Rewinding 1994 -- The Year in Film

Commentary by James Berardinelli
First Available January 2, 1995

A Note on "Film Eligibility": Movies considered for this article are not necessarily those with 1995 Academy Award eligibility. My top ten list is comprised of films released between January 1, 1994 and December 31, 1994 in any of the theaters within my "typical" viewing area. Late- 1994 films released exclusively in New York and Los Angeles for Oscar consideration are not eligible. Several "big name" films missing are: Cobb, Legends of the Fall, Immortal Beloved, and Nobody's Fool. Late-1993 films eligible for this list include Blue, Shadowlands, In the Name of the Father, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Naked, among others.

After 1993 closed with a flourish that included the release of Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning Schindler's List, 1994 opened with almost as much promise. Unfortunately, as is too-often the case, following a January and February filled with potential Academy Award contenders, a quality vacuum ensued. Overall, however, 1994's crop seemed no better or worse than that of other recent years.

The first release of the new year was Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands, a touching love story based on the true life romance between American Joy Gresham (Debra Winger) and Christian apologist and novelist C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins). Although "officially" released (in New York and Los Angeles) on Christmas Day 1993, most of the country didn't get a taste of this film until early in 1994. It represented a wonderful and sublime way to start the year's roll call of motion pictures.

In the Name of the Father and Philadelphia, two additional 1993 leftovers, came soon after, each making its own mark and earning Oscar nominations. The more impressive and less preachy In the Name of the Father was a scathing attack on the British government wrapped around a wrenching story of heartbreak, isolation, and repressed love. Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite portrayed an estranged son and father who came to know and respect each other only after being jailed for an IRA bombing in which both were wrongly implicated.

Philadelphia, which earned Tom Hanks a Best Actor award, was the first mainstream AIDS film. While not an unqualified triumph, the movie contained its share of powerful moments, and its importance in bringing the crisis to the average film-goer cannot be underestimated.

Blue, the first of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy, received widespread release in early 1994, as did a pair of other foreign releases: Faraway, So Close, Wim Wenders' much- anticipated followup to Wings of Desire, and Naked, Mike Leigh's bleak and controversial look at the underbelly of London life, featuring an unforgettable performance by actor David Thewlis.

January and February's new domestic films offered little in the way of solid entertainment. The popular favorite was Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura, but the repetitive nature of the lowbrow humor earned the film as many detractors as supporters. Carrey emerged as a "love him" or "hate him" performer, with huge populations gathering in both camps.

As the deep freeze in the Eastern United States thawed with the approach of Spring, the quality of theatrical pictures took an upturn. Four Weddings and a Funeral, the surprise comedy hit from England, brought laughter and romance to early March. The Hudsucker Proxy, a creation of the Cohen brothers, was not widely seen despite a clever script, solid acting, and impressive visuals. It remains one of 1994's most inventive -- and underrated -- comedies, and gave Tim Robbins a third scathing satire for his resume.

Around this time, the Best Foreign Language Picture, Belle Epoque, received widespread distribution. Although inferior to some of its Oscar competition (Farewell My Concubine and The Scent of Green Papaya), the eventual winner proved to be enjoyable in a breezy, lighthearted way. Another non-English film, France's Germinal, based on the landmark Emile Zola novel and starring Gerard Depardieu, began a short domestic run.

Indeed, at a time when Hollywood-produced pictures were at a low ebb, most of the worthwhile offerings of the late Winter and early Spring came from overseas. One of the most gritty of these was Ken Loach's Raining Stones, the director's followup to Riff Raff (his Ladybird Ladybird will reach most parts of the country in early '95), a dramatic comedy examining the lives of a couple who have difficulty finding the money to buy their daughter a First Communion dress. Atypical in style and content, Raining Stones was an unusual gem.

A few independent American films made a moderate early Spring splash. The first, Fear of a Black Hat, with its hilarious, irreverent pseudo-documentary look behind the scenes with the group NWH, was coined "rap music's Spinal Tap". Another, Red Rock West, became the first of two 1994 John Dahl noir thrillers to receive theatrical release after a run on cable TV.

The Cement Garden, a tale of teenage incest based on Ian McEwan's novel, drew sparse crowds, principally because of its subject matter. Those not seeing the October Pictures release, however, missed a film of rare power -- one that was often as humorous as it was disturbing.

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a Canadian import, painted a portrait of composer Glenn Gould through a series of short impressions of the man's life, with actor Colin Feore taking the title role. The film featured interviews with Gould's friends and associates, recreations of biographical events, and a rich musical soundtrack. Most of all, Glenn Gould showed that it isn't necessary to create a major spectacle a la Chaplin to accurately and effectively represent a historical figure.

With the approach of Memorial Day came the onset of Summer -- Hollywood's most lucrative time of the year. From a creative point-of-view, many of 1994's top draws were uninspired, but that did little to curtail their earning power. Quite a few drew amazing crowds, with two stretching their domestic box office earnings to nearly $300 million.

The Crow, Brandon Lee's last film, unofficially opened the season. It was quickly followed by Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster's teaming in Maverick, a member of the $100 million club that delighted audiences with its blend of action and comedy. Hot on its heels were a pair of lackluster additions to the rapidly-growing big-budget theatrical crowd: Beverly Hills Cop III and The Flintstones.

With little fanfare, Gus Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues opened the same weekend as Maverick. Normally, a film of such little note and dubious quality wouldn't be worth a mention, except that it emerged as this reviewer's choice for the worst film of 1994. Boring, pretentious, incoherent, and dreadfully-acted, Cowgirls had virtually nothing to offer an audience, as its quick departure from theaters confirmed.

It wasn't all bad, though. A pair of memorable pictures emerged from the early Summer jumble to earn both critical and popular approval. Preposterous premise aside, Speed, starring Keanu Reeves, may have been the year's most exciting film. Although not exactly a "sleeper", the movie proved able to stand above some impressive competition: the Arnold Schwarzenegger/James Cameron action comedy True Lies and the disappointing Blown Away.

Disney's Lion King, 1994's top grosser (by a whisker over Forrest Gump), opened with a flood of pre-release hype. Despite a weak song lineup, the film showed enough entertainment value to draw crowds of children and adults. The animation, as always with Disney, was first rate, and the Jeremy Irons-voiced Scar made a worthy addition to the studio's hall of villains.

By July, with the early Summer releases fading, it was time for the second round. Most everyone predicted that True Lies would be the biggest release -- until the phrase "Gump Happens" entered the American vocabulary.

Forrest Gump, with its irrepressible sense of optimism, likable underdog of a hero, and low-key special effects, captured a fragment of the American consciousness in a way that no other 1994 feature did. Gump, originally envisioned as a modest money-maker, turned into a monster hit, with Tom Hanks riding the crest of a popularity wave that will almost certainly land him another Oscar nomination and a huge contract for his next film.

The Client and Clear and Present Danger -- a pair of serviceable thrillers -- rounded out the major Summer releases. The names of John Grisham (writer of the novel The Client), Harrison Ford (star of Clear and Present Danger), and Tom Clancy (writer of Clear) continued to be bankable. Despite some hefty competition, these two movies had healthy box office returns.

In the midst of so many major releases, there were a number of unique independent and foreign entries. Kieslowski's White, the second of his Three Colors trilogy, bridged the gap between Blue and Red. While not as potent as its sister films, White nevertheless was a welcome relief from so many explosions and shootouts. A darkly-comic tale of equality and revenge, White featured ties to Blue and a cast led by Zbigniew Zamachowski and Julie Delpy.

Ciao Professore!, a little-seen film directed by Lina Wertmuller (originally titled Me Let's Hope I Make It), and Eat Drink Man Woman were the year's best foreign comedies. Although each possessed strong dramatic elements, the unforced mixture of humor and pathos gave these thematically dissimilar movies their strength.

The Slingshot, a Swedish coming-of-age story; Go Fish, a low-budget American lesbian love story; and My Life's in Turnaround, a hilarious pseudo- documentary about movie-making, were a few other July/August releases worth venturing out of the house for.

As always, the supposed Oscar contenders began to peek out with the advent of September and its cooler weather. Fresh, Boaz Yakin's tale of a young boy (Sean Nelson) playing a dangerous real-life game of chess, led off. Then came Quiz Show, the Robert Redford-directed masterpiece about ratings wars and America's lost innocence. With an intelligent script and splendid performances by Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro, the film deserved more notice than it received. Despite nearly unanimous critical praise, Quiz Show struggled at the box office -- an ominous sign for future big-budget, "intellectual" pictures.

The Shawshank Redemption, the directorial debut of writer Frank Darabont, presented an in-prison tale more about the human spirit than the walls confining it. While the film arguably lacked the punch of a great motion picture, it was thoughtful and moving, and gave Tim Robbins an opportunity to stretch his abilities.

Noteworthy independents of the early Fall included Tom Noonan's uncomfortable look at dating and neuroses, What Happened Was...; David Mamet's play-to-film adaptation of Oleanna, an incendiary, talky motion picture about power plays and sexual harassment on a college campus; and Kevin Smith's Clerks. Perhaps the funniest movie of the year, Clerks boasted an amateur cast, black-and-white cinematography, a budget of $27,575, and a script to kill for -- or, more appropriately, to die laughing for.

Then there was Pulp Fiction. Awaited by critics and Tarantino fans alike since its Best Picture award at Cannes, this film proved to be one of the year's most controversial releases, polarizing the viewing public. While most reviewers loved and lauded Pulp Fiction, a sizable portion of the American movie-going population found its profanity and violence to be not only excessive, but offensive. Nevertheless, Tarantino's sophomore effort was one of 1994's cinematic crown jewels (and Miramax's top grosser of all time), with a script whose wit and intelligence few other movies could approach, and a spate of well-realized performances. John Travolta's career was re-energized, Bruce Willis proved he could still act, and Samuel L. Jackson (who has appeared in nine theatrical releases over the past two years) continued opening eyes. This also gave Uma Thurman the distinction of having appeared in this reviewer's best and worst films of the year (Pulp Fiction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues).

Woody Allen was heard from but not seen in Bullets Over Broadway, one of the director's best recent films. Looking behind the scenes at the production of a Broadway play, the movie stirred together farce, irony, and light drama. Chazz Palminteri, last seen in A Bronx Tale, stole the show as a gangster-turned-writer.

By the time the leaves were falling and Halloween was past, the "monster movies" had arrived. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh's interpretation of the tale, performed disastrously at the box office. Undeservedly perhaps (although it certainly isn't a great film), the picture received a critical drubbing, and the viewing audience ignored it, preferring the blood-and-gore feast offered by the cinematic adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire. Including Jack Nicholson's Summer picture, Wolf, a trio of big screen creatures were represented this year: the werewolf, the vampire, and the Frankenstein monster.

Hoop Dreams, released across the country in spurts, may be the best documentary ever made. With all the drama of a scripted story, this movie was the most insightful inspection of crushed dreams and high school sports exploitation ever committed to film. Even for those with no love of basketball, Hoop Dreams was a memorable theatrical experience. It's no wonder it has appeared on so many end-of-the-year top ten lists.

At this juncture, two limited release pictures provided some of the year's best roles for women. The first, The Last Seduction, highlighted Linda Fiorentino in a part that gave new meaning to the term "man eater." The other, New Zeland's Heavenly Creatures, filled key roles with young Kate Winslet and film neophyte Malanie Lynskey. This film presented a colorful and thought-provoking examination of a sensational 1950s murder case.

1994 saw a number of distinguished re-releases, most of which played in only a few theaters across the country. Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, and Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 murder mystery Diabolique headlined the list. All three are available on video, and well worth viewing, but the experience of seeing them in a theater was, as expected, completely different.

The late-year Holiday film season opened rather slowly. The best early entries, like the seventh in the long-running Star Trek series (called Generations), were far from impressive. Disclosure, the Michael Douglas/Demi Moore film, received a great deal of publicity because of a storyline dealing with a woman's sexual harassment of a man, but it was really just a sophisticated thriller. The Santa Clause, although earning over $100 million, was rather lame (its prime attraction being that it was a family Christmas film with a popular TV star).

The December outlook brightened with the release of Jodie Foster's Nell, and both Little Women and The Jungle Book were solid PG-rated entries designed to captivate children and adults. New York and Los Angeles opened Legends of the Fall (with Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn, Anthony Hopkins, and Julia Ormand, who captured the title role for the remake of Sabrina) and Nobody's Fool (with Paul Newman), each of which came highly-touted (nationwide release is in January 1995).

Year-end foreign and independent releases were strong. There was Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, which accented the versatile talents of Jennifer Jason Leigh as the barb-tongued title character. Vanya on 42nd Street presented an original look at Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." To Live, Zhang Yimou's powerful tale of the tragedies and triumphs of one Chinese family from the late-1940s through the early 1970s, continued the director's string of amazing productions.

The most striking of the late Fall releases was Kieslowski's Red, the finale of his Three Colors trilogy, and the best of the three films. Richly filmed with dazzling cinematography and a stunning score by Zbigniew Preisner, Red was easily among the most beautiful movies of the year, but its strengths went far beyond mere visual and audio splendor. The movie examined issues of friendship, love, and -- perhaps most significantly -- fate and coincidence. Not only that, but in one scene, Kieslowski tied Blue, White, and Red together in a wholly satisfying fashion.

So, with the likes of The Lion King, Forrest Gump, and Pulp Fiction making their individual imprints on Hollywood's collective consciousness, 1994's final credits have rolled. Comparisons with other years are uncertain. While there was no Schindler's List to top everyone's list, the quantity of "very good" and "good" films in '94 was at least equal to that of recent years. There were some pretty horrible entries as well, but that's to be expected.

One major recurring theme in 1994's movies relates to the importance of individual liberty over society's conventions. Pulp Fiction, while not specifically addressing the topic, was in itself a statement of it, as writer/director Quentin Tarantino unapologetically placed his film on the market without a concern for whom it offended. In the Name of the Father dealt with government oppression in a tangible way; Shadowlands addressed the issue of freedom on an intimate level. Blue, White, and Red, with their themes of "liberty", "equality", and "fraternity", all touched on common themes, as did To Live, where the presence of Mao Tse-tung's Communist regime became smothering.

Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, and Hoop Dreams made statements about humanity's ability to triumph in adverse circumstances -- a laudable sentiment, to be sure. Even Raining Stones, despite its unrelenting portrayal of life in poverty, had a positive message. Films like Mike Leigh's Naked, which took an unflinching look at the darker side of human nature, were rare, and more than counterbalanced by those with a more optimistic outlook.

At this time, the future remains shrouded. Certainly, great anticipation will surround encores from Tarantino, Hanks, and Disney. Although Kieslowski is retired, his Decalogue, never released in North America due to distribution problems, will begin to make its way around the film festival circuit. There will be the usual sequels (Die Hard III, Batman Forever), a big-budget movie based on a friendly cartoon ghost (Casper), and another based on a popular television show/children's toy (Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers). As usual, however, it's the smaller, lower-profile motion pictures that will ultimately decide whether 1995 exceeds, matches, or falls below the standards established by 1994.

James Berardinelli's Top Ten of 1994

All ratings are between 0.0 and 10.0, inclusive. Movies with a (*) received limited U.S. distribution in 1993.

  1. Pulp Fiction
  2. In the Name of the Father*
  3. Shadowlands*
  4. Red
  5. To Live
  6. Forrest Gump
  7. Eat Drink Man Woman
  8. Four Weddings and a Funeral
  9. Blue*
  10. [tie] Ciao Professore!
    Quiz Show

© 1995 James Berardinelli

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