It could have been worse...

Despite all of the general grumbling about what a crummy year for movies 1995 turned out to be, the selection process for my top ten list this year was as torturous as ever. There were few masterpieces, to be sure (in fact, I saw only one film that I'd be willing to place in that category without reservation; not surprisingly, it's the #1 film on my list), but, with a little diligence, the discerning moviegoer (and I guess by that I mean the moviegoer who was able to look beyond the multiplex) could find a wide variety of terrific, just-shy-of-brilliant pictures. Whittling my short list of more than twenty deserving candidates down to the requisite ten turned out to be rather more daunting a task than I had expected.

To my amazement, very often I had no need to look beyond the multiplex. Five of the ten films on my list this year arrived courtesy of the major Hollywood studios (if we include New Line and MGM/UA among the majors, and we certainly ought to); in recent years, by contrast, the average number of studio pictures on my list has been two. To be fair, only three of the five were genuine saturation-style Hollywood behemoths -- the two MGM pictures, while hardly low-profile, were treated as arthouse films -- but this still seems to me to speak volumes about the ways in which Hollywood and its alternatives seem to be meeting halfway. In 1995, it seemed as though the studios became a bit more daring; unfortunately, it also seemed as though the major independents became considerably less so (Sony Pictures Classics, who had the most courageous lineup of the so-called "boutique distributors", excepted). Everybody wants to make the next Pulp Fiction; while that means that we may see more intelligent and risky studio fare, it also means that folks like Todd Haynes, Kelly Reichardt, Steven Soderbergh, and Jon Jost may have more difficulty getting their work seen (or even shot)...and if you've made a movie in a language other than English, it'd better be chockablock with sex and violence, or you'll be lucky to get seven days at the Quad (translation: maybe 35 people in New York will see your film -- 50 if the Times or the Voice likes it).

Okay, enough of my ranting. Now for the fun stuff.

My standard caveat: what follows is a list of my favorite films of 1995. It is by no means a list of what I consider to be the best films of 1995. In fact, I consider some of the films that didn't make my list (notably Crumb) quite a lot "better" than most of the films that did; however, given a choice between owning a copy of Crumb or a copy of my #9 film -- which even I consider vastly inferior to Zwigoff's justly celebrated documentary -- I wouldn't hesitate for more than a moment before choosing the latter. Are your closest friends necessarily the finest people you've ever met? There's more to love than quality. Keep that in mind as you read on (though indignant flames are welcome).

In order to be considered eligible for my list, a film had to receive its initial theatrical release in New York City during 1995; films that had screened publicly anywhere prior to 1993 were not eligible (ruling out such films as Lessons of Darkness, Hyenas, A Short Film About Killing, etc.). I was willing to make exceptions for films with 1993-1995 copyrights which screened only at film festivals or repertory houses and which -- and here a judgment call was required -- I consider unlikely to receive a commercial run anytime soon. As it happened, however, none of the handful of films that might have been exceptions was a strong contender for my list, so it's really irrelevant...this year, anyway. A few excellent films which I saw at the 1995 New York Film Festival, but which will be released commercially in 1996, will be considered for next year's list.

For the first time ever, I have ranked my films in order of preference. This was an agonizing process, but I figured that if all of my critical heroes can manage it, so could I. I've shuffled the order several times since I first composed the list, but I think I'm relatively content with its current status; keep in mind, however, that in the final analysis it's all quite arbitrary. In order to milk whatever suspense I can out of this deal, I'm presenting the list here in reverse order, beginning with


Richard III (Richard Loncraine)

Of the many film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays I've seen to date, this one is far and away the most audaciously cinematic; it takes numerous risks, and almost all of them pay off (one that didn't was the casting of Americans Annette Bening and Robert Downey,Jr. as Elizabeth and Rivers -- Downey, in particular, is quite bad). Ian McKellen, with his basset hound face and malevolent stare, makes a magnificent Richard; call it blasphemy, but I much preferred his interpretation of the role to Olivier's classic 1956 performance, which I found much too, yes, theatrical. The non-American supporting cast is equally impressive, with Jim Broadbent's Buckingham a marvel of unctuous solicitude. But the real honors must go to Loncraine (none of whose previous films, which include Brimstone and Treacle and Bellman and True, I've yet seen), who pulls off the difficult task of making a 400-year-old text written largely in iambic pentameter as spectacularly visual as the latest Gilliam or Greenaway extravaganza. If it's not quite as thrilling as Branagh's Henry V, it's only because Will wrote much better plays about Hank 5 than about Rick 3.


Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbach)

See my caveat above. This is hardly one of the ten "best" films of the year, but if you make even a marginally entertaining movie about hyperarticulate men of my own age and socioeconomic background, it's more or less guaranteed a place in my heart. As it happens, Kicking and Screaming is quite a bit more than marginally entertaining; first-time writer/director Baumbach (who's younger than I am, damn him!) writes clever, sitcom-ready dialogue, but he also has the good sense to cast actors who know how to throw it away (figuratively, not literally), and his camera placement and narrative rhythms are remarkably assured. The first time I saw it, I was too busy laughing to pay much attention to mise-en-scène; when I saw it a second time, I was amazed at what Baumbach was able to accomplish visually with his very talky script. My favorite scene of the year: Chris Eigeman, as Max, sweeps some shards of broken glass into a pile, carefully balances a sheet of paper reading "BROKEN GLASS" atop it, and casually walks out of the room. A joke that speaks volumes.


The Secret of Roan Inish (John Sayles)

Speaking of talky movies, here's one that's concerned primarily with the way that stories are told, spoken aloud, passed down from one generation to the next. John Sayles is perhaps the premiere naturalist of American independent cinema, so it was surprising to see him take on this rather fanciful project, adapting it from the Scottish novella The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry. Even more surprising is how effectively his low-key, decidedly unfanciful style serves the material (though some do find the film a bit too enervated for their taste, which I guess I can understand). Working with a fine cast of little-known actors (Mick Lally, Eileen Colgan, John Lynch, newcomer Jeni Courtney), Sayles takes a fundamentally preposterous story and makes it wholly believable; though Haskell Wexler's cinematography is impeccable, and the locations quite lovely, many of the film's most beautiful scenes take place in your own imagination, as the characters lull you into a reverie with words. Some may argue that this is traditionally the province of theater and literature, not cinema, but to them I say: "Phooey!" (and also: "Avoid Derek Jarman's Blue"). Mason Daring's traditional Irish score is one of the year's finest.


Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis)

To be honest, I had expected this to place somewhat higher; a second viewing, however, confirmed my initial suspicion that the film's grim, depressing exterior camouflages a core of somewhat dangerous romanticism. Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, both superb, manage to make the process of physical degradation look rather chic and appealing, which on reflection I find a bit disturbing. Figgis' mournful score, slow and jazzy, further eroticizes the notion of doomed love. Still, whatever my lingering reservations, this is not a film I can easily dismiss, and both times I found it almost unbearably moving. Also, no matter how many awards he's won (and I expect him to win an Oscar months after I put this baby to bed), it's worth repeating once more: Cage is phenomenal in this picture...and Shue matches him almost step-for-step. A great, if somewhat idealized (yes, you read that correctly), love story.


Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam)

As I compose this list, Twelve Monkeys is being discussed to death on rec.arts.movies.current-films. This is no great surprise: it's a big-budget Hollywood film, ostensibly a science-fiction thriller, and USENET is still comprised largely of computer geeks (I plead guilty), who tend to be vocal supporters of speculative fiction and special effects extravaganzas. Similar conversational monopolies were inspired by Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, for example. What's unusual in this instance is the nature of the discussion; instead of crowding threads concerning the comparative virtues of CGI vs. motion-control, people are doggedly trying to determine what the hell is going on in the picture. Gilliam's latest is that Hollywood rarity: a film that requests -- demands! -- that its audience think. This is not a movie that evaporates when you exit the multiplex; it stays with you, returning to you in the shower, on the way to the corner deli, in the middle of an important presentation (uh-oh). Enigmatic and haunting, it rewards repeated viewing with subtle details and alternative viewpoints. As Jeffrey Goines, Brad Pitt gives one of the most ludicrous performances in recent memory, mugging and twitching and tossing his arms about as if they were spring-loaded. It should be an embarrassment (and some think it is); I found it simultaneously hilarious and chilling, a marvelous tour-de-force.


Wild Reeds (André Téchiné)

Six months ago, I was sure this would be one of my more idiosyncratic choices; I surely didn't expect it to win several major critics' awards and turn up on almost every top ten list in Film Comment. Don't you hate when that happens? One of a series of French films in which directors were instructed to fictionalize aspects of their own childhoods (and, since this project is funded at least in part by a music publishing company, to include at least one party scene featuring pop tunes of the period), Wild Reeds is one of the most remarkable and honest portrayals of adolescence I've ever encountered. Téchiné coaxes lovely, candid performances from his quartet of young actors, and there isn't a moment in the film that isn't both wholly believable and utterly compelling. A small masterpiece of naturalism.


Safe (Todd Haynes)

I've come to the conclusion, however arrogant, that people who don't like this film simply don't understand what's going on it. Many viewers thoroughly enjoy the first hour of Haynes' distancing drama about a shallow woman (the brilliant Julianne Moore) who gradually comes to believe that she suffers from environmental illness, but a sizable percentage of them check out halfway through when the focus turns to Wrenwood, the clinic to which the beleaguered Carol turns for help. To be honest, I had a similar reaction the first time I saw Safe; while the ending was so powerful that it seemed to retroactively justify some of the tedium of the preceding hour, I had spent much of that hour wishing that Haynes would move on, and wondering why he was beating a dead horse. Having seen it three more times, however, my opinion has drastically shifted. The fourth time, I actually found myself feeling impatient for Carol to get to Wrenwood; the pre-Wrenwood scenes, though expertly shot and performed, now seemed almost perfunctory when compared with the malleable nature of the latter half of the picture. The key is recognizing that Haynes' film is not about environmental illness; nor is it merely an AIDS allegory, as some have suggested (must every film remotely concerned with disease now be labeled an AIDS allegory?). Both of these subjects do play a part, to be sure, but Haynes is far too talented and ambitious to settle for small satirical jabs or self-congratulatory symbolism. Using the disease-of-the-week movie as a structural device, he's created a disturbing, ambiguous, and deceptively ordinary horror film. Watch it again. Then watch it once more.


Toy Story (John Lasseter)

When you're drawn to the unusual, the ambiguous, the disturbing, the profound, the revelatory -- as most serious cinéastes tend to be -- there's a danger of forgetting how to just have fun at the movies, the way you did when you first discovered them as a child. I've seen a lot of critics who I very much admire casually dismiss Toy Story, which saddens and perplexes me, because I can't remember the last time I had so much fun sitting in a darkened theater. For me, even given the current (and perhaps inherent) limitations of computer animation and its inferiority (in my opinion) to traditional cel animation, this hilarious, dazzling cartoon is more interesting and enjoyable than the last four or five Disney extravaganzas combined. The plot and characterizations are simple, predictable, and thoroughly wonderful; special mention must go to Tim Allen, whose television show is putrid, but whose vocal work as Buzz Lightyear constituted one of the year's best performances. The gender politics are a bit antiquated (the film seems to be set in the present, yet Sid's sister plays Tea Party; 99% of the toys are male, and Bo Peep's only function is to be flirtatious or concerned), but this is the only quibble I can think to offer. A delight from beginning to end.


Se7en (David Fincher)

I didn't see Fincher's feature debut, Alien3, and hadn't intended to see his cops-vs.-serial-killer followup, either; it looked formulaic and eminently dismissable. I went on a whim, based on a mild recommendation from my friend Eric Johnson and an unexpected rave review from Amy Taubin in The Village Voice. When I walked out of the theater, I found myself trembling. An hour later, I was still shaking slightly. (This is not hyperbole. I suspect it was a reaction to sitting tensely for over two hours.) I cannot recall ever responding so physically and viscerally to a motion picture before, nor can I think of another studio picture -- at least in recent years -- in which superlative performances and direction so thoroughly transcended and transformed a mediocre script. (I've read the shooting script, so this is not mere conjecture.) I cannot believe this movie got made. I truly don't understand why it became such a huge hit. I'm not sure that I'm comfortable actually recommending it to others. And I'm ambivalent about placing it so high on my list, because in retrospect it seems riddled with flaws. Ultimately, though, I have to go with my gut. This movie knocked me for a loop.


Exotica (Atom Egoyan)

Atom Egoyan was my major discovery of 1995. I had previously seen only his 1992 feature, The Adjuster, and hadn't cared for it at all; it struck me as pretentious and stilted. Exotica, which I saw rather reluctantly, blew me away (there were no other serious contenders for this spot, frankly), and I've since seen two more of Egoyan's previous works, Speaking Parts and Calendar, which have convinced me that he is, along with Mike Leigh and Krzysztof Kieslowski, the most talented and inspired writer/director currently working. (And what of The Adjuster? I, um, need to see it again.) I don't want to say much more about this film, because one of its primary pleasures is the way that the narrative unfolds, and to reveal any of its intricacies is to severely dilute the experience of the first-time viewer. But be forewarned: those who do not enjoy it tend to really loathe it. As for myself, I found it the most rewarding and enthralling viewing of the year, both intellectually and emotionally.

Honorable Mention

Here are ten more films that I very much enjoyed, presented in alphabetical order. I wouldn't be terribly upset if any one of them surreptitiously switched places with one of the films in the 8-10 slots.

Apollo 13 (Ron Howard)
Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater)
Burnt by the Sun (Nikita Mikhalkov)
Crumb (Terry Zwigoff)
The Kingdom (Lars von Trier/Morten Arnfred)
A Little Princess (Alfonso Cuarón)
Nobody Loves Me (Doris Dörrie)
Persuasion (Roger Michell)
River of Grass (Kelly Reichardt)
Unzipped (Douglas Keeve)

Bottom Ten of 1995

Again, these are not the worst films of the year, but the ones that I enjoyed the least...though in this case I think there's a clearer correlation. Now, I'm not a professional critic (though I play one on USENET), so I don't see most of the dreck that hits the multiplexes (and, less often, the arthouses) every year. Even though I saw 123 commercial releases in 1995, I still managed to avoid such gems as (these films don't deserve italics) First Knight, Showgirls, Billy Madison, The Scarlet Letter, Species, Congo, Angus, The Basketball Diaries, Destiny Turns on the Radio, Higher Learning, Jefferson in Paris, Major Payne, S.F.W., Panther, and A Pyromaniac's Love name only a few.

That means that, with only a couple of exceptions (films I saw for free before any reviews had been printed), every film on my list of dogs has a lot of fans. Two of them have appeared on numerous top ten lists. Nonetheless, I found each of them painful to sit through; these are the movies that made me wish I didn't have a strict policy against walking out in the middle of a film.

Individual comments are not included for these films; if you want to know why I hated them, seek out my reviews, accessible elsewhere at this site. I have neither the energy nor the inclination to think about them analytically at this time. Also, I'm all out of epithets.

The first two titles are tied for the most excruciating viewing experience of the year. The remaining nine are in alphabetical order.

The Blue Villa (Alain Robbe-Grillet & Dimitri de Clercq)
Rhythm Thief (Matthew Harrison)
Art for Teachers of Children (Jennifer Montgomery)
Casino (Martin Scorsese)
Mallrats (Kevin Smith)
Miami Rhapsody (David Frankel)
Nixon (Oliver Stone)
The November Men (Paul Williams)
Only the Brave (Ana Kokkinos)
While You Were Sleeping (Jon Turteltaub)

Unexpected Pleasures

My initial intention had been to compile a list of my ten favorite pre-1995 films, drawing from those I saw for the first time in '95. However, 1995 was a rather productive year for me, cinematically, as I began to spend more time at the Museum of Modern Art, Film Forum, and the Walter Reade theater at Lincoln Center; when I attempted to select ten favorites from the approximately 250 "old" films I saw last year, my brain very nearly imploded. (To give you a bit of an idea, 1995 constituted my first exposure to Sherlock, Jr., The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Freaks, Rio Bravo, The Awful Truth, Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Kanal, Johnny Guitar, and Get Out Your Handkerchiefs -- and that's just in January!) It could be done, I suppose -- I have managed to come up with all-time top ten lists on a couple of occasions -- but frankly, I just didn't have the emotional strength; the agony involved in deciding whether to omit Repulsion or Andrei Rublev (a hypothetical example), it seemed to me, would far outweigh the fun of rummaging through the year's many treasures.

Accordingly, I've opted to disregard the giants entirely, conceding the genius of such works as L'Atalante, The Night of the Hunter, Persona, L'Age D'Or, etc. (notice how I'm sorta trying to work some of my top ten in anyway), and instead compile a list of ten "unexpected pleasures." These are films that took me by surprise...not acknowledged classics (like Stagecoach or 3 Women or Umberto D., for example), but smaller works (though some have a sizable cult following) of which I had heard little or nothing before entering the theater or popping the cassette into the VCR. They may not be Great Films, in the manner of The Seventh Seal, The Wind, The Red Shoes, Céline and Julie Go Boating, or Gance's Napoléon (I told you it was a productive year), but I enjoyed each and every one of them thoroughly, and urge you to keep an eye out for them if you haven't yet encountered them.

In alphabetical order:

The Aviator's Wife (1981, Eric Rohmer)

I had seen and admired several of Rohmer's films prior to 1995, but none before had so thoroughly enchanted and beguiled me. A simple tale of a young man who suspects his girlfriend of infidelity and is assisted in his ridiculously feeble attempt at detection by a young woman met by chance in a park, this was perhaps my favorite film of the year, and might make my all-time list (had I the fortitude to make up a new one).

The Big City (1963, Satyajit Ray)

I saw a number of Ray's films in 1995, thanks to Merchant/Ivory's touring "Masterworks" festival, and, curiously, it was this "lesser" work, concerned with a woman's first experience in the work force and the effect that it has on her self-image and her marriage, that most affected me. (I should note that I saw none of the Apu trilogy --which as "classics" would be disqualified from this list anyway -- in this series, though I had seen Pather Panchali previously.)

The Devil to Pay! (1930, George Fitzmaurice)

Truth be told, I don't really remember much of the plot of this film; what I mostly remember is laughing my ass off. Looking as if it had been filmed about ten years later than it actually was, with none of the staginess or poor sound quality of the typical early talkie, this delightful Ronald Colman/Loretta Young vehicle is fast-paced, witty, and generally great fun. Good look finding it, though.

Dishonored (1931, Josef von Sternberg)

When people talk von Sternberg, this is generally not one of the films that they talk much about. I can't imagine why not, though, as this is one of the most visually spectacular, just-plain-wacked-out movies I've ever seen, with composition and lighting unrivaled anywhere in the history of cinema (I am not exaggerating). Criminally underrated, and featuring the expected brilliant performance from Marlene Dietrich.

Fat City (1972, John Huston)

Steven Soderbergh called my attention to this lesser-known Huston masterpiece in his journal entries for sex, lies, and videotape, and I wasn't remotely disappointed when I finally had an opportunity to see it. Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges are both utterly superb as small-time boxers desperate to escape their squalid surroundings, and Huston doesn't waste a frame in depicting the very real emotions and situations with which they grapple.

The Fourth Man (1979, Paul Verhoeven)

Weirdass, compelling movie that only serves to emphasize what a sad day it was when Verhoeven answered Hollywood's call -- it's a long, long way downhill from this phantasmagoric vision to dreck like Basic Instinct and Showgirls (not that I've seen the latter, mind you). Pointless to try to synopsize the plot; suffice to say that it bears little resemblance to much of anything else you might have seen (Abel Ferrara, perhaps, excepted).

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991, Léos Carax)

My pal Eric C. Johnson rated Carax's little-seen (in the U.S., at any rate, where it inexplicably never found a distributor) gem, a twisted love story about two homeless people living on the eponymous bridge, at #1 on his 1995 top ten list. As it's four years old, and had screened in New York a couple of years ago, I considered it ineligible for my main list, but this masterful work -- which in many ways is the film that everybody thinks Leaving Las Vegas is (and I really like Leaving Las Vegas) -- was certainly one of the best I saw last year.

Pennies From Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

I should immediately note that I have not yet seen Dennis Potter's original TV mini-series, from which this film was adapted, and which I am told is superlative. Nonetheless, on its own terms, this movie is a wonder, somehow simultaneously marvelously buoyant and terribly grim, with Steve Martin in top form as self-deluding song-hawker Arthur Parker. The amazing production numbers alone make this one well worth seeing.

Speaking Parts (1989, Atom Egoyan)

Egoyan, as noted in my comments on 1995's Exotica, was one of the year's major discoveries for me. This was the next Egoyan film I turned to, and I found myself marvelling once again at the complexity of his narrative, the sincerity of the performances he elicited from his cast, and the keen intelligence visible in every frame. There are many filmmakers whom I admire, but when I am asked (I hope), in years to come, who my influences have been, I have no doubt that I'll be citing Egoyan.

The White Gorilla (1947, H. L. Fraser)

This, quite frankly, is a terrible movie; it's also one of the funniest movies I've seen in my life, much funnier than the comparatively impressive (and therefore duller) Plan Nine From Outer Space, for example. Like They Saved Hitler's Brain, which I haven't yet seen, this is actually two separate films ineptly edited together: poorly-acted jungle explorers from the 1940's experience thrilling adventures lifted from what seems to be a fairly exciting silent serial of two decades earlier. Our 1947 hero's repeated and ever-more-ingenious explanations of why he was unable to come to the aid of his friend from the silent era ("though I could see he needed help, I was too terrified to move!"), combined with a hilariously portentous voiceover narration, make this a must-see (again, if you can find it). And, yes, there really is a white gorilla, who has nothing to do with the rest of the plot!