20/20 Hindsight: The Best Movies of 1992

In many ways, 1992 continued the cinematic trends of the preceding three years.  The Disney Renaissance, which is popularly believed to have begun with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and continued with 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, surged ever onward with this year’s Aladdin.  The independent movie scene started by movies like Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and was further refined by the likes of Quentin Tarantino.  Ghibli kept in the conversation with newer animated features, John Woo made even more action movies to follow-up The Killer (1989) and the look, sound and feel of 90s movies continued to develop in these early years of the decade.

10. Reservoir Dogs

 Today, Quentin Tarantino is rightly considered one of the best writers and directors working in Hollywood.  His penchant for compelling dialog, intimate character moments and excessive bouts of stylish violence have made him a go-to for budding cinephiles and an easy mark for new inductees into auteur theory.  I maintain that he’s a far better writer than he is director (because he’s not nearly a disciplined enough filmmaker to properly edit down the excessive length of his scripts into something more effectively manageable), but I can hardly that the end result doesn’t come together when and where it needs to be (even if it sags a bit in the middle).  From its very first scene, Reservoir Dogs plays out like a rough draft for the kind of movie that Tarantino would refine with Pulp Fiction (1994).  A dialog-driven character drama interspersed with gory excess, random narrative digressions that feel more important than what they build up to, a-chronological editing that spices up an otherwise boilerplate plot just enough to feel fresh and interesting, Reservoir Dogs gives us our earliest glimpses into the kind of filmmaker that Tarantino would soon become.  And while it doesn’t always work in this first film, it’s obvious where his interests lay as a filmmaker and what little needed to be tweaked to get him there.

9.  A League of Their Own

As I mentioned at the time of her passing, Penny Marshall was an industry treasure: the rare woman in Hollywood who not only was allowed to direct her own movies, but who knocked it out of the park seemingly every time.  Unsurprisingly, Marshall had an intuitive mind for women characters, and knew her way around a film set well enough to bring her insights to life on the big screen.  And excepting the usual suspects when it comes to sports movies – genre stalwarts like Rocky (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Million Dollar Baby (2004),The Fighter (2010) and  Creed (2015)A League of Their Own is an easy choice for the best of the lot: a rousing underdog story that combines compelling characters with interesting situations and exciting ball games.

8. Glengarry Glen Ross

Despite the seeming similarities between the mediums, it’s remarkably rare for a play to actually translate well onto the big screen.  Although they share similarities in their use of sets and actors and scripts, the particular language of the two are drastically different from one another, usually making for an awkward translation at best (and an outright failure at worst).  Sure, you get all those classic Shakespeare films, or something like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), but more often than not you get a stiff, stagey production that’s not nearly as fun to watch in the multiplex as it was on the stage.  Not so, however, with Glengarry Glen Ross, which bucks the trend through its smart direction, capable A and B list cast and a story so compelling that it hardly matters what it was originally intended for.  And that brass balls speech that Alec Baldwin gives near the start of the film is such a perfect marriage of actor and subject that I could hardly imagine it being performed by any other performer.

7. My Cousin Vinny

Although the film enjoyed considerable success and attention upon its release (it is infamously the film that won actress Marissa Tomei an Oscar), I can’t help but feel that its notoriety has dropped off considerably in the decades since.  Its witty, circumlocutory dialog, its bombastic character beats, its comedic set pieces and its constant verbal slapstick make it one of the hands-down funniest movies of the decade – the last great decade for mainstream comedies – and yet it’s somehow fallen off of peoples’ collective radars?  Come on, People!  I don’t say this often, so understand that I mean it now: this is one Hell of a comedy and should not, under any circumstances, be missed.

6. Porco Rosso

Looking back on it, 1991 seemed to be the year of lesser works of exceptional filmmakers still making respectable positions on year-end best-of lists; after all, the listing started off with Spielberg, moved into Scorsese and then followed-up with the Coens.  Joining Tarantino this year is a tragically overlooked Miyazaki feature: a World War I era riff on the classic Princess and the Frog story.  In it, a Red Baron-esque fighter pilot is transformed into an anthropomorphic pig, leading him to combat pilots while befriending a young girl.  Laying down much of the groundwork for the much better-received The Wind Rises (2013), including some of that films more fantastical elements and Europhilia, it’s a worthy addition to Miyazaki’s early filmography and not something that fans of his work should overlook.

5. Army of Darkness

Sam Raimi has always been a strange sort of a filmmaker.  From his Evil Dead (1981) beginnings to his Darkman (1990) years and even through his peak as a mainstream director via his Spider-Man (2002) outings, his zany, Guignol-leaning tendencies of unbridled excess have suited him and his projects well.  Even failures like Drag Me to Hell (2009) surge with a kind of kineticism that only a Raimi flick can offer us.  Even today, I’ll still sit through Spider-Man 3 (2007) for all the wonderful parts that don’t quite work together because they still amount to the most entertaining minutes of that year’s movies when compared to far more capably crafted fare.  And when all is said and done, Army of Darkness – the capstone of his Evil Dead trilogy – is easily the Raimiest thing that Sam Raimi ever filmed: a madcap action-horror-fantasy hybrid that explodes the traditional boundaries of the big screen out as far as they’ll go.  It’s gorgeous, grotesque and is utterly fascinating to behold throughout its run time.

4. Hard Boiled

It would be unfair to either movie to talk about Hard Boiled being a continuation of, nor building upon Woo’s earlier The KillerHad Boiled doesn’t so much refine what Woo did in that earlier film so much as he remixes it: giving us a different version  of the same old tune.  More narratively linear but just as bombastic, Hard Boiled takes the building blocks of Woo’s earlier features and combines them in new and interesting ways here, including a hospital-set blowout that raises the comparatively more modest stakes of The Killer beyond anything that film was capable of.  To that end, Hard Boiled is nearly as satisfying a film, though it still blows any of its American competition completely out of the water.

3. Aladdin

As the long-promised live-action remake of this animated classic comes rushing into theaters later this year, it would do well to remember what made the original such an amazing film in the first place.  It wasn’t the frenetic antics of Robin William’s Genie nor the villainous machinations of Jafar nor the gorgeous visuals realized through pristine artistic rendering, although all of these certainly contributed to that same end result.  It was the profound emotional core of the film that brought audiences back again and again and again (and again and again and again): the desperate big of a downtrodden “street rat” to become more than what he appeared, or of a primrose princess fighting just as desperately against what tradition dictated her to become.  Like all the best Disney features, when stripped of all the bells and whistles (the songs, the gags, the action set-pieces), it reveals its core to be made of raw human emotion and gripping experience.  Disney would do well to remember that as they put the finishing touches on their latest cash-grab remake.

2. The Player

I’ll admit it: I’m the perfect mark for a movie like this.  I’m a big fan of the insider baseball of the Hollywood scene, of the subtle winks to classic movies, the subtle dig at early 90’s movie culture and every bit of narrative and directorial flourish thrown in along the way (up to and including an opening tracking shot of a Hollywood movie lot capturing the mostly-improved dialog between movie moguls discussing their favorite movie tracking shots).  Even if it was nothing but that – a few days in the life of a cynical movie producer, misanthropically going through his daily routine until its upended by the unintended murder of a failed screenwriter – it would have been enough for me; it might have even still made this list somewhere (although undoubtedly at a much lower ranking).  But The Player has a lot more going for it than that, including intersecting subplots that lend profound thematic weight to the larger story, a commanding central cast (including the tragically underutilized Tim Robbins) and a grim look into the grimy world of moviemaking.

1. Unforgiven

It’s easy to forget now, at the tail end of his career (where he’s perhaps better remembered as the guy who talked to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention than as the guy who shot up dastardly outlaws with a six-shooter), but Clint Eastwood is unquestionably one of out best and most quintessential filmmakers: has been, in fact, since the mid-sixties.  His no-frills approach to filmmaking produces lean, no-nonsense stories that are downright Zen-like in their simplicity.  Given robust material suited toward the task, he can create a stripped-down portrait of any subject, exposing the raw nerve of humanity deep within.  And while it’s tempting to say his best film is something like Mystic River (2003) or Million Dollar Baby (2004), that honor really belongs to Unforgiven, a misanthropic deconstruction of the kinds of spaghetti westerns he first made his name performing in.  It’s a dark and dirty take on a troubled genre that too often glosses over the innate ugliness of its subjects – hero and villain alike – and here proves that there are no good and bad people: just the same old ugly sons-a-bitches that you find anywhere else.

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