Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Best of the Year: 1995

My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
The American President
All hail Aaron Sorkin! For many years on Wednesday nights, he gave us The West Wing, easily one of the best shows on television. But before that, there was his inspiration for the show, the smart, saavy, imminently quotable romantic political comedy, The American President. Michael Douglas is brilliant as ever, but it is his supporting cast that shines so brightly (Michael J. Fox, Annette Bening, David Paymer, and President Bartlett himself, Martin Sheen) and Sorkin's own script that is written with sheer perfection. As with 1993's Dave, love and politics certainly do make for a fine confection.

I take pity on anyone who dismisses this film as a "talking pig movie." That irks me because Star Wars has talking droids and Toy Story has talking toys; all films were universally embraced. So what's the problem with a talking pig and his animal friends? Babe has the biggest heart of any film I've seen in the 90's, a movie so smile-inducing, your cheeks sore from stretching so much. And James Cromwell, working so well with animals, sports the greatest last line in movie history: "That'll do, Pig. That'll do."

The Bridges of Madison County
At last, a serious, dramatic, deeply heartfelt love story. Clint Eastwood took a trashy, soap operatic novel and transformed it into something genuine, so wrenching, that every hopeless romantic could so easily relate to it. Richard LaGravenese, quite possibly my favorite screenwriter in the business, has leisurely laid out all of the bare essentials and Eastwood films the story with a mellow, building crescendo of shattering heartbreak. As the male lead, Clint fares surprisingly well, capturing not only Meryl Streep's heart, but ours too.

Amy Heckerling's very humorous take on Emma is a sweetly innocent love story and, yes, it is also a bright social commentary. Dan Hedaya never ceases to make me laugh, and Wallace Shawn, Breckin Meyer, and Brittany Murphy bring heart to the film. Alicia Silverstone hasn't gone many places in her career, but this one, she can proudly call hers.

Die Hard with a Vengeance
While less emotionally forceful than its predecessors, this second sequel takes itself very lightly and has a ball with its really inspired premise. "Simon" tortures John McClane (Bruce Willis as perfectly gruff as ever) by playing explosive games with him throughout the city to: A) claim vengeance on his brother's death and, B) to keep the cops busy so he can capture all the "gold in your Fort Knox." This episode has great fun with its dialogue ("Now that you mention it, I am kinda feeling a burning sensation between my toes") and has tons of eye- and ear-pleasing action. Even with its cop-out ending, Die Hard with a Vengeance is a fun ride that holds up well with repeated viewings.

Dolores Claiborne
This piercingly intelligent drama is one of the very best Stephen King movie adaptations to ever grace the screen. Kathy Bates delivers one of her finest-ever, a tour-de-force performance, as a maid charged for the murder of her elderly employer. David Strathairn, an actor I never tire of seeing, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress I could honestly do without sometimes, both create nuanced, deeply-felt characters. The flashback scenes resonate with such powerful intensity. Superb.

Get Shorty
It was Dennis “Fuck you, Fuckball” Farina who stole all of his scenes in Barry Sonnenfeld's uproarious Hollywood/Mob satire that has the gamest, coolest cast of the year. There’s John Travolta (so good at the peak of his career), Rene Russo (delicious as she's always been), Gene Hackman (so deft at playing losers), Danny DeVito and the brilliant pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini as Bear. The film whistles along mightily, the jokes fly as fast as the bullets and the experience of witnessing Get Shorty makes you realize why you love Hollywood so much.

Pruitt Taylor Vince is one of independent cinema's most compelling character actors (I believe him to be our generation's M. Emmett Walsh). He more than ably carries Heavy, a fine study of an overweight chef who falls in love with a wandering waitress (played so sweetly by Liv Tyler). A quiet masterpiece from writer/director James Mangold, also featuring Shelley Winters and Deborah Harry.

Mr. Holland's Opus
When I first saw this movie, I was moved to tears. This is an epic story of a music teacher who, with a deaf child, struggled to make a statement that music should be loved and studied by all students of the world. Richard Dreyfuss created a masterful performance, deserving of a gold statue. A must see by all counts.

I know I'm in the minority on this, but I adored Sabrina. Although she can't compare to Audrey Hepburn, Julia Ormond is sublime as the title character. Sydney Pollack (re)created a wonderfully old-fashioned love story with Sabrina as the center of all attention. Harrison Ford, as relaxed and comically adept as I've seen him since Working Girl, and Greg Kinnear, in his breakout role, are brothers who love her for different reasons. Throw in a delightfully droll Nancy Marchand as their mother, and you have a mellow, fanciful, sunny romantic comedy.

Something to Talk About
Most people don't agree, but I think this film is something to talk about. This is one of those rare low-key, quiet Julia Roberts films, one where the pacing allows the actors to develop true characters and not false caricatures. Lasse Hallstrom memorably directs Dennis Quaid, Robert Duvall, Kyra Sedgwick (stealing the film with some great lines), and the always lovely Gena Rowlands.

The Stars Fell on Henrietta
Robert Duvall had impeccable taste this year. Clint Eastwood produced this sweet character-driven film about an old coot (Duvall) who believes a farm run by Aidan Quinn and Frances Fischer is atop of a massive oil rig. Brian Dennehy and Billy Bob Thornton round out this feel-very-good period piece. Good luck finding it, though -- it's not even available on Netflix. The horror!
Toy Story
The most groundbreaking film of the year!! What an inventive thrill; not only are the effects seamless and eye opening, but the script is pitch-perfect. They couldn't have done it without Tim Allen and Tom Hanks deliciously creating Buzz and Woody, and that wonderful collection of supporting toys opens up many doors into the memories of everyone's childhood.

12 Monkeys
Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt are having a good year (with Die Hard 3 and Seven, respectively), but this is their best work in years. It's a wicked cool trip, so frenetic and paranoid in its execution, so rushed and feverish in its design. Terry Gilliam's fantastic futuristic vision is only the backdrop, but I am always a sucker for time travel fantasies; David Webb Peoples' script is so twisted, one cannot help but embrace this dizzying spectacle of madness and uncertainty.
The Usual Suspects
"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was proving the world he didn't exist." Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer created a masterful puzzle in The Usual Suspects, an intricate, clever mystery that features a strong ensemble performance (stand outs are Chazz Palminteri, Gabriel Byrne and, of course, the inimitable Kevin Spacey). Whether or not you suspected it was Spacey who did it, it doesn't matter; it was how he got away with it that made it fun. The musical score is catchy, and what a cool name: Keyser Soze!

Honorable Mention
Before Sunrise; Braveheart; Casino; Leaving Las Vegas; Living in Oblivion; My Family (Mi Familia); The Perez Family; Smoke; To Die For; Waterworld

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