This was, for me, the year the decade finally took shape and defined itself in a way that would prove to play out over the next six years. There was a healthy mix of edgy indie fare and smart, sophisticated studio entertainment at the top of the list, and the sensibilities of the two markets overlapped in strange, innovative ways. PULP FICTION was a smash hit, but so was FORREST GUMP, and no two films could better represent the struggle that seemed to be going on for the hearts and minds of moviegoers.
This was also the year I began my most public evil work, working with Harry Lime under pseudonyms to perpetrate various art crimes upon the world, which meant that the number of people working on various films who were also friends and colleagues multiplied exponentially. This always complicates reactions to films, but for me it had a strange effect: it made me more critical, not less. Because I was doing the same thing, fighting the same fights to get my work seen and read and performed, I became even more impatient with what I saw as wasted resources, missed opportunities.
1. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
Smart, literate, elegant, sad, funny, and moving are all words I'd use to describe this outstanding theatrical feature debut by writer/director Frank Darabont. It's acted to perfection by an amazing ensemble with Morgan Freeman providing one of the most perfect voice-over narrations in film history, hypnotic and potent. The film tells a complicated story in such simple, visual terms that it's easy to overlook just how great the work is. Put simply, the film communicates in every way possible. Although it missed its audience while it was actually in theaters, its reputation seems to grow exponentially every year, as evidenced by the fact that critics who beat it up upon release were singing the film's praises this year as a way of beating up Darabont's GREEN MILE by comparison. I have no doubt that this is a film that is going to be beloved, handed down, shown for years to come. It has a timeless, enduring quality that comes from showcasing the virtues of good, solid storytelling with no frills, no wasted effort. It's an achingly human picture, and when the film reveals its whole heart in the powerful final sequence with Morgan Freeman, it never fails to work its spell on me.
2. ED WOOD
It's rare that the year's funniest film is also the year's most bittersweet, but Tim Burton pulled it off with this oddity, the crown gem in the resume of writers Alexander/Karasziewski, the high point of the craft of Johnny Depp and Martin Landau. It's a masterpiece, a perfect entertainment, the first time Burton ever made something feel like it was truly alive, a breakthrough that he seems to have carried with him ever since. His reparatory company is at their best here with Lisa Marie, Glenn Shadix, and Jeffrey Jones all doing hysterical work. The film's obvious beating heart is the relationship between Eddie and Bela, one of the most endearing friendships I've ever seen in a film. It's beautiful the way they each gain so much from their friendship without anyone being used. They make each other believe these crazy dreams about Bela still being a movie star or Eddie's films being any good. The power of that connection, that willingness to believe in one another, is enough to motivate the people around them. Ed Wood is a force of nature once he's got an idea in his head.
I've heard quite a bit about the relationship that Tim developed with Vincent Price, a longtime idol of his, in the last few years of Price's life. There's so much of that relationship that's so naked, so close to the surface in ED WOOD that I'm shocked Tim could release it. It feels personal. There's none of the sense that‚s always dogged Burton, even in his best moments, that he's more concerned with building a crazy wind-up toy than he is with telling a story. This is a complete stylistic breakthrough for the director. There's a breathless, excited quality to the filmmaking, as if we can barely keep up with Eddie and his wild plans, his crazed dreams. Bill Murray offers memorable support here along with Sarah Jessica Parker, Juliet Landau, and George "The Animal" Steele as Tor Johnson, a performance that is so gloriously, brilliantly cast and played that it makes me giggle just to mention it. Stefan Czapsky's black and white photography just might be my favorite b&w of the decade, even over SCHINDLER‚S LIST and PLEASANTVILLE. It's luminous work, looking the way I remember black and white looking when I was a child. There's something about it that feels like it exists outside time. A close friend of mine knew Ed Wood very well, and he did some consulting work on this film. The thing that struck him, that really made him proud to have worked on the film, is that the script never once stoops to making a cheap joke of Ed. Johnny Depp plays him with a delirious intensity that is never exhausting. No matter what the world brings at Ed, he takes it, he rolls with it, and he moves on. It's a performance that was built out of respect and real fondness for Ed and what he spent his life doing. By ending the film where Burton does, and by never dealing with his later years, when he was alcoholic, desperate, falling apart. Burton chooses to give this man a triumph and to leave him there. He chooses to celebrate the very desire to create, that spirit that pushes someone to follow a dream even in the face of any hardship.
3. HEAVENLY CREATURES
When I hear people complain about the choice of Peter Jackson as director of the upcoming LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, all I can do is refer them to this ravishing, painful little film that does a better job of portraying the hysteria that's possible when a child's imagination meets a like mind, someone to fuel their fancy, egg them on. The way the film slips in and out of the reality that the two girls generate between themselves is remarkable, and Jackson knows how to play grand emotions without overplaying them. He's a gifted instinctual filmmaker, and this is proof that his abilities are deeper than just wicked genre riffs (DEAD ALIVE) or crazed comic invention (FORGOTTEN SILVER). His work with young actors Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey is nothing short of hypnotic, miraculous. Girls at a certain age practically seem to have a private language, and Jackson finds a way to include us, the viewers, on a visual level. There's a dreamlike logic to the whole thing, an inevitability to what seems at first incomprehensible. The decision to commit murder is the most profound one a person can make, and Jackson's Oscar-nominated screenplay (co-written with Fran Walsh, his wife) manages to make us understand how these girls made their impossible choice. One of the greatest qualities of Jackson's film is how it doesn't specifically feel like a New Zealand film or a period film, even though it has a strong sense of time and place. This is a universal story, masterfully told.
4. HOOP DREAMS
Steve Gilbert and Steve James made one of the films that I can confidently predict will serve as a record of this decade and who we were as a culture at this particular moment. The film captures a definitively American flavor, painting a picture of one familiar manifestation of the American Dream. What the film does best is put a particular set of faces on that Dream, and the three-hour running time is a major reason the film works. It takes the time to earn our investment. After all, the movie covers years in the lives of these families, and there's the danger of making the film too superficial, only showing the big moments. Gilbert and James allow these people some breathing room, and it‚s real life that comes spilling into all these new spaces. If you haven't seen the film or if it's been since '94, then schedule a viewing soon. It will reinvigorate your appreciation of just how great a medium film can be for communicating something essential and human across any possible barrier.
5. THE PROFESSIONAL
Matilda and Leon are one of the most memorable screen couples of the decade, and it's because of the mystery of their attraction. Now, remember that I'm writing about the American release version here, not the original film LEON, which I still haven't seen. In the US edit, nothing's made explicit between the two. We're never sure what each of them wants from their strange friendship, and it's possible they don't know, either, from moment to moment. Matilda (a star-making turn by Natalie Portman, who was just 12 or 13 when making it!) alternates between being a little girl and a young woman, wise beyond her years. Leon (an equally charismatic Jean Reno) alternates between being noble and protective and being almost a child himself, uncomfortable in his own skin. They each have control over the other, but neither one has full control over themself. It's a love story, but it's the kind that makes America squirm. When Matlilda runs through several costumes and songs, performing for Leon at one point, she doesn't seem sure if she's trying to turn him on or make him laugh. If the film was just about their relationship, it would be fascinating enough, but Luc Besson wraps this strange and delicate thing in some truly pulse-pounding action. The film throbs with menace, and much of that is embodied by Gary Oldman playing a truly deranged cop with some of the same over-the-top energy of Dennis Hopper in BLUE VELVET. This is a film where the visual, the aural, and the emotional all bleed into one cohesive, delirious whole.
6. THREE COLORS: RED
I am desperately sorry that I became aware of the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski so late in his career. It wasn't until the American release of his triumphant THREE COLORS trilogy that I was first exposed to his films. All three of these are wonderful, unique works of art, but it's RED and the piercing beauty of Irene Jacob that really got under my skin and stuck with me. So frequently, great artists have their muse, that one performer they use repeatedly, who inspires their best work, and Jacob certainly brought out the best of Kieslowski. Their earlier collaboration is an enduring, ethereal film that ruminates on fate and choice and the idea of destiny. These themes are explored again in a very different way in RED, and viewed together, they are almost frighteningly deep. RED is a film you do not just passively watch. It's a film you become lost in, a film in which you submerge yourself. Trying to summarize even the barest details of the film‚s plot never seems to work. These aren't films about story in any conventional sense. To Kieslowski, it's the details, the texture of life, that is important, and it's what makes this a film unlike any other.
7. KILLING ZOE
Roger Avery's debut as a writer/director brings nothing to mind for me quite so clearly as the early work of Stanley Kubrick. It's hard to pinpoint specifically what sparks the comparison. Maybe it's a sort of bleak intellectual tone mixed with spikes of overheated emotionalism. Whatever the case, I was blown away by this film on first viewing, and my affection for it has only grown steadily over the years. From the film's opening race through the streets of Paris to the blood-soaked finale, the film is a visual marvel, even more adrenalized than RUN LOLA RUN, thanks to the almost painterly contribution of cinematographer Tom Richmond. Avery seems to somehow be the only guy to make a post-RESERVOIR DOGS/pre-OUT OF SIGHT crime film who isn't just aping Quentin's shtick. In fact, their intentions couldn't be more different. In Tarantino's films, things are cool simply because they're cool, and men commit crime because that is what men do. In Avery's world, crime is an act of defiance in the face of brutal, aching, existential horror.
The first time I saw the film, I knew nothing about it aside from having seen the names "Eric Stoltz" and "Julie Delpy" on the poster. For some reason, I was sure it was a love story with a crime backdrop. The opening of the film certainly lulled me into thinking I was right. Stoltz plays Zed, a guy who flies into Paris and checks into a hotel. The first thing he does is arrange for a call girl to visit him. Julie Delpy is the girl who shows up, and the two of them hit it off immediately. She even admits that he made her cum, something that never happens. Just as we're settling into this unconventional relationship, rational thought comes crashing down around us, due mainly to the intrusion of Jean Hughes Anglade, madness personified. He is an old friend of Zed's, the reason he's in town. He invited Zed to be part of a major bank job. As soon as Anglade shows up, he throws Delpy out, roughing her up. These guys have a history, but it's complicated. Almost immediately, Anglade draws Zed out into a long, surreal night of drugs and jazz. Zed is our guide, the island of normalcy we cling to in the face of the open decadence Anglade's gang seems to wallow in. The next day, they pull the job, and things go wrong almost immediately. Anglade kills hostages and guards with abandon, and there's a truly crazy ending involving Delpy, who turns out to be a teller at the bank, Zed, and his friend that wraps it all up in spectacular fashion.
And the first time through, I missed the point entirely.
You see, the whole film boils down to a single moment, and I think we're actually meant to miss it. Even Zed misses it. He's in a small, smoky club, nodding off from a jet-lag-and-heroin cocktail, when Anglade says something to him, a single line that explains every monstrous act in the film. It doesn't excuse what he does, but it makes sense of the seemingly random chaos, and it gives the film staggering weight. Zed comes out of his fog just enough to know he's missed something, and he asks Anglade to repeat it. There's no going back, though, no wasting time with regrets, and there's certainly no excuse to let another day slip by before seeing this exceptional picture.
8. PULP FICTION
This may not be the number one film on my list, but there's no denying how influential the film has been. Quentin Tarantino has a lot of sins to answer for, and suprisingly few of them are actually his. When this film came out, it was an instant sensation, one of those buzz hits that was suddenly everywhere, iconic, the definition of cool. It was STAR WARS for a new wave of young filmmaker wanna-bes, a call to arms.. Everyone was quoting the film's juicy dialogue, Tarantino was suddenly the hippest young lion in town, and Travolta was instantly a movie star again. Dozens and dozens of imitators seem to have popped up in the years since 1994, but not a single one of them has carried the same kick. How did Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avery do it? To be honest, I have no idea, and I'll bet they don't, either. This genre-bending pop confection shouldn't work, but it does. Characters talk endlessly for no better reason than to hear their own voices. There are pointless digressions about nothing in particular. Time loops in on itself without really serving to illuminate anything. It's too long. It's too violent. There are too many pop culture references. And none of that matters one little bit because it's all so damn entertaining. In the end, it's the most surface level film QT's directed so far, but it represents the purest expression of his particular gifts, and it remains irresistible.
9. DRUNKEN MASTER II
Some critics might not be able to admit that they loved a kung-fu movie this much, but the visceral charge of action cinema is one of my favorite types of film high. Besides, Jackie Chan doesn't just make kung-fu films. That's like saying The Beatles just wrote songs. Chan makes grand-scale human cartoons, films that seem to bend the rules of physics to the comic will of Chan, the most nimble screen clown of the past 20 years. In scene after scene of this smart and funny romp, Chan pushes expectation, topping himself with every move. The supporting cast is uniformly entertaining, with Anita Mui making a particularly strong impression Chan's mother. The thing that really makes this film stand out among all of Chan's efforts is the continued inventiveness of the action throughout, even as it effortlessly tells a solid story. There's also the film's climax, which is very simply the most intense extended fight sequence I've ever seen in any film. It's as exquisitely choreographed as Buster Keaton's best gag or Gene Kelly's finest dance, a pure example of physical art.
One of the wonderful things about a great documentary is that it gets you as close to a character as a piece of fiction, but you always know the character is real. Watching this film, it is necessary at times to remind yourself that these are, indeed, real people you're watching. This is the life story of legendary underground cartoonist R. Crumb, and it's a fascinating look at the way art can transform not only those who read it, but the artist himself. Crumb came from what can only be called a tragically dysfunctional family, and his two brothers both ended up crazy, unable to make peace with the world, unable to function in anything resembling a "normal" manner. His sisters have nothing at all to do with the family now. Crumb himself still maintains contact with his mother and his brother Charles... or did, anyway, until Charles‚ suicide, which came before the film's release, but after its completion, and you get the feeling that Crumb would rather stab his eyes out than deal with any of these people. There's no denying family, though, so he keeps coming back, no matter how painful. His mother is a sad, strange little woman whose interview segments are very nearly beyond comprehension, and his father is portrayed through various stories as a bullying, angry tyrant who kept his whole family in fear for the duration of his life.
Crumb's art, which is surreal, mysogynistic, openly racist and sexist, and not for the faint of heart, seems to be the only logical reaction to a life like the one he led. In fact, it is revealed that Crumb didn't even want to be a cartoonist, and that it was his brother Charles who was obsessed with comic strips, forcing Robert to help him draw a weekly comic when they were kids, and forcing their other brother Maxon to be "supply boy". When Charles gave up art, he retreated into fantasy, while Robert went on to make art his life, buying his freedom. This is one of those films that cannot be described adequately, and must be seen to be truly understood. Although the subject matter is grim, unrelenting, and potentially depressing, documentarian Terry Zwigoff managed to make the film itself uplifting, maybe even hopeful. He was given full access to Crumb's life, and his interviews with the women Crumb has known, with Crumb's adult son Jesse, and with fans and family both manage to crack Crumb's soul wide open and splay it across a screen for us to investigate.
It's literally incomprehensible to me that Boaz Yakin, the writer and director of this largely unheralded gem, was also the writer of Clint Eastwood's truly horrifying THE ROOKIE. This is the film that actually beats SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER as my favorite '90s chess film. Since most of you haven't seen it, I refuse to ruin even a single plot detail, but I will say that when I first encountered this movie, I was struck by the elegance of its structure. It's a literal chess game, played with people instead of pieces, and it manages to defy easy categorization at every turn. Is it an inner-city drama? Is it a crime film? Is it a coming-of-age story? Yakin never makes it easy for us to get a grip on where we're headed, which means this is one delight you get to savor till the very last frame.
Harry Lime and I were contracted to do a particularly nefarious job in New York in the fall of 1994, and the guys we were working for were partners in an upscale lapdancing bar in Manhattan. As a result, Lime and I spent most every evening working out of that bar. That meant hours and hours there every night as friends of the owners. It was tough work, too. I mean, imagine having to spend all those evenings surrounded by all those beautiful naked women. I got very jaded about all of it, having seen enough things in that club to write ten films, and when this film came out, Lime and I decided to catch an afternoon show at the Angelica. I was curious to see if Atom Egoyan, who I wasn't especially familiar with, would be able to capture the real sights and sounds of that particular world. When I walked out of the movie, I all but dismissed it. I thought it was self-consciously arty, and I thought it was the polar opposite of sexy. There was a chill to the thing that was reminiscent of Cronenberg's later work, a deadly aesthetic when dealing with a subject as automatically overheated as sex.
Then it started to grow on me. There were certain images that kept creeping up on me, moments I couldn't just shrug off. The three central performers all haunted me. As it sank in that the film wasn't about sex but about loss, that chill that hung over the picture started to make sense. A couple of weeks later, I was back in the theater, watching the film a second time. Since then, I've learned that you never get everything about an Egoyan film the first time through. I've learned that he's the master of the cinematic time bomb, the film that grows on you the more you think about it with a fascinating structure, using fractured time in a sophisticated, off-hand manner. It's better each time through. To my mind, that's a classic.
Oh, yeah... Mia Kershner's schoolgirl outfit rules.
3. QUIZ SHOW
Let's see if that old adage about history repeating itself holds true as the networks all rush to cash in on America's newly rediscovered infatuation with quiz shows. It may seem like the events of this film couldn't happen today, but I don't know if I believe that. This film poses general ethical questions that are more important than the specifics involved. In a post-Clinton, post-OJ world, questions of truth both large and small have become of paramount importance to who we are and how we live. Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro are both great here, and director Robert Redford and screenwriter Paul Attanasio both turn in nearly flawless work. The film's one big problem is Rob Morrow, in way over his head here with an accent he can't begin to handle. When you look at his work compared to, say, Paul Scofield who nearly steals the movie as Fiennes' father, you can't help but notice the artifice that ruins Morrow's work. Still, there's so much that's so right and so relevant about the picture that the one flaw can be, in the end, overlooked.
4. VANYA ON 42ND STREET
I mentioned in my EXOTICA comments above that Harry Lime and I were working in New York in the fall of 1994. Without getting too much more specific, let me say that our business there was related to the stage, a medium in which Lime and I have had our fair share of success. I love that the process is so different between stage and screen, and I love that Louis Malle used film to make a wonderful, complex comment on the relationship we have with the words we perform and the transformative art of simple words in a theater. This isn't TOPSY TURVY, mind you, some backstage drama about someone directing actors or building a script. Instead, Malle uses the text of UNCLE VANYA, Chekov's play, delivered by actors in regular street clothes seated on the stage of an empty theater. He lets the incongruity between what we see and what we hear lend strange new life to the words. We are reminded that great human writing does not fade in importance. It's hard to describe exactly why the film is so important to me, but it is. The cast is incredible, with Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn in particular making me forget that these words are over 100 years old. For these two hours, it's all brand-new.
5. ONCE WERE WARRIORS
This film is a nightmare journey through the oppressive homelife of Jake The Rock, a Maori tribesman in modern day New Zealand who keeps his wife firmly under his thumb, and who ignores his children as if they were just the unpleasant side effects of sex. One of the main things Jake uses to keep order in his house is his fist. He loves to fight, whether it's in a bar, or in his house, or in the street. At the drop of a hat, he is ready to trade blows with anyone, and it's a safe bet he'll win. Looking like a smaller, squarer, more ridiculously muscular version of Fred Ward, Jake's life is little more than work and drinking. His wife (the luminous Rena Owen) has striking features which bring to mind Nicole Simpson, an accident which only makes this film more powerful in light of what happened to her. Giving away much of the simple story here could ruin the film for a first time viewer, so I'll just say that Lee Tamahori handles Maori culture in a way that allows any viewer to relate to it, handles the domestic violence with unflinching honesty, and obviously knows how to touch an audience.
...in Part 2, available by clicking here.