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.
Schindler's List - Steven Spielberg began his career as a wunderkind, but no one could deny he was one of the filmmaking greats after "Schindler's List." Filmed almost totally in black and white, over three hours long, and packed with human suffering in every frame, it's a difficult watch but an endlessly rewarding one. You could see Spielberg evolving here as a filmmaker, leaving behind old stylistic conceits, and digging into deeply personal themes. More than a few sequences still strike me as nearly unwatchable - in the best way possible.
The Piano - Holly Hunter delivers her best performance in this haunting romance, set in 19th century New Zealand - and she never utters a word. As with all of Jane Campion's films, the natural world plays a major role in setting the tone and mood, with a considerable assist here from Michael Nyman's stirring, haunting piano score. But as alien as the New Zealand frontier is, Hunter's curious Ada may be even moreso, a woman very much in the process of discovering herself as she confronts the possibility of choosing a different way through life.
The Remains of the Day - My favorite of the Merchant/Ivory costume dramas, largely because of the fantastic work of Anthony Hopkins. A beautiful study of the strictly regimented, tightly controlled world of an English country estate, mirrored by the ever-dutiful housekeeper, Mr. Stevens, who cannot bring himself to show any emotion, even in the face of personal tragedy and heartbreak. Subtle, intimate, and deeply moving, it's very much a film of small moments. However, those small moments have proven to be timeless ones, and impossible to forget.
Groundhog's Day - As the reputation of this unassuming Bill Murray comedy has grown over the years, it's revealed a rare universality in its themes and its humor. As Phil the weatherman is slowly redeemed by love and a newfound kinship with mankind, so too is the film revealed to be a humanist fairy tale in the same vein as Preston Sturges' and Frank Capra's classics. This was a key role for Murray, one that helped him transition from smart-aleck to more mature roles. However, that gloriously morbid suicide sequence still makes me guffaw like nothing else.
Short Cuts - Robert Altman puts together one of his best ensembles to examine the lives of Los Angelenos in crisis. Based on the writings of Raymond Carver, the stories are full of odd coincidences, strange connections, and reprehensible behavior. I especially appreciated the little moments of biting humor as Altman contrasts the often beastly behavior of his players with the sunny suburbia of Southern California. Of the immensely talented cast, the performance that really stuck with me, amusingly, was Lyle Lovett's appearance as a vengeful baker.
The Nightmare Before Christmas - Though stop-motion animation has seen a revival in recent years, there's nothing that looks quite like Tim Burton and Henry Selick's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," or has nailed the same combination of delightful whimsy and nasty-fun horror. I think it's because "Nightmare" follows and benefits from the template of animated Christmas specials of the past, even as it's slyly satirizing them. It's also a legitimately engaging musical, with some of composer Danny Elfman's most memorable, hummable work.
Food - A collection of three shorts from the great Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, all revolving around eating. Each course provides a metaphor for human behavior and social structures through the act of consumption - the rich eat the poor, the gluttonous devour themselves, and everyone has terrible table manners. Svankmajer uses a combination of live actors with stop-motion animation and prosthetics to create some fiendishly clever and grotesque images. All together, "Food" runs barely more than fifteen minutes, but it offers a full meal for cinephiles.
Three Colors: Blue - Krzysztof Kieślowski's "Three Colors" trilogy is regarded his masterpiece, but the only installment that really resonated with me was the first one, "Blue." This is the film I think of when I hear the term "tone poem," because it depends on immersing the viewer in the world of Juliette Binoche's Julie, including her delicate emotional state after a grievous loss. Not just the set design, but the music and the cinematography mirror her state of mind. The color blue dominates, but in a way that is far more than a gimmick.
Blue - This is likely the most esoteric piece of film that's ever going to be discussed on this blog. I'm generally not a big fan of pure art or experimental films, but the starkly simple premise and emotional intensity of Derek Jarman's final piece of cinema is a singular and affecting experience. The solid blue screen and Jarman's narration together are perfectly mesmerizing. It can be debated how cinematic "Blue" really is, but there's no denying that it's a piece of art that truly captures the final vision of the artist who created it.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape? - A family of oddballs is treated with the utmost dignity and compassion in Lasse Hallstrom's best coming-of-age tale. Plenty of praise has been heaped on Leonardo DiCaprio for playing mentally-challenged Arnie, but it's Darlene Cates as the Grape family matriarch who is the heart of the film, and Johnny Depp is excellent as the most down-to-earth character he's ever played. Quirky family comedies are definitely not in short supply these days, but ones as warm and humane as "Gilbert Grape" are rare.