1991: A Vast Cinematic Retrospective

James Gallagher

It was my birthday last weekend (yeah guys, thanks for noticing) and so, in between my early-morning brandy and my mid-morning whisky, I got to thinking about how terribly old I am. I mean for Christ’s sake, I’m 23, which means I’m practically middle-aged! I might as well just succumb to the arthritis, move into the care home and develop an unhealthy obsession with Michael Portillo’s Railway Journeys right now, lest I endure the further existential crisis / humdrum agony of aging and living.

I jest of course… though let’s just think about that number for a moment. 23… that means I was born in a year when John Major was still Prime Minister (*shudder*), in a month when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze was the dominant film in the US (*double shudder*) and in a week when this was top of the UK music charts (*infinite shudders*), so it’s little wonder that I’m a cultural black hole with little grip on reality!

Nevertheless, 1991 wasn’t all bad. I mean fair enough, it took place in the nineties – a decade, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, which has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad idea – so it wasn’t great either, but in one area in particular it was rather wonderful; namely, cinema. See, it turns out some excellent films were released in the year of my birth (Secret of the Ooze excepted) so – in my drunken, nostalgic stupor – I decided to take a little look at a few of the gems that might have passed you by now that we’re trapped in the 21st Century with no access to either a time machine or a video store that isn’t going down the swanny…

Seriously though, fuck the nineties…

Funnily enough the year got off to a deplorable start, with tat such as Ski School, Men of Respect and White Fang (remember them? No? Lucky you…) dominating January. However, on Valentine’s Day a decidedly non-Valentine friendly film came along and helped turn me into the film freak I am today. That film was Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, AKA the film that first got me interested in cinema as an art form. This masterful thriller, which remains the absolute apex of its genre, took the Box Office by storm and went on to become only the third film in history to win the best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay gongs at the Academy Awards. For that alone, 1991 is well worth remembering.

In the wake of Demme’s masterpiece, 1991 quickly blossomed into a year rich with classic comedies, thrillers and dramas. Comedic success came early on in the form of Defending Your Life, a whimsical but hilarious Albert Brooks effort about a man who is put on trial in the afterlife, and Drop Dead Fred, an anarchic slapstick catastrophe in which Rik Mayall plays Phoebe Cates’ uncontrollable imaginary friend. Neither of them are masterpieces but they both helped to calm audiences down a bit after the terror of Silence

It was French cinema, however, that took the reins over the next two months as hot on the heels of these comedies came Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s feature debut – the dystopian satire Delicatessen (a film which lovingly, intentionally and successfully aped Terry Gilliam, who’ll be making an appearance of his own shortly), followed by Krzysztof Kieślowski’s stunning Franco-Polish drama, The Double Life of Véronique. Both of these films are wonderful examples of what can happen when “experimental cinema” is handled correctly, and both of them remain their respective directors’ greatest works which, when you consider their output (in particular, Kieślowski’s output), is no small feat.

Can’t decide if this is better or worse than “Go Ninja Go”…

Then came the summer, and with it the superstars, the blockbuster sequels and Bryan Adams crooning his way through Prince of Thieves with such vigorous passion that he accidentally got stuck at the top of the singles chart for 16 weeks on the trot. A bit too hot on his tails – so much so that they drove over the edge of a cliff – came Thelma and Louise, followed by Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) in the ridiculous but hilarious Naked Gun 2½. These were all small fry compared to what was about to come crashing through a rift in the space-time continuum though as, on July 3rd 1991, the most expensive film ever made (at the time) arrived in the form of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Of course, it’s easy to forget just how state-of-the-art T2 was in 1991. Though James Cameron has since embarked on a senseless mission to ensure that he never loses his title as the director of the most expensive film of all time (see True Lies, Titanic and Avatar for the very definition of “increasingly diminishing returns”…), with T2 he struck the perfect balance between epic action and intense drama. It is, much like its predecessor, one of the greatest examples of cinematic craftsmanship ever made. Each detail slots into place exquisitely to create one of the finest action sequels of all time. Cameron displays a considerable knack for intricate storytelling, Arnie turns in the best performance of his career and the visuals effects were – and remain so, even to this day – absolutely mind-blowing.

Things naturally slowed down a bit after that, though the year remained consistently strong to the very end. Not wanting to be outdone by James Cameron, who at the time was her husband, Kathryn Bigelow gave us the cult classic action thriller Point Break, while Alan Parker gave us his take on The Commitments, which I recently praised in a piece on Irish cinema. The Coen brothers attempted to null the effects of their previous year’s Box Office failure (Raising Arizona) with the wonderful Barton Fink, while Pedro Almodóvar’s quest to become one of the most delightful perverts in cinema was temporarily halted by a marvellously restrained drama known as High Heels.

And then something truly amazing happened; Terry Gilliam released The Fisher King and blew future me away with a crushing and unparalleled combination of humour and tragedy. This of course meant that not one, not two but three of the greatest films of all time had been released in a six month period. Now, I’m an unrepentant Gilliam fanboy so I’m a tad biased on the issue but as far as I’m concerned, if Terry Gilliam releases a film in any given year then that year is automatically an excellent one for cinema.

September ended with the allegorical Chinese masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern, while October gave us Hungarian director Peter Medak’s terrific British drama Let Him Have It (recently recommended by our very own Raks Patel as “Film of the Week”), which stars Christopher Eccleston as Derek Bentley, a teenager who was wrongly hanged for murder in 1953, and Gus Van Sant’s loose but unique take on Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, My Own Private Idaho, which starred River Phoenix in one of his final roles before his tragic death just two years later.

It was November, however, that saw the big boys come to town. Two classic directors made their mark with films just a little out of their comfort zone. First came Martin Scorsese’s riveting adaptation of Cape Fear – his penultimate collaboration with Robert De Niro (so far, he says with a due sense of reluctant acceptance that they’ll never collab again…) – while Wes Craven gave us a bizarre combination of slasher horror and explicit social commentary in his problematic but enjoyable romp, The People Under the Stairs. These were followed by a now bona-fide Disney classic, in the form of Beauty and the Beast, and a live-action adaptation of an already-established Disney classic in the form of Hook.

Now, you might look at all of this and go “wow, what a fantastic collection of films… surely there can’t be anymore!?” Well, that’s where you’re wrong; December brought the year to a close with three marvellous films from three marvellous directors. First there was Shadows and Fog, a criminally underrated Woody Allen crime drama based on his own 1975 short play Death, followed by Oliver Stone’s epic take on the assassination of JFK. The year then came to a close with David Cronenberg’s deliciously debauched adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. I mean, if ever there’s a film to make you chuck your Christmas dinner right back up, it’s Naked Lunch

So, as I’m sure you’ll now appreciate, 1991 was a great year for cinema! It had everything; action, drama, humour, romance and depravity, not to mention some wonderful mixes of surrealism and hyper-realism. It might not be the best year of the nineties but it’ll always be special to me, not because it was the year I was born but because it gave me films like The Silence of the Lambs, The Fisher King and Naked Lunch, all of which I adore unconditionally.

What about you then? Think there are any glaring omissions or, worse still, any inclusions that you think are downright awful? Let us know in the box below or badger me on twitter @theugliestfraud to tell me how wrong I am! =)

About James Gallagher

James is a film addict, a bitter misanthrope and a graduate from the University of Sheffield. Raised in Birkenhead, he is like a (very) poor man's Paul O'Grady. He has lots of opinions – almost all of which are wrong – and can normally be found reading, writing and drinking whisky. @theugliestfraud