With all the talk about 2007 as a singularly great year for movies, we at The A.V. Club have been discussing among ourselves what years we'd nominate as the best-of-the-best. For the next several weeks, The A.V. Club's regular film reviewers will offer our individual choices.)
In the public imagination, 1994 will forever be the year of Pulp Fiction vs. Forrest Gump, two movies that transcended the boundaries of film to become massive pop-culture phenomena. The two Best Picture nominees (Gump won the big award, while Tarantino and Roger Avary walked away with the Best Original Screenplay consolation prize) epitomized the cultural divide between the sneering nihilism of Generation X slackazoids and smug nostalgia of baby boomers nestled forever in a snug cocoon of self-regard.
But the two films have a surprising amount in common. Forrest Gump's thick sentimental streak masks a raging undercurrent of pop-culture-damaged irreverence, while Pulp Fiction's blood-splattered cynicism can't completely conceal a moralistic streak of its own, albeit one that comes coated in a thick layer of protective irony. Let Robert Bresson have his Catholicism and transcendence: Tarantino's spiritual searchers are more likely to find deep meaning in pop ephemera like Kung Fu.
Like Nirvana's Nevermind, Pulp Fiction brought the drug-damaged darkness of the counterculture kicking and screaming into the mainstream. Tarantino's secondhand aesthetic infected not just film, but all of pop culture, with a vengeance.
1994 was a year the underground and the mainstream got hopelessly confused. It was a strange moment in which super-producer Joel Silver, of all people, got the Coen brothers a blockbuster budget to make a giddy parody/homage to screwball comedies called The Hudsucker Proxy. The result may not have been smart business, but it was firecracker entertainment, and perhaps the Coens' most underrated film. Tim Burton used the commercial clout he'd accrued by making his corporate overlords at Warner Brothers a mint from his Batman movies to smuggle a black-and-white tribute to a cross-dressing poverty-row filmmaker past studio gatekeepers.
Tarantino was far from the only cult filmmaker having a breakthrough year. On the other side of the world, a brilliant young iconoclast named Wong Kar-Wai created a hypnotic dreamscape in Chungking Express that impressed Tarantino so much that he pimped it through his Rolling Thunder distribution company. In Canada, Atom Egoyan broke out of the arthouse ghetto with Exotica, with the help of Mia Kirschner in a skimpy schoolgirl outfit, and Terry Zwigoff replicated his subject's neat trick of transforming agonizing personal torment into art in Crumb.
Kevin Smith's uber-grungy Clerks captured the low-key, agreeable vibe of smartass go-nowhere buddies hanging out and talking shit. It was cinematic democracy in action, a triumph of proletariat ingenuity over technical wizards with film-school degrees and elaborate storyboards. Elsewhere, mavericks like David O. Russell and Rose Troche took inspiration from the punk ethos prizing energy, enthusiasm, and authenticity over slickness and production values by making raw, personal, pleasingly unpolished films about the seething angst of the neurotic and overeducated (Russell's Spanking The Monkey,) and the romantic entanglements of Chicago lesbians (Troche's Go Fish).
It was a period where the mainstream cluelessly tried to connect with a youth culture it didn't begin to understand. Gen-X-baiting films lke Reality Bites and S.F.W. weren't quite the cinematic equivalents of the infamous "It's like punk rock, only a car" commercial, but they were damned close. Yet time has a way of forgetting the misfires and honoring and preserving films that connect to something authentic in the culture at large. Here's some of the cream that rose to the top and stayed there:
Nathan Rabin's top five of 1994
1. Wong Kar-Wai's rapturous mood piece Chungking Express pulses with heartbreak and loss. It's a pulp romance of hypnotic, shimmering surfaces and deep underlying sadness about a pair of lovelorn cops that throbs with the restrained eroticism of big-city life, a metropolitan milieu tingling with the promise of a million potential lovers and the pathos of missed opportunities.
With the help of drunken master cinematographer Christopher Doyle and an unforgettable soundtrack that manages to make even the Cranberries seem almost cool, Wong Kar-Wai attains a sustained state of giddy sensual rapture. After falling in love with Chungking, you'll never look at a soon-to-expire tin of pineapple the same way again.
2. What more needs to be said of Pulp Fiction, a film that retains its iconic aura even after 13 years of parodies and knock-offs? It's the film that launched a thousand terrible direct-to-DVD thrillers, yet it still feels as fresh and revolutionary today as Jean Luc-Godard's Breathless. As a work of creative synthesis, Tarantino's rollicking black comedy about hitmen, robbers, washed-up boxers, and anal rapists is unparalleled. As storytelling, it's masterful. As pop iconography, it's both rooted in its era and ultimately timeless.
3. Tim Burton's longtime empathy for underdogs, weirdoes, losers, and outcasts found perhaps its purest expression in Ed Wood, a heartfelt tribute to a man widely considered the worst filmmaker of all time. It's a lushly realized variation on the sturdy "Let's put on a show" subgenre that finds Johnny Depp's infectiously optimistic dreamer serving as the loving father figure to an oddball makeshift family of over-the-hill wrestlers, quack psychics, and tragic transsexuals. Martin Landau rightfully won an Oscar for his achingly sad portrayal of Bela Lugosi shuffling toward the grave with as much battered dignity as his cut-rate surroundings will allow.
4. More than a decade before Good Night And Good Luck , director Robert Redford and screenwriter Paul Attanasio delivered perhaps the definitive portrait of television's sad decline from an unprecedented tool to inform and educate the masses to a vast wasteland of sleaze and sensationalism, in Quiz Show. Ralph Fiennes gives a tormented, deeply internal performance as a WASP golden-boy professor who is tapped by unscrupulous producers to defeat grating, abrasive, unmistakably Jewish reigning champ John Turturro in a rigged game show to pump up ratings. Redford's richly ambiguous morality tale about a show-business scandal had lasting ramifications that went far beyond the world of television. It's also a sad reminder of a bygone era where the concept of a prominent public intellectual like Fiennes' Charles Van Doren was something more than just an egghead's fevered dream.
5. Atom Egoyan's breakthrough film, Exotica, accomplished the formidable feat of winning at both Cannes and the Adult Video News Awards, where its left-field victory for "Best Alternative Adult Film" placed it in the distinguished company of Jenna Jameson (Best New Starlet) and Poolparty At Seymore's 1 and 2 (Best Gonzo Video). Yet in spite of accolades from the trenchcoat set, Egoyan's mesmerizing, intricate drama is largely a cerebral affair about the intertwined lives of desperate characters who work at, run, and frequent a nightclub where mysterious Mia Kershner dances for repressed auditor Bruce Greenwood as part of a somber ritual whose meaning becomes apparent only at the film's close. A master class in its filmmaker's pet themes, from voyeurism and obsession to the lingering sting of loss and grief, Exotica is detached and cold until all its interlocking pieces fall into place, at which point it becomes deeply moving and shatteringly emotional.
Before he became King of the Shire, Peter Jackson made an impressive transition from proudly juvenile shock merchant to mature filmmaker with Heavenly Creatures, an intense character study based on the true story of a pair of teenage girls whose shared fantasy world turns deadly.
Meanwhile, Terry Zwigoff's queasily intimate exploration of the neuroses, psychoses, and madness of not just R. Crumb in Crumb, but also his brilliant, hopelessly fucked-up siblings set a precedent for candor and honesty that will be hard to top. The film may have cost Zwigoff his friendship with Crumb, but it also launched his career.
Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Buck Henry adapted Joyce Maynard's novel into a scathingly satirical deconstruction of the American will to succeed at any cost in To Die For. Nicole Kidman is spellbinding as an empty striver who manipulates lovestruck teenager Joaquin Pheonix into killing her well-meaning husband (Matt Dillon) as a means of kick-starting her television career.
More Notable Films From 1994:
Spanking The Monkey: David O. Russell never makes the same film twice. Which is fortunate, since it's doubtful audiences could handle another film as brutal, honest, and unrelentingly intense as his Oedipally charged independent debut about an unhappy young man (Jeremy Davies) who gets way too close to his fetching mother one hellacious summer at home.
Fear Of A Black Hat: In his puckish directorial debut, Rusty Cundieff and his merry band of pranksters manage to smartly satirize just about every trend in rap history in 88 minutes, and still tell a coherent story. That's no mean feat.
The Shawkshank Redemption: Frank Darabont's handsomely mounted adaptation of a Stephen King short story traveled a strange path from warmly (if not ecstatically) received crowd-pleaser to Oscar contender to middlebrow cult film to ridiculously overrated modern "classic." According to Internet Movie Database users, it's nothing less than the second-greatest film of all time. Not bad for a solid, well-made, if generally unremarkable homage to hope, the resilience of the human spirit, and all that other sentimental horseshit.
Natural Born Killers: Agitated old dinosaur Oliver Stone took Quentin Tarantino's channel-flipping nihilism to headache-inducing extremes in this assaultive satire of tabloid sensationalism that doubles as a sledgehammer example of what it's ostensibly satirizing.
The Last Seduction: Building on the pitch-black brilliance of his woefully overlooked debut Kill Me Again, John Dahl solidified his status as the king of neo-noir with this blackly comic thriller about a sick twist (Linda Fiorentino) with a genius for manipulating hapless suckers to her advantage. Fiorentino's ferocious lead performance here seemed to herald a dazzling career that never quite materialized.
Oh man, I am so not making myself a target. Let's just say I haven't seen Wagons East. Or The Stoned Age. And lots of other films that would make you gasp in horror at the depth and scope of my film-watching shortcomings.
As an a '70s baby, I was mighty tempted to go with 1973, the year of Serpico, American Graffiti, The Last Detail, Mean Streets, Sisters, The Long Goodbye, Badlands, The Last American Hero, Paper Moon, The Exorcist, Electra Glide In Blue, Charley Varrick, Day For Night, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Scarecrow, and The Mother And The Whore, but "The Man"—Keith—apparently felt it was too close to my colleague Noel Murray's 1974. Whatever, dude. 1996 was also looking good, what with Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Lone Star, Secrets & Lies, That Thing You Do!, Flirting With Disaster, Bottle Rocket, Hard Eight, The English Patient, Kingpin, Mission: Impossible, Swingers, Trainspotting , and Waiting For Guffman.
Next week: Tasha Robinson on 1986.
Click here to read Noel Murray's thoughts on 1974.
Click here to read Keith Phipps' thoughts on 1967.