THE 1990s IN REVIEW: CINEMA - Hollywood takes over the world

In Britain, we had `Trainspotting' and `Four Weddings'. But overall, American blockbusters triumphed. By Gilbert Adair

What, above all, the closing decade of the century will be remembered for, in a film-historical context, is the consecration of the American cinema. In the specific sense intended by Francis Fukayama when he wrote of the End of History - his theory that, since everyone wants the same thing, and can only acquire it by endorsing the same liberal, free-market system, there can no longer be any justifiable cause for the global ideological conflicts of old - it's not too fanciful to refer to the End of Film History. Hollywood, in short, has won.

Everyone nowadays watched the same American movies, laughs at the same American gags, marvels at the same American special effects. (Notwithstanding a common misconception, this hasn't always been the case. In three successive years of the 1940s, British filmgoers voted Margaret Lockwood their favourite actress: not, please note, their favourite British actress but their all- time favourite.) The cinema was once famously defined as a visual Esperanto; now it's Hollywood that's the universal language.

This hegemony, this near-monopoly, has been achieved at an aesthetic cost, however, one that can be encapsulated by another attention-grabbing, upper-case caption: the Death of the Auteur. That American auteurs do continue to exist is undeniable, but either they tend to work on the East Coast Scorsese, Jarmusch, Woody Allen, the Coens - or else have planed away all the awkward angles of their sensibilities until they're totally, even on occasion slavishly, unresistant to the formal and stylistic homogenisation of the Hollywood product - Spielberg, Zemeckis, Coppola. In most cases, too, under seige from producers, stars and agents, the quality of their output has perceptibly declined over the decade, and the movies which have made a real commercial and critical impact have tended to be those unreliant on their director's personal prestige. Everyone knows, for example, that The Blair Witch Project had no stars, but does anyone now recall who directed it?

As for the independent sector - to which, prior to its unprecedented box-office success, the creators of The Blair Witch Project, whoever they were, most definitely belonged - it has been gradually subsumed by the mainstream, from which it can now be distinguished mostly by a penchant for eye-fetchingly wacky titles (Go Fish, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, Pi etc).

In Britain the decade's main news has been the Lottery. A lot of new money has been noisily sloshing around, and a lot of new films made with that money that would never otherwise have been seen. Or, rather, shown. For most of the Lottery-financed productions have not only been commercial flops, but have provoked a running competition among the country's critics as to which has proved the very worst.

A handful of real, international triumphs have emerged - Four Weddings and a Funeral, Trainspotting, The Full Monty, Shakespeare in Love, Notting Hill - but, whatever their individual charms, it's probably not too cynical to suggest that these belong nearly as much to the tourist as to the film industry.

It seems scarcely worthwhile commenting on non-English-language cinema, since, despite the gallant efforts of a diminishing cluster of adventurous distributors, so little of it ever arrives on these shores. Entire continents - Africa, Latin America, the Middle East - have slipped off the radar screen. And as far as mainland Europe is concerned, one is increasingly reminded of the old joke on British xenophobia: "Fog in Channel. Continent isolated." A pity, to put it mildly, since most of the decade's finest films were made by the Old World's Old Masters. I'm thinking of Oliveira, Iosseliani, Monteiro, Rohmer, Straub, Ruiz, Moretti, Kaurismaki, Kanievski, Marker, Pialat and, yes, Godard, routinely written off as a burnt-out back number (mainly by critics who haven't seen one of his films for years), but whose extraordinary 12-hour Histoire(s) du Cinema strikes me at the single most important cinematic event of the 1990s.

On the plus side, a vast new continent has swum into our ken - the various Chinese national cinemas, mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwanese - and, catching up with the rest of the western world, the British have finally been permitted to discover the magnificent Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, unquestionably one of the world's greatest living artists in any medium.

A pretty grim overview, then, though I should point out in fairness that mine is a subjective view: others no doubt will be more upbeat than I can be about the past decade and more optimistic, too, about the next. And as it would be pointless for me to list, as my Ten Best, films that few readers will have had an opportunity to see, I'll confine myself to what I believe to have been the best English-language films. The first two are first because they're masterpieces; the others are listed in chronological order.

NINETIES

MOVIES

1992 UNFORGIVEN

Dir: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Clint Eastwood

1995 DEAD MAN Dir: Jim Jarmusch Starring: Johnny Depp

Two utterly different films that reaffirm the vitality and indispensability of the western.

1990 GOODFELLAS

Dir: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Ray Liotta

Scorsese doing what Scorsese does best.

1990 RIFF-RAFF

Dir: Ken Loach Starring: Robert Carlyle

Loach Lite, and all the better for it.

1992 HUSBANDS AND WIVES

Dir: Woody Allen

Starring: Mia Farrow

The most powerful and personal of Allen's later films.

1992 THE PLAYER

Dir: Robert Altman

Starring: Tim Robbins

The director's jubilant comeback.

1993 GROUNDHOG DAY

Dir: Harold Ramis

Starring: Bill Murray

The decade's most original and perfectly timed comedy.

1994 ED WOOD

Dir: Tim Burton

Starring: Johnny Depp

A brilliant homage to incompetence.

1999 EYES WIDE SHUT

Dir: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Tom Cruise

Flawed and often foolish, but also ravishing and ultimately haunting.

1999 TOPSY-TURVY

Dir: Mike Leigh

Starring Jim Broadbent

Leigh striking out into new territory with a strangely obsessive film, made this year but due to open early next, about Gilbert and Sullivan. GA

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