Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Year in Review: 1995

1995 was one of the best years of the 1990s for movies. All you need to do is look at the films that didn’t make this list to see that – I cannot believe just how many great films came out this year. As you will see in the Oscar section however, they did a poor job at getting the best films into the Best Picture line-up. This is one of the only years I can recall where not one Best Picture Nominee made it to my top ten list. Pity.

10. The American President (Rob Reiner)
I know I am often accused of being rather pretentious in my movie tastes – many years in this series contain any number of foreign films by master filmmakers that most audiences have never heard of, let alone seen their films – but a great romantic comedy can still find a place on any of these lists. For proof, I offer Rob Reiner’s The American President, one of those films that I have seen countless times on TV, and will most likely countless more times. Michael Douglas is intelligent, funny and charming as the widowed American President, who meets and falls in love with a lobbyist played by the radiant Annette Benning. Aaron Sorkin’s intelligent, witty screenplay set the stage for his groundbreaking television work on The West Wing. Surprisingly, the film doesn’t back away from political questions, but addresses them head on. But mainly, this is a romantic comedy set at the White House, with the two leads in top form. That final speech Douglas gives, where he goes on the attack finally, is one of the best speeches of the 1990s – and never fails to bring a tear to my eye. A great entertainment.

9. Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins)
I find it slightly amazing that three of the biggest liberals in Hollywood – director Tim Robbins and his stars Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn – could make a movie this fair and balanced about the death penalty. This is not a movie that preaches for one side or the other, but presents the issues with all of the facts on full display and lets the audience make up their own mind – if you walk in pro-death penalty, you may leave with second thoughts, and if you walk in against, the same thing may happen to you. Sean Penn gives a brilliant performance as a convicted rapist and murderer in the final gasps of appeals as he awaits to die by lethal injection. Susan Sarandon is the nun who becomes his spiritual adviser in those final weeks, day and finally hours. He had no use for God before she enters his life, but for some reason, he grows to trust her, and confides his true feelings to her. The ending of the movie is powerful for a multitude of reasons – and that is regardless of whether you think Penn deserves his ultimate fate or not.

8. To Die For (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant’s To Die For is a movie for our celebrity obsessed times. Nicole Kidman gives what could be her finest performance as Susan Stone, a small town weather girl who dreams of being the next Dianne Sawyer or Barbara Walters, but feels that her lovable lunk of a husband (Matt Dillon) is holding her back. Under the guise of making a documentary about high school students, she meets three outcasts – played by Joaquin Phoenix, Allison Folland and Casey Affleck – and thinks she can use them to get what she wants – her husband dead, thus generating sympathy for her and propelling her to stardom. She seduces both Phoenix and Folland – Phoenix through sex, where she can manipulate him into doing anything for her, and Folland through her glamorous lifestyle – a beautiful woman paying attention to her, and caring about her is something she never had before. Van Sant’s movie is darkly comic – the style is clearly satire – and the movie weaves its spell over us. This is the movie that propelled Kidman to stardom, and it’s easy to see why – she is brilliant in the lead role.

7. Seven (David Fincher)
In the wake of the success of The Silence of the Lambs, there were a lot of movies that tried to capture the same magic as that film did with their dark stories about serial killers. While many of these films are good, only David Fincher’s Seven really comes close to matching the intensity of the previous film. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt give excellent performances as top Detectives – one a week away from retirement, the other just promoted to the big job in the big city. A serial killer pretty much falls into their lap as two bodies are discovered – one an grossly obese man who seems to have literally eaten himself to death and the word gluttony written on the wall, the other a high priced lawyer who has had a pound of flesh extracted with the word Greed written on the wall. Freeman correctly deduces that this is part of a series where the victims will be killed one by one – punished by someone for committing one of the seven deadly sins. The film is dark all the way, and tremendously well directed by Fincher, making us think we see a lot more violence then we actually do. The film is anchored by the performances of Freeman and Pitt, but contains fine supporting work by Gwyneth Paltrow, and finally Kevin Spacey who is amazing in his few short scenes as the killer. Seven is intelligent, disturbing and brilliant.

6. The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer)
Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects is one of those movies that I can watch over and over again and never get tired of it. That is saying something because normally movies with this sort of twist ending – one of the best in screen history – get boring after one viewing. But The Usual Suspects offers such amazing detail – such great performances and dialogue – that it never gets old. The film is about a group of criminals who were brought in for a lineup after a robbery of gun parts. Played by Gabriel Bryne, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollock and Kevin Spacey, they get together to pull off several crimes. Now, in the aftermath of a massacre, Spacey is the only survivor and he is telling his story to a skeptical Chazz Palmeterri who wants to know the real story. One of the fascinating things about The Usual Suspects is how it holds you in the grip of its story – both Spacey and Singer are excellent storytellers – and how when it is all over we cannot tell how much of what we just saw was truth, and how much was fiction. The film has become a cult favorite in the years since its release – and with good reason. It’s one of the best crime films of the 1990s.

5. Casino (Martin Scorsese)
To some, Martin Scorsese’s Casino was simply a repeat of his earlier masterwork GoodFellas. But while I do certainly see the similarities between the two films, this film certainly holds up as a work unto itself. Scorsese sets his eyes on Las Vegas and the mob world there. Focusing on Ace (Robert DeNiro), a Jewish bookmaker who moves out to Vegas from New York, and quickly turns the casinos into cash machines for the mob, Scorsese’s film shows just how the mob got away with it all. I love movies that give you an insiders view on how scams are pulled off, and this is just one of the many things Scorsese does brilliantly well in this film. It is also a portrait of sexual jealously – as Ace falls in love with a sometime con artist, sometime prostitute (Sharon Stone – in the best performance of her career) and marries her, even though he knows she remains loyal to her pimp (James Woods – deliciously slimy). Joe Pesci is also on hand as Ace’s hotheaded childhood friend, who sees Vegas in a whole different light – and soon the childhood friends are at each other’s throats over Stone. Scorsese’s film is tremendously entertaining, and also insightful, bloody, violent and disturbing. No, it is not as good as GoodFellas – but if that was the standard for being a great film, then nothing this year would surpass it.

4. Heat (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann’s Heat has to go down as the best heist movie of the 1990s – and perhaps the best pure action movie period. His complex, epic bank robbery movie logs in at close to three hours, but is never slow, never boring. He contrasts the lives of robber Robert DeNiro, and his crew, to that of cop Al Pacino, and the his men who try and bring him down. It finds the time to explore the personal lives of the men involved – all of whom have troubled relationships with their wives. There are several great action sequences in the movie – the great first robbery of an armored car and the now legendary bank robbery that leads to a shootout on the streets of L.A. But the scene that the film – and perhaps Mann himself – will always be remembered for comes in the middle of the film, as DeNiro and Pacino sit down at opposite sides of booth in dingy coffee shop to size each other up, and try and intimidate the other. The film is elevated by these two great actors at the absolute height of their game, and they are at the heart of one of the great heist movies ever made – and perhaps Michael Mann’s finest film as a director.

3. Crumb (Terry Zwigoff)
Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is one of the most fascinating documentaries I have ever seen. Robert Crumb is one of the most influential comic book artists of all time – his underground work on things like Fritz the Cat have made him a hero to outsiders everywhere. Crumb has remained a private man, but worried that his friend Zwigoff might commit suicide, he agreed to let him make this movie, and gave him pretty much unlimited access. Zwigoff looks unflinchingly at the work of Crumb – which is disgusting, sexist, racist, shocking, satirical, brilliant and hilarious – in short, it is the art of man who is a troubled genius who needs to get all his ugly feelings out of him somehow, or else go insane. It is rare for a documentary about an artist to have such inside access to an artist and his family – and rarer still that they would be so open and honest (once Crumb admits that he masturbated to Bugs Bunny cartoons as a kid, you have to assume that he is not lying about anything). Crumb is a brilliant journey into the mind of a troubled genius artist – a rare and terrific documentary.

2. Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis)
There are most likely hundreds of movies in history about alcoholics – actors love to play drunk, and their stories are often fascinating. But out all of the movies I have seen about the subject, Leaving Las Vegas is far and away the best. Nicolas Cage gives his best performance as a former Hollywood screenwriter who has failed at everything he has attempted, and has decided to come to Las Vegas and drink himself to death. There he meets Elisabeth Shue, who works as a prostitute, and a bond between the two of them begins. This is not a relationship based on sex, but on mutual need. They are both alone in the world, and having someone near them, that expects nothing from you, helps them. The performances by the two leads are the best of the year – they play off of each other brilliantly – and the movie becomes more tragic as it moves towards its shattering climax. A brilliant movie about addiction, dependence and eventually, love.

1. Nixon (Oliver Stone)
Oliver Stone’s Nixon is perhaps the most underrated film of the director’s career. At more than three hours long, Stone looks at Nixon, not just as the President, but as a man. Included in the film are flashbacks to Nixon’s childhood, where he is surrounded by death, and that marks him for life. But the film mainly focuses on Nixon from the time he first decided to run for President, right up until he has to resign. Anthony Hopkins is a marvelous performance as Nixon. He doesn’t much look like the man, but he captures his voice, his mannerisms, his paranoia, his profanity, and surprisingly, makes us feel sympathy for the man. Nixon is caught up in a game that he cannot win. His massive inferiority complex mars him for life, and feeds into that paranoia that will eventually be his downfall. The film contains a ton of excellent performances – James Woods and JT Walsh as Haldeman and Ehrlichman, his right hand men, Paul Sorvino as Kissinger, Bob Hoskins as Hoover, Powers Booth as Alexander Haig, Ed Harris as E. Howard Hunt, E.G. Marshall as John Mitchell and David Hyde Pierce as John Dean are just a few of the men who deliver excellent supporting turns. No one is better however than Joan Allen as Pat Nixon. Normally portrayed as little more than the background, Allen makes Pat into a real person – angry with Nixon for what he does to her family. It also portrays their relationship as one based on mutual need, and makes Nixon look rather pathetic at times. But what impresses me most about the movie – aside for its masterful storytelling that crams as much information into its running time as possible – is how this is not just a demonic portrayal of Nixon. As good as Robert Altman’s Secret Honor and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon were, neither one of them were interested in Nixon as a person. Stone finds surprising sympathy for the man who would become the most hated President in American history. A masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: Heidi Fliess: Hollywood Madam, Kids, Twelve Monkeys, Apollo 13, Clean Shaven, Toy Story, Clockers, Once Were Warriors, Mighty Aphrodite, Rob Roy, Devil in a Blue Dress, Braveheart, Georgia, Dolores Claiborne, Safe, Clueless, Dead Presidents, Sense and Sensibilty, Before Sunrise, Babe, Get Shorty.

Notable Films Missed: A Moment of Innocence, Underground, The Bridges of Madison County, Fallen Angels, The Pillow Book

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Braveheart (Mel Gibson)
1995 had a wealth of great films to choose from when it came time for the Academy awards – and in the best picture line-up they ignored them all. The winner, Braveheart, is a respectable, old school Hollywood epic with a big star – Mel Gibson – doing an adequate job in the lead role and behind the camera. The battle sequences are truly intense, bloody and brilliant. But the rest of the film is nowhere close to it. The film is mounted on phony dramatics, homophobia and romance that goes nowhere. In light of what came after in Gibson’s career, it also shows just how much he relishes torture, blood and violence. Of the other nominees – Sense and Sensibility, Apollo 13 and even Babe are vastly superior overall movies, but even they fall short of true greatness. I guess it could have been worse – they could have given it to Il Postino, whose off screen story was so much better than its onscreen one.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas
This is the best performances of Cage’s career – and considering how brilliant he can be, I think that is saying a lot. He captures this guy who wants nothing more than to kill himself by drinking. Yes, he stumbles and slurs like many movie drunks before him (Ray Milland, Jack Lemmon, Charles Laughton, William Powell, Richard Burton, etc), but there is much more to his performance than that. He taps into the self loathing of this character, and yet his need to connect with someone – if for no other reason than to have someone witness his death. Despite how great fellow nominees Anthony Hopkins and Sean Penn were, this was in a class by itself.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking
The Academy really wanted to give Sarandon an Oscar at this point. She had been a great actress for nearly two decades at this point, and this was her fifth Oscar nomination (and fourth in five years), so they finally rewarded her. I am relieved to report though that for once, a seeming career achievement award went to a worthy performance. Sarandon is sympathetic and yet forceful in her role as a nun comforting a prisoner who is about to die by lethal injection. She doesn’t tell him, or us, precisely what we want to hear, but instead what we need to hear. This could well be Sarandon’s best performance, and so she earned this Oscar – even if I think Elisabeth Shue (who never really got a decent role ever again) was even better.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects
Kevin Spacey is excellent in this movie, as the storyteller who pulls the wool over everyone’s eyes. Spacey was, at this point in his career, a solid, steady character actor in such films as Glengarry Glen Ross among other. But 1995 was his breakout year – first as the psychopath in David Fincher’s Seven, and then hear as the seemingly pathetic Verbal Kint who spins one of the greatest yarns in cinema history. Yes, the twist ending is probably what put this victory over the top – but Spacey’s entire performance is wonderful from beginning to end.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite
Mira Sorvino is delightful as the blonde bimbo prostitute that Woody Allen tracks down because he wants to know who the mother of his adopted baby is. She plays a role that is somewhat unlike most Allen women – she isn’t demanding, she’s just brilliantly dumb. Personally, I don’t think that Mighty Aphrodite ranks among the best films of Allen’s career – and Sorvino certainly does not rank with the other Oscar winning performances from his films (Diane Keaton, Michael Caine and Diane Wiest times 2), but it’s an enjoyable performance nonetheless, and she was a beautiful, young newcomer which the Academy likes in this category. It’s too bad that Sorvino has never been anywhere near this good for the rest of her career. And by the way, Joan Allen in Nixon is far and away the best this category had to offer this year.

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