Directed by: Kevin Reynolds
It could be the flop of all flops. At the time, “Waterworld” was the most expensive film ever made. Starring Kevin Costner, “Waterworld” is a science-fiction/fantasy film taking place roughly 500 years after the polar ice caps melted in the beginning of the 21st century, effectively covering the entire world with water. Dirt has become a commodity and an unknown traveler named “the Mariner” (Costner) is trying to find anywhere to trade his stash. The catch: he’s a mutant, with gills, allowing him to breathe underwater. He is joined by a woman named Helen (Jeannie Tripplehorn) and child named Enola (Tina Majorino) with an elaborate map tattooed on her back. They sail the world and encounter various groups of survivors. They are pursued by a group of evil forces, led by an eye-patched man called “the Deacon” (Dennis Hopper). The special effects are actually pretty impressive, but the acting and storyline leaves something to be desired, to say the least. In the end, the film couldn’t make recoup its budget. Not even close. Probably because Kevin Costner drank his own pee. Don’t worry – he put it through some kind of filter first.
9. Before Sunrise
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Everybody loves “Dazed and Confused.” “Boyhood” has become a landmark film and is a leader in the Oscar race. But when Richard Linklater’s filmography is considered at the end of time, it’s the “Before” trilogy that should come first. All of that started in 1995 with “Before Sunrise,” an romantic drama co-written by Linklater and Kim Krizan. Starring Ethan Hawke as Jesse, we follow him as he meets a young French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train. He convinces her to get off the train in Vienna, where the two spend the entire evening and night walking the streets and talking, getting to know each other intimately. And that’s it. Not much else happens, but we learn more and more about Jesse and Celine as the film progresses. We learn their philosophies, their personalities, and how their somewhat jaded and cynical natures may just be a cover for more romantic ideals. Nine years later, we got to return to Jesse and Celine with “Before Sunset,” then nine years after that were treated to another day-long visit with “Before Midnight.” The films got better in subsequent offerings, but Linklater’s first foray into this inventive style of filmmaking was a revelation. We know Jesse and Celine. We feel what they feel. And the more we get to spend time with them, the more we understand ourselves.
Directed by: David Fincher
In 1986, David Fincher directed the music video for Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off.” This led to him working with Madonna on a number of videos. In 1992, Fincher was given the opportunity to direct his first feature film, the ill-fated sequel Alien 3. Despite that eclectic path to success, Fincher has now become one of the most inventive, creative directors working today. His 1995 offering Se7en (I have to put that number in there; I’m pretty sure it’s in the marketing contract for the film) was a creepy, slowly-paced crime thriller starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as a detective team on the trail of a no-named killer committing murders associated with the seven deadly sins. Mills (Pitt) is a rookie, assigned to work with Somerset (Freeman), who is retiring from the force. Somerset is intent on trying to understand the motives of this sociopath, while Mills is bent on trying to find him at any cost. We are taken from murder scene to murder scene; all the while “John Doe” proselytizes and preaches his reasoning behind the crimes. They are justified; he is punishing those who are deserving. Slowly, the case begins to unravel, only to find that “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey) hasn’t slipped up – he has them right where he wants them. “Se7en” is certainly not as polished as Fincher’s work has become, but there is plenty to be excited about here. A truly haunting film, “Se7en” is one of the best crime dramas of the 90’s; and with a horror twist.
7. The Usual Suspects
Directed by: Bryan Singer
See? It’s still all about the ending. An independent ensemble crime drama with a killer cast, “The Usual Suspects” took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, as well as Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Spacey (who, to be honest, was pretty much the lead of the film). The story follows Verbal Kint (Spacey) as he retells the story of how his crew joined up and got involved in a firefight aboard a ship, Kint suffering from cerebral palsy. His team: former police officer Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), thief Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), McManus’ brother Fred (Benicio del Toro), and hijacker Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack). Kint tells the entire story to customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), detailing their relationship with Turkish criminal mastermind Keyser Soze. We watch the story unfold; who does what, who stands out as a possible leader, who else they involved, and who can figure out what the hell Benicio del Toro is saying for the entire movie. If you don’t know the twist by now, you may have been living under a rock for the past 20 years. I won’t spoil it anyway. With a title taken from “Casablanca,” “The Usual Suspects” delivered on all fronts – a thrilling narrative with a tricky plot to follow, all coming to a glorious finale. Spacey was a respected actor up to this point. This movie helped make him a favorite A-lister.
Directed by: Chris Noonan
A G-rated film nominated for Best Picture? About a talking pig? With no big name actors in it? In “Babe,” Arthur Hoggett (Oscar-nominated James Cromwell) brings home an orphaned piglet named Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh), whom he places with his border collie named Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes), who cares for him, despite the objections of her mate Rex (voiced by Hugo Weaving). Babe befriends a mischievous duck named Ferdinand (voiced by Danny Mann), who almost succeeds in getting Babe in trouble on multiple occasions. After Fly and Rex have a fight, Rex ends up chained to the house, leaving Hoggett to give sheep-herding duties to Babe. Babe learns that, instead of threatening the sheep, he can actually persuade them to move by simply talking to them. He befriends the sheep and slowly becomes an expert herder, despite his small stature and out-of-place appearance. “Babe” is a triumph in many ways, providing an incredibly sweet story that has a lot more layers of darkness than seen on the surface. It also manages to use the talking animals trope to a rare success, never leaning too far to the “cutesy” side of the fence. “Babe’s” unusually dark sequel “Babe: Pig in the City” goes in a much different direction (though, some would say, equal in terms of quality), but the original is still one of the warmest, least antagonistic films of the 1990’s.
5. Get Shorty
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
Movies about movies have become old hat – a dime a dozen, if you will. But in 1990, Elmore Leonard’s novel “Get Shorty” debuted and took a sideways look at the industry as it compares to the mob. The 1995 adaptation felt incredibly timely, starring John Travolta as Chilli Palmer, a loan shark who goes to Hollywood to collect a debt, only to find himself ingrained in the movie business, trying to make a film about his own life. We follow Chilli exports through Tinseltown, as he meets a cadre of of colorful characters: actress Karen Flores (Rene Russo), mobster Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo), Karen’s ex Martin (Danny DeVito), and so on. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and it turns out that Hollywood is no different than underground crime. There are plenty of backroom deals, lots of money changes hands, and every favor demands another favor in return. Leonard’s novel was spot on – Scott Frank’s screenplay followed the source material pretty closely, delivering a funny, witty take on the industry. Eight years later, they tried to tarnish its legacy with the awful sequel “Be Cool.” Thankfully, it’s all but forgotten, while “Get Shorty” still stands out as one of the best movies about movies
4. Apollo 13
Directed by: Ron Howard
It was the pre-exalted winner before the final tally was taken. Ron Howard had made plenty of family-style fare (“Cocoon,” “Parenthood”), but never really felt like he could be considered an “auteur” until this docudrama premiered. “Apollo 13” is the story of what was supposed to be our third lunar landing. The crew of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert (Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon) begin their journey, only to encounter issues with the spacecraft, leaving them stranded in space. They communicate with Houston through the whole encounter, while teams of scientists and astronauts work around the clock to make sure they get home safely. Ripe with excellent performances, “Apollo 13” was the odds on favorite for Oscar gold until it ran into the behemoth that was “Braveheart.” Doesn’t make the film any less of an accomplishment. Science-fiction genre not withstanding (“2001: A Space Odyssey,” for example), outside of “The Right Stuff,” this may very well be the most realistic, compelling astronaut film ever made.
Directed by: Michael Mann
Robert De Niro. Al Pacino. TOGETHER!!?? Directed by Michael Mann, “Heat” was not the first time the two big screen behemoths were in a film together (The Godfather Part II), but it was the first time they shared the screen together. De Niro plays Neil McCauley, a thief with a crew who go from big target to big target, while being tailed by Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and his police team from the robbery/homicide division. The film takes the crime drama to another level, pitting McCauley and Hanna against each other directly – both have troubled personal lives and follow a specific set of rules. When McCauley finds himself falling in love he also begins to let his guard down, providing Hanna with his opening. The face-to-face moments are intense and Mann’s direction creates a darkened, gritty environment that has since been the model for countless other crime dramas, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City in “The Dark Knight.” Mann has made good movies since and, though some may rival “Heat” in terms of quality, it’d be tough to stand up to it in terms of impact. I mean, it’s Michael Corleone and young Vito Corleone in the same scene.
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Mel Gibson made his directorial debut with “The Man Without a Face,” a weird drama about a teenager who gets tutoring from a disfigured recluse. In the two years since that movie’s release, Gibson figured out that all anybody really wants his to do is be an action star. Screenwriter Randall Wallace took the story of 13th century Scottish warrior William Wallace and built a story around it. Gibson took the script and delivered an Oscar winner, taking home the Best Picture trophy. “Braveheart” is a brooding, stylized story of the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I, led by Wallace after the execution of his secret bride. Medieval scheming and battle is done, spanning 177 minutes of screen time, littered with catchy dialog and a motivational speech that has since been parodied and copied dozens of times (including in my 9th grade film adaptation of Homer’s “The Odyssey”). Sure, “Braveheart” is historically inaccurate. Sure, Mel Gibson has since gone a little off the rocker. But “Braveheart” took home the gold, a huge chunk of box office money, and grabbed an incredibly varied demographic not typically associated with historical war epics.
1. Toy Story
Directed by: John Lasseter
In 1986, George Lucas’ production company helped make “Howard the Duck,” one of the biggest flops of all time. In an effort to recoup some money, Lucas sold the Graphics Group of the Computer Division of Lucasfilm to his friend, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. That little computer animation studio became Pixar. Nine years later, Pixar changed the landscape of animation and film history with the first of one of the biggest, most dependable movie franchises of all time. “Toy Story” was the first full length motion picture from the studio, directed by John Lasseter, who now oversees all Pixar productions. A team of talented writers including Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter (as well as Lasseter himself) delivered a story of toys who have lives of their own, led by Woody the Cowboy (Tom Hanks). When their owner Andy brings home a new, state-of-the-art Buzz Lightyear action figure (Tim Allen), the conflicts are set in motion, as Woody begins to question where Andy’s affection points and Buzz has to overcome the fact that he is, in fact, a toy. A rare Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for an animated film came its way, as well as nominations for Best Original Score and Song. “Toy Story” was made for $30 million. It grossed over $360 million. Disney had just jumped back into the public eye with a solid run of traditional animated films; co-producing “Toy Story” took them into the stratosphere again and changed the game. Not every animated film had to be for kids, but Pixar somehow found a way to bring adult sensibilities to movies made for children without alienating the youthful demographic. “Toy Story” was the first and certainly wasn’t the last.
Any you feel I forgot? Don’t worry fans of sub-standard Westerns. “The Quick and the Dead” was #51.
Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5