Quentin Tarantino made a name for himself as a purveyor of stylish violence in Reservoir Dogs (1992), a brutal crime thriller, and then capped his reputation with Pulp Fiction (1994), one of the most complex and intelligent Keitel as a corrupt, drug-addicted New York policeman.
Crime films ever made, which teeters on the edge of parody one moment only to swing back to vicious reality the next. Jackie Brown (1997) is an uncharacteristically subdued crime drama starring 1970s action icon Pam Grier, while Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004) are revenge dramas that use 1970s action films, particularly Kung Fu films, as a visual reference point. The equally bold Abel Ferrara created a group of dark and violent films with King of New York (1990), the ultra-explicit Bad Lieutenant (1992), starring Harvey Keitel as a cop gone spectacularly wrong, as well as The Addiction (1995), The Funeral (1996), The Blackout (1997), and ’R Xmas (2001). Shot on minimal budgets with gritty production
values, Ferrara’s films often feature his friend the actor Christopher Walken.
Jonathan Demme’s breakthrough came with Melvin and Howard (1980), followed by the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), the grisly crime drama The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Philadelphia (1993), featuring Tom Hanks as a gay attorney afflicted with AIDS. Ron Howard, who began as a child actor on the television series “The Andy Griffith Show” and then played a teenager on “Happy Days,” emerged as a competent craftsman with a string of traditional mainstream films such as Splash (1984), Cocoon (1985), Apollo 13 (1995), the moving biographical film A Beautiful Mind (2001), and his adaptation of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code (2006). Wes Craven is best known for horror pictures such as Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, and Harvey Keitel in Quentin Tarantino’s genre-breaking crime thriller, Pulp Fiction (1994).
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996). Brian De Palma’s violent thrillers include Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Scarface (1983, a remake of Howard
Hawks’s 1932 classic of the same name), Body Double (1984), and The Black Dahlia (2006). The perpetually outré David Lynch began his career with the bizarre student film Eraserhead (1977) and then continued with such hallucinatory works as Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), and Mulholland Drive (2001), along with the surprisingly straightforward period piece The Elephant Man (1980), the science fiction epic Dune (1984), and The Straight Story (1999), the touching real-life drama of a man who travels three hundred miles on his tractor-style lawn-mower to see his ailing brother after a long estrangement.
Equally quirky, but in a more restrained fashion, is Tim Burton, whose student film Vincent (1982), with Vincent Price, led to the live action Frankenweenie (1984) and then to Pee-wees Big Adventure (1985), a colorful fantasy film with Paul Reubens in his Pee-wee Herman persona. Beetlejuice (1988), a mordant comedy with Michael Keaton in the title role as a rambunctious ghost, was a substantial hit on a modest budget and led to Batman (1989), which reinvented the classic comic book franchise with a much darker edge. Edward Scissorhands (1990) starred Johnny Depp in a charming satirical comedy, and Ed Wood (1994) featured Depp as Edward D. Wood Jr., the famously inept filmmaker whose Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) is much beloved by aficionados of bad cinema. Mars Attacks! (1996), perhaps David Lynch made a successful crossover from independent filmmaking with The Elephant Man (1980), elegantly photographed by Freddie Francis and starring John Hurt as John Merrick, whose horrible disfigurement leads to his cruel nickname.
Ridley Scott came to feature filmmaking through advertising, making a splash with his third feature, Alien (1979), still one of the most original and inventive science fiction films ever made, and helping to revisualize the science fiction film as a futuristic noir universe. Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is another futuristic dystopian tale, set in Los Angeles, with hard-boiled cop Harrison Ford on the trail of a group of aberrant androids who are posing a threat to a repressive society. The film has touches of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in its visual style, but Scott’s image of the world as an earthly hell has a genuine tactile quality that is his alone.
Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991) is a controversial “feminist” road movie; two women (Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis) go on the run when one of them accidentally kills a would-be rapist. Fearing that no one will believe them, the two women become outlaws, much to the consternation of the various male authority figures sprinkled throughout the film. But ultimately, as the women drive their car off the edge of a canyon to avoid capture by the police, the film’s message becomes muddled; why must they die in order to be free? Scott handles the material with his customary assurance, but the film is still a bone of contention for many observers. G. I. Jane (1997) is a feminist service drama in which Demi Moore toughens up to join a crack team of Navy SEALs despite the disapproval of her commanding officer, and Gladiator (2000) is a lavish historical drama of ancient Rome with eye-popping visual effects and a solid performance from Russell Crowe in the leading role. Black Hawk Down (2001) documents the carnage that followed a failed U. S. military raid in Somalia.
As digital cinema became more commonplace, the stylization of films was pushed to new extremes. Graphic novelist Frank Miller collaborated with established directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino to create Sin City (2005), a neo-noir film that expertly blended comic book backgrounds with live actors to create a sort of living comic strip, albeit one with exceedingly dark overtones. In 2006, Zack Snyder’s 300, based on Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B. C. E., was an even more extreme example of comic book violence and nonstop action, eliminating plot and acting almost completely to create a sweeping vision of bloodlust run wild.