By Trevor Busch
As a sultry summer heatwave locks the southern reaches of the province in an oppressive embrace, most Albertans will be doing their utmost to reach the holiday destination of their choice, not be planted in front of their televisions as they slowly sublimate into sweaty oblivion.
But when the sun sets and the last hot dog has been grilled to perfection over scorching coals, people will still be reaching for the remote to find a smattering of entertainment selections to slake their sun-drenched thirsts.
That’s where I come in — or so I’d like to think. My influence over the film-craving public is probably substantially less than the Ebert-esque proportions ascribed to in my imagination, but nonetheless I delve into the subject on a semi-regular basis, as I did recently with a voyage of discovery through some classics of early 1990’s film.
So hear we have it — what I’ve termed the “the other half” for lack of a better phrase. And I know that all of you will have DVD players warmed and at the ready as you wait with baited breath for each finely crafted recommendation. Right? Oops — there’s that inflated sense of self-worth again.
Another sojourn into the world of Jay and Silent Bob, this silly rom-com directed by the great Kevin Smith is the second installment in what is known as the “View Askewniverse” and a prequel to 1994’s Clerks. Following the idiotic travails of a host of aimless mall-frequenters, suffice to say the two lead characters manage to win back their girls and save the day. Believe it or not, but a sequel has actually been announced and will likely be hitting theatres in 2016.
Starring film-titans Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, as well as 90’s fixture Val Kilmer, this time-honoured crime thriller about robbers versus the coppers was a huge financial success, but is notable for putting a more human face on the criminals versus law enforcement genre that is often lacking in more action-oriented films. Through the employment of extensive sub-plots and the exploration of psychological impacts — from both sides of the coin — of the criminal world and that of law enforcement, Heat is a relatively unique film from the mid-1990s.
The People Versus Larry Flynt (1996)
Although hardly considered to be an admirable figure by many, controversial publisher and pornographer Larry Flynt, as portrayed by Woody Harrelson in this biographical drama, did manage to strike a blow for freedom of speech and expression in the U.S. in the late 80’s in his long-drawn out court battle versus famous evangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell. A curiously enthralling film — which floats between distaste for Flynt’s character and antics and yet a measure of sympathy for his cause, it also features a brilliant supporting turn by grunge queen Courtney Love (seriously, I’m not joking) as well as Edward Norton.
Michael Collins (1996)
There’s just something about the long struggle for Irish independence from the British that seems to lend itself well to excellent film. A historical biopic about the controversial Irish patriot and revolutionary who died in the Irish Civil War, Michael Collins didn’t do especially well at the box office, but the outstanding starring role played by Liam Neeson really makes this film one to revisit from the mid-1990s. Not surprisingly, the film became the highest grossing film ever in Ireland upon its release.
A tale about the triumph of the pure human spirit over genetically-selected perfection, Gattaca is one of the more interesting films to emerge from the late 1990s. Starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law in a not-too-distant future where genetic manipulation to the highest bidder has created a super-class of people and a subset of “invalids” produced through normal procreation, Gattaca is full to the brim with troubling moral themes and questions that are only being asked more frequently today than in 1997. Prophetic and classy, well worth a visit for science fiction fans.
Jackie Brown (1997)
A relatively forgotten epic from director Quentin Tarantino, Jackie Brown is an atmospheric homage to 1970’s blaxploitation films, and is based on the novel Rum Punch (1992) by Elmore Leonard. Classic lead turns by Tarantino favourite Samuel L. Jackson and 70’s screen legend Pam Grier make this money-laundering heist a standout amongst some of Tarantino’s more popular films.
Dark City (1998)
Fans of the film noir genre got an interesting look back in time in this neo-noir science fiction outing that stars Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt. Following the story of an amnesiac who is framed for serial murder by mysterious other-worldly “Strangers” who can freeze time and implant memories, Dark City was a box office bomb but is today regarded as a cult classic from director Alex Proyas.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
This crime comedy film from directors Joel and Ethan Coen is a bizarre yet hilarious tale about an unemployed slacker, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges) who stumbles into the investigation of a strange and semi-erotic white collar crime which morphs into a case of inept extortion, all set in motion by a urine-soaked rug. Further explanation — while perhaps desired — has to be left to a first-time viewer. Featuring a star-studded ensemble cast, the film was considered a box office failure at the time of its release, but has since come to be regarded as a cult favourite for its idiosyncratic characters and unconventional dialogue.
Considered to be a breakout film by many for art house style film impresario Wes Anderson, Rushmore chronicles the love-sick yearnings of a teenager for a much older woman, but it is much more than that. A deep plunge into the unique film vision, imagination and world of director Wes Anderson — as all of his films ultimately are — Rushmore is equal parts comedy, tragedy, hilarity, rom-com, and coming of age epic, and features standout performances from Anderson favourites Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, as well as Olivia Williams.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
The final installment in a long legacy of ground-breaking film from genius director Stanley Kubrick, erotic thriller Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s last film before his death six days after presenting the final cut to Warner Bros. studios. Following the sexually-charged adventures of a New York doctor, who infiltrates the masked orgy of a secret society with disastrous consequences, Eyes Wide Shut is pure Kubrick — sumptuous tracking shots, brooding sets, and disturbing imagery and subject matter. Kubrick had a reputation as a perfectionist, sometimes shooting hundreds of takes of single scenes to get things right, and Eyes Wide Shut is no exception — the film holds the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous film shoot period, at 400 days. Kubrick also made the brilliant choice to cast then real-life husband-and-wife team Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in the lead roles of a film about the deterioration of a marriage — seemingly merging the off-screen lives and film roles of a pair of actors in a way that had not been contemplated previously, leaving a jarring but lasting impression on a viewer — especially today, for those who are aware of the ultimate outcome of the Kidman-Cruise union.
Honourable mentions include The Quick and the Dead (1995), Braveheart (1995), Apollo 13 (1995), Kids (1995), Lord of Illusions (1995), Canadian Bacon (1995), Empire Records (1995), Twister (1996), Fargo (1996), The Arrival (1996), A Time to Kill (1996), Austen Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), Contact (1997), Conspiracy Theory (1997), Event Horizon (1997), The Game (1997), Starship Troopers (1997), Good Will Hunting (1997), Wild Things (1998), Ronin (1998), Pleasantville (1998), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1999), Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), American Beauty (1999), and Dogma (1999).