Monday, January 24, 2011

Best of the Year: 1994

My Picks of the Year
(listed alphabetically)
Clear and Present Danger 
"It's not about black and white, Ritter. It's about right and wrong." So says Harrison Ford, sturdily reliable as Jack Ryan, in by far the best of the Tom Clancy adaptations for the silver screen. This is a complex, genuinely suspenseful crackerjack thriller about a drug cartel that mysteriously finds its way into the White House. Ford has never been so seriously good, and a movie like this one is sorely missed in this decade's crop of so-called action releases.

In this difficult, challenging drama, Sigourney Weaver is brilliant as a victim of rape and torture. Several years after the crime, we see her living happily in a secluded area of the world with her loving husband (Stuart Wilson). On one stormy night, a stranded motorist (an extraordinarily enigmatic Ben Kingsley) begs the couple for help. Is this Weaver's attacker? Thankfully, this isn't just a whodunit, but a what-if-dunit, a fresh look at a genre so used to twists and contrivances to keep the viewer guessing. With these three excellent performances and superb direction by Roman Polanski, you can cut the tension here with a knife.

Dumb and Dumber 
In the funniest film of the year, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels made the most unlikely comic duo and succeeded with flying colors. The Farrelly Brothers' pitch-perfect script is gleefully loaded with fart and juvenile humor, and the road trip setting is a great platform for these two talents to strut their wild stuff. There’s nothing quite better than a twisted comedy that still holds up after several years and repeated viewings.

Quite simply the most magical film I have ever seen. Easily a Top 5 film of all time, one of the very best I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing in a theater. On paper, the film sounds impossible to pull off, but everything works perfectly. The flashback structure, the blending of reality and fiction, the litany of memorable one-liners, the seamless and ground-breaking effects, the gorgeous set design …all of these elements collaborate together so well, one has to assume it's a miracle that this film worked. And that's precisely why Robert Zemeckis is the only filmmaker in Hollywood I would dare call a miracle worker.

Heavenly Creatures 
"Tis a miracle, one must feel, that two such heavenly creatures are real." Oh, they're real all right, very frighteningly so. Based on a true story, this drama features two best friends (perfectly embodied by Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey) whose obsessive relationship (featuring brilliantly choreographed trips into a world with people made of clay) drives them to murder. A devastating and superb motion picture.

Edward Zwick, director of fine films like Glory and Courage Under Fire, creates a beautiful, emotional drama with talents like Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Aidan Quinn at its center. Consider it a soap opera with class; the story is epic in scope, and the visuals are breathtakingly captured by John Toll’s Oscar-winning cinematography. During my first viewing in the theatre, I cried my eyes out; I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein 
Never have I seen such a feverish, intense and palpable monster movie. In Kenneth Branagh's version of the popular horror novel, De Niro huffs and puffs underneath garish make-up as The Creature, while Helena Bonham Carter is a fine damsel in distress. But it's Branagh's show, behind and in front of the camera. Sure, he may not know when to stop, but that's what made it work for me: in a world of unspeakable horror, the fear comes to you at hurtling speed.

William Goldman's script is so jam-packed with great scenes, sharp lines of dialogue and twists so goofy and entertaining, that the actors who embody the leading roles (Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and James Garner) are merely the cherries on top of this delicious concoction. It's charming, fast, and furiously funny. My favorite scene is the extended one with Gibson and Graham Greene (as Joseph, the most contemporary of contemporary Indians); it's truly hilarious stuff.

Nobody's Fool 
This is the first real Paul Newman film I have ever seen. What a wonderful performance by a legend I never really witnessed before. It opened up so many cinematic treasures for me -- Cool Hand Luke, The Sting, Butch Cassidy -- and it doesn't hurt that Nobody's Fool itself is such a charming, quiet ensemble piece. Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, the late Jessica Tandy in her last role, and the fantastic Pruitt Taylor Vince all shine, but make no mistake -- this is Paul Newman's film all the way.

In what still remains as Luc Besson's best film, Jean Reno makes a lasting impression as a hitman who begrudgingly grows closer to nubile teenager, Natalie Portman. Gary Oldman, continuing his early-to-mid 90's streak of extremely off-the-wall characters, hits the right notes as the crooked cop on Reno's tail. The Professional is extremely well-told and beautifully shot; a firecracker of a thriller.

What else can be said that hasn't already been said about Pulp Fiction? It is one of the most influential films of all time, an exercise of pure kinetic filmmaking, infused with crackling dialogue, a fractured, mind-blowing narrative structure, and career-defining performances by established actors. Pulp Fiction is an unforgettable experience, one of the most visceral, heart-stopping roller coaster rides ever committed to celluloid.

Never underestimate the power of the hand of John Sayles. In my eyes, he's the only filmmaker whose stories consistently unfold in a rich, multi-layered fashion that resembles a big, sprawling novel. Once again, he explores a new subgenre - children's literature - as he tells us the story of an Irish myth that comes to life before the eyes of a naive 10 year old girl. It's an endless wonder.

There is a reason why this film remains at the top of IMDb's Best 250 films of all time. It's a universally embraced drama about hope and freedom. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, two actors who are always good, no matter what movie they are in, should be proud of their work here. This film is their crowning achievement. The final act packs an emotional wallop -- there is never a dry eye in the room when the final events of the film play out accordingly.

What a juggernaut of a popcorn thriller!! Speed is as slick, intense, and hilarious as they come. Keanu Reeves has never looked sexier and Sandra Bullock has never left our hearts since. Hopper creates one of the best villains of the 90's, and who would have thought that Jeff Daniels’ death would evoke such emotion and surprise? Wild, fast, and incredible to look at, Speed is the ultimate summer flick, the very best in the entire decade.

Credit Meg Ryan for pulling this one off. Eager to shed her cutesy image, she effectively performs very much against type as a drunk mother and wife who cannot seem to shake off her disease, despite the wearing patience of her devoted husband (a beautiful Andy Garcia) and daughters (Tina Majorino and Mae Whitman). It's a soap opera, but a damned good one.

Honorary Mention

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