best film:  Naked from Mike Leigh.  There is very little separating Mike Leigh’s masterpiece from Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence or Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue. All three films could conceivably land in the top 10 of the decade.

 

Mike Leigh’s Naked is blow-your-hair-back brilliant—a big, bold masterpiece and one of the best films of the 1990s. The use of black here to frame our characters– the rail/pipe makes me think of Antonioni’s Red Desert and how he painted it red.

The color design throughout the film is a major achievement- masterly.  Thewlis is always in black. Black drapes, the black coffee mug, it’s endless here in nearly every frame— meticulously designed– and absolutely adds not to just the museum wall-art quality of the film (by far Leigh’s finest to date) but to the tone/mood and dread in the world of the film (this is the bleakest of the bleak).This is Leigh’s fourth archiveable film but there’s little in his three previous (all very solid) efforts that would make you think he is capable of this. This is a stylistic visual atom bomb on top of being a character study that could be compared to There Will Be Blood or Taxi Driver.

Graffiti, homeless, steam from the streets— this London is Travis Bickle’s NYC in Taxi Driver– Leigh is making a statement for sure — a total wasteland– biblical implications and readings of the film abound. It is Leigh’s first foray into this type of visual pattern design.  Kieslowski’s colour trilogy (also 1993, and then into 1994) is a companion as well. If Kieslowski’s work is “Blue“- then an alternative title for Naked could simply be “Black.”

It is the first film in Kieslowski’s Colours trilogy but also makes for a fine companion piece with The Double Life of Véronique which is Kieslowski’s film that precedes it.  The story is a little easier to pin down here- it is about a tragedy, loss, and the freedom (or liberty) moving on from that. Kieslowski and DP Slawomir Idziak (in their final collaboration) even use a wrap or gel over the lens. So it isn’t just the objects in the film, the décor, the clothes, the ornaments—but there is a filter used that along with the lighting help transform everything to the melancholic hue.

The color choice is carried out throughout the believable production design and décor—blue drapes this entire film. There is a child’s mobile with these jewel-like prism ornaments that Kieslowski uses time and time again- shooting through (at the 89-minute mark), around and off of.

a great showcase of Kieslowski’s visual acuity would be the landscape shot near the opening after the accident- the sky is blue- but not in the way it sounds-this is like a lighter indigo compare this with the church landscape in Véronique. The blue color choice is brilliantly deployed. It matches the tenor – this is a somber film, a requiem in many ways.

The Age of Innocence is Scorsese’s greatest achievement in mise-en-scene. It is downright painterly. Scorsese does not skimp on the camera movement (and I wrote on the editing as well if you visit the page). There are many examples where he can clearly set a frame and let us enjoy it. Dante Ferretti does the production design. He would work with Scorsese often after this (this is their first film together) and before this worked with Fellini and Pasolini. The camera luxuriates in the wealth and care put forth in this world.

The Age of Innocence actually makes for a companion piece with Goodfellas. The introduction of the Beaufort ballroom is another immaculate cinematic sequence. It is an awe-inspiring 2 ½-minute shot that has to recall the Copacabana shot in Goodfellas and the introduction of the Mafia world at the Bamboo Lounge. Scorsese here is bouncing the camera off the canvases, floral arrangements all over the place. We meet key characters and a different world (insulated, tribal, often cruel)—just like Goodfellas.

Perhaps the greatest single achievement here artistically is the use of color- specifically green for Winona Ryder and red for Pfeiffer. This is an elongated visual cousin to part of perhaps the greatest shot in cinema history- the Copacabana shot- going from the green Eden into the red Hell. It is Scorsese’s torn/conflicted protagonist (not different from Charlie in Mean Streets– there’s obligation and desire) and there’s sin (Pfeiffer in red almost always) and innocence (Ryder almost always shot with trees and plants in the background). Remarkable- beautiful formal/visual achievement.

 

most underrated:   There is really not much here for 1993 either way. The TSPDT consensus should be applauded for putting the right films on their list. Both Naked (TSPDT slot #453) and The Age of Innocence (TSPDT slot #586) should indeed be higher but these are respectable positions for semi-contemporary films. Surely, the consensus should carve out a slot for Demme’s Philadelphia somewhere on the top 1000 list—even if it is near the bottom.

The pleasure of being able to watch Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks together in film directed by Jonathan Demme. Two of the best of a generation captured in Demme’s trademark closeups.

 

most overrated:   As previously mentioned in the underrated section there is just not much here in 1993 which is refreshing. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster is at the lofty spot of #333 on the TSPDT consensus list. That is in the masterpiece territory and though this is a fine film, a masterpiece it is not…

  • Three-pronged film: an innovative biopic, a work from a clear auteur, and a political/historical film marking the end of the 19th century and a 50-year occupation of Japan in Taiwan
  • Tien-Lu Li plays himself in both voice-over and talking directly to the camera updating us on his history. The film alternates between that (which I’d rather read in a book honestly), his puppet and stage work, and the recreation of his life events with actors – HHH weaves them together.
  • Breaking down the three sections the direct to screen dialogue by Tien-Lu Li is really of no interest artistically. If you are a documentary enthusiast and interested in the influence of Kiarostami (specifically Close-Up) on HHH or this film- I can see it. But this is flat filmmaking. Still, it is an interesting genre blend. The puppet/stage work is more interesting—particularly the fact that HHH uses his normal long takes, medium-long distance shots, static camera on these- you can see audience members in many of them (people walking in front, standing)- great. The most remarkable aspect is the recreation of the history through actors. Here is where HHH users his trademark aesthetic most often though the best compositions are back-loaded and really don’t show up until the end of the film and the beauty of them (and sheer number of them) simply cannot compare to A Time to Live and a Time to Die – some nice Ozu shoji-door compositions
  • The historical/political aspect—Japan military cutting pigtails, not being able to perform puppetry outdoors
  • The implication of family member deaths and the effect on the family—from A Time to Live and a Time to Die– the family breaks up, misbehaving, abuse.
  • The formal weaving of the puppets is great- death ceremony
  • Long speeches giving us the background on family
  • The scene where Tien-Lu Li has his faithfulness (to his mistress) tested is great
  • Like I said above the best sections and most ambitious and beautiful mise-en-scene compositions are towards the end. One at 108 minutes—J & B scotch, depth of field, drunk Japanese soldier – stunning— another one 120 minutes in. An incredible composition. Sitting eating at night. Seven people in the frame for extended time with bars framing the family to the left, right and in the background with laundry hanging. Then the light goes out—really well done. We stay there for another strong composition the morning after.

 

gems I want to spotlight:   Val Kilmer chews up the scenery as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. The Fugitive features an enthralling cat and house game between Tommy Lee Jones (Oscar winner in 1993 for supporting) and Harrison Ford. And though it is not terribly close to the top ten of the year, every cinephile should see the past, present and future Scorsese male muses Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio go at it in This Boy’s Life.

 

trends and notables:

  • 1993 is Spielberg’s year in many ways. Spielberg had already been a major director and figure for nearly twenty years but in 1993 he pulled off the impossible and gave us the dramatic film masterpiece Schindler’s List (winning seven Oscars including Best Picture) and the 1993 box office champion Jurassic Park. They are the fourth and seventh best films of the year- what a year indeed.

perhaps the most discussed use of color in a black and white film- from Schindler’s List

Jurassic Park is part horror film (and what a horror film), part technical FX achievement and part Jaws (more specific because of Spielberg) and King Kong reboot- Goldblum’s character even references King Kong with those doors entering the park . The build-up is from Jaws—it actually takes an hour into the movie before we see a full T-Rex (except here unlike the 1975 film the actual monster looks terrific) or a raptor—the water shaking effect is like a shark fin.

  • With Three Colours: Blue, Kieslowski is starting his all-important trilogy.
  • Mike Leigh has been around for a decade (Meantime is 1983 is his first in the archives) and was a fine director—but Naked is a revelation—a veteran director (he is 50-years old in 1993) breaking into another echelon.
  • Ensemble films from Linklater and Altman land in the back half of the top ten of 1993 proving that Slacker was no fluke for Linklater (33-years old in 1993) and for Altman, this gives him back to back top ten of the year films.
  • Guillermo del Toro was just 29-years young at the time of the release of his debut film Cronos. Only two years earlier Cuaron made his debut with Sólo con tu pareja (1991)—the two of them forming the groundwork for the Mexican New Wave, New Mexican Cinema- or Nuevo Cine Mexicano. Iñárritu got a later start with his debut in 2000.
  • It is a great year for acting firsts. We have Leonardo DiCaprio with both This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. DiCaprio is a very worthy co-star to both De Niro and Johnny Depp. We have Julianne Moore in both Short Cuts (where she is, famously, bottomless for a scene) and a role in The Fugitive. Matthew McConaughey would get an archiveable debut worthy of legendary status in Dazed and Confused– clearly the announcement of a future star. Linklater’s film is just filled with young acting talent (another reason to compare it to American Graffiti) including a pre-Good Will Hunting Ben Affleck. Michael Shannon makes a quick appearance in Groundhog Day but it will be another ten to fifteen years before he really makes a name for himself. More about him directly below in the best performance male category, but it is worth noting certainly that Ralph Fiennes lands in the archives for the first time in 1993 with both The Baby of Macon and, of course, Schindler’s List.

Linklater’s Dazed and Confused includes needle drops from Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper and many others

 

 

best performance male: Chalk one up for Cannes getting it right with David Thewlis’ otherworldly performance in Naked.  Thewlis’ Johnny is one of cinema’s great characters of the decade. He is cerebral, nasty, angry and mocking. Johnny is unrelenting, droll, pained and often spitting fire, talking in riddles, insults and philosophy. He refers to himself often as a primate and spouts theories on evolution, God and whatever else is in his sphere—very verbal. It is worth pausing to acknowledge the year Daniel Day-Lewis had in 1993 with two great performances in two top ten/fifteen films with The Age of Innocence and In the Name of the Father.  Nobody can question the results, but it a little sad we didn’t get more of DDL like this in 1993. Still, he was never that prolific- he actually only acted in five films in the 1990s. Surely, Liam Neeson (not a star yet in 1993) gets a mention here as the titular character in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. It is still the actor’s best work. Ralph Fiennes deserves a spot right next to Neeson for his work as the horrifying Amon Goeth in the same film. Bill Murray has never been better (he may tie it in Lost in Translation but never better) than he is in Groundhog Day. The final mention for this category in 1993 goes to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. Hanks is given the best two sequences in the film (the long pause in the street after his initial rejection by a lawyer about his case– and the opera scene). Hanks knocks those two scenes out of the park.

 

David Thewlis won at Cannes (as did Leigh). Homer’s The Odyssey in the text. Brilliant. Thewlis’ Johnny is  a bounder. This film would pair well with The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (certainly a similar journey) as well.

good and evil (with such admirable complexity beyond that) in the form of Fiennes’ Goth and Neeson’s Schindler from Spielberg’s masterpiece

Hanks is given the best two sequences in Philadelphia – the long pause in the street after his initial rejection by a lawyer about his case– and the opera scene (above)

 

 

best performance female:  Juliette Binoche (Three Colours: Blue) and Holly Hunter (The Piano) are at the top here. Juliette Binoche plays Julie- and like Kieslowski’s Véronique, this is a one-woman show as far as the acting. This is Binoche’s finest performance and that is high praise. Binoche’s understated genius is on display throughout the running time. In a key scene, she devours her late child’s blue candy—gut-wrenching. The film ends with an elliptically edited montage of close-ups of the characters in the film—and then finally with a prolonged close-up on Binoche’s canvas of a face and blue lighting reflected off it. Holly Hunter won the Oscar in The Piano as did her co-star Anna Paquin (for support). Paquin is the third mention for this category in 1993. Hunter’s silent performance is still so emotive. She’ is mute but sets the tone with the almost mystic-like voiceover at the beginning (with a quick coda bookend). Needless to say, for the length of the film she gives us a mesmerizing pantomime performance. Almost every other film of hers in the archives features her lovely southern voice but her work here clearly shows that she could have been a silent screen star. Paquin’s work may be the greatest ever from a child—quite a marvel. Hunter’s character speaks through her piano and her daughter (played by Paquin). And Paquin is a riot– loud, moody, telling tall tales and throwing fits. During the climax Hunter has a pained, wide-eyed stare as the score from Michael Nyman pounds away. Michelle Pfeiffer (almost always swathed in red) deserves some love here for her work in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence as does Andie MacDowell opposite Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

 

top 10

  1. Naked
  2. Three Colours: Blue
  3. The Age of Innocence
  4. Schindler’s List
  5. Groundhog Day
  6. The Piano
  7. Jurassic Park
  8. Dazed and Confused
  9. Short Cuts
  10. Philadelphia

 

The high-water mark from auteur Jane Campion (her third film- Sweetie and Angel At My Table) thus far—an almost bafflingly original love story shot with stark beauty off the coast in New Zealand.  Michael Nyman’s luminous score – swirling and smartly tied to the narrative as it begins to get dissonant at the film’s violent climax.

From Peter Greenaway’s The Baby of Macon- the chess board set piece and rolling tracking shots that emulate a moving painting —awe-inspiring stuff- even if Greenaway’s best work is behind him by 1993

no page on 1993 would be complete without an ode to Henry Selick’s stop-motion dark musical The Nightmare Before Christmas

the best scene in Tony Scott’s star-studded True Romance is the exchange between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken

 

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Bronx Tale- De Niro R
Abraham’s Valley – de Oliveira R
Arizona Dream – Kusturica R
Calendar – Egoyan HR
Carlito’s Way- De Palma R/HR
Cronos – del Toro R
Dave – I. Reitman R
Dazed and Confused – Linklater HR/MS
Farewell My Concubine – Kaige Chen HR
Fearless- Weir R
Gettysburg  – Maxwell R
Groundhog Day – Ramis MS/MP
In the Line of Fire- Peterson R
In the Name of the Father- Sheridan R/HR
Iron Monkey – Woo-Ping Yuen R
Jurassic Park – Spielberg HR/MS
King of the Hill- Soderbergh R
Mâdadayo – Kurosawa R
Manhattan Murder Mystery – Allen R
Much Ado About Nothing- Branagh R
Naked – Leigh MP
Perfect World- Eastwood R
Philadelphia – Demme HR
Schindler’s List- Spielberg MP
Searching for Bobby Fischer- Zaillian R
Short Cuts- Altman HR
Six Degrees of Separation -Schepisi R
Sleepless in Seattle – Ephron R
The Age of Innocence – Scorsese MP
The Baby of Macon – Greenaway R
The Blue Kite – Zhuangzhuang Tian
The Firm – Pollack R
The Fugitive – A. Davis HR
The Nightmare Before Christmas – Selick R
The Piano – Campion MS
The Puppetmaster – Hsiao-Hsien Hou R/HR
The Remains of the Day – Ivory R/HR
The Secret Garden- Holland R
This Boy’s Life- Caton-Jones R
Three Colours: Blue – Kieslowski MP
Todos a la cárcel – Berlanga R
Tombstone – G. Cosmatos R
True Romance- T. Scott R
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape – Hallström 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