Continuing our year-by-year series of the Best Films of the 1990s (here’s 1990, and 1991), we come to 1992. This was the year in which the Maastricht Treaty was signed, bringing the currently Brexit-hounded European Union into being; and in the U.S., a billionaire businessman running for president lost to a Clinton. But lest that makes you look back on the year with nostalgia from your jaded 2017 viewpoint, don’t forget it was also the year of the Rodney King riots. I suppose you could controversially say that some bad and some good things happened in 1992, and nowhere was that more in evidence than at the movies, where “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” scarred the eyeballs and psyches of all who saw them, while more than a handful of terrific titles repaired that damage just in time for us to be assailed all over again by the likes of “Cool World” and “The Lawnmower Man.” It was a rollercoaster year, so tie your lumberjack shirt around your waist and wade right into our rundown of its highlights: the 10 Best Films Of 1992.
10. “One False Move”
Coming off a couple of forgettable straight-to-video directorial efforts in the late 1980s, Carl Franklin arrived properly with “One False Move,” an edgy rural noir that drips with violence, sex, ambition and prejudice, and in which you can palpably feel the excitement of a filmmaker getting to stretch his wings for the first time. Co-written by star Billy Bob Thornton, it follows three L.A. drug dealers on the lam after brutally murdering the men they had intended to do business with. Thornton plays the mastermind, Cynda Williams is his neurotic girlfriend Fantasia, and Michael Beach plays their smart but also psychotic companion, while the sorely missed Bill Paxton, as he so often did in his career, makes an indelible impression as the surprisingly tenacious rube sheriff of the small Arkansas town where the trio holes up. It’s properly compelling, a coiled and nasty story of desperate characters ripping slow strips off each other in the pursuit of their self-interest, against a backdrop of racial, class and rural/urban division. Building with nerve-wracking effectiveness to a tremendously dynamic and bloody showdown, it the kind of character-rich, tonally controlled, low-budget independent thriller that was rare enough back in the ’90s, and has only gotten rarer since.
9. “Husbands And Wives”
Woody Allen‘s ruefully acerbic dramedy may be far from the only movie to deal with a midlife crisis (indeed, he’d already turned in a foundational text in the genre with “Hannah And Her Sisters“), but it might well be the only one to deal with four of them simultaneously. Within a mock-documentary format comprising interviews with all four principals, “Husbands And Wives” details the waxing and waning of two marriages, as Gabe (Allen) and Judy’s (Mia Farrow) relationship is tested after their best friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) announce their separation. Ever the acute observer of the foibles of the New York chattering classes, here Allen creates four completely believable characters, all of them embodied brilliantly by the cast, and much of the pleasure is in watching them ping off each other according to invisible but ruthlessly logical laws of human nature. Witty and erudite and shot through with a piercing, lacerating self-awareness that his late-period dramas have sorely lacked, “Husbands And Wives” is one of Allen’s very best films, finding all the colors of humor and pessimism, hope and middle-class tragedy in his beloved and eternal Manhattan.
If there’s any clear sign that Tilda Swinton is some sort of atemporal, otherworldly being, it must be that decades before she was born, Virginia Woolf wrote the perfect role for her in her 1928 novel “Orlando.” The story of an eternally youthful aristocrat who lives for centuries as a man before turning into a woman overnight, it’s also, however a high-water mark for director Sally Potter: her clever adaptation of Woolf’s novel is daring and iconoclastic, but almost all of her inventions seem to embody its spirit, if not its letter. In particular, Potter pioneers the use of to-camera asides from Swinton, which gives a film often literally corseted and potentially buried under layers of period detailing moments of mischievous, modern and often very witty connection. Ravishing to look at, this playfully romantic, enigmatic dissection of gender roles through the ages (it also features a hall-of-fame casting coup in having Quentin Crisp play Queen Elizabeth I) is a sumptuous, mysterious, ambiguous treat, a unique early showcase for one of our most unique working actresses, and such a confidently idiosyncratic work of adaptation that even Billy Zane raises his game in it.
7. “The Long Day Closes”
It takes immense courage, not to mention filmmaking skill and confidence, to put such a defiantly impressionistic, largely non-narrative spin on the childhood memoir, but it’s a trick that Terence Davies pulls off so dazzlingly in his beautiful, melancholic, nostalgic but surprisingly keen-edged film that it makes you wonder why more coming-of-age movies don’t take this approach. A shifting, emotive palimpsest of lived-in memories of his own troubled, lonely childhood in postwar Liverpool (about which Davies would go on to make the beautiful essay-doc “Of Time And The City“), “The Long Day Closes” is full of rapturous details: the minute mortifications as 12-year-old Bud (Leigh McCormack) contends with his burgeoning homosexuality amid an atmosphere of stifling institutional oppression, punctuated with euphoric moments of connection mostly courtesy of his local picture palace. It builds into a kind of reverie (gorgeously shot and set to a wonderful pre-Beatles pop soundtrack) that is beautifully exemplified in a hall-of-fame closing sequence in which Davies’ camera drifts overhead from Bud swinging himself back and forth off a cellar stairwell, over the heads of an audience enraptured by “Kind Hearts And Coronets,” to the assembled congregation at a Mass, to a classroom full of schoolboys. It feels like dreaming someone else’s dream.
6. “The Player”
If there’s one film that encapsulates the uniquely contradictory position occupied by Robert Altman in the Hollywood system — that of a privileged insider with whom the biggest stars of the day would fall over themselves to work, and also a maverick, ironic outsider — it has to be “The Player.” A terrifically fun Hollywood satire bristling with cameos by big-name stars eager to lampoon the kind of filmmaking that made them stars in the first place (cue Bruce Willis rescuing Julia Roberts from the gas chamber and quipping “Traffic was a bitch”), what’s maybe most surprising is just how blackhearted it is, underneath the California sunshine. Tim Robbins‘ studio exec is not just a soulless corporate shill who has long since sold out, he’s an actual murderer whose amorality seems to rub off on everyone he meets, as though the corrupting power of the Hollywood studio system were infectious. The film is clever, though, in being the very thing that it critiques — only Altman could have made a movie this mean-spirited about Hollywood as his own Hollywood comeback. The director insisted that its satire was “very mild,” but whether that’s simply because the events depicted were not so very far from a possible truth remains deliciously ambiguous.