The 1995 Project is almost over. I just have a handful of movies I want to catch up with before I determine what were the best movies movies to come out twenty years ago and I move on to another cinematic year. For now, here’s some thoughts on three very significant releases:
Heat (directed by Michael Mann)
Michael Mann is a director who has gained a very exclusive and very vocal group of fans in the past couple decades, and Heat definitely seems to be the moment with which Mann emerged as the overly obsessive, stylizing, and digital director we think of when his name is pronounced in 2015. There is no denying that Mann’s attention to detail resulted in an original style that is unmistakably his own, but I can’t help but be underwhelmed by his work. His eye for detail is unparalleled, but in service of what?
Sometimes subtitled “An L.A. Crime Saga”, Heat is a two hours and fifty minute long epic about a heist criminal (Robert De Niro) and the cop trying to catch him (Al Pacino). A total boy movie, and a very boring one at that. There is nothing less engaging than a brooding Michael Mann protagonist who must endure his dangerous lifestyle because he is a man, dammit, and that’s the only thing he can do. It doesn’t help that I can’t for the life of me figure out what Mann is trying to engage with thematically. His defenders might say that the movie is not interested in character, that it’s all about the visuals and the quality of the filmmaking which, yes, from cinematography to sound design, is technically exquisite. I just have no use whatsoever for a story so prehistorically tired all the style in the world couldn’t make it interesting.
Se7en (directed by David Fincher)
After the disaster that was the production of Alien3, prolific music video director David Fincher got the chance not only to redeem himself with his second feature, but to announce himself as a unique young voice with philosophical interests much deeper than his dark and edgy style would suggest. More so than the stylish but somewhat immature movies that followed it, Andrew Kevin Walker’s script for Seven provides a sublime source to explore the themes that would define Fincher’s career as a filmmaker, and that wouldn’t appear as prominently in his filmography until his first masterpiece, Zodiac.
At this point I have revealed the fact that I don’t consider Seven to be a masterpiece, but it is still a great movie, and one of Fincher’s best (I’m one of those people for whom Fincher bats about 50/50 between fascinating and underwhelming movies). This one just seems tailor-made for his style, focusing on the darker side of the director’s nihilistic worldview. It’s an incredibly dour movie, that puts the whole value of the world and the nature of humanity on the scale, and comes up with some pretty scary conclusions. At the same time, though, it’s a fantastically crafted thriller, with all of its technical elements working beautifully from start to finish, anchored by Darius Khondji’s cinematography and two more than solid lead performances by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman.
If there is anything that I don’t love about Seven, is that the twisty nature of the story doesn’t let us fully grasp the darkness of its philosophy until the very last moments of the movie. It is quite a shock when it comes, and makes for a very effective movie, but it does leave me with the desire to see Fincher expand on the piece’s nihilism. I think, for example, of how similar philosophical territory was wonderfully explored by the Coen brothers in No Country for Old Men many years later. That is, in my opinion, the only thing keeping Seven a great movie instead of a masterpiece.
The White Balloon (directed by Jafar Panahi)
If there is a big cinematic story to the 1990s, it’s probably a tie between the boom of independent American filmmaking as well as the emergence of Iranian cinema into the international landscape. The biggest name to come out of this movement is undoubtedly Abbas Kiarostami, and if Kiarostami is Iran’s Truffaut, then Jafar Panahi is its Godard. Just like in the case of those frenchmen, Kiarostami wrote the script for Panahi’s debut as a director, a seemingly simple story about the complications a little girl faces when trying to buy a goldfish on the streets of Teheran.
It’s as ordinary as a movie’s premise could get, yet it is absolutely magical. Such is the magic of the best Iranian cinema of these masters. Panahi presents this story as a children’s book where we travel through the city and have episodic encounters with its many inhabitants. The focus is always on the girl protagonist, but as the plot moves forward, a complex portrait of a moving city has been indadvertedly painted, and the story of simple childhood wishes on the eve of celebration reveals, in its last couple minutes, to be a much more bittersweet, complex, and critical adventure than it was at first glance.