The 100 Best ’90s Movies


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Aug 22, 2023

The 100 Best ’90s Movies

Nobody knows exactly when Stanley Kubrick first read Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 “Traumnovelle” (did Kubrick find it in his father’s library sometime in the 1940s, or did Kirk Douglas’ psychiatrist give

Nobody knows exactly when Stanley Kubrick first read Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 “Traumnovelle” (did Kubrick find it in his father’s library sometime in the 1940s, or did Kirk Douglas’ psychiatrist give it to him on the set of “Spartacus,” as the actor once claimed?), but what is known for certain is that Kubrick had been actively trying to adapt it for at least 26 years by the time “Eyes Wide Shut” began principal production in November 1996, and that he suffered a fatal heart attack just two days after screening his near-final cut for the film’s stars and executives in March 1999. In that light, it’s hard to say if the process of making the movie — a process that famously included what was, at the time, the longest continuous shoot ever recorded for a narrative feature — is what killed Kubrick, or if it’s what had been keeping him alive. Either way, his death only adds to the mystique of the masterpiece that had mattered to him above all others, a crepuscular vision of identity, obsession, and the ultimate reconciliation between dreams and reality.

And yet “Eyes Wide Shut” hardly requires its astounding meta-textual mythology (which includes the tabloid fascination around Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s ill-fated marriage) to earn its place as the definitive film of the 1990s. What’s more important is that its release in the last year of the last decade of the 20th century feels like a fated rhyme for the fin-de-siècle energy of Schnitzler’s novella — set in Vienna roughly 100 years earlier — a rhyme that resonates with another story about upper-class people floating so high above their own lives they can see the whole world clearly save for the abyss that’s yawning open at their feet.

Side-eyed for years before the film’s beguiling power began to more fully reveal itself (Kubrick’s swansong proving to be every inch as mysterious and rich with meaning as “The Shining” or “2001: A Space Odyssey”), “Eyes Wide Shut” is a clenched sleepwalk through a swirl of overlapping dreamstates. Its ample tension — often as sudden and sibylline as arousal itself — is generated by a once-unflappable man’s urgent search for equilibrium after his wife shares a sexual fantasy that shatters his sense of self and sends him teetering down the rabbit-hole of his own fear and desire.

One night, the good Dr. Bill Harford is the same toothy and confident Tom Cruise who’d become the face of Hollywood itself in the ’90s. The next, he’s fighting back flop sweat as he gets lost in the liminal spaces that he used to stride right through; the liminal spaces between yesterday and tomorrow, public decorum and private decadence, affluent social-climbers and the sinister ultra-rich they serve (masters of the universe who’ve fetishized their role in our plutocracy to the point where they can’t even throw a simple orgy without turning it into a semi-ridiculous “Sleep No More,” or get themselves off without putting the fear of God into an uninvited guest).

The reality of one night may never be able to tell the whole truth, but no dream is ever just a dream (nor is “Fidelio” just the name of a Beethoven opera). While Bill’s dark night of the soul may trace back to a book that entranced Kubrick as a young man, “Eyes Wide Shut” is so infinite and arresting for how it seizes on the movies’ ability to double-project truth and illusion at the same time. Lit by the St. Elmo’s Fire of a million christmas lights, set in an unreal Manhattan suspended between memory and invention (after expatriating to England, Kubrick never again stepped foot in his native city), and shot with a gauzy somnolence that grounds its kabuki-like performances in a place of raw emotionality, “Eyes Wide Shut” is a peerlessly lucid distillation of why dreams will always be reality’s most intimate bed partner — a mask resting on a pillow in place of the man who mistook it for his disguise.

“Eyes Wide Shut” may not seem to be as epochal or predictive as some of the other films on this list, but no other ’90s movie — not “Safe,” “The Truman Show,” or even “The Matrix” — left us with a more accurate sense of what it would feel like to live in the 21st century. In a word: “Fuck.” —DE