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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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“What’ve you got for me?”: Matinee, Joe Dante, and Cinephilia

I get to scare everybody else. But it’s for their own good. You get people who go like this [he covers his face with his hands] at the scary parts, they’re not getting the whole benefit. You gotta keep your eyes open.

Gene: What’s the benefit?

OK, like, uh, a zillion years ago, a guy’s living in a cave. He goes out one day, bam! He gets chased by a mammoth. Now he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over with, he feels great.

Gene: Well, yeah, ’cause he’s still living.

Yeah, but he knows he is, and he feels it. So he goes home, back to the cave. First thing he does, he does a drawing of the mammoth. And he thinks, ‘People are coming to see this. Let’s make it good. Let’s make the teeth real long, and the eyes real mean!’ [Mammoth roars] Boom! The first monster movie. That’s probably why I still do it. Make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off, everything’s okay, the lights come up, ahhh! You see, the people come into your cave, with a two-hundred-year-old carpet, the guys tear your ticket in half—it’s too late to turn back now!—water fountain’s all booby-trapped and ready, the stuff laid out on the candy counter. Then you come over here to where it’s dark. There could be anything in there! And you say, ‘Here I am! What’ve you got for me?’

Midway through Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993), film huckster Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) walks the young horror fan Gene (Simon Denton) around Key West, Florida and lectures to him about why people love scary movies, and movies in general. I’ve transcribed his monologue above. It’s worth watching the film just for this scene alone, as Goodman’s irrepressible, good-natured showmanship and Charles S. Haas’s effervescent writing mix under Dante’s guidance to create a vivid origin story for cinephilia. For Dante, movies are our cultural currency; they’re both our instructions for and escape from reality. In Matinee, he sets that relationship against the backdrop of early ’60s Americana and Cold War hysteria as the Cuban Missile Crisis grips the nation.

The keyword I’d use to describe Matinee would be “affectionate.” It’s an affectionate paean to a moviegoing culture at its peak, with decades to go before video destroyed the communal experience; it’s an affectionate story of young love and small-town communities. Some characters, especially juvenile delinquent and Beat poet Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire), may do bad things, like attempted theft and kidnapping, but they’re not really evil. Frantic civilians may act silly in the face of potential nuclear annihilation—especially the theater manager played by Robert Picardo—but they’re still vital parts of the community trying their best. Even when Dante puckishly caricatures someone, it’s done with his fanciful brand of loving humanism.

This trait is part of why I love Dante’s films. Even when he’s directing fairly gruesome horror, like The Howling or Gremlins, it steers away from nihilistic brutality, and is instead rooted in a passion for likeable characters, old-fashioned storytelling, and film culture. Matinee is more of a meta-horror movie, with a dash of social satire and coming-of-age drama, but these tendencies are all still on full display. Granted, I found the screenplay a little overstuffed with subplots, which were tied up pretty hurriedly during the climax, and a few of the performances are a little too bland, but the film’s so warm and endearing (albeit with an edge) that it’s easy to overlook these flaws.

Besides, the cast includes Dick Miller and John Sayles as a couple of B-movie actors masquerading as local do-gooders, plus a special appearance by Harvey‘s Jesse White as a sleazy theater chain owner. Besides the delightful supporting cast, the burgeoning romance between Gene and his peacenik classmate Sandra (Lisa Jakub) is very cutely done, and to top it all off, John Goodman has one of his greatest non-Coen Bros. performances. As Woolsey, he embodies everything cheap, tawdry, deceptive, and wonderful about popcorn cinema; as he chomps down on his cigars, you know he’s a con artist—but you think that he might just secretly believe in what he’s selling you. If aliens ever land and ask why we watch movies, maybe we should show them Matinee.

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