Tom Jolliffe ventures back 30 years to look at 10 essential films from the year 1991…
If it was depressing enough realising 2001 was 20 years ago, how about pondering a little on the fact 1991 is now 30 years ago. It’s terrifying how quickly time has flown. Still, whilst it’s with some melancholy that a time still so fresh in mind, is somehow so far gone, the year itself was blessed with an excellent selection of films. So great in fact that my follow up piece will venture specifically back to look at 1991’s year in action films. Be sure to keep your eyes out for that one. For now though, here’s the rest of the landscape with 10 essentials from 1991.
In 2001 Jean-Pierre Jeunet gave the world Amelie, which featured on my previous look back for that year. A decade prior, he had this breakout film in France, the oddball and surreal fantasy comedy, Delicatessen. This devilishly imaginative black comedy has a lot of the visual flourish we’d come to expect of Jeunut (here co-directing with Marc Caro) and is a literal feast for the eyes. A landlord in a dank post-apocalyptic world prepares very ‘unique’ dishes for his tenants. There are an array of Jeunet (and indeed French cinema) stalwarts here, including Dominique Pinon and the film has held up wonderfully well. It’s macabre but never grimly so and very amusing.
The late Alan Parker delivered another music infused mix of high energy soundtrack and gritty drama with The Commitments (as he’d previously done with Fame). Filled with gaelic charm and kitchen sink drama, the film is charming, funny and engaging. The cast are magnetic and the soundtrack is fantastic. This was a breakout indie hit in 1991, proving immensely popular. It’s been a little unfairly forgotten in time and still has masses of charm.
Oliver Stone’s lengthy but enthralling drama is, as the title suggests, focused on the Kennedy assassination as a District Attorney begins to look into the possibility of a conspiracy behind the assassination. It’s impeccably made, marking one of the most consistent films Stone has made, and features Kevin Costner on top form (sometimes, a little unfairly maligned as an actor). The support cast is absolutely loaded to the gills with star power, from Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Jack Lemmon, Walther Matthau, Sally Kirkland, Sissy Spacek, Michael Rooker, Joe Pesci and breathe…and more. It’s a poster child for the big hitting award season Hollywood drama and it delivers.
This film found Martin Scorsese in the mood for a free wheeling, jazz approach to directing. He’s having a blast here in this pulpy, stylish and intentionally overwrought thriller that marks an effective remake of the original. If Scorsese is having a ball, then his star attraction, Robert De Niro is clearly in the mood to go all out and revel in his scenery chomping, heavy accented villainy. Cape Fear isn’t as meticulous as some of Marty’s best. It’s not as laden with depth, but by Jove, it’s a great exercise in revelling in B movie material and delivering a supreme example of enjoyable escapism. Alongside De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and a young Juliette Lewis are all superb as the family that De Niro terrorises.
Something of an underground sleeper, Barton Fink doesn’t always spring to mind when Coen fans think of their favourite work from the auteurs. However, it’s a film that certainly sneaks up on you more in repeat viewings and its uniquely individual quirk and style, and playful enigma are enthralling. It’s very underrated, and maybe too clever to tap into on a first viewing. John Turturro as an in demand writer in classic era Hollywood, tasked with writing a wrestling picture, is superb. He’s ably assisted by a great support cast including Steve Buscemi, Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, John Mahoney and a particularly brilliant (as always) John Goodman. The film becomes more surreal as it goes by and offers plenty for cineastes and film theorisers to chew on. It also marked a first collaboration between the brothers and cinematographer extraordinaire, Roger Deakins and of course it looks exquisite.
The Silence of the Lambs
Jonathan Demme’s exceptional thriller was the big Oscar success of the year, winning 5 (including best picture, actor, actress, director and writer). The adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel is gripping, and impeccably crafted. The performance of Foster is great, as is Ted Levine as the serial killer they’re tasked with tracking (aided by the expertise of the sociopathic cannibal killer, Hannibal Lector from the confides of his maximum security prison cell). There were excellent films this year, but this really was head and shoulders above the rest. As Lector, Anthony Hopkins is iconic and though he’d become a caricature in later films, he’s as chilling as he is complexly charismatic.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
It might be the best action blockbuster of the last 30 years. Terminator 2 was not only ground breaking, but it made ‘big’ the way to go with blockbuster cinema. It set a high bar for large scale action set pieces. The budget at the time was gargantuan and every penny shows, whether it’s the ground breaking CGI liquid metal villain, or the astonishing (and almost entirely in camera) set pieces. Very few have come close since for the sheer level of action craft, mixed with engaging drama, effective humour and heart. Schwarzenegger’s turn from villainous cyborg (from the first) to heroic protector works well and is almost meta, Edward Furlong almost literally plucked from the streets by Cameron has masses of charisma, but the movie really belongs to the superb Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. She takes her great arc from the original film and adds a new and engaging journey here.
Boyz n the Hood
Following the lives of three young black men from an L.A ghetto, Boyz n the Hood was an instant classic, hitting hard during a period where Spike Lee was making huge waves and kicking open some doors for black film-makers like Hood’s writer/director, John Singleton. It’s a raw, powerful and at times gut-wrenching work backed up by some fantastic performances from the young cast. The nominations for Singleton as writer and director at the Oscars were a huge moment in black cinema, but one that ultimately didn’t prove to be the kind of platform it should have been (not least the late Singleton himself). The film’s prescience some 30 years later makes it a bittersweet viewing experience but it’s lost none of its ability to deliver an emotional sucker punch.
My Own Private Idaho
Loosely based on Henry IV, Gus Van Sant’s quirky and engaging road movie offered plenty of interest. For one it was an example of the coming maturity for River Phoenix, well on his way to becoming the kind of award magnetising and enthralling actor that his brother Joaquin has since become. So much talent, and full on display here as the narcoleptic rent boy on a journey of self discovery with his best friend. Said best friend was played by Keanu Reeves. It was a year to remember for Reeves. A crossroads. He also returned to the role of Ted Logan in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, the role which had broken him wide a few years earlier. He then had a hit action film in the form of Point Break which paved the way for a shift into high octane cinema that he’d later visit successfully with Speed, The Matrix and John Wick. Here though, Reeves would prove he was a young actor with plenty of promise to be more than a pretty boy. The film hits the mark and so much of the impact revolves around an essential scene that marked an afterthought from Phoenix himself. A campfire confessional. A moment of raw honesty within the film that proves to be the beating heart. It’s an exceptional scene that ties the film together, proves it a success and feels essential and it perfectly exemplifies just why Phoenix was destined for greatness.
The Fisher King
Terry Gilliam’s drama, laden with moments of fantasy was a unique and enjoyable film. The core story dealing with guilt, loss and finding some renewed purpose (for several of the characters) felt distinctly grounded in comparison to Gilliam’s usually more surreal work. Still, as a back drop to a very human story, laced with tragedy, it is filled to the brim with Gilliam’s visual whimsy as fantasy permeates the reality. Jeff Bridges is excellent as the loud mouth radio host whose throwaway words causes very real and tragic consequences, and Robin Williams (who’s down and out and psychologically unbalanced vagrant suffered those very real consequences) is fantastic. Williams had already long proved himself as more than a rubber faced comedian and The Fisher King was another firm establishment of his ability. Williams got a deserved Oscar nod for his wonderfully complex role here. Oddly, like Tony Hopkins, he was nominated in the best actor category (which Hopkins won), despite being very definitely a supporting actor. Williams really deserved an Oscar, and in a supporting category that was there for the proverbial taking, might have taken it.
What was your favourite film from 1991? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth. Join my soon for a look back at the same years pick of action films…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/