When taking my very first course in film history I was instantly captivated by the stories I read regarding the tricks and optics used long before film cameras were invented. Alluring names such as “phantasmagoria” and “camera obscura” immediately conjured up images in my mind about the cinema and its ability to preserve a moment in time, the places and its people long after they’ve been gone. The fact that through light and shadows we create a completely new world still mystifies me. The Double Life of Véronique casts a spell over the viewer that parallels this said experience. It does so not through plot but in its ability to simply project. The colors and sounds are so palpable, the tempo melodic, that the film transfixes us through its motion alone. Its story, about two identical women unaware of each other’s existence but clairvoyant in their acknowledgement of the other’s presence, shares similarities with our emotional attachment to characters on screen that don’t know we exist but play a role for us. Prisms, mirrors, photographs, link events that turn the mundane into a spiritual transcendence of time and place. I mean, isn’t that what going to the movies is all about? The spectral lull of each individual scene and Irene Jacob’s immaculate beauty are just a few of the countless reasons that place Double Life at the top of my list for 1991.
1. The Double Life of Véronique (Krzysztof Kieślowski)
2. La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette)
3. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)
4. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou)
5. Barton Fink (Joel and Ethan Cohen)
6. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme)
7. A Woman’s Tale (Paul Cox)
8. Van Gogh (Maurice Pialat)
9. Slacker (Richard Linklater) and Johnny Suede (Tom DiCillo)
10. Homicide (David Mamet)
And speaking of beauty, what can be said about Emmanuelle Béart that isn’t already perfectly conveyed in La Belle Noiuseuse? Along with Van Gogh, Jacques Rivette’s nearly four-hour (!) ode to the life and rituals of a painter is as painstaking in its depiction of the patience and trials required in creating art as it is in illustrating its periods of exhilaration. Then there’s Raise the Red Lantern and its brilliance in framing and lighting that could, for my money, easily compare to any work of a Rembrandt or Caravaggio.
But apart from those good ol’ foreign artsy flicks (including Lars Von Trier’s Europa and Stanley Kwan’s The Actress), 1991 was also a strong year for independent cinema. And it very well should be! Those days of breaking it in the industry with just a good script to match your vision and tenacity now appear to be only words spoken with reverence and nostalgia about an era gone by. Maybe we didn’t know how good we had it?
Those that didn’t make the cut include a couple of crime/action movies that still pack quite the punch today. Point Break and Thelma and Louise have held up surprisingly well given that they didn’t depend on early CGI work as a crutch. Oliver Stone felt particularly prolific this year with two highly ambitious projects: The Doors and JFK. And I almost feel like I’m cheating this list – which I probably am – by withholding myself from watching Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and A Brighter Summer Day until they hit the big screen, but there you have it.
Next week, I’ll go back to those olden days of the silent cinema where we didn’t need dialogue, we had faces! Great Stone Faces! 1926 it is.