Tuesday, January 31, 2012

FILM'S BEST YEARS: 1994


I am not necessarily here to discuss numbers in this new 2012 segment. Film’s Best Years is something which has been rattling around in my head for some time. I wasn’t sure how to approach it; maybe I am still a little uncertain. Every year in film has its own claim for greatness because, well, there are great films out every year. But sometimes retrospective examinations of the past make certain years in film stick out among the masses. Some years have the advantage of bringing about big change, of introducing new important faces, and ushering in a new wave of filmmaking styles. Some years are simply loaded with great and important films.

I thought of this segment with 1994 in mind because it has long stuck out in my mind as a big, important, pivotal year in film, and a year with a strong contingency of greatness. 1994 brought about great shifts in the power of independent film. It also introduced the world to new talent both in front of and behind the camera. A good litmus test for the strength of a year is to look at the Best Picture nominees. If there doesn’t seem to be an outlier in the group, a film that doesn’t belong in hindsight, then you can start there and work your way out. I did this with 1994 and, when compared to its immediate surrounding years, it stands out as something altogether unique.

JIM CARREY CRASHES THE PARTY

When you think about the early rise of Jim Carrey, the way he burst onto the scene in the early nineties as the funniest of funny men, the Jerry Lewis of a new generation, what are the three films one would point to as the defining birth of his career? He started with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, went into the special-effects extravaganza The Mask, and solidified his place as the top comedic actor with Dumb and Dumber, arguably one of the three greatest comedies of the nineties. Amazingly, all three of these films were released in 1994 in the order above. There was hardly enough time to acknowledge what we had on our hands after Ace Ventura was released before The Mask debuted in the summer. By the time Dumb and Dumber hit theaters in the fall, Carrey’s star had risen higher than anyone else that year.

THE RE-BIRTH OF INDIE

The Sundance Film Festival had been around for a few years, picking up steam as it ushered in new faces and techniques of filmmaking by fresh new faces. 1994 reaped the benefits of this new movement, serving as the exclamation point on the strength of independent cinema. Early in the year, Ben Stiller’s small comedy Reality Bites tapped into the angst of the aimless twenty-something and became a small sensation. It was a statement picture about the current malaise of American youth, a fight against the system that ended with no real answers. When you hear “My Sharona,” is there anything you think of before you think of Winona Ryder and company dancing in the 7-11?

Reality Bites was simply the beginning of a long year of independent films that would change the way studios operate. Later that year, the world was introduced to the low-budget talents of Kevin Smith, and his debut picture Clerks. Continuing the twenty-something malaise that drove Reality Bites, Smith’s black and white indie spent a day in the life of small-time clerks in video and convenience stores, working to make a buck and spending their days talking about the strange clientele, labor workers on the Death Star, and playing hockey on the roof. The personal touches in Smith’s work and the realism of the screenplay, which never bothered for grandiose storytelling, was a fresh new approach to the status quo at the time. Clerks birthed the career of Kevin Smith, and it opened the doors for more experimental storytelling which had disappeared in the 80s. There was also a little independent film named Four Weddings and a Funeral that made it all the way to a Best Picture nominee on Oscar night. It may have been the most important independent film had it not been for an eccentric human movie encyclopedia named Quentin Tarantino.

THE DEFINING FILM OF 1994

Quentin Tarantino made waves in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs, the deconstructionist crime drama, but in 1994 that wave grew into an overwhelming tsunami. Pulp Fiction dominated the Cannes Film Festival that year and was picked up by Miramax studios for distribution in the States. Aside from making Miramax the heaviest hitter of the year, Pulp Fiction changed the way films were made, perceived, and considered. The non-linear storytelling, the sharp dialogue, the violence, the humor, the music… Tarantino had delivered the perfect film. It’s difficult to gauge the impact of Pulp Fiction from this distance, but I remember the sensation it caused across Hollywood. Imitators are still trying to recreate the magic of Pulp Fiction and always falling short. Pulp Fiction resurrected the career of John Travolta and took over the awards season with nominations aplenty. But, as Tarantino acknowledged, it kept “getting its ass kicked” by a certain simpleton from Greenbow, Alabama.

THE OSCARS

Pulp Fiction grabbed one of the five Oscar nominations in 1994, and deservedly so. But it was not going to beat out Forrest Gump, the historical crowd pleaser starring Tom Hanks, a star more powerful than just about anyone at the time on the heels of his Oscar for Philadelphia. Hanks would win his second consecutive statue playing Forrest Gump. The picture has its detractors these days, but that is bound to happen with a film that swept awards season and was generally loved by the masses. Sometimes it isn’t cool to like what everyone likes. It may not be my personal favorite from 1994, but I see nothing wrong with a film of such epic scope, full of comedy and sadness and history unlike anything we’ve ever seen, winning the top prize.

Aside from Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, and the aforementioned Four Wedding and a Funeral picking up Best Picture noms, there were two more lucky films. The first is Quiz Show, arguably the finest directorial effort from Robert Redford – miles better than Ordinary People in my mind. And somehow, some way, outside of the revolution of Pulp Fiction and the power of Forrest Gump, 1994 had what is widely considered the favorite film of the general population: The Shawshank Redemption. It is my favorite film, however cliché that may sound, and has been atop IMDB’s top 250 for, well, forever. The Shawshank Redemption is a timeless tale of hope and salvation that has endured and improved over the years. It also jumpstarted the career of Frank Darabont.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

The summer movie season brought about one of the most thrilling action films of the decade in Speed, which subsequently catapulted Sandra Bullock’s career. Tim Burton released his finest, most mature work in Ed Wood, a slick black and white film about the schlock director. Oliver Stone stirred up great controversy with his ultra-violent media satire Natural Born Killers. We got to see Brandon Lee’s posthumous comic noir The Crow, following his on-set accidental death. And James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger teamed up once again for True Lies, a wild action spectacle.

As I said, just about every year has their claim to fame. But once in a while certain years jump out at you. 1994 did a lot to revolutionize the film industry. It birthed the biggest comedy sensation of the decade in Jim Carrey, resurrected careers, jumpstarted careers, and ushered independent cinema into a new age. It takes time to observe a year in film, to look at it from a distance and recognize what it says about the industry as a whole. There have been years before and since 1994 that are as big, as special, and as impactful. We will get one of those next time.