This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.
Crumb - Terry Zwigoff's documentary about the life and work of underground cartoonist R. Crumb. While the material related to his development as an artist and the progression of his career are fascinating, the really engrossing parts of the film have to do with Crumb's colorful, tragic family. "Crumb" turns out to be an unusually candid look at all three of the oddball Crumb brothers, and the ways in which they coped (or failed to) with a dysfunctional upbringing and mental illness.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - Three Australian drag queens go on a voyage of self discovery in this camp classic. However, I was gratified to discover that the film has some real heart underneath all the glitz, as our heroes, played by Terence Stamp and then unknowns Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, struggle with self-acceptance, family matters, and other personal issues. Of course, all the wild costumes and the extravagant ABBA dance numbers didn't hurt anything either.
Chungking Express - A pair of love stories set in Chunking are presented onscreen as only Wong Kar-Wai ever could. With its appealing young stars, fanciful imagery, and wonderful energy, the film is a treat for the senses. It captures all the excitement and the dizzying delight of falling in love, as well as the moody malaise of breakups and departures. Faye Wong is the ultimate example of the manic pixie dream girl, but she's an appropriate heroine for a movie where every emotion is so heightened and intense.
Pulp Fiction - And here we have the emergence of the full-fledged Quentin Tarantino showing off many familiar tropes for the very first time: the multiple storylines and asynchronous editing, the references to beloved genre media of ages past, and of course that much-imitated dialogue. Violent and stylish and completely committed to delivering a good time, "Pulp Fiction" is still a rush. Resurrecting John Travolta's career and turning Samuel L. Jackson into a badass film icon was just the icing on the cake.
Clerks - Whatever you may think of Kevin Smith, his first film is still a fascinating snapshot of the dead end youth culture of the '90s, and the DIY indie films of the era. The low budget visuals are treated as an aesthetic choice, meant to evoke security camera footage. The performances, while amateurish, are appealing and enjoyable. And the film's little universe of bored store clerks, drug dealers, and loitering layabouts discussing "Star Wars" is often startlingly true to life. And still terribly funny too.
Exotica - It takes some time and patience to fully appreciate what Atom Egoyan is doing here, with a film that appears to be an erotic melodrama about a strip club on the surface level, but turns out to be more concerned with the characters' experiences with grief, loss, and solace. The mood and atmosphere conjured in certain scenes are unlike anything I've ever encountered in any other piece of cinema, and that I've never been able to forget. It's an exotic film all right, but in all the best ways possible.
Hoop Dreams - Quite possibly the greatest American documentary ever made, following the lives of young two NBA hopefuls from underprivileged backgrounds as they're considered for college scholarships. The long running time allows the filmmakers to get very close to its subjects, and consider at the various different issues that they face in detail. The resulting narrative is so powerful, "Hoop Dreams" has stayed more compelling than any other sports-themed film I'm ever seen.
The Shawshank Redemption - Critically lauded, but a box office underperformer at the time of release. It's not hard to see why, as "Shawshank" was based on a minor Stephen King short story, with a practically unknown director, and had no major stars. However, it is such a deftly executed feel-good film, with such a great sense of humanity and purpose, it's difficult to imagine the cinema landscape without it. It still feels timeless in the best way, and has found well-deserved success at last.
To Live - Still my favorite Zhang Yimou film, and notable for its rare critical stance toward the Cultural Revolution. However, what I love the film for is its characters, the way it follows one family through decades of tumultuous Chinese history, terrible personal tragedies, and unlikely strokes of luck as the world completely changes around them. This is my idea of a great epic film, vast in scope and ambition, but always carefully grounded by the little dramas and foibles of its very human characters.
Forrest Gump - Despite recognizing all the critiques of the film's mixed messages and it's problematic approach to some of the material, I still find that there's so much about "Forrest Gump" that is extraordinary. Forrest is a cinematic character who is utterly without compare, and the vision of America that he inhabits is a nostalgic, but also troubling place. A fairy-tale with a dark side, and a cynical satire with a gigantic heart, it doesn't do everything right, but I love that it had the guts to try.
Leon: the Professional
Three Colors: White
The Last Seduction
The Lion King