The 1990s in Review: Introduction
by James Berardinelli
As the 1990s draw to a close, every film critic experiences a sudden, uncontrollable, and inexplicable compulsion to take a look back at the decade gone by. Some will write long and meaningful essays offering an historical perspective on the '90s. Others will attempt the daunting task of ranking every movie released between January 1, 1990 and December 31, 1999. My agenda is somewhat less ambitious. Over the course of the next eight weeks, I plan to highlight some of the highs and lows of the decade, culminating in a two-movie-per-week, reverse order unveiling of my Top 10 of the '90s list. (This is a shameless attempt to build suspense and encourage readers to return every week.)
I would be remiss if I didn't briefly discuss a few trends I have noticed. The film industry is a different beast today than it was 10 years ago. One wonders where it will be at the end of 2009. (This is not intended to be a comprehensive, or even semi-comprehensive list.)
- Sight & Sound: The 1990s have seen quantum leaps in special effects technology - computer generated visual images and digital audio that have elevated the movie-going experience to a new level. 1993's Jurassic Park was the first film to show off these capabilities in their full glory (even though cgi has been around since the '80s). By the time Titanic and The Phantom Menace were released, directors were still pushing the envelope, with James Cameron and George Lucas on the front lines.
- Indie World: The 1990s saw the evolution the independent film from a small alternative to big-budget fare to a major player in the box office chase. Distributors like Miramax and October Films were gobbled up by major studios. Oscar nominations began cascading in their direction, culminating in Best Picture wins for Miramax's The English Patient (in 1997) and Shakespeare in Love (in 1999). In fact, indie pictures have become so popular and have moved so far into the mainstream that the label perhaps no longer applies - they are as mainstream as anything else on the market. Even the "next generation indie films" - those made on a shoestring budget with unknown actors - are capturing surprising audiences (witness The Blair Witch Project's unprecedented success). The Sundance Film Festival, where many independent films debut, has changed from a small, midwinter place to watch a few undiscovered gems to a trade show. The negative to this proliferation of American independent features has been a decline in foreign language films making it into the U.S. market. There are, after all, only so many screens, and this increase in domestic releases has squeezed out foreign contenders. Outside of New York (and, to a lesser degree, Los Angeles), it is becoming increasingly rare to see anything but the highest profile foreign language films screen for even a week.
- Disney's Resurgence: By the end of the '80s, many analysts had given up Disney for dead. The '90s have seen an astonishing turnaround for the Magic Kingdom, with their name once again becoming synonymous with "family entertainment." In addition to Walt Disney Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, and Touchstone Pictures, the studio now also owns Miramax Films and ABC-TV. Their animation division has undergone a complete turnaround (actually begun in 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid). 1992's Beauty and the Beast was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. 1994's The Lion King became the highest grossing animated feature of all time. And 1995's Toy Story explored the power of completely computer-generated animation. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Disney's product, their about-face has been one of the most amazing success stories of the decade.
- Oscar Placement: This is a trend that has been growing slowly but steadily over the past few years. To one degree or another, it has always been true, but the '90s have seen the most extreme example of this behavior: studios saving their best films for release in October, November, and December - the three months now referred to as the "Oscar Window." In today's climate, especially following the failure of Saving Private Ryan (released in July) to win Best Picture, it's unlikely that any potential contender will be released before October 1. In 1992, The Silence of the Lambs (released in February 1991) won Best Picture. Today, the film would not have been released that early, and, if it had been, its chances of winning would be greatly diminished. It has always been said that the members of the Academy have short memories; the situation has gotten worse in recent years, with some sort of senility setting in. Of course, the consequence of this shift in releases is that the end of the year is a wonderful time for those who love movies. Unfortunately, this doesn't bode well for the product that's available from January through September.
- The Summer Blockbuster: The trend of releasing big-budget, low-intelligence movies during the summer is not something new, but it was perfected during the '90s. Now, from May through August, every week sees the release of a new, gargantuan motion picture with big stars, lots of action, numerous special effects sequence, and (for the most part), a script that could have been written by a 10-year old boy. Every summer has its big winners and losers - titles like True Lies, Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Phantom Menace litter the decade's summer landscape. There are exceptions. Forrest Gump and The Lion King made big money by offering an alternative to testosterone. And, although the highest-grossing film of all time, Titanic, was released during the Thanksgiving-Christmas window, it was originally pencilled onto the schedule for a July 4 opening until production delays forced it to be pushed back five months.
- Megaplexes: During the '80s, a big story was the replacement of single-screen theaters with multiplexes - complexes that boasted six or eight screens. During the '90s, the arrival of megaplexes made multiplexes obsolete. Newer theaters now boast 20, 24, or 30 screens, all complete with the latest sound systems and stadium seating. Even art houses have gone the megaplex route. The Ritz 16 theater in Voorhees, New Jersey, one of the most up-to-date venues for less commercial films in the United States, recently completed construction to up its total number of screens from 12 to 16. And, as with all new theaters, it offers a form of stadium seating and full digital surround sound in each of its auditoriums. Now, any complex offering fewer than about 10 titles and/or "antiquated" seating, may find itself out of business. Movie palaces, in danger during the '80s, are almost extinct with the approach of the new millennium, and drive-ins are going the way of dodos and dinosaurs.
- Shakespeare Redux: It officially began in 1989, with the release of Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. Suddenly, Shakespeare is big again, and the '90s have seen about a dozen Shakespeare-related films, ranging from Branagh's uncut Hamlet to Baz Luhrman's controversial Romeo + Juliet. This popularity for movies based on classic literature has spread beyond Shakespeare. Nearly every Jane Austen novel received some sort of screen treatment, as did the works of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, Emily Bronte, Henry James, and others. So, in an era when so many original scripts are showing a distinct lack of intelligence, at least there are still the adaptations to look forward to.
© 1999 James Berardinelli