3 hours ago
1994 : Peas & Carrots & Blueberry Pie
'94 was a confusin' time. I was struggling: physically, emotionally, intellectually. I was 11. School was a daunting sociological parody. I was on the cusp of an eating disorder that I still struggle with today.
But we don't need to talk about any of that.
The biggest songs were "Cotton-Eyed Joe" and a ballad from a Three Musketeers movie that no one saw. O. J. Simpson had become a prime suspect in the murder of his ex-wife. Clinton was running a scandal-free administration. Comic book movies weren't hitting the highs of the recent Batman and Turtles franchises (The Crow, The Mask, Richie Rich, Timecop).
But we don't need to talk about any of that.
In all our yearly roundup anniversary stuff, we've tried to illustrate a general tone & texture for that year through acid wash memories of music, TV, fashion, and food. But we don't need to talk about any of that, because 1994 was really only about two things, and those two things contextually became one thing.
The year gave us an exceptionally high volume of awesome mainstream movies, which on its own merits were enough to make it memorable. And there've been good years in the past that still managed to produce a "front-runner" - or two, or even several. At a glance, you could say 1994 certainly fits in with that sporadic trend, and with the passage of time, that may be the only way it's thought of - without the larger-scale influence of what it was like to be there at the time.
Ah, to be there at the time. To be honest, my age mixed with my interests mixed with whatever else was going on in my life/head, placed me square in a unique bracket for digesting the two most notable, most confrontational cinematic steeples of the year, the decade, and probably all time.
What it boiled down to was that Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction both received wide theatrical release just a few months apart: two creatively ambitious epics, steeped in blatant irony and a broad color spectrum of humor, while both maintaining the criteria of a standard blockbuster, while simultaneously defying its conventions. To use an incredibly morbid analogy, it was like losing MLK and RFK just a couple months apart; one did not desensitize us for the next - it maybe, in fact, heightened our awareness without giving us a chance to catch our breath. To further analogize this odd comparison, the culture of the very moment could be largely responsible for such an incidental one-two punch, because once these two juggernauts were in the bloodstream, people began to gleefully point out the sharp contrast in subject matter between the two films, and how this must be relevant to something -- and in at least one way, it was.
In a real 'chicken and the egg' situation, vocal advocates for one movie were sometimes vehemently anti- the other movie. And so this yin and yang competition thing started. (Momentum grew when 'awards season' started to take shape.)
Some folks didn't care for either flick; Kenneth Turan of the LA Times observed of Gump: "Although Hanks never breaks through to the point where we forget that we are watching a performance, however expert, Forrest Gump would be in serious trouble without him."
And on Pulp: "The word "tedious" has not been much used in describing Pulp Fiction, but there are extended moments when it fits rather too well."
There was a bit of a gap in time between the two movies for me - I didn't see Pulp until its first week of release on video in mid-to-late '95 (and if you think that spoils the continuity of this '1994 retrospective,' lotsa luck, gentleman). Even still, I saw them close enough together that the impact didn't leave me enough time to ever hit the ground. And I think like everyone else at the time, I didn't see it coming.
A new Tom Hanks movie was a big deal in my household - though by this time that was probably a global sentiment. And if you weren't there for the first round, just try & imagine selling this movie via commercials and trailers: the premise is so fast and loose that it's amazing people showed up even before the word-of-mouth exploded. (Of course, it's that very abstraction that helps to make it the movie that it is.) To be fair, the previews were an accurate representation of its fast pace and multi-facetted "story": shots of Southern US landscapes and shrimpin' boats and Vietnam and explosions and Tom standing next to John Kennedy all piled into a dizzying reaction of "What in the holy hell is this movie anyway?" But that's exactly what it was: all the aforementioned set pieces sculpted together in a linear casserole of historical fiction, crowd-pleasing irony, and 20th century pathos. It's broad strokes of primary colors as a background for finer, competent attention to detail. Major events and big emotions are all simplified as it's filtered through the eyes of a simple character -- that's not a gimmick, that's literally the story, take it or leave it.
I can't really talk about any of the supposed hate for it upon its release because I wasn't really aware of it - I was under the impression that the world loved it & I was happy to be a part of it. And I can't really talk about the hate some folks have for it today because I don't fully understand it - though I do often come across regurgitated buzzwords like "boomer," "saccharine," and "superficial," which I find to be plainly wrong, even on an objective level, as they illustrate some of the worst of the best examples of cynicism for the sake of faux-intellectuality. Even further still, with the passage of a quarter century and solidified familiarity, I can't really talk about exactly why I love the movie. On the most basic level, it is a big, loud, colorful spectacle of sound & vision, which, when you melt it down to those terms, I assume it's why people keep coming back to the car chase and superhero movies of right now. But beyond that: the ambitious premise, the Top 40 songtrack, the presence of Tom, the state-of-the-art visual effects, Alan Silvestri's score, the fistful of legitimately moving scenes, the luscious landscapes, the Dickensian serendipity of Quantum Leaping to major historical events and depicting them in ironic ways - all this and more got me back into theater seats 6 or 7 times total before the end of its run.
It's the first time I'd heard the phrase "feel-good movie of the year" as a selling point, which, since then, has never felt more accurate to me, because for all its grand movements and small moments, what I took (and still take) from it is an inarticulate 'good feeling' that will probably remain unmolested so long as I never overanalyze this Hollywood Popcorn Movie beyond what it was always intended to be.
Besides, this isn't a review-review of the film (not for lack of trying) because, even more importantly, what can I really add to one of the most popular, talked-about movies that has refused to leave our hearts and minds for 25 years...?
I was bitter about the weird, violent, pretentious indie film that was a potential upset come Oscar night. (I was wrong about everything I thought there.) There had been a spike in ultraviolent cinema around that time, and word on the street was that not only did Pulp Fiction fit in with that fashion, but it was its crown jewel; a glowing briefcase of shock-value schlock. (They were wrong about everything they thought there.) My parents were particularly turned off by such subject matter, which on the one hand was difficult because I only saw whatever they saw, but was also a blessing because they were incredibly knowledgeable about film and saw just about everything else. And while stuff like Terminator, Goodfellas, and Silence of the Lambs were apparently acceptable based on their intelligent substance, Pulp had a misguided shortwave reputation of style over substance; solely based on advertising and entertainment news, my mother deemed it as most likely being "too disturbing" to consider. She also had no interest because she thought Quentin was "ugly." (My mother, folks.)
At the time of its video release in late summer/early fall of '95, mom (along with myself on non-school days) worked at Adopt-a-Video - one of the few stragglers left during Blockbuster's reign of terror. And so, we were granted free rentals, and late fees weren't a thing. After nearly a year of probably stumbling across more & more intelligent acclaim for the movie, combined with the temptation and convenience of free videos and just a general curiosity for a new film that was supposedly 'very good,' we tensed up & brought home this apparent orgy of blood & guts - agreeing we could turn it off were it too gratuitous or dumb (this was mostly put forth by mom). She & I watched it together in my bedroom - my father remained too dubious or uninterested at the time to give it a chance.
I've encountered many people in my life who, through some set of circumstances, weren't able to go into Pulp Fiction as fresh as I did; they'd already seen some of it on TV, their friends spoiled key moments, they'd already seen other Quentin stuff, etc.
Myself? - I don't know that I'd ever seen the trailer prior; the interest wasn't there. Until it was.
And once again, for a movie I've seen 1,000+ times, it's tough to remember exactly what I took away from viewing number one.
We laughed, we cringed, we laughed some more, we were tense, we were enthralled, we were engrossed. All the praise and attention was the mystery that was finally solved (though the film was decidedly not violent). Later that day we watched it again in the presence of dad, who was ensured, "Trust us."
In the months that followed, we practically owned that "rented" videotape; we fell into a domestic tradition: every Friday night, at the end of the school/work week, we'd get McDonald's (I'd promoted myself from regular cheeseburgers to Quarter Pounders, naturally), bring it home, and watch the movie. And every following Saturday morning, I'd watch it again, alone in my room, with Blueberry Eggo Waffles and coffee. I bought the soundtrack, I bought the screenplay, I bought the poster. I even acquired the seven-foot-tall standee from the video store, which all but blotted out the sunlight in my room. I was immersed in depths I hadn't reached since Batman or Queen a few years prior. (Maybe more so.)
So, with some nearsighted hindsight, I was already in a position to look back at 1994 - the year that gave us two heavyweights of cinema that managed to lap themselves over the same watermark of popular culture. I'd already been aware of a mild artistic contest during their theatrical run, but I began to become peripherally aware of a full-blown, Guns of Navarone battle in the court of public (and professional) opinion. Through critics and 'film historians' and magazines and onscreen talking heads and parodies and anything regarding the year that was 1994, one movie could not be mentioned without the other, and, more notably, the differences between them. On the surface, one was a lighthearted romantic drama, the other a dark crime saga. One was about the innocence of simplicity and overcoming your limitations to achieve great things. The other was about burgers. Beyond the novelty of pointing out what these movies were about, there was never anything substantial enough to draw a physical line in the sand. In an actual conversation between Tarantino and Zemeckis, Quentin made the observation, "...is it just me, or is everybody completely misreading your movie?"
Both pictures made their mark: Pulp changed the world of moviemaking, Gump more or less changed the world - not in any political or spiritual way, but in abstract ways through vernacular, sentiment, and a shared sensibility for one's lasting effect on the world around them.
Maybe. Possibly - for a short time. You had to be there.
All I know is that two monumental films in my life found their way to me in a very short period of time - at the right time - and whatever divisive scenario the media was trying to sell us couldn't interrupt the joy I felt over having two new great movies around, and I think most people felt the same. A short time ago, I jabbered on like a monkey in a tree about the spiritualism of theater attendance in the summer of '94 and the good vibes brought on by the promise of great cinema in my future. Pulp Fiction would soon thereafter fulfill and also perpetuate that prophecy with an almost divine intervention, and marking 1994 as The Promise Land.
And when all is said and done, and someone were to compile a list of the Top 25 movies from 25 years ago, what would take the top spot?
Here's one man's opinion...
1. Pulp Fiction
I would sit in school, during class, thinking about the movie - even then trying to pinpoint what the draw to this weird, original piece of art actually was. And the mild conclusions I drew ended up being the criticisms that plagued Quentin's career as it pressed on: the fact was that it wasn't that weird and original; it barely stepped outside the conventions of a mainstream Hollywood Action picture... It was that it was considerably better than most that had come before it, and that was original. It has all the basic elements of conflict and intrigue, and there are endlessly clever devices for character development. But it was true then as much as it is today: his complete and unique understanding of narrative cinema has consistently enabled him to adapt all the characteristics of great movies and consolidate them into one outstanding, cohesive picture. Comparing his creative process to whatever reheats the cream of wheat they pour into theaters every week, I find it nearly impossible to negatively criticize the former.
2. Forrest Gump
The gimmickry of Forrest's intervention with history, meeting public figures, influencing major events, etc. was never exactly the 'heart' of the movie - it got some laughs and maybe a few eye rolls. For me, in the beginning at least, I was totally taken with the concept that movies were allowed to take these liberties, and that the oxymoron "Historical Fiction" could tip toward either extreme. (Coincidentally, Quentin would eventually utilize and expand on this magic in Inglourious Basterds).
But more than that, when I thought of the movie, and when I think of the movie, it's Forrest running across America: a sequence that, both structurally to the film and to the character, comes outta nowhere. This is the kinda storytelling I dig: an excuse to shoot locations, an excuse to use music, an excuse to create cinema - free of the constraints of a narrative thread, character conflict, and that pedestrian requirement to "move the story forward." After the first time I saw it, my father & I agreed to race across the theater parking lot to the car.
3. Ed Wood
Tim's first trek into maturity would prove to be his best thing - all without the use of stop-motion creatures, demonic clowns, and whatever the hell he does nowadays. Great performances and a great script, sure, but with all the cartoonish frills stripped away, it left us with some indisputable proof that he truly was a great film artist.
4. The Paper
I'd say it's Ron Howard's best movie, but Ron's contributions (from what I can tell) contribute very little to this A-bomb of ensemble acting that's marinated in one of the best screenplays ever. A dramedy of this nature can often go off the rails, veering too far into one lane or the other; you watch it enough times and the joy becomes the momentum of the balancing act.
5. Quiz Show
Underneath the veneer of 1950s Americana is scandal (as usual), but this is an obscure bit of history with a dramatic thread built right in. As a kid, I was excited to have a movie about smart people who weren't depicted as a running joke. As an adult, my appreciation goes on. And I don't care what the locals say: Rob Morrow's New England accent is wicked good!
When big budget action tries to do "simple," they still end up stumbling over extra speaking parts, backstories, and subplots. Not the case with The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down - there's a new set piece every five minutes, and it only ever involves the main players.
When it came out I was enthralled and obsessed with Dennis Hopper's mad bomber (I loved all villains, but this ham was extra salty). As time grew on, I began to appreciate Sandy & Keanu a whole lot more: they took two laughably underwhelming, underwritten characters and made them indispensable to the movie we know & love today.
7. Swimming With Sharks
This came out on video out during my 'Kevin Spacey phase,' and it was exciting to see a movie that allowed him all the smarmy room he needed to yell, throw things, and belittle Frank Whaley.
I also immediately recognized the finesse of a strong script that intentionally required zero budget, which is generally an equation for a great flick.
I've done this move to death on this site, though I've never called attention to British director Jonathan Lynn (who cameos as well). Surprisingly, his directing career consisted primarily of broad American comedies that usually did well (Clue, My Cousin Vinny, The Whole Nine Yards). It's fascinating to detect a style in even the lightest fare.
9. The Ref
I went into it solely on the prospect of, "It's that guy from MTV." What I got was a jet-black comedy populated with stage veterans and dialogue by Richard LaGravenese. It was also a stepping stone on the right path for director Ted Demme, who would most likely be doing interesting stuff today had he not died in '02 at the age of 38.
10. True Lies
From the opening gun fight down the mountain slope, I became aware of the sense of humor this movie had, which expertly set the tone for the rest of it. The film has, like, five action sequences (including Jamie Lee's dance) that last for 20+ minutes each with little correlation between them, and it's great! And no lies, this was really the first movie that turned me onto the idea that Arnold's a really good actor.
11. Blown Away
I'm under the impression that Tommy Lee Jones crushed his Fugitive Oscar into a fine powder, ingested it, and rode the wave for the next three years until the effects wore off. Some good stuff came out of that time. Some really not good stuff came out of it. This is one of the good stuff.
I love ticking time bomb material, and this is still some of the best there ever was. (Sorry, Speed.)
12. Camp Nowhere
When it came out, it looked like I was past the recommended age - I'm of the mind that little kids wanna watch older kids, and older kids wanna watch adults. Once the movie made its way into heavy rotation on HBO, I started to catch parts here & there and started to recognize that it's pretty well-crafted and embraces the 90s pop art revival that was floating around youth culture at the time. And it's a great summertime flavor.
13. Dumb and Dumber
You can be a funny writer or a funny performer, but how does one be a funny director? How do you convey comedy with a camera? Jerry Lewis could do it. Woody Allen could do it. The Farrellys could do it. It's such an abstract sensibility that you can't help but be in awe of the comic timing the movie has.
14. Wes Craven's New Nightmare
Objectively, 'Freddy for the 90s' sounds like tricky business (see: Freddy's Dead). Surprisingly, it took Wes Craven of all people to bring some new menace and muscle to the Man of Your Dreams. Even more surprising is that it's the sinister pacing and Fellini-esque premise that're even more engrossing than the monster.
Probably Wes's best movie.
15. The Hudsucker Proxy
I wasn't full-tilt aware of the Coens at the time - I knew Raising Arizona but made no connection. I also wasn't aware that it was kind of a flop and didn't attract many fans. I don't know if that makes it 'cult,' but I'm part of it.
'Snappy dialogue' can be one of the most irritating things God ever invented, but from the pens of two of the greatest screenwriters God ever invented, I found it to be charming, funny, even exciting.
16. The Professional
At the time, it felt like 'lesser Tarantino.' 'Abel Ferrara lite.' Seeing it now (as it's more widely now known as Léon), I'm aware what an unfair estimation that was. In the first half of the 90s, 'Ultra Violent' was its own subgenre, and they kinda coagulated in an indiscernible way. Though The Professional was one of the sweetest, smartest examples to rise out of the bloodbath.
It may've been wrapped in some convoluted plot about book publishing and job promotions, but at its core, it's the contemporary Wolfman story we deserved. And evaluating all the attempts to revive the Universal Monster stable since its release, it only solidifies it more as a modest model of what works and what don't.
18. The River Wild
Curtis Hanson was quite the maestro of mystery & suspense for a time - and he was better at it than most. This is a formula you still see once in a while: a team of A-listers hamming their way through semi-original thrillers - and when I see new movies like this, my first thought is "man, that is so 90s." And it's refreshing because I enjoy it. And when you got David Strathairn and John C. Reilly, I enjoy it more.
19. Blank Check
Some kids wanted to befriend an alien or blow up the Death Star. I was more realistic (and probably too old for this movie) - a million bucks, a date with Karen Duffy, and befriending Rick Ducommun felt like more practical, attainable goals.
Seeing this was out of total desperation to go to the theater that weekend for any reason, and I'm guessing the lineup musta been pretty skimpy. To this day, my father playfully reminds me of the time I dragged him to this -- but I got what I wanted out of it. And still do.
20. Little Women
I feel like there's been a dozen film & television adaptations of this story, and I feel like there's a dozen more on the way. And for any of its deviations and cheap sets and fake snow, this version is still tops in 19th century New England vibes - which is really the selling point on this one for me.
Honorable mention to the stellar cast & Thomas Newman's score.
21. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Probably the most (or more) faithful adaptation from the Gothic Horror boom of that time - and that's a positive thing. It's not as sleek and clever as Wolf, and certainly not as gory and gorgeous as Bram Stoker's Dracula, but it is a ridiculously satisfying Frankenstein movie that pays subtle homage to previous versions, integrates grotesque scifi qualities into it, and makes logical changes to the original structure that, I think, improve upon it.
22. The Shawshank Redemption
It's not hard to understand why it's so popular - it doesn't present a single challenge to the audience. It was certainly strict competition for Gump as tangible 'feel-good' fodder, because the good feelings come at you big & hard in this one. Heartfelt performances and source material from a master storyteller certainly give it some strength, but Frank Darabont's adaptation and his melancholic pace make this the most mature, relevant achievement of his wildly uneven career.
There are times when a subject you're interested in helps to hold your attention through an otherwise poor or mediocre book or film. Crumb is a miracle of science, as its bizarre and fascinating content is held together in an exceptional piece of moviemaking by Terry Zwigoff. An even more in-depth observation reveals that the filmmaker actually understands the subject matter as much as he understands the subject(s) that created it.
24. Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles
It's amazing how sprawling and viscous the backlash was against casting Tom Cruise in this very "important film" (*snore*), and he ended up being the best part of it. Like, he's why the movie's on the list. In fact, his absence from the already-lackluster third act makes it that much more strenuous to cross the finish line, because, rounding up the Horror stats of the decade, Tom was probably one of the best movie monsters of the 1990s.
Remember when Hollywood was drawing creative energy from old TV shows instead of comic books? No? A lot of them certainly missed the mark, though this one was good.
The Lethal Weapon movies stumbled once in a while in their Action/Comedy/Drama juggling act -- Donner & Co. stripped away the Drama and were clearly more comfortable with straight Action/Comedy... which made us all more comfortable. I think.