1990 Ten Best Movies


Gabriel Byrne, Miller's Crossing

If you look at the top-grossing movies of 1990, it appears the 1980s have not yet ended; there’s plenty of that kind of title here (Home Alone, Pretty Woman, Ghost, Die Hard 2, Kindergarten Cop). But something was changing for the better, and the two muscular films at the top of the list are signposts. Martin Scorsese delivered a movie that looked, first glance, like a gangster picture, maybe too easily in his wheelhouse; the Coen brothers offered a classic crime scenario that resembled, first glance, a clever homage to Dashiell Hammett. But both GoodFellas and Miller’s Crossing expanded their outlines to become new and exciting things in very different ways.

A longform project worked something similar on the documentary form: with The Civil War, Ken Burns brought a novelistic density to examining a central American crisis, but also conjured the spirit of past cinematic history-tellers, notably John Ford. (If Burns’ style has become overly consistent since The Civil War, it sure seemed fresh at the time.)

Meanwhile, internationally, there were key postings from some of the filmmakers who would help define the decade to come, such as Abbas Kiarostami in Iran and Wong Kar-Wai in Hong Kong. Days of Being Wild was Wong’s second feature, and Close-Up, a mind-blowing film about an actual incident that happened when a man went around impersonating the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf – with all the actual people in the case “playing” themselves in this movie – shifted Kiarostami from a run of children’s films to more adult subjects.

The ten best of 1990:

1. Miller’s Crossing (Joel and Ethan Coen)

2. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese)

3. The Civil War (Ken Burns)

4. A Tale of Springtime (Eric Rohmer)

5. Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami)

6. The Grifters (Stephen Frears)

7. An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion)

8. Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-Wai)

9. Metropolitan (Whit Stillman)

10. The Sheltering Sky (Bernardo Bertolucci)

The #10 slot is a flawed but sometimes astonishing movie, which is sort of what a #10 slot is for. Metropolitan was one of those gems that foretold the coming of the indie picture, or at least was a key part of the early movement.

Some fine near-misses: Abel Ferrara’s King of New York, which provoked a memorable kerfuffle at the New York Film Festival that year; two by Kaurismaki, The Match Factory Girl and I Hired a Contract Killer; Altman’s Vincent & Theo and Godard’s Nouvelle Vague. Reversal of Fortune and Edward Scissorhands were most unusual studio releases, and John Woo’s Bullet in the Head was a confirmation of his thing.


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