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The Definitive Movies of 1995

screenshot from Dead Man Walking

20. Dead Man Walking
Directed by: Tim Robbins

Susan Sarandon earned herself an Oscar for her work in “Dead Man Walking,” a film directed by her then husband, Tim Robbins. She plays Sister Prejean, a nun who befriends a death row inmate named Matthew (Oscar nominated Sean Penn) as they confide in one another and build a convincing relationship as the days and hours tick down until his execution. Robbins intercuts the scenes with Sarandon and Penn with moments of the actual crime taking place, creating a storytelling rift that both supports and contradicts moments within the film, creating two very carefully drawn and developed characters. In addition to visiting him regularly, Prejean begins the crusade to find him a lawyer to make an appeal, doing all she can to delay his sentence being carried out. But, as she meets the families of the victims, she finds herself torn between right and wrong and who to support. The second and best of Robbins’ three directorial efforts, “Dead Man Walking” finds a balance between melodrama and honesty, handing crucial parts to two of the era’s best actors. Sarandon has long since proven herself; Penn was just beginning to realize the potential he showed early on, in between his crazy personal escapades.

screenshot from Kids

19. Kids
Directed by: Larry Clarke

The feel-good family screenwriting debut of known wunderkind Harmony Korine, Larry Clark’s “Kids” is a brutally gritty drama centering on 24 hours in the lives of a group of sexually active teenagers and the consequences of their actions. 17-year-old Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) has taken to only sleeping with virgins, and begins the film by talking 12-year-old Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) into having sex with him. Unknowingly, she has tested positive for HIV, potentially infecting Telly. Once she receives her diagnosis, Jennie goes on a trek to find Telly, knowing that, at any moment, he could be trying to sleep with another girl, most likely a virgin. Telly is gallivanting around, looking for drugs and sex with his friend Casper (Justin Pierce), taking them to various people and parties. All the while, Jennie searches for them, only to show up a moment to late at multiple moments. “Kids” grabbed a rare NC-17 rating, due to its explicit content and, while it’s certainly not a graphic as many other films with that rating, it’s definitely more sickening than most. There’s no hope in this film. It’s not a bad film; it’s just a degrading, but potentially honest look at teenage stupidity and sexuality. Without it, Korine probably never makes “Gummo” or “Mister Lonely” or even “Spring Breakers.”

screenshot from GoldenEye

18. GoldenEye
Directed by: Martin Campbell

After years of suffering through Roger Moore Bond films (though, I love “A View to a Kill” and its insanity), Timothy Dalton stepped in for “The Living Daylights” and “License to Kill” in the late 80’s. After contract disputes, Dalton stepped away from the role, resulting in a six year gap between films. In 1995, Martin Campbell stepped in to direct and James Bond’s new face became Pierce Brosnan, known by most audiences as Remington Steele. “GoldenEye” was the first Bond film not to take story elements from the novels by Ian Fleming and took a sharp left by recasting the popular M as a woman, played by Judi Dench. The story centers on Bond following a suspected member of a crime syndicate named Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), who supposedly reports to a mastermind named Janus (Sean Bean). The story is similar to plenty of other Bond films: espionage, international travels, an oddly disfigured villain, sex fighting in a sauna. While Brosnan is not thought by many to be the best Bond, “GoldenEye” injected life back into a series (for a year or two) that needed it, earning multiple Oscar nominations and good reviews. It’s a solid Bond film – probably just above the middle of the pack – but, more importantly, it was the inspiration for the Nintendo 64 first person shooter game with the same name, which I am terrible at, but had lots of fun playing. In our multiplayer sessions, no one was allowed to be Oddjob. It was considered cheating.

screenshot from Showgirls

17. Showgirls
Directed by: Paul Verhoven (as Jan Jansen)

Oh, what a beautiful mess this tries to be. Written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoven (who doesn’t want his name attached), “Showgirls” is an incredibly messy, excruciatingly melodramatic erotic drama starring none other than Jessica Spano herself, Elizabeth Berkeley. The story is kind of a take on “All About Eve,” but in Las Vegas. With dancers. And bad actors. And a ton of ludicrous nudity. The film became the first and only – up to this point – NC-17 rated production to be wide released in mainstream theaters. Naomi (Berkeley) is a drifter who heads to Sin City to try to break her way into dancing. And really, describing the rest of this film would just make me angry. Verhoven attended the Golden Raspberry awards to accept his Raspberry for Worst Director, so at least he knows what he did to cinema. The following year, the Demi Moore vehicle “Striptease” had the unfortunate task of being continuously compared to “Showgirls.” “Striptease” is also pretty bad, but nowhere near the quality of “Showgirls.” It has since earned a cult following, one of those “so bad it’s amazing” films. It’s terrible, but I’d venture a guess that anyone over the age of ten when it premiered would forget it.

screenshot from Strange Days

16. Strange Days
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow didn’t really become widely known until her Best Director and Picture win for the astounding war drama “The Hurt Locker.” But, early on (before and when she was still married to James Cameron), she was making really solid independent films. 1987’s “Near Dark” is excellent. 1991’s “Point Break” is a ton of fun. And 1995 brought the world “Strange Days,” a sci-fi/action thriller written by Cameron and Jay Cocks. Taking place on the verge of Y2K in the battlefield that is Los Angeles, “Strange Days” follows an ex-cop named Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) who now deals in a technology that allows people to record their memories on to data-discs, allowing users to experience the memories of other people. But, when Lenny receives a disc that contains the memories of a murderer who has killed a prostitute, he finds himself pulled back into an investigative mindset, pulling him into a world of corruption, dishonesty, murder, and rape. He drags his friend Macey (Angela Bassett) down with him and the two find themselves on the run from corrupt police officers and others in a time of civil unrest. Re-watching “Strange Days” now, the film almost holds more weight, as we now live in a world where every moment seems to be on tape somewhere. Fiennes and Bassett are fantastic in the film and, while Bigelow has come a long way since, it was early proof that she was an incredibly capable filmmaker. She became the first woman to take home a Saturn Award for Best Director for the film.

screenshot from Friday

15. Friday
Directed by: F. Gary Gray

With all due respect, the huge litany of stupid, somewhat mindless comedies has always been with white characters (not to mention the entirety of film to begin with, but that’s another topic for another day). But in 1995, director F. Gary Gray and writers Ice Cube and DJ Pooh (yes, they are the writers) collaborated to give the world “Friday,” a stoner buddy comedy about two friends spending the day together, looking for weed and something to do. That’s about the extent of the movie. Craig and Smokey (Ice Cube and Chris Tucker) must find a way to pay a drug dealer $200 by the end of the night, and head out to accomplish this feat anyway they can. Craig just lost his job and Smokey hasn’t been selling the stash his supplier has been giving him. Family and friends get involved and the whole insane day get more and more complicated. And drug filled. “Friday” gave way to three lesser sequels, but the original was an original take on the “day in the life” sub-genre, with a completely Black cast. It gave Ice Cube a new outlet into the film industry and provided the world with the incredibly annoying (though sometimes funny) Chris Tucker. But, most of all, “Friday” is really funny.

screenshot from 12 Monkeys

14. Twelve Monkeys
Directed by: Terry Gilliam

It’s now a SyFy television show (which I hear isn’t bad). Previously, it was a 1962 short film called “La Jetee,” comprised entirely of photographs. In 1995, Terry Gilliam adapted it and made “12 Monkeys” with the help of Janet Peoples, making it the second of his “dystopian trilogy,” which began with 1985’s “Brazil” (better) and completed with last year’s “Zero Theorem” (worse…much worse). We follow James Cole (Bruce Willis), a convict sent back in time to try and stop a deadly virus that has wiped out five billion people from 1996-1997. Unfortunately, he ends up in 1990, where he is placed in an insane asylum. There, he meets Jeffrey Goines (Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt), whose father is a renowned scientist and expert on viruses. Cole is searching for the titular monkeys, who he was told spread the virus. To escape from the asylum, he kidnaps a psychiatrist named Kathryn (Madeline Stowe) and uses her to hunt down the 12 monkeys, who turn out to be a militant group who are planning to release virus into major cities. In retrospect, “Twelve Monkeys” can feel meandering and a bit messy at times, but it did harness Pitt’s power to play a loose cannon. It also found an interesting outlet for Willis, who had been mostly an action and comedy star up to that point. He turns in a solid performance in a film that shifted quite a bit from its source material, but still managed to be a box office and critical success.

screenshot from Leaving Las Vegas

13. Leaving Las Vegas
Directed by: Mike Figgis

Nicholas Cage is nuts. But, long before he became the butt of dozens of jokes and the face of countless Internet memes, he was an Oscar winning actor for his honest portrayal of alcoholic screenwriter Ben Sanderson in “Leaving Las Vegas.” Ben’s alcoholism has alienated everyone in his life and he moves to Sin City to drink himself to death. There, he meets Sera (Oscar-nominated Elizabeth Shue), a prostitute with whom he eventually moves in under two conditions: she never asks him to stop drinking, while he never gives her a hard time about being a prostitute. That deal works…briefly. Eventually, their relationship implodes, leading Ben to bring home another prostitute (Mariska Hargitay!) and Sera to fall into an incredibly unwanted experience with some college students. “Leaving Las Vegas” is not a happy movie. At all. It’s difficult to sit through, but manages to rise above its material thanks to the performances from its lead actors, especially Cage, who gives some of the best work of his career. Shue has never been better.

screenshot from Casino

12. Casino
Directed by: Martin Scorsese

The spiritual sequel to Scorsese’s masterpiece “Goodfellas,” “Casino” brought Scorsese and his screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi back together for their second screenplay after “Goodfellas.” The film stars Robert De Niro as Ace Rothstein, a gambling handicapper called to oversee the Tangiers casino in Las Vegas by the Italian Mob. In addition, they send Mob enforcer Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to ensure that money is taken from the casino’s proceeds and the other mobsters follow through with the plan. Ace falls in love with a hustler named Ginger (Oscar-nominated Sharon Stone) and, while she repeatedly refuses his proposal for marriage, he ensures her that she will always be taken care of, despite never accepting his offer. The two eventually do marry, but begin to show cracks when Ginger begins giving money to an ex-boyfriend. From there, chaos erupts, resulting in graphic murders and dishonesty across the board. To explain the rest of the plot would take the rest of this post, plus another couple. Besides, it’s one of Scorsese’s most loved movies – see it for yourself. It’s the movie “American Hustle” wishes it was.

screenshot from Clueless

11. Clueless
Directed by: Amy Heckerling

One of the best ideas ever: take a Jane Austen novel and set it in southern California. Adapting Austen’s Emma, writer/director Amy Heckerling introduced a completely new slang dictionary to the world outside of SoCal with “Clueless,” starring Alicia Silverstone. She stars as Cher, a wealthy teenager in Beverly Hills who bites off more than she can chew months before her sixteenth birthday. She and her equally wealthy friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) are at odds over Dionne’s long term relationship with Murray (Donald Faison), which she thinks is pointless. She is playing matchmaker to two lonely teachers in her school. She decides to mentor a “tragically unhip” new girl in her class named Tai (Brittany Murphy). She constantly bickers with her ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), visiting during his college break. The two are hopelessly incompatible: Josh is socially conscious and idealistic; Cher is vain, selfish, and superficial. All of Cher’s new activities have opened her eyes to a world of good deeds, realizing she finds joy in helping others. The film spawned a television show of the same, including most of the original cast, minus Silverstone. The show didn’t last, but the impact of what was really just a teen comedy was much bigger than expected. Outside of all the stars who eventually emerged from the cast, it gave the world “As if!” and plenty of other turns of phrase.

–Joshua Gaul

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screenshot from To Die For

The Definitive Movies of 1995

screenshot from Se7en

The Definitive Movies of 1995