Continuing our two-week-long series exploring the best films of the 1990s, (here’s 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993), the year is now 1994 and the decade is no longer new. Indeed 1994 sees the start of one of the defining events of the 1990s when on June 13th the bodies of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson are found at her LA home, and her ex-husband OJ Simpson quickly becomes the focus of suspicion. Richard Nixon, Kurt Cobain and Jackie O also die this year, but on the plus side, Justin Bieber is ushered into the world. And as it reaches its midpoint, the decade’s cinematic identity starts to come into focus too: this was the year of “Pulp Fiction” dominating the cultural conversation, while “Forrest Gump” and “The Lion King” rode high at the box office, and it was also, as you’ll see below, possibly the greatest year since the 1970s for the reinvention of the neo-noir. Here are our picks for the 10 Best Films of 1994.
10. “The Last Seduction”
Like many aspiring cinephiles, early on I fell in love with film noir. But even back then the typical trajectory of the femme fatale felt problematic: she was always the most compelling character, but almost always ended up sidelined, reformed or, more usually, punished. And worse, she was often used not for herself but for the corrupting effect she’d have on the male star of the picture. Where were the movies that came from the femme fatale’s point of view, that fought in her corner? Then, along came John Dahl‘s “The Last Seduction” and gave me exactly what I’d been looking for. A scorchingly blackhearted neo-noir, starring a deliciously poisonous Linda Fiorentino, it’s an updated, deviously convoluted riff on “Double Indemnity” as Fiorentino’s cunning sociopath makes off with her husband’s (Bill Pullman) money and embroils a lustful local hick (Peter Berg) in her further plans. Playing the men around her like a violin and willing to adopt any role and endure any ordeal to promote her self interest, Bridget/Wendy is simply an all-time great movie character: she’s exactly what happens when you take a classic archetype femme fatale, plunk her down in mid-90s small-town America, and give her agency.
With a concept high enough to give you vertigo, embodied with such pristine attention to the details of composition and framing that it borders on the insufferably precious, and telling a story that is almost completely impenetrable, Scott McGehee and David Siegel‘s “Suture” should by rights be filed away in a box marked “sophomoric style-over-substance.” And yet the film somehow transcends the pretentiousness of its outline, mainly due to its breathtaking visual storytelling. Shot in occasionally blinding black and white, and constructed so that almost every shot feels like an art piece, the film is founded on the tricksy experimental premise that the two leads are identical twins indistinguishable from one another to everyone within the film, yet they’re played by the black Dennis Haysbert and the white Michael Harris. What then unfolds is a noirish surrealist nightmare about identity and its social construction, but it’s also a teasingly intellectual exercise in the voyeuristic nature of film viewing. It’s a frustrating watch for anyone who really needs plotting to make logical, as opposed to dreamscape sense, but fans of “Pi” and David Lynch and shots that are unforgettable in their stark graphic gorgeousness have a treat in store that they likely have not yet discovered.
8. “Heavenly Creatures”
Peter Jackson‘s reinvention as the go-to fantasy blockbuster director of our times was actually his second such career makeover. The first came in 1994, when, leaving behind the somewhat braindead, bad-taste excesses of, you know, “Braindead,” and “Bad Taste,” he made “Heavenly Creatures” a gorgeously atmospheric, heady true-crime story that launched the careers of both its wonderful, debuting actresses. If the film were only remarkable for being the first appearance of Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, it would be assured a place in cinema history, but great though the two of them are at playing their characters’ precociousness, primness, naiveté and depravity, it’s far more than just a performance showcase. Poised somewhere between “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “The Virgin Suicides” in its portrayal of a chillingly passionate bond between teenage girls, it’s both earthier and more fatalistically fantasy-based than both those titles. Based on the real story of two New Zealand teenagers whose ferocious attachment to each other, and to the shared imaginary world they occupied, turned tragically violent when they were threatened with separation, “Heavenly Creatures” is tender, lyrical and deeply disturbing in equal parts, and in its inward, psychologically rich way, just as epic as any Middle Earth bildungsroman.
A bio-doc of a cult cartoonist sounds like it probably ought to be among the dullest movies on earth, and yet in the hands of Terry Zwigoff, this portrait of Robert Crumb, the artist, oddball and self-confessed pervert behind the “Fritz the Cat” cartoons is almost unfeasibly gripping. Telling us everything we could ever have wanted to know, (and if we’re honest, quite a bit we kind of wish we could forget, like the string-eating section) about the controversial figure and his impossibly fucked-up family, the film is an absolutely jaw-dropping walk on the wild side of a feverish, paranoid, depraved and yet somehow triumphantly creative, psyche. The level of intimacy that Zwigoff achieves with his utterly fascinating subject, a man cursed not only with neuroses and distasteful fetishes that border on the pathological, but also with an excoriating sense of self-awareness, is unparalleled, and it means that though grotesquely fascinating, the film never feels exploitative of these damaged and desperate people. It’s a film of unflinching, nonjudgmental curiosity, but it’s also a mordantly black-comic look at the nature of sexual “deviance,” mental illness, fetishism and familial relationships which, as a final redemptive coup de grace, relates all that to the creative act, so that the grubby details of Crumb’s life and lusts become pieces of the huge jigsaw of his tormented but feverishly fertile project of self-expression.
6. “Ed Wood”
It’s strange that Ed Wood, the so-called “worst director of all time” and the mastermind behind such train wrecks as the dubious cross-dressing parable “Glen or Glenda” and cronky effects disaster piece “Plan 9 From Outer Space” should be memorialized in a biopic so much more inventive and enjoyable than those that deal with acknowledged greats like Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock. But that topsy-turviness used to be par for the course for Tim Burton, back in the day when he still had the chutzpah to subvert expectations. This delightful, artful and deeply melancholy tribute imagines Wood as a man of boundless enthusiasm, immense energy and zero talent and as embodied by a never-better Johnny Depp with puckish, toothy, can-do spirit, it becomes a remarkable portrait not just of one eccentric, but of a whole category of nearly-men whose ambitions eternally outstrip their abilities. Shot in luscious black and white, and pivoting around Wood’s bittersweet friendship with legendary screen actor Bela Lugosi, played with heartbreaking soulfulness by the great Martin Landau, “Ed Wood” remains Burton’s best film, and a gorgeous-to-look-at reminder of the visual and emotive heights he used to be able to attain, before he sold his soul to CG.