Personal best

From a year full of startling and memorable movies, here are our favorites

Matt Zoller Seitz
When H.L. Mencken wrote that criticism is prejudice made plausible, he was onto something. Like music, movies are more often fueled by passion than intellect. They invite, even demand, borderline-irrational gut responses.

As a result, it's always difficult to come up with year-end "Best" lists--especially when you consider the amazing variety of emotions summoned by a medium as diverse and complex as film. Once you get past rudimentary questions like, "What does this movie promise it's going to do?" and "Does the movie actually do it, and by what means?" you're left pondering such imponderables as mood, rhythm and artistic commitment, and you soon arrive at the same base conclusion as any moviegoer: either the picture struck a personal chord, or it didn't. Period, cut, print.

(In alphabetical order)
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The trailer made me worry that this movie would use its central premise (three drag performers from urban Sydney, Australia travel into the outback and wow the yokels) for cheap, one-note laughs. But writer-director Stephen Elliott surprised me in countless ways. He put a very wide screen to very good use, creating the most visually sumptuous comedy in years, and he treated his heroes, their friends and families, and their various foils with decency and respect.

Bitter Moon/Savage Nights. A couple of silly, violent, perverse, sexy, and deeply personal movies about screwed-up fringe dwellers, told with stargazing, overwrought emotion. The first is about a bitter would-be novelist who gets sucked into a psychosexual whirlpool in modern-day Europe, and the second is about a bisexual, HIV-positive musician, filmmaker, and hopeless hedonist living out his final days in early-'80s Paris. But they have more in common than tone. Bitter Moon's director, exiled filmmaker Roman Polanski, and the creator of Savage Nights, writer-director-star Cyril Collard (who died of complications from AIDS shortly after his first and only feature premiered in Europe), might have been demonically possessed when they made these pictures. You don't so much watch them as witness them, like train derailments or volcanic eruptions. Even if you end up despising them, you damn sure know you've seen something unique.

The Bride with White Hair. At heart, this Chinese action melodrama about two assassins (Leslie Cheung and Bridget Lin) working for rival medieval clans who fall madly in love is yet another retelling of Romeo and Juliet. But director Ronni Yu, who shot the entire picture on freakishly stylized indoor sets, and staged the love scenes and combat sequences with the bold eye of a modern dance choreographer, lent the proceedings an enchanted aura of feverish dreaminess. Along with The Crow, this was the most visually exciting feature film of the year.

The Crow. The plot is just a bloody MTV crossbreeding of the Dead Girlfriend pop song genre and a Charles Bronson revenge flick: a grunge guitarist named Eric Draven (the late Brandon Lee, in a sexy, touching, and scary star turn that hinted at great things to come) returns from the dead to avenge the murders of himself and his fiancee at the hands of slimy criminals. But director Alex Proyas drenched the story in apocalyptic longing and staged the hero's tragic quest with such jaw-dropping visual panache that the film attained an operatic grandeur. It's the best comic book movie ever made.

Heavenly Creatures. From New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson came this sublimely woozy retelling of that country's most sensational murder, which saw two teenage girls named Pauline and Juliet murder a parent they feared might break up their passionate friendship. What I loved about it--even more than Jackson's stunning grasp of film technique and his obvious sympathy for his obsessive heroines--was the way he recaptured the yearning, burning, almost religious myopia of adolescence.

The Lion King. Yes, it contains the same basic elements as nearly all Disney animated features. But sonnets and haiku and ballads are all constructed from the same raw materials, too, and infinite variation is still possible if the artists are skillful, brave, and full of passion. The most emotionally powerful animated feature since Dumbo, the film also had a dark, epic look that linked it to the finest works of Welles and Kurosawa.

Little Women. Mix together a smart director (Gillian Armstrong), a sharp screenplay from a classic novel, and a cast full of radiant women (including Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, and Susan Sarandon). The result? The best old-fashioned studio movie of the year.

The Lost Words. The best no-budget indie of 1994, this story of a depressed New York musician (amusingly played by singer-songwriter Michael Kaniecki) coping with a disintegrating love life was as funny and smart as the best of Woody Allen and Albert Brooks, with a bitter edge that helped director Scott Saunders steer clear of sentimentality. Nice soundtrack, too.

Pulp Fiction. In the postmodern spirit of writer-director Quentin Tarantino, here's a list within a list, citing things I loved about his lurid, ludicrous, overlong, crudely funny, amazingly supple second feature: 1) You honestly can't guess what's going to happen next. 2) John Travolta dances again. 3) Uma Thurman drawing a square in the air. 3) "Royale with cheese!" 4) "Zed's dead, baby...Zed's dead." 4) The gimp. 5) "Feel that? That's pride fuckin' with ya!" 6) "I hid it...in my ass." 7) "Now that's a tasty burger!" 8) Pumpkin and Honey Bunny sucking face before they rob a diner. 9) Bruce Willis singing along with the Statler Brothers' "Flowers on the Wall." 10) Samuel L. Jackson, who quotes the Old Testament with such terrifying conviction you'd think he wrote it.

Quiz Show. Outstanding in every way, Robert Redford's rollicking historical melodrama about the quiz show scandals examined the decline of American ethics in the age of TV without pandering, preaching or overstating its case. It also contained more laugh-out-loud dialogue than any five regular comedies, and brooding, introspective moments that made it feel more like a long-lost dramatic masterpiece from the '70s than a recent release.

Red. Polish auteur Krystof Kieslowski's third installment in the "Three Colors" series is a brilliant piece of intuitive, musical filmmaking, and it had a warmth and generosity of spirit missing from some of his previous movies. It's also the finest film about the life pulse of a modern city since Wings of Desire.

Red Rock West/The Last Seduction. Two stunningly tight, spare, nasty little movies by small-town noir expert John Dahl. Both are proof that if you stay half a step ahead of your audience and play every screen second with a straight face, any old genre can seem fresh again.

Speed. The setup sounded like high-concept junk: Keanu Reeves as a tough L.A. cop trying to stop a bus wired to blow if it drops beneath 50 mph. But first-time director Jan DeBont, screenwriter Graham Yost, and a cast full of surprisingly straightfaced performers delivered the year's best action movie--not to mention a film that says quite a bit about the way we live today. Beneath its muscular mayhem is a parable of daily life in a mechanized urban society--a place where machines go haywire, criminals get away with murder, the cops are impotent, good people get maimed and killed, and the best that two lovebirds on a runaway subway car can do is hunker down, hold onto each other and pray for deliverance.

Jimmy Fowler
(In alphabetical order):
Eat Drink Man Woman. Taiwanese director Ang Lee is the preeminent doppelganger of intimate relationships in world cinema--a heterosexual who reshaped his sensibilities to thoroughly inhabit an interracial gay relationship in his hugely successful 1993 The Wedding Banquet, and a man who pumped fulsome blood and breath into his trio of female protagonists in Eat Drink Man Woman, a profound comedy about a grumpy widower sparring with his grown daughters in the new capitalist China.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Writer-director Alan Rudolph (Mortal Thoughts, The Moderns) is a man who'd rather watch his characters than try to understand them, which might explain why some critics found Mrs. Parker so off-putting--it contains no easy answers and records events with a historian's leisurely dispassion. This is a visually arresting biopic that takes outrageous liberties with the personalities of the real people it portrays, and offers a sumptuous banquet of tart dialogue and stylized performances in return. As Parker, Jennifer Jason Leigh wears her cinematic acting style--at once low-key and aggressively self-conscious--like an alluring perfume. She manages to be both self-pitying and predatory, and her character's brief post-abortion monologue about dreaming of God with "a mask over his face" is a heartbreaker.

Nobody's Fool. Paul Newman might have played the same character for the last 35 years, but it rarely feels forced or recycled. His cocky, self-centered, but always charming hedonist is a mammoth, Proustian work-in-progress, and in Robert Benton's expertly crafted heart-tugger, Newman forces him to confront mortality through a bad leg, poverty and the shambles of a family he left but can't seem to leave behind. The late Jessica Tandy fires her enfeebled character with a marvelous withered dignity. There's not a wasted gesture or false moment in this movie, least of all from Newman, who at the age of 70 can seduce a camera like never before.

The Shawshank Redemption. Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption contains every prison-drama cliche you can imagine. Screenwriter-director Frank Darabont didn't miss one of them, but he did a hell of a job polishing them like precious stones. He turns a fictional Maine maximum-security penitentiary into a ghost ship where the passengers wander through their decades-long ride in a dreamy series of compromises, tiny tragedies, and even tinier triumphs. The key to the film's sinuous suspense is Tim Robbins' terrific performance as a two-faced inmate who orchestrates a scheme of far-reaching consequences from the penitentiary's heart.

Spanking the Monkey. It seems a small miracle that David O. Russell's bruising, nightmarish black comedy would ever get picked up for distribution, considering its subject matter--the tortured summertime affair between an MIT student and his invalid mother. A huge hit in New York City, the movie turned its protagonist's streak of bad luck into a poker-faced indictment of conditional love. Jeremy Davies, as the son who struggles to escape his family vortex, is a wonder of bottled-up hostility in this unsettling debut feature.

Sunday's Children. Thank the Major Theatre for bringing to Dallas Daniel Bergman's wise, elegant adaptation of father Ingmar's scripted reminiscence about one childhood summer spent with his father, a famous preacher and a man of unpredictable moods. While boasting an art film's pedigree, it reveled in scatological detail that elevated impoliteness to the arena of revelation. The film captured family relationships in all their feverish rhythms.

True Lies. For once, ultra-expensive effects and stunt work are used in service to a smart script, which made some uncomfortable for its cartoonish depiction of Arab terrorists and a rather elaborate, mean-spirited revenge plot against an innocent woman. But the villains were terrorists first and Arabs by circumstance, and Jamie Lee Curtis deflated the misogyny by cutting a wide path of sympathy and strength for her initially hapless character. True Lies was preposterous--for entertainment's sake--yet consummately in control of its own intriguing contradictions (an American treatment of a French screenplay, a virtuoso leading lady who romances a smirking Frankenstein of a leading man).

What Happened Was... Hollywood character actor Tom Noonan made his debut as writer-director with this claustrophobic thrill-and-chill ride set on the first date between a cocky legal assistant (Noonan) and a passive-aggressive secretary (a scorching Karen Sillas). Conversation between the two traverses much territory (education, class, the self-delusion necessary to contemporary urban survival) without feeling contrived or stagey. The title comes from a grisly story read by Sillas; rarely in recent cinema has so much been conveyed about a character through metaphorical language.

Widow's Peak. The year's best script belongs to playwright Hugh Leonard (Da), who created a mythical 1920s Irish village ruled without mercy by a matriarchal clique. Joan Plowright as the moralizing grande dame, Natasha Richardson as the flirtatious new arrival, and Mia Farrow as the resentful eccentric all converge in a convoluted plot that intrigues but still manages to tie up its many loose ends.

Zero Patience. Canadian activist-filmmaker John Greyson plunders history, medicine, and the media to create a moving musical epic about Gaetan Dugas, the man initially (and mistakenly) believed to have brought the HIV virus to North America. Its occasional moments of naivete are charming rather than distracting--no small feat for a film with explicit political criticisms. Fiercely literate, but grounded in a frankness almost guaranteed to alienate the uninitiated (most notably "The Butthole Duet," a song about anal sex between singing sphincters), this is the bravest, most important movie yet about the AIDS epidemic.

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