Gosh I'd hate to spin this year into another melodrama - but it's integral not only to this story, but the story of everything ever (sorta).
But before I venture into darkness, I need to stress that 1991 could perhaps be the most formative pop culture crescendo of my lifetime. I was 8 years old, and I'm not sure if that just happens to be the most impressionable age, or that this particular year was the defining period within the 'millennial' brackets. Even at a glance, the various forms of entertainment that entered the zeitgeist (movies especially) became defining icons of late 80s/early 90s civilization. In retrospect, it's easy to recognize these kindsa things, but while it was happening, I was just a little kid who believed that the quality of life and everything it had to offer was consistently excellent -- until it suddenly wasn't.
In September of '91, I got my first whiff of the raw sewage smell of bureaucracy when the Board of Education moved me to an entirely different school through no fundamental actions of my own. I handled the otherwise-paralyzing transition like a man, but my bravery was met with a third grade teacher who set forth a demeanor resembling Miss Trunchbull from Matilda. She and my apathetic new classmates single-handedly corrupted the illusion of safety that had sheltered me up until that point, and also educated me to the sobering truth that adults (especially teachers) are people, and are intrinsically flawed and are typically as full of shit as much as everyone else - regardless of age or profession. She bullied me to public tears on more than one occasion, and would then mock my oversensitivity. (It was no wonder I skipped school so much.)
I tell you this detail not because it's "therapeutic" for me (nor is it that interesting of a story on its own), but rather to emphasize: the influence it had on the entirety of my life, the lemonade into which I turned it, and how I'm still sipping that lemonade right up until this very moment that you're reading this.
You see, large chunks of each schoolday were designated as "Rest Period" -- in between learning cursive and long division, most of third grade consisted of sitting still in a silent classroom. (As an adult, I now realize that this allowed the teacher to leave and have a cigarette - probably a drink too.) And during what is now clearly "quiet time for a teacher on the clock," I started a journal.
It had quickly become confrontationally clear that school was simply not going to enlighten me, challenge me, or provide me with any kinda forum for creativity - and now that I was allotted this time to myself, I almost instinctively utilized it as an opportunity to somehow explore any form of expression.
I don't think there's any poetry in analogizing "blogging" with "journaling," but this was obviously Bennett Media's earliest incarnation; the joke of this is that the tone, the content, and the passion (and the spelling errors) are nearly the same - which indicates once a-fucking-gain that this whole deal we do is less about nostalgia and more about what we're actually, currently into despite how long we've been into it. The only difference between the two is that the "hot takes" have become intense and meticulous analysis (sorta).
So, let's get back to the future and see how '30 years ago' looks from this angle.
Well shit, lookit that, it was awesome.
We've already established that television and baseball were of paramount importance to me. Music still hadn't reached me on a passionate, obsessive level, but as a mild fan I was caught up in the mania of Michael Jackson's "Black or White" video. But, per usual, stuff like "Baby, Baby" by Amy Grant, "Under the Bridge" by RHCP, and particularly "Rush, Rush" by Paula Abdul asserted enough video and radio play to embed themselves in my psychic playlist for that particular moment.
Nintendo and I had only been acquainted for a coupla years, and I was still exploring all its sounds and colors when it decided to take our relationship to the next level. My cousin received the Super Nintendo Entertainment System day of release, and I jointly reaped the benefits of its Super Power. For people of a certain age, Yoshi & friends kicked off the 1990s in an iconic way like The Beatles and Boba Fett before them. I still lusted for my tangible playthings (Savage Mondo Blitzers were my jam of the moment), but the greatest toy of the 80s had just upgraded for the new decade.
I think it's also notable that nutrition was blissfully ignored more than ever before, and there was no sense of reform on the horizon. McDonald's tried a veggie burger called 'The McLean,' and no one cared. So, they created 'The Supersize' option. Nabisco had Suddenly S'mores which were microwavable cookie sandwiches, and still one of the best goddamn foods I've ever tasted. We were given now-famous nostalgia favs like Dunkaroos and Fruit Gushers. Cereals promised "now with more marshmallows!" Cornflakes had Honey Bunches in them. Orange juice was replaced with Sunny Delight. We're addicted to our youth because they put something in the fucking food!
So was this year really that great, or were we all just hopped up on goofballs? ...The answer is "both - very much both." And the proof is in the Motion Pictures. My movie consumption was at an all-time high; in addition to being saturated in video rentals and cable channels, regular movie theater attendance was turning into a hobby... So that establishes quantity, but there's much more to be said about quality - like, a holy shit-lot. All the 'acclaimed' and 'prestigious' stuff was actually worthy of its acclaim and prestige, and all the 'mainstream' and 'lowbrow' stuff actually earned that old adage of 'entertainment.' This was a strong year folks, and I had no difficulty finding 30 movies to match the "30th anniversary" title. There's no general theme or overall tone to connect any of these films other than their big titty/spread-cheekiness, so the best way to talk about 'em is to just talk about 'em.
1. The Fisher King
Some movies work as an acquired taste, but this was a 'love at first sight'-type deal. It's a layered story, but each layer is so broad and simple that it creates such a breezy, effortless journey for the viewer. Truly an 'ensemble cast' if I ever saw one, because everybody's 'supporting' everyone else. Jeff's recent health problems has forced a lot of us to reflect on his 'best' or 'most memorable' stuff, and this reflexively comes to mind first. But more than that, people of several generations have had their "childhood Robin Williams movie" (not excluding the hardcore Mork & Mindy crowd); not necessarily the first time they watched him, but the first time they made the connection. This one was mine.
2. The Silence of the Lambs
My mother was a fan of the book, so she and my father saw it opening weekend in February of that year. And in the months that followed, they wouldn't shut up about its startling excellence. So when it arrived at the drive-in that Summer, they were beside themselves with the anticipation of showing it to me (with that subsequent feeling of watching it with fresh eyes). Even at that age, I was prepared to be let down (if only as a result of their hype) -- that didn't happen. Thrillers were popular then (though not as popular as they were about to be) but this movie helped me understand what the genre truly meant; it relies on dialogue and performance as much as any other category, but it forced me to become more sensitive to "mood." All of its confrontational closeups and melancholy music score made for a sparkling gloominess that has yet to be matched in any other media.
It didn't matter what era I grew up in - this was history that every kid (at least in America) had heard about, so I found it as provocative and engrossing as probably everyone else did. This is a lot of movie in every sense, and so there's a lot that could be said - but I'll use this paragraph to call out what I think is its strongest characteristic, and that's its ambition. What I mean by that is, every time I watch it, my mouth hangs open for 3+ hours in awe at the scope of the production: edits are constant, and every cutaway introduces us to different film stocks, new locations, additional speaking parts, stunts, effects, costumes, extras, and all the other stuff you'd find in one movie -- this is like 50! It's a moving collage, and each piece is expertly crafted in and of itself and strategically placed. I'll never be numb to it.
4. Barton Fink
It wasn't until after I saw Fargo that I went back to pick up the pieces -- and this was the best and most important piece. They've tackled every genre, mood, subject matter, etc., but I've long considered this to be the exemplary Coen Film in terms of the tone that they themselves created. Whatever indefinable ingredients they always use (usually Dark Comedy mixed with a bunch of other stuff) are all on display under a magnifying glass in this movie, almost to the point of satirizing themselves. But the fact that they're usually doing satire makes for a weird meta thing of self-awareness that just enflames the weirdness. I'm sure it's all intentional.
5. Point Break
There were so many Action Movies coming at me around this time, and they were all great. So it took some passage of time and multiple viewings to nominate the ones that really spoke to me. And it didn't take long to determine that this was really the best of the moment. It doesn't necessarily reinvent its many subgenres (heist, undercover cop, surfing, skydiving, car chase) but it piles them on in a cohesive way that actually does make it unique. That, plus Patrick Swayze giving the best performance of his career, and one of the best of the year in a year of best performances.
6. What About Bob?
It feels kinda silly trying to intellectualize this movie. It's a Summer movie - due largely to its setting, but also because movie channels would play it twice a day during the season - but more than that, it's a comfort movie. The films I elect to my Top 100 are the ones with the most 'rewatchability properties,' and this is simply a movie I will not tire of in the foreseeable future, as it continues to baby-step up my list.
7. Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead
Summer movie, heavy cable play, nothing too cerebral. I, like a lotta people probably, was initially sold on the descriptively frank title, but was then pleasantly surprised (again, probably like a lotta people) by how competent and funny and absorbing they were able to spin this cutesy premise. There's a dreadful romantic subplot that always gets me down, but Christina has a strong enough presence to get me through it every time.
8. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
This is the truth: to this day, whenever I hear the phrase "on the edge of your seat," I think of T2, because the first time I saw it I was consciously aware that I was, in fact, located entirely on that portion of my chair. It alerted me to the idea that I'm a sucker for Suspense, and still am to this day. I also became infatuated with the proficiency of computer animation, and was certain that it would only improve as the Film Industry pressed forward...
9. Cape Fear
Of all the excessively violent cinema that was floating my way around this time, this was the one that affected me the most. And I think that was a level-headed reaction; this wasn't about a pulpy serial killer or bank robbers or cyborgs - this was, indeed, much darker. But fun! As I've noted many times now, this was Marty's Golden Era for me, in which his visual prowess and Thelma's creative cutting had cross-crescendoed into a sphere of artistic filmmaking that can never be copied.
A John Hughes script (or rather, a good John Hughes script) is hard to mess up, and no one messed up this semi-typical "snob vs. slob" holiday fable that actually works way better than it could've. I, like the rest of the universe, knew Ed O'Neill best from Married... With Children, but his range outside of Al Bundy goes largely under-appreciated, and it's a shame this movie isn't more well-liked, because even though it's still a broad Comedy, it's a great example of his abilities.
11. The Commitments
I recently implied that That Thing You Do! was the best 'fake band biopic' - but now it's today and I've changed my mind. The style of this movie is nearly incomparable to anything else: it feels entirely dirty and bleak, but it's totally fun and lighthearted. The whole film is a surprise within itself. And you're gonna find yourself soundtrack hunting immediately afterwards.
12. Toy Soldiers
Even with a hard "R" rating, this is one of the more kid-friendly Action pictures on this list - and man I ate it up. A boys' prep school is taken hostage by terrorists, and a group of students fight back in increasingly clever and nail-biting ways. At this point, I've lost track of which movies and shows I've used as a springboard to sing the praises of Andrew Divoff, but he was easily one of the scariest bad guys of my childhood, and this was one of the movies that ensured that.
13. My Girl
I get that's it's popular, but I don't know that it's popular enough. Midcentury nostalgia trips like Christmas Story and The Sandlot have such a broad following, but in a pinch I would say that this is sweeter and stronger and better than any of the 'similar' movies you could hold it up against. I suppose its severe melodramatic turn hurt its chances to appear on t-shirts, but it was that heartbreaking climax that elevated it from a movie about 1972 to a movie that felt like it was from 1972.
14. The Addams Family
Like Dick Tracy before it, the hype via merchandise made me a fan before it even came out. I remember being disappointed in how plot-heavy it was, but I soon realized that it was a mistake to let that distract me. We didn't deserve just how good and on-point this movie really was; the balance of morbid and funny is calibrated in an almost scientific way, to the point that plot didn't matter and its altogether ooky ambience was and is its strength.
15. City Slickers
Weird that a midlife crisis yarn could be so accessible - but I guess that's the point. Disguised as an Action Comedy, it's full of lessons about mortality and optimism and appreciating what you already have, and those are universal messages that resonate with people of all ages - up to and including my juvenile self.
16. Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey
I accidentally discovered Excellent Adventure around the time this was released, and I thought there was no way they were gonna top the original. I was wrong; like any great sequel, it embraces all the rules and wisdom of the one before and then applies them to a new objective. What that means in layman's terms is: Bill Sadler as Death is fucking awesome.
17. Defending Your Life
In storytelling, I love the idea of creating structured mythologies with fleshed-out backstories, regulations, etc., but they always come with a bunch of clumsy exposition. This movie handles all that with a broad finesse, and the way it does that is it hardly takes itself too seriously - which is good since it's an incredibly lite Romantic Comedy (and one of the most gratuitous food pornos to come outta mainstream Cinema).
18. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze
No Casey, No Corey, a new April, Vanilla Ice. The reason it hurts is because it's a goddamn solid sequel that otherwise mostly captures the atmosphere of the original. All the stuff with the ooze and how it looked and introducing new mutants (particularly the very idea of a Super Shredder) all felt really fun and comfortable and integral to a natural story progression (and still makes a great movie), but the mild violence and gothic shades of the first one had been, for lack of a better word, cancelled.
I wasn't even aware at the time that it was a sequel - I thought the title was just a jumble of letters and numbers. So imagine my surprise and delight to find an Actioner that included movie special effects as an actual plot point. (It was also lucky that it has relatively no narrative connection to the first one.) Actually, to this day I'm not entirely sure what the plot is (due to bad writing or my own disinterest), but the fact that it has Brian Dennehy, Philip Bosco, Kevin J. O'Connor, Joanna Gleason, gold coins, a clown, and a supermarket full of early 90s food labels is always gonna be very much more than enough for me.
20. The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear
It wasn't until the 21st century that I discovered that there actually was a wrong way to do this kinda humor. But it doesn't matter, because this was the right way, and this trilogy nailed it three times in a row. This one is notable for Robert Goulet, Richard Griffiths, Anthony James, and President and First Lady Bush. I love it!
I was already a Peter Pan fan from the 1960 telecast with Mary Martin. But this: a "retelling" largely centralized on the villain? What could go wrong? By now, we've learned that, sometimes, the worst thing in a Spielberg picture is Spielberg (see: Lincoln). It really is a great story and a great cast; it left me with an obsessive fantasy that one day I'd be able to fly. But even as a kid, it was evident that even the most straightforward scenes were saturated in sentimentality; my father noted that "this movie has a lotta moments," meaning that every plot point is accentuated by a big mood. But watching it now, I don't think I'd have it any other way.
22. Little Man Tate
Jodie was having a heck of a year! I mention all the time how susceptible I was to movies about smart people, and this one had such a funny, subdued approach that it felt like a fresh premise. It's been a little while since I've seen it, but I still pull quotes from it in appropriate situations.
23. Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare
It was the first in the series to really have that 90s gloss all over it, and it was perceptible in the trailers and the TV spots. As a kid, just that made it seem scary: Freddy had followed me into the next decade - he truly was "eternal." Kindertrauma aside, when I finally saw the entire feature, I found it pleasantly perturbing; it's a Comedy (that's been established), but still maintains all the surreal gore and dirty subtext, making for a delightfully dark and sarcastic entry in this dark and sarcastic pop enterprise.
24. Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man
A modern day Butch and Sundance? Eh, kinda. The plot and main conflict is so stupid that it does get in the way sometimes, but I try not to let it bother me because the chemistry between Don Johnson and Mickey Rourke is flawless - like, almost to a Newman/Redford level. It would've been a great TV series or movie franchise - this just would've been one of the weaker installments.
25. Doc Hollywood
A blissfully benign fish-outta-water fable that reasserts that old Green Acres mentality of 'small town vs. big city.' Nothing too deep, but that's its principal appeal; it's too sweet & subtle to even qualify as a RomCom. It's a Summer vibe.
26. Out For Justice
If you've ever found William Forsythe's acting style to be too low-key, peep this to see him take it up a notch. Mockery aside, this is also Steven Seagal's most vibrant performance - and for better or worse, it makes for compelling Cinema.
27. Hot Shots!
Man, that Abrahams brand of silly was heavy in the air during this era - not just in the stuff he wrote and/or produced, but in all media. And it still felt pretty fresh even a decade after Airplane!. And like Airplane!, Lloyd Bridges once again steals the show.
28. Sleeping With the Enemy
This is why this year rocked: even up against stuff like Lambs and Cape Fear, this movie was still effective and still popular. And regardless of how many Lifetime movies it inspired, this one's still the brandname.
29. The Super
The previous year, audiences of all ages got to experience Joe Pesci as a violent asshole (to varying degrees). This movie provided him with an arc for potential redemption - but that's just the goofy plot. It's weird to point out, but the film is actually visually hilarious; director Rod Daniel (Teen Wolf, Like Father, Like Son) has consistently used "funny" lenses and angles to punctuate the sillier set pieces, and just upon a glance they get me every time.
30. Suburban Commando
I'm not sure if Family films were sparse this year or they mostly didn't leave an impression on me. But HBO forced this one on me with their circular programming schedule, and I wasn't able to get out of the way of its charm. I'd kinda known The Hulkster as a popular personality, but this was his first 'performance' that I saw (his part in Gremlins 2 was cut from the VHS version), and I found him to be engaging and likable - enough to the point that I considered him the main draw to Mr. Nanny.