Hey Folks, Harry here. Why has it taken so long to get another chapter in the Moriarty 90's List? Because, the dear Professor contemplates... he rips at himself, he walks a divide in the rug over some of these decisions. Knowing that people will scream at him for knobish decisions like not having THE USUAL SUSPECTS in your top ten for 1995. But... Moriarty is that Knob. And if ya don't like him, you can shine his knob. Here's the Professor
THE ‘90S LIST, PART III: 1995
And now let’s close things out with something I bet you never thought you’d see. I notice that even the most stalwart of you have stopped asking by now. You’ve decided that it’s a dead issue, that you’re never going to see it, no matter how much you ask. I’ve gotten the nice letters, the threatening letters, the out-and-out bribes, and nothing has helped. Let me explain. I never meant to tease you all like this. True, I’m Evil, and if there’s ever been a project of mine that has caused collecting pain and suffering, it’s been this one. I didn’t design it that way, though… I swear. That’s just gravy.
The short answer to the question, “Why are you so fucking slow?” is that I had no idea this project would be so big or require so much time and attention. I guess I know why no one else attempted something on this same scale, a full-blown retrospective of an entire ten years. It doesn’t help when you’re distracted. ShoWest, personal experiments at the Labs that Harry Lime and I have been plotting, my developing role as West Coast Editor here… I have a thousand excuses if you want to hear them. Instead, how about we move on?
We’re in the home stretch. I’ve had the henchmen crunching raw data for weeks. I’ve been running for 20 or 30 hour jags, fuelled by nothing more than caffeine and hate mail. Now, at long last, I am pleased to announce that this week kicks off five straight weeks of one year per RUMBLINGS, covering the span from 1995 to 1999. It’s a relief to finally finish, but it’s also a pleasure, as there’s a lot of great material here in these years. By the time 1995 rolled around, the aesthetics that defined the ‘90s were already well-established.
1. DEAD MAN WALKING
Simply one of the most powerful emotional experiences you can have while watching a movie, this second film by Tim Robbins as a writer/director marked a quantum leap forward in his status as a filmmaker. His first movie, BOB ROBERTS, was a clever, pointed satire of the election process as popularity contest here in America, and it was a fairly accomplished little picture, a mock documentary that was obviously influenced by Robbins’ work with Altman around that time. It in no way indicated how fantastic a film by him could be, which is why this film came as something of a surprise. I say “something,” because it stars Sean Penn, which made it worth seeing automatically. Also, the presence of Susan Sarandon, Robbins’ real life partner, seemed to be a good sign, since she can be counted on for solid work every time out. There is no preparing yourself for the gutpunch that this film packs, though.
Based on the true story of Sister Helen Prejean, a Louisiana nun who became the spiritual advisor to a death row convict, Matthew Poncelet, this film manages to skirt the easy sentimentality that many filmmakers would have gone for with such provocative material. Robbins decided instead to take the high road, crafting a mature, intelligent, and controlled look at the entire set of circumstances surrounding the execution of a man by the state. He manages to take no sides on the issue, instead letting us decide for ourselves what we think of the death penalty. He gives equal time to the parents of Poncelet’s victims, letting them speak for the two teenagers that Poncelet is accused of kidnapping and raping along with another man. The other man received life in prison for his role, while Poncelet was the one sentenced to death. Robbins never even really addresses whether this is “fair” or not. The question is unimportant in the end. This is about the spiritual connection that evolves between these two totally different people, and that is reason enough to pay attention to this movie.
American filmmakers are more afraid of dealing with spirituality than they are of dealing with sex, but Robbins found the courage to tackle this subject with respect, treating Sister Helen’s religious convictions as a central part of her personality, as opposed to some sort of aberration. As a result, the film becomes moving, involving, and incredibly emotionally affecting. I personally spent the last twenty minutes of my first viewing of the movie crying almost uncontrollably, perhaps because of my own personal opinion of the death penalty, but more likely because Robbins manages to pull us in and make us care about Poncelet in spite of his casual racism, his admitted role in the murders, and his thuggish attitudes. Every viewing since has left me equally shattered, a testament to the film’s lasting power. This is not an easy filmgoing experience, but it will reward serious viewers. As an added bonus, Robbins and his brother David assembled a truly stellar team to contribute to the score. The voices of Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are all magnificent in providing counterpoint to this very special film.
2. TOY STORY
There’s little that I can say here that other critics haven’t said already, but allow me to try. TOY STORY is, simply put, one of the most magical film experiences in recent memory. I was enchanted, enthralled, and thunderstruck from the opening frame to the last. Even after the TV spots, the theatrical trailers, the merchandising blitz... I was simply amazed at everything I saw. If the film were just an exercise in state of the art computer animation, that would almost be enough. The sights you see in this film are so revolutionary, and the fluid execution is so aesthetically pleasing, that I would call this the STAR WARS of the ‘90’s, the arrival of a new type of storytelling in cinema. But it goes beyond pure visual spectacle thanks to the clever, nuanced script and the astonishingly funny and poignant vocal performances of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, and Wallace Shawn. Everyone else in the film is good, but those four performers give their all, and we are fortunate they did. This film doesn’t strain to entertain me at every single turn. Instead, it makes it look simple. The comic relief is both subtle and smart. The main performances are grounded in absolute reality. Hanks hadn’t been this funny in years, and I simply never liked Allen before. Both deserve major kudos for their work. As I watched this film, I truly, for the first time in God only knows how long, became a child again, playing with the most amazing, shiny new toy. I was able to recall my childhood clearly, with real affection, because the writers and designers of this film do such a beautiful job recalling theirs. This is a loving look at childhood, but it’s not what I would call a childish film in the least. This is a mature, well-crafted, and wonderful work of lasting art.
There are movies that you look forward to that end up being as good as you expect. There are movies that you look forward to that end up being worse than you expected. But rarely do you walk into a film with absolutely no expectations and end up being blown out the back wall of the theater. SE7EN was a joyous exception to that. Director David Fincher’s last film, ALIEN 3, was one of the most disappointing sequels I’ve ever seen, and was a mess overall, no matter what number in a series it was. For that reason, I went into this film expecting it to be a long music video type film with (hopefully) a few decent moments due to the actors involved. From the opening credits, though, I was hooked. Kyle Cooper, who went on to found Imaginary Forces, is responsible for this miraculous little mini-movie that immediately plunges you into the heart of darkness. After the credits finish setting your nerves on edge, we are then dropped into a nameless, faceless major American city that is practically collapsing from decay. We meet two cops, played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, as they investigate the possible murder of an outrageously obese man who was fed until he died. There are no clues as to what the motive for the murder might have been, and no apparent evidence on the scene. This is, of course, just the beginning of a twisted, labyrinthine plot that finds a psychotic known as John Doe committing a series of murders designed to illustrate the seven deadly sins and how we, as a society, are immersed in sin every day. With each successive murder, illustrating Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Wrath, and Envy, Doe’s evil web seems to wrap tighter around the two detectives played by Pitt and Freeman, each of them giving smart, well-defined performances. It is Mills, the Pitt character, who seems to become the focus of Doe’s efforts following a close call in which the detectives show up at Doe’s apartment, and it is Mills’ wife, played by Gwenyth Paltrow, who becomes the ultimate tool of enlightenment in the film’s truly shocking, unnerving ending. Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote this film while employed at a Tower Records in Manhattan, has taken one of the bleakest looks at modern society that anyone has had the nerve to take via mainstream entertainment in a long time, and Fincher was just the man to bring it to the screen, embracing everything that makes the story work and amplifying it. By setting the film in a nameless decaying city that looks like New York but is surrounded by land like California, Fincher manages to detach you from thinking, “Oh, of course it could happen there.” He makes it feel like it could be any of America’s cities, all of which are collapsing in on themselves. This is what the Apocalypse will be like when it comes -- no giant lightshow, but, instead, a simple loss of human values and an immersion in real depravity. SE7EN is a film that shocks, even as it reaches for a state of grace, and it is an experience that is impossible to shake.
4. CLEAN, SHAVEN
Here’s one that never fails to draw blank stares when I bring it up. Lodge Kerrigan’s powerful little film is perhaps the single most unflinching look into the experience of mental illness I’ve ever sat through. From the constant sound mix of noise and screams and voices and laughter to the phenomenal central performance of Peter Greene, there’s no way around the power this film possesses once you’ve seen it. It’s one of the few films on this list that I’m loathe to actually describe, because there’s nothing I can write here that can convey the experience of the film to you, and that’s because it is a uniquely cinematic experience. So many of the films on this list could be told equally well with some adaptation in other mediums. Not this one. Kerrigan uses every tool available to the filmmaker to add texture to this gem, and the result is something that has not lost its ability to disturb me one little bit since the first time I saw it. Find it and I’ll bet you agree.
5. BEFORE SUNRISE
For a man who has publicly acknowledged his own Evil nature, I have a surprisingly sentimental side. Great film romances are rare, and so are films that manage to convincingly convey the elusive nature of true sexual chemistry. Yes, there’s a ton of movies out there with two appealing leads who meet cute and then flirt with witty dialogue, only to consummate in the perfect lighting at the perfect angles… but those films bore me. It’s the movies like BEFORE SUNRISE that I long for, films that manage to show me two great, interesting appealing characters at that moment when they meet and realize just how interesting they both are. We’ve all had those moments when we were out with someone and the conversation just clicked and midway through it, you think to yourself, “Wow… I really like this person.” Every relationship has that moment, and it seems to be very elusive when it comes to filming it. How Richard Linklater and his co-writer Kim Krizan managed to capture the rhythms of that moment so well is a beautiful mystery. How Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy managed to nail the characters without ever once turning cloying or cute like so often happens in romantic films is another mystery. In fact, this whole film is built just like that conversation, surprising you in moment after moment. No matter how much you resist, there’s something in here that will wear you down, that will win you over. Director of photography Lee Daniels sculpts his Vienna out of light and frosts it in that sort of heightened electric charge that exists on those perfect evenings. It’s so rare that you see something this close to the truth onscreen, so rare for filmmakers to have this level of trust and faith in their audience, that when you witness something as powerful and as right as this, it feels like magic.
6. CITY OF LOST CHILDREN
Speaking of magic, there’s no better word to describe the bizarre visionary filmmaking style of the brilliant French team Jeunet and Caro. I’ve heard recently that they aren’t working together anymore, that they won’t be making any further films together. Normally, I’d be heartbroken, but when you’ve already made something as wonderful as this film, a piece of fairy tale perfection, then it’s not like you’re walking away from things empty-handed. It’s impossible to summarize this film in just one brief sentence, and that’s part of the charm. Is it the story of One (Ron Perlman in a career-best performance), a circus strongman who loses his “petit frere” to the nasty Cyclops cult? Or is it the story of Miette, an adult-faced little moppet who works as a thief for the evil Octopus, twin Siamese sisters? Or is it the story of the strange extended family made up of clones of Dominique Pinon, a tiny woman, a disembodied brain, and an Evil Genius who cannot cry? It’s all of those things, but there’s so much more to it. This is total immersion into a world we’ve never seen on screen before, and it manages to be hypnotic, hysterical, sad, and frightening in equal measure. I adored this movie the first time I saw it in a tiny screening room on the Sony lot, where it was being screened for Oscar consideration. Four other people showed up for the film, and two of them were with me. Since then, I’ve been waiting for people to discover this instant classic and embrace it. The wait continues. In the meantime, at least I get to enjoy. Do yourself the favor and take the trip soon.
7. DEAD MAN
Jim Jarmusch is one of those acquired tastes in cinema, a distinct filmmaker with a unique voice that manages to transcend genre and setting and everything else that normally defines or even traps a filmmaker. Looking back at the films he’s made –- MYSTERY TRAIN, STRANGER THAN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW, NIGHT ON EARTH –- one gets the impression that his personal radio is tuned to some distant star, and we’re being shown something totally new each time. With DEAD MAN, Jarmusch reaches the apex of his art so far. This is ostensibly a Western, but that’s like calling CITY OF LOST CHILDREN a kid’s film. This is the story of William Blake, a man wandering through one of the most fascinating mental landscapes I’ve seen on film. The opening moments of the movie, as Blake rides a train west, are haunting, ghostly, and set the tone for a film that could just as easily be read as the story of a soul’s journey to its final resting place as it could be the story of a man wrongly accused of murder. The level you’ll take the film at is likely to be determined by how much you want to play the game Jarmusch has set up here. Personally, I adore the film for its fabulous texture, its rich B&W photography, and that amazing Neil Young score. Special mention must be made of Gary Farmer, whose work in this film as Nobody, a spirit guide of Blake’s, is among the finest of the decade. He’s one of those great film faces you can never get enough of, and this is the most iconic work of his career. The way he bounces off of Johnny Depp in the lead performance is delightful, and these two make me laugh out loud every time I see them together. This is a film to be watched and rewatched, a fascinating onion of a movie that rewards the effort the more it is peeled away.
8. WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE
God bless Dawn Weiner and all the real Dawn Weiners out there. This film, our first glimpse into the strange and scary world of Todd Solondz, is one of the most honest films ever made about what it’s like to be an outsider as a kid. Heather Mazzarato deserves a long and glorious career based on the intuitive, painful work she does here. Her awkwardness isn’t played as endearing or cute or quirky. Instead, Dawn genuinely doesn’t fit. She’s a real kid, with real feelings that aren’t always pretty or admirable. This is what Claire from PRETTY IN PINK really looked like, and chances are this is how her life really went. Brendon Sexton III does memorable work here as a tough kid who forges a bizarre relationship of sorts with “The Weinerdog.” Actually, all of the supporting cast in this film is profoundly affecting because no one looks like an actor. This is like an Errol Morris film where no one knows the camera is on. This is a suburban trash epic that must have made John Waters howl in glee when he first saw it. The courage it takes to put something like this on film and release it to the rest of the world is immeasurable, and Solondz has definitely staked a claim as the foremost new voice for the bruised and the lonely in the world of indie film.
Possibly the best police procedural since William Friedkin’s searing TO LIVE OR DIE IN LA, this is an epic film about the parallel lives led by a master thief, played by Robert De Niro, and a dedicated cop, played by Al Pacino. Writer/director Michael Mann is a genius at establishing mood, and his best work in film has been done in the crime genre, with THIEF and MANHUNTER both being standouts. This time, though, he’s aimed at something deeper than just a cops and robbers film. This is a look at the effects of giving your life over to your work, no matter what the profession. Both De Niro and Pacino have paid the price, giving up whatever personal lives they may have had in pursuit of excellence in their field. As a result, there is no room for them to step back from the job, and even if they try, they fail since they have no practice at being anything other than the job. Pacino is trying to put together a life with Diane Verona and her daughter, Natalie Portman, and failing miserably. De Niro, on the other hand, has always subscribed to the idea that “there is no room in your life for anything that you can’t just walk away from in thirty seconds if you spot the heat around the corner,” so he finds himself torn when he meets Amy Brennenman in a coffee shop and finds himself drawn to her, wanting more of her than he has ever wanted of someone before. Sensing a change in himself, De Niro decides to set up one last score with his gang, which includes Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore, both of whom already have permanent ties, outside lives. Kilmer, in particular, is going through the wringer with his wife, played with an appealing combination of street smarts and naivetÃ© by Ashley Judd. This last score, though, has drawn the attention of Pacino, and before it can happen, there is a sensational scene which film fans had to wait twenty years for, with De Niro and Pacino sharing a cup of coffee and their views on life as they each let the other know in no uncertain terms what will happen if they have to face off. Real fireworks fly in this scene, which is odd since it’s one of the quietest in the film. Without giving away any of the powerful second half of the film, let’s just say that Mann proves himself a virtuoso at drawing together the film’s many divergent plot threads, paying them off one after another, leading to a shattering, seemingly inevitable conclusion. This is more than just a standard crime thriller. Perhaps it should be the standard for all crime thrillers. Smart, tough, and sincere.
10. DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
Anytime people rant and rave to me about LA CONFIDENTIAL, I ask if they’ve seen Carl Franklin’s adaptation of the first book in Walter Moseley’s phenomenal Easy Rawlins series. Most times, they say no, and I order them to run to the store and grab it immediately. I’m puzzled, though, when people say they skipped it because they heard it “sucked.” From who? How could anyone sit through this film and walk away unhappy? Like LA CONFIDENTIAL, this film delivers us back to an earlier Los Angeles, and it does so with real confidence and style. Moseley’s book series follows Rawlins through the development of LA, and like James Ellroy, Moseley knows his history. He’s painted a rich, complex portrait of the way race relations evolved in this town and the ways they failed, but he never preaches. Instead, he builds smart, elegant mystery stories that illuminate the nature of the town at each point along the way. This film should have been the kickoff in Denzel Washington’s first big franchise, especially if it meant we’d get to see more of Don Cheadle’s amazing portrayal of Mouse, a particularly dangerous friend of Easy’s. This is the film that cemented Cheadle as a god among actors in my book. He was robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nomination that year. The film is tough, sexy, and filled to overflowing with atmosphere. Hell, when you can actually say that Jennifer Beals was great in a film, you know you’re dealing with something special.
One of the best actresses working right now, Julianne Moore, takes on a difficult, risky, and even unlikable role here, and manages to make it touching and unforgettable. The film was written and directed by Todd Haynes, whose brilliant debut picture SUPERSTAR is currently unavailable thanks to legal hassles with Richard Carpenter, who resented the film’s portrayal of himself and his sister, dead pop star Karen Carpenter. It’s a shame, and it means that the only Haynes film that’s worth seeing that you might actually find is this creepy, vaguely Cronenbergian (a compliment when it comes from the Labs, believe me) tale of a normal, average housewife who comes down with “environmental illness,” in which she slowly but surely becomes allergic to the modern world. Moore, who is remarkably beautiful, gives herself over completely to the role, allowing Haynes to strip her of that beauty and that vitality, little by little, until she has all the character and presence of a used dishrag. I’m not quite sure what the “point” of this film is, but I really don’t care. It was the mood, the overall sense of the world turning on the main character, that I responded to. This is truly a modern horror film, which doesn’t rely on some impossible monster or some over the top psycho to scare us. For that alone, it is worth seeing, although you may be subject to a little hypochondria of your own afterwards.
Hypnotic, involving, meticulously detailed, and creepy as shit. That’s how I’d describe Oliver Stone’s epic attempt to tackle the complex and confusing character of Richard Milhouse Nixon, the only President to ever resign from office. This film is as multifaceted as its subject, and it is not an easy ride by any means. JFK is a more immediately entertaining film, and THE DOORS is a more accessible biopic, but NIXON may be the most profound of the films Stone has made about that era and the major players in it. By tackling the nature of Nixon, Stone also manages to tackle the character of the times themselves. The film’s single greatest coup is the casting of Welshman Anthony Hopkins as this most distinctly American figure. The decision was a courageous one, made even more courageous by the fact that Stone decided not to use makeup on Hopkins. At first, one is struck by how much Hopkins does not look like Nixon. Then, as you watch him, you find it hard to picture the original man. In the end, when Stone has the audacity to have Hopkins walk out one door and the real Nixon emerge on the other side, we simply accept it because we have managed to see into the man’s soul over the three preceding hours, and seeing his real face only drives home the truths that Stone manages to uncover.
It’s not just the central performance that’s a stunner, either. It’s each and every member of this tremendous cast that manages to hit a home run. James Woods is a fantastic Haldeman, a constant presence at Nixon’s elbow, always ready with an answer or a piece of advice. Paul Sorvino seems to be channeling Henry Kissinger by way of Dr. Strangelove, and it’s a memorable portrayal. Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig, David Hyde Pierce as John Dean, Ed Harris as E. Howard Hunt, John Diehl’s G. Gordon Liddy, David Paymer’s Ron Zeigler, and J. T. Walsh as Erlichman are all exemplary. It’s the stunning Joan Allen who very nearly walks away with the entire film, bringing full life to the famous “Plastic Pat,” the First Lady whose public reputation was as a complete robot. If the real woman had one half the strength of character that the film’s version does, then she was a remarkable woman. The chemistry between her and Hopkins really does make us understand the relationship that existed between these two public figures when the doors were closed and the masks were off. As far as Stone’s work goes, there can be no fault found in the efforts he is making these days. He is an exciting, captivating director who manages to reinvent himself each time out. The collaboration he shares with cinematographer Robert Richardson is resulting in miracles every time out now. This film has a look that is truly mesmerizing. Although Stone experiments with filmstocks the way he did in both JFK and NBK, there is a different feel and rhythm to the work this time. There is something almost operatic about the way this story unfolds. However, more than opera, there are two distinct stylistic nods that Stone makes which define the very shape of this film. One is CITIZEN KANE, which is referenced very knowingly throughout the film, with visual nods like a push through the gates of the White House on a rainy evening or the MARCH OF TIME newsreel which catches us up on Nixon’s political history. The other is Shakespeare. Numerous reviewers have mentioned the Shakespearean quality of the film, and it’s no mistake. Nixon is a tragic figure, and Stone manages to wring every bit of tragedy out of him, really putting us inside his soul, giving us a window on the inner workings of a mind under siege.
3. 12 MONKEYS
I love this movie. It is a smart, strange, sad little science fiction film that is graced by the screenwriting skills of David Webb Peoples and his wife Janet, the directorial eye of the always interesting Terry Gilliam, and the remarkable performances of Brad Pitt and, in particular, Bruce Willis. Willis plays James Cole, a man who lives in a dreary underground prison in the future. He is chosen as a “volunteer” to go topside, where no human life can survive now due to a virus that swept the world in 1996, killing 5 billion people and driving the remaining citizenry underground. For some reason, though, the virus spared all animals and plantlife. It is specimens of both of these that Cole is sent after. When he manages to complete his job well, he is offered a pardon from his prison home if he will take part in one more “collecting” mission... this one a mission through time. He soon finds himself in 1990 and a mental institution, where he begins to suspect that he is not from the future after all, but is, in fact, delusional. It is his psychiatrist, played by Madeline Stowe, who helps him reach this conclusion. The film itself is about Cole’s struggle to determine what of his world is real and what is fantasy, and it is a surprisingly sad journey, as Cole tries to find a place for himself in the world that he wants to live in. Time loops in on itself, and plays tricks on Cole and on the audience. In the end, Cole finds himself trapped in a particularly hellish loop that both starts and ends our journey. The supporting performance by Brad Pitt as another inhabitant of the institution that Cole is thrown into is unsettling, energetic work, and marked another bold step away from the pretty boy image that Pitt could so easily coast on. Instead, he continued to push himself into new challenges, the mark of someone who acts for all the right reasons. Stowe is good, but she serves essentially as a compass with which Cole gauges his own sanity. It is Cole that is the role to have here, and Willis rises to the occasion with some of the finest work of his career. There is a moment, after he escapes from a party thrown by Pitt’s father, played by Christopher Plummer, where Cole is dancing in a shallow pond, determined to never go underground again, intoxicated by the air and the sounds of nature around him, that is simply heartbreaking. It is moments like these that lift 12 MONKEYS out of the SF genre and place it among the year’s most powerful, affecting films.
4. THE USUAL SUSPECTS
When Neil Jordan’s THE CRYING GAME came out a few years earlier, one of the things Miramax used to promote the movie was the film’s “secret,” which is actually one of the least important things in the movie. In fact, it’s given away by the mid-point of the movie, and an observant viewer has no doubt put it all together before then. That film’s strengths were its script, its direction, and the wonderful performances of the entire cast. Well, with THE USUAL SUSPECTS, the entire film is built like a puzzle around a central secret which really is the film’s most important revelation. Does that make it a lesser film than THE CRYING GAME? No, not at all. In fact, SUSPECTS is one of the best rides that you could hope for at a theater, with director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Chris McQuarrie taking you on a fast and furious film noir trip with any number of surprises along the way. They keep you guessing with the incredibly elaborate structure of the picture, never sure exactly where they’re going.
1995’s second-best ending (gotta give it up for SE7EN) focuses on the real identity of Kaiser Soze, a supercriminal who was responsible for hiring five criminals to hijack the cargo of a boat. The criminals are played superbly by Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin, Benecio Del Toro, and Kevin Spacey. Byrne is his typical self, long on the Irish charm and charisma. Pollack does a nice job at toning down the Columbo impressions long enough to actually play a character. Baldwin, who has been slowly establishing himself as the only one of Alec’s brothers who can actually act, does a decent job here and is rewarded with one of the film’s best lines as he sights up a group of five men with a sniper’s rifle: “Oswald was a fag.” Del Toro is one of the performing standouts here with his bizarre characterization, all mumbles and twitches, while Spacey’s Verbal Kint is the other main attraction. Kint is the film’s narrator, and he manages to suck the viewer in immediately, giving them certain details, withholding others. It is through him that we learn about the original meeting of the five men, in a police lineup. It is while being held afterwards that they decide to run a few jobs together. Little do they know that Soze is pulling them all in, deeper and deeper, setting them up for their eventual undoing. The fun of this film is how Singer and McQuarrie constantly confound your expectations of what’s coming next. Post-Tarantino, it is easy to think that we’re in for just another tough-guys-talking-funny-and-acting-tough epic, but these filmmakers are after something different. Their goal is to take the genre that we’re too familiar with and turn it on its ear. Their triumph is that they succeed... brilliantly.
Where do you start when praising this film? No, it wasn’t my favorite fairy tale of the year, but BABE is trying for something very different than CITY OF LOST CHILDREN or TOY STORY. It’s a simply moral fable about what determination can do for an individual. The story is painted for us with an astonishing sense of place by director Chris Noonan, working under the supervision of producer, co-writer George Miller. The world of Hoggett’s Farm is a particular place, and it’s beautifully realized. The Oscar-winning work by the Henson Creature Shop and Rhythm & Hues is spectacular, and the greatest testament to that is that one stops thinking about how the animals are made to talk and act and perform in such remarkable ways throughout the film. They simply do. Roscoe Lee Browne is the only person to challenge Morgan Freeman and Ed Norton for “Best Narration of the Decade” in my book; his warm, friendly tones add enormous support to what we’re seeing onscreen. James Cromwell and Magda Szubanski are great as Farmer Hoggett and his wife, robust human characters that manage to stand out even amidst such amazing sights and sounds. In particular, the development of Cromwell’s affection for Babe is handled with such sly grace by the actor that it made everyone reassess him completely. He’s been one of those solid character actors for television and film for almost two decades. I remember watching him on ALL IN THE FAMILY when I was much younger. Here, though, he brings such dignity and such poise to the screen that he seemed to redefine himself. Christine Cavanaugh gives great vocal life to Babe himself, and Danny Mann is equally delightful as Ferdinand, and that’s just the tip of a wonderful ensemble of actors like Hugo Weaving and Miriam Margolyes and Russi Taylor who all leave lasting impressions with their work here. I guess the question I should have asked when I started to write about this gem was not “Where do I start?” but rather, “Where do you stop praising this film?”