*Forrest Gump (1994)*

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Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Sally Field, Mykelti Williamson, Haley Joel Osment (in his feature film debut)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Summary: A developmentally disabled man stumbles through formative events in U.S. history

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Hanks)*, Supporting Actor (Sinise), Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound, Art Direction, Cinematography, Makeup, Film Editing*, Visual Effects*

This tends to be a very polarizing film for a lot of people, but somehow I’m in the middle. On one hand, it’s an offbeat, whimsical and oddly endearing movie that’s consistently enjoyable. I also can’t really imagine an actor doing better than Tom Hanks as the lead (thank goodness John Travolta turned down the role first) as he nails both the childlike innocence and the emotional aspects of his character. Gary Sinise is also very lively as Lt. Dan and his presence is appreciated in the movie. Finally, the special effects they used were certainly inventive for the period-some of the historical recreation scenes look fine, but some (especially the LBJ one) look horrible. The more subtle ones (like the ping pong balls or Lt. Dan’s legs) hold up the best.

This however is a film with some big underlying issues for me though. It goes through the “greatest hits” of the 50s-early 80s (sort of like a baby boomer version of Cavalcade) in the most superficial way possible and using a constant stream of the most obvious and overused 60s and 70s songs on a constant stream. The film also has a moralistic bent (mostly conservative), where you have an extremely obvious contrast between the simple values and clean, uncomplicated living of Forrest Gump with the drug-using, free-love counterculture, flighty lifestyle of the love of his life, Jenny. The main problem I have with this is that it oversimplifies everything and also chooses to ignore the underlying reasons WHY so many people rebelled against societal norms during this period. This is due in large part to the film being from Gump’s perspective (as he’s a character that wouldn’t really understand the concepts of racism and prejudice), but if you are going to make moral judgments like this, it’s a really dishonest way of doing it. I guess as a final note, I’m kinda bummed out that this movie marked a clear shift in Robert Zemeckis as a filmmaker, where he went from an extremely creative and original filmmaker (The Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her) to a “serious” filmmaker (who followed up this movie with Contact and then later a series of godawful uncanny valley animated movies like The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol and Beowulf).

Above all though, I have to emphasis that I did enjoy the movie a lot, was consistently entertained and Hanks is great. It’s just that there are a lot of problems for me that kept it from being a classic in any sense of the word.

Rating: B

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Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

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Starring: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, James Fleet, Simon Callow, John Hannah, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Bower (in his first film), Charlotte Coleman, Rowan Atkinson

Director: Mike Newell

Summary: A young man’s chance encounters with a beautiful woman are complicated by his close-knit extended family

Other Nominations: Original Screenplay

A reasonably funny, but mostly forgettable rom-com with a solid cast. This is Hugh Grant in his defining role as a handsome yet charmingly awkward Englishman, aka the role he played in most every movie he did afterwards. He’s good, but my favorite is Simon Callow, who’s hamming it up as much as humanly possible with his amazing voice and it’s glorious. It’s like he’s channeling Brian Blessed. The biggest issue I had is that Carrie’s really lacking in personality for a main love interest despite being intended as Grant’s soul mate. Overall, very standard rom-com stuff, decently funny with some charm, but not one of the better ones from the genre and a mediocre Best Picture nominee.

Rating: C-

Pulp Fiction (1994)

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Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Ving Rhames, Maria de Medeiros, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Walken

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Summary: The lives of two mob hitmen, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Travolta), Supporting Actor (Jackson), Supporting Actress (Thurman), Original Screenplay*, Film Editing

It’s hard to overstate how much of a game changer this movie was when it came out: it was the first independent film to make $100 million in the U.S., which changed the industry in terms of distribution for indies; it was the defining role for Jackson, a breakout one for Thurman, and it revived the careers of Travolta & Willis, all of whom give strong performances; but most importantly, it along with Clerks from the same year changed the way young filmmakers looked at movies-it was so much cooler, hipper and different than anything else widely seen before and the next decade would see numerous imitators trying to tap into that same style with diminishing results.

It feels like a response to the relatively “safe” movies Hollywood had been putting out in the 80s, trying to bring movies back to the anarchy of the late 60s-late 70s New Hollywood period with its style, witty pop-culture laden dialogue, unusual structure and “cool” criminal protagonists. The screenplay is an obvious standout. It introduces numerous characters and plots, but makes all of them memorable, while also having a unique structure where we bounce around from one story to another, backwards and forwards, and sometimes the stories intertwine; this is something that you see sometimes in books, but is rarely executed effectively in a movie like it is here. On its own merits as a film, it’s an extremely enjoyable ride that I didn’t get any sort of deeper meaning out of, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Rating: A-

Quiz Show (1994)

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Starring: Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, David Paymer, Paul Scofield, Hank Azaria, Christopher McDonald, Mira Sorvino, Martin Scorsese

Director: Robert Redford

Summary: A blue-blood academic gets swept up in the quiz show scandals of the 1950’s

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Scofield), Adapted Screenplay

Well-made but nothing special. The movie brings up a lot of themes on things like race (Jews and Gentiles), class and monied elites being protected by the system but I wouldn’t say it does any of them exceptionally well; I will say I liked how the film presented the motivations of the two main contestants (played by Fiennes and Turturro) and how it was about them being a “somebody”, Charles Van Doren trying to get out of his father’s shadow and impress him, Herbert Stempel wanting respect. I also liked Turturro’s performance a lot and he’s always good playing characters who are just sort of “off” in some way without being full-on “crazy.” Everything is very polished and there’s nothing particularly negative I have to say about it, but for me it was a”n one ear, out the other” type of movie.

Rating: B-

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

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Starring: Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, James Whitmore

Director: Frank Darabont (his first feature film)

Summary: A man discovers himself after he is sentenced to life in prison

Other Nominations: Actor (Freeman), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Sound, Cinematography, Film Editing

Memorable protagonists and villains, great set-ups and payoffs, a perfect ending, wide appeal and easy to watch-there’s a reason this is such a beloved film. This is actually an example of the Academy making an exceptionally good nomination: it didn’t make a dent at the box office, it only became one of the most popular films of the last 30 years through cable TV and rentals. The screenplay is fantastic for all the reasons mentioned above, but it also touches upon the subject of “what is there left for those who leave prison?” and why recidivism in this country is so high in a way that’s really effective; the scenes with Whitmore are especially excellent.

Morgan Freeman is almost always a winner and having him also be the narrator is the cherry on top, and Tim Robbins gives his performance the quiet dignity it needs. Robbins was actually the fourth choice (after Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt), but other than Hanks I don’t think any of those would have been anywhere near as good. The other standout aspects to me were the cinematography and score, which served as the first of a combined 27 Oscar nominations for Roger Deakins and Thomas Newman; sadly, at least as of this writing, they are a combined 0 for 27. I wouldn’t call it the greatest movie of all-time or even in my top 25, but I get why so many people love this movie so much.

Rating: A-

1994 in Review

Two Notable Films from 1994

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1994 has two movies that I wanted to talk about and since I couldn’t choose between them, I decided to just do both. Those movies are Tim Burton’s ode to a terrible filmmaker Ed Wood and Steve James’ documentary about high school inner city African-Americans trying to make it in basketball, Hoop Dreams.

Ed Wood in the hands of most any other filmmaker would have been a light comedy about an incompetent director making schlock movies and how crazy his ideas and antics were. Writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander along with director Tim Burton though saw something far more interesting in the Wood’s story-celebrating somebody who had a genuine love for filmmaking even if he had no talent for it and was incapable of seeing this himself. While Martin Landau (deservedly) won an Oscar for his performance as Bela Lugosi, Johnny Depp gives the best performance of his career as Ed Wood, playing him with incredible energy and an innocence that establishes the tone for everything. For Burton, it feels out of place-it’s the only film of his that is both humanistic and has a non-fantastical in premise; it’s also probably my favorite film of his.

Hoop Dreams on the other hand is a powerful documentary that follows two promising basketball talents in inner-city Chicago (William Gates and Arthur Agee) and their trials and tribulations trying to live out the American dream through athletics, their only real avenue to escape from poverty. By following its subjects over a five year period you can really feel the growth and change of its subjects and you get a better sense for just how perilous the journey of escaping poverty can be, that things can be going great and one setback can send everything tumbling down. Both Siskel and Ebert named it the best film of 1994, and Roger Ebert even declared it the best film of the 90s, documentary or otherwise; however, it not only didn’t win Best Documentary, it wasn’t even nominated. According to Ebert, members of the Academy’s documentary nomination committee had a system in which one would wave a flashlight on screen when they gave up on the film. When a majority of the lights flashed, the film was turned off; Hoop Dreams didn’t even make it to 20 minutes. This snub (along with that of the film Crumb a year later) was considered so egregious that they changed the entire procedure for voting on documentaries as a result. Regardless, it is considered one of the greatest documentaries of all-time and is still as relevant today as when it was made.

Other Notable Films from 1994

The Madness of King George

Satantango

The Lion King

Bullets over Broadway

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask & Dumb and Dumber (aka the year Jim Carrey conquered the universe)

Clerks

Leon: The Professional

Three Colors: Red

1994 in Review

The Shawshank Redemption: A-

Pulp Fiction: A-

Forrest Gump: B (Won Best Picture)

Quiz Show B-

Four Weddings and a Funeral: C-

This would have been a something truly special if you replaced Four Weddings and a Funeral, a totally disposable rom-com that just happened to make loads of money, with Bullets over Broadway (which had 7 nominations but not Best Picture). I liked Forrest Gump, but it just wasn’t on the same level as the timeless Shawshank or the high-energy Pulp Fiction. Still, give the Academy credit for even nominating a movie as different for the time as Pulp Fiction or as overlooked in its initial release as Shawshank.

For 1995: The only movie to win Best Picture from the PGA, DGA and SAG but not from the Academy; nearly 1000 animals were used in the making of this film; A film considered to be one of the most historically inaccurate ever made; The writer and star of this film died of a heart attack the day after filming was completed; and with this film Emma Thompson became the only person to ever win an Oscar for both acting and writing.