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The Ten Best Films of 1994

Part of the Three Colors trilogy, Julie Delpy stars in White.
by Jack Sommersby

From skydiving to Bela Legosi to Secret Service Agents to Paul Newman to true crime... it's the ten best of 1994. Bring the retro!

And the winners are...

1. Three Colors: White
2. Nobody's Fool
3. Quiz Show
4. The Shawshank Redemption
5. The Professional
6. Blue Sky
7. Red Rock West
8. Ed Wood
9. Guarding Tess
10. Terminal Velocity

Actor: Tommy Lee Jones (Blue Sky)
Actress: Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction)
Supporting Actor: Gary Oldman (The Professional)
Supporting Actress: Amy Locane (Blue Sky)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski (White)
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz (White)
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus (Quiz Show)
Editing: Stu Linder (Quiz Show)
Score: Howard Shore (Nobody's Fool)
Nudity: Parker Posey (Sleep With Me)

1994 wasn't exactly the greatest year in cinematic history; in fact, it more than kinda sucked. Only one bona fide masterpiece came of it, only four were excellent, and only five could be defended as being very good. It was the year supremely talented directors Robert Altman, Oliver Stone and Gus Van Sant polluted theatres with their horrendously awful career nadirs, Ready to Wear, Natural Born Killers and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues; and also the year when Beverly Hills Cop 3 to City Slickers 2 to Major League 2 disgraced their worthwhile predecessors. The sometimes-amusing Damon Wayans was certifiably unbearable in Blankman. Both Harrison Ford and his second Jack Ryan adventure, Clear and Present Danger, were arid bores. Martin Short and Charles Grodin tarnished their careers with the colossally unfunny Clifford. Death and the Maiden was a disappointingly tame stage-to-screen adaptation by the Oscar-winning Roman Polanski. Trapped in Paradise and It Could Happen To You were charmless comedies that suggested Nicolas Cage was in dire need of a reverse frontal lobotomy. Edward Zwick continued his post-Glory fall with the unintentionally laughable big-screen soap opera Legends of the Fall. The criminally untalented Nora Ephron managed to take the always-welcome Steve Martin down with her in the atrocious ensemble comedy Mixed Nuts. Superb actors Alec Baldwin and John Lone wasted their time and ours in The Shadow, the most boring superhero tale since Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. James Woods succeeded in bringing occasional dynamism to the nutty, incoherent Sylvester Stallone/Sharon Stone star vehicle The Specialist. The sci-fi extravaganza Stargate possessed a promising beginning yet succumbed to typical shoot-’em-up blandness. And while Pulp Fiction was grating with its smug attitudinizing ,it was wine and roses compared to Forrest Gump, the year’s most unbearably precocious and judgmental film.

But there were some reasonably good films to be had, and even some films that weren’t good but served up some very enjoyable moments. Blue Chips was a preachy but entertaining college-basketball drama from director William Friedkin and star Nick Nolte. The idiotic Color of Night was a buggo psychological thriller that nevertheless boasted bravura direction from Richard Rush in his first film in fourteen year’s since his classic The Stunt Man<. Ray Liotta and Whoopi Goldberg gave appealing, good-natured performances in Corrina, Corrina. Celebrated screenwriter Nicolas Kazan made a solid directorial debut with the sexy, tension-filled Dream Lover. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels made for a truly incorrigible comic pair in the funny (though overlong) Dumb and Dumber. Hugh Grant gave a charming star performance in the charming Four Weddings and a Funeral. The hypnotic and disturbing true-crime tale Heavenly Creatures still remains the finest achievement by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. The Nick Nolte/Julia Roberts critical disaster I Love Trouble was actually fairly easy-to-take stuff, but the Tim Robbins/Meg Ryan romantic comedy I.Q. was notable only for Walter Matthau’s uproarious performance as Albert Einstein. Linda Fiorentino’s show-stopping performance as a not-to-be-messed-with femme fatale gave The Last Seduction a great deal of kick -- ditto Tom McCamus’ taut performance as an obsessive actor masquerading as a policeman in A Man in Uniform. Naked Gun 2 ½ and My Girl 2 made for agreeable sequels. Both Steve Martin’s and Jodie Foster’s committed intelligence made their respective love projects, A Simple Twist of Fate and Nell, affecting. The sci-fi action picture Timecop was more thrilling than the overpraised Speed. Kevin Coster gave a marvelous performance as a suffering Vietnam vet in The War. And Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was the best of its series since the classic original.

The very best of 1994, however, starts off with Deran Sarafian’s Terminal Velocity, an outrageously entertaining action pic with an atypically tolerable Charlie Sheen as a befuddled skydiver (named “Ditch” Brodie, no less!) who finds himself knee-deep in the KGB, the Russian mafia, and enough hair-raising action sequences for ten films of its ilk. Smashingly well-directed and tauter than a vise, it succeeds in going gloriously over the top while retaining phenomenal narrative drive. (Note: If you’ve ever wondered how to get someone out of a locked trunk while the car has just been dropped out of an airplane, this film provides the proper tutorial.)

Nicolas Cage and Shirley MacLaine are outstanding as a Secret Service agent and an ex-president’s widow under twenty-four-hour protection in the ingratiating comedy Guarding Tess. The two bicker and fight, and, of course, eventually come to find one another irreplaceable company. A late-in-the-game kidnapping subplot temporarily throws the proceedings off tone, but the stars (who’ve rarely been better), sharp dialogue, and assured direction by Hugh Wilson make this a pure delight.

Ed Wood is that rare Tim Burton film that actually possesses something resembling a consistent narrative and tells a thoroughly interesting story from start to finish. Johnny Depp is aces as the legendary, eccentric, untalented schlock filmmaker who never met a script he couldn’t turn into unintentionally uproarious cinematic garbage, with Martin Landau brilliant as the addiction-addled, has-been movie star Bela Legosi. Shot in beautiful black-and-white and adorned with a stunning production design, the film is funny, touching, and a testament to the “joy of making cinema”.

Red Rock West showcases Nicolas Cage as a drifter who becomes embroidered in a dangerous web of murder and deceit in a small Wyoming town. Dennis Hopper and J.T. Walsh turn in super-duper villainous turns, the delicious twists and turns are dexterously sprinkled throughout, and director John Dahl proves himself the modern master of film-noir.

Blue Sky offers up Tommy Lee Jones in a career-best performance as an Army-major husband raising two teenage daughters (with the oldest played by Amy Locane, in a blistering star-making turn) while trying to keep under control his psychologically-unstable, promiscuous wife (Oscar-winner Jessica Lange). This was the late director Tony Richardson’s final film, and though it took three years to reach theatres (its original studio, Orion Pictures, went belly-up soon after it was completed), the wait was more than worth it. In a non-showy role of daunting demands, Jones is immensely touching in one of the best understated performances ever to grace the silver screen (when he tells Lange, “I‘m tired. I‘m real tired.”, you’d best have hankies at the ready line).

Following up his international hit La Femme Nikita with the smashingly entertaining The Professional, French auteur Luc Besson makes you rightfully question whether it’s John Woo or himself who’s the real bona fide foreign-director master of wondrous, eye-popping action. Jean Reno is the title character who carries out hired hits with the cool efficiency of a vascular surgeon, Natalie Portman is the streetwise twelve-year-old he grudgingly finds himself protecting, and Gary Oldman (burningly brilliant) is the corrupt DEA agent with a penchant for pill-popping and Beethoven. Breathtakingly staged shootouts by a filmmaker with talent to burn.

Writer/director Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption emerged not only as the best prison drama of all time, but quite possibly the best screen adaptation of a Stephen King work (even though the author’s novelette bears little resemblance to this two-and-a-half-hour near-masterpiece). Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are simply marvelous as convicts in a maximum-security Maine prison who develop and nurture a twenty-year friendship while trying to hold onto the faintest shred of hope during their long-term sentences. I could have done without the subplot of James Whitmore’s suicidal old-timer, and a speech where Robbins tells Freeman about creating a place deep inside oneself so “they can’t get to you” is awful, but the story is deliciously plotted, engrossing, and packs a well-earned emotional wallop in the end.

Quiz Show, from director Robert Redford, is a smart and bracing expose of the 1950’s quiz-show scandal that shocked a nation that had no reason to disbelieve anything presented to them on television. The adroitly structured screenplay by former film critic Paul Attanasio encompasses everything from ethical and ethnic boundaries to greed to the unhealthy allure of celebrity status, and it does so without ever being overly didactic -- it’s refreshingly nonjudgmental and asks the viewer to assess their own take on things. First-rate performances by Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Paul Scofield and (especially) Rob Morrow.

The comedy/drama Nobody’s Fool finds Paul Newman in top form as Sully, a man of lifelong irresponsibility who nevertheless manages to hold everything together in his small upstate New York town of North Bath. Among the film’s many delights (which include superb supporting performances by Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith, Howard Shore’s evocative score, the resistance to piling on overwrought emotion for big payoffs) is the consistent, easygoing, relaxed storytelling rhythm that allows the audience to bask in the same welcoming aura of noncommittal dailiness that Sully luxuriates in -- the endless talk around the town bar’s poker table may not mean much to us, but it’s like a lifeline to inhabitants like Sully who could proudly care less about anything other than what’s going on in their ramshackle of a snow-enveloped town. And Newman, in a twenty-four-karat star performance, positively teems with charisma, crack comic timing, and dramatic nuance.

The year’s finest film, however, was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Polish/French comedy White, the best of its famed director’s Three Colors trilogy. An amazingly communicative Zbigniew Zamachowski stars as a hairdresser who aims to get revenge on radiant ex-wife Julie Delpy, who coldly leaves him after a brief marriage. The plan he concocts is chock-full of wicked humor and poetic irony, with an ultimate outcome unforeseen even by him. Dazzingly unpredictable, refreshingly adult-oriented, and brimming with rapturous yet controlled filmmaking fervor. Will haunt you for days afterward while you’re aching to see it again -- and again.

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originally posted: 01/18/05 12:54:20
last updated: 08/08/14 07:06:41
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