The Year in Film

In no year since the dawn of cinema has there been a higher percentage of dreadful films than in 1995. That sounds hyperbolic, I know, but there's no other way to describe the experience of sitting through pernicious garbage like White Man's Burden or To Die For or The Scarlet Letter or The American President. The upshot is that, in such a debased film culture as this, these movies actually represent the higher echelon of Hollywood product, as opposed to more conspicuous drivel like The Tie That Binds or Under Siege 2 or the pseudo-futuro-interactive Mr. Payback. Naturally, by contrast, the year's many great films seemed that much more so. In fact, movies on the whole seemed either to suck or be amazing: a function, perhaps, of filmmakers' desperate need to make some sort of impact at a time when the market has rarely been more competitive. Or maybe it's just my tendency to overpraise as a result of spending too much time in the company of unwatchable films.

The continued deterioration of standards among audiences and critics (see: Waterworld) indicates that many viewers have no interest in the ability of films to challenge, provoke, incite, disturb, or enlighten; they clearly regard movies as entertaining diversions rather than art. Looking back over the year, I realized that none of the films that gave me the most pleasure could be construed as entertainments--unless, like me, you're thrilled by movies that dare to reveal something new or tell it like it is. The best movies of the year offered ambiguity and the complexities of real life, but also clear distinctions from the fluff at the opposite end of the spectrum. They revealed characters (or filmmakers) who struggled against adversity to define some sort of personal truth, and thus did their part toward making this a more honest place to live. Still, it may be worth noting that most of my 10 great films ended in exhaustion, despair, or death; only the Jane Austen adaptation Persuasion and the Iranian melodrama Through the Olive Trees contained anything like happy endings, and both of those were so exaggeratedly upbeat as to seem downright surreal, if not subversive.

So, on the whole, movies this year didn't suck, at least not if you knew where to look for them. In assembling a best-of list, I discovered that such strong movies as Nixon and Before Sunrise, Lamerica and Babe, and The Secret of Roan Inish and Postcards From America, didn't even make my Top 25. But it's also true that we as viewers have been conditioned to accept mediocrity: How else to explain that the top grossers of the year included Batman Forever, Apollo 13, Toy Story, Casper, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, and Pocahontas? (And what does the success of these movies say about Americans' collective sense of maturity?) True, box-office hits can, once in a blue moon, be great movies (see 12 Monkeys or, to a lesser extent, The Bridges of Madison County); yet the reverse is true even less often.

Comparatively, 1994 spawned a higher number of movies that were both commercially successful and artistically compelling--making it, in hindsight, a fascinating year in pop cinema. Between Forrest Gump and Natural Born Killers, and Pulp Fiction and Speed, there was no shortage of revelatory head-trips. This year, Kathryn Bigelow's assaultive Strange Days might have reached zeitgeist proportions itself, but the public rejected it with a vengeance. If '94 blockbusters seemed to traffic in speed and chaos, '95 played like an escapist retreat from the madness. Not counting the hysterical Outbreak and the indelible, relentlessly despairing Seven, the year's biggest hits acknowledged little about the hole we're in--except maybe the collective desire to bury our heads in it.

The highest grossers were barely worth discussing: There was the shallow, post-Gump patriotism of Apollo 13; the pre-sold stupidity of Casper, Batman Forever, and the admittedly riotous Ace Ventura sequel; the techno and tie-in-ready wizardry of Toy Story; and the would-be progressivism of Pocahontas. Among the year's hits, only Dangerous Minds, flawed as it was, sought earnestly to acknowledge societal problems and point the way toward a solution. (For the record, Dangerous Minds' vision of racial healing seemed to me not nearly as suspect as the one in the overpraised Smoke.)

Otherwise, there was the predictable slew of low-brow family entertainments and heroic buddy movies. To varying degrees, Heat, Apollo 13, and Grumpier Old Men paid tribute to males who shot off their guns, rockets, or mouths, while their little women waited patiently at home. The Crossing Guard was certainly one of the most blatantly macho films in recent memory, although, as directed by Sean Penn, it dared to reveal plenty of anti-heroic consequences and psychic pain as well (or at least until its compromised ending). Even as the women's picture was revived through such fraudulent weepers as Boys on the Side and Moonlight and Valentino (by default, the genre's standouts were Clueless, Waiting to Exhale, and Something to Talk About), there were more blatantly misogynistic films than in any other year I can remember (none more so than To Die For and Species, both of which, by any standards, trafficked in a deeply paranoid fear of female sexuality).

The higher-profile art-house movies couldn't always be counted on to pick up the slack. But the ironic virtue was that, as expected, the predictability of much commercial art-house fare (see the empty Tarantinoisms of Shallow Grave and The Usual Suspects) allowed local reelers like Asian Media Access, Red Eye Cinema, Walker Art Center, and U Film Society to focus their energies more fully on the fringes. Particularly, U Film, despite some frustrating inconsistencies in programming quality (the result, no doubt, of a diminished exhibitor status relative to the artsyplex), gave us another superbly comprehensive Rivertown International Film Festival and a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Film Festival that included local premieres of such essential movies as Ballot Measure 9, Postcards From America, and Super 8-1/2.

On the subject of local film, much of the hype this year centered around the Minnesota-based productions of Grumpier Old Men and Mallrats, which brought millions of dollars into our fair state at the expense of two more unnecessary movies. Far more important from an artistic standpoint were the surprising successes of Eric Mueller's World and Time Enough, a romantic comedy that won some complimentary reviews and a modest box-office take through its runs in New York and elsewhere; Billy Golfus's When Billy Broke His Head...and Other Tales of Wonder (codirected with David Simpson), the hilarious and deeply felt disability-rights documentary that won the Freedom of Expression Award at Sundance before playing on PBS and at New York's Film Forum; and the riveting melodrama Blessing, which was shot in Wiscon-sin, written and directed by former U Film intern Paul Zehrer, and released to New York's prestigious Anjelica 57 theater. We can only hope that the much-touted Blockbuster Film Fund will succeed in launching more local movies with as much integrity as these three.

Finally, the year's other local film story of note was the birth of the peerless Oak Street Cinema in late March. Besides being the Twin Cities' only full-time rep house during the dark age of video, Oak Street serves to remind us how far movie standards have fallen in the current mainstream. The bill of fare here on any given night almost always puts to shame what's playing at the multiplexes; take your pick among such nuggets as Saturday Night Fever, Buñuel's The Exterminat-ing Angel, and the Hong Kong masterpiece Ashes of Time, or retrospectives of Buster Keaton, Francois Truffaut, Jean Renoir, and Sam Peckinpah (all in 35mm, no less). In addition to its slew of revivals, the theater took chances on several extended runs of films that might otherwise have never found screen space in town. Indeed, would anyone else have dared to open a true indie like Sara Driver's bizarre ghost story When Pigs Fly, or a newly restored print of the French thriller Diabolique? Oak Street offers alternative cinema at a time when it's never been more sorely needed.

And that seems the central lesson of the year in film. There were dozens of worthwhile movies hidden amid a preponderance of dross; but, more than ever, you needed to keep your eyes peeled. CP

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