20/20 Hindsight: The Best Movies of 1994

To many moviegoers, and especially to those of my generation, 1994 is a hallmark year in the annals of cinema.  It is, after all, the year of Pulp Fiction, of Forrest Gump and of The Shawshank Redemption.  It’s the year when the last two entries in the acclaimed Three Colors trilogy came out, or Wong-Kar Wai’s breakout Chungking Express.  It’s when the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise got good again, and when Kevin Smith stepped into the limelight.  It represents a seminal moment in film of great new talent and polish studio products, of elevated genre fare and of all-time childhood classics.  And really, when it well and truly comes down to it, it’s pretty hard to argue with too many other years beating this one out.

10. The Crow

Contrary to popular belief, superheroes aren’t just the realm of DC or Marvel.  Not everyone’s a member of the Avengers and the genre has a surprising degree of elasticity to it.  There’s room for Hellboy (2004) and Unbreakable (2000) too; you can have something as zany as Deadpool (2016) offset by something as grim as Logan (2017) or as revolutionary as Black Panther (2018).  There’s so much more to work with here than people give it credit for, which is perhaps why this remarkable film about a rock-and-roll Christ-figure reaping vengeance on the gangsters that killed him has been relegated to purely ‘cult’ status.  Featuring the breakout final performance of actor Brandon Lee and a better Gothamesque cityscape than Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), The Crow proves that there are avenues yet to explore in this genre, with stories and characters beyond what studios have limited it to.

9 .Clerks

Looking back from 2018, I can see why some younger movie fan might not get exactly why Kevin Smith in general, and Clerks in particular, is such a big deal to so many people.  It’s a stylistically unsophisticated, narratively immature and obviously cheaply made film whose general gimmick has been aped by countless films in the intervening twenty-four years.  The thing is, though, that at the time, Clerks was one-of a kind: a conversation driven character piece (like “adult” / prestige movies) about service-industry shlubs and Gen-X screw-ups who were mired in nerd-culture minutia.  Through its juxtaposition of style and content, it represented a synthesis of both high and low art, glued together with the same fiercely independent, do-it-yourself energy that was informing movies like Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) and Reservoir Dogs (1992).  Although Smith has sadly failed to live up to the promise of his debut feature, and although the film has aged fairly poorly in its own right, it remains a shockingly fun time and a remarkable time capsule of a bygone era.

8. Forrest Gump

Like Clerks, I can’t say that Forrest Gump has aged especially well here.  Its middlebrow, decidedly milquetoast narrative that takes a cockeyed look at the mid-century social movements of its setting and uncomfortably idealizes the ignorant White man as a wizened sage, is emblematic of the kinds of hot water currently embroiling Best Picture hopeful Green Book (2018) and the legacy of Driving Miss Daisy (1989).  But I would be lying if I said that the movie’s charms had completely faded with time, that the performances weren’t done by some of the decade’s best actors and the very height of their appeal or that its troublesome narrative ultimately didn’t work as the harrowing life’s story it sets out to be.  Despite its time-battered exterior, it’s simply still one Hell of a movie, with some amazing scenes and an endlessly quotable script.

7. Three Colors: White

The middle entry into Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, the film takes its name from the second color in the French flag and its overriding theme from the virtue it represents: equality.  Like a sedate retelling of Falling Down (1993), the film depicts what a man will go to when pushed to the brink by the events of one especially bad day.  Divorced, broke, homeless and alone, he dementedly pulls himself up by his bootstraps by enacting his revenge against all those who wrong him.  Although the “worst” movie of the three (which is to say that it is merely a very good movie), it persists as a standout production of both its country-of-origin and in the filmography of its director.

6. New Nightmare

The problem with horror movies is that they’re so very inexpensive to make.  Although this would ordinarily be considered a boon, especially by a canny producer in need of a cheap flick to keep his studio solvent, the result is that they’re almost always guaranteed to turn a profit (usually a rather large one).  And when something can be made this cheaply and this profitably, rapid fire sequels become an annualized and increasingly disappointing event, until the last drops of creativity are wrung out from the dried-out husk of a franchise and the studio moves on to its next victim (at least until they decide that a remake is in order).  The Nightmare on Elm Street series ran into this very problem after the release of franchise best The Dream Warriors (1987), and carried on through until this tenth-anniversary entry to the series.  Set ostensibly in the “real world,” where Freddy Krueger is a movie villain in a cheap horror franchise, the film depicts the gruesome murders of the cast and crew working on the latest Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  Featuring cameos, a meta-fictional script and the first genuine scares in the franchise for years, this remains one of director Wes Craven’s most interesting, ambitious and cerebral films.

5. The Shawshank Redemption

Sometimes, though, you don’t need to get fancy with a movie.  Sometimes you don’t need high-concept scripts, heavy thematic through lines or revolutionary aesthetics.  Sometimes, like with Forrest Gump, simply being really well-made is enough.  Sometimes, all you need is a workhorse director, a solid script and a collection of great actors to make a project into a classic.  Nobody will ever accuse The Shawshank Redemption of being anything more than it is – a really good, really accessible movie – and that’s fine.  It never needed to be anything else.

4. The Lion King

I’ll let you in on a little secret: my wife’s going to kill me when she gets around to reading this article.  She loves The Lion King.  It’s her favorite movie: the first one she saw in the theater and, in all likelihood, the one that she’s rewatched the most throughout her life.  She prefers it to any of the other, more traditional adaptations of Hamlet and even to any of the other, more celebrated Disney classics.  She loves the songs, loves the animation and loves the apocalyptic showdown between Simba and Scar at the end.  And though I didn’t rank it as #1 on this list (as I know she’d want me to), I can’t say that I disagree with her.  The movie is damn-near the pinnacle of the Disney Renaissance and was, for the longest time, my favorite Disney movie.  It will certainly be interesting to see what they do with the movie later in 2019.

3. Pulp Fiction

I must confess that I have something of a love / hate relationship with Quentin Tarantino.  The man is a far better writer than he is a director, and lets himself get away with things that an otherwise impartial director would never have tolerated from a screenwriter.  Scenes drag on far past their expiration date, dialog is considerably more elevated than realistic and the hyper-stylized violence that has become his trademark often comes entirely out of nowhere.  Despite all this, however, the man is such a good writer (and such a competent director) that his films can usually survive his worst tendencies.  They’re frenetic, interesting and endlessly compelling, bringing home of the stylistic flourishes from the French New Wave films and defining exactly what independent filmmaking of the 90s looked and felt  like.  And once you get past the rough edges, they all prove to be endlessly rewatchable.

2. Three Colors: Red

And finally we get to Red: the third Color, representing fraternity.  Easily the best of Kieślowski’s trilogy, Red depicts the increasingly entangled lives of a university student and part-time model with a retired, curmudgeonly judge.  It’s pressing drama that not only ties the trilogy together thematically, but narratively as well, as several of the preceding films’ characters appear throughout its runtime.  It’s difficult to say exactly what it is that makes Red such an astounding work of art (a trait in fact shared by many such works of art).  Does it benefit by the thematic groundwork covered in the other films (which then become explicitly tied with Red via its shared characters)?  Does it benefit from hindsight, learning from the mistakes and successes of Blue (1993) and White?  Maybe, maybe not.  All I know that it is a richly textured, real-feeling drama whose narrative arc is thoroughly satisfying to play witness to.

1. Chungking Express

A few months ago, FilmStruck, the combined Criterion Collection / Turner Classic Movies sreaming service, was shortsightedly shut down in a bid to bolster Warner Bros’ own proprietary streaming service (which won’t even be out until the end of the year).  With the month-long notice I received, I endeavored to watch exactly as many movies as I could before the plug was pulled on the service for good, getting in all the impossible-to-find elsewhere movies that FilmStruck had amassed over its short lifespan.  But when it came to be the final night of the service, and I only had enough time to watch one last movie, I didn’t watch some exclusive film found only on the service.  I didn’t dredge up some long-lost treasure that would soon be inaccessible to the world.  No, I rewatched Chungking Express, a quirky Hong Kong drama about two beat cops in the city trying to make sense of their love lives.  One shares a desperately meaningful night with a drug trafficker after eating 30 cans of expired pineapple (it’s a long story, don’t ask) while the woman who makes the other’s lunch compulsively breaks into his house to clean and redecorate (it’s also a long story).  It’s a beautiful, fun little film that offered the perfect bittersweet note to end my time with FilmStruck on.


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