|The Ten Best Films of 1993
|by Jack Sommersby
From a piano maestro to a Secret Service agent to a killing-spree sociopath to a superhero to a...
And the winners are:
1. Flesh and Bone
2. Demolition Man
3. Groundhog Day
4. Hard Target
5. Carlito's Way
6. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
7. In the Line of Fire
8. The Piano
9. Dennis the Menace
10. American Heart
Actor: Clint Eastwood (In the Line of Fire)
Actress: Ashley Judd (Ruby in Paradise)
Supporting Actor: Lance Henriksen (Hard Target)
Supporting Actress: Anna Paquin (The Piano)
Director: Brian De Palma (Carlito's Way)
Screenplay: Steve Kloves (Flesh and Bone)
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli (Kalifornia)
Production Design: David L. Snyder (Demolition Man)
Editing: Stuart Baird (Demolition Man)
Score: Jerry Goldsmith (Rudy)
Nudity: Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito's Way)
I can understand the temptation to typify one as a killjoy in their omitting quite a few critically-praised films from their ten-best lists. After all, if a majority of professional film critics have gone agog over these films, then they must be good, right? Well, uh, actually, that's all in the eyes of the beholder. Furthermore, non-"serious" films consisting of action and comedy are too easily dismissed as less substantial than "serious" ones with big messages and important topics. When asked how I can place something like, say, Die Hard ahead of Mississippi Burning on a list, I can simply reply that the former is better at what it's intended to do than the former does; an action film that's brilliantly executed with little or no flaws is naturally going to place higher than a powerful docudrama with more than a couple of substantial ones. Still, convincing the priggish of this is about as frustrating and futile as having to explain the superiority of letterboxed DVDs to pan-and-scan ones: in both cases, you're liable to be told you're "not seeing the whole picture". Well, I saw the "whole" of Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning Schindler's List, and found it a marvel of technical craftsmanship but a dramatically-stunted failure. Don't blame the game Liam Neeson as the courageous Oskar Schindler, though -- he pours everything into the character as is humanly possible, but we learn so very little about him (what makes him tick, what truly motivated him to risk so much) that the narrative lacks a core and viable dramatic underpinnings. (Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone is a much, much better Holocaust drama.) Robert Altman's Short Cuts dexterously linearized multiple characters within its three-hour running time, but the characters weren't interesting enough to justify the effort, and Altman tried forcing an inappropriate lyricalness onto author Raymond Carver's creations that I found smug and repugnant. Remains of the Day was a livelier-than-usual James Ivory costume drama that still managed to concern itself more with meticulous sets than emotional veracity. And the generally warm critical reception of Nora Ephron's asinine, pandering-down-to Sleepless in Seattle was enough to bring on a ten-aspirin headache. Of course, this pales in comparison to the mediocre Emma Thompson having copped two undeserved Oscar nods that year for Remains of the Day and in the passable In the Name of the Father (where co-star Daniel Day-Lewis effortlessly blew her right off the silver screen). And phooey on Clint Eastwood's ambitious A Perfect World for being the most frustrating, unfocused, flat-out biggest disappointment of the year -- the scenes with escaped convict Kevin Costner were marvelous, the ones with Texas Ranger Eastwood insipid.
Oh, there were far worse films, though. Burt Reynolds certainly made some high-grade stinkers in the '90s (Raven, The Maddening), but none of them (and this is saying something, believe me) came near to rivaling the godawful Cop and a Half, where he played a cop forced to team up with a wisecracking eight-year-old to bring down a gangster who likes to break out in song and dance. Yeah. Peter Jackson's Dead Alive was nothing more than a relentless, sickening array of gore effects that grew tiresome after about, oh, ten minutes. Patrick Swayze approached Reynolds' nadir with Father Hood, an inane chase film that tried to fit in a few preachings about ineptly run state institutions. Ugh. Indecent Proposal found Demi Moore whoring herself for one-million dollars for one night of cha-cha with billionaire Robert Redford; rather than playing out as even remotely believable, the film was far more content with raising controversy than intelligently dealing with its controversial aspects. Mad Dog & Glory, starring Robert De Niro and Bill Murray, was a dismal attempt at a black comedy by the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer(!). David Cronenberg's M. Butterfly was an unnecessary, stilted filming of the opera classic with a woefully miscast John Lone and an umpteenth 'suffering' performance by Jeremy Irons. Mr. Wonderful was a dreadful romantic comedy/drama by the overrated director Anthony Minghella. Rising Sun was a ludicrous, near-incomprehensible adaptation of Michael Crichton's swift and snazzy novel (though it did provide Sean Connery with his best role in years). The grating Rookie of the Year marked the directing debut of actor Daniel Stern and ranked as the worst baseball film ever made. Sliver was Sharon Stone's first film since becoming an overnight sensation in Basic Instinct, and it managed the seemingly impossible feat of being even more palpably absurd than the Ira Levin novel it was based upon. Striking Distance was a lifeless and just plain dumb serial-killer thriller starring Bruce Willis that at least offered up some good Pittsburgh location shooting. True Romance was scripted by Quinten Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott, and embedded with a supposed hip-and-happening coolness that made it a legend in its own feeble mind. The Vanishing was a bastardized American remake of the great Dutch original that had the dubious distinction of bringing back the director of the original to desecrate his own masterpiece.
But 1993 wasn't a totally hopeless year. Nicolas Cage's creative, charming comic performance as a two-bit criminal in the acceptable Amos & Andrew was a delight, as was Dennis Farina's uproarious dinner-table shenanigans in Another Stakeout. Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue was very, very good up till its disappointing conclusion. Robert De Niro managed to impress with his directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, an excellent coming-of-age drama set in the Bronx during the '60s. The fine Free Willy proved Reservoir Dogs' Michael Madsen could convincingly and appealingly play a domesticated dad, while the just-OK The Fugitive provided a sensational Tommy Lee Jones the juicy role of a relentless U.S. marshal. Don Johnson was outstanding as a suave playboy accused of murder in Guilty as Sin, and Brad Pitt was equally so as a violent white-trash sociopath in Kalifornia. Danny DeVito gave a remarkable dramatic performance as a widowed, alcoholic late-night tv host struggling to raise two adolescent sons in Jack the Bear. The much-despised The Last Action Hero was no doubt uncouth yet quite entertaining and fun, with countless jabs at the movie industry that hit more often than they missed. The psychological thriller Malice suffered from massive plot holes but benefited from Gordon Willis' dark-toned lighting and Alec Baldwin's spectacular, show-stopping turn as an egotistical doctor with a God complex. Mel Gibson's first foray into directing with the domestic drama The Man Without a Face yielded a modest success. Ashley Judd gave an expressive, nuanced performance in her first starring role in the quaint Ruby in Paradise, as did Sean Astin as a Notre Dame football player in the inspirational biopic Rudy. Six Degrees of Separation was enormously entertaining but burdened with Will Smith's inadequate lead performance and a preachy ending. Mike Myers was a scream as an eccentric Scottish dad in So I Married an Axe Murderer. Son-in-Law was (gasp!) a funny Paulie Shore comedy. The Temp was a nicely observed commentary on manners and politics in the corporate workplace disguised as a horror film. William Baldwin and Kelly Lynch were excellent as a gigolo and his lesbian client in Three of Hearts. Marisa Tomei and Christian Slater gave indelible performances in the touching romantic drama Untamed Heart. Finally, the miraculous Angela Bassett and dynamic Laurence Fishburne sizzled as Tina and Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It?
Now onto the best...
Jeff Bridges is astoundingly good in a chameleon-like performance as a just-released felon trying to eke out a living with teenage son Edward Furlong (adequate, for once) in urban Seattle in American Heart; directed by Martin Bell, who made a name for himself with the award-winning documentary Streetwise, it's small-scale stuff that's short on invention but teeming with emotional gravitas and rich observation.
The John Hughes-scripted Dennis the Menace is that rarity: a non-saccharine, technically-proficient, live-action children's film that adults can enjoy too. The director, Nick Castle, sustains a consistent buoyant tone from start to finish and stages the gags with both imagination and finesse. As Mr. Wilson, a retiree who managed to survive forty-plus years at the post office yet finds his retirement days besieged by a mischievous five-year-old, Walter Matthau is spectacularly grumpy, and the game, adorable Mason Gamble is nothing short of a revelation as the title character who refers to a horde of old ladies descending upon him as "cheek pinchers."
Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way treads familiar territory, to be sure -- a career criminal recently released from prison vows to lead the 'straight life' yet gets 'pulled back in' to a world of illegality he so desperately wishes to leave behind -- but it's redeemed by Al Pacino's outstanding star performance, colorful supporting characters (with Sean Penn's unscrupulous lawyer the standout), piquant dialogue, emotional resonance, and ingeniously-staged action sequences (the climactic, spatially-complex one starting out in a subway and ending up in Grand Central Station tops the much-revered train-station one in De Palma's The Untouchables).
Clint Eastwood delivers a career-best performance in In the Line of Fire as a veteran Secret Service agent tracking ex-CIA assassin John Malkovich, who plans to kill the president. Jeff Maguire's screenplay is smartly structured and chock-full of fascinating detail (though it relies on a couple of behavioral inconsistencies and strained coincidences to sustain the story), and Wolfgang Petersen's well-calibrated direction keeps everything moving succinctly yet never hurriedly for the sake of appeasing thirty-second attention spans. As the guilt-ridden agent who failed at preventing President Kennedy's death, Eastwood etches a beautifully-modulated, soulful portrait and delivers a tear-filled monologue that any actor would be proud of.
The big-screen animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm boasts exciting action, a bold and controlled color scheme, interesting characters and a story worth giving a damn about -- and more flat-out entertainment value than all four of the live-action Batman series put together.
Writer/director Jane Campion's The Piano, set on New Zealand's South Island during the mid-eighteenth century, tells the tantalizing tale of mute musician Holly Hunter engaged to chauvinistic arranged-fiancee Sam Neil yet in love with sensitive jungle colonist Harvey Keitel. While Hunter is good, it's the performances of Neill and Keitel (both ingeniously cast against type) that resonate, though even they are eclipsed by the remarkable Anna Paquin as Hunter's headstrong young daughter. Kudos also to Stuart Dryburgh's deliberately desaturated cinematography, Michael Nyman's lush music score, and Campion's brilliantly intuitive camerawork. (Admittedly, though, the film's grandiose treatment is slightly overscaled in light of its don't-stop-the-presses meditation on male/female relations.)
The fantastic, thrill-a-fifteen-seconds Hard Target remains prolific Hong Kong director John Woo's best American film and serves as a smashing star vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme. An exceedingly violent, breakneck-paced updating of 1932's Most Dangerous Game, its Belgium-born star finds himself hunted throughout the New Orleans streets and bayou by mercenary Lance Henriksen, who runs an exclusive service for millionaires that allows them to hunt human prey for a very hefty fee. Plausibility is left so far behind you'd have to airmail light in to locate it, yet this is of course purely incidental in light of Woo's ultimate aim: to dazzle you from head to toe with his eye-popping, balletic, beautifully choreographed action. There isn't a dull moment to be found (especially during the climatic shootout inside a parade-float warehouse), the humor is particularly well-milked, the villains are vivid and hiss-worthy, and darned if Van Damme's acting (though not his command of the English language) has grown steadier.
Bill Murray is aces as a pampered, snooty Pittsburgh tv weatherman forced to relive the same day in a small upstate town over and over and over again in Harold Ramis' deft Groundhog Day. The story could have grown repetitious and preachy, but there's dexterity to the plotting and Murray's expertly layered performance to keep everything properly aligned (he manages to convince you of his character's transformation into a more caring, receptive human being without italicizing the emotions). Also worth noting: Andie MacDowell, usually an acquired taste, atypically appealing as Murray's love interest.
The most entertaining film of the year was the sci-fi action extravaganza Demolition Man. Sylvester Stallone plays the title character -- a former L.A. cop awoken after a thirty-six-year cryogenic imprisonment for a crime he didn't commit -- battling arch-nemesis Wesley Snipes in the futuristic world of San Angeles, 2032. The world's changed quite a bit: violent crime is an anomaly, red meat and smoking are prohibited among other unhealthy things, omnipresent machines spit out citations for foul language (the film's best gag), Taco Bell is the only chain to have survived the Franchise Wars, the well-mannered police couldn't adequately confront a sidewalk spitter, and the entire society is governed under draconian rule by duplicitous leader Nigel Hawthorne. Rarely has action and comedy mixed so seamlessly into an organic whole (the original Die Hard is the only other one to come to mind), and the debuting director, Marco Brambilla, shows dazzling filmmaking technique in his complexly-staged action sequences and striking 'Scope compositions. Stallone has never been this loose and appealing and funny, Snipes has a lot of fun with his colorful villainous role, and Sandra Bullock is irresistible and sexy as Stallone's spunky partner. Excepting 1984's The Terminator, the best of its kind ever made.
Steve Kloves' Flesh and Bone, the best film of the year, is a disturbing gothic Texas fable that opens with a horrific multiple murder and concludes with another murder, and in between examines the uncomfortable bond between an evil father and his conscience-laden son, and also serves as a devastating meditation on the consequences of conscience and memory. Kloves and the great French cinematographer Philippe Rousselot evocatively capture the texture of sparsely-traveled West Texas milieu: the cheap motels, empty farmhouses, bus depots, mom-and-pop diners, bowling alleys with domino-playing geriatrics -- all of which are used to reflect upon and deepen the tragedy implicit in its hero's dogged determination to go through a nondescript daily routine closed off from feeling and emotional connection with others. Paced with a steady, built-in deliberateness that may be off-putting to some, the film is atmospheric, suspenseful, contemplative, saddening, and yet oddly exhilarating in the way it cannily observes the human idiosyncrasies without judging and overthinking itself -- it neither spells everything out nor does it self-defeatedly indulge in facile art consciousness. The four main actors -- Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, James Caan, and (especially) Gwyneth Paltrow -- do some of the best work of their careers. An unheralded treasure more than worthy of rediscovery.
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originally posted: 10/12/04 22:40:16
last updated: 02/22/17 19:18:19