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The Ten Best Films of 1992

by Jack Sommersby

From streets gangs to serial killers to drug dealers to frontiersmen to Hollywood execs to lawn mowers.

And the winners are...

1. Falling From Grace
2. Light Sleeper
3. Unforgiven
4. Jennifer 8
5. Deep Cover
6. The Player
7. White Sands
8. The Last of the Mohicans
9. The Lawnmower Man
10. South Central

Actor: Bill Paxton (One False Move)
Actress: Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me)
Supporting Actor: Forest Whitaker (The Crying Game)
Supporting Actress: Kay Lenz (Falling From Grace)
Director: Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven)
Screenplay: Larry McMurtry (Falling From Grace)
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall (Jennifer 8)
Production Design: Wolf Kroeger (The Last of the Mohicans)
Editing: Dov Hoenig, Arthur Schmidt (The Last of the Mohicans)
Music: Christopher Young (Jennifer 8)
Nudity: Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me)

While 1992 was far from a great year for films, on a personal level, it was one of the most rewarding for Yours Truly. I had just started taking film-related courses at the University of Texas at Arlington, with my first semester concentrating on basic video production: shooting and editing five-minute films. Bereft of much of a social life, I spent my Friday and Saturday nights doing basically the same thing: going to the cinema, and then to the editing rooms on campus to edit my films. The Forum 303 mall in Arlington is one that I grew up with, and though the place had grown a bit seedy over the years, the six-screen AMC theatre was always a joy to visit. Admission cost with a student ID was cheap, and the place wasn't nearly as crowded as theatres in more prestige malls in the area; so it was rare, even on opening night, that you had to endure a packed house. But before seeing a film I made it a habit of watching one or two indoor soccer games in the adjoining building, feasting on some kick-butt pizza at their concession stand, playing skee ball at the arcade, and then making my way to the theatre. Even if the films I saw didn't turn out to be that good, I could at least take pleasure in having spent a rewarding-enough evening. But the pleasure didn't stop there, because there was always the editing room to get to. There was never any problem booking a late-night time at the editing bays, because, well, most of the other students had active social lives. More time for me, then. I'd take whatever filmmaking energy conjured up during my recent film-watching and transfer that to my editing time by spending a good three to four hours in one sitting fine-tuning my projects. It wasn't lost on my fellow students that they had a rather eccentric classmate on their hands who'd log in a good twenty hours to edit a frigging five-minute film; in my defense, however, with my penchant for shooting multiple takes of multiple shots within a scene (suffice to say, my actors would no longer work for free after an hour of filming with me)-- which resulted in, more or less, ninety minutes of footage to be condensed down to five minutes (something Hollywood execs would surely have a coronary over) -- I needed the time. Watching films and then making films that Spring semester was probably the most joyous time of my life. No, 1992 wasn't bursting at the seems with cinematic masterpieces out the kazoo, but there were still a good many wonderful ones, so I didn't have to resort to including sloppy seconds in my top-ten list. What made the year so rewarding was a truly deep-seated appreciation for the possibilities of film, for the mere opportunity to be privy to a filmmaker's presented work, to be able to learn from it (whether it be a good or bad film), and to take that into the editing room (a place where many directors insist the real meat-and-potatoes, make-or-break work is done).

Lots of bad films polluted the cineplexes as well as the art houses, though. Article 99 took a simplistic, heavy-handed look at the ever-timely subject of underfunded veterans' hospitals. Bram Stoker's Dracula found Francis Ford Coppola dicking around with high-definition video technology and thus emasculating Stoker's classic tale, resulting in an incoherent hodgepodge of terrible acting and non-existent scares. Both Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and 1492: Conquest of Paradise featured classically miscast actors and oodles of unintentionally hilarious moments. Cold Heaven was a cold and far-from-heavenly supernatural thriller from the eclectic Nicolas Roeg that wasted the talent of his off-screen wife, Theresa Russell. Company Business was a dreadful spy comedy starring Gene Hackman and Mikhail Baryshnikov. The inept Dr. Giggles was as effective a slasher flick as the unbearable Folks! (the year's worst film) was a laugh-eliciting comedy. Howard's End was a hollowed-out, crushingly disappointing adaptation of E. M. Forster's finest book. Ladybugs offered up the depressing sight of a bleach-blonde Rodney Dangerfield coaching a girl's soccer team and running around in a dress. Man Bites Dog and Reservoir Dogs were one-dimensional, two-fisted macho junk that tried putting a hip-and-happenin' face on explicit violence only to emerge as sophomoric excesses of style over substance. Man Trouble reunited the star (Jack Nicholson), writer (Carole Eastman), and director (Bob Rafelson) of 1970's classic Five Easy Pieces in a catastrophic comedy that tried finding humor in co-star Ellen Barkin on the receiving end of the desires of both a horny, leg-humping German shepherd and a love-obsessed serial killer. Mr. Saturday Night was Billy Crystal's insufferably self-indulgent directorial debut. Singles was Cameron Crowe's forced, lukewarm follow-up to his superlative Say Anything, while Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot erased the good will Sylvester Stallone had worked up in the charming gangster comedy Oscar from the year before. The insufferable Toys was Barry Levinson using his newfound clout after back-to-back successes with Rain Man and Bugsy to get his dream twelve-year-old project onto the silver screen. And Unlawful Entry started out strong in its commentary on the social chasm between cops and the well-off middle-class citizens they're sworn to protect but soon resorted to hoary clichés and horrid contrivances to carry the day.

Other films were either good or at least offered up some standout moments worth noting. Alien 3 was a wildly uneven AIDS parable that at least confirmed debuting director David Fincher as a talent worth noting. Bad Lieutenant offered some fun with Harvey Keitel's quintessentially corrupt title character before unwisely morphing into a tale of "redemption". Batman Returns was easily the best of its series. Bebe's Kids and Beethoven were acceptable children's fare. Brain Donors was an uproarious laugh-fest that proved John Turturro (playing a sleazy lawyer who literally chases ambulances) a superb actor at broad comedy. City of Joy offered up a touching Om Puri as a peasant struggling to support his family in Calcutta, while Brad Pitt proved himself a star-in-the-making with his sensational turn as a cop in the live-action animation tale Cool World. The Crying Game had an original first-half but a just-functional follow-through, with Forest Whitaker miraculous as an IRA hostage. The Cutting Edge and Diggstown were appealing, feel-good comedies. The ludicrous Final Analysis nevertheless served up a forceful, career-best turn by Kim Basinger as a femme fatale. Forever Young and Hard Promises (both passable) allowed stars Mel Gibson and William Petersen to shine. Great acting, directing, editing, and photography made Glengarry Glen Ross recommendable despite its limited screenplay. Honeymoon in Vegas gave Nicolas Cage a plum comic role, and Rene Russo contributed a sexy, star-making performance in Lethal Weapon 3. Husbands and Wives was Woody Allen's painfully observant study of martial woes. One False Move was an awfully good crime yarn until its haphazard finale, with Bill Paxton a revelation as a small-town Arkansas sheriff. Rampage was a chilling meditation on the insanity plea. Scent of a Woman was self-indulgent but incorrigible. School Ties took an incisive look at anti-Semitism at an Ivy league boarding school. Sheryl Lee gave an extraordinary, harrowing performance as a self-destructive incest victim in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Under Siege was a career-best Steven Seagal vehicle with a spectacular villainous turn by Tommy Lee Jones. Whipsers in the Dark was a sometimes-ludicrous/sometimes-mesmerizing thriller. And Wild Orchid 2: Shades of Blue was a surprisingly affecting coming-of-age drama from Red Shoe Diaries' Zalman King.

Now onto the best...

While it's shameful that Boyz N' the Hood was as overpraised as South Central was underpraised, the glory of home video is the opportunity to view neglected gems like Steven Anderson's hard-hitting drama about just-released felon Glenn Plummer (so memorable as the dishwasher/aspiring-screenwriter in Frankie & Johnny) trying to persuade his ten-year-old son not to follow his past erroneous path into street-gang life. The tension-filled finale packs an emotional wallop.

Brett Leonard's The Lawnmower Man (very loosely derived from Stephen King's short story) excels as a cautionary fable about the dangers of hastily wading into uncharted scientific and technological realms while ignoring the emotional ramifications of the test subjects relied upon to further the research. Pierce Brosnan, as the innovative scientist, and Jeff Fahey, as the idiot savant (and title character) are superb. Very entertaining and gorgeously lit by Russell Carpenter, with at-the-time eye-popping virtual reality effects.

Michael Mann's first film in six years since the Hannibal Lecter classic Manhunter was this robust, stirring adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's classic tale, The Last of the Mohicans. Set in 1757 during the French and Indian War, the film is riddled with some historical inconsistencies and a central romance that never catches fire. Still, it's richly detailed, exciting, thought-provoking and, in the end, deeply touching. Daniel Day-Lewis is charismatically commanding as the hero, and Mann's penchant for staging breathtaking, voluptuous action is nearly unrivaled. Standout performances by Russell Means, as the righteous Chingachgook, and Wes Studi, as the fiercely vengeful Magua.

Roger Donaldson's White Sands finds Willem Dafoe atypically yet perfectly cast as a small-town New Mexico sheriff's deputy doggedly determined to find out the identity of a dead man found in the desert with a briefcase containing half a million dollars. Soon, he unknowingly finds himself in the midst of a major sting operation involving seedy arms dealer Mickey Rourke, duplicitous FBI agent Samuel L. Jackson, and lustrous socialite Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Daniel Pyne's screenplay is chock-full of tantalizing twists and turns that lock together with satisfying precision, and Donaldson keeps the action moving so fast one has little time to ponder over the plausibility of it all. Great Southwest location shooting through Peter Menzies Jr.'s able camera.

Robert Altman made a major comeback after a pathetic dry spell in the '80s with The Player, a dark, scathing satire of Hollywood wheeling and dealing. While it doesn't concentrate enough on the neglected-screenwriter angle of Michael Tolkin's jocular novel, it nevertheless paints a fairly devastating portrait of the moviemaking business as personified by unscrupulous studio executive Tim Robbins, who kills a rejected writer and finds that getting away with murder is actually as difficult as is depicted in the movies. Lots of star cameos, lots of fantastic dialogue and location shooting, and lots of laughs in unexpected places. An organic, perfectly-realized vision masterfully brought off by Altman, working in tip-top form.

Bill Duke's Deep Cover is a stylish, gritty crime drama starring a never-better Laurence Fishburne as a Cincinatti cop who goes undercover for the DEA in Los Angeles to bust a leading drug supplier of the West Coast who is revealed to have some rather startling governmental connections. The thin line separating cop and criminal is constantly (and dangerously) being walked by the cop in his efforts to deeply impersonate a criminal -- with all the temptations of easy money and a plush lifestyle -- without becoming one. Gorgeously photographed by Bojan Bazelli and inventively directed by sometimes-actor Duke, who successfully uses jump cuts and wipes and swish pans and hard-pounding music to share the hero's sense of disorientation and paranoia. A rip-roaringly manic Jeff Goldblum is an added bonus as a dabbling-in-crime attorney.

Bruce Robinson's Jennifer 8 finds former L.A. cop Andy Garcia (in an intense, smashing performance) relocating upstate to the Redwood Forest area in search of tranquility only to stumble upon a grisly discovery that leads him to believe he's on the trail of a serial killer of blind women whom no one else in his department believes exists. Robinson has written rich dialogue the actors sink their teeth into with relish ("You don't know if Tuesdays come in twos or happen once a week."), and he stages a knockout of a suspense sequence inside a pitch-black five-story building during a snowstorm where Garcia hunts the killer -- it's lit only with a single flashlight, which is only one of many wonders brought off by cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, whose virtuoso lighting here ranks among his best work. The film is garnished with Gothic mood and atmosphere, yet it never feels stuffy or overprepared; Robinson has a knack for tactfully conjuring up and sustaining suspense through shadows and darkness and sound. That rare psychological thriller that's character-oriented and respectful enough of its audience to play fair and tell its complexly-woven story in a deliberately patient (yet assured) manner.

Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is perhaps a masterpiece yet probably a near one whose various themes don't resonate quite as vibrantly as they should. Eastwood both directs and stars as a former evil gunfighter who's reformed his ways but agrees, after an eleven-year hiatus from killing, to accept a thousand-dollar bounty on two rustlers responsible for cutting up a prostitute. The film functions as both a pungent character study (that of an innately violent man wishing not to regress to his former self), a demystification of the Old West (how some legends are born out of stretched truths and outright fabrication), and the ugliness and consequences of violence (a prolonged scene of a wounded rustler who's soon slain is absolutely wrenching to see play out, as is the pained expression of the gunmen doing the slaying). Eastwood has done a complete one-eighty on his laconic, iconic Man With No Name screen persona that made him a legend starting in his spaghetti Western days with the late director Sergio Leone (who was a legend in his own right). The classically-structured screenplay by David Webb Peoples offers up rewarding roles not just for Eastwood, but for Gene Hackman (astounding), Richard Harris (excellent), Frances Fisher (riveting), and Jaimz Woolvett (quite good) -- though Morgan Freeman, who isn't given much to play, is merely adequate. Unforgiven doesn't have the dazzling brilliance of Eastwood's best Western, 1973's High Plains Difter, but it's powerful and leaves behind quite the intended disquieting impression.

Paul Schrader's piercingly beautiful Light Sleeper functions as a character study of a deeply flawed man, too -- the man in question being Willem Dafoe's John LeTour, a mid-level Manhattan drug deliverer employed by longtime friend and dealer Susan Sarandon, who's closing up shop and starting her own cosmetics company, thus leaving LeTour, who's going through a midlife crisis, to decide what to do with his life. An ex-addict no longer the darkly brooding, alienating person he once was (an ex-girlfriend tells him, "You were an encyclopedia of suicidal fantasies...no one could clear a room like you, John."), LeTour is a logical extension of Schrader's two other Lonely Guy characters, Taxi Driver's Travid Bickle and American Gigolo's Julian Kay; and like those men, LeTour needs an unforeseen tragedy to jolt him out of his docile existence. In the performance of his life, Dafoe is extraordinarily moving in a complex, nuanced role. Kudos also to Ed Lachman's inventive lighting, Michael Been's lovely songs, and, of course, Schrader's probing perception into the lives of wounded souls that manages to reflect upon our own lives in more ways than we'd probably care to admit.

As praiseworthy as all these films are, the're subsidiary to country singer John Mellencamp's directorial debut: the domestic drama Falling From Grace. Like Clint Eastwood's extraordinary White Hunter, Black Heart, it's a tale of a talented, egotistical, selfish man who's fundamentally decent but also fundamentally weak -- he's all too susceptible to his dark desires and giving in to them, no matter the consequences to him or to the loved ones whom he holds dear. Mellencamp's country-singer sensation Bud Parks returns to his small Indiana hometown for his randy grandfather's eightieth birthday; with him in tow is wife Mariel Hemingway and their preteen daughter. Bud means to just spend a few days with his kin and take a breather from show business, but he's drawn into some unresolved business left behind since leaving for the road when he was just out of high school: an antagonistic relationship with well-off father Claude Akins, who resented Bud's independence as a young man yet is even more resentful over Bud's wealth not having found its way into his pockets; and, more importantly, a still-burning attraction to high-school sweetheart Kay Lenz, who married Bud's older brother just to spite the man who left her high and dry when he blew town so many years ago, and manages to seduce him into a torrid extramarital affair.

Working from an acute screenplay by Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurty, Mellencamp avoids the narcissism trap most stars would (with no kicking and screaming) fall into given their not only directing but starring in a tailor-made star vehicle (Bud's life has been reported to be somewhat reflective of Mellencamp's former years); he refuses to soften Bud or have him 'redeemed' by film's end. As a director he unselfishly allows each and every one of the supporting cast to shine (especially the magnetic, sultry Lenz, who's simply extraordinary in her multi-faceted role), and demonstrates fine technical adeptness and an instinctive film sense for what will and will not play. As an actor he's not terribly exciting a screen presence but is solid and believable without italicizing his character's emotions. What's truly amazing and totally refreshing about Falling From Grace is the conflicts on display come off as genuine and dramatically sound, and not as by-products of a by-the-numbers screenwriter; and the characters, instead of being right off the stereotypical shelf, reveal more than one knowing side to themselves -- their own reactions sometimes surprise them more than us. As Roger Ebert noted about the film, it's evocative of Thomas Wolfe's famous line "You can never go home again." and suggests that while you can, given the given domestic situation, it may not always be in your best interest to. How true.


link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1196
originally posted: 09/28/04 11:57:29
last updated: 10/03/12 10:19:35
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