1980s: Nine ½ Weeks.

This Adrian Lyne film was released in the second half of the decade which is considered by many a grey area of the 20th Century. The 80s were, with the benefit of hindsight, a time when a lot of what it was to become very wrong with Western society was cemented.

So why not pick Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987)? After all, its subject matter of ambition and greed within those who 'play the market' was more than accurate then and disturbingly resonant now. Or perhaps that futuristic parable that is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) - a film that, amongst other things, expresses corporate power as a paternal entity that betrays and sacrifices its own children. There were also, within other popular releases of the time, superior films and strong contenders to the point I'm making: David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) or James Cameron's The Terminator (1984). But what Nine ½ Weeks expresses is something much more subtle and incisive, despite its overtly erotic context and marketing.

For those who associate its title with sleaze from a director with a tendency for moisture-seeking material, here's a bit of background: the film encompasses the intense periods of initial seduction, moral submission and emotional deterioration between John (Mickey Rourke) and Elizabeth (Kim Basinger). It is not by chance that he is a hard, wealthy player in the patriarchal-led financial field. She is portrayed as a recently divorced, sensitive woman with unfulfilled artistic aspirations. Their incompatible worlds clash as they throw themselves into a succession of mind and sex games that have everything to do with asserting (or giving up) control. This is all set against an impersonal backdrop of steely greys and diagonal shafts of light - quintessential 1980s aesthetics that Lyne was very much instrumental in defining and from which we never manage to escape.

A crucial scene is Elizabeth's visit to the bucolic retreat of the aging artist Farnsworth, the work of whom her gallery is set to exhibit. Her connection with this mentally-drained artist is depicted in a brief yet poignant way. He is portrayed as a man ill at ease with those superficial times, and the look they exchange towards the end at the crowded private viewing of his work is more touching and powerful than anything else in the film. There is a man from another era, showing a silent understanding of what she's going through. And she's a victim of her own thirst for romantic entanglement, the wrong outcome of the emancipation that defined the two preceding decades.

In one of the last scenes in the film, when Elizabeth and John's relationship is reaching the point of rupture, he follows her into an underground venue, where strangers voyeuristically encircle a couple having sex. In one final moment of defiance, Elizabeth begins to give herself to a man standing next to her. What her tragic tears perhaps reflect is the knowledge that she will progress into the rest of her life damaged, with lower moral standards in future relationships and a pursuit of instant gratification - the primary legacy of the 80s.

1990s: CRASH.

In a decade of increasing individualism and a growing intimacy between human beings and the modern technologies at their service, no other film can be more relevant or important than David Cronenberg's astonishing Crash (1996).

This highly controversial film evolved from English author J G Ballard's prophetic book, originally published in 1973. Intellectual views aside, the concept at its core is deceptively simple. It presents the car as the ultimate symbol of modernity: a place that allows you to be out in the world, but where you can be completely closed onto yourself. Add emotional alienation, desensitisation towards the pain of others and our continuous inability to connect with each other and you have the full metaphor that directly connects sexual urges with the car crash. The fetishism that goes with it is entirely essential for the narrative and could be equated with our avid appetite for technological gadgets.

Then, we have the novices - husband and wife James and Catherine Ballard - as the two who can 'feel it, but not yet express it' (and who also act as surrogates for every member of the audience who's not a hypocrite) and the active participants, who are headlined by the Messianic figure of Vaughn.

Contrasting the morose tone of the promiscuous couple's interactions, we have Vaughn's elaborations on his adopted cyber-philosophy - which is summed up in the lines: 'You're beginning to see that for the first time, there's a benevolent psychopathology that beckons towards us. For example, the car crash is a fertilising rather than a destructive event.'

Less pornographic than the book, the film distils its essence to perfection. The reshaping of human anatomy through its association with the functional angles of the car - in their promise of aesthetical death and destruction - is superbly captured in cinematic terms with the necessary lucidity of a great filmmaker. The same way that Ballard's earlier work fit the parameters of science-fiction, Cronenberg's had evolved from conceptual horror. This method of expanding beyond genre was itself a key aspect of the most challenging cinema being made towards the end of the 90s, like David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997), Leos Carax's Pola X (1999), Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité (1999) and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Things couldn't be more different the following decade, when the constant rehashing of the past took revisionist contours.

If the two previous decades expressed a spiritual void, the first ten years of the 21st Century have been defined by the affirmation of religious beliefs. This theme concludes next month, with my third choice of film and a companion piece by a guest writer.