best film:  Malcolm X from Spike Lee

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is rarity- a biopic that is filled with cinematic ambition. Denzel’s singular achievement is the definition of tour de force—a top five performance of the decade. But Spike Lee is going for as much stylistically as he was in 1989’s Do the Right Thing. He pulls out all the stops visually combining a painterly production design with an active camera. Spike uses his patented double dolly shot (especially when combined with the use of a closeup)—sort of a variation on the Mean Streets’ shot (the Harvey Keitel “Rubber Biscuit” sequence). This gives Spike Lee two masterpieces under his belt at the age of thirty-five (35).

Lee uses Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” for his signature double dolly cinematic masterstroke

few films this long (202 minutes) have this much cinematic energy throughout

the set pieces match the size of the story, the man, the scope (many locations, decades covered)

 

most underrated:   It is a masterpiece and yet the TSPDT consensus list omits Malcolm X altogether so that is yet another easy pick for this category. The consensus list still only has one Spike Lee film on it at this point which is really disappointing. Malcolm X may not quite be Lawrence of Arabia, Citizen Kane, or Raging Bull (three biopics at the top) but it is much closer in quality to these films artistically then your run of the mill non-top 1000 on TSPDT biopic (like say Man on the Moon or Ray).  There are a lot of underrated options for this category in 1992. Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans is also notably absent from the TSPDT list. That is a travesty. Altman’s big comeback The Player is nowhere to be found either and ditto for the height of the Merchant Ivory films- Howards End.

 

somehow Malcolm X continues to elude the TSPDT consensus top 1000 list

Robert Altman’s The Player– the opening long take which is, deservingly, quite famous. It actually pays tribute to other famous long takes with the characters dialogue (mainly Fred Ward) during the scene. It is both a breathtaking cinematic high wire act– and damn funny. What stuck out to me while watching it this time was how Altmanesque this long take is. There is overlapping dialogue (an unmissable Altman trait), satire (of course), and camera zooms galore. It is not fluid like Ophuls and it does not frame faces like Iñárritu or I Am Cuba. It really shows that not all “oners” or long takes are the same. Compare this one with Welles in Touch of Evil, Cuaron in Children of Men (or Gravity), or Bela Tarr, Joe Wright, De Palma, Godard (Weekend), Antonioni (The Passenger) Kalatozov, Scorsese, Hitchcock, or Kubrick… they are all subtly different and it is satisfying to see that Altman can pay tribute to Welles- but still make this shot his own. His long take is not beautiful like many of the others—it is pure Altman—which really is better.

from Howard’s End – jaw-droppingly beautiful floral sequences—the bluebells . It is a film of the quality and beauty of say Anthony Minghella. This precedes Minghella’s great trilogy of English Patient, Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain but Ivory has that sharp of an eye for attractive filmmaking- it is a compliment to both filmmakers really—shot in super 35mm.

 

From The Last of the Mohicans Just like all of Michael Mann’s films, the story surrounds the depiction of an independently minded hero, and there is a climatic battle between good and evil (often in slow-motion). And again, here, it is not Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye that gets that showdown (the gorgeous wide shot here at the 105-minute mark). Russell Means (the title is his) is Chingachgook vs. Wes Studi’s Magua.

Mann is not done after the climax, before bookend the film with the landscape shot of the mountains, he has the three survivors of this film in profile – perfectly blocking each other.

It is remarkable how well Michael Mann made the transition from high art contemporary urban crime films (Thief, Manhunter) to historical action epic. Whatever genre or subgenre you classify The Last of the Mohicans as, it undoubtedly, is one of that genre’s finest.

 

most overrated:   There are not any overrated films from 1992. Shockingly, even nearly thirty years later, there are only six films from 1992 on the TSPDT list. The six inductees include Unforgiven, Reservoir Dogs, Orlando, The Long Day Closes, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (what a ride for this film which was panned upon release) and Bad Lieutenant. None of these films are underrated.

there are only six fiction films on TSPDT top 1000 list from 1992- one of them (still a tad underrated) is Lynch’s work- a film that panned upon release (it still has a 45 on metacritic)

 

gems I want to spotlight:   Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It is a film I have seen at least a dozen times and I hope to see it a dozen times more. Philippe Rousselot’s nominated cinematography beautiful captures Montana and Wyoming. Brad Pitt’s star continues to ascend, and Redford himself provides such a calming voiceover. Glengarry Glen Ross is a chance to watch a terrific ensemble (Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Jonathan Pryce) belt out superlative dialogue from the great David Mamet.

Jack’s “You can’t handle the truth” in A Few Good Men is one of the great moments of 1992– so is the seven-minute monologue from Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross– Baldwin is mesmerizing.

 

trends and notables:

  • There is a lot going on in 1992. As I said above, at age thirty five (35) with two stone cold masterpieces already, Spike Lee looked like the next Orson Welles or Francis Ford Coppola. Spike has a very strong career since Malcolm X (25th Hour is a standout) but certainly has never quite achieved the early promise of this ridiculous start.
  • 1992 is also the year of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino, I would argue, is one of the two or three greatest filmmakers to debut post-1990. His influence would impact modern cinema as much as just about anyone. If the 1990s indie movement is a real thing (and I believe it is)- Tarantino is this movement’s Godard.

A remarkable debut—a born virtuoso– like Welles, The Coen Brothers or our two fathers of the French New Wave this one comes direct from Tarantino as a wholly realized voice and cinematic vision

from Tarantino again- I personally spent years so caught up in the exhilarating screenplay (and it is that) that these compositions went unnoticed

A quiet Tarantino moment of brilliance is the hallway shot during a discussion between Buscemi and Keitel — to use a natural setting as a picture frame is pretty impressive visually for a first time director

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The Madsen sadistic shuffle to “Stuck in the Middle With You” is a transcendent cinematic moment and it is not just the performance and it certainly is not just the violence. It is the magnificent tracking shot as we follow Madsen to the car and back and how the music is off when we’re outside and then back on when he reenters the warehouse—astounding– we then get the great cutaway of the actual slicing of the ear which is a choice- it’s more horrifying than showing it.

  • Michael Haneke would not have quite the influence Tarantino would, but he is certainly considered one of the greatest auteurs in the last thirty years and his Benny’s Video marks his first archiveable film here in 1992. Haneke was a late bloomer—in 1992 he was already fifty (50) years old.
  • Ming-liang Tsai’s Rebel of a Neon God (what a title- I cannot get over that title) makes his first archiveable film as well.

 

Another trend is the revival of the western. Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves was a commercial and artistic success in 1990 and won Best Picture and we had an even stronger film here and Best Picture winner in 1992 with Eastwood’s Unforgiven. It is funny, in 1992 this was almost viewed as the last hurrah for Clint. He was 62 years old and had been one of cinema’s biggest stars for nearly 30 years at this point. Little did we all know then just how much gas Clint still had in the tank.

Unforgiven is dedicated “to Sergio and Don” meaning Leone and Siegel (Eastwood’s two greatest directors). But the poetic composition here feels more like Mizoguchi.

superior blocking of the group of women again and again in Unforgiven

  • The Player is the return of Robert Altman to the top 10 (1977 was the last time) and has a wonderful eight-minute opening shot. What a way to announce you are back!
  • A Few Good Men is a great film to mention for many reasons. One, it sort of marks the end of the Rob Reiner run. Two, it helps introduce Aaron Sorkin—a gifted screenwriter. And lastly, the cast has Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore (speaking and yelling delicious Sorkinisms)- three of the biggest stars on the planet.
  • 1992 would mark the last collaboration between auteur/muse Woody Allen and Mia Farrow in Husbands and Wives. This was an incredibly fertile artistic period for both– so it was too bad it came to an end.

David Lynch continues to stake his claim as cinema’s greatest filmmaker during this stretch with yet another top five film- Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me 

  • The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman would appear in his first archiveable film with A Scent of Woman in 1992. He is an all-time talent. Tilda Swinton’s first archiveable film (and the best female performance of the year) was in 1992 with Orlando. It would take her another thirteen years (Broken Flowers) or fifteen (Michael Clayton) years to find another great role and start a period of work (no looking back from 2007 on) where she would become one of the best actresses of her generation.  At age eleven (11) Joseph Gordon-Levitt would mark his first archiveable film entry with a small role in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It.  Laura Linney, certainly an underrated actress, would give us her first archiveable film in Lorenzo’s Oil. Marisa Tomei would get her start in two 1992 films (My Cousin Vinny for which she would win an Oscar–  and Chaplin).

 

best performance male:  With no disrespect meant to any of the other great actors listed here among the best of 1992, this is Denzel Washington’s year. His work here is peerless- good enough to buoy a mediocre film. However, when it is an intrinsic part of a cinematically ambitious masterpiece like Spike delivers here, it rises to one of the best performances of this or any era. Two films, Unforgiven and Reservoir Dogs, have three actors a piece that deserve mention among the years best in 1992. Clint Eastwood’s iconic take as William Munny is equal to his work with Leone and many thought that would ever happen. Gene Hackman is of comparable cinematic size and stature to Eastwood making him the perfect adversary to Clint in Unforgiven. This performance lands on Hackman’s Mount Rushmore. I am also making room for Richard Harris in Unforgiven as the unforgettable English Bob. One of the reasons the narrative works so well is Hackman’s character defeats Harris. Harris seems extremely tough to begin with so this makes Hackman’s character seem terrifying. If either one of those two characters fail to impress (aided by magnificent acting by Hackman and Harris), the set up does not work. Reservoir Dogs also has three slots in this section for 1992. Steve Buscemi is one as Mr. Pink, Michael Madsen is another as Mr. Blonde (oozing sadistic cool with his “Stuck in the Middle With You” dance) and Harvey Keitel the final mention as Mr. White. Keitel gets the added bonus of his work in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant in 1992. That is one of the bravest performances I have seen- raw and powerful.  Al Pacino is a god (1992 was a big year for him with two acting nominations- one win)– but Keitel easily had the better year (not to mention Denzel).  It is a big year for heavy hitters as the next two nominees in 1992 are Daniel Day-Lewis for The Last of the Mohicans and Anthony Hopkins for Howards End. Hopkins would capitalize on his success in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs in 1992 (he is also in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Chaplin). It would be a very late peak for Hopkins’ star (age 55). Day-Lewis brought method to a new level by getting into character for months on the set of Michael Mann’s film.  He is marvelous here- he is a more-than-convincing action hero (the work he put in must have paid off because every motion seems natural) and romantic lead. Wes Studi lands the final spot for this category in 1992 for his work opposite of Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans. Wes Studi takes his impressive turn in 1990’s Dances With Wolves to the next level here. Studi is Magua—a Huron warrior with a backstory. Magua is a worthy foe.

 

Despite Denzel filling his career with seemingly countless memorable performances- the choice for his single best performance is a fairly easy one

The first of many glorious trunk shots from Tarantino. I could keep going with the cinematic paintings from Reservoir Dogs. How about the opening? The first words in a Tarantino film are from QT himself discussing Madonna—the camera moves behind the shoulders of the gangsters at the table—diving back and forth almost- engrossing from the onset.

 

best performance female:  Tilda Swinton, about two decades before she becomes just every auteur’s favorite collaborator, tops this category for her work in Sally Potter’s Orlando. Sure, it is a desirable role and project—but it impossible not to see Swinton in that part now. Behind her, the three next best female performances of 1992 might be in Merchant Ivory’s Howards End. Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter are both superb as intelligent, outspoken, and well-intentioned sisters. And Vanessa Redgrave is enchanting in her few moments on screen. She is anomalous- almost other worldly—but she is immensely likeable here- which she rarely is throughout her career even when she gives a great performance. Lastly, Madeline Stowe is perfect as Cora Munro in The Last of the Mohicans.

 

Tilda Swinton here in Orlando– easily one of the best performances of 1992

 

top 10

  1. Malcolm X
  2. Unforgiven
  3. Reservoir Dogs
  4. The Last of the Mohicans
  5. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
  6. The Long Day Closes
  7. The Player
  8. Orlando
  9. Howards End
  10. Husbands and Wives

 

Sally Potter’s avant-garde Orlando

above there is a discussion on long takes, or “oners”, and no conversation on the topic could be complete without mentioning John Woo’s Hard Boiled

from Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes– symmetrical, breathtaking compositions again just like Distance Voices, Still Lives

Paul Schrader evoking Antonioni’s L’Eclisse here in Light Sleeper. 1992 must be a deep year if Light Sleeper fails to crack the top 10 of the year.

from Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Coppola’s film is stunning, and it shows no great falloff artistically from his heyday.

Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct- Like many of Verhoeven’s work  it was severely underrated by critics.  But if you dig into the reviews- they admire Verhoeven’s style (at least a lot of them do) but cringe at the sleaziness of much of the content- which does not factor in at all in my evaluation, I love the Vertigo-like opening with the Oscar nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith.  Vertigo again with the drives along the coast, long silent man chasing woman chase sequences to wonderful music, the dominant dark eyebrows on Sharon Stone like Kim Novak, set in San Fran, stairs to the apartment—all homages to Vertigo—but Verhoeven makes it his own—sleazy, pop-infused, ironic, funny at times, clearly not as well done or as intelligent as Hitchcock but worthy of respect and the archives in his/its own right.

church and the movies from Terence Davies in The Long Day Closes…

…through two films, Davies’ worldview and singular style makes him already one of the era’s great artists–  a formal triumph— shot choice selection- reoccurring overhead shots

 

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Few Good Men – Reiner R/HR
A Midnight Clear- Keith Gordon R
A River Runs Through It- Redford HR
A Tale of Winter – Rohmer
Aladdin  -Clements, Musker R
American Heart- Bell R
Bad Lieutenant- Ferrara HR
Basic Instinct – Verhoeven R
Benny’s Video – Haneke R
Bram Stoker’s Dracula- F. Coppola R/HR
Chaplin- Attenborough R
Glengarry Glen Ross- Foley R
Hard Boiled- Woo HR
Hoffa- DeVito R
Howards End – Ivory HR/MS
Husbands and Wives- Allen MS
La Vie de Bohème – Kaurismäki R/HR
Leolo – Lauzon R
Light Sleeper- Schrader HR
Lorenzo’s Oil- G. Miller R
Malcolm X- S. Lee MP
My Cousin Vinny – J. Lynn R
One False Move- Franklin R
Orlando – Potter HR/MS
Passion Fish- Sayles, Bassett R
Patriot Games – Noyce R
Porco Rosso- Miyazaki R
Raising Cain – De Palma R
Rebels of the Neon God –  Ming-liang Tsai R/HR
Reservoir Dogs – Tarantino MS/MP
Scent of a Woman-Brest, R
Simple Men- Hartley R
Sneakers- Alden Robinson R
The Crying Game- Jordan R
The Last of the Mohicans – M. Mann MS/MP
The Long Day Closes- Davies MS
The Player – Altman HR/MS
The Story of Qiu Ju- Yimou Zhang
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me- Lynch MS
Under Siege – A. Davis R
Unforgiven- Eastwood MP
Unlawful Entry – Kaplan R

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives