Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Year in Review: 1992

1992 was a great year for movies. Any number of my runners-up could have quite easily made this list in a weaker year, and there is not a spot on the top 10 list that doesn’t go to a brilliant movie. A very tough year to decide on my number 1 film as well as the top 2 are almost equally as brilliant.

10. The Crying Game (Neil Jordan)
Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game became infamous because of the twist that comes about half way through the movie – and it is a shocker. Yet, the film is more than just the twist. Stephen Rea gives an excellent performance as an IRA foot soldier assigned to guard Forest Whitaker – a British soldier the group has kidnapped and threatens to kill if their demands are not met. But the two unexpectedly bond, and Rea promises to take care of Whitaker’s girlfriend (Jaye Davidson) if something bad happens to him – which of course it does. Rea goes to see Whitaker’s girlfriend, falls for her, but never guesses the secret. Meanwhile, his IRA friends, mainly Miranda Richardson, try and track him down to get him to do more for them. The Crying Game is a fascinating movie, as it starts out as a thriller, and involves us in its intricate story, only to change directions on us suddenly and unexpectedly. Yet, the twist is not a cheat – it in fact makes the film deeper than we first suspect it is. Jordan has made a lot of great films in his career – but The Crying Game will be the film he is remembered for.

9. Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley)
No one writes dialogue quite like David Mamet. His stage play Glengarry Glen Ross comes to the screen intact. The film is about the lives of a group of real estate salesman. They are selling crap and know it, but they have to do it, or else they’ll lose their jobs. Al Pacino is the hotshot salesmen who can seemingly sell anything to anyone. Jack Lemmon is the one great salesman who cannot seem to catch a break. Ed Harris is fiery and angry because he cannot close with the crap he has. Alan Arkin is more resigned to his fate as a loser. Kevin Spacey is the office manager, who can give them better leads, but won’t. And Alec Baldwin is the guy from downtown who comes in to deliver a profane “motivational speech” to the guys. This is a world still populated by men who smoke cigarettes and send time at the local bar slinging back scotch instead of going home to their wives. The dialogue is terrific, and the entire cast is tremendous – especially Jack Lemmon who gives one of the very best performances of his career. You feel sorry for these poor bastards.

8. Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara)
I bet Harvey Keitel loved his role in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant – after years of watching DeNiro get the plum roles in the Scorsese movies, while he was relegated to the background, he finally got the play the “DeNiro” role, even if it wasn’t for Scorsese. Keitel plays a New York cop who is strung out on drugs and has completely lost his moral center. When he catches teenage girls in the city who shouldn’t be out, he verbally rapes them while masturbating next to their car. His newest case is the rape of a nun – and he is infuriated when she won’t name her attacker, although she knows who it is, because she has already forgiven him, and he has suffered enough. Keitel is brilliant in the lead role – he carries the movie and is in practically every shot. This is Ferrara’s best film – he is constantly experimenting and pushing boundaries, but this is the one film of his career when everything seemed to come together perfectly. A great film.

7. Leolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon)
Had Quebec director Jean-Claude Lauzon not died in an accident a few years after making this, his second and final film, then he likely could have joined the ranks of Cronenberg, Egoyan, Arcand and Jutra as the best Canadian directors of all time. His Leolo is one of those rare films that doesn’t easily fit in neatly to any genre, and because he died, we cannot place it as part of a larger body of work. It is a work of singular brilliance. The film is about 12 year old boy growing up in Montreal who has to deal with his crazy family. Unlike Fellini’s Amarcord though, this is not a nostalgic look back at Lauzon’s childhood, and his family is not just lovingly eccentric – they are actually mentally unstable in differing ways, and the young boy tries valiantly to remain sane even with the insanity that surrounds him. The almost ever present narration of the film provides us an insight into the boy’s mind as he tries, and ultimately fails, to escape his fate. This is a movie seething with anger and pain, and it tells a thinly veiled version of Lauzon’s own story, although he ended up escaping, for a time anyway, his family’s pain and torment. The film is a technical marvel – recalling to some the work of French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, yet for my money Lauzon’s film is better, as although Jeunet’s films share the technical brilliance, they are ultimately hollow exercises in style – while Lauzon’s work is something far greater. A masterwork by a director who sadly left us all too soon.

6. Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen)
Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives is one of his most interesting movies. He was going through his problems with his then wife Mia Farrow, and her adopted daughter, and he put all of that onscreen – although he changes the reality of the situation for the movie. The film is about two couples who are struggling with thoughts of separation and infidelity. Woody Allen and Mia Farrow play one couple, and he as he starts a flirtation with a student (Juliette Lewis), their best friends Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis, decide to separate, and almost immediately start to see other people, causing even more problems between them, and between Allen and Farrow. The film has a choppy editing style, unusual for an Allen film, but one that works brilliantly, as the film cuts from scene to scene. The four lead performances are all great – especially Davis as the frigid wife prone to fly into rages. Sometimes filmmakers need to get their own personal demons out in a film – and that seems to be what Allen has done in this film. In doing so, he has made one of the best films of his career.

5. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino’s debut film is not as refined as his later work – but it is just as entertaining. Opening with a now iconic scene in a diner (where the group of criminals, all dressed in black suits and ties) discuss Madonna’s Like a Virgin, and the art of tipping, gives way to the bloody aftermath of a robbery gone wrong – which we never see. One by one, the criminals arrive back at an abandoned warehouse to discuss what the hell went so horribly wrong at the robbery, eventually agreeing that there was a snitch – but no one can figure out who it is. Gradually, the film introduces flashbacks that tell us how the robbers each came to be assigned to the job. The dialogue is classic Tarantino, full of profanity and pop culture references as only he can write it (anyone who tries to copy Tarantino ends up writing crap). The performances by Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Laurence Tierny, Chris Penn – and even Steven Wright who is only heard on the radio – are spot on, as the film rushes headlong to its inevitable, violent conclusion. Tarantino would go onto make better films than Reservoir Dogs – but this is one is still wonderful.

4. One False Move (Carl Franklin)
What the hell ever happened to Carl Franklin? In this, his debut film, he shows himself to be an incredibly gifted filmmaker, crafted one of the best, most underrated crime movies of the 1990s – and yet, despite the quality of his follow-up film Devil in a Blue Dress, he has never entered the ranks of the truly great filmmakers of his generation. No matter, because One False Move is a masterful film. Three LA criminals (Billy Bob Thronton, Michael Beach and Cynda Williams) kill 6 people in a drug deal gone bad, and head to Texas to try and sell the drugs. The LAPD catches wind of the plan, and contacts small town sheriff Bill Paxton, for his help. When the LAPD arrives, Paxton is in awe of them and wonders whether or not he should go to LA to become a real cop – but is later humiliated when the cops laugh at the idea. But this is just the surface of the movie, and doesn’t begin to describe the relationships being developed between the characters, and the secrets that come out. The film is a brilliant neo-noir, and recalls the great work of Fritz Lang in 1950s film like The Big Heat. The performances are all great – especially Michael Beach as a cold hearted psychopath, Cynda Williams as a woman with secrets, and Paxton’s awe shucks country charm that turns into something more devious as the film moves along. It’s too bad Franklin didn’t make more films like One False Move – as it is a masterful film.

3. The Player (Robert Altman)
I cannot help but smile a little bit every time I think about Robert Altman’s The Player. Altman had angered Hollywood with his box office bomb Popeye in 1980 – and spent the rest of that decade pretty much making low budget, indie movies and being forgotten by the big guys. He must have smiled when he read Michael Tolkin’s screenplay about a heartless Hollywood producer (Tim Robbins) who murders a screenwriter who calls him a hack, and ends up with the writer’s wife. The Player is a merciless satire on Hollywood – the pitch meetings are hilarious, and the through line of the tough, gritty, death penalty movie to be shot in black and white with no stars where the innocent woman dies, that turns into a movie with Bruce Willis shooting out the glass of the gas chamber to save Julia Roberts from death is absolutely wonderful. The film is full of celebrity cameos, playing themselves, and almost all of them are dead on and funny as hell. The opening tracking shot, lasting nearly 8 minutes, is brilliant – paying homage to Touch of Evil and Rope (which are, of course, mentioned during the shot itself). Altman is one of the best directors in cinema history, and The Player is one of his greatest achievements.

2. Malcolm X (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee’s Malcolm X may just be the best biopic I have ever seen. Denzel Washington gives the best performance of his career as the title character, which starts out as a small time hood, and finds Islam, and the prophet Elijah Muhammad in prison, and turns his life around. Malcolm is more militant than his contemporary Martin Luther King, favoring blacks going back to Africa because America doesn’t want them, and he doesn’t want America. He becomes one of the most outspoken and controversial figures of the 1960s. Lee bravely doesn’t shy away from Malcolm’s flaws – he spends the first third of the movie on his career as a petty criminal, and then more time with him in jail. The last half of the movie details the Malcolm that everyone knows – the fiery speeches, the conflicts with others in the Nation of Islam, and how his infatuation with Elijah Muhammad leads to his disillusionment when he discovers he isn’t as perfect as he thought. Lee makes daring choices throughout the movie, showing us both the positive and negative side of Malcolm X, and the ending is a heartbreaker. It’s not so much the assassination, as the brilliant sequence right before it as Malcolm drives to what will be his final speech, set to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come” which gets under my skin every time I see it. Lee has always been a great filmmaker – and Malcolm X is one of his masterpieces, right alongside Do the Right Thing.

1. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)
Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is the final Western from a man whose name became entrenched with the genre. This is a film that drains the romanticism, and heroism, out of the genre and shows us a group of men who are all morally bankrupt. When people get shot in this film, it seems like it really hurts. Eastwood gives the best performance of his career as William Munny, a once notorious outlaw famed for his drinking and his cruelty. He is pulled back into a job, years after he settled down, of killing two men who raped and cut up a whore in a small town, and received no justice. He, along with Morgan Freeman, his old partner and Jaimz Woolveet, a kid putting on a tough guy act, ride into town to kill the men, and collect their bounty. But the sheriff (Gene Hackman) doesn’t want them there, and makes it clear from the start. Unforgiven is a movie without any heroes in it – everyone of its characters are bad guys, with death and murder in their past. The film is violent – but necessarily so – as it shows the causes and consequences of that violence. The final shootout is criticized by some who feel that it goes against what the rest of the film is about – namely that in allowing Eastwood to gun down all the men, it is in fact doing what it set out not to do. Yet, I disagree with that contention. The final shootout is violent, bloody and messy – it isn’t like the shootouts of old time Westerns, but a much more stark and horrific thing. As Eastwood heads out of town in the rain – with the American flag flying behind his head – the whole point of the movie hits home hard. This is Eastwood’s masterpiece.

Just Missed the Top 10: The Adjuster (Atom Egoyan), Batman Returns (Tim Burton), Benny's Video (Michael Haneke), Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky), Damage (Louis Malle), A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner), Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasdan), The Hairdresser's Husband (Patrice Leconte), HardBoiled (John Woo), Hoffa (Danny DeVito), Howards End (James Ivory), The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann), Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader), Porco Rosso (Hayao Miyazaki).

Notable Films Missed: And Life Goes On (Abbas Kiarostami), The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies), Orlando (Sally Potter).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)
The Academy certainly had more friendly films among the nominees – the feel good story of a blind man (Scent of a Woman), a wonderful, crowd pleasing courtroom drama (A Few Good Men) and a prestigious costume drama (Howard’s End) – yet they somewhat daringly went with this dark, moody, violent Western. The Western hasn’t been much celebrated by the Academy in the best picture race. Unless you count Cimarron or Dances with Wolves (neither really are classic Westerns), then this is actually the only Western to ever win the top prize. That is somewhat appropriate. There have been a handful of great Westerns since this film came out, but none have had the cultural impact of this film, which somehow feels like the final word on the genre. Good for the Academy for recognizing its greatness.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman
Al Pacino is one of the greatest actors in history – and he surely deserved an Oscar well before 1992. Just look the performances for which he got nominated – The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, And Justice for All, Dick Tracy, and in this same year Glengarry Glen Ross. All of them (with the possible exception of And Justice for All) were however better than his performance in Scent of a Woman. Yes, he is good and charming as a hardnosed former military man, now blind, going on an adventure with Chris O’Donnell. In fact, he plays the role just like it should be played. Yet, is it a truly great performance? Is it anywhere near as good as Washington, Eastwood, Rea or Downey Jr. (for Chaplin), who were nominated alongside him? I don’t think so. This is clearly a case of the right actor winning for the wrong movie.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Emma Thompson, Howards End
Out of the nominees, Emma Thompson clearly gives the best performance. She is wonderful as E.M. Forster’s feisty feminist heroine, trying desperately to keep her life together after she marries Anthony Hopkins’ rigid man, with a horrid past, but strict moral standards that he holds everyone else but himself to. It is a largely internal performance – one that forces us to observe her and the way she reacts throughout the movie. Thompson was still young here – and she is put to a high test by Hopkins, alongside with Vanessa Redgrave who has such a great single scene that she got nominated for an Oscar for it. Thompson lives up to them both. I will probably catch hell for saying this, but personally, I would have voted for a non-nominee this year – Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns who gives the definitive Catwoman performance and is utterly brilliant in that movie.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Gene Hackman, Unforgiven
Gene Hackman is one of the best actors of his generation, and despite the fact that he had already won an Oscar (21 years prior, for The French Connection), the Academy could not overlook his great performance in Unforgiven, as a Sheriff who thinks of himself as above the criminals, when in reality he is as bad as the rest of them. Hackman is capable of fury – he does it with the best of them – and he certainly shows that off here. But the moment I will never forget is his last one, lying on the floor waiting for Eastwood to finish him off. Hackman is a great actor, and this is one of his best performances.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny
This is one of the most controversial Oscar wins of all time – so much so that you almost feel sorry for that Tomei, a great actress, who really is a hell of a lot of fun in this movie, won. I have heard different versions of the myth that has circulated, that old Jack Palance simply reread the last name of the nominees again, and the Academy was too embarrassed to correct the mistake so Tomei won when really Vanessa Redgrave should have. Or Judy Davis. Or Miranda Richardson. Strangely, I have never read a story claiming Joan Plowright was the rightful winner. But the fact that I have read stories that claim that the other three should have won, is a pretty good indication that the story is crap, and the Academy just made a strange choice this year. Not that strange though, when you consider the Academy often gives this award to gorgeous newcomers – something that really did qualify to Tomei at the time. Besides, her career since this has been so great (especially in the last few years), that she deserved at least one Oscar.

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