Inside Llewyn Davis
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the most satisfyingly diabolical cinematic structure that the Coens have ever contrived, and that's just one reason that I suspect it…
It was an "annus mirabilius," a year of marvels. For no particular reason, 1993 was the best year since the 1970s for new motion pictures. One after another they arrived, especially in the autumn, great and good movies of all sorts, from the epic to the intimate, from thrillers to biopics, all with that special grace that leaves you thankful for the movies. I found myself granting "four stars" almost with abandon -- more than twice as many as in 1992. Readers wrote in asking if I hadn't gone soft. Look at the movies, I advised them. I'm only reporting the news. At the head of the list were new films by the most popular director in the world, Steven Spielberg, and the best director, Martin Scorsese. And, "mirabilia dictu!" Spielberg edged out Scorsese for the top place on my list of the year's best films with his awesome achievement "Schindler's List." In it he considered the overwhelming fact of the Holocaust with a power so quiet, so understated, that the director's hand was nowhere evident, although his heart was always on view. Scorsese w as scarcely less surprising, with a literary adaptation of Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence," a study of behavior in New York society of a century ago, which was scarcely what we expected from the director of "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." And then there were all the other best movies, from the chamber drama "The Piano" to the thriller "The Fugitive" to the biography of "The Joy Luck Club" to the violent road picture "Kalifornia." The movies seemed alive, in 1993, to their possibilities. The best ones weren't just marking time by doing a good job o f the same old things; they were experimenting, taking chances in a way that reminded me of the golden age of the early 1970s.The year's best films:
Steven Spielberg's epic film, more than three hours long and shot in black and white that brings the stark feel of actuality to the screen, tells the story of an enigmatic man named Oskar Schindler, who began the Second World War hoping to become a millionaire, and ended it by spending his fortune and risking his life to try to save some 1,100 Jews who worked in his factory.What Schindler did was heroic, but the man himself was not a conventional hero, and the film is subtle and patient in showing how, as Schindler's motives slowly changed, his grandiose personality remained constant. Spielberg says he waited 10 years to tell this story because he wasn't sure he was ready. During that time he seems to have internalized it, so that the story isn't told by depending on his usual skill with narrative and melodrama; it's told simply by being seen, in powerful and unforgettable images.
Martin Scorsese 's film takes place in 1870, when in upper-class New York a rigid social code governs how people talk, walk, meet, part, dine, earn their livings, fall in love and marry. Marriages for them are like treaties between nations, their purpose not merely to cement romance or produce children, but to provide for the orderly transmission of wealth between the generations. Anything that threatens this sedate process is hated. It is not thought proper for men and women to place their own selfish desires above the needs of their class. People do indeed "marry for l ove," but the practice is frowned upon as vulgar and dangerous. And so when Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), engaged to marry a proper heiress (Winona Ryder), falls in love with a divorced woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the society conspires to force him into his traditional role without his full awareness. The film is filled with passion, all of it internalized, so that a look, a word, a gesture can destroy romance or save it.
Jane Campion's film takes place at about the same time as Scorsese's, but in a vastly different world. Its heroine (Holly Hunter), a woman from Scotland who has not spoken since she was a child, is landed with her young daughter on a savage New Zealand coast where a marriage has been arranged with a crude local farmer (Sam Neill). The woman speaks only through sign language and her piano -- which the farmer declines to have in the house. But a neighbor (Harvey Keitel), a rough-hewn former whaler, falls in love with the music of the piano, and its player.The way the movie develops their relationship, in eroticism and fierce combativeness, is wonderful to watch: The woma n is strong as steel and determined to have her way, but the unschooled man surprises her by his tenderness. And Campion's feel for the location, an overgrown wilderness of rain and privation, makes love and all the other aspects of life seem more desperate.
The year's best thriller is a tense allegory about an innocent man in a world prepared to crush him. Inspired by the cult television series, it is larger and more encompassing; the director, Andrew Davis, paints with bold visual and story strokes so that the movie takes on a kind of w intry grandeur. Photographed in a Chicago where February seems to be the only month, it stars Harrison Ford as an angry everyman determined to find his wife's killer before he himself is jailed for the crime. Tommy Lee Jones is crucial to the film's success, as the lawman who pursues Ford with grim and yet wryly human determination.The movie further establishes Davis as the best of current action directors. After last year's "Under Siege," it shows him able to deliver thrills and suspense on a mass audience level, while making the absurdities of the plot somehow feel convincing. An early sequence, involving the hero's escape from a bus-train crash, is one of the most sensational action scenes in recent film history.
The characters in this movie all seem to have been saving their stories for years, waiting for a sympathetic ear -- for someone who can imagine what it was like for them. They are older women now, Chinese- Americans who have settled in America and whose children and families can hardly imagine what they went through in early life. But when one of their number dies, there is a reunion in which memory comes rushing back with all of its power, and we see in flashbacks what they have endured. The movie, based on Amy Tan's best-selling novel and directed by Wayne Wang, is so cleverly constructed that we're not aware of its complexity, as we see some of these characters at two or three different times in their lives, trying to survive not only hard times in wartime China, but also the subservient role of women in their traditional society. The movie was described as a "four-hankie weeper," but every tear is earned.
This is the one that got away, the one movie this year that deserves comparison with "Taxi Driver" or "Badlands" or "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." Maybe because of the kooky title, maybe because of an erratic release, maybe because of blindness by many critics, Dominic Sena's work didn't find the audience it deserved. But it is powerful: A film that cuts through the surface of movie violence and says something important about the murderous energies at loose in society.The story brings together four people on a cross- country road odyss ey: a yuppie couple, preparing a book on famous murders, and a couple of dropouts who come along for the ride. Only gradually do we realize that the male hitchhiker (Brad Pitt) is fully capable of violence. Pitt and Juliette Lewis, who played his spaced-out girlfriend, gave two of the year's most electrifying performances.
The year's most surprising sleeper is a Mexican film that has recipes instead of stars. The story, set around 1910, centers on a young couple named Tita and Pedro, whose marriage is forbidden by Tita's stern mama. So Pedro marries Tita's older sister simply so he can stay in the family and close to his love. And Tita moves into the kitchen, where for decades she changes the lives of her family by the tears and passion she puts into her cooking.The filmmakers kept it all in the family: The movie was produced and directed by Alfonso Arua, from a screenplay by his wife, Laura Esquivel, whose novel remains on the best- seller lists. Using the Latin American tradition of magic realism, they found humor and poignancy in the story of their long-suffering lovers. A nd also quail, garlic, honey, chilies, mole, cilantro, rose petals and a lot of corn meal.
At a time when the headlines are filled with stories of guns, drugs and mindless urban violence, here is a rare film that tells the story of one of the lost young men of the inner city. He did not get to where he is, we learn, in an hour or a day. It took a lifetime of neglect -- by his parents and his society -- to leave him valuing murder and despair. He is not, as the cliche goes, a "bad kid." But he knows no way to be good, and he is a dang er to himself and others.The movie was written and directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, two brothers in their early 20s. Their hero, Caine (Tyrin Turner), cannot quite envision a world for himself outside of the limited existence of guns, cars, drugs and swagger. This movie, like many others, reminds us that murder is the leading cause of death among young black men. But it doesn't blame the easy target of white racism for that; it looks unblinkingly at a street culture that offers its members few choices that are not self-destructive.
This is the year's best biopic, telling the story of a young woman named Anna Mae Bullock from Nutbush, Tenn., who grew up in poverty but got a strong musical start in the church choir, and then was discovered by a bandleader named Ike Turner, who married her, changed her name to "Tina," helped make her a star, and made her life a living hell.The movie stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne in two of the best performances of the year, as a couple whose careers and personalities locked them together for years, until Tina Turner finally walked out one day with only small change in her pocket and rebuilt her career, becoming one of the world's top rock concert draws. The movie has a lot of terrific music in it, but is a forceful and unforgettable drama about the sick dynamics of marital abuse.
This warm, insightful gem stars Ashley Judd in a luminous performance, as another small-town girl who escapes -- in this case, driving by herself to a Florida resort area, where she gets a job in a beachwear store and begins to discover who she is. Written and direct ed by Victor Nunez, the film has an unusual sensitivity for its central character, who knows that she wants to earn a living and support herself, who does not want to define herself through a man, but who discovers her clear goal in life only during the film.Often in the movies, "realizing your dream" means engaging in some sort of movie fantasy. "Ruby in Paradise" is firmly rooted in reality -- even to the men in her life, one of whom is bad but not evil, and another who is good but not the answer. Her answer, Ruby finds, is to discover what she loves t o do, and do it. For now, that's selling beachwear. The movie leaves us curious, and confident, about what will happen next.
At film festivals, the juries sometimes award a "Special Jury Prize," which goes to films that are not quite in first place, but too good for second place. This year, five extraordinary films got squeezed out of my list of the year's 10 best. In a lesser year, all of them would have been high on the list. Listed alphabetically, they are: "Farewell My Concubine," the remarkable overview of more than four decades of recent Chinese history, seen through the eyes of two stars of the Peking Opera. From the Dickensian ordeal of their harsh early training, through the sexual and theatrical politics of their stardom, into the decay of the social system they knew, Chen Kaige's film provides a surprisingly unblinking portrayal of a China long forbidden to its filmmakers. Nancy Savoca's "Household Saints" tells its story through three generations of an Italian-American family in New York. The grandmother is steeped in ancient superstitions, the parents (Vincent D'Onofrio and Tracey Ullman) gradually become conventionally middle class, and then their daughter (Lili Taylor) disturbs them by, essentially, wanting to become a saint. What the grandmother would have found sensible, the modern parents treat as madness; the film uses sardonic humor and unabashed idealism in questioning modern values."Searching for Bobby Fischer" is based on the true story of a young chess prodigy named Josh Waitzkin, who learned chess in two ways -- from the chess hustlers in Washington Square Park, and from an ascetic, intellectual teacher. The boy uses the best of both worlds, but his parents must decide how much they want to encourage his gift -- whether the world of professional chess is a place where he will find happiness in life. The movie asks an interesting question: Do we have a responsibility to our genius, even if it will lead to the kind of purgatory inhabited by the boy's hero, the troubled chessmaster Bobby Fischer? "Shadowlands" features two of the finest performances of the year, by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Based on real life, it tells of a romance between the British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis, a shy and reserved bachelor, and a brash American divorcee who enters his life and brightens it, not without cost. Few romances can have been more restrained, more tentative and finally more complete.And Anthony Hopkins starred again in "Remains of the Day" as an even shyer and more reserved bachelor. This sad, civilized, elegantly restrained Merchant-Ivory film tells the story of an elderly butler who undertakes a motor journey across Britain, and a simultaneous journey back into his memories. Emma Thompson plays the housekeeper who might once have won his heart, had he let her.
If those five films are all tied somewhere between 10th and 11th place, here is my list of the next 10, alphabetically: "A Bronx Tale," Robert De Niro's directorial debut, was written by Chazz Palminteri, and the two men star as the father and the local Mafia boss who both try to teach a young boy what they know about life. Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth," the last film in his Vietnam trilogy, tells the epic story of a Vietnamese girl whose life is torn apart by the war, and mended only with great difficulty after she marries an American and moves to the United States."Il Ladro di Bambini," by the director Gianni Amelio, tells the story of a young Italian policeman who in the course of transporting two abused children down the length of the country, comes to care for them and learn lessons about himself. Clint Eastwood's "A Perfect World" stars Kevin Costner, in perhaps his best performance, as an escaped convict who kidnaps a child and then finds himself involved in the issues of his own violent childhood. "King of the Hill," based on the autobiography of writer A.E. Hotchner, stars Jesse Bradford as a young boy left by his desperate parents in a Depression-era St. Louis hotel; using a gift of gab and spontaneous invention, he fends for himself and a younger brother. Vincent Ward's "Map of the Human Heart" tells the extraordinary story of a young Eskimo who through a series of coincidences is brought to Montreal, falls in love with a half-Indian girl, and later finds her again in the chaos of wartime London. Agnieszka Holland's "The Secret Garden" is far and away the best family film of the year , the enchanting story of a young girl brought to live in a gloomy old house, where she finds a sad young invalid and the hidden garden planted by his mother. Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" starts with a group of Raymond Carver short stories, and creates a mosaic of a modern Los Angeles in which feeling and human care are in short supply; the combination of dry realism and unfettered satire is exhilarating. Zhang Yimou's "The Story of Qui Ju" is another glimpse of modern China, this time seen through the eyes of a peasant woman who demands justice when the village leader kicks her husband. Her odyssey takes her to the top of the political system and back down again. And "Un Coeur En Hiver" ("A Heart in Winter"), by Claude Sautet, stars Emmanuelle Beart and Daniel Auteuil in the chill story of a man who cannot love. He repairs violins, but when a beautiful violinist offers her love, he cannot return it, much as he might regret what he has surrendered.So. Twenty-five great films. And to give you an idea what a remarkable year it was at the movies, here are 24 more, any one of which would have been a contender in a lesser year: "The Accompanist," "Betty," "Bopha!," "Carlito's Way," "Dave," "Free Willy," "Geronimo," "In The Line Of Fire," "In the Name of the Father," "Into The West," "Jacquot," "The Last Days Of Chez Nous," "Mac," "Mad Dog and Glory," "Matinee," "Naked," "Nightmare Before Christmas," "Orlando," "Philadelphia," "Rudy," "This Boy's Life," "Visions of Light," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway."Altogether during the year, I reviewed 178 movies. If 49 of them were good enough for this list, that means I had a wonderful time at the movies -- hmm, let's see here -- 27.5 percent of the time. And also some merely good times, and some fair times. "Anno mirabilia."
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