Film Reviews

What It Is, What It Was, What It Shall Be

You know it's been an interesting year at the movies when the Paramount takeover is relegated to the business pages. I wonder which studio executive will give the go-ahead on making it the blockbuster release of 1994.

Jesse Helms must've been mighty perturbed by the number of violent flicks this year, particularly since many were quite good: Besides the big box-office entries like Falling Down and In the Line of Fire, there were the dead-on Bad Lieutenant and Romper Stomper, the keen comedy-dramas Guncrazy and My New Gun, and, idiosyncratic rising star Quentin Tarantino's (Reservoir Dogs) True Romance.

Other newcomers (besides Tarantino) to watch next year: Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), Rob Weiss (Amongst Friends) and Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom). Like the former Soviet Union's border realignment, established performers flexed their directing muscles for the first time. Some of them knew what they were doing (Robert DeNiro's A Bronx Tale, John Turturro's Mac). Others didn't (Mel Gibson and The Man Without a Face, Liv Ullman and Sophie).

You might figure that Hollywood would have learned something from the fashion world's ludicrous re-embrace of bell-bottoms, but no: Remakes should've left well-enough alone (Born Yesterday, The Three Musketeers, Point of No Return and The Vanishing -- which was all the worse since its director directed the original!). Sequels fared a little better, running from the sublime (Flirting, Addams Family Values) to the ridiculous (Another Stakeout, Look Who's Talking Now).

Proven cash cows of the recent past came up dry, which is to say that can't-misses missed: Sliver, Carlito's Way, Mrs. Doubtfire, Last Action Hero, Rising Sun, The Pelican Brief. Okay, now try naming the beautiful people who hit the easy mark this year: Indecent Proposal, Dave, Cliffhanger, The Firm.

Bush and Clinton versions of home-is-where-the-heart-is politics seemed to turn Tinseltowns attention to the family. Many of the sentimentals were favorites (Sleepless in Seattle, The Joy Luck ClubI, Hearts and Souls, A Home of Our Own, My Life), but not all were (Used People, Indian Summer). Accomplished directors showed us how to make ensemble movies: Robert Altman (Short Cuts), Kenneth Branagh (Peter's Friends), Bruce Beresford (Rich in Love), John Sayles (Passion Fish).

Moviemakers have always had a bit of pretension in them, so there were offerings from English class. Some literary adaptations failed (The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome), but others made the honor roll (Much Ado About Nothing, Orlando).

In many respects, this was the year of the child. Let's just skip over The Good Son and get to the good stuff: Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.; Olivier, Olivier; This Boy's Life; The Secret GardenI; Searching for Bobby Fischer; Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas; Dazed and Confused; House of Cards; For a Lost Soldier; A Perfect World. Instead of lions and tigers and bears, oh my, there were dinosaurs (Jurassic Park), whales (Free Willy) and coneheads (you guessed it).

Controversy couldn't keep a (good?) man down. Woody was thankfully back (Manhattan Murder Mystery). So was Victor Nunez (Ruby in Paradise), who inexplicably hadn't made a movie in years. Overcoming the fiasco of Chaplin, biographies succeeded (What's Love Got to Do With It?, Rudy), and Hollywood, leaving the Columbus clunkers behind, served history pretty well (Gettysburg, Geronimo: An American Legend) -- though its take was largely ethnocentric.

Fortunately, some new territory was covered: magic realism in Like Water for Chocolate, historical revisionism in The Ballad of Little Jo, gay Chinese-Americans in The Wedding Banquet, epic opera in Farewell My Concubine. And, perhaps suggesting that somebody is finally learning about the benefits of taking risks, some films were enjoyably "out there": The Music of Chance, Household Saints, Equinox, Into the West, Fearless.

If I reserve Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography to put on a top-ten documentary list, here are my year's best:

10) Un Coeur en Hiver ("A Heart in Winter"): What makes this more than just another French take on love triangles is that the beautiful, successful characters are incapable of loving.

9) The Piano: Yet another finely nuanced film from writer/director Jane Campion that boasts a riveting performance by Holly Hunter, all the more mesmerizing since she doesn't speak.

8) The Story of Qiu Ju: Gong Li is terrific in this ethnographic study of a determined but, well, dense, Chinese peasant bent on judicial satisfaction after her husband is unceremoniously kicked.

7) A Bronx Tale: It's delightful, it's delovely, its DeNiro.
6) Menace II Society: A tough look at young toughs.
5) Swing Kids: Just seeing if you're paying attention.

5) King of the Hill: This richly poignant, lovingly detailed coming-of-age movie set in the Depression proves once and for all that Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape) is no one-hit wonder.

4) Riff Raff: With another hysterically grim slice of British life, filmmaker Ken Loach might be the best-kept secret in England.

3) The Remains of the Day: All you need to know is that it's a Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala production starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

2) Il Lladro di Bambini ("The Stolen Children"): A sweet, touching Italian road movie about growing up, in which abandoned children bond with their spiritually abandoned police escort.

1) Schindler's List: With a detached documentarian's eye and a confident storyteller's vision, Steven Spielberg's complicated version of the Holocaust is his most mature work. It will stay with you for years.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Szatmary