|by Jack Sommersby
From a serial killer to Meryl Streep to racist cops to a talking pig, these are just some of the standouts in another retro movie year!
And the winners are...
3. Dead Man Walking
4. The Bridges of Madison County
5. 12 Monkeys
7. Strange Days
9. The Glass Shield
10. The Doom Generation
Actor: Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking)
Actress: Meryl Streep (The Bridges of Madison County)
Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey (Se7en, Swimming With Sharks)
Supporting Actress: Angela Basset (Strange Days)
Director: David Fincher (Se7en)
Screenplay: Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en)
Cinematography: Darius Khondji (Se7en)
Production Design: Andrew McAlpine (Bad Company)
Editing: Richard Francis-Bruce (Se7en)
Score: Howard Shore (Se7en)
Nudity: Priscilla Barnes (Mallrats)
Oh, there were many, many cinematic joys to be found in 1995, but, oh my, were there ever a rank slew of dreadful duds that made a lover of the medium contemplate taking up John Grisham novels for recreation instead. Forget Batman and Robin being the worst of the series, for Batman Forever, despite a game Val Kilmer wrestling valiantly with the role of the Caped Crusader, was an atrocious, headache-inducing calamity. Martin Scorsese tread all-too-familiar territory with his dramatically vapid Goodfellas-goes-to-Vegas bore Casino. Jon Amiel's Copycat was a stiff and overly protracted thriller. Sean Penn followed up his ponderous writing/directing debut The Indian Runner with the even more ponderous The Crossing Guard. Free Willy 2 possessed none of the charm and heartfelt emotion of its predecessor. Michael Mann's three-hour crime opus Heat was technically dazzling but contextually tepid, despite Robert De Niro's best work in over a decade. Hideaway was yet another unfortunate big-screen bust of horror novelist Dean R. Koontz's work. John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness had an outstanding beginning yet unfortunately succumbed to banality soon thereafter. The repulsive Kids was the year's worst film and the darling of easily impressionable critics. Kevin Smith's Mallrats, the follow-up to his gut-funny debut Clerks, was forced and strained for laughs, but Three's Company alum Priscilla Barnes' three-nippled bogus fortune teller was damn near worth the price of admission. The Sandra Bullock star vehicle The Net proved longtime producer Irwin Winkler had the directorial talent of a fungo. Johnny Depp turned down Keanu Reeves' role in Speed the year before yet opted to star in John Badham's lunkheaded, Hitchcockian-wannabe Nick of Time a year later. (Thanks, Johnny!) Gus Van Sant's To Die For, starring that vapid ice queen Nicole Kidman, was a nothing-new critique of America's fascination with celebrity status. The dreadful Under Siege 2 was everything its wasn't: clunkily executed and downright boring. And the obscenely overpraised The Usual Suspects was far more complicated for the sole sake of being so than challengingly complex.
But some bright spots emerged from the muck. Like Michael Moore's fictional debut Canadian Bacon, a sometimes-uproarious political comedy that dealt with (are you ready?) an intellectually-challenged, wordly-oblivious, thinly-elected American president dubiously painting Canada as a terrorist threat for political gain ("Surrender her pronto...or we'll level Toronto." is one of many of the film's classic one-liners). Amy Heckerling's high-school comedy Clueless lacked the originality and wit of her unrivaled 1982 classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High but hugely benefited from the previously-unimpressive Alicia Silverstone's imaginative and appealing star performance. Taylor Hackford's Dolores Claiborne was a mesmerizing adaptation of Stephen King's no-great-shakes novel. Friday and Get Shorty were smug but admittedly endearing comedies. Grumpier Old Men was surprisingly easy to take in light of its unbearably grating predecessor. Just Cause was a whoppingly implausible but very entertaining thriller starring Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne. Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue showed off their acting chops in the imperfect yet affecting Leaving Las Vegas. Acclaimed horror novelist Clive Barker's second directing effort, Lord of Illusions, was more than worthwhile. Chris O'Donnell and Drew Barrymore gave good-natured performances in the involving teen drama Mad Love, as did Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in the breezy action-comedy Money Train. Mute Witness was a pleasurable Moscow-set suspense thriller, and Yimou Zhang's Shanghai Triad was a gorgeously photographed, richly detailed import from China. Roger Donaldson's sci-fi thriller Species was both sexy and thrilling, with Sudden Death a nifty Die Hard-in-a-hockey-arena action pic. Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead boasted an idiotic script but too much wonderful acting and directorial flair to easily ignore. The Underneath was a slightly underpraised Austin-set film noir from Steven Soderbergh. And, finally, some truly remarkable acting went largely ignored in perfectly passable films: Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks, Denzel Washington in Virtuosity, Jeff Bridges in Wild Bill, and John Travolta in White Man's Burden.
As for the very best of the year, writer/director Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation was a blazingly colorful, gloriously over-the-top social expose on teen moral alienation as seen through the eyes of a menage a trios as they wreak unspeakable havoc while driving cross-country. Violent as hell, profanely funny, sexy, and visually scrumptious from first scene to last, think of it as a non-headache-inducing Natural Born Killers.
Another esteemed independent writer/director, Charles Burnett, also turned in a career-best effort with the crime drama The Glass Shield, which dealt with racism inside the Los Angeles sheriff's department. Burnett works in something of a coldly analytical style here that works for the material -- he doesn't blatantly present racism at first inasmuch as he allows us to sense it percolating beneath the surface, so when it does make itself overtly known, the ugliness of it has even more of a repugnant resonance. Some truly throat-freezing suspenseful moments and enough solid acting and mature dialogue to make this an unsung near-classic worthy of re-discovery.
The indelible Smoke, from writer Paul Auster and director Wayne Wang, doesn't offer much in the way of a plot or, hell, even much of a story, but it manages to beautifully convey the need for human connection among an array of characters whose existences coalesce in and around a corner Brooklyn cigar store. Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, Stockard Channing, Harold Perrineau and (in a brief but dynamic cameo) Ashley Judd are outstanding in their multi-faceted, rewarding roles.
Kathryn Bigelow's dazzling Strange Days had the benefit of its supremely talented director's eye for stylish visuals, but also a screenplay not written by her, but by her ex-husband, James Cameron (Bigelow's previous films like Near Dark and Blue Steel were visually astute but appallingly scripted). Set in a ultra-crime-ridden Los Angeles two days before the turn of the millennium, the story details ex-cop Ralph Fiennes' efforts to ferret out the culprit framing him for murder and survive long enough to expose a pair of corrupt cops responsible for the slaying of a popular black-political rapper. It's not just a story of redemption for its rather sleazy hero (he's gone to seed since leaving the force, dealing in a black-market device called "the wire", which allows its wearer to feel the sensations and emotions of, say, a prostitute servicing a client or the last few minutes of a criminal's life during the carrying out of a crime), but also as a cautionary tale warning of the danger of the overreliance of technology in replacing vital human interaction (the hero drowns his misery over a past love in other people's recorded experiences). Expert action sequences on Bigelow's part come as no surprise, but it's the complex emotional areas she perceptively delves into here that give the film subtext, a rootedness that keeps the story dramatically grounded and emotionally resonant. Particular standouts: Matthew F. Leonetti's superlative cinematography and Angela Basset's dynamic, sexy performance as Fiennes' kick-butt protector.
Mel Gibson's epic Braveheart was a rousingly entertaining biopic of 13-century Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace. If Gibson's directorial debut, the fine, small-scale The Man Without a Face, gave evidence of an assured competence behind the camera, his three-hour Braveheart cemented his talent for complex action sequences and presenting grand spectacle with a born filmmaker's eye. An undeniable degree of homophobia occasionally undermines it (and so does not giving enough screen time to the luminous Catherine McCormack as Wallace's true love), but it's undoubtedly impressive stuff.
Terry Gilliam's disturbing apocalyptic sci-fi thriller 12 Monkeys also benefits from a wonderful screenplay as well as wonderful visuals. Set in 2035 after a devastating flu-like epidemic has wiped out all but one percent of the world's population, an astoundingly good Bruce Willis stars as a convict who's chosen by the leaders of America's dystopian underground society to travel back in time to 1996 and gather information on the cause of the outbreak, with the hope that the person/persons responsible for it can be identified and their actions thwarted by a scientific team from the future. Gilliam and screenwriters David and Nancy Peoples (the former wrote the Oscar-winning Unforgiven) have fun with the complexities and unforeseen troubles that come with time travel -- the hero mistakenly being sent to the wrong year; his subsequent committal to a mental asylum after his insistence of being a time traveler -- yet manage to keep everything coherently aligned and lucid for the viewer. Far better than Gilliam's overwrought Brazil yet not quite boasting the human richness of his The Fisher King (slight characterizations are its only misstep, though Willis has a scene where he joyously and tearfully revels in never-heard-before music that's one of the best he's ever played), it's challenging, must-see viewing nevertheless.
Far less disturbing but no less fetching is The Bridges of Madison County, the eagerly-awaited adaptation of Robert James Waller's best-selling romantic tale that casual readers like myself emptied boxes of Kleenex over yet literary critics skewered over a raging bonfire. The story is simple: a three-day romance ensues between National Geographic photographer Clint Eastwood and Iowa farmwife Meryl Streep while her family is away for the weekend. Eastwood not only sensitively acts, but sensitively directs, too -- he gives due to Waller's puffy prose while tactfully harnessing it so it doesn't veer into Harlequinbabble Land; and the characters reveal some surprising sides that nicely contradict what we thought we knew of them before -- the photographer's selfish disregard for consequence, the housewife's growing determination not to be manipulatively wooed into a regretful decision. I doubt Streep's given a better performance (her flawless Italian accent and impeccable household-chore demeanor are so convincing I forgot I was watching an actress at work), and the wordless grand finale during a downtown downpour is one of the best mise-en-scenes ever committed to film. (If only the dumb addition of Francesca's grown-up children beginning and ending the story hadn't been included, this could have been the year's best picture.)
Writer/directorTim Robbins' Dead Man Walking is surprising not only in Robbins' improved technical prowess but in his mostly even-handed attempt to present both sides of the death-penalty issue in light of his well-publicized and plainly-spoken liberal convictions. In his finest screen performance, Sean Penn is nothing short of a revelation as a Louisiana death-row convict nearing his execution date but still insists on his innocence to anti-capital-punishment spiritual adviser Susan Sarandon, who tries to get him to admit his guilt so he can pave for himself a road to salvation. Robbins isn't afraid of painting the inmate as a racist, coolly manipulative snake, and the nun as occasionally unsure of herself and perhaps too steadfast in her convictions (as her mother pointedly cautions her, "A full heart shouldn't follow an empty head."). There are emotionally devastating scenes with the parents of both the victims and the murderer that never descend to shrillness, the rapport between Penn and Sarandon that's simply mesmerizing, and an uncommonly intelligent take on moral responsibility. The best of its kind since The Executioner's Song.
The enchanting Babe is that rarity: a top-drawer, funny, moving, crackerjack children's fable that will widely appeal to adults as well as adolescents. The Australian-set, talking-animal story centers on a plucky pig named Babe, a new arrival to the stead of Farmer Hoggett (the wonderful James Cromwell) and his doggedly determined quest to carry out the duties of a sheep dog, which, as he's reminded by the other animals, goes against the grain of his nature. Directed with buoyancy and bounce and ungodly precision by former television veteran Chris Noonan, the film is a marvel of live action, animatronics and computer graphics that, aside from being wonderfully imaginative (there's even a Greek chorus of mice with voices so high-pitched they could shatter copper plating), teaches a invaluable lesson on living up to one's own, rather than everyone else's, expectations.
And topping off the year is David Fincher's miraculous Se7en. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play a pair of big-city cops tracking a merciless slayer of everyday sinners, modeling his religious-motivated work on the seven deadly sins (an obese man is forced to eat until he bursts; a shady defense lawyer made to cut out a pound of his own flesh and place it on the Scales of Justice; etc.). Hot-headed Pitt aims to crack the case through straight-up forensics work and detection, while seasoned veteran Freeman through the literary works of Chaucer and Dante, which he believes shaped the killer's modus operandi. Numerous red herrings along with many soaked-in-red crime scenes abound, some cynical-yet-insightful meditations on the weaknesses of America's human condition, along with a killer who comes off less as a monster and more as an undoubtedly insane man with a frighteningly sane-minded overall demeanor. The two main actors are first-rate, the dialogue above-par for the course, some well-placed humor works (especially Pitt's consulting Cliff's Notes to decipher Dante), but this is director Fincher's show. The film is extraordinary in every technical field (cinematography, editing, production design, scoring) in keeping with Fincher's fully-realized organic vision of a doom-laden metropolis where the innate good intentions of many are futile in dissipating the dark cloud of omnipresent evil permeated by far many more. Blood-curdingly suspenseful, voluptuously stylish, and hands down the best serial-killer thriller (and, perhaps, best thriller) ever made.
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originally posted: 01/28/05 13:31:05
last updated: 09/25/13 10:22:36