An Alternate List of 50 Great Films from the 1990s

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 10 2012 3:50 PM

50 Other Best Films of the 1990s

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Over the past three days, the A.V. Club has published a list of the best 50 films of the 1990s. Today the final 10 were announced, and while the last few picks were not surprising in and of themselves—Goodfellas tops the list, just ahead of Pulp Fiction and Toy Story 2—several pop culture enthusiasts, with the list complete, noted just how utterly white male filmmakers dominated it. Not a single female director made the cut, nor any black director, and only five foreign-language films appear.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate culture blogger for Brow Beat. Follow her on Twitter.

Several critics—notably Linda Holmes, who runs NPR’s pop culture blog, Monkey See—brought the issue up on Twitter, sparking a lively discussion with plenty of candid back-and-forth from many of the eight A.V. Club staffers who made the list (two of whom are women). One of those staffers, Scott Tobias, has been especially forthcoming, defending the list without being too defensive. He points to the “institutional bias against women directors” as the primary culprit here. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” he tweeted. “The list raises questions about institutional bias in ’90s filmmaking here and abroad. In itself, it is neutral.”

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The former point, about institutional bias, is a crucial one. Women and people of color continue to face many barriers in getting films made and distributed. But the word “neutral” seems off. The A.V. Club, of which I am a fan, has a distinct sensibility—as does any publication, including Slate. The A.V. Club sensibility tends to skew both white and male (also: geeky—in a good way). Many readers understand this. But the A.V. Club also wields a decent amount of cultural influence, and when its writers and editors engage in canon-building exercises—this is a list, as Holmes noted on Twitter, of the “best” films from the ’90s, not the A.V. Club’s “favorite”—they should consider what kind of canon they’re putting forward, and what that influence might mean.

The trouble here isn’t the individual tastes and sensibilities of the A.V. Club staffers—I’ve read and enjoyed reviews and essays by all of them. (Some of them are Slate contributors!) It’s that the process they chose—about which they are admirably transparent—ignores these sorts of considerations. This, surely, is partly why they chose that process. Letting eight individuals separately make their own independent choices, and then averaging them together, has the ring of aesthetic purity to it. But let’s be real: There’s nothing “pure” about a canon built from the idiosyncratic tastes of eight, mostly male, mostly white people. There’s nothing “pure” about canon-building at all. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun or worthwhile! But if you’re going to do it, you should consider the implications and the consequences, and proceed accordingly. If your selection committee is mostly male and almost entirely (or entirely?) white, recognize that this may lead to certain blind spots, and weigh whether or not putting forward a canon that averages together such tastes will really reflect the diversity of international cinema in the 1990s.

Movies made by women and directors of color are often labeled and marketed as “women’s movies” or “black movies,” or what have you—and these narrow notions trickle down from the distributors into the ways we perceive the movies. This is partly why such films, though they may be praised individually, often fail to achieve the kind of consensus acclaim it takes to make lists like the one the A.V. Club made. Tomorrow, the A.V. Club will post the “orphans and outliers,” films beloved by one or two staff members that didn’t reach that consensus. This is part of the admirable transparency I mentioned before—and I’m glad they’re doing it. But women and people of color who make movies feel like orphans and get labeled as outliers often enough that it’s worth considering whether consigning them to those categories once more is really the best way to go about heralding their work.

With that in mind, Brow Beat did a highly unscientific survey of Slate staffers and put together the alternate (and unranked) list below. You may love some of these movies, you may hate some of them, but all, we think, are worthy additions to the top 50 movies made by men who are mostly American and/or speak English published this week at the A.V. Club. All of the movies below were directed by a woman, a person of color, or a non-English speaker.

Conte d’Hiver (1992) dir. Eric Rohmer
The Dreamlife of Angels (1998) dir. Erick Zonca
The Virgin Suicides (1999) dir. Sofia Coppola
Summer of Sam (1999) dir. Spike Lee
Malcolm X (1992) dir. Spike Lee
Boyz N the Hood (1991) dir. John Singleton
Point Break (1991) dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Clueless (1995) dir. Amy Heckerling
Wayne’s World (1992) dir. Penelope Spheeris
River of Grass (1994) dir. Kelly Reichardt
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) dir. Ang Lee
Sonatine (1993) dir. Takeshi Kitano
Hard Boiled (1992) dir. John Woo
A League of Their Own (1992) dir. Penny Marshall
Before the Rain (1994) dir. Milcho Manchevski
Cronos (1993) dir. Guillermo Del Toro
Princess Mononoke (1997) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Abre los Ojos (1997) dir. Alejandro Amenabar
La Haine (1995) dir. Mathieu Kassovitz
Run Lola Run (1998) dir. Tom Tykwer
Days of Being Wild (1990) dir. Wong Kar-wai
The Double Life of Veronique (1991) dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski
Boys Don’t Cry (1999) dir. Kimberly Peirce
The Nasty Girl (1990) dir. Michael Verhoeven
La Promesse (1996) dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Funny Games (1997) dir. Michael Haneke
The Piano (1993) dir. Jane Campion
Burnt by the Sun (1994) dir. Nikita Makhalkov
After Life (1998) dir. Hirokazu Koreeda
Belle Epoque (1992) dir. Fernando Trueba
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) dir. Carl Franklin
Ratcatcher (1999) dir. Lynne Ramsay
High Art (1998) dir. Lisa Cholodenko
Walking and Talking (1996) dir. Nicole Holofcener
The Celebration (1998) dir. Thomas Vinterberg
Breaking the Waves (1996) dir. Lars Von Trier
Europa Europa (1990) dir. Agnieszka Holland
Delicatessen (1991) dir. Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Man Bites Dog (1992) dir. Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde
Proof (1991) dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse
Pola X (1999) dir. Leos Carax
Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love) (1998) dir. Lukas Moodysson
Ringu (The Ring) (1996), dir. Hideo Nakata
Drop Squad (1994) dir. David C. Johnson
Satantango (1994) dir. Bela Tarr
To Sleep With Anger (1990) dir. Charles Burnett
Ruby in Paradise (1993) dir. Victor Nunez
Paris is Burning (1990) dir. Jennie Livingston
Daughters of the Dust (1991) dir. Julie Dash
Eve’s Bayou (1997) dir. Kasi Lemmons