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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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Inject the Right One In

Throughout his career, Abel Ferrara has made New York-centric films with a grindhouse flavor and an aspiration to artistry. In Ms. 45 (1981), he took on the rape-revenge film; with Bad Lieutenant (1992), he made his own Scorsese-esque crime drama. Similarly, The Addiction (1995) is a one-of-a-kind vampire movie, marrying urban realism, graphic horror, and several films’ worth of existentialist banter. Although the latter attribute occasionally renders the film inaccessible, it also grants the characters’ neck-biting intrigues an unexpected gravity while making Ferrara’s serious cinematic intentions very clear. This is The Hunger for the smart set.

I Shot Andy Warhol star Lili Taylor plays Kathy, who’s en route to getting her Ph.D. in philosophy when a late-night run-in with a mysterious seductress (Annabella Sciorra) leaves a bloody gash on her neck and spurs a metamorphosis from mousy student to loud-mouthed blood junkie. In a series of hypodermic-wielding encounters, Kathy’s newfound aggression (coupled with severe photosensitivity) is spreads like a virus to her friends, professors, and even the strangers who harass her on the street. Late in the film, she meets an elder vampire named Peina, played with typical panache by Christopher Walken, who teaches her to control her addiction while quoting William S. Burroughs and Charles Baudelaire. The ending that follows is puzzling but weirdly suggestive, as orgiastic indulgence and Catholic guilt come into play.

The Addiction is shot in high-contrast black and white, bringing expressionistic shadows in conflict with a tendency toward naturalism, especially as Ferrara’s camera prowls the classrooms and hallways of NYU. Taylor gives a stand-out performance as a woman rotting from the inside out, and it’s matched by her poetically hard-boiled voiceover. When she enters a university library, for example, she growls, “The smell here’s worse than a charnel house.” (Working in a college library, I know how she feels.) These lurid monologues color our perceptions of Ferrara’s New York like the saxophones in Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver, drawing us deep into Kathy’s dissipation. And Walken, as usual, is the voice of demented authority, cavorting around Kathy’s exhausted body with his slicked-back hair and daffy energy. He’s only in one scene, but he casts a long shadow across the preceding film.

At times, The Addiction teeters dangerously close to being unforgivably pretentious; it’s packed wall-to-wall with philosophical jargon, grandiose statements about hell and morality, and vampiric metaphors for sex, drugs, and genocide. But the film’s saved by its (and Taylor’s) sheer conviction that something intelligent and thought-out is being said. Even when the film’s open-ended chronology and its abstract conception of vampirism threaten to make the plot totally incomprehensible, you can hold onto Ferrara’s sincere interest in spiritual redemption and moral culpability. In the end, this thematic integrity, when brought out through Taylor’s uncompromising performance, blasts away any doubts: This is a totally different species of vampire movie.

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