Thursday, May 23

A Random Cinematic Year In Review - 1990

 1990 - A Random Cinematic Year In Review

By Emery Snyder @leeroy711


Preface: I have decided to write this series at least in part because I don't make it out to see new films very often and I've found that I spent too much time at the end of the year attempting to see all the big releases (many of which I'm not even interested in) for no other reason than to make an obligatory 'year-end list'... This is a way that I can continue writing about films without feeling the pressure to see a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise take the time to. I'll still see most of them eventually, just on my own time. I use a random number generator to pick a year and I use to determine the actual release year. 


I was a bit of a weird kid. I was only nine years old in 1990. I was normal in the sense that I knew Donatello does machines and that I wanted to go air-surfing like Kit Cloudkicker. And just like Ma-Ti, I possessed the power of heart.

But in researching the big news of the year, I was surprised by how much I remember watching coverage of these stories when they were happening. I knew I was an early news junkie but really, what was I doing glued to world news at that age? I even distinctly remember, in late ’89, watching Peter Jennings on ABC, standing in front of the Berlin Wall as East Germans demolished it…. More on that, later.

I was also pretty normal in the sense that I was absolutely obsessed with the home game console known as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I was likely a little extra obsessed due to the fact that I was, in no uncertain terms, not allowed to own one.  And since literally every one of my friends had one, they would tend to get a little annoyed with me every time I would come over because it was all I would want to do.

I bring this up because on March 8th, 1990, the Nintendo World Championship would commence in Dallas, Texas. The competition would tour 30 cities with all of the winners (in 3 different age groups) invited to compete in the World Finals at Universal Studios Hollywood. Winners would take home, among other things, a Geo Metro convertible.

Honestly, what better way to usher in the new decade than a Tetris competition to win a 3-cylinder Chevy that just screams “abstinence only”?

On February 11th, after 27 years of incarceration, Nelson Mandela was freed from a South African prison. He had been tried and convicted of incitement, passport violations and in a later trial, sabotage. While on trial, he and his codefendants were so certain that they would be convicted and sentenced to death, they chose to use the publicity of the proceedings to make their social statements. When Mandela eventually took the stand in his own defense, he delivered a four-hour long speech.

“The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion.”…”I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He was sentenced to life, likely due to international pressure not to execute him. Over the coming years and decades, South Africa’s apartheid policy made them a pariah, and subject to crushing sanctions and pressure. Finally, newly elected president, F.W. de Klerk, who ran on the promise to end apartheid, released Mandela.

These stories however, were not what dominated the television coverage of 1990. As I mentioned earlier, the infamous Berlin Wall, separating East and West Berlin, and the first and second worlds, came down. The rest of Soviet style communism would follow. The wiki entry for this year reads like a travelogue of collapsing Eastern European regimes. Then, on October 3rd, after a year of protests, elections and negotiations, the Soviet German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was officially reunited with West Germany, reestablishing a single unified German state.  


·         Note: I originally came up with a list of 26 notable films of 1990. I couldn’t write about all of them so as you read below, keep in mind that this is also the year that showcased Nicolas Roeg’s THE WITCHES, Sam Raimi’s DARKMAN, William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST III, Rob Reiner’s MISERY, Adrian Lyne’s JACOB’S LADDER, Luc Besson’s LA FEMME NIKITA, Whit Stillman’s METROPOLITAN, Richard Stanley’s HARDWARE, Jane Campion’s AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE, Abbas Kiarostami’s CLOSE-UP, Takeshi Kitano’s BOILING POINT, Patrice Leconte’s THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND and Shin’ichi (Sonny) Chiba’s YELLOW FANGS. I genuinely love all these films. How’s that for an honorable mentions list?


THE REFLECTING SKIN – Directed by Philip Ridley

This is just such a delightfully weird and uniquely disturbing film. Most of the runtime is spent in bright sunlight, in the rural wheat field planes of the 1950’s Midwest. There are no shadows to hide in. This makes everything so much more unsettling. It’s as if the world we’ve found ourselves in, has decided not to conceal its sins. Dick Pope’s cinematography is some of his best work and the newish transfer from Film Movement is stunning.


MERMAIDS – Directed by Richard Benjamin

I must give credit to my wife Elizabeth for introducing this absolutely hilarious film to me. Cher’s powerful and emotional performance is counterbalanced by the always amazing Bob Hoskins. But the film’s secret sauce is of course Charlotte Flax’s (Winona Rider) inner monologue, as she navigates her new surroundings and her two conflicting infatuations, Michael Schoeffling’s Joe and nuns? No really, she stans Catholic nuns for some reason. For all of its goofiness, this film puts its heart front and center. We rewatch it every few years and I always find it timely and refreshing.


ARACHNOPHOBIA – Directed by Frank Marshall

I often think of this as one of the most successful films of all time. In the fact that its clear objective is to fully creep out its audience with a major case of the heebie-jeebies, this film is flawless. Every aspect, from the camera angles showing us the danger that’s hidden from the characters to the comic relief from John Goodman’s “Delbert” are carefully choreographed to illicit a very specific response. And although this may be of a much smaller scope than other efforts of the time, I’ll meet this film where it stands. It’s a rewarding watch and I revisit it often.


PARIS IS BURNING – Directed by Jennie Livingston

It seems like 1990 was a great year for films that exemplify a specific time and place of a subculture. And this may be the best example of this. The LGBTQ+ community in the 80’s and 90’s had to create their own safe spaces. This is a profile of the most successful attempt. It is also a heartbreaking look at a group that was this country has been far too comfortable marginalizing for far too long.


EDWARD SCISSORHANDS – Directed by Tim Burton

If I were to write a term paper on the cinema of 1990, this film might just be my thesis. Both of its stars show up in other flicks this year, one of which on the same weekend (December 14th). But Burton was already making a name for himself. This was released in between his two BATMAN movies. And although imperfect, it has stood the test of time. And for those that grew up with his films in the eighties and nineties, this was likely our introduction to the concept of auteurism. His films, from this era, were made of the perfect blend of accessibility and artistic distinction. He was one of the few directors of the time that was easily identified by his work, even by the youngest budding cinephiles.


TO SLEEP WITH ANGER – Directed by Charles Burnett

This is a unique film. It wasn’t unusual to find Southern Gothic dramas in the nineties with films like Kasi Lemmons’ EVE’S BAYOU or Carl Franklin’s ONE FALSE MOVE. But this tale is transported with its characters to the urban streets of Los Angeles. I’d like to double feature it with another film from the same year, Troma’s DEF BY TEMPTATION, for these similarities. There’s a lot to say about this movie and any cinephile should seek it out. It’s not the type of story that Hollywood tells.


SLACKER – Directed by Richard Linklater

You can credit this film with starting the Austin, Texas movie scene. I like to think about it every time I hear a Boomer or a Gen X say that young people these days just don’t want to work. This is a great time capsule film, capturing a moment of frustrating impotence and uselessness in a generation. The film meanders about, following around this character to that character, never staying long enough to know anyone’s full truth. That is yet to be seen.


TREMORS – Directed by Ron Underwood

Although I rewatch this flick quite regularly, I have a hard time assessing it accurately. I think this is because the film is just so much fun, that it perfectly and constantly distracts you from any of its shortcomings. A cursory skim finds the word ‘fun’ in the first paragraph of most reviews of it. Some films like this manage to rise above their station with subversive messaging or technical achievements. Others, like in the case of TREMORS, make it virtually impossible for the audience to even care. And for people in my generation, this film is especially familiar and comforting. It’s like a bowl of macaroni & cheese, it goes down easy and leaves you satisfied, regardless of any nutritional value.


CRY-BABY – Directed by John Waters

I guess a lot of the films on this list could classify as “heightened”. And that’s always been something that I respond to in cinema. But this greaser musical from Pope of Trash, John Waters that follows his critical darling/cult classic, HAIRSPRAY kind of breaks the ‘heightened’ mold. Similar to HAIRSPRAY, CRY-BABY is sending up the nostalgia of 1950’s postwar Americana. But this film excels in a way that HAIRSPRAY never approached. It’s the overwhelming eccentricities of CRY-BABY’s supporting cast of characters that makes this such an entertaining watch.  As an added bonus, the runtime only amounts to 85 minutes, so you can double feature it with virtually anything else on this list.


DAYS OF BEING WILD – Directed by Wong Kar-wai

This was only Wong Kar-wai’s second feature. But it was his first collaboration with cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. And it’s the beginning of this partnership that should certainly be celebrated. Doyle’s is my favorite cinematographer. And his work in places like Honk Kong and Thailand has revolutionized the aesthetic of Asian cinema. It’s not just the beauty of the images that strikes me. It’s the wisdom behind it that understood what was possible with these combinations of sets, costumes, lighting and performers. They would go on to work together on five more films throughout the nineties and early two-thousands, including masterpieces, CHUNGKING EXPRESS and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Although DAYS OF BEING WILD is not the best of these films, it turned out to be one of the most important movies for what would follow.  


MILLER’S CROSSING – Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

For a long time, I would tell you that this was my favorite Coen Brothers film. Since then, I’ve probably grown to love and respect a few of their other efforts more than this, but it still gets me excited every time I revisit it. And there’s a lot to love about it. It’s only their third film together. It marks the last time they would work with cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld. And although I love the work they would do later with Roger Deakins, Sonnenfeld was perfect for this film. Visually, there are few that are as beautiful as this. One scene in particular, features a young boy and his dog, standing in an alley, facing a slumped over old man. Without context, this could be a Norman Rockwell painting. But when this scene is colored by the violence of the Coen’s script, it highlights the absurdity inherent in its own moral tale.


GOODFELLAS – Directed by Martin Scorsese

I honestly was only lukewarm on this epic gangster tale when I first watched it, sometime in the early nineties. But the deeper you fall in love with the medium of cinema, the more you appreciate this film. This could be said about almost all of Scorsese’s filmography. His best works are rich tapestries of both character and setting that reward repeated viewings. I love this one just a little bit more, every time I watch it.


WILD AT HEART – Directed by David Lynch

"Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?"

This is my favorite Lynch film. It might be his most bonkers. I also think it’s his most energetic piece. This film gets started and never lets up. It’s also probably, other than THE STRAIGHT STORY, his most surface level and forward story. I think this is why it’s so enjoyable to watch. Without having to take the pains of subverting his analogies, Lynch was free to develop insane characters. And as long as there is a screen constantly separating my reality from the film’s, I’ll spend all day with these guys.

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