As the annual Academy Awards ceremony draws near, avid moviegoers everywhere force themselves to survey the previous year in film. When you look beyond traditional summer fare like Speed and True Lies, and if you're not overly-nauseated from recent Christmas-season duds like A Miracle on 34th Street and Richie Rich, your job is not so easy. As always, there were many good performances in 1994, but quality films were rather sparse.
As sad as it is to admit it, 1994 was an off year on the film scene. Very few movies really got to me, but when they did, they really did. I could not come up with a top 10, but these five could each count twice.
"This film is an epic of hope, pain, struggle, family, and reward." Sounds like a typical critic's description of a great film - but, a documentary?
Yes. Hoop Dreams follows the lives of two Chicago high school students, Arthur Agee and William Gates, beginning at 14 with the boys' real hopes of future NBA stardom. The story follows them through the ups and downs brought on by the burdens of high expectations. The film depicts the players' personal lives with gripping intimacy, the camera going further into the home than ever before.
And it's not like watching Hoosiers, where you know a happy ending is inevitable. You go through each game, each triumph, each tragedy without the foregone conclusions of victory for the good guys. The film is frightening and gritty and most amazing in that it has all the vivid characters, raw dialogue, and suspense of a great epic. Yet, all the time, you know it all actually happened, and that the filmmakers had as little a clue about what they were getting into as you do when you sit down to watch the movie.
You can't help but be in awe of filmmakers Steve James, Fred Marx, and Peter Gilbert, who it seems moved in with the two families for several years, and then distilled hundreds of reels of film into this masterwork.
They have no moving music playing during moments of victory, no slow-motion shots of basketballs tragically rolling out of the basket. The camera is fair and unforgiving, the narration dry and passionless. They never ask you to get emotionally involved in the film. In fact they dare you not to, but you're dragged in nonetheless. It is an affecting experience.
I'm not alone in my praise of the film. Never has a documentary received such critical acclaim. Siskel and Ebert named it as their movie of the year and I found it impossible to do differently. Never has a documentary even been nominated for best picture, much less won the honor, but look to see Hoop Dreams accomplish the former and perhaps the latter. It deserves any award that it gets.
Pulp Fiction was the most critically anticipated film in recent memory. From the moment it won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, critics were jumping on its bandwagon at an almost frightening rate. But, hearing a plot summary I wondered what all the excitement was about. I thought, "The weaving of several plots of gangsters and hitmen in the L.A. underworld? Sounds cool, but it's been done before." It has, but not like this.
Quentin Tarantino is not the hottest name in Hollywood for nothing. He was first noticed for his underground hit, Reservoir Dogs, which he wrote and directed, and then the scripts for True Romance and this past year's Natural Born Killers. Now, with Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has shown that he's the goods.
His take on the L.A. underworld is two and a half hours of rip-roaring fun. The dialogue is crackling, the characters enthralling, the acting dazzling, and the plot completely unpredictable. Just when you think you know where you are going, you're trapped in a basement with a couple of rump-wrangling rapists.
Tarantino has shaken up the current course of cinema. He has single-handedly resurrected John Travolta's career and brought back the surf guitar. Any man that can accomplish those two feats after having started as a video store clerk needs to be revered. In an off year for movies, Tarantino and Pulp Fiction have done the most to revitalize the film industry.
After hearing that this film details a man unjustly imprisoned who suffers in jail but eventually perseveres and is vindicated, it'd be easy to group The Shawshank Redemption with other prison dramas, such as last year's In the Name of the Father and the recent Murder in the First.
But, Shawshank is a level above these two and the others that have preceded it. What raises the film above the norm is the fact that it does not concentrate on the conviction or the vindication, but rather focuses on the struggle and survival of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) while he is in prison, and his friendship with Red (Morgan Freeman).
Robbins and Freeman make the film (see Best Performances). It's touching to watch the personal, heartfelt bond develop between Andy and Red. You follow Andy's every high and low, his every hope and fear. You feel the sorrows of Red's life weighing on him. The two are tough, smart, patient. So is the film. All this makes for one of the most deeply-satisfying movies I've seen. I dare you to try to walk out of this movie without a grin on your face.
There's something about seeing a genius at work. And after watching this enchanting bio-pic about this renown Canadian pianist, you'll have no doubt that genius is what you're seeing and hearing.
Unveiled in a series of 32 dramatic sketches, each accompanied by a Gould recording, the film creates a spellbinding collage of the glories of fame and talent in music, and the downfalls of giving your entire self to it. The film has entrancing rhythm to it that wraps you up in Gould's passions, his intelligence, his obsessions. And the music. If you're not a fan of classical piano you will be. The film perfectly captures Gould: his music, spirit, and mystical allure.
This film has a great story behind it. Andre Gregory, a well-known stage director, and several actors and actresses over the past several years have been rehearsing the David Mamet version of the famous Anton Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya.
It has no popular screen actors in it. Vanya, the lead role, is played by Wallace Shawn, the short guy from The Princess Bride who says "Inconceivable!" over and over. They didn't have any objective in doing it. This is just what theater people do for fun.
Then, last year, they called in Louis Malle, a well-known director, and filmed it in two weeks. There are no costumes, no authentic props. It was filmed as a rehearsal in a run-down theater on 42nd Street, hence the name. The result? Gregory and his troupe have created an enthralling and decidedly American take on Chekhov's play. The acting, as you might expect, is flawless, and the subject matter just as thought-provoking now as it was when Chekhov wrote it.
Despite the lack of great films, there was no scarcity of great performances. Once again, the majority of the good parts were male. There were some strong female performances, but too often those roles felt like showcases for particular actresses than solid characters in a good story.
Best male performances
If you are one of the two people who haven't seen Forrest Gump it's worth it to conform just to see its lead actor because, frankly, Tom Hanks is the man.
Watching him slowly work his way up from the television sitcom Bosom Buddies to Big, we all thought we had Tom Hanks pegged as a primarily comedic actor. But then came Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, the Oscar, and now this, the next chapter in Hanks' mission to show us that he's the best actor around. And with two Oscars in a row a real possibility, it's hard to argue with him.
Hanks simply creates unforgettable characters with unrivaled sensitivity and deftness of touch. Phrases he utters during the course of this film have entered the public consciousness, become part of our vocabulary. He is a man at the top of his craft and it's something to behold. Enjoy it while you can.
Playing Dracula has been done, but playing the guy who played Dracula? That's what Martin Landau does in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, transforming himself into Bela Lugosi, the legendary screen actor and definitive Dracula.
Lugosi is Ed Wood's idol and best friend, starring in most of Wood's infamously horrible films because he is in the twilight of his film career and cannot find other work. The nearly unanimous pick of critics as the Best Supporting Actor favorite, Landau's resemblance to Lugosi is as uncanny as his performance.
In Pulp Fiction, a movie that shook up the film industry, with a formidable cast including highly-praised performances by John Travolta and Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson is the best of all. In his portrayal of Jules, the evangelistic hit man, Jackson maintains an incredible intensity whether he is reading his victim a passage from the Bible as a prelude to execution or arguing about the intimacy of foot massages.
He shows us that Jules has begun to develop a conscience and reveals the inner conflicts that it causes. Jackson is a true powerhouse, the driving force in a formidable film.
The Shawshank Redemption was included amongst my best films of 1994, and what made the film were the performances and the chemistry of these two actors.
In one of Tim Robbin's most multi-layered, sensitive performances to date, he plays Andy, the wrongly-accused prisoner, bringing an intelligence and determination to the role that is hard not to like. And Freeman gave Red, a life-long prisoner, warmth with the deep, mellowing regret brought on by wasted years. Red is Andy's support. Andy is Red's hope. The two actors are masterful as they bring the friendship along, resulting in one of the best screen chemistries I've seen in some time.
Best female performances
Fiorentino's performance in John Dahl's The Last Seduction brings up an interesting Oscar controversy. She is considered by most to have turned in the best lead female performance of the year, but, unfortunately, the Academy has ruled her ineligible for a Best Actress Oscar because The Last Seduction was aired on television (HBO) before it was released in theaters.
The film's backers are petitioning for a change in this silly rule, but if they are not successful, it will be a shame. Fiorentino is brilliantly vicious and cold-hearted as a femme fatale who seduces, double-crosses, abuses, and abandons the men in her life, manipulating them to the point at which they steal and kill for her.
Oscar was going to have enough trouble coming up with viable Best Actress nominees before this favorite was eliminated.
Considered by most to be the Best Supporting Actress favorite, Diane Wiest is hilarious in Bullets Over Broadway, Woody Allen's most recent film. She plays the egotistical actress, in the later stages of her career, for whom every moment is dramatic, everything a performance even when she's not on stage.
It's a role we've seen before, but her pleas of, "Don't speak! Don't speak!" to John Cusack are enough to put her over the top. She plays it to over-the-top perfection.
It's been a busy year for Susan Sarandon. With acclaimed performances in three films, The Client, Little Women, and Safe Passage, she is bound to get nominated for something. My choice is The Client.
Here, she found a role that was perfect for her: a lawyer that takes a young boy's case, and ends up protecting him from the FBI and the mob. Sarandon mixes just the right amount of sensitivity and steel, showing us why, in a year of scarce quality female roles, she managed to get her hands on three. Sarandon is a self-assured, veteran actress who knows what she is doing.
Though Vanya on 42nd Street is a great ensemble effort, if you had to pick one performance as the best it would be Smith's. Her role as the housekeeper in love for six years with the visiting doctor is the most difficult and subtlest in the film, and she nails it, portraying the plain girl's heartbreaking, dead-end existence painfully well.
The only other film role I know her to have played was the senator's daughter who was kidnapped by Buffalo Bill and thrown in the well in The Silence of the Lambs. Pretty obscure, eh? Well, expect to see her around more often.
Yes, yes, I know. Playing a wild-child who speaks a language of about 40 words because she's been isolated, living with her mother in the woods for her whole life? It's screaming Oscar! But, a great performance is a great performance, and that's what Foster turns in once again in Nell. You can say what you want about the movie, but she's amazing.
Performances likely to be overlooked
I saw The River Wild at one of those free LSC previews, and it just shows that you get what you pay for. As silly as this movie was, Meryl Streep somehow remained classy amongst all this white water, and she totally convinced me that she was as much of a rafting master as the script claimed her to be. She was confident, self-assured and the only thing that kept me from giggling during some of the dramatic sequences.
Maybe an actor or actress's performance in a bad movie is a more telling measure than a performance in a good one. If so, Streep is one of the best.
In Natural Born Killers, a movie full of psychos, Dangerfield's performance might have been the most disturbing of all. This is probably because his scariest film moment previous to this was doing the Triple Lindy dive in Back to School. Seeing him as Juliette Lewis' child-molesting father couldn't be anything but really sick.
Kevin Costner's most recent film, Wyatt Earp, bombed hard. It was too bad because no one saw Dennis Quaid.
Supposedly, Quaid became so involved in his portrayal of Doc Holliday, who is supposed to be suffering from a worsening case of tuberculosis, that he lost more that 20 pounds to acquire his emaciated look. It worked, because he is painfully accurate in his portrayal, receiving most of the film's limited praise.
In the highly entertaining techno-thriller, Disclosure, Miller plays one of Michael Douglas' head technical associates. Miller's biting wit is perfect for the crude sexual jokes of his power geek character. It is his first film role, and he accounts for most of the movie's laughs, stealing nearly every scene he's in. Look to see Miller on the big screen more often.
You'd think that with Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan, I.Q. might be a good movie, but the only thing worth seeing it for is Walter Matthau. He plays Albert Einstein with a comic, mug-a-minute style that carries you through this rather flat movie. If you're interested, you'd better hurry. I.Q. will be leaving theaters at any moment.