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10 Beloved Performances of the ’90s

I love huge blogging events. Like, for example, the “Essential Performances of the ’90s” tournament being run by Andrew over at Encore’s World of Film & TV. Better yet: I was invited to add a few blurbs to it, explaining why certain performances are so essential. So I wrote about Joe Pesci in GoodFellas and Joan Allen in The Crucible, then later Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensiblity and Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Please read, enjoy, vote in the ongoing tournament, etc.

But here’s the thing. The tourney’s bracket, fantastic as it is, can only contain 64 performances. Which means that dozens of worthy competitors had to be omitted. Which is my long-winded way of presenting my top 10 performances of the ’90s by actors not represented in that bracket (ordered alphabetically):

Dylan Baker in Happiness (1998): Forcing the audience into sympathy with a pedophile was the biggest gambit of Todd Solondz’s button-pushing career. But thanks to the oh-so-bland Baker, he pulled it off. Awkward and trembling, Baker gives a performance as a suburban dad with a secret that’s terrifying, plausible, and very darkly funny.

Kerry Fox in An Angel at My Table (1990): This particular performance is obscenely underrated, perhaps because it’s in a made-for-TV biopic from New Zealand. Fox plays author Janet Frame as an adult, wrestling first with anxiety, then with institutionalization. Hiding under her shock of orange hair, Fox makes Frame’s pain palpable. Her sullen, introspective behavior is so recognizable it hurts.

John Goodman in Barton Fink (1991): Insurance salesman “Charlie Meadows” is such a complex, devilish creation on the part of Goodman and the Coen Bros. He’s friendly, reliable, a real salt-of-the-earth kinda guy—but also clingy, self-loathing, a chatterbox, and finally a serial killer. He evokes pity and terror in equal measure, and he will show you the life of the mind.

Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures (1994): Despite only being a teenager herself at the time, Lynskey’s portrayal of Pauline Parker brims with insight into adolescent life. How quickly love for her parents transforms into resentment, for example, or how she succumbs to her best friend’s powerful personality. Her startling authenticity makes the film’s grisly climax cut me to the quick.

Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): As the liquid metal T-1000, Patrick never gets angry. He merely looks a little peeved. A sleek contrast to the original’s hulking Schwarzenegger, his performance set the gold standard for robotic supervillainy. He’s unrelenting, unfeeling, laserlike in his focus and precision, and it all culminates in a single ornamental gesture: that condescending finger wag. Absolutely chilling.

Franka Potente in Run Lola Run (1998): I’ve written about this performance before, describing Potente’s Lola as “all but a superheroine, fighting space and time themselves… a woman who only exists from moment to moment.” She’s relatable—who hasn’t had to race the clock?—but still pursues the impossible, like a video game character come urgently to life.

Mimi Rogers in The Rapture (1991): Rogers’ transformation from hedonistic swinger to true believer, played out with caustic sincerity, makes Michael Tolkin’s lo-fi eschatological drama unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. As her spiritual intensity rises, the film gets darker and darker, leading up to the bleakest possible twist, yet Rogers fearlessly follows through. Her work here is psychologically layered, disturbing, and alive.

Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): Playing widowed trans woman Bernadette, Stamp doesn’t coast on the incongruity between his wigs and erstwhile “tough guy” persona, nor does he treat the role as an awards-baiting showcase. He plays her without condescension as a doyenne of drag, armed with enough biting wit to shut up all of Australia’s transphobic assholes. When she growls “No more fucking ABBA,” you listen.

Tilda Swinton in Orlando (1992): I wrote briefly about this performance last year, asking “Who else but Tilda Swinton?” Indeed, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime pairing of performer and role, and one that’s executed with so much grace and mystery. Who else but Tilda could swap genders and survive centuries as the only consistent character in Orlando? Nobody jumps to mind.

Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol (1996): Valerie Solanas is a lot to play all at once—she was a real-life radfem ideologue, attempted playwright, attempted assassin, and streetwise hustler. But Taylor wraps herself around the whole woman, making her funny and likable even as her dreams turn to delusions, then violence. It’s a scruffy, oddball performance and an ideal introduction to the perennially underrated Lili Taylor.


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One Hour Mark: Run Lola Run

Via split-screen, 1:00:00 into Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998), we see two figures in motion. On the left is a stern, balding banker fresh from a rendezvous with his mistress, marching off to get a ride from a colleague. On the right is his daughter Lola (Franka Potente), a twentysomething slacker with dyed hair and a boyfriend in distress. During the first 2/3 of the film, as Lola’s lived out two of her “lives,” we’ve seen them cross paths twice—both times with disastrous consequences. Luckily for Lola, though she doesn’t know it yet, she’s about to miss him by mere seconds.

Third time, as they say, is the charm. In Tykwer’s Berlin, people are subatomic particles, running along their own paths and sometimes colliding arbitrarily. Just a mild change to each scenario—too quick at first, then too slow, and finally just right—produces drastically different results. And because mild changes are so powerful, because every second is as vital as an hour to Lola’s mission, she can never stop running. She’s a perpetual motion machine, channeling all her stress and fear into running faster.

Potente, by the way, gives a physically incredible performance. Her actions have such focus to them: she’s all but a superheroine, fighting space and time themselves. Feral and springy, she has literally no time for social niceties; she’s a woman who only exists from moment to moment. As such, she cuts straight through her father’s hypocritical midlife crisis bullshit. On a purely visual level, for example, compare her blurry sprint to her father’s polite, business-oriented gait. She’s the one with somewhere to go and something to lose.

Every element of the mise-en-scène heightens this contrast: the brown, gray, and black of the father’s suit and surroundings vs. Lola’s striking red, blue, and green; the father’s movement forward into a tracking shot vs. Lola’s side-scrolling velocity; and the fact that the father has been shot on video, whereas the footage of Lola is on 35 mm. This last trick has the added bonus of making the father’s scenes with his pregnant mistress look cheap and grainy, fittingly like a bad TV drama. It’s a subtle way of endorsing Lola’s reality as authentic and meaningful.

Fundamentally, then, this image visualizes a generation gap. It’s the divide between Lola, the jobless “weirdo,” and her unfaithful, paternity-disavowing father. Run Lola Run itself comes down hard on Lola’s side, that of the youth. It’s a film about running, not thinking; it prefers mindless kineticism over adult stagnation. Furthermore, as a product of 1998, it’s very much in touch with the (still-relevant) millennial hysteria, the pre-Y2K anxieties over an unknowable but imminent future. As Heisenberg would tell us, it’s impossible to predict what’s coming. Like Lola, the best we can do is run.

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