My momma always told me that year-end top-ten lists are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.
A quick glance through other film critics' nominations for the best and worst of 1994 confirms Momma's wisdom. For example, Rolling Stone's Peter Travers and Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman agree on Pulp Fiction as the cream of the year's crop. But Gleiberman's runnerup is Natural Born Killers, while Travers calls NBK the year's worst. I think they're both right; Ollie Stone's splatterfest was the best-worst movie of 1994. Killers pandered to the national bloodlust it pretended to satirize, but it did so in vivid and compelling fashion. Oliver Stone: bombastic hypocrite, consummate showman.
Stone is not the only moviemaker P.T. Barnum would have been proud of this year. Jim Carrey spent 1994 single-handedly proving the enduring veracity of H.L. Mencken's aphorism about never going broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective made him a star, The Mask made him a household name, and Dumb and Dumber made him rich. While the latter film's title may be an apt summation of a prevailing trend in American cinema, Carrey is no dope. It isn't fashionable for a reviewer to say nice things about Putty Face; film critics hate Jim Carrey the way art critics loathe LeRoy Neiman. It's the art-versus-commerce thing. But for all the critical abuse he's taken, at least no one can accuse Carrey of false advertising. You see his name above the title, you should know what to expect: juvenile gags amped up with twisted slapstick. Carrey aims low but he hits his mark. That is a damn sight more than you can say for In the Army Now, Clean Slate, Cops and Robbersons, Blankman, City Slickers II, North, Exit to Eden, or The Cowboy Way (not to mention It's Pat, which was so Pat-hetic it never even opened in Miami). Most of my colleagues hate to admit it, but Carrey is a gifted physical comedian with a mug that morphs as readily as a toon's; he should soon follow Jerry Lewis into French sainthood, if he hasn't attained it already.
The worst film of 1994, then, was not one of Carrey's studiously stupid trio. It was something much, much more odious: a cynical, overhyped merchandising gimmick disguised as a movie called The Flintstones. Talk about scraping (Bed)rock bottom! The Flintstones was everything wrong with American movies rolled into one. It's 1994's prime example of Hollywood's intellectual bankruptcy; why bother coming up with original ideas when you can just go out and cannibalize old TV series? You don't even need to concoct a real story. Just make sure your leading actors vaguely resemble their television counterparts and you're home free. (John Goodman as Fred Flintstone! Rick Moranis as Barney Rubble!) What's that, P.T.? There's one born every minute? Couldn't agree more.
Sorry. I don't mean to sound petulant. I realize that the primary function of any movie is, after all, to make money for its backers. My job wouldn't exist, however, if films were not, on occasion, capable of more. While there was a lot of soulless, cynical trash released in 1994, there were quite a few pleasant surprises as well. So it is with pleasure -- and two minor caveats -- that I present my list of the ten best films of 1994.
Caveat no. 1: While moviegoers in New York and Los Angeles may have had an opportunity to screen them in 1993 so that they could qualify for Academy Award consideration, In the Name of the Father, Philadelphia, and Belle epoque didn't receive widespread theatrical distribution in Miami until January 1994. Because they had their day in the sun at last spring's Oscars ceremony, I excluded them from my list.
Caveat no. 2: I was cursing my dealer at a blackjack table in downtown Vegas when Quiz Show and Ed Wood opened here in Miami; I never did catch up to them and have therefore excluded both from my list. Other promising films that opened recently that I have yet to screen include Heavenly Creatures, Red, and Vanya on 42nd Street.
Without further ado, then, Todd's Top Ten:
1) Forrest Gump: What can I say? I laughed, I cried. Call me a sentimental fool with a soft spot for idiot savants. Although it is my sworn duty as a member of the alternative press to join the critical backlash against any film this popular, I just can't dump on Gump. Sue me. A decade from now this is the one we'll all remember.
2) The Boys of St. Vincent: Three harrowing hours of gut-wrenching psychodrama. The first 90 minutes detail the sexual abuse of young boys at a highly respected Christian orphanage and the coverup that ensues when a policeman investigates; the second 90 chronicle the reopening of the investigation fifteen years later. Henry Czerny's performance as the demented director of St. Vincent's is one for the time capsule.
3) Hoop Dreams: High-fives all around for this remarkable documentary spanning five crucial years in the lives of two inner-city Chicago youths who see roundball as their ticket out of the ghetto. Dreams, commitment, love, class conflicts, racism, family ties, disappointment, triumph -- this extraordinary film takes them all to the hole and scores big.
4) White: A spurned husband's bittersweet revenge drives the second installment in Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski's masterful trilogy based on the French revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
5) The Lion King: Instant animated Disney classic.
6) Pulp Fiction: Reservoir Dogs was better, but so what? The biggest crime will be if Samuel L. Jackson's outstanding performance gets lost in all the hype surrounding Travolta's comeback.
7) Four Weddings and a Funeral: Witty, wry, semisophisticated romantic comedy starring an actor named Grant -- Hugh, not Cary.
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8) Barcelona: There will always be room on my list for any movie sporting dialogue such as "Americans aren't more violent than other people. They're just better shots."
9) The Last Seduction: The best and darkly funniest film noir since Body Heat. Linda Fiorentino is hell in heels.
10) (tie) Spanking the Monkey, What Happened Was..., Clerks: Maybe size really doesn't matter. These three small, independent films rocked the Sundance Film Festival and proved once again that bigger (as in budget) isn't necessarily better.
Honorable mention: Mia Farrow's acting reached new heights in Widow's Peak, twelve-year-old Sean Nelson played a pint-size prince to Machiavellian perfection in Fresh, and Kathleen Turner's star power juiced up John Waters's suburban sociopath satire, Serial Mom.