Clerks. - Kevin Smith delved into the world of behind the counter consumerism in this crassly funny, in your face directorial debut. Having seen Linklater's film Slacker, Smith recounted thinking that if that counted as a movie than he could make a movie too. He studied up on how Rodriguez funded El Mariachi and his advice for filmmaking which had been to just design the movie around what you have. Well, Smith had access to a convenience store and so set his first film inside it. He slung his convenience store comedy on the skeletal structure of Dante's Inferno (which is why the lead in this is named Dante) and really sank his teeth in how working in a convenience store was often an inconvenience. He really tapped into 90's grunge youth culture and became one of the voices of the decade, even with his small but vociferous audience. The film does have some interesting things to say about what it is like to be an out of high school youth and really speaks to its intended audience. My one criticism for this film is that it has some unfortunately sexist leanings that don't date the movie well, but watching this low budget film is like gazing into a window from the past. There is nothing that doesn't feel inauthentic.The performances are all serviceable, with Jeff Anderson as a highlight in the film.
The Lion King - This is Disney's crown jewel for a lot of people and it is hard not to fall for this infectiously likable and palpably emotional film. Elton John's music is tremendous and ferociously catchy. (You hearing it in your head now?) This is also a contender for Disney's best looking animated feature. The voice work is at its strongest. Matthew Broderick is perfectly matched to the adult Simba and James Earl Jones gives one of his defining performances with this film. The only real complaint here stems from Disney's great lie. This film was advertised as Disney's first Original animated film (as all previous films were inspired by other works or ancient fairy tales). But this film is a blatant rip off of an old anime titled Kimba the White Lion. I encourage you to google that series and check out for yourself just how much Disney stole from them. It is almost outrageous. That said, this is still an incredibly strong work from Disney.
Pulp Fiction - Arguably the most iconic independent film of all time, but certainly so for the 1990's; Pulp Fiction earns its accolades. If Reservoir Dogs got Quentin Tarantino's foot in the door of Hollywood, than this film cemented his career. This film is a smart, sassy, wickedly funny, occasionally profound conjoining of a series of vignettes that all interlock. It really is one of the slickest crime films. As intriguing as all the story lines are, it is the characters that rope you in. Samuel L. Jackson's character Jules is exceptional and his monologue in the climax at the diner is one of my favorite pieces of dialogue ever written. It confounds me to this day that Sam Jackson did not win an Oscar for his performance. That goes doubly so for Best Picture. This has some of the most memorable dialogue of any screenplay I can think of, and while that translated to am Oscar win for Screenplay it lost the picture nomination to a vastly inferior film.
To Live - This chronicling of a Chinese family over the course of national revolution is one of the most profound and subtly biting films I can think of. As a film that follows a family through multiple generations, this film is gripping and moving. It takes you through all the motions of life. You laugh with the film at times, but as struggles overtake, you mourn with them as well. There are parts of this film that are almost grueling to watch, but you force yourself through, almost like life. What adds an extra element of intrigue is how this film was a direct dig at the Chinese government and one that the Chinese censors found so egregious that they banned the film and all involved with it from working for several years. The thing is, Western audiences might not even notice any governmental condemnations, but if you know it is there, it is kind of fun to see how the film harnesses the medium to send a political message.
Wes Craven's New Nightmare - I know what you are thinking : How could the Seventh Freddy Krueger movie rank on a 'Best of the Year' list? Believe it or not, this is one of the most creative and philosophically exploratory films of the decade--hell--of the genre as a whole. I am going to break form a bit here and really delve in depth as to why this is one of the unsung gems of all time. To do that, we need to first dig into Freddy as a character to extrapolate his meaning and purpose. It is easy to remember Freddy Krueger as a quippy, violent maniac who is almost a character to cheer for. By the forth Nightmare film, you were expected to cheer Freddy on as he slaughtered the youth of America and this interpretation of the character is pretty on point for most installments of the series. The problem is, it wasn't always like this. Wes Craven was only involved in three Freddy films and in all three films Freddy acted as an allegory to dramatize real problems crippling young people. Quips were still made, but the character was more of a viable threat and his villainy felt more palpable.
In the original Nightmare on Elm Street, Fred Krueger was designed as a manifestation of rape and overcoming the ghosts of a molested child's past. Think about it for a second. Fred is a character that is with you in bed and leaves you powerless, fully and completely without control. The characters confront Fred as if they are confronting the ghost of past abuse, especially with how the parents react to what is happening with the kids in the film. Nancy is the one who is able to beat Fred, not through any aggressive act but rather by confronting Fred and flat out telling him that she is stripping him of his power over her. Nancy is one of my favorite film characters. Her ability to stand up to the big bad is so empowering and is far and away better than any other Final Girl of the era (sorry Laurie Strode).
In the third film, Dream Warriors (which Craven wrote the screenplay for before leaving the project), Freddy was played as a metaphor for suicidal depression. We follow characters in a psyche ward who are confronted by dream demon Freddy Krueger. All these characters are suffering extreme depression and when Freddy kills them, the verdict is always that they died by suicide. It isn't until a the kids are placed in the care of young specialist Nancy; a former youth herself who overcame what is haunting them and calls herself a survivor of it, that the kids are able to discover worth within themselves to beat back the demons (or in this case demon). It is unfortunately with this film that the character gained popularity for making a funny one-liner as he claimed a victim (something that came with Craven's departure), but it is this that overtook the franchise. Gone was a Freddy who represented something. Gone was purpose. Until Wes Craven's New Nightmare.
Wes Craven's New Nightmare finds the cast and creators of the original Nightmare on Elm Street being haunted by Freddy Krueger. This may be the first meta-film to wholly embrace this style of storytelling. In the film Heather Langenkamp doesn't play Nancy Thompson, but plays herself struggling to overcome Freddy and he enters her life. Robert Englund plays both himself and Freddy in the film as he, too, is being haunted by Freddy. This all comes as Wes Craven (played by himself in a shockingly good performance) commits to revitalizing the Nightmare franchise for one final film. So, in this film Freddy Krueger is played as a metaphor for how the film has haunted the people involved in it. The film doesn't stop there though, Craven delves into the larger meanings of why people write/consume horror stories at all and as he does so takes a few vital strikes at critics of the genre.
The film opens with production beginning on a new Nightmare movie and New Line producer Bob Shaye (played by himself) is desperately trying to lure Langenkamp into the Nancy role once more. Langenkamp is resistant to returning as she had been stalked as a result of her involvement with the films. She is also a mother and has her family to think about. Her son is interested in old fairy tales, particularly that of Hansel and Gretel and stresses to his mother the importance of hearing the story (which Langenkamp finds to be too violent) through to its conclusion. It is when she starts having Freddy nightmares that she reaches out to Wes to see what his film is about and discovers that the movie is about her. Not Nancy, but Heather herself and he has even woven her son into the story. That is when her son starts getting the nightmares as well. A doctor seems very interested that the son is suffering from Freddy nightmares and tries to find out if she is showing her young boy the Freddy movies; she is not. The doctor is the character that most represents the community of censoring films and tries to shield the boy from his mother who she sees as the face of the problem at hand.
When Freddy ramps up his attacks on Heather's family, it is Craven who articulates the purpose of scary literature. Freddy is an embodiment of evil, but it is the written word or celluloid that can entrap it. We tell scary stories as a way of sussing out the reality of real life horrors. (Freddy as Rape, Freddy as Depression, Freddy as a Shackle). Speaking to his critics, Craven says; "It is like an ugly person smashing a mirror. It is not the mirror that is ugly, but what is reflected." We tell scary stories so that we can trap the evil, not unlike a watch in the oven. Once the story is out there in a safe way to consume, it has lost its power to harm and can only fuel new ways of overcoming. Heather is the key as she is the guardian of the barrier in this case. She is the one who overcame him as Nancy and her role is to play Nancy one last time to ensure Krueger's defeat. Heather Langenkamp gives a career best performance here. She imbues the screen with strength and is fully believable in her progression as she wraps her mind around this fission between reality and fiction taking place.
The film is incredibly nuanced and takes multiple viewings to pick up on all the details and subtlety. I have no clue who the film didn't garner a Best Original Screenplay Oscar Nomination! I can think of no more creative a film than this. It was really this film that got critics looking at Craven's work as something a little more respectable and he sets up themes in this film that would be expanded upon in 1996's Scream. The only issues the film really falls to are those of budgetary ones. The film was written with a certain scope that the film couldn't afford and that hampers the quality of it in areas (particularly the ending). But this really is Craven's masterwork. It is arguable that Scream is the better movie, but this is his most important film wherein he lays everything on the table and showcases his artistry as a filmmaker and master storyteller.
Best Picture & Biggest Box Office : Forrest Gump - Robert Zemekis directed this sweet and effortlessly charming film about a simple man who has a lot more to offer than one would expect. While a fine film, it is often remembered as a film that wrongly one Best Picture. Granted 1994 was a strong year for cinema, this film was easily the worst of the Oscar nominated lot. Zemekis's ability to lean into sentimentality and Hank's powerful performance really hold sway though and elevate the film nicely.