so much unresolved emotion. Heath Jr.


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22. Rushmore

Wes Anderson’s oppressively set-designed films may resemble stuffy dioramas more than any semblance of reality, but the heightened versions of kid lit he explores in them contain a distinct emotional through line, with characters inventing their own bubble kingdoms to block out the harsh realities of the outside world. Rushmore served as our initial introduction to this style, after the comparatively helter-skelter Bottle Rocket, and the singular character of Max Fischer—preternatural overachiever, frustrated genius, and nasty martinet—is still probably the most realistic distillation of the director himself, who himself uses these cute capsule realities to avoid confronting the messier vagaries of life. Yet despite their borderline preciousness, Anderson’s worlds aren’t idylls, containing bittersweet stories that build to the inevitable intrusion of real, muddled emotions, deteriorating the sanctity of these color-coded, fussily framed worlds. It’s this condition that grants Rushmore an autumnal air of melancholy. Cataldo

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21. A Moment of Innocence

Culminating in one of the most breathtaking final freeze frames this side of The 400 Blows, A Moment of Innocence is Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s fabricated attempt at an authentic mea culpa. Or his complex, tortured admission that such an attempt would be impossible. Either way, you know his penitence must be real, because Makhmalbaf’s distancing techniques give his audiences every reason to mistrust his intentions as he works with young actors to recreate the life-altering moment that sent him to prison for four years (he stabbed a police officer under the Shah prior to the Islamic Revolution). A Moment of Innocence knowingly skirts the line between documentary and fictitious representation as Makhmalbaf recruits the man he stabbed into selecting actors to represent them during that fateful moment, and the dialogue it draws between the past and the present (as both Makhmalbaf and his young actors attempt to right wrongs like Dr. Sam Beckett) emerges as if not an explanation for the cycle of violence, then at least an empathetic reckoning. Henderson

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20. Starship Troopers

It seems fitting that it took stumbling upon an obscure Soviet-era concept for me to feel like I had the vocabulary to talk about Paul Verhoeven with any degree of accuracy. That concept is stiob, which I’ll crudely define as a form of parody requiring such a degree of over-identification with the subject being parodied that it becomes impossible to tell where the love for that subject ends and the parody begins. And so there, in 32 words, is the Hollywood cinema of Paul Verhoeven. Starship Troopers then has to be a bad movie, insofar as that means that the acting is not dramatically convincing, the story is hopelessly contrived, the special effects are distractingly garish in their limb-ripping and bone-crunching, because the point isn’t to do better than Hollywood (that would run counter to Verhoeven’s obvious love of these cheap popular forms), but to do more of Hollywood, to push every element to its breaking point without caving to the lazy lure of ridicule. The result is a style that embraces a form as fully as possible only to turn it back against the content, and one of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films. Coldiron

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19. Being John Mlkovich

To watch Being John Malkovich is to be inside the minds of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufmann as much as it is to be inside Malkovich’s, which is to say it’s an alluringly trippy two hours. Few other debuts of the ’90s—or, really, any other decade—struck such a new and original chord; fewer still introduced us to both a director and screenwriter whose subsequent work has proven equally worthwhile. For all the talk of surreality and (sub)consciousness around which discussion of the film tends to center, its humor is just as memorable: everything from “Take that, Malkovich!” to a closing line about immortality and Gary Sinise. Jonze’s film is a triumph on many levels (formal, thematic, conceptual), but it’s at its most unique when weaving several threads at once without even letting on that it’s doing so. At once dense and accessible, philosophically abstruse and massively entertaining, it’s too rare an object—something to which more than a few lackluster imitators can attest. Nordine


The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1990s (83)

18. The Decalogue

A 10-part series on the Ten Commandants might sound like a tedious chore, but Krzysztof Kieślowski’s routinely heartbreaking series of parables is less interested in the faithful application of these rules for living than all the shades of grey they fail to account for, turning each aphorism into a complicated moral puzzle. Scuffling around the darkened corners of the human soul, they present ethical behavior as a spectrum that lacks obvious definitions, a confusion the film tempers through the insistent bellwether of human decency. From the story of a man skipping out on his family to help an ex-lover find her missing husband on Christmas Eve in part three, to the tale of a woman plotting to abduct her own child in part seven, Kieślowski eschews easy answers and neat conclusions, filtering all the action through the shared location of a single housing block, presented as an inter-linked system of sad stories waiting to be told. Cataldo

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17. Heat

Michael Mann’s crime-cinema cool is epically engineered in Heat, his 1995 film that pits Al Pacino against Robert De Niro in a cat-and-mouse cops-and-robbers saga. Though pairing the iconic actors on screen for the first time, Mann gives them only one pre-climax scene together, a diner-set conversation that lays bare the film’s opposing-forces dramatic dynamic, all centered around Pacino’s loudmouthed cop attempting to nab De Niro’s routine-driven thief. That the headliners imbue this showdown with larger-than-life grandeur is to be expected, but it’s Mann’s sleek, muscular direction that drives this well-oiled machine, which is also fueled by a host of supporting turns led by a phenomenal (and phenomenally pony-tailed) Val Kilmer. Infusing a standard-issue scenario—replete with notions about the similarities of its good and bad guys—with shimmering sexiness and existential confusion and dread, it remains both heady and electrifying, a film capable of wrestling with questions of identity, fate, and purpose while also delivering, via its centerpiece, a bank-robbery shootout of rousing vitality. Schager

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16. Short Cuts

No, Short Cuts isn’t particularly faithful. It’s not just that Robert Altman’s characters are constantly dissolving into stuttering convulsions of therapeutic laughter, usually shocking themselves in the process, that stands in contrast with writer Raymond Carver’s usually bemused demeanor. The Altman patchwork itself is an exercise in maximalism, the diametric position from the individual moments of clarity to be found in Carver’s short stories. And you know what? It’s a match made in heaven, and consummated with thick irony in the valley of Los Angeles. In the nearly two decades separating Short Cuts from its quilted ’70s cousin, Nashville, Altman had lost none of his acerbic, humanistic brand of sympathetic contempt. But Short Cuts demonstrates less interest in the ways humans’ behavior disrupts the lives of other humans, and more fascination with how they adapt to the game of chance or die trying. Boasting more great performances than basically any other movie of its era (and also Andie MacDowell’s best), Short Cuts is a sustaining environment unto itself. Henderson

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15. Dead Man

Death is a spinning coin in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, at once a liberating process of self-realization and an absurdly violent culmination of fate. Filmed in stunningly crisp black and white by the great cinematographer Robby Muller, Dead Man lives in the forested hills, rivers, and rock formations of Anthony Mann. It’s one of the few westerns that embraces Native American spirituality and philosophy as a driving thematic force, often juxtaposing nature’s purity and silence with the destructive, sad*stic, and dispassionate ethos of manifest destiny and the post-industrial age. The story of a banker named William Blake (Johnny Depp) who travels west from Cleveland only to find mud, grime, and “white man’s metal” is a daring and darkly comic subversion of western machismo and heroism. Blake’s bloody journey is populated by strange and haunting variations on classic genre archetypes, none more enduring than his mixed-blood native guide, Nobody (Gary Farmer), a linguist and poet educated in British schools and subsequently deemed an outcast by his own people. Together, the two pariahs form a complex friendship that becomes Jarmusch’s thesis statement against the savagery of capitalism, but more importantly his perfect portrait of otherworldly transference. Heath Jr.


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14. Showgirls

There are a few things we have to get off our chests, lest they start feeling good in a nice dress or a tight top. We at Slant Magazine were clearly feigning our love for Showgirls solely because it was disreputable to admit fandom. We obviously only wanted to make a name for ourselves. We wanted to trash the canon and canonize trash because upending the established order is easier than performing deliberate taxonomy. We are actually all heterosexual males and watch movies strictly for the tittays. So does Jacques Rivette. He told us his 84-year-old erection’s favorite movie is probably Showgirls. If you believe one word of this capsule, take a closer look at these nails I just manicured for you, because you don’t know sh*t! Which is to say, there are myriad right reasons for loving Showgirls, but there are also plenty of wrong ones for hating it. And now that Tommy Wisea’s The Room has been embraced by every hipster-than-thou cinephile in an orgy of self-congratulatory bad-movie worship, a legitimately disreputable masterpiece like Showgirls still needs all the help it can get. Henderson

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13. Pulp Fiction

Accept no substitute. Jackie Brown may very well be the greater film: pleasure-giving, tender, coolly assured, yet impossibly delicate. But Pulp Fiction seems like a chapter heading in a massive tome on the history of the cinema. Quentin Tarantino’s influences are well-catalogued, of course, earning him praise and condescending dismissal from various, breast-beating quarters of the critical world. For fans like me, there’s “before Pulp Fiction” and “after.” It didn’t invent cinephilia, obviously, but it seemed to revitalize it and recruit from the younger generation in large numbers. Lament fanboy culture all you like, or decry the “movies aren’t great anymore, only cool” phenomenon whose DNA can almost certainly be traced back to the “Royale with cheese” conversation, but lots of young moviegoers were blown away—and continue to be blown away—by Tarantino’s breakout hit, and it’s helped connect them to movies in ways that were, before 1994, simply not on their itinerary. Its elusive, addictive thing-ness remains fresh today, a potent brew of genre and visceral pleasures, a catalogue of comedy (black, visual, low-brow, shock, awkward pause, etc.), structured to feel like a party that went all night and well into the morning. Christley

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12. Naked

Throughout a career defined by the endless gallery of remarkable characters he’s presented us with, Mike Leigh has never exceeded the complexity, verve, and loathsomeness of David Thewlis’s Johnny, the central figure in his 1993 masterpiece, Naked. A self-described “cheeky monkey,” the character is introduced raping a woman in a Manchester alley, before moving to London to crash with an ex-girlfriend and her roommate and embarking on an odyssey through the dark night of that town’s streets. A man filled with a perverse, probably uncontrollable need to hurt everyone around him, Johnny is perfectly matched to the seedy London backdrop that Leigh memorably concocts. Mirrored by a charmless, more directly sexually aggressive rapist, and countered somewhat by the capacity for kindness displayed by the film’s female characters, Johnny is the unquestioned star here, given free reign to unleash his ferocious intelligence, pun-heavy spurts of brilliant wordplay, and odd charm in the service of winning over people only to leave them damaged and deceived. As such, Naked stands as an exquisite symphony of cruelty in which tentative bursts of human feeling are either perverted by sinister impulses or else cruelly betrayed—and an unparalleled example of Leigh’s rare gift for crafting characters at once repugnant and irresistibly fascinating. Schenker

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11. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

The prospect of a movie tying up the world of Twin Peaks following its ratings-driven implosion and apocalyptically open-ended finale offered a shot at critical and commercial redemption to everyone involved. Instead, David Lynch filmed a prequel, one that could only end in the brutal rape and murder of Laura Palmer, the mysterious crime that set the series moving. Moreover, a prequel that relegated Agent Dale Cooper, the show’s most popular character, to a strange aside featuring David Bowie, and took an hour to even introduce the residents of Twin Peaks. This opening, setting a more immediately paranoid tone against the show’s aw-shucks surrealism, follows Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland as they investigate the murder of a drifter named Teresa Banks, a process that leads them to dancing cousins, gruff waitresses, asshole local cops, lipstick graffiti, and an even more haggard than usual Harry Dean Stanton. When the film finally arrives in Twin Peaks and Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic title song ambles onto the soundtrack, it plays as a tremendously dark joke, the relief of getting to what we all came for barely masking the awful reality of what that actually is. What follows is the most terrifying hour and a half in American cinema, David Lynch’s suburban Inferno. Coldiron


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10. Crash

In David Cronenberg’s Crash, the automobile transcends its usual associations with masculinity and status-symbol expressionism to become a psychological, near-literal extension of the body. The sensational obviousness of the subject matter has remained the biggest (usually only) point of discussion for what may be Cronenberg’s most underappreciated effort, a reductive perspective that overlooks the film’s necessarily disturbing and equally profound inquiry into human desire, however self-destructive. Foreboding shots of populated highways set the tone: These are avatars made decimators—and liberators—of the flesh. Sex and death have long walked a sticky line together in horror films, but Crash isn’t the Canadian formalist’s usual brand of New Flesh savagery. Beneath the blood, sweat, metal, glass, and sem*n, the film is tragic romance that goes out of its way to humanize something brutish, and cars are just a convenient package for exploring our tendency to kill ourselves, whether in the short or long term, imagined or real. The violence here is usually better anticipated than experienced, but for some—namely, Elias Koteas’s rustic, bemused mechanical fetishist Vaughan—the desire overwhelms the consequences. In the long run, most of us are no different, if considerably little less kinky about it. Humanick

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9. Taste of Cherry

It’s baffling that anybody anywhere could watch Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, love it enthusiastically, and then suggest that its life-affirming pomo coda be excised, as throngs of broadsheet admirers did after the film’s premiere at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival (even more perplexingly, Kiarostami actually heeded their advice, lopping off the ending for its theatrical run in Italy). Those precious final moments—a meta-textual break from the action, shot on video, in which the cast and crew are shown preparing a scene from the film to the sounds of “St. James Infirmary”—are a grand and graceful move beyond the text of both film and life, a liberation from a hero’s grave and a narrative’s closure. That’s where the long journey into night and death bring us: We awaken in daylight, outside the world of the film, rejoicing in the action of cinema. It undercuts nothing; it expands on, enriches, enlivens all that came before it. It’s the ultimate coup: A few minutes of Handycam video transform a very good film about death into a great film about life. Marsh

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8. Underground

Emir Kusturica’s Underground is a sweltering, morally inquisitive work of political narrative fiction that laments our propensity for self-destruction. “Once upon a time there was a country…” So begins this deliriously metaphorical, emotionally gut-wrenching, and jarringly funny chronicle of a death foretold. Possessed by the cultural beat of his homeland, the gypsy-loving Kusturica structures much of the film, a story of a family torn apart by politics and greed, as an apocalyptic block party, a testament to human perseverance. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. That’s the sound of one man’s perpetually swinging stopwatch, and it’s there to remind us that it’s only a matter of time before people and nation feel the portentous prick of doom. A unique blend of lowbrow slapstick and sophisticated war commentary, this randy peepshow invites and earns comparisons to To Be or Not to Be; as in Lubitch’s masterwork, art becomes indistinguishable from reality, and the art is big because the people live big. “There is no war until a brother kills a brother.” That’s Yugoslavia’s political and philosophical conundrum in a nutshell, but Kusturica intends his humanist masterwork as a time capsule for all nations. When does the party end and war begin? It doesn’t have to. Gonzalez

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7. Safe

There’s something in the air: In Safe’s somnambulant, sub-purgatorial Los Angeles, it’s a dense mélange of piss-yellow fog and intangible toxins, some clandestine environmental poison wreaking havoc on the mind and body of suburban homemaker Carol (Julianne Moore, wilting before the camera), though perhaps, as her doctors insist, it’s nothing at all. An oblique diagnosis validates Carol’s pervading sense that, deep down, Something Is Wrong, but we don’t need expertise on the subject of Chemical Sensitivity to suspect that, indeed, the endless fatigue of her comatic, dreary existence is more cause than symptom, and that the aid provided by a remote desert retreat is more social than physical. It’s telling that the lifeless sex scene near the beginning of the film is scarier, existentially speaking, than any of the tactile ailments afflicting Carol in the throes of her sickness; it’s a vision of life so completely drained of vitality and spirit that the only viable treatment could be drastic, permanent change. Marsh


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6. Sátántangó

Sátántangó sits at the axis of the 1990s like an immovable, miserable monolith. Béla Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour monument to suffering and deceit is, by most accounts, one of the bleakest films ever made. From another angle, however, Sátántangó is a comedy of darkly epic proportions. So, a dire evocation of Hungarian society, one seemingly sapped of all hope for cultural advancement, or an existential black comedy reveling in the despair and stupidity of a community spellbound by the reappearance of their village’s prodigal son, a self-styled prophet preaching a doctrine both hypnotizing and hazardous? For Tarr, the two are inextricable, perhaps one in the same. As we sit, equally entranced, as an overweight doctor drinks himself comatose in real time, or as a little girl tortures a cat just to feel something other than total loneliness, it’s impossible not to smirk in recognition at the hopelessness of such masochism, the absolute inevitability of this emotional and physical state we’ve chosen to call life. Tarr claimed at the time that he intended Sátántangó to represent the end of cinema, and though the medium lives on, it’s difficult to argue that it has again reached similar heights of psychological and spiritual transcendence. Cronk

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5. Goodfellas

The heir apparent to The Godfather II, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (co-penned by Nicholas Pileggi, based on his 1986 book Wiseguy) is a blast of nostalgia, thrills, and censure, all of it swirling around the true-life tale of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a hood born and bred in Brooklyn who slowly works his way up the mafia ladder to be a bigwig before, inevitably, crashing and burning. Scorsese’s style here is so exhilarating that—as with his famous tracking shot of Hill entering a nightclub—it’s become part of the modern cinematic playbook, just as Joe Pesci’s “What do you mean I’m funny?” rant has, alongside Robert De Niro’s Taxi Driver monologues, grafted itself onto the pop-movie psyche. Bolstered by Liotta’s ambitious ruthlessness, De Niro’s snake-like menace, and Pesci’s loose-cannon ferocity, the film sells crime as sexy and exciting before devolving into a speed-rush nightmare of paranoia, betrayal, and failure—in the process setting the template for the legion of gangster-cinema knock-offs that followed in its wake. Schager

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4. A Brighter Summer Day

Shaping the petty squabbles of youth gangs and the domestic woes of members’ families into an operatic cycle of people in exile, A Brighter Summer Day slowly accumulates its small individual parts into an epic story of the perils of displacement, with the suffering of the film’s parents passed down to their confused, embittered children. Forced out of their Chinese homeland by the communist revolution, the adults in Edward Yang’s film spend their time pining for their lost land, waiting for old scars to heal and adjusting to a new way of life. Their children, born into exile, spend their days roaming the streets, recreating the struggles of the past through brawls and territorial disputes, assembling into gangs for connection and shelter. Ten years before his equally, if not as nakedly thrilling, Yi Yi, Yang masterfully employs period music, neatly bisected compositions, and oppressively lurking shadows to show how a small flame of frustration can flare up into a terrible act of violence. Cataldo

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3. Close-Up

No one but Abbas Kiarostami seemed capable of recognizing the political provocation of Hossein Sabzian’s affront to realism in cinema when he took on Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s namesake. At its simplest, Close-Up tackles Sabzian’s moral justification for taking on Makhmalbaf’s identity (for him, it arose from his love of the arts), but the film’s genius is not that it suggests that there’s no legal or moral justification for Sabzian’s actions, but that Sabzian’s defense is impossible to fathom unless the spectator can share the man’s passion for art as cultural and intellectual emancipator. Just when you think you’ve figured the film out, a credit sequence challenges, blurs, and complicates any perception the spectator may have of realist cinema: Close-Up, cinema’s definitive film-on-film primer, may be based on a true story, but its actors are all playing themselves. Even if one doesn’t share Sabzian’s passion for the purity and urgency of his country’s cinema, one understands it, how taking Makhmalbaf’s name meant becoming part of an elite group of men responsible for indoctrinating people to art and, as a result, the world. Kiarostami, a man without judgment, sees in this story both the glory and sadness of a man who must pretend to be another man in order to be seen and heard. Gonzalez


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2. Eyes Wide Shut

Even after his death, Stanley Kubrick continued to court controversy. Eyes Wide Shut was subjected by the MPAA to the ignominy of digital alteration, having CG bystanders inserted over its (really rather staid) orgy scenes, in order to achieve an R rating. Kubrick’s swan song runs erstwhile power couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman through the emotional wringer, playing to the fissures that inevitably fracture the façade of any high-profile relationship, and then harnessing that dysfunction to fuel the nighttime odyssey through a world of pansexual possibilities (up to and including that aforementioned orgy) that Cruise’s Manhattan medico undergoes. Anyone who thinks Kubrick wasn’t interested in interiority should study closely Cruise and Kidman’s protracted, pot-laced confessional. Still, the dominant mode here, as the textbook displayed on a student-prostitute’s bookshelf helpfully points out, is sociological: the pecking order of cash and caste—or, to put it another way, who does the f*cking and who gets f*cked. Hardly surprising, then, that this versatile verb—in its distinctly imperative tense, uttered by Kidman’s über-hausfrau as a last gasp attempt at reconciliation—provides Eyes Wide Shut with its perfectly profane punchline. Wilkins

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1. The Thin Red Line

Terrence Malick could make a film about anything and it would still be about everything. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine a setting more conducive to his life-and-death ruminations than Guadalcanal Island, host to an oft-forgotten WWII battle that took place in 1942. That The Thin Red Line’s backdrop is an arguably inconsequential skirmish is no coincidence: Malick’s film is about war like Citizen Kane is about newspapers, which is to say that gunfire and explosions interrupt the soldiers’ lyrical pondering rather than the other way around. A lot emerges from the dozen or so narrators’ overlapping voices (memories of dying relatives, longing for the homestead, questions about what awaits them if and when they fall), none of which is more remarkable than the almost transcendent calm that colors even the most desperate of situations. Malick has seen another world, and in sharing a glimpse of it with us he provided viewers with the war movie to end all war movies, which is especially amazing given that The Thin Red Line is in some senses not a war movie at all. Nordine

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