best film: Pulp Fiction from Quentin Tarantino
- A three-pronged masterpiece— magnificent writing (on par with or superior to what cinema has yet produced), tour de force direction behind the camera (the dance contest sequence, the freeze frame on Amanda Plummer with soundtrack drop), and a structural non-linear formal sonic boom.
- Such confidence from Tarantino- this thing could have gone so wrong: wigs on the three leads, forty (40) minutes longer (153 total running time than Reservoir Dogs
- the dialogue is phenomenal and the skeletal arrangement of the story, but also of just ideas- the idea of royale with cheese, and robbing restaurants
- QT Trademark beautiful trunk shot—a few here actually
- Between the big moments (like the opening freeze frame, the long take opening on Willis and then the back of the head of Ving Rhames, and the dance sequence with Travolta and Uma)—we get great little moments like the elevator small talk between Travolta and Samuel L—the awkward silence of the first “date” between Travolta and Uma in the car booth.
- A nice pairing to the Buscemi/Keitel hallway shot from Reservoir Dogs is one early here with Samuel L and Travolta
- The narrative interlocks— it’s complex– it is not just three stories split apart—the Uma segment actually starts with that long take of Bruce Willis with Al Green’s music
- Rarely does Tarantino just sit back and point the camera at these fabulous actors putting forth one of cinema’s great screenplays— there’s almost always work behind the camera. The drug deal sequence between Travolta and Eric Stoltz’s character in his bedroom is shot with a great Wellesian low angles
- The camera absolutely floats around Jack Rabbit Slim’s with Travolta—it’s a great shot and married to the narrative and he’s lost in the dizzying place (and high)
- In the very next scene, we actually get another great shot of Uma dancing to “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon” as it’s done in one take and she dives back and forth behind a column in the house
- A bit of nice homage casting with Walken as a POW (Deer Hunter)- exceptional short story writing and performance—Keitel as The Wolf is incredible, too—amazing performances behind the principals (who are all giving career-best work)
- The De Palma (from Vertigo) 360 degree shot here is Willis in a phone booth—Tarantino’s favorite director of the American 1970s Movie Brats is De Palma (the casting of Travolta from Blow Out). The split diopter is here (when Rhames is chasing Willis and Willis is behind the brick wall in the foreground) from De Palma as well.
- The coffee shop discussion in the third act with Samuel L talking about miracles and philosophy is My Dinner with Andre or Seventh Seal-level stuff and there’s a narrative tie—as we know from the story’s structure Samuel L lives and Travolta dies
- Pulp Fiction on the page alone may be good enough to be one of the best films of the year. The dialogue crackles and Tarantino plays with narrative structure on a level to rival Kurosawa’s Rashomon for its status as a masterpiece in that category.
most underrated: Natural Born Killers is a wild ride. Oliver Stone takes his flickering collage montage style (perfected in JFK) and dips it in blood and acid. It should be on the TSPDT consensus top 1000 by now and it still is not. Kieslowski’s Three Colours: White may be the most underrated film of the year though- it cannot find a spot on the TSPDT either.
- It is the “equality” portion of the liberty/equality/fraternity color trilogy from the great master who liked arranging his works in the context of larger themes like that (including the Ten commandments and prior to his death was getting tor ruminate on a Heaven/Purgatory/Hell trilogy). White feels like the least on-the-nose of the three films in this trilogy—“equality” seems like a stretch. It is worth noting that Juliette Binoche shows up at the 4-minute mark. She walks into the wrong courtroom right when the word “equality” is being used.
- This is the lightest of the three films- Kieslowski’s comedy- but this is not Step Brothers or Bananas– this is a black comedy- closer to A Serious Man or Phantom Thread.
- Zbigniew Zamachowski plays Karol Karol. He has a brother Jerzy Stuhr (who played his brother in Dekalog 10), a partner, but this is really his story –about his failed marriage with Julie Delpy’s (year prior to Before Sunrise) Dominique. The movie starts with their divorce. It is a story of his love/fixation and revenge.
- We get the old person putting the bottle in the recycling again like Blue – Binoche does nothing in Blue, here Karol looks, and looks concerns, but ultimately does nothing as well. I think this also shows that these three actions are happening at the same time in Paris in all three films.
- Instead of the ornament in Blue the reoccurring object here is a bust (looks like plaster) that comes up again and again as a reoccurring motif. It serves Kieslowski’s purpose (it is white of course) of showing Karol’s fixation and preoccupation with Dominique even when she’s physically absent from most of the film
- It is a film about impotence (both sexually and power for the relationship)
- There is a stunning white-filtered scene early in the film. It is their wedding day (via flashback). This is mirrored later with a two-minute prolonged scene (again through these gorgeous whiteout lighting/décor frames and then we get a fade to white). There is another fade to quite as Karol finally achieves his goal of having Dominque in bed (they are getting divorced because he can’t have sex after their marriage)—Kieslowski fades to white after her orgasm.
- After the divorce he goes back to home to Poland in a suitcase, gets literally dumped into a pile of waste (complete with white seagulls and white garbage) and, hilariously says something akin to “it is good to be home” (as he is back in Poland after being in Paris). It is then like a little gangster movie as he goes from rags to riches—all with revenge/love at the front of his mind (depending on how you interpret it on the film
- A triumph of location shooting and location design. The white is not just the objects in the frame, costume décor, lighting filters— but the big hallway at the courthouse, the train station—gorgeous set pieces—and then the subway with white lights here. A great shot on the ice as well. The shot of the white cloudy sky (reflecting off the snow) would make for a great trio with the green sky church on a hill landscape in Veronique and the post-crash sky in Blue
- Kieslowski uses form multiple times with mirroring shots/sequences. One is the final shot—Karol with binoculars looking at Delpy’s character (the location chance of the final shot is part of the sick joke)- this almost exact scene happened earlier as well. There are also two shots of Delpy at the door in the same pose- clearly still thinking about Karol. The wedding flashback happens twice as well
- It is an odd love story, part black comedy- I mentioned Phantom Thread before and I think that fits. There’s torture/pain/love here.
most overrated: There are a few to choose from here in 1994 but ultimately, I’ll land on Luc Besson’s Léon or The Professional. I have only seen it once, and it was not recent, so I look forward to a revisit but the TSPDT consensus (which is not usually kind to genre films- so maybe I’m the one who is off here) has it as the ninth strongest film from 1994—and I would get to at least 15-20 before getting to it.
gems I want to spotlight: Skip the most recent iteration of The Lion King and see the 1994 animated version. It is the pinnacle of Disney’s late 1980s-1990s string of successes. Ed Wood is a quieter Tim Burton than we’re typically used to, but it is hilarious, good fodder for cinephiles with the subject, and both Johnny Depp and Martin Landau are superb. This is a film I always recommend to people. Lastly, Robert Redford’s Quiz Show is a film that I never hear brought up, and rarely see on streaming services anymore- and that’s a shame. It features an incisive screenplay, praiseworthy period detail, and one hell of a follow-up performance to 1993’s Schindler’s List from Ralph Fiennes here in the lead.
trends and notables:
- 1994 is a big year. Pulp Fiction was a justifiable cultural and artistic talking point for cinema and more generic “movie” lovers alike. Tarantino became a name frankly bigger than just about any director not named Spielberg or Lucas. It prompted everyone to rent (or re-rent) Reservoir Dogs as well. The one-two start to his career certainly echoes that of Welles, Truffaut, Godard, Tarkovsky and very few (if any) others.
- Kieslowski would pass away in 1996 – but 1994 marks his final film(s) and at the time, he had announced his retirement. Three Colours: Red is a brilliant film on its own, but also a fitting finale (with a short coda attached) to the trilogy- this catches Kieslowski going Masterpiece, Must-See, and Masterpiece with the trilogy to end his career (and that is after Dekalog and Veronique). He would at pass at age 54 and it is hard to think of an argument against him being the best working director working at the time.
- The Lion King and Forrest Gump are financial juggernauts at the box office. Forrest Gump is a very respectable film that nearly swept the Oscars. Shawshank has had a different life. It has largely ridden cable television to become IMBD’s #1 film of all-time.
- Wong Kar-wai becomes an international arthouse sensation with Chungking Express. It is worth noting that the top three films of the year (WKW’s masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, Red) are all about interconnected lives.
- In indie cinema Hal Hartley (Amateur in 1994) and Whit Stillman (Barcelona) are working on great trilogies of their own
- Heavenly Creatures is Peter Jackson’s first archvieable film, ditto for Danny Boyle with Shallow Grave and Eat Drink, Man Woman is Ang Lee’s first archiveable film.
- Ewan McGregor emerges from Boyle’s work and Kate Winslet from Jackson’s. McGregor and Winslet are not alone- Kirsten Dunst (both Interview with a Vampire and Little Women), and Natalie Portman (The Professional) nail big roles in big films at a very young age (Portman eleven and Dunst twelve years old).
best performance male: In the late 1970s with Saturday Night Fever and Grease in back to back years, John Travolta went from nobody (he’s a nobody in Carrie in 1976) to a massive star. He is solid in De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) but by 1994 his star had fallen and for my purposes here he is invisible as far as the archives for a long period of time. Tarantino is now well known for resurrecting old stars and his heroes and gets his first chance with Pulp Fiction and Travolta. Vincent Vega is an awesome character. Samuel L. Jackson’s (a more normal rise to fame here ascending after catching a lot of people’s attention in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever) Jules may be just as strong. Bruce Willis’ “Butch” may be third banana, but that is no insult to the character or Willis- it is says more about the other two characters and performances. Jean-Louis Trintignant is here for best work in decades playing the cynical judge in Kieslowski’s final act. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins form one of cinema’s great friendships in The Shawshank Redemption. And this is the voice over that spawned another one hundred Morgan Freeman voiceovers (and rightly so). The Tony Leung/Faye Wong story in Chungking Express gets a little more love from WKW as far as the split stories so he is the choice here from that masterpiece. Zbigniew Zamachowski plays Karol Karol in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: White. He is in just about every frame of the film and this is a black comedy about revenge— not an easy ask for any actor.
best performance female: There are three standouts here in 1994 and they are all on the same plane of excellence. Faye Wong levitates in Chungking Express. Some of the best scenes simply Wong alone in a room along with Christopher Doyle’s camera. Irene Jacob is on this list again for a collaboration with Kieslowski (she was here in 1991 for The Double Life of Veronique). Jacob plays Valentine (yep, red)- a genuinely good person (shown by Kieslowski as the only three in the trilogy to help the woman with the glass in the recycling)- she helps a dog and that leads her to Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character. Uma Thurman snatches some of the best vey sequences in one of the decades best films away from Travolta and even holds her own in the cinematically transcendent dance sequence- bravo Uma—that is a feat of the highest order.
- Pulp Fiction
- Chungking Express
- Three Colours: Red
- Three Colours: White
- The Shawshank Redemption
- Natural Born Killers
- The Lion King
- Forrest Gump
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|A Borrowed Life – Nien-Jen Wu|
|Ashes of Time- WKW||R|
|Before the Rain- Manchevski||R|
|Bullets Over Broadway- Allen|
|Chungking Express – WKW||MP|
|Clear and Present Danger -Noyce||R|
|Death and the Maiden- Polanski||R|
|Eat Drink Man Woman- A. Lee||R|
|Ed Wood- Burton||HR|
|Exotica – Egoyan||MS|
|Forrest Gump – Zemeckis||HR/MS|
|Four Weddings and a Funeral- Newell||R|
|Heavenly Creatures – Jackson||HR|
|Interview With a Vampire – Jordan||R|
|Legends of the Fall – Zwick||R|
|Léon: The Professional – Besson||R|
|Little Women – Armstrong||R|
|Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle- Rudolph||R|
|Natural Born Killers- Stone||HR/MS|
|Nobody’s Fool- Benton||R|
|Pulp Fiction – Tarantino||MP|
|Quiz Show- Redford||HR|
|Three Colours: Red – Kieslowski||MP|
|Satantango – Tarr||MP|
|Shallow Grave- Boyle||R|
|Stargate – Emmerich||R|
|The Hudsucker Proxy- Coen||R|
|The Last Seduction- Dahl||R|
|The Lion King- Allers, Minkoff||HR/MS|
|The Madness of King George- Hytner||R|
|The Paper- Howard||R|
|The Shawshank Redemption – Darabont||MS|
|Three Colours: White – Kieslowski||MS|
|Through the Olive Trees- Kiarostami||R|
|To Live- Yimou Zhang|
|True Lies- Cameron||R|
|Vanya on 42nd Street- Malle||R|
|Vive L’Amour- Ming-Liang|
|Wyatt Earp – Kasdan||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