A Walk Among the Tombstones
Fans of the hardboiled detective, rejoice. Screenwriter-director Scott Frank and actor Liam Neeson, adapting the splendid work of crime novelist Lawrence Block, have brought a…
1994 ---- 1. "Hoop Dreams" 2. "Three Colors Trilogy": "Blue," "White," "Red" 3. "Pulp Fiction" 4. "Forrest Gump" 5. "The Last Seduction" 6. "Fresh" 7. "The Blue Kite" 8. "Natural Born Killers" 9. "The New Age" 10. "Quiz Show"
This wonderful film follows a couple of Chicago eighth- graders named William Gates and Arthur Agee through six years of their lives, as they pursue the elusive dream of someday playing professional basketball. But the film is not just about basketball. It's about life as it is lived in a big American city, and like all great films it makes us think in new ways about the world around us. Gates and Agee, genuinely talented, are recruited to play for a suburban hi gh school with a high-powered sports program. But as fate and injury affect their careers, we grow involved in their lives -- meeting their parents, neighbors, relatives, coaches. And one myth after another about the "inner city" is demolished, as we see how their extended families pull together to help the kids. The movie works on many levels. It is an exciting sports picture, with breathtaking game sequences. It is a thriller. It is heavy drama. And there is comedy. Yes, it's a documentary, but no fiction film in 1994 was more entertaining or more memor able. The incredible persistence of the filmmakers -- Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert -- over six years has resulted in a film where we can actually see people growing up on the screen. If the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences don't nominate "Hoop Dreams" as one of the year's best films, they haven't done their homework. Those who take the trouble to see this film will recognize its greatness.
Three films, named for the colors in the French flag, and written around the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity. They were directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, a Polish filmmaker now living in France, and I link them together because he considers them a trilogy, and because they all opened here in 1994. I admire "Red" the most, but all share in Kieslowski's refusal to be nailed down to dumb formulas. They exist in a world of discovery and surprises, where the characters react to unexpected events in unconventional ways. In "Blue," for example, Juliette Binoche stars as the widow of a symphony conductor, who goes to live on an obscure street in Paris, and tries to lose herself in the big city. In "White," a Polish hairdresser (Zbigniew Zamachowski), divorced, homeless, jobless, ekes out a living in the Paris Metro by performing on a pocket comb. Then he convinces a friend to take him back to Warsaw -- by concealing him in airline luggage. And he plots revenge on his beautiful young ex-wife (Julie Delpy). In "Red," Irene Jacob stars as a young woman living in Geneva whose car strikes a dog belonging to a retired judge -- leading to a relationship that owes everything to its accidental nature. Kieslowski is one of the most gifted filmmakers at work today, which makes it all the more inexplicable that, at 53, he has announced his retirement. They can be seen separately or together, in any order; they make a resounding statement against the lockstep mentality that produces so many formula films. Life contains random chance and great surprise; why can't the movies?
Quentin Tarantino began with three interlocking stories about crime and lowlife sleaze, and then twisted his timeline like a Mobius strip, so that it s eemed to end before it began. The stories all involved crime, deception, violence and depravity, but the treatment is ironic and often comic, and the dialogue is so fresh and original that even the seamiest scenes generate a certain charm. More than any other movie this year, "Pulp Fiction" got people talking. The film's many deliberate and accidental puzzles (what was in the briefcase? what happened to the guy in the leather suit?) caused endless debate on campuses, and the sheer invention of such sequences as the macabre "date" between John Travolta and Uma Thurman was dazzling, in a year of limp-brained "thrillers." On the other hand, the movie was also widely attacked as a violent, unsavory portrait of worthless people. The notion that a movie is bad if it is about bad people, or good if it is about good people, is one of the most common delusions of those who have not given the question much thought.
This was the year's OTHER most talked-about movie, although I wonder how many people liked both "Forrest Gump" and "Pulp Fiction" as much as I did. If "Pulp" was embrac ed by the dread counterculture, "Gump" was given a bear-hug by Rush Limbaugh, who found it espoused the virtues he most values. I found the film more apolitical, a delicate, witty meander down memory lane, especially evocative for those who were born around the time Forrest was, about 45 years ago.
The title performance by Tom Hanks was a balancing act: Forrest is slow, but not dumb, and although we like him, he doesn't seem to much care about things ("thayngs") like that. In his accidental way he takes note of many of the events that shaped recent Americ an history: the killing of Kennedy, the Vietnam war, the rise of a sports culture, the counterculture, the peace movement, the sexual revolution, drugs, entrepreneurial experimentation, jogging, AIDS, bumper stickers and so on. He doesn't know what to make of much of what he sees. But he clings to old values and universal truths taught to him by his mother (Sally Field), and he bumbles through, creating along the way a reminder to the audience that they have muddled through, too. Few movies have created a more powerful sense in their audiences of a shared experience.
This is the kind of tight, brassy, tough, smart movie that Hollywood used to make in the 1940s, when it would have masqueraded as a B-grade film noir. Now it hits like a blast of fresh air. The movie stars Linda Fiorentino in what is surely the best female performance of the year (although she is ineligible for an Oscar nomination because the movie played on HBO before going out to a theatrical run). She plays a woman who likes money very much, and who knows what buttons to push on the men who will help her get some. The film's obvious antecedent is Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity," although the hard-boiled performance by Ann Savage in the less-known noir "Detour" is also probably an influence. What Fiorentino gives us is a dangerous dame who is not afraid of men, does not compromise, and is not locked into a formula that requires her to cave in during the last act. The movie was directed by John Dahl, who TWICE this year had films rescued from cable hell by the admiration of critics and smart audiences. His "Red Rock West" played on Showtime before g rowing into a sleeper hit, and "Last Seduction" received some of the year's best reviews from London critics before American distributors could see its quality.
This was one of the year's best-acted and best-written films, the story of a 12-year-old Brooklyn boy (Sean Nelson) who works as a runner for drug dealers. He's very smart, he's liked and respected by the men he works for, but he is wise beyond his years and sees more than anyone realizes. One day his father (Samuel L. Jackson, in another perfectly modulated performance) gives h im a lesson in chess. And then, using the pieces on a board in his bedroom, Fresh plots a way to settle all of his scores.
The movie was directed and written by Boaz Yakin, whose plotting is so subtle that for the first half of the movie we're hardly aware there is a plot: It all seems like just observation and behavior. Then Yakin lets the other shoe drop, in a climax of mounting ingenuity and logic. The way Fresh's scheme unfolds was one of the great pleasures of moviegoing in 1994.
The most exciting film industry out side America right now is in China, where a "fifth generation" of filmmakers is rushing into production with passionate examinations of their nation's recent history. Tian Zhuangzhuang, who made "The Blue Kite," tells his story through the eyes of a young man named Tietou ("Iron Head"), who is born in the early 1950s. Tims are hard and food is scarce, but there is a neighborly spirit in the small courtyard where his family lives. Then his father, a librarian, is swept away by chance in the first of many waves of political reform, and Tietou and his mother bounce from her second to her third husbands -- both good men -- while trying to survive the sometimes insane political currents. The film is a true epic, which gives us the sense of what it was like to be Chinese during a time of hope, turmoil and suffering.
Much praised but equally loudly attacked, sometimes by those who had previously championed the work of director Oliver Stone. I found it, like most of his work, essential viewing even if you hated it (which I did not), because he aimed so clearly at our national condition.
We live in a time when most people are more interested in scandals than news. When mastering the details of the Simpson case is an entertaining alternative to taking any interest in serious events. When tabloid TV shows have the form of news but the content of sensationalist gossip. When a person's fame inspires many to forgive him his other crimes. That is what "Natural Born Killers" is about: our national hunger for scandal and sensation, the way the media indulge it in a feeding frenzy, and the way our standards of taste and morality are disintegrating in the process. Those who hated this film may have been attacking the messenger rather than hearing the message.
This film opened and closed in the wink of an eye, but it was the year's sharpest, most observant critique of the way we live now. Written and directed by Michael Tolkin (who wrote "The Player" and directed "The Rapture"), it starred Judy Davis and Peter Weller as an affluent Los Angeles couple who unexpectedly find themselves unemployed and unable to maintain their expensive lifestyle.
At first they treat thi s predicament as a bad joke. Then they try to fight back by opening a trendy boutique. Eventually they face ruin. They take inventory of their skills ("we're good at shopping and talking") and their fears ("having to work to make money"), and descend into the quick-fix New Age wonderland of gurus and psychics, looking for deliverance. My hunch is this movie was doomed before it ever got out of L.A., by executives who could not bear to look at their own problematic present lives and possible futures.
No, no, no, America did NOT "lo se its innocence" in 1954, when the quiz show scandal broke. We have been losing, and regaining, our innocence on a regular basis with every generation. It's just that a certain kind of trust -- that TV was what it seemed, and would keep faith with us -- was lost when it was revealed that the highest-rated quiz shows, with contestants who became national celebrities, were phony.
Robert Redford's film, with a subtle script by Paul Attanasio, did a wonderful job of showing how seductive the fix was: how bright, principled young men like Charles Van Doren we re persuaded by the heady payoffs of cash and fame. Ralph Fiennes, from "Schindler's List," was splendid as Van Doren, and Rob Morrow was well-cast as the congressional investigator who wanted to bring down the shows but was dazzled by Van Doren's personal charm. The movie named names, including sponsors and networks, and pointedly observed that only the contestants ever really suffered from the quiz show scandals; the guilty pros kept right on working, shaping the television of tomorrow.
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 films deserve that honor. All of them contain particularly interesting performances. Listed alphabetically, they are:
"Bullets Over Broadway," Woody Allen's fiendishly funny examination of the lengths some people will go to in defense of their art -- people, for example, like a mob hitman (played with sublime unself-consciousness by Chazz Palmenteri) who finds himself involved in the rewrite of a Broadway play.
"Four Weddings and a Funeral," directed by Mike Newell, made British newcomer Hugh Grant into an overnight star, and was a fresh reminder of Andie Macdowell's fresh wit. It followed the uncertain development of a romance as it developed during a series of ceremonies for other people.
"Imaginary Crimes," directed by Anthony Drazan, contained one of the year's best performances, by Harvey Keitel, as a con man who usually stays just this side of the law with his get-rich quick schemes, while trying to be a good father to his two exasperated daughters.
"The Madness of King George," directed by Nicholas Hytner, contained another great performance, by Nigel Hawthorne, as the dotty British monarch who lost both the American colonies and his mind. His eccentric behavior delivers him into the hands of an implacable early psychologist (Ian Holm). As the court wheels and deals for rights to the throne, he confounds them all, and becomes one of the year's most lovable characters.
"The Shawshank Redemption" contained two remarkable performances, by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, as convicts who survive decades behind bars without losin g their spirit. Written and directed by Frank Darabont, based on a Stephen King novella, the film won the hearts of those who saw it -- but many stayed away because of the ungainly title.
If those five films are all tied somewhere between 10th and 11th place, here is my list of the next 10, alphabetically:
"32 Short Films About Glenn Gould," directed by Francois Girard. This was an experiment in documentary, based on the life of the great, reclusive Canadian pianist. Using an actor, Colm Feore, to play Gould, Girard created a series of vigne ttes -- some realistic, some impressionistic, some experimental -- to suggest aspects of his life.
"Blue Sky," directed some three years ago by the late Tony Richardson and shelved as a victim of the Orion bankruptcy, told an uneven story, but its performances were superb: Jessica Lange as a troubled Air Force wife, and Tommy Lee Jones as the husband with the love and patience to put up with moods that shaded into madness.
Was I the only person who thought Abel Ferrara's "Body Snatchers" was terrific? The third remake of the Jack Finney classic wa s set on an Army base in the south, and starred Gabrielle Anwar as the teen-age girl who begins to realize that her parents have become pod people. Meg Tilly is creepy and effective as the stepmother, and the movie is very scary, but Warner Bros. hardly opened it theatrically before shipping it off to video.
Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" was a movie for movie-lovers, a loving black-and-white examination of the career of "the worst director of all time," whose "Plan 9 from Outer Space" and "Glen or Glenda?" are treasured wherever bad movies are seen. Johnny Depp was lovable in the title role, and Martin Landau deserves an Oscar nomination for his work as fading horror star Bela Lugosi.
The Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene is Africa's most distinguished director, and his "Guelwaar" was a colorful, sometimes hilarious, insightful look into modern life in a village where two factions -- Christian and Islamic -- almost come to blows over a funeral. Sembene creates a real feeling of community, of tensions between tradition and the modern, of the way far-off politics affect the way longtime neighbors view each othe r.
Bigas Luna's "Jamon, Jamon" was the funniest sexy movie, or the sexiest comedy, since "Like Water for Chocolate." The movie was an outrageous throwback to the days when directors took crazy chances, counting on their audience to keep up with them. Set in a small town where everybody sooner or later seems to sleep with the wrong person, it evokes the anarchic spirit of Bunuel and Almodovar in a story involving underwear models, bordellos, prize pigs, lurid melodrama, vast improbabilities, sexy soap opera, heartfelt romance, and heedless raunch.
"Ladybird, Ladybird," contains the year's strongest performance by an actress, in Crissy Rock's work as a troubled British welfare mother, whose careless behavior causes social workers to take away her children, and whose violent temper prevents her from getting them back again. She is a deeply flawed character, but one we feel for. Rock, a barmaid turned stand-up comic, made her film acting debut in this film, and her work was, quite simply, amazing.
"The Scent of Green Papaya," directed by Tran Anh Hung, was one of the year's most beautiful and romantic films. Set in Saigon between the 1940s and the early 1960s, it was shot entirely on sets on a Paris sound stage -- a meticulous recreation of the house on a small, green-leafed street where a poor young woman (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) comes to work as a servant. She falls in love with the young man who is a good friend of the family, but it is many years before her love breathtakingly blossoms.
"Speed" was the year's cleverest, slickest thriller, a nonstop extravaganza of action starring Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock and a preposterous plot involving a bus that dares not to slow below 50 mph. As a bonus, the movie added scenes set on an elevator and a subway train, and director Jan De Bont avoided some clichis and milked others to keep the action fresh.
"When a Man Loves a Woman," starring Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia, was a wise and ambitious film about the way alcoholism affects the fabric of a marriage. Ryan plays a school teacher whose alcoholism is usually so well-timed and hidden that her husband, an airline pilot, doesn't suspect it. The film really gets interesting after Ryan begins the process of recovery, and Garcia discovers that perhaps he preferred a dependent, insecure wife to the new woman she is becoming.
So. Twenty-five great films. And here are 29 more, any one of which I'd be happy to see again: "Barcelona," "Belle Epoque," "Blink," "China Moon," "Clerks," "Crooklyn," "The Crow," "Guarding Tess," "Heavenly Creatures," "Immortal Beloved," "It Could Happen to You," "I.Q.," "Junior," "Lion King," "Little Big League," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," "Nell," "Only You," "The Paper," "Raining Stones," "Red Rock West," "Sirens," "S ugar Hill," "Sunday's Children," "To Live," "Vanya on 42nd Street," "War Room," "Widows Peak,"and "The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl."
During 1994 I reviewed 206 films -- a record, as studios pumped more and more titles into their pipelines. These 55 titles mean, let's see, that I had a good or great experience at the movies about 26 percent of the time. And I had some pretty fair times, too.
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