"...Before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now -- you're selling it!"
- Dr. Ian Malcolm
It was a loud, clunky, dry heave of a year. Culturally stale. 1993.
Even to a 10 year old, everything felt clumsy and forced. And to a grown man - one who is admittedly & notoriously drunk on hearts and flowers - in retrospect, it looks even more desperate and chaotic. So much so that one may ask, "What can be said about this brief, shallow excerpt of time?"
1992 was still the 80s. The 90s began in 1993, and they died on September 11th, 2001. Since then, the odometer has read "0s" all the way across. So, the real question is, "what were the 90s?" I have no authority to answer that or the energy to consider it. But I am certain of it; whatever it is, whatever it was, it all began with 12 Inches of Snow and a US presidential transition.
Ready to make an entrance, so back on up
25 years and I'm trying to get a handle on it -- it's so elusive. The second half of fourth grade & the first half of fifth: that's the only context I can recognize. The grotesquely inflamed Starter jackets now feel like Marley's chains weighing down the entire decade. Long distance calling plans had replaced water and oxygen. Rock and punk had died as a result of a murder/suicide pact known as grunge. Rap was getting softer. Disco became 'dance'(?)
The only exciting things about music were the softcore pornos for Aerosmith's power ballad blitz of Cryin' and Amazing. (Crazy wasn't till '94).
The best new TV shows felt like old TV shows:
Even the worst new shows felt like old shows:
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Deep Space 9
In my own itinerary, SNL, infomercials, B and C-grade HBO programming, and other late nite fare was taking the place of Nicktoons and Fox Kids. Come to think of it, the best shows for me were the old shows, courtesy of the once-cool Nick at Nite block: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Mork & Mindy, Get Smart, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dragnet, etc.
There it is: my nostalgia of '93, and it was already the nostalgia of two whole generations before me. Man, how weak and absurd is that?
MTV dumped all the music videos onto VH1 to make space for whatever replaced the music videos.
Not everything was ugly & dull. Of all the Boomer reminiscence coming at us, pop art was the most welcome return, & it was dominating packaging and advertising. The all-too-brief black & purple Cherry Coke design was even sexier than Alicia Silverstone's cutoffs & boots ensemble. Little Caesars opened a branch in my town. Star Fox was an exhilarating swan song for my relationship with Nintendo. In the safe & predictable world of a 10 year old, all of this was noteworthy.
Substandard music & cheesy fashion aside, I'd pay the fee to go back.
And then there were the movies. All two of them.
The list is life (and life finds a way)
John Grisham was coming down hard (Pelican Brief, The Firm), romance became startlingly cerebral and drab (The Piano, Indecent Proposal, The Remains of the Day) and we were forced to come to terms with the fact that Mel Brooks no longer had moviemaking competency (Robin Hood: Men In Tights).
The best horror had to offer was Man's Best Friend. The only superheroes were Mario & Luigi. Can we trust a year like this?
Alright. With all the bitching & moaning, there were many outstanding achievements. And the momentum had started cranking: my movie theater attendance had more than doubled from the previous year. I was seeing more, which coincided with the reality that there was more to be seen; everything seemed broad and accessible.
Stallone was back in a big, muscular way (Cliffhanger, Demolition Man), romance became fast & sexy (True Romance, Body of Evidence) and we were forced to come to terms with the fact that Spielberg & Scorsese were very much grown up (Schindler's List, Age of Innocence).
In trying to compile a list, I had to whittle down, which says plenty.
Now, here, a quarter century later, will I be faced with such a decisive problem at the end of this year of our Lord, 2018?
Let's not get into that.
There may not be many surprises here - I mention most of these from time to time.
Whether it was opening weekend, on video, or at 1:45am on Cinemax, these were the best things I saw come out of the formal introduction to the 1990s.
1. Schindler's List
I didn't see it until 5 years later, betwixt and between my Private Ryan fixation. And to see them both for the first time that close together makes for a pretty heavy adventure.
It was certainly no fluke. Neither overrated nor underrated; with this much distance from it now, it still truly is one of a kind -- nothing like it before or since. It's joyously abstract and experimental at times, while still managing to be the conventional Hollywood movie that it frankly is. That's why cynics and haters still pop up on the horizon to waggle their pretentious fingers at it: 'when something's this mainstream, it's always a misstep because it's not more esoteric. When something's this good, it's always a failure because it wasn't better.'
It wasn't a film about the Holocaust, and the first person to admit that is its director.
Subject matter is secondary in this case anyway. This was a triumph of cinematography, music, and particularly directing.
I grew up with Tom Hanks. Ever since Bachelor Party, he was the star I was rooting for. His characters always reminded me of my Dad ('Burbs particularly), & he kinda looked like him too.
After the emotional range of Big and the commitment to physical transformation in League of Their Own, clearly there was something pivotal approaching.
There's no end to the praise we can throw at Tom for this iconic performance, but sometimes the movie itself gets buried under the accomplishment of its star.
Initially, the major point of excitement was that it was Demme's followup to Lambs. And now being able to stand this far away and look at both, Philadelphia may very well be his greatest accomplishment visually... It's a tough call, but it's close enough to emphasize the weight of it.
3. The Age of Innocence
Marty's the closest thing we have to a punk rock movie director - stylistically, sure, but sometimes even thematically: loneliness, obsession, alienation, rage (of course), guilt, arrogance... It's either punk or the Catholicism, I'm not sure.
There was an artistic peak between Cape Fear in '91 and Casino in '95 (with these two films acting as the slopes of this magic mountain). It may've only been incidental that Scorsese's cinematic crescendo coincided with this adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel. Or, conversely, a story rooted in restraint and yearning provided the most fertile playground he'd ever had the palpable pleasure of photographing. Add Thelma Schoonmaker & Michael Ballhaus and it's over; you've solved the mystery of moviemaking.
4. And The Band Played On
I was a zealous Queen fan that year (and all years to come). And after the death of Freddie, AIDS became almost fashionable; it was everywhere in all media. Add that to a child's attentiveness to the idea of mortality, and I was captivated.
Disease movies generally lack a human touch; they don't leave a lotta room for dialogue that doesn't pertain to 'the plot.' This film, on the other hand, is full of grand melodrama and showmanship that comes in and out as quickly as the characters do, while simultaneously, and expertly, driving the investigative/scientific side in a uniquely absorbing way.
You need only start watching it any number of subsequent times & realize it's so easy to stay till the end. Not even some of the best movies have that particular power.
5. Falling Down
It's so marvelous & almost shocking that a film like this was, and still is, able to transcend any criticisms of bigotry or conservative dogma. The blissful joke of the whole movie is that he (and we) are, understandably, prejudice against the whole of humanity. Dark comedy, sure, but one of the best comedies of all time.
I don't think anyone ever really forgets the full force magnitude of Robert Duvall, but I think sometimes they do with Michael Douglas. Any movie he's in will serve as an adequate reminder, but this one stays around a little longer after it's over.
6. Short Cuts
Altman doing Altman in a big way - take that for whatever it is to you.
This massive Jazz pastiche could actually be double billed with Falling Down as an exploration of post-riots Los Angeles in the early 90s; both are an adequate history lesson on the evolution (or devolution) of human nature.
The bravura elements of the movie are the performances - all of them, and there are many. Anyone who's seen it has their favorite tangent, twist, character, or couple. I still advocate that Tom Waits & Lily Tomlin steal the show - and that's a lotta show to steal.
7. Groundhog Day
I wasn't aware at the time if it did well or not, but it was certainly love at first sight in my case, & eventually it seemed like the rest of the world caught on.
My copy was taped off of HBO, and in regards to the volume at which I rewatched it, the joke in my home was that every day felt like Groundhog Day.
The concept is so much fun & rich with potential, and (thankfully) none of that was squandered. For what it was, it was done right. And whatever pathos or mysticism you can attach to it, its most remarkable accomplishment is how funny it is.
8. Jurassic Park
I was very much aware at the time that it was doing well, and it was a delight to be a part of a legitimate "phenomenon." And deservedly so: "ahead of its time" - so much so that it's still in the lead; you need only glance at the waining quality of its sequels.
Criticism regarding the scientific inaccuracies, lack of emotional embellishment, or interesting characters have not held up over time. In fact it seems to be going the other way - it's now only more beloved. Any arguments against that can be written down on paper & kept under your pillow while you cry yourself to sleep.
For some folks, The Wizard of Oz was a new movie when they turned 10 years old. For others, it may've been Oliver!, Star Wars, Toy Story, The Dark Knight, or It. Through the circumstance of time, mine was Jurassic Park, and that's just swell.
My favorite John Williams score.
9. Demolition Man
As this list unfolds, I'm noticing what a golden year of comedy '93 was. Who knew?
The self-serious action genre of the 1980s had suddenly become self-aware, and we're all the better for it. Stallone was always my favorite of the bunch - having done serious turns here & there, as well as acting as a competent writer/director much of the time. And while we'll totally ignore Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Oscar, he was a seasoned comedian: the butt of his jokes often being himself & the movies he's made.
No one isn't funny here (we even give Rob Schneider a pass), but no one exceeds like Wesley Snipes in this movie; he has the charisma & energy of Nicholson's Joker and Malcom McDowell's Alex combined. And that's no joke.
10. Searching For Bobby Fischer
It helps to know the basics of chess, how the pieces move & so on. Though as fate would have it, I'd just learned & become proficient in the game. I mention this to draw the picture of how exciting it was to have this movie about kids playing chess bestowed upon me right at that moment.
And it is possible to enjoy it without knowledge of the game, due to the warm candy-wrapped melodrama courtesy of writer/director Steve Zaillian (who apparently was having the year of his career).
Ben Kingsley's nondescript accent is tricky business, but he's backed by a 90s who's who of "hey!" -- Joe Mantegna, Laurence Fishburne, David Paymer, William H. Macy, Dan Hedaya, Laura Linney, Tony Shalhoub, Austin Pendelton, and especially Joan Allen. Whew!
One of the better Westerns of all time.
Contemporary Westerns generally tend to go one of two ways: slow burn hyperrealism, or Die Hard with cowboy hats. Tombstone is neither; it is (most of the time) a historically accurate thriller, rich with character development in an Altman-esque crowd of very colorful heroes & villains.
Helmed by George P. Cosmatos (Cobra, First Blood II) and lead by a macho dream cast for a Western - or any other genre - infamously led by Val Kilmer in his greatest screen role, and one of the most eccentric acting performances ever put on film. You're a daisy if you do...
12. The Sandlot
Similar to A Christmas Story, the cult seemed to catch on much later. Me? I've been celebrating it for-ev-er...
It seems pretty circular to explain why this movie appeals to a child - any child. And to a child who loved baseball & playing baseball, and summertime & swimming & s'mores & the 4th of July and Denis Leary & Karen Allen & James Earl Jones & the whole Jean Shepherd/Wonder Years/Stand By Me storytelling motif, it was pretty super-duper.
Parenthetically, I still enjoy these things as an adult. I try to watch it most every summer.
13. Addams Family Values
I don't know why it took so long to admit - it truly is better than the first movie.
The winks and nudges of gothic horror clashing with boring, everyday folk was pretty pitch perfect in part one. The brilliant, bold, and downright 'ooky' twist the second time 'round is that the 'everyday folk' are bourgeois yuppies, Christian fundamentalists, and borderline Hitler youths. The story's central conflict aside, the plight surrounding Wednesday & Pugsly are the film's true antagonists.
The movie's main baddie, Debbie (or Deborah!) is easily the coolest and funniest thing Joan Cusack had ever done in a career of cool & funny stuff.
I don't really remember 1990's My Blue Heaven at all, but I do know that if Values accomplished nothing else at all, it should at least be notable that it's the only time in cinematic history - that I know of - that Joan and Carol Kane shared screen time. To this writer, that's outstanding.
If there's a flaw (and there is one) then it's the same flaw as the first film, but worse.
If you were to take Vanilla Ice's "Ninja Rap," painfully digest it into a loose stool, you'd be left with Tag Team's "Addams Family (Whoomp!)." Tack it onto the end of your otherwise fine film & you've gone down a whole peg my friend.
14. The Fugitive
Famous for its fast pace and strict structure, and rightly so - it's hard to count it out. In fact, it's so fast and so strict, it leaves no room for embellishment of any kind, which, sometimes, is a really refreshing thing.
So many iconic moments and quotes, it's one of the films that defined the year (if you step out of Spielberg's shadow for a second). Everyone points to Tommy Lee as the keynote, but if you watch closely, you'll realize how zero-dimensional Dr. Richard Kimball is, and you'll begin to understand what Harrison pulled off without ever really saying much of anything.
Always pleased when he's forced to stretch his acting legs.
15. Dennis the Menace
After retiring from the director chair, John Hughes clearly lost interest in adult subject matter. Sometimes it was good (Dutch, Miracle on 34th Street), sometimes it was the opposite of good (Baby's Day Out, Flubber). And in the case of Dennis the Menace, it was great!
An updated version of the 1950s comic strip, though who'd notice -- with Hughes as producer, and an attentive eye from director/sometimes screenwriter/all-the-time Shape Nick Castle, the film plays out like a timeless Norman Rockwell/Thornton Wilder/vaudeville show, taking place in any period of the last 70 years.
Macaulay could only ever dream he had as much screen presence & comic timing as Mason Gamble.
16. Judgement Night
Found it on cable in the extreme a.m., in my dark bedroom illuminated by my tiny TV -- the way B-movies are meant to be enjoyed - this one especially. The whole premise of the film is sneaking around in the dark, trying not to make a sound or you'll be killed. Just the idea is a 10-year-old boy's fantasy.
Elm Street 5 may've been one of the weakest entries, but it was also one of the moodiest & most vigorous, which eventually became the brandname for Stephen Hopkins; as evidenced in Predator 2, Blown Away, and this 'urban Deliverance.'
17. Last Action Hero
This was Schwarzenegger's psychic answer to Demolition Man; the 80s action genre (and all of mainstream Hollywood product) as farce; this was years before Scream (and much better).
Jess has mentioned it before: the movie tanked because there weren't enough kids like us out there to appreciate it -- and we appreciated the shit out of it. Sure, there's no end to the comfort & joy of Arnold poking fun at himself and all the popular movies of the moment, but the real nerdy thrills are the references to Ingmar Bergman, Amadeus, Witness, Serpico, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and a deeply embedded in-joke involving Joan Plowright and Laurence Olivier.
Not that we enjoy references just for the sake of familiarity (we don't care for Big Bang or Family Guy), because all of that aside, it's still a great fantasy with ridiculous action: 48 hrs. meets The Wizard of Oz.
18. Another Stakeout
It wasn't until years later that I found out it was a sequel. It has no number in the title!
At any rate, I was & am a sucker for the chemistry between Dreyfuss & Estevez (and Rosie O'Donnell is fine I guess). The movie also has Dennis Farina, Cathy Moriarty, Dan Lauria, Madeline Stowe, Marcia Strassman... and can anyone ever forget the first time they saw Miguel Ferrer as a psychotic prick in something? This was that for me.
The movie also opens with one of the best explosions ever put on film.
Unappreciated in its time... and out of its time. Another chunky gasp from Boomer fest '93? Or, one of the thinnest comedy sketches expertly padded out far beyond anyone's expectations?
SNL movies are tricky business - only a couple of them work. This one did, I think. It did for me, anyway. It may be a cameo orgy of sorts, but look who's cameoing & what they're doing with it - everyone's kinda at the top of their game for their 1-4 minutes of screen time.
20. The Good Son
This was another movie that was made specifically for kids like Jess & I. It's tough when you're 10 to relate to the Tom Clancy/John Grisham world of espionage and political & bureaucratic intrigue, or the psychosexual drama of Sliver or Whispers In the Dark. It was the 90s & we wanted our own damn thrillers. For the kids.
My dad talked me out of a theater trip (mostly because he wasn't interested) & as the result of a stalemate, we found ourselves at For Love or Money. All were punished.
Anyway, cut to several months later & I rent Good Son with my mom & my cousin Sarah & we all fall in love with it & live happily ever after. The End.
21. Wayne's World 2
Can't ever say it's better than the original -- out of sheer apprehension of discovering the truth...
Every character represents a scene or moment: Chris Walken, Kim Basinger, James Hong, Kevin Pollack, Rip Taylor, Jim Morrison. Though, all of them aside, my campaign is ongoing for Ralph Brown's dazed & confused roadie, Del Preston, as one of the best written, funniest, and most bizarre performances in comedy.
22. Mrs. Doubtfire
If it's weird or upsetting or unrealistic, well, since when isn't that comedy gold? And who the hell looks for realism and consistency in hijinks anyway?!
I was crazy about Robin Williams as a child (who wasn't in '93) and Doubtfire hit the spot - however broad a target that may've been.
I was also obsessed with makeup FX, and in a year light on horror, this took the lead.
Straightforward action still existed, courtesy of people like Renny Harlin.
It truly was one of the last of a certain breed, which is a shame, because it was still evolving into weird shapes (see True Lies, Die Hard 3). I don't think any movie has ever shamelessly tried harder to transcend its genre through the use of excess -- the title itself is a signpost for the tone.
And even in a year of some great villains - coincidentally right behind Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man - John Lithgow's performance would probably get him booted from a Bond movie for being too exaggerated. It's worth watching just for him.
24. Fire In the Sky
This may've been the first time I became acutely aware of the concept of 'story structure,' and how effectively it can be used. If you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, here's what I'm talking about: in a small southwestern town of character actors, D.B. Sweeney goes missing, supposedly abducted by aliens. And through pacing, writing, performance, and the fact that it's based on a true story, this otherwise 'scifi movie' doesn't really have any 'sci' or 'fi.' Until it does. Effectively.
25. So I Married an Axe Murderer
Mike Myers was one of the finest folks to pass through the Saturday Night Live membrane (especially in the past 25 years), and this movie was kinda one of the reasons why; he managed to write and star in a feature that wasn't a 100-mintue SNL sketch. It also wasn't a forced drama. It was a romantic comedy, but it was morbid. It was slapstick, but it was character and dialogue driven. It had comedian cameos, but also starred seasoned veterans. And while the premise works in any setting, the clothing, hairstyles, and soundtrack make it the most '1993' movie on this list.