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
Sunday 28 November 1999
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.
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.
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ray Liotta
Scorsese doing what Scorsese does best.
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.
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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