Thursday, April 22, 2010

Year in Review: 1994

1994 was one of the strongest years for films of the 1990s. We saw the emergence of some great filmmakers, as well as some experienced masters up their game a little bit. I go back and forth on my number 1 and number 2 choices almost every time I think of this year – but one thing remains clear to me – that both rank among the best films ever made.

10.The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel & Ethan Coen)
I know that I will be accused by some of simply fawning over this Coen Brothers movie, which is not regarded as one of their best, with fanboyish glee, but I cannot help myself. Every time I see The Hudsucker Proxy, I laugh throughout. The film is brilliantly well made by the brothers, with expert cinematography, art direction and costume design, recreating 1958 America, not as it really was, but how it was portrayed in the movies. The brothers get excellent performances from their cast – from Tim Robbins as the na├»ve dupe who becomes an overnight hit at the toy company where he is made CEO to try and drive down the stock price, to Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a Katherine Hepburn-esque reporter, talking a mile a minute and Paul Newman, as the corrupt businessman smoking big cigars. Like many of their films, The Hudsucker Proxy is a celebration of movies of the past, and wonderfully quirky comedy. I still love it when Robbins shows his sketches for his invention – the hula hoop – which is just a circle, and tells everyone “You know, for kids!”

9. Exotica (Atom Egoyan)
Along with The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica represents Atom Egoyan at his absolute best. They are perhaps the only two movies of his career where everything worked out just about perfectly for him. Exotica is at its heart a mystery – we never truly know who the characters are in relation to each other, and Egoyan only gradually reveals all this information to us. The action centers around a strip club, where Mia Kirshner works as a stripper, while her ex-boyfriend Elias Koteas is the DJ. Every night tax auditor Bruce Greenwood comes in and gets a private dance from Kirshner, in her school girl outfit, which sparks Koteas’ jealously. Just what all these characters mean to each other is only revealed slowly, through Egoyan’s masterful direction which uses a flashback structure. Unlike many movies that withhold information in this fashion, Exotica never annoyed me, but rather simply drew me deeper and deeper into the mystery of the film. If Egoyan makes a film this good again, it will be a cause for celebration.

8. Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson)
After making some wonderful, low budget shockers – like Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Dead Again – Peter Jackson really came into his own as a filmmaker with this wonderful, dark fantasy dream turned nightmare of a movie. Melanie Lynsky and Kate Winslet give excellent performances as two teenage girls who develop a close friendship – really too close to be normal. When their parents step in and try and get in the way of the friendship, they decide that they cannot let that happen. The movie focuses on the friendship between these two girls – and the fantasy world into which they retreat, brought brilliantly to life using clay models by Jackson and company. Lynsky and Winslet were unknowns at the time, and both of them deliver powerful performances as the two girls who refuse to be separated. When all is said and done, I think that Heavenly Creatures may just be the best film Peter Jackson has directed in his career so far.

7. Three Colors: Red (Kryztoff Kieslowski)
I do think that Kieslowski’s Blue is a wonderful film in it’s own right, and that White, while easily the least of the three films, is a wonderful comedy (or anti-comedy if you will) as well. But it is the final chapter in the trilogy, Red, which is truly the masterwork of the series. The story concerns a model (Irene Jacob) who hits a dog with her car, and tracks down the owner – a retired judge who know spends his time eavesdropping on his neighbors – who doesn’t seem to care. Gradually, the movie spins out and shows the interconnections between all the characters and more. The film is really about how we behave in society – the difference between morals and laws, and how our behavior effects those around us. Kieslowski was a great filmmaker, and this, his last film, may just be the best film he ever made.

6. Hoop Dreams (Steve James)
Hoop Dreams is one of those documentaries that if it wasn’t real, you would swear that a Hollywood screenwriter came up with it. The film follows two young men from the inner city – William Gates and Arthur Agee, who are recruited to a prestigious private high school with an excellent basketball program. The film follows them for years, and gets to know them, and their families, intimately as they struggle to become basketball stars, as well as getting used to a new environment and their studies. The film is a powerful dissection of race and class, as well as one that looks at the twisted values America has – these two young men would have no shot at getting anywhere, if they didn’t know how to play basketball. They are being used, but are trying to use the system themselves. Hoop Dreams is one of the best documentaries you will ever see.

5. Ed Wood (Tim Burton)
Tim Burton is a director that I have always admired, but who I feel has a tendency to make great looking, but ultimately rather hollow films – a tendency that has gotten worse as his career progressed. Having said that, I think Ed Wood is far and away his best film – a glorious celebration of cinema’s worst director in history brought brilliantly to life by Johnny Depp in perhaps his best performance. Depp’s Wood is so wonderfully clueless as to his own lack of talent – he really does believe he is making Citizen Kane. Martin Landau gives a wonderful performance as Bela Legosi, who by the time Wood found him when a drug addict who was pretty much unemployable in the film world. The rest of the cast is also great – and I particularly love Vincent D’Onofrio as Orson Welles, who until Christain McKay’s performance in last year’s Me & Orson Welles was the best screen version of the icon. Shot in beautiful black and white, the film is utterly hilarious, and completely unique. Unlike many of his films, Ed Wood feels like a personal project for Burton, and that passion comes out in every frame.

4. Quiz Show (Robert Redford)
Robert Redford’s Quiz Show is old school Hollywood filmmaking at its intelligent best. The film looks at the infamous game show scandal in the 1950s, where contestants on the show Twenty One were fed the answers because executives want to choose who won and who lost. Ralph Fiennes is excellent as the golden boy – Charles Van Doren – who they wanted to win. John Turturro is equally excellent as a man who throws his chance away at the behest of producers, and then regrets it. Rob Morrow is the government man sent to investigate what is really going on. The movie spins it web wonderfully, mixing in dozens of characters who are fascinating (Paul Scofield is quite good in his Oscar nominated performance as Van Doren’s father for example), and the implications the film has are far greater than just on the game show universe. Watching the film now, I get a chill when Martin Scorsese comes on for his cameo appearance where he says Quiz Shows won’t die – they’ll just make the questions easier, because it’s all about the money, not intelligence. Whenever a new game show – like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Deal or No Deal – becomes a hit for a short period of time, I think of this movie. Redford’s best film as a director by far.

3. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont)
The Shawshank Redemption has become one of the most beloved films of all time – and with good reason. It’s story about a friendship that forms between two prisoners at Shawshank prison is one of the most uplifting, emotional movies I have ever seen in my life. Tim Robbins is excellent as the banker who is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, and struggles to adjust to prison life. Morgan Freeman gives one of his best performances as a veteran prisoner who eventually takes him under his wing. The movie is full of sharp characterizations – all the supporting players in the movie become real people, and the movies now infamous climax is one of the great movie moments of all time. When this movie comes on TV, I am hard pressed to change the channel. It has earned its spot on the all time best movies list.

2. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has inspired a generation of filmmakers – for better and for worse. How many lame attempts have we seen by lesser talents to copy Tarantino’s trademark visual style and verbal gymnastics? But none of that has diminished the impact of Tarantino’s films, especially Pulp Fiction which in my mind remained his best film until last year’s Inglorious Basterds. Mixing together multiple storylines, and moving back and forth in time, Pulp Fiction tells of the interrelated escapades of a group of LA criminals – John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, Bruce Willis as a boxer who throws a fight, Ving Rhames as a mob boss, Uma Thurmas as his drug addicted wife, Eric Stoltz as a drug dealer, Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer as a couple robbing a diner, Harvey Keitel as a cleaner as others who filter in and out of the story. Through it all, Tarantino keeps the movie progressing from one scene to the next with giddy pride, violence rumbling under the surface of every scene, and the hilarious dialogue sometimes giving way to something much darker. Pulp Fiction will probably remain the most well known of Tarantino’s films – it has certainly earned its spot on the list of most influential films of all time – but I think that Tarantino is getting better and better. He may top this one a few more times before he’s done.

1. Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone)
Without a doubt the most controversial film of the year – perhaps even the decade – Oliver Stone’s film about mass murderers Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) is a brilliant dissection of American values. Yes the film is unrelentingly violent from almost beginning to end, but it has to be. Stone takes aim at the media head on – here represented by the brilliant Robert Downey Jr. as a reporter who wants to interview Mickey and Mallory for his TV show. The movie is really about America’s fascination with violence, and how the media eats it up, making heroes out of this killers. The entire cast is great – Tommy Lee Jones has a small role as the hillbilly warden, Rodney Dangerfield as Lewis’ perverted dad, saying the most heinous things as a laugh track plays in the background, and Tom Sizemore is great as a psychopathic cop on their trail, in addition to Harrelson, Lewis and Downey – but the movie really is Stone’s show. The brilliant cinematography, the editing which mixes different types of film stock, creates a chaotic motion picture – one that swirls around and gets inside your head and stays there. Natural Born Killers is a masterpiece as only Oliver Stone could make it.

Just Missed the Top 10: Clerks (Kevin Smith), The Last Seduction, The Boys of St. Vincent (John Smith), Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis), The Professional (Luc Besson), Red Rock West (John Dahl), Crooklyn (Spike Lee), Vanya on 42nd Street (Louis Malle), 71 Fragments of a Chornology of Chance (Michael Haneke), Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen).

Notable Films Missed: Sanatango (Bela Tarr), Chunghi Express (Wong Kar Wai), Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami), Caro Diaro (Nanni Moretti), To Live (Zhang Yimou)

Oscar Winner – Picture & Director: Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis)
The Academy actually did a fairly good job this year – nominating 3 of my top 4 films, although this wasn’t one of them. I know that Forrest Gump has not been as kindly received by critics in retrospect as it was at the time – and it is clearly nowhere near the film that Pulp Fiction is – but I still do admire this film, which is heartwarming in its simplicity. No, it isn’t a great film, but I still quite like it.

Oscar Winner – Actor: Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump
Like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, I find Tom Hanks performance in Forrest Gump to be just about perfect for the role, but not all that challenging. After all, Forrest doesn’t really change from beginning to end of this movie, but simply stays his simplistic self. It is a fine performance don’t get me wrong, but I would have much preferred John Travolta or Morgan Freeman out of the nominees winning this, not to mention Woody Harrelson and Johnny Depp who weren’t even nominated.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Jessica Lange, Blue Sky
This was a wonderful year for lead actresses, but you wouldn’t know it by the nominees or Lange’s winning performance – which I find rather dull and at times annoying, in a film that I really did not like at all. There is a reason why this sat on the shelf for more than a year. They ruled the best lead performance by a female this year – Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction to be ineligible, but they also overlooked Juliette Lewis, Irene Jacob and Melanie Lynsky’s great performances. I think all of the nominees were probably better than this performance (although I would have complained if Miranda Richardson won for Tom & Viv as well), but this is one of those rare occurances where I wouldn’t have voted for any of the nominees.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Martin Landau, Ed Wood
I find it impossible to complain about Martin Landau’s win for this performance. For one thing, he has had a long and wonderful career. For another, he really is perfect as Bela Legosi in this film. Personally, I do think Samuel L. Jackson’s now iconic hit man from Pulp Fiction should have won – and Robert Downey Jr.’s crazed performance in Natural Born Killers should have at least been nominated, but I won’t complain.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway.
Dianne Wiest is wonderful is her second Oscar winning performance for Woody Allen. She plays an ego centric actress who is wrapping writer/director John Cusack around her little finger so brilliantly in this film. Personally, I would have voted for Uma Thurman, but Wiest is a fine choice.

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