1993 - Part 2
Christina Ricci, ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES
If you want to pinpoint the moment when Christina Ricci officially became an interesting actress, this would be it. She's admitted that in the first ADDAMS FAMILY, she was essentially doing an impression of Winona Ryder's work in BEETLEJUICE. In this movie, however, she embraces the Wednesday character, making it hers, with a special devilish glee in everything she does. For the first time, it's possible to get glimpses of the actress she has eventually become. The film itself is a moderately wicked little comedy, with its biggest kicks due to the poison pen of Paul Rudnick, but in the moments when Ricci is featured, the film becomes something special, sick and twisted and completely hers.
Henry Czerny, THE BOYS OF ST. VINCENT
For some reason, it became somewhat vogue over the course of this decade to Catholic-bash, in particular by making jokes about priests and little boys. In this film, however, Henry Czerny proves that it's nothing to laugh about. His performance is both human and monstrous, vulnerable and terrifying. He gives us a glimpse of the soul inside the sickness, and because of that, it becomes a far more disturbing portrait than it would otherwise have been. Like Dylan Baker in HAPPINESS, Czerny took a huge risk here, doing such a great job playing such an horrific character that it could be possible to forget that he‚s acting. Even now, seven years later, I get a tightness, a sick feeling in my stomach, when I see Czerny show up, which regrettably isn't often enough.
Sean Penn, CARLITO'S WAY
Although this movie features a host of great supporting performances to choose film, Penn stands tallest among the crowd. Considering this isn't a movie that's necessarily about the perils of drug addiction, Penn manages to paint an effective portrait of how far someone can slide before they even know there's a problem. Like the best of his work, this is edgy difficult material that Penn tackles with no problem. There's also something magnificent about the way Penn has no ego regarding his appearance onscreen. Davy Kleinfeld is a truly spectacular geek, no matter how much money or power he gets, no matter how many women he's with. His fashion sense is unerringly awful, and his hair is a marvel of modern architecture. This is the very definition of character acting, with Penn vanishing completely into his role.
Jason Scott Lee, DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY
Talk about a thankless role. Bruce Lee was one of the most electric performers to ever grace a movie screen, and trying to recapture that mercurial quality of his would seem impossible at first. What JS Lee brings to it is the right combination of moves, physique, and an understanding of Bruce's special mix of arrogance, humor, and philosophical calm. The film itself is a fairly average Hollywood biopic, but the work by JS Lee should have propelled him into the ranks of leading men in this town. It's that difficult, and he did it that well.
Jeff Bridges, FEARLESS
I can't think of a better combination of lead actor and film title. From the film's opening frames, when we find Bridges wandering through a cornfield, clutching a baby to his chest, a look of almost divine calm on his face, this is a special performance, one we've never seen from Bridges. He plays a man who has spent his life so paralyzed by fear that when he finally comes face-to-face with death and lives, something inside of him tears loose, and he suddenly has to challenge death every day, in every way he can. Whenever I think of Bridges and his work this decade, the phrase "raw nerve" comes to mind first. It's like he doesn't have the equipment to mask what he's feeling. It's all right there at the surface, bubbling out of him in the strangest ways. This is the kind of work that genuinely elevates the very craft of film acting.
Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, FLESH AND BONE
Steve Kloves‚ second film is a small, simple character study that looks like a suspense film on the surface. Frequently, casting a married couple as an onscreen couple doesn't work, and I think it's because there's no tension between them. Desire has long since passed into comfort, and there's no sparks in comfort. Quaid and Ryan had worked together before this film to some small success. I still think INNERSPACE and D.O.A. are enjoyable larks. Nothing they'd done suggested that they would be able to pull off such an intimate, delicate film, though. Ryan in particular is a bruised spirit in this movie, damaged by the past, reaching out for some sort of healing. That she tries to find it in Quaid, one of the people directly responsible for her suffering, is the film's great irony, and he plays it perfectly, fumbling to save her and himself at the same time. They're given great support by James Caan as the creepy Uncle Roy and a young Gwenyth Paltrow as Roy's traveling companion, but this is Quaid and Ryan's show. They rise to the occasion with grace and skill.
Bill Murray, GROUNDHOG DAY
Forget about THE RAZOR'S EDGE. This film proves that Bill can handle pretty much anything a director would ever want to throw at him. He manages to hit every note an actor can hit over the running time of the movie, and that's because the film lets him change as the world around him stays the same. I don't think I've ever seen Bill unleash quite as much of himself onscreen, and the overall effect brings us closer as an audience to him than we've ever been. His cynical hipster characters have always maintained a distance, building a wall of sarcasm around themselves. This time, though, we see that wall crumble, brick by brick, until we're left with someone else, someone that might just be the real Murray. It's great work, brave and funny, and it pays off the film's magnificent concept in spades.
Brad Pitt, KALIFORNIA
I'm not much for the film overall, but I will give Pitt credit for bucking one of the most obnoxious trends in '90s cinema: the all-knowing, super-intelligent, highly cultured, nearly-omniscent psycho. Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer... these were not urbane conversationalists. They were barely functioning human beings with an extreme form of poor impulse control. Their behavior wasn't a philosophical choice or a comment on society... they were crazy, sick, and damaged. That's Early Grace in this film, filthy and inarticulate and dangerous. This was the first time I got a hint that Pitt might be more than just another pretty face, that he might be someone worth watching. It's an early promise that he continues to live up to today.
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY
I am an unabashed admirer of Allen's, especially his mid to late '70s work. ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN both give me pleasure no matter how many times I see them. When Keaton and Allen split and Mia Farrow became his primary muse, I enjoyed the films despite her, not because of her. I've never thought she had even a fraction of the comic ability that Keaton did. When the two reteamed for this film, I found myself glad that it wasn't "serious" Allen, since their rhythms have always been perfect for comedy. Keaton's a particular wonder here, giddy at the idea of solving a murder, dragging the reluctant Allen into the plot. By the time the film reaches its LADY IN SHANGHAI-inspired ending, I didn't really care how it resolved. I was just delighted to have taken the ride with these two old friends.
David Thewliss, NAKED
Mike Leigh's method of creating a film is near-legendary now, using extended improvisational rehearsals to find his films, and this film has got to be one of the best examples of what happens when that process pays off. Thewliss is magnificent, a disgusting character with a strange, sleazy charisma who is prone to these torrents of language. He can hurt or hypnotize or amuse or eviscerate with his words, and to think that it all came out of the actor is actually a little intimidating. There's one moment in particular, when Thewliss is ranting about the number of the beast, that I find among the most mesmerizing moments of the decade, and it's nothing but words and performance. Smashing work.
Anthony Hopkins, REMAINS OF THE DAY
When they teach film acting to future generations, this is the performance they should start with. This, and not SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, is the piece of work that cemented Hopkins‚ reputation as one of the finest actors this generation. There's nothing mannered or broad or easy about his work here. On the contrary, he does something that very few actors ever manage: he makes real repression interesting. So often, actors telegraph everything when they're playing someone who is powerless to act for themselves, to give voice to what's inside them. Hopkins makes every choice in favor of subtlety, truth. There is a powerful longing to his work here, but he's literally forgotten how to unlock these doors in himself. It's heartbreaking, and it's a credit to Hopkins that it is so affecting no matter how many times I see it.
Ashley Judd, RUBY IN PARADISE
There's something raw and unpolished about Judd in this film, her first, that still compels me. She's not the Prada-wearing glamourpuss we see on awards shows or in films like EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. This is just a sweet southern girl, looking to find some corner of the world she can call her own. It's touching because it's so recognizable, so ordinary. There's no way she could ever strip away all the experience she's had since this film was made and play this innocent again, so in a way, this is a record of an Ashley Judd that doesn't exist now, a fading portrait that will only get more poignant as the years go by. It's something to treasure.
Sean Astin, RUDY
For anyone who just groaned when they saw this title, shame on you. What kind of twisted grinch do you have to be to not like RUDY? Yes, I know it's a sports film, and yes, I know that it's knee-deep in cliche, but sometimes that works anyway. Astin isn't just playing Rudy in this film... he is Rudy, that guy who will do whatever it takes, push himself however hard he has to, in order to make his one dream come true. Astin had a lot of baggage stacked against him going into this film. He defined himself pretty well as a child actor, and that's never an easy thing to age past. In this film, he gives such a winning performance, projecting such a simple, unforced charm, that you have to root for him. When we reach the inevitable big moment and Rudy comes charging out onto that field for his victory, it works because Astin earns it from us. We want him to be happy. We want to see him win. We don't care if we know it's coming, because it is so damn right.
Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, SCHINDLER'S LIST
I remember Spielberg and Neeson talking repeatedly about how Time Warner chairman Steven Ross was the inspiration for Neeson's portrayal of Oskar Schindler, and if that's true, then I'm sorry I never got to meet him. Neeson projects a charisma in this film that is almost too much to take. He fills a room up when he enters, overpowers everyone with his pure force of will. He would knock the film totally off-balance if Spielberg hadn't lucked out and found Ralph Fiennes, who proves to be Neeson's equal in the most magnetic work he's ever done. It's a little unnerving that the most life we've ever seen from Fiennes, the most fire he's ever shown, has been while playing a horrible murderous thug, a disgusting man who somehow believes he's above the horrors he commits. He has fooled himself into believing he's got some entitlement, some right to be who he is, to do what he does. He doesn't think he's a monster. Witness that stark, awful moment between he and Embeth Davidtz in the wine cellar, when he reveals his heart to this Jewish maid, only to realize his mistake. Ralph has been accused time and time again of being chilly, emotionally distant. That's certainly not the case here.
Colm Feore, 32 SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD
It's not a biopic, and it's not a documentary, and he's not really Glenn Gould, but you'd swear that all three were true as you watch this marvelous little Canadian gem in which Feore completely inhabits one of music's most mysterious modern geniuses. By refusing to offer up a simple A-B-C journey through a man‚s life, the film offers no easy answers as to what made Gould great. Feore believes he knows, though, and he expresses it in nuanced, delicate work that I found haunting.
Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, TRUE ROMANCE
It almost pains me to include any mention of this film on my list, since I've always found it to be wildly overrated and painfully derivative. Yes, Quentin... yes, Tony... I liked BADLANDS, too. Let's move on. In one moment, though, the film comes to life, and it's when Hopper and Walken face each other down in a trailer, Hopper tied to a chair, beaten and bloody. It's electric, and it's inevitably the first thing people bring up when they mention the movie. If only the rest of the movie could even approach the intensity of that moment, it might actually have lived up to all the empty hype.
Leonardo Di Caprio, WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE
I can think of no greater compliment to pay to a performance than the giant raging argument that my girlfriend and I had on the way home from our viewing of GILBERT GRAPE. She was convinced that the actor playing Arnie was actually retarded, something that I knew wasn't true. She never watched GROWING PAINS, hadn't seen the lousy CRITTERS sequel he was in, so she had absolutely no point of reference for him as an actor. She knew that his work in the film was agonizingly real, though, and she simply couldn't accept that a kid his age would be able to do something that so many other actors have tried and failed at over the years. Di Caprio doesn't romanticize Arnie. He's not some charmed imp who speaks pearls of wisdom amidst his rants. He's not some super-powered autistic who has just the right ability to save his family. He's just a kid with severe emotional and mental disabilities, a real kid who sometimes pisses his family off, who is frequently exhausting, who wears his heart close to the surface. Based on his work here, I would forgive Di Caprio any time he spends sidetracked, any roles he phones in. He's got the ability to simply vanish, to give eloquent voice to a soul as sweet as this, and that's no accident, no one-time thing.
Angela Bassett and Lawrence Fishburne, WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
This is what it looks like when actors of enormous ability spend years playing roles that aren't equal to their craft, only to hook up for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cut loose, to clean the pipes, to knock one out of the park. Bassett and Fishburne seem to be daring each other to turn it up in every scene, and their work together is textured, rich, and rewarding. There's a real joy of performing that comes spilling out when they‚re making music, an energy that boils over when they're fighting. This is the best kind of duet between performers, when they both walk away better for the experience.
"HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS"
Tom Fontana has a very special gift as a TV writer, the gift of subtlety. He's not afraid to let little moments carry the weight of an entire script, and he's always more interested in character than in simple plot mechanics. I adore his work on the early seasons of this show, and the characters he created were fascinatingly flawed without every feeling like stereotype. NYPD BLUE may have been the bigger hit, but HOMICIDE was an artistic triumph that Bochco's show could never equal.
"LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN"
David Letterman was one of my '80s addictions, so I wasn't terribly disposed to liking anyone who was going to try and take his place when he left NBC to go head to head with Jay Leno. When Conan O'Brien was announced as host, I was sure NBC was crazy. I was familiar with him as a writer for THE SIMPSONS and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, but he had no significant on-camera experience. From the first joke in that first episode, though, there was a sense that Conan knew just how stacked the deck was, and he thought it was all fodder for material. No one has been a more consistent butt of insanely cruel humor on his show than Conan himself, and it's that constant self-deprecation that eventually won people over. What the show has become now is a glorious little corner of absurdity. I'll miss Andy Richter when he leaves the show this year, and I hope his departure doesn't throw off the show's sense of balance. Considering how impossible it seemed when he started, the continuing success of O'Brien has become a favorite concern of mine.
What is there to say about Chris Carter's sly and stylish nod to KOLCHAK THE NIGHT STALKER? Mulder and Scully are firmly entrenched in the fabric of the decade, iconic characters that have made laid-back stars out of the charismatic Duchovny and Anderson. Even though the show has played out its primary myth-arc for way too long, it still proves to be one of the most consistent entertainments on the small screen. It‚s consistently smart, witty without ever being obnoxious, and it manages the rare feat of actually scaring the hell out of me from time to time. What more could anyone ask?
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