Rewinding 1993 -- The Best Films

Commentary by James Berardinelli
First Available December 31, 1993

A Note on "Film Eligibility": Movies considered for this article are not necessarily those with 1994 Academy Award eligibility. My top ten list is comprised of films released between January 1, 1993 and December 31, 1993 in any of the theaters within my typical viewing area. Late-1993 films released exclusively in New York and Los Angeles for Oscar consideration are not eligible for this list. Several "big name" films missing are: Philadelphia, In the Name of the Father, and Shadowlands.

While 1993 dawned as one of the weakest movie years in recent memory, it ended with a flourish that placed it among the strongest. As always, there was plenty of dross to sift through to find the quality, but many of those motion pictures that rose to the top were exceptional. The crown jewel of all - Spielberg's Schindler's List - is easily the best film in years - if not longer.

January began with a number of leftovers from 1992, none of which were exceptionally noteworthy. Richard Attenborough's Chaplin, the most anticipated of these, turned out to be overly-ambitious for its allowed 2 1/2 hour time slot, resulting in a frantic pace that left little room for secondary character development. Scent of a Woman, while featuring Al Pacino's bombastic Oscar-winning performance, fell short in the story department. The best of the remains of the old year was Lorenzo's Oil, but this was saddled by Nick Nolte's dumb accent. Still, it's too bad so few people saw this film, because its treatment of a medical mystery made for fascinating viewing.

Things started looking up in February, a month not normally known for worthwhile releases. The delightful Australian comedy/satire Strictly Ballroom came to these shores to an enthusiastic reception. Groundhog Day emerged around the same day, garnering a fair amount of praise from critics and "typical" viewers alike. While neither of these films boasted much depth, their frothy, fun attitudes were enough to momentarily stave off the bleakness of freezing temperatures and short days.

Sommersby, which is among the best remakes of all time, arrived in February. The decision to focus on the love story rather than the mystery element made this remake of The Return of Martin Guerre memorable - there were enough difference from the original to hold the attention of those familiar with the premise. Also helping was a characteristically strong performance by Jodi Foster and a believable effort by her co-star, Richard Gere. Ironically, Sommersby was released on the same day as the year's most disappointing remake, The Vanishing, whose re-worked "happy ending" was a cinematic abomination.

With the approach of spring, several very good independent films opened, including the $7000 wonder El Mariachi and the screen adaptation of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome (those who enjoyed The Age of Innocence should check this one out). Also making its American debut was the relatively-unheralded Like Water for Chocolate which, during the course of the next six months, turned into the biggest- grossing foreign language film in U. S. history.

The March/April time frame also debuted two other wonderful foreign language films. From Italy, there was Il Ladro di Bambini (Stolen Children), which featured brilliant newcomer Valentina Scalici in one of the title roles. From France came Agnieszka Holland's Olivier Olivier, a dramatic mystery that examined questions of identity in much the same way that Martin Guerre did. The strength of this film is that it kept its audience guessing until the end.

Some might dub 1993 as the year of the "boy's coming-of-age." Certainly, there were a number of films dealing with this theme. One of the better entries was This Boy's Life, a movie that unflinchingly confronted the subject of child abuse as Leonardo DiCaprio (known previously only for a supporting role in TV's Growing Pains) took the role of Tobias Wolff is this autobiographical tale. This Boy's Life possessed an edge that many films in this category lacked.

The onset of summer normally brings an increase in big-budget, low-intelligence motion pictures, and 1993 was no exception. Jurassic Park, undoubtedly one of the most fun movie-going experiences of the year, worked best for those willing to put their brains into neutral. Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone's mega-million dollar romp, worked best for those willing to turn their brains off entirely. As for Last Action Hero... well, that didn't work at all (although I still maintain it wasn't as bad as some of its most scathing critics contend).

Surprisingly, amidst all this, there was still time for a little culture, and it came in the form of Kenneth Branagh's highly-anticipated Much Ado About Nothing. Not only is Much Ado full of laughter and brimming with a thoroughly-infectious spirit, but it features a number of tremendous performances of both dramatic and comic nature (although the debate about Michael Keaton's Monty Pythonesque interpretation of Dogberry will rage on).

The early summer also saw the release of the Hughes brothers' Menace II Society, one of 1993's grittiest and most disturbing motion pictures, presenting a sort of antithesis to Boyz 'N the Hood. Here, it's the lives of the gangsters, not the "good guys", that we're shown, and the explosive specter of violence takes on a grimmer aspect. Menace II Society is not an enjoyable motion picture, but it's an important one, and not easily forgotten.

Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter), an emotionally-wrenching French film, came out in staggered release over the course of the summer. In addition to boasting a trio of fine performances, Un Coeur told a story of tragic love that the French are so adept at. Amidst the summer fluff, this movie left quite an impression, and was also the first of four 1993 movies dealing with the causes and effects of repressed emotion.

The rest of the summer wasn't completely devoid of good American movies. In the Line of Fire, Clint Eastwood's taut action flick, and Harrison Ford's chase thriller The Fugitive were the best-recognized, but there were a number of smaller gems as well. American Heart and King of the Hill, both coming-of-age tales, were standouts. While American Heart dealt with an ex-con trying to go straight while getting to know his estranged son, King of the Hill gave a child's perspective of Saint Louis during the great depression. Good acting and fine scripts characterized both of these little-seen motion pictures. And Woody Allen proved that off-screen troubles can't stop good film making, as his delightful Manhattan Murder Mystery presented one of the season's wittier comedies.

The arrival of fall started to bring the 1994 Oscar contenders out of the woodwork. The first to be released was Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, the lavish adaptation of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Rightfully, many critics salivated over this one, touting it as a potential nominee for Best Picture. It was the second "repressed emotion" film of the year, and the best of the group.

Next came The Joy Luck Club, a motion picture that, while moving, was overrated. The script, by Amy Tan and Ronald Bass, tried too hard to force the audience to care about the characters, and the result was a manipulative effort. Parts of this film worked exceptionally well, but there were too many scenes that rang false, and poor acting undermined whole sections of the production.

The longest film of the year was Gettysburg, but it was worth sitting in a darkened theater for 4 1/2 hours. Sure, there were some slow moments, as there are bound to be in any epic saga, but the power of Chamberlain's defense of Little Round Top, and the tragedy of Pickett's charge more than made up for any deficiencies.

Cannes boasted co-winners of its top prize, but in my estimation they were anything but equal. The Piano, while a powerful tale of passion and its price, was not close in scope or raw emotional power to Farewell My Concubine. Chen Kaige's masterpiece epic presented an uncompromising view of a trio of characters whose lives were inseparably entwined. Farewell My Concubine illustrated the impotence of man when pitted against the tides of history.

Robert DeNiro's directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, gave yet another worthwhile entry to the coming-of-age group. Perhaps the most accessible of those movies, A Bronx Tale proved that DeNiro is capable on either side of the camera. Like all the best gangster movies, this one worked because it focused on characters and used violence only to illustrate elements of their personalities. Ultimately, A Bronx Tale was about the relationship between fathers and sons.

Short Cuts was Robert Altman's follow- up to his wildly-successful The Player. Making use of an impressive ensemble cast, Altman wove a fascinating and energetic tapestry based on nine stories and one poem by Raymond Carver. Taking liberties with the literary inspiration, Altman brought the characters and their circumstances together in a seamless fashion that conjured up memories of his own Nashville.

The Remains of the Day was the third "repressed emotion" movie, the most remarkable asset of which was indisputably Anthony Hopkins. His subdued performance far outshone that of every other male actor this year - and there were a number of memorable ones. Emma Thompson was quite good as well, although she did a somewhat better job in Much Ado.

Shortly after Remains came the US release of the fourth "repressed emotion" film, The Piano. While boasting exceptional acting by Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill, and an unparalleled performance from Holly Hunter, the impact of this film, diminished by technical flaws, was less than that of its three similar predecessors

Perhaps the most unexpected addition to the group of 1993's best films came in the form of A Perfect World, a more-than-worthy directorial follow-up to Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning 1992 release Unforgiven. Boasting Kevin Costner's most impressive performance to date, and a with a script that wasn't afraid to tackle a few thorny issues, this Thanksgiving weekend release surprised with its pathos.

It was necessary to wait until 11 1/2 months into 1993 for the best film of the year to arrive. Steven Spielberg, who scored a huge financial and popular success in June with Jurassic Park, made his emotional and critical impact with Schindler's List, the true story of a Nazi businessman who saved more than 1000 Jews from extermination. As potent in style as in content, Schindler's List will likely stand unequaled for a long time.

In many ways, Schindler's List defies description, for there are no written or spoken plaudits which can do the film justice. This is not a movie to be seen - it is one to be experienced. Few motion pictures come this close to perfection, and those that do should be treasured for their rarity.

So the door on 1993's films has closed. As is usually the case, countless titles have already been forgotten, but the memorable ones shine like beacons. Movie-goers can only hope that next year brings as many exceptional examples.

1993's Top Ten

  1. Schindler's List
  2. Much Ado About Nothing
  3. Farewell My Concubine
  4. The Age of Innocence
  5. Gettysburg
  6. Un Coeur en Hiver
  7. Short Cuts
  8. The Remains of the Day
  9. Menace II Society
  10. Sommersby

© 1993 James Berardinelli

Back Up