Friday, April 16, 2010

Year in Review: 1993

1993 was a great year for movies. Although I think the films I have ranked 2-4 would be a fine choice in most years for best of the year, there is a film that towers over the rest this rest. But that doesn’t mean it was the only worthy film released this year.

10. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis)
Groundhog Day is one of those rare films that seems like little more than a lark the first time you see it, but simply grows in your mind as the days, weeks, months and even years pass. The concept of the movie is remarkably simple – Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman stuck covering Groundhog Day, and no matter what he does, he keeps having to live the same day over and over again. At first he is annoyed and confused, then he tries to have some fun with it – can he really die one day and then wake up as if nothing has happened the next? He finally settles on trying to perfect his day, and his burgedoning relationship with Andie McDowell. Groundhog Day reminds me of those classic studio comedies – something like perhaps Heaven Can Wait (the original 1943 version) or any number of Preston Sturges films. It seems like nothing more than a silly comedy. But the film actually touches on some rather profound issues. Harold Ramis has always been a talented, if erratic, director of comedy – and in Groundhog Day he has made his best film.

9. In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Peterson)
Thrillers like this are only as good as their villain – and in John Malkovich’s would be Presidential assassin In the Line of Fire has one of the best villains I can recall. Malkovich is wonderful as a man who taunts aging Secret Service Agent Clint Eastwood (also excellent) who failed to stop the assassination of JFK almost 30 years prior. Now he intends to kill the current President, and wonders if Eastwood can stop him. The film is a masterful cat and mouse game directed with supreme skill by Wolfgang Peterson, and acted to the hilt by Eastwood and Malkovich. No, the romantic subplot with Rene Russo is not really necessary, but everything else in this movie works just about perfectly. A great thriller.

8. Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos)
Tombstone is not the best film ever made about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday - but it is probably my favorite. The classic style Western had gone out of style in the 1960s, but no one seems to have told the filmmakers behind this film, because that is exactly what they made here. Kurt Russell delivers a fiery performance as Wyatt Earp who tries to take the town of Tombstone and impose some law and order on it - even if that means breaking the law himself. The filmmaking is exciting as it comes - the gun battles are great. But the real star of the movie is Val Kilmer who was never better than he was here as the drunken Doc Holliday, slowly dying, but not wanting to give up his friendship. Just thinking of that moment when he says that he is doing this because “Wyatt Earp is my friend” just about gets me tearing up.

7. Menace II Society (Albert & Allan Hughes)
If John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood offered a hopeful picture of life in the inner city – where it is possible to survive if you want it bad enough – than the Hughes Brothers Menace II Society offers a hopeless view. There is no chance for the characters in this film. The film opens with a senseless act of violence, as a Korean shopkeeper tells O-Dog (Larenz Tate) that he feels sorry for his mother, prompting O-Dog to kill him and his wife – and steal the videotape of the crime so he can watch it over and over again. O-Dog’s best friend Caine (Tyrin Turner) is the real focal point of the movie though. He is smart, but has made stupid decisions – dealing drugs, and becoming involved with O-Dog and other gang bangers. He longs to get out of the projects, but it is too late for him. The dye has been cast, and there’s no way out.

6. Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selznick)
Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas is one of those movies that never gets old. At least once a year, I stick this into the DVD player and get swept away in the magic of it all over again. Jack “The Pumpkin King” runs Halloween town, but is getting bored on his life. So, he decides to take over Christmas one year one Santa Claus, and gets it about as wrong as possible. Brilliantly animated by Henry Selznick in the stop motion style, the film has more memorable images than just about any film Burton has ever made. This is one of my favorite animated films of all time.

5. The Remains of the Day (James Ivory)
The Remains of the Day is my favorite Merchant-Ivory film – an emotionally devastating movie about a butler (Anthony Hopkins) who can never bring himself to reveal his true feelings. In days before WWII, Hopkins is a butler at the house of Lord Darlington (James Fox) when a new maid (Emma Thompson) arrives. Hopkins prides himself on his skills at his job – and remains professional at all times – even when his father is dying. He clashes with Thompson, who is far less repressed then he is – but gradually, a mutual respect is formed between the two of them, even though Hopkins refuses to admit it. She tries to get an emotional response from him, but he cannot be moved. He cannot admit his true feelings for her – not to himself, and certainly not to her. You would not think that a film about a repressed butler would be as involving, as emotional, as this film is, but you’d be wrong. The Remains of the Day is a powerful film – anchored by Anthony Hopkins brilliant performance (which is every bit as good as his work in The Silence of the Lambs). I am not a huge fan of Merchant Ivory films – but The Remains of the Day is a brilliant film.

4. The Piano (Jane Campion)
Jane Campion’s The Piano is one of the great erotic movies of the 1990s. It tells the story of a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her very talkative daughter (Anna Paquin) who are sold to a man on a remote island in New Zeland (Sam Neill). Hunter and Neill are to be wed, but she doesn’t like him very much – he is cold and somewhat cruel to her – not is a physical way, but more because of his distance from her. Hunter is instead attracted to Neill’s friend, Harvey Keitel, who takes Hunter’s beloved piano when Neill refuses to allow it in his home. Under the guise of music lessons, she travels to Keitel’s home – but he has not interest in learning to play. He wants her to play, and agrees that she can have the piano back, if she earns it one key at a time, by allowing him to do things to her. Because she is attracted to him, she allows it. Jane Campion’s career has had many ups and downs in it, but when he makes a great film – and this is her best – they involve a level of intimacy, and sexual longing that is rare in the movies. Her direction, and writing, in the film is sensitive and she relies a great deal on her actors – all of whom are brilliant. Hunter plays the entire movie with her face and body, and Anna Paquin is brilliant as the talkative daughter (why has she not been able to deliver a performance anywhere near this good again?). The Piano is a must.

3. The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese)
On the surface, The Age of Innocence seems like a radical departure for Martin Scorsese. After all, The Age of Innocence is a movie that takes place in the early 1900s in New York, and there is no violence at all. It is a costume drama. And yet, Scorsese recognized his own themes and obsessions running through Edith Wharton’s masterful novel. At its heart, this is the story of a man who is torn between two women – the virgin and the whore if you will – and makes his decision not based on his own feelings, but on the demands of society. Everyone is so polite in the movie to your face, but gossip seethes under the surface and what is not said is often more important than what is said. Daniel Day Lewis gives a masterful performance as Newland Archer, the man torn between the two extremes who can never admit what he wants. Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer are also both excellent (Ryder never moreso) as the two women who pull Archer apart. The poor schmuck never knew what hit him. This is Scorsese at the height of his filmmaking powers.

2. Short Cuts (Robert Altman)
Robert Altman’s Short Cuts uses the work of Raymond Carver as a jumping off point to one of Altman’s greatest movies – a collection of short stories about intertwined people in Los Angeles. Each of the stories revolves a marriage or family in crisis in one way or another – with adultery, phone sex, abuse, alcoholism, car accidents, fishing trips, dead bodies all playing a role in one way or another. The cast – which includes people such as Robert Downey Jr., Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Madeline Stowe, Tim Robbins, Andie McDowell, Lyle Lovett, Frances McDormand, Anne Archer, Chris Penn, Matthew Modine, Fred Ward, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Bruce Davison and Lili Taylor are all brilliant. The film is about the connections that each of these people have to each other, and yet how utterly alone most of them are. Altman has made a few films like this in his career – which charts the connections of a vast group of people (most notably Nashville), but I think Short Cuts is probably the best of the bunch. This is a masterful film.

1. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg)
What more can be said about Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List that has not already been said? It is now, and probably forever will be, the definitive film about the Holocaust. Liam Neesom gives a great performance as the title character – a German manufacturer who sees no problem at all in using Jewish slave labor during the war as it helps to make him more money. But slowly, he starts to see the error of his ways. Ben Kingsley has a key role as a Jewish accountant who comes to be a friend of Schindler’s. But it is Ralph Fiennes who is truly amazing in the film – playing the amoral Amon Goeth, a particularly evil Nazi who revels in killing Jews. Spielberg’s film is brilliantly shot in black and white, has the period detail just about perfect, and creates an absolutely devastating effect on the viewer. The film is hard to watch, but then it should be hard to watch. Schindler’s List is every bit as good as everyone thinks it is. A masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: This Boy's Life (Michael Canton-Jones), Carlito's Way (Brian DePalma), A Perfect World (Clint Eastwood), What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (Lasse Hallstrom), The Fugitive (Andrew Davis), Farewell, My Concubine (Chen Kaige), Three Colors: Blue (Krztoff Kieslowski), In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan), Heaven and Earth (Oliver Stone), Philidelphia (Jonathan Demme), A Bronx Tale (Robert DeNiro), Naked (Mike Leigh), Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater), Falling Down (Joel Schumacher), Jurrassic Park (Steven Spielberg), True Romance (Tony Scott)

Notable Films Missed: The Puppetmaster (Hsiao-hsein Hou), Abraham’s Valley (Manouel De Oliveria).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg)
How could the Academy, or anyone else really, not give the award to Schindler’s List. This is a landmark film, brilliantly well executed by Spielberg and company. It does a great job of being an emotional powerhouse, but not giving away any of the technical brilliance we expect from Spielberg. This was an obvious choice by the Academy - and me.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Tom Hanks, Philidelphia
Tom Hanks is a great actor, and the sad truth of the matter is that in 1993 it was still considered daring for an actor his stature playing gay. When Hollywood finally decided to address the AIDS issue, they did it in this genre, the courtroom drama, because it was easily to swallow. Hanks does do a terrific job, there is no doubt about that. But out of the nominees, I would have gone with Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day. I would say Daniel Day Lewis, but as great as he is in his nominated work in In the Name of the Father, he was truly great in The Age of Innocence.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Holly Hunter, The Piano
I’m not sure that there were any more awards that Hunter could have won for her brilliant work in this film. From Cannes on down, she won everything there was to win - and with good reason. She had to negotiate a complex emotional terrain with no dialogue, and she does so wonderfully.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive
I love Tommy Lee Jones, and his performance here as the man who wants to bring in Harrison Ford’s title character, Jones is excellent. But this was a tremendous year in this category, and I would have been tempted to give the award to DiCaprio for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or Malkovich for In the Line of Fire - that is, that would only be if Fiennes hadn’t given one of the best performances of the decade in Schindler’s List.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Anna Paquin, The Piano
Normally, I don’t think much of child actors - even the best of them. But Anna Paquin truly did deserve the Oscar for her performance in The Piano. Unlike many movies, she isn’t just playing a small adult, but an actual child who has to negotiate a world that she does not understand - and she pulls it off brilliantly. There was a lot of great work this year, but Paquin truly was the best.

1 comment:

  1. Here's how I would have ranked the Top 6 Winners
    Best Picture: Schindler's List - produced by Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen & Branko Lustig
    Best Director: Steven Spielberg for Schindler's List
    Best Actor: Liam Neeson for Schindler's List
    Best Actress: Holly Hunter for The Piano
    Best Supporting Actor: Ralph Fiennes for Schindler's List
    Best Supporting Actress: Anna Paquin for The Piano