Friday, November 11, 2005

Movies Of The Year: 1995

After two of the best years ever, 1995 can't help but be a disappointment. That didn't stop me from seeing more movies than ever: 87 by my count. Some good movies this year, and some of the worst I've ever seen.

87. Dracula: Dead And Loving It
86. Waterworld
85. Just Cause
84. First Knight
83. Batman Forever
82. Showgirls
81. Money Train
80. Lord Of Illusions
79. Nick Of Time
78. Copycat
77. Welcome To The Dollhouse
76. The Doom Generation
75. Les Miserables
74. Grumpier Old Men
73. Canadian Bacon
72. Sabrina
71. Othello
70. Mortal Kombat
69. Heavy
68. Safe
67. Die Hard: With A Vengeance
66. Clockers
65. Higher Learning
64. The Last Supper
63. The Prophesy
62. Murder In The First
61. Circle Of Friends
60. Dangerous Minds
59. The Basketball Diaries
58. Georgia
57. Friday
56. Species
55. Leaving Las Vegas
54. Mr. Holland's Opus
53. Powder
52. Unzipped
51. Dead Presidents
50. My Father Is A Hero
49. Outbreak
48. Dolores Clairborne
47. The American President
46. Empire Records
45. Dead Man Walking
44. Blue In The Face
43. The Brady Bunch Movie
42. GoldenEye
41. Toy Story
40. Unstrung Heroes
39. The Brothers McMullin
38. Jeffrey
37. Devil In A Blue Dress
36. The Addiction
35. The Celluloid Closet
34. Crimson Tide
33. Bad Boys
32. Richard III
31. Nixon
30. Don Juan DeMarco
29. Kids
28. Before Sunrise
27. Dead Man
26. Babe
25. Mallrats
24. Living In Oblivion
23. Rob Roy
22. Strange Days
21. Billy Madison
20. Tommy Boy
19. Apollo 13
18. Casino
17. Desperado
16. City Of Lost Children

15. Smoke - A weird little movie set around a Brooklyn smokeshop and starring Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, Stockard Channing, Giancarlo Esposito, and Harold Perrineau (the dad from "Lost"). It's a series of short stories about the shop owner, a writer who frequents the shop, and a kid the writer kind of adopts. The writer is author Paul Auster, who also wrote the screenplay. Directed by Wayne Wang, it's companion film, shot on the set during downtime while filming the movie, is very funny, has a cast of dozens (including some great scenes with Jim Jarmusch and Lou Reed) and ranks #44 this year.

14. Ghost In The Shell - This very influential anime was directed by Mamoru Oshii and is one of the first really good movies to deal with the impact of computers on reality, several years before The Matrix. The plot is about a cyborg detective and her partner on the trail of a super-hacker, but really it's about information, simulation and consciousness. It isn't the first anime to deal simultaneously with contemporary philosophy and stylish violence, but it's one of the best.

13. The Quick And The Dead - Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spider-man) directed this Western starring Gene Hackman, Sharon Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Stone plays a gunslinger who enters a quick draw contest in the hope of killing Hackman, the guy who killed her father. Just over the top enough.

12. The Usual Suspects - Possibly the most overrated movie of the 90s. Yeah, its fine the first time you see it, twist ending and all. But as a general rule, I'm not a big fan of trick movies. Especially trick movies wherein the entire narrative is invalidated by the trick. It's got a great cast, though: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin, Pete Postlethwaite, Benicio Del Toro, Giancarlo Esposito, Kevin Pollack, and Dan Hedeya.

11. Mighty Aphrodite - Probably the sweetest Woody Allen movie since Zelig. It's a very pleasant romantic comedy in which Woody discovers that the mother of his adopted son is a prostitute played by Mira Sorvino. He tries some Henry Higgonsisms on Sorvino, tries to fix her up with a very dumb boxer who wants to be a farmer, played by Michael Rappaport. Meanwhile, he realizes Peter Weller, the guy who played RoboCop, is obsessed with his wife, Helena Bonham Carter. And all the action is narrated by an actual Greek Chorus featuring F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis, David Ogden Stiers and Jack Warden.

10. Get Shorty - Stylish comedy with John Travolta as a gangster trying to break into the movie business. Also stars Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo, David Paymer, Danny DeVito and James Gandolfini. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who used to be the Coen brothers cinematographer (on Miller's Crossing, raising Arizona and Blood Simple), then went on to direct The Addams Family and Men In Black movies.

9. To Die For - Nicole Kidman plays a vacuous TV reporter who wants to be famous. So she gets Joaquin Phoenix to kill her husband, Matt Dillon, for her. Also stars Illenna Douglas, Casey Affleck, Wayne Knight, Dan Hedeya and Kurtwood Smith. Directed by Gus Van Sant from a screenplay by Buck Henry, who wrote The Graduate. It's Kidman's first really great performance, and worth seeing for that alone, even if you're one of those lunatics who hates Nicole Kidman.

8. Sense And Sensibility - At the time, this was the movie I thought should win Best Picture. But the fact that I haven't bothered, or wanted, to see it again at all in the last ten years tells me I was probably overrating it. It's very good, great direction by Ang Lee, great acting from Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett. A not especially annoying performance from Hugh Grant. It also stars Alan Rickman, Hugh Laurie and Tom Wilkenson, fine actors all. Its just a Jane Austen movie though, for all the good and bad that entails.

7. Clueless - The best Jane Austen adaptation ever is Amy Heckerling's adaptation of Emma starring Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, Brittany Murphy, Breckin Meyer, Wallace Shawn and Dan Hedeya. That makes three Dan Hedeya movies this year, quite a year for Nick Tortelli. Modernizations of classics are an interesting and as far as I know, unstudied, subgenre. Seems to me that they often do a much better job of capturing the spirt and energy of the source material than more traditional adaptations do, as a comparison of the two 90s adaptations of Emma (the other being the Gwynneth Paltrow version), I think, shows.

6. Braveheart - It's a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. It really isn't that great a movie, but I love watching it nonetheless. There's some really great action scenes, some genuinely funny moments, great supporting acting by Brendan Gleeson, Brian Cox, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack and Sophie Marceau. Mel Gibson's alright in his superhero, as opposed to ultra-conservative sadistic nutjob, role. A fine example of the historical epic genre, as long as you don't take it too seriously, like, say, Mel Gibson or the Academy might. Freedom!

5. Party Girl - Parker Posey stars as the eponymous libertine who becomes a librarian and an existentialist to win the heart of a Lebanese street vender. Saw it on a whim one afternoon, if I remember correctly there was one other person in the theatre with my roommate and I. Despite being overlooked by the world at large, this is a truly great film. Weird, funny, romantic, and even a little deep.

4. Kicking And Screaming - A great year for overlooked comedies as I've got two back to back in the top 5. Noah Baumbach's debut film is about what happens to a group of friends after they graduate from college. Grover (Josh Hamilton) drinks a lot and pines after his ex-girlfriend Jane (Olivia D'Abo) who went to Prague. Max (Chris Eigeman) does crosswords and sleeps with his friend's girlfriend (Parker Posey). Skippy (Jason Wiles, the guy who got Kelly hooked on coke on 90210) decides to keep taking classes for the heck of it. Otis (Carlos Jacott) decides to skip grad school and get a job in a video store run by Chet (Eric Stoltz) doesn't really count because he never graduated and has been working on his thesis for the last half decade or so. Brilliantly funny and accurate examination of what it's like to be an aimless twenty-something in the 90s. Its a crime that it never found an audience (it isn't even on DVD yet) and that Baumbach's only been able to make three movies over the last decade.

3. 12 Monkeys - Terry Gilliam's best movie is a remake of the short film "La Jette", which I've never gotten around to seeing. Bruce Willis stars as a prisoner in a post-apocalyptic future who's sent back in time to try to prevent the epidemic breakout that ended up causing the apocalypse. When he gets back to the past, he's locked up in an insane asylum with Brad Pitt, and manages to escape and enlist the help of his psychiatrist, Madeline Stowe. Like most of Gilliam's movies, it's very visually striking, this time very dark and noirish with bright bursts of color. All the actors are great, and Pitt even got an Oscar nomination for his manic overthetop crazy guy. It's the kind of trick movie that The Usual Suspects is, in that once you know how it ends, there's still reason to go back and watch it. There's craft to how its made and how all it's pieces fit together, not just a twist for the sake of a twist.

2. Heat - It's a tough call for the number one spot this year, I imagine a reasonable argument can be made for Heat being the best. It is a great film, well directed by Michael Mann and with an outstanding cast: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Val Kilmer, Natalie Portman, Jon Voight, Wes Studi, Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, Ted Levine, Mykelti Williamson, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Hank Azaria, Henry Rollins, Tone Loc, Danny Trejo and Jeremy Piven. What keeps it for being a true classic, I think, is that despite the three tremendous action sequences, the in-between scenes seem a little to slow. Like the characters are being given more importance than they deserve. A little overblown. But those three sequences really are amazing. And there's a scene with Pacino and DeNiro.

1. Seven - I'm generally not a fan of dark or depressing movies, but I've always loved Seven. I think the reason is that it doesn't ever seem to be that it's trying to depress me for the sake of depressing me. It's got a severe, brutal logic to it and it follows that logic from beginning to end. Morgan Freeman plays a methodical cop nearing retirement, Brad Pitt plays his new partner and the two of them try to hunt down a serial killer who's reenacting the seven deadly sins. Gwynneth Paltrow had her first big role as Pitt's wife. It's David Fincher's debut film, before this he was a music video director (most notably Madonna's Vogue and Express Yourself). As you expect from music video guys, it's a highly stylized film, literally one of the darkest films ever (at least in 1995), it doesn't get much noirer. I give it the edge on Heat because it's a much tighter, more compact and efficient film, only partly because it isn't as ambitious.

Not a lot of good Unseen movies this year, but plenty of bad ones:

Four Rooms
Shanghai Triad
Waiting To Exhale
The White Balloon
Antonia's Line
Cold Comfort Farm
Forget Paris
To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar
A Walk In The Clouds
Tank Girl
Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead
La Haine
Nine Months
Bridges Of Madison County
Johnny Mnemonic
Cutthroat Island
The Net
While You Were Sleeping
Boys On The Side
Jefferson In Paris
Jury Duty
The Fan
Beyond Rangoon
Nico Icon
The Scarlet Letter
Kiss Of Death
The Crossing Guard
Judge Dredd
Wild Bill

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Discreet Charm

I found a major omission on one of the Movies Of the Year list. Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, from 1990, which should be slotted in at #4 in that year, right between Dreams and Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. It's a hilarious talkfest about bored, rich WASPs during Christmas break from school. Chris Eigeman is the only actor in it that went on to do anything, and pretty much all he's done is star in other Whit Stillman movies (and Noah Baumbach movies). And, it's finally going to be released on DVD soon, thanks to the good people at The Criterion Collection.

Watched the director's cut of Last Of the Mohicans last night and on the whole, it's a real improvement. There's only a couple minor additions, the big change is that a lot of the worst lines have been cut out. No more "Somedy you and I are gonna have a serious disagreement" or "For they are a breed apart and make no sense". So that's nice.

And we just finished watching Crash, which I got from Netflix almost two months ago (yikes!). It was good, but nothing terrific. A lesser Magnolia that's all about race and doesn't really tell you anything you don't already know and is way too dependent on wild coincidence. Some good performances though. And I enjoyed watching it a lot more than I enjoyed Million Dollar Baby.

Movies Of The Year: 1994

If any year is going to challenge 1993 as the best year for film in my lifetime, it'd probably be 1994. The top 50 or so movies this year are very good, with the top 65 or so actually worth watching.

80. The Next Karate Kid
79. The Specialist
78. In the Army Now
77. Princess Caraboo
76. The Client
75. Timecop
74. Airheads
73. Only You
72. Wolf
71. Speechless
70. Blue Sky
69. Priest
68. Nostradamus
67. Major League II
66. Immortal Beloved
65. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein
64. Little Odessa
63. Speed
62. Sirens
61. SFW
60. Interview With The Vampire
59. Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle
58. What Happened Was
57. Sleep With Me
56. Nell
55. It Could Happen To You
54. Dumb & Dumber
53. The Crow
52. Above The Rim
51. Spanking The Monkey
50. Vanya On 42nd Street
49. Bullets Over Broadway
48. Killing Zoe
47. When A Man Loves A Woman
46. The Paper
45. Maverick
44. True Lies
43. Forrest Gump
42. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
41. Blue Chips
40. Clean Slate
39. Star Trek: Generations
38. The River Wild
37. The Mask
36. Natural Born Killers
35. Imaginary Crimes
34. Little Women
33. Oleanna
32. Barcelona
31. Swimming With Sharks
30. Legends Of The Fall
29. Before The Rain
28. Heavenly Creatures
27. The Hudsucker Proxy
26. Crumb
25. Cabin Boy
24. Shallow Grave
23. Death And The Maiden
22. Exotica
21. Nobody's Fool
20. The Madness Of King George
19. PCU
18. Leon, The Professional
17. Eat Drink Man Woman
16. Fist Of Legend

15. Three Colors: White - The second part of Krzysztof Kieslowski's trilogy is a comedy starring Julie Delpy and Polish comic actor Zbigniew Zamachowski. They get divorced in Paris, leaving Zamachowski penniless. He meets a strange guy in a subway station who offers to smuggle him back to Poland in his luggage. Back home, he resumes his hairdressing career and plots his revenge against Delpy. As light and funny as Blue is depressing, it's the slightest of the three movies.

14. Ashes Of Time - Before Crouching Tiger, The House Of Flying Daggers, or Hero, there was Wong Kar-wai's Ashes Of Time. The influence on those later films is obvious, as Wong and his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle apply the techniques of Chinese art movies to a kung fu epic. It's slow, beautiful, complex in structure and in meaning. Stars Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Leslie Cheung and the other Tony Leung. With action choreographed by Sammo Hung.

13. Ed Wood - Tim Burton's most serious film is a bio-pic about the worst director of all-time. Johnny Depp is out standing as Wood, and Martin Landau is great as his buddy, the aged actor/junkie Bela Lugosi. It's a disturbing film, because Wood seems to have no idea just how awful he really is. His unbound enthusiasm and belief in his own abilities is either inspiring or horribly depressing. Also stars Patricia Arquette, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray, Max Casella, Jeffrey Jones and Vincent D'Onofrio as Orson Welles.

12. Drunken Master II - Jackie Chan stars in the sequel to his classic Wong Fei-hung parody that helped invent the modern martial arts comedy genre. Generally considered the best of the 90s kung fu movies, though I prefer a Jet Li's The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk. The main edge Chan has on Li, of course, is that he refuses to use wires or special effects in any of his stunts. Still, I prefer Li as the Buster Keaton to Jackie Chan's Charlie Chaplin.

11. The Last Seduction - Linda Fiorentino stars as a very femme and very fatale femme fatale in John Dahl's top notch neo-noir. After making a bunch of money in a drug deal, she leaves her husband (Bill Pullman) and steals all the money. As Pullman tries to hunt her down, she enlists clueless Hick Peter Berg to help her out. Fiorentino's terrific as one of the most evil women of all time.

10. Hoop Dreams - In this remarkable documentary, the filmmakers followed two inner-city Chicago basketball players throughout their high school careers. William Gates got into an exclusive prep school but suffered from knee injuries and never really fulfilled his playing potential, and had a kid along the way. Arthur Agee has to play at a public school, but had a much better career. Neither one went on to do much in college, though Agee was the more successful of the two. Its a great film about poverty and sports ad the relation between the two.

9. Once Were Warriors - One of the more intense and depressing films that I actually like, this is about a family of poor Maori in New Zealand. The wife is descended from Maori warriors, the husband from the slave class. It's about the corruption of the nobility of the warrior class by modernity through her relationship with the drunken, wife-beating, deadbeat slave-class husband. Anti-egalitarian for sure, but still very cool.

8. Reality Bites - I have no real defense for ranking this movie so high. Other than that I graduated high school in 1994. It's a silly Gen X romantic comedy/coming of age movie, albeit one with a great cast. Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofolo, and Steve Zahn, with bit parts by John Mahoney, Renee Zellweger, Andy Dick, and David Spade. It's not as good as Singles, it's most similar film. Nostalgia's a tricky thing. There is an interesting idea in that it basically became the kind of victim of commercialism and vapidity that it criticizes itself.

7. Four Weddings And A Funeral - But for Andie McDowell, this would be a truly great movie. I've a theory that British writers are incapable of writing credible dialogue for Americans. Exhibit A in this theory is William Holden's part in The Bridge On The River Kwai. Exhibit B is this movie. She looks great and all, but every time she says something, you want to cringe. It's possible (probable?) that she's just a bad actor, but I really can't imagine anyone making these lines sound good. The rest of the movie's great, especially since Hugh Grant hadn't quite reached Totally Annoying yet. Kristen Scott Thomas, Simon Callow and John Hannah steal the film from the mediocre leads.

6. Clerks - Rightly beloved by anyone who's ever worked a customer service job, Clerks features truly terrible actors saying truly hilarious lines. Kevin Smith spent more on it than Robert Rodriguez did for El Mariachi, but you can't tell by watching it. It's more a collection of shorts than one cohesive film. But that doesn't really matter. My favorites: the egg guy, the Star Wars discussion (of course), any scene in the video store, and the cat.

5. The Shawshank Redemption - The It's A Wonderful Life of the 90s? Perhaps no movie has been played more often on television over the last decade (where would we be without TBS?). For a prison movie chock full of murder, rape and suicide, it's surprisingly watchable. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins are, of course, terrific. The director, Frank Darabont, appears to be the official writer-director for all Stephen King prison movies. He's directed only three movies, two of which are Shawshank and The Green Mile.

4. Three Colors: Red - The last part of the trilogy stars Irene Jacob as a model who accidentally runs over a dog owned by Jean-Louis Trintignant, a retired judge who spends all his time eavesdropping on his neighbors' phone conversations. Being about fraternity, this film is all about interconnectedness (the opening shot, of a phone call traveling through wires across the english channel, is a both famous and brilliant. In addition to the technological connections, there's a little side story about a law student studying for his final exams that ultimately fits in perfectly strangely. And of course, this is the film where the characters from all three of the movies come together, mediated by technology and weather. A great conclusion to what might be the best trilogy in film history.

3. Quiz Show - Robert Redford's great film about the scandal around 21, the 1950s game show that gave the answers to its contestants. The cast is amazing, led by Rob Morrow from Northern Exposure playing Richard Goodwin, the Congressional investigator who went on to be a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Paul Scofield, Mira Sorvino, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Griffin Dunne, Barry Levinson and Martin Scorsese. The attention to period detail is perfect and the film has a look and color that I've never quite seen before. The relationship between the Van Dorens, Fiennes and Scofield, is my favorite, it's what really makes the film great, more than just a movie about a scandal. Also, Paul Scofield has one of my all-time favorite voices.

2. Chungking Express - This was actually a very tough call for me, whether to make this or Pulp Fiction the # film of the year. As great as Tarantino's movie is, I really love Chungking Express. Ultimately I decided Pulp Fiction had to be #1, because without it, I might never have seen a Wong Kar-wai movie. It's two separate love stories, one dark and gangsterish, the other light and fun. Brigitte Lin and Takeshi Kaneshiro star in the first, about a cop who, while obsessing about the girl who left him, spends a platonic night with a drug dealer on the run from her bosses. The second stars Tony Leung as a cop who's obsessed with his flight attendant ex-girlfriend and Faye Wong as the crazy/cute girl who repeatedly breaks into his apartment trying to brighten it up. My pick as the most romantic film ever.

1. Pulp Fiction - If you haven't seen Pulp Fiction, you really shouldn't be reading this blog. I mean it, go away. Come back after you've watched it. On of the most direct influences on my becoming a film geek (not unusual for geeks of my generation), it made me want to go out and watch everything that influenced Tarantino. In the Goddard-free Spokane of the mid-90s, that meant film noir and Scorsese. Welles, Hitchcock and Kurosawa weren't far behind. Influential as it is, it is first and foremost simply a great movie. As everyone who tried to copy it found out, there's more to Tarantino than trendy pop culture references and a jumbled timeline. The references are only useful in that they reveal character, but what makes Tarantino's characters special is the way he works with the actors. I can't think of a single bad performance in any Tarantino film, and that is remarkable. John Travolta is not a good actor, why is he great in Pulp Fiction? Beyond the screenplay, the direction is great as well. the music is outstanding, perfectly integrated. And the cast is terrific, I'm sure I don't need to recite them here. A serious contender for best film of the 90s.

Quite a few Unseen Movies this year, and most of them are going to stay that way:

The Secret Of Roan Inish
The Kingdom
To Live
Burnt By The Sun
Cemetary Man
Angels In The Outfield
Without Honors
Queen Margot
The Shadow
On Deadly Ground
Blown Away
Serial Mom
The Ref
Muriel's Wedding
Beverly Hills Cop III
The Adventures Of Prisvilla, Queen Of The Desert
Il Postino
The Flintstones
Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult
Clear And Present Danger
The Lion King
The Santa Clause
Wild Reeds
Tom & Viv
Wyatt Earp
8 Seconds
Monkey Trouble
Bad Girls
A Million To Juan
Fear Of A Black Hat
Go Fish
Little Big League
Wagons East
Strawberry And Chocolate
The Sum Of Us
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey