Seen any good movies lately?

The best of 1995

I enjoy movies.
You might be surprised how often I have to prove the truth of that simple declarative statement. "Critics are too...critical," people often gripe. "We go to the movies for escapism, not for art. You never like anything."

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Oh, most people do enjoy the occasional dose of escapist fun, myself included, but what, other than having your emotions touched, could account for the $100 million earned by Schindler's List? And who's to say that escapism can't be art--or, at least, master craftsmanship?

Exposing people to good movies, helping them understand why a film is good--that's the purpose of film criticism, and, in a more roundabout way, of year-end top-10 lists like this one. The following were, in my opinion, the best movies released in Dallas in 1995. While some films have good performances, or technical mastery, or great dialogue, each of these had all of those in spades, plus something else, an ineffable quality that made them work on multiple levels: comic and dramatic, emotional and intellectual, logical and intuitive. They were all much more than they appeared to be.

10. Desperado is to film what Gone with the Wind is to literature: something less than art, something more than populist entertainment. Director-writer Robert Rodriguez earned a reputation for making the most of available resources with El Mariachi, an $8,000 picture that looked better than most multimillion-dollar extravaganzas. There was concern that he wouldn't know what to do with a much larger budget, but in Desperado he carries his visual and melodramatic excesses to marvelous heights. His impossibly corny use of every imaginable film cliche is made fresh and lively by the sheer force of his racing creativity. Desperado isn't a movie for all tastes, but Rodriguez's strong grasp of the outer limits of what he can get away with gives this film a palpable energy: You know a man with a love of cinema is at work, and his passion leaps out of the screen and makes you part of the roller-coaster ride.

9. It would be easy--and wrong--to dismiss Kicking and Screaming as merely another Gen-X misery exercise (featuring, as always, Eric Stoltz); that would disregard its rare wit and wisdom. This astutely observed, smartly written comedy may well have been the funniest movie of 1995, as well as one of the most emotionally sincere. Newcomer Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed the movie, has a keen ear for the language of recent college grads, as well as a good sense of the demons that haunt them. The film doesn't seem whiny even when the characters whine. That this movie has all the earmarks of a Whit Stilman (Metropolitan, Barcelona) effort--the deadpan style, the whimsical adultness of the characters, and the presence of the indescribably smarmy Chris Eigeman--is high praise indeed.

8. Get Shorty captures the essential character of the book that inspired it and translates it into visual terms. Director Barry Sonnenfeld has never shown himself to be as alert and well-tuned to the rhythms of a story as he does here. The self-referential tale, about a laconic mobster (John Travolta) and his hip, kooky escapades in L.A., conveys the same rollicking fun as Elmore Leonard's jazzy prose. Rene Russo and Gene Hackman provide excellent support, but you can't single anyone out. Everything seems to click, including John Lurie's grooving score, the slightly garish, slightly tired sets, and the smooth cinematography. Hollywood poking fun at itself hasn't been this deliciously hip since The Player.

7. Only Hollywood's least sentimental director (Clint Eastwood) and its canniest young scenarist (Richard LaGravenese) could tackle Robert James Waller's aggressively sappy valentine, The Bridges of Madison County, and bring to it an air of honest dignity. Waller's hokey, homespun contrivances, ludicrously overthought in the book, get bleached, pounded, and hung out to dry in this straightforward film adaptation. When the goo evaporates, what remains is pure emotion and some incredibly wise acting from Eastwood and Meryl Streep. More than just a love story for adults, Bridges is a timeless study of the expansiveness of a human heart suffocating in the comfortable affection of a stale marriage. Eastwood's dry, frank direction sets the emotional content of the film in sharp relief to its bucolic environs, and makes the tale resonate with great honesty.

6. Claude Lelouch has long been noted for being a sincere, weepy, sentimental sod. His first international smash, A Man and a Woman, one of the essential date movies of the 1960s, paved the way for a whole generation of serious trash romances, from Love Story to, well, The Bridges of Madison County. Considering his light filmography up until now, Lelouch's clever and intelligent adaptation of Les Miserables--really more a meditation on the lingering themes of the classic novel than a version of it--is a ravishing surprise, and a true work of wonder. His conception of Hugo's book as the apotheosis of the Everyman, the touchstone for suffering people and oppression throughout history, rings true. All the characters are archetypes in the cycle of humanity's inhumanity--of greed, love, deception, and self-sacrifice; if men aren't storming a barricade in Paris, they're overrunning Omaha Beach on D-day. Jean-Paul Belmondo's brutish, touching performance is the centerpiece of the film, but all the actors--and Lelouch himself--are in top form in what must be the most accessible yet sophisticated literary adaptation in years.

5. Martin Scorsese's Casino has been repeatedly assailed for being "too much like GoodFellas." Such criticism is puzzling: For many, GoodFellas was to the '90s what Raging Bull was to the '80s and Taxi Driver to the '70s--a template film, the Rosetta stone by which contemporary American moviemaking must be interpreted. All three films, not coincidentally, were directed by Scorsese. Assume for the sake of argument that Casino really isn't anything more than a longer, more violent version of GoodFellas. Why blame Scorsese, or denigrate the film, for being that good again? In any event, Casino is more ambitious, more essentially realized, than any other Scorsese film except his woefully underestimated masterpiece, The Age of Innocence. It's got everything--style, wit, sex, violence--in a sea of fine acting, sharp dialogue, and perfectly placed music. It's the most uniquely, purely cinematic experience you could entertain--and be entertained by--in 1995.

4. Terry Zwigoff's Crumb--a brilliant, hilariously painful, and uncomfortably poignant portrait of underground cartoon artist R. Crumb and his disturbingly charming, dysfunctional family--is to the documentary form what Ulysses is to the alphabet: a near-perfect application of its tools. The film is a scathing, brilliant, witty, and insightful dissection of Robert Crumb, a cranky, middle-aged man whose cartoons are brave, frank visions of his own misguided life. Crumb is his comics and, from his point of view, nothing in his doodles is exaggerated. As Zwigoff peels away the layers of Crumb's psyche, you come to see just how raw this movie--and this man's life--truly is. Perhaps most troubling of all is the sense of self-awareness on Crumb's part: He realizes his predicament without the slightest idea of how to escape it. Kierkegaard's comment--"the single characteristic of despair is...it is unaware that it is despair"--has an eerie prescience in this context; he could have been writing about Crumb's family.

3. The Mystery of Rampo, a comparatively obscure Japanese picture, was the year's most intriguing mystery--a jet-black jigsaw puzzle which must be assembled in a dark room. Director Kazuyoshi Okuyama's contemplative, abstract rumination on art and reality challenges the viewer to decipher its semiotic puzzles the way Rubik's Cube challenged architecture students' understanding of spatial relations. Based upon the writings of the respected Japanese novelist, Rampo is similarly dense but not forbidding, idiosyncratic but accessible--a deliberately paced whirlwind of imagery, thought, and emotion as rewarding to feel as it is to watch.

2. If The Mystery of Rampo was dizzying imagery and beautifully opaque themes, The Usual Suspects was entirely satisfying, a filmic sleight-of-hand that reinvigorated the sleepy conventions of the detective genre. At its heart, The Usual Suspects' gimmick--the uncertainty of what really happened during an abortive heist--is no more inventive than the sled Rosebud in Citizen Kane. What makes Bryan Singer's film such a hoot is how obvious everything is once you know the score. No one thing makes it wonderful; the mood and pacing, the performances, dialogue, and plotting all combine, solidifying into a prism of refracting glass, tinted by memory and imagination.

1. No doubt there are purists who might object to the selection of La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast), Jean Cocteau's 1946 masterpiece, as the best film of 1995, but it meets all the relevant criteria: It was released theatrically in Dallas during 1995, and an audience was able to watch it on a large screen. Moreover, its present incarnation differs from a mere revival of an existing film; the La Belle et la Bete that played at McFarlin Auditorium for three nights in October was an entirely new creation of cinema and music, helmed by composer Philip Glass.

Glass took Cocteau's original French dialogue, composed a new score around it, and employed four live opera singers and five musicians to perform on stage while Cocteau's film played behind them. Cinema or theater? Both. Using minimalistic staging and boiling the film's themes to abstraction with his eloquent score, Glass reinvented the movie by turning down the sound and forcing us to revisit it afresh. Cocteau's themes are beautifully showcased within the constraints of the classic fairy tale: La Belle represents culture, la Bete nature, and the castle is the surreal, heady, impressionistic mind of the artist trying to reconcile the two. This isn't the giddy adventure of a Disney musical for kids, but a complex manifesto of genius at work. Glass' version of La Belle et la Bete is as much a "new" film as any documentary consisting solely of stock footage--it is a reinterpretation of existing material, and without question the finest 90 minutes of filmgoing you could enjoy in Dallas during 1995.

As a footnote, I must give mention to the year's supremely awful cinematic experience: Showgirls. Hands-down the worst, Showgirls is a sexfest that fails to titillate, a cautionary tale that merely endorses the sordid lifestyle of its characters, and the showcase for a performance, by Elizabeth Berkley, of such painful amateurism that it merely evokes pity.

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