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Twenty-Five Years Later: The Class of 1991

The year that was 1991 will go down in history as the true dawn of the Digital Age of Cinema.
 
Rudimentary computer-generated imagery could be viewed on screen as far back as 1979 in the opening credits for The Black Hole, and then CGI featured more prominently throughout the 1980s—from 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Tron all the way to the water tentacle in 1989’s The Abyss—but the shape-shifting liquid metal T-1000 in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the true game-changer.

Fittingly, let’s begin there for our glance back at the Class of 1991.

ACTION/ADVENTURE

Terminator 2: Judgment Day 

We got our first brief glimpses of shape-shifting “morphing” effects in Willow (1988) and The Abyss (1989), but T2 was then and remains now a cinematic milestone—a quantum leap forward in digital visual effects as well as sequel mongering. In this era of the $200-plus million production budget, it’s easy to forget just what a big deal it was for the studio to spend over $100M on this, the sleek follow-up to a scrappy B-movie sci-fi cult sensation from 1984 that was originally marketed as a horror flick.

After the relatively abysmal box office returns for The Abyss, director/co-writer James Cameron was hardly king of the world, but the stratospheric success of T2 catapulted him to the top of the heap of A-list filmmakers, and he’s been granted carte blanche on every film he’s made since. The “bigger is better” mindset extends to just about every facet of the picture—from the shiny production design and enormous scale of the action sequences to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Linda Hamilton’s biceps. Beneath the film’s blue steel veneer lurks a poignant fable of humans struggling to make their own fate, and a machine learning what it is to be human—it’s this emotional subtext that elevates T2 above mere lightshow eye candy and makes for a classic that still resonates a quarter century later.

Three more Terminator sequels (so far) would eventually follow, all without the participation of Cameron and Linda Hamilton, and each one progressively more dispiriting.

Point Break 

One of two testosterone-jacked odd-couple action pics from 1991 with a sporting fetish (the other is Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout), this one pits cocksure FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) against Zen surfer Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and his gang of thrill-seekers who rob banks to fund their globetrotting.

Three years before Speed and eight years before The Matrix, Keanu Reeves proved he could punch and run and kick with the best of them. Swayze was still red hot from Dirty Dancing four years earlier, with newly minted camp and action cred (Road House) and additional romantic appeal (Ghost) added in the interim. Director Kathryn Bigelow handily proves here that lady filmmakers can muster up the same adrenalized and vaguely (perhaps not-too-vague) homoerotic bedlam as the macho maestros of bad-boy action. Holds up so well after 25 years that loyal fans summarily rejected the recent remake/reboot/regurgitation out of sheer principle.

Compare To: Flight of the Intruder; The Last Boy Scout; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; The Rocketeer; Toy Soldiers.

Fewer Will Remember: Double Impact; Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man; The Hitman; K2; Kickboxer 2: The Road Back; Once a Thief; Out for Justice; The Perfect Weapon; Showdown in Little Tokyo; Stone Cold; The Taking of Beverly Hills; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze; White Fang; Year of the Gun.

MYSTERY/THRILLER

The Silence of the Lambs 

Imprisoned diabolical genius Hannibal “Cannibal” Lecter helps FBI trainee Clarice Starling track down serial killer Buffalo Bill, and not since Hitchcock’s Psycho has a single psychological thriller had such a lasting influence on the cinema and our collective conscious.

Winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, the film is bolstered by the four-way punch of actors Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally (all of whom also won Oscars; this marked the third time in Academy history a film swept the “top five” awards). Hopkins would reprise his immortal role twice more to diminishing effect—in the schlocky Grand Guignol sequel Hannibal, and then the efficient but needless remake of the prequel Red Dragon—and while neither film compares to this undisputed classic, they thankfully don’t tarnish its well-deserved reputation. Pull up a seat, uncork a nice Chianti and enjoy the liver and fava beans…forever.

Cape Fear 

Martin Scorsese was riding a career high after his seminal gangster saga GoodFellas, and this update of a 1960 B-movie seemed at the outset to be a peculiar and surprisingly formulaic follow-up for the filmmaker, but it established Scorsese as a modern master of uncorked repression and psychological dread.

Robert De Niro’s slippery turn as taunting psychopath Max Cady remains one of the actor’s most indelible characters, and the film gave co-stars Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange their juiciest roles in years. So fraught with tension and expertly crafted it’s often forgiven for being yet another in a long line of Hollywood remakes.

Compare To: Dead Again; Kafka; Ricochet; Sleeping with the Enemy.

Fewer Will Remember: A Kiss Before Dying; Afraid of the Dark; Deceived; Defenseless; Eve of Destruction; F/X2; Liebestraum; Mortal Thoughts; Shattered.

HORROR

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare

The year 1991 was hardly a banner season for horror fans. The only memorable picture is the sixth and worst entry of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. It’s notable for finally killing off the original Elm Street series featuring Robert Englund (from here, the series would go “meta” with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and then aim for pure camp with Freddy vs. Jason).

Freddy’s Dead is also notable for being released to cinemas in 3D (only the finale required audiences to don those flimsy cardboard red/blue glasses); this was nearly two decades before Avatar would eventually revitalize the dormant format.

Compare To: Child’s Play 3; The People Under the Stairs.

Fewer Will Remember: 976-Evil II; Alligator II: The Mutation; Body Parts; Critters 3; Scanners II: The New Order.

DRAMA

JFK

History and conjecture intersect in Oliver Stone’s sprawling deconstruction of the Kennedy assassination and its political and social aftermath.

Stone was at the height of his artistry and paranoia, and although it’s hard sometimes to tell one from the other, there’s no denying the film’s technical merits—the cinematography, editing, and music are all superb, and the impressive supporting cast reads like a roster of Hollywood’s finest actors. It all coalesces into a haunting cautionary tale of the abuse of power, and an underdog’s tale of the quest for justice.

Thelma & Louise 

Still among Ridley Scott’s finest films, and boasting two powerhouse (and Oscar-nominated) performances by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, this tragic-comic saga of two belittled women hitting the road and declaring their strength and independence is as effective and liberating now as it was when it first premiered.

The Fisher King 

Terry Gilliam’s fable of loss and redemption focuses on the odd-couple relationship between a crude radio shock jock (Jeff Bridges) and a seemingly deranged homeless man (Robin Williams) whose life was directly affected by one of the DJ’s angry rants. Arguably one of Gilliam’s most accessible and enduring films, the sad fate of Robin Williams only serves to heighten the emotional punch of the movie twenty-five years later.

Compare To: Backdraft; Barton Fink; Boyz n the Hood; Bugsy; City of Hope; Closet Land; Curly Sue; Dogfight; The Doors; Edward II; Frankie and Johnny; Fried Green Tomatoes; Grand Canyon; Guilty by Suspicion; The Indian Runner; Jungle Fever; Mobsters; My Girl; My Own Private Idaho; Naked Lunch; New Jack City; The Prince of Tides; Regarding Henry; Slacker.

Fewer Will Remember: 29th Street; The Adjuster; At Play in the Fields of the Lord; Billy Bathgate; Black Robe; Class Action; The Commitments; The Doctor; Dying Young; Enchanted April; Europa; The Five Heartbeats; Flirting; For the Boys; Hangin’ with the Homeboys; Homicide; Impromptu; The Inner Circle; Jumpin’ at the Boneyard; Late for Dinner; Let Him Have It; Little Man Tate; The Man in the Moon; Mississippi Masala; My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys; Not Without My Daughter; Once Around; One Good Cop; Only the Lonely; Prospero’s Books; Queens Logic; A Rage in Harlem; Rambling Rose; The Rapture; Return to the Blue Lagoon; Rush; Shadows and Fog; Shout; Stepping Out; Talent for the Game; True Colors; Until the End of the World; Whore; Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken; Wild Orchid II: Two Shades of Blue.

COMEDY

Defending Your Life 

This heavenly fable of judgment day in the afterlife represents Albert Brooks’ finest hour (aside from his vocal work in Finding Nemo twelve years later) and is further elevated by an effervescent turn by Meryl Streep.

She had starred in so many “serious” modern and period dramas before this that her buoyant performance here was a stunning revelation: who knew from films like Kramer vs Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, and Out of Africa that she could be so adept at comedy?

Compare To: The Addams Family; Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey; City Slickers; Doc Hollywood; Hot Shots!; Hudson Hawk; L.A. Story; The Naked Gun 2 ½ The Smell of Fear; What About Bob?

Fewer Will Remember: All I Want for Christmas; Another You; The Butcher’s Wife; Career Opportunities; Company Business; Cool as Ice; Delicatessen; Delirious; Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead; Drop Dead Fred; Dutch; Ernest Scared Stupid; Father of the Bride; The Hard Way; He Said, She Said; Hear My Song; House Party 2; If Looks Could Kill; Johnny Stecchino; Johnny Suede; King Ralph; Life Stinks; Mannequin: On the Move; Married to It; The Marrying Man; Mystery Date; Necessary Roughness; Night on Earth; Nothing but Trouble; Oscar; Other People’s Money; The Pope Must Diet; Problem Child 2; Pure Luck; Scenes from a Mall; Shakes the Clown; Soapdish; Strictly Business; Suburban Commando; The Super; Switch; Talkin’ Dirty After Dark; True Identity; V.I. Warshawski.

FANTASY

Hook 

Much maligned Steven Spielberg tale of Peter Pan grown up, the film has taken on unintended poignancy in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide. A throwback to the backlot productions of yore, the picture has a claustrophobic studio-bound aesthetic that toes the line between stylized and downright fake, and the depiction of the Lost Boys as street-smart hooligans feels as incongruous as ever.

Yet there are great elements that belie the film’s terrible reputation: the symphonic score by John Williams is among the composer’s finest works; the opulent production design is full of color; Dustin Hoffman is fiendishly catty as an imperious yet somewhat depressed Captain Hook; and Bob Hoskins is a sheer delight as Smee. Even mediocre Spielberg is a far cry better than many lesser filmmakers’ masterworks, and though there’s a lot to groan over, there is much to enjoy—even a quarter-century later.

ANIMATION

Beauty and the Beast 

The pinnacle of the new Disney renaissance, this tale as old as time is given a magnificent makeover, full of wonderful tunes, strong and memorable characters and enough magic to last a lifetime. It made history as the first “cartoon” to be nominated for Best Picture, and its hand-drawn animation is warmer and richer than anything the studio has concocted by computer since.

Compare To: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.

Fewer Will Remember: Rock-A-Doodle; Rover Dangerfield.

SCI-FI

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country 

For so splendidly course-correcting the Star Trek series after 1989’s The Final Frontier jumped the rails, this one might just as well have been dubbed “The Apology” after all.

With Wrath of Khan’s director Nicholas Meyer back at the helm, the aging original crew of the Starship Enterprise embarks on one final mission, one that draws heavily from topical headlines of the day (specifically the Chernobyl disaster and the dissolution of the Soviet Union).

Full of adventure, mystery, comedy and the most amazing visual effects yet seen in the Trek series, The Undiscovered Country sends our heroes out on a graceful and glorious high note, and made the ensuing four “Next Generation” films and the current-day rebooted series viable.

Compare To: Highlander II: The Quickening.

Fewer Will Remember: Class of Nuke ‘Em High Part II: Subhumanoid Meltdown; Trancers II.

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