This past year will not be remembered as a vintage one for movies -- or even, judging from recent trade paper reports, for the movie industry -- but if it was not the best of times, it was also by no means the worst of times. Indeed, if you looked carefully enough, and remained patient during the long spells of bad news, missed chances and instantly forgettable mediocrities, you could still find some good, very good and -- believe it or not -- even a few great films.
To be sure, we had to wade through the mire of expensive duds (Judge Dredd, Jade), art-house frauds (Kids, The Addiction) and nonentities that seemed to evaporate even as you watched them (according to my notes, I saw something called The Big Green and something else called Search and Destroy during the past 12 months; I have no clear memory of either film). Miraculously, however, there were a number of other films that respected the intelligence of audiences, and actually challenged us a bit while providing entertainment. No kidding.
Listed in alphabetical order, my choices for the top ten films that opened in Houston during 1995 are:
The American President: Rob Reiner's glossy and classy romantic comedy about a widowed U.S. president (Michael Douglas) and a lovely lobbyist (Annette Bening) is one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Unlike many other contemporary filmmakers who have tried and failed, Reiner (along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) smashingly succeeds at striking the same balance of informed sophistication and open-hearted idealism that we've come to associate with the classics of Frank Capra.
Apollo 13: Ron Howard's remarkably compelling account of the near-disastrous NASA mission is an unashamedly old-fashioned drama that pays stirringly heartfelt tribute to heroes both on and above the ground. There's more than a touch of Howard Hawks to the way Howard admiringly views the camaraderie and group effort of dedicated professionals. And there's a refreshing no-frills vitality to the performances of Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as the endangered astronauts, Gary Sinise as the grounded pilot who struggles to help them and Ed Harris as the Mission Control flight director who simply refuses to allow for the possibility of a failure on his watch.
Clockers: Spike Lee's powerful adaptation of Richard Price's acclaimed novel offers a startlingly fresh and vivid account of life, death and drug dealing on the meanest streets of Brooklyn. Mekhi Phiffer makes an impressive acting debut as an ambitious young "clocker" (street dealer), and Harvey Keitel is even better as the unexpectedly complex cop on his trail. Best of all, there is Delroy Lindo as an ingratiatingly paternal storekeeper who just happens to be the neighborhood's most cold-bloodedly efficient drug supplier.
Les Miserables: Claude Lelouch's audacious epic celebrates the magic of storytelling by showing how Victor Hugo's classic novel shapes and inspires the life of an ordinary Frenchman (a magnificently ravaged Jean-Paul Belmondo) during an extraordinary time (the German Occupation). There are images in Les Miserables that are as hauntingly beautiful as any in the history of cinema. Lelouch is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who remains capable of the grand romantic gestures that made many of us fall in love with movies in the first place.
Sabrina: Sydney Pollack's enchanting romantic comedy is not so much a remake as a reimagining of Billy Wilder's 1954 confection. This time, the focus shifts slightly, away from Sabrina (Julia Ormond), the chauffeur's daughter who turns into Cinderella, and onto Linus Larrabee (Harrison Ford), the fabulously successful businessman who needs a Princess Charming to awaken his dormant soul. Ford's self-effacing performance as a man who may feel unworthy of being loved brings a welcome touch of gravitas to the handsome fluff. The romance is all the more romantic, and the funny stuff all the more amusing, because it is set against the very distinct possibility of unhappily-ever-aftering.
Sense and Sensibility: Ang Lee's stylish version of Jane Austen's 1811 novel, with a screenplay adaptation by star Emma Thompson, is the least stuffy period piece to illuminate a movie screen in recent years. Vital and involving, this is a deeply affecting and hugely entertaining drama that also happens to be one of the year's most exquisitely witty comedies. Thompson is first among equals in a superb ensemble cast that also includes Hugh Grant (no snickers, please), Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman.
Smoke: Wayne Wang and Paul Austen's disarmingly subtle masterwork is an extraordinarily engaging and uncommonly satisfying comedy-drama about the small details that add up to the big picture. Harvey Keitel heads an excellent ensemble cast as the manger of a Brooklyn cigar store that attracts such colorful customers as William Hurt (heartbreaking as a blocked novelist who learns to write, and live, again), Stockard Channing (a brassy ex-girlfriend with an unpleasant surprise for Keitel) and newcomer Harold Perrineau Jr. (a smooth-talking street kid who, like the movie itself, revels in the sheer pleasure of storytelling). Smoke speaks in a clear, quiet voice to our hearts and minds about the things that really matter: redemption, forgiveness, the magic of words, the quiet delights of a new friendship, the ineffable appeal of a good cigar.
Toy John Lasseter's astonishing animated comedy is a marvel of audience-friendly high-tech wizardry. But the razzle-dazzle wouldn't be nearly so impressive if the basic story -- about the private lives and rivalries of a little boy's toys -- weren't so amusing and entertaining. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles and Wallace Shawn are among the well-chosen human stars who provide voices for the computer-generated characters that spring to life and tumble into adventure.
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Unstrung Heroes: Diane Keaton's highly auspicious feature film directorial debut is a profoundly funny and deeply moving story about a child's contemplation of madness as a rational response to an irrational world. As his beloved mother (Andie MacDowell) is dying of cancer, 12-year-old Steven Lidz (Nathan Witt) decides he would rather live with his "eccentric" (to put it kindly) uncles (Michael Richards, Maury Chaykin) than his preoccupied father (John Turturro). What all of these characters learn from one another, and what they discover about themselves, is what gives the film its warm and lustrous heart.
The Usual Suspects: Bryan Singer's ingenious neo-noir thriller is one of those rare films that actually deserves to be seen at least twice. The first time, you can marvel at the darkly clever, intricately constructed plot, and savor the spirited performances of the strong ensemble cast (Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Chazz Palminteri and, especially, Kevin Spacey). The second time, you can fully appreciate the no-sweat skill that Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie bring to setting you up for a surprise ending that pulls the rug, and much of the floor, right out from under you. As an extra added attraction, there is the year's best bit of movie dialogue: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he doesn't exist." How true.
Runners-up, in no particular order, include: Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County, a grown-up romance that distills an overwritten novel into something true and touching; Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas, a last dance of the damned with Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in Oscar-worthy form; Oliver Stone's Nixon, a fascinating mix of unforgivable fact and sympathetic speculation; Gregory Nava's My Family, an impressively epic-scale family drama about Mexican-American life in Los Angeles; and Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, an engrossing and unsettling documentary about the underground cartoonist and his even more bizarre siblings.
Also, Michael Apted's Moving the Mountain, an illuminating examination of the events leading up to and following the Tiananmen Square massacre; Martin Scorsese's Casino, a companion piece to Goodfellas that stands on its own merits as great drama and eye-opening reportage; Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors, a harrowing drama of a dysfunctional Maori family with a searing performance by Rena Owen as a bloodied but unbowed mother; Hal Hartley's Amateur, perhaps the most bleakly funny black comedy yet made by one of contemporary cinema's most accomplished absurdists; and Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty, a very funny comedy of bad manners in which a gangster (John Travolta) finds success simply by being himself while wandering among the phonies of Hollywood.