As usual, this goes by release year as listed on IMDB.
Honorable mentions: The City of Lost Children, Copycat, Heat, Senior Trip, Welcome to the Dollhouse
10 – CLOCKERS (Spike Lee)
“Who the fuck is Rosa Parks?”
The plot of Clockers may be about a murder mystery, but it has a wider scope than that. Not surprisingly when it comes to Spike Lee, the film deals with black people in New York. There’s tension going on between them and the white cops, but also under the microscope here are the crimes the African-Americans inflict upon each other. It’s an intriguing film thematically, but it’s also some of Lee’s best story-telling that I’ve seen, and it all comes together through his trademark audiovisual style, with bright colors and an effective use of music. There’s also a pretty great Harvey Keitel performance in here. Clockers is not the director’s best movie, but it definitely deserves to be talked about more than it is.
9 – GET SHORTY (Barry Sonnenfeld)
“Rough business, this movie business. I’m gonna have to go back to loan-sharking just to take a rest.”
There’s a lot to like about Get Shorty. The numerous movie-related references and meta-jokes are sure to tickle the fancy of most cinephiles, but the humor is still broad enough to appeal to anyone. Having wonderfully constructed dialogue lifted straight from the Elmore Leonard novel helps too. Throw in a twisting plot of a loan-shark trying to get his foot – and more – into the doorway of Hollywood, and you have one hell of a fun ride. Has John Travolta ever been cooler than in this one?
8 – LIVING IN OBLIVION (Tom DiCillo)
“Great! I freak out in your dream, I freak out in my dream, no wonder I’m so fucking exhausted.”
1995 was apparently a good year for movies about movie-making, because here’s another one on my list. While Get Shorty is about the cutthroat world of Hollywood, Living in Oblivion covers the other end of the spectrum: low-budget independent film. It starts out simple enough, with a crew trying to shoot a movie and the numerous problems that arise. Then dream layers appear, reality seeps into the fiction and vice versa, and tension keeps rising between the various cast and crew members. Very clever and funny, and with a rare lead performance by Steve Buscemi as the frustrated director.
7 – TO DIE FOR (Gus Van Sant)
“On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.”
While I’m very far from a Nicole Kidman completionist, her performance in To Die For is my favorite of hers I’ve seen. She plays Suzanne, a driven woman dead-set on becoming a TV star, and she does so with gusto. Suzanne is ruthless, narrow-minded, and devious. She knows when to play the ditz, when to cajole, and how to get what she wants. Kidman brings forth all facets of the character flawlessly. The other actors impress too; Matt Dillon utilizes his strengths as an actor perfectly, Illeana Douglas is as great as always, and the trio of Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck and Alison Folland play some of the most disturbingly dumb teens in recent memory. The satire lays thick in this film, and Gus Van Sant pulls no punches in skewering the obsession with fame so prevalent these days.
6 – LA HAINE (Mathieu Kassovitz)
“How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.”
I first saw La Haine somewhat early on in my cinematic awakening period. Movies in black & white was still something alien and peculiar to an extent. The lack of color was something I would fixate upon when I saw one. But never once did it strike me as peculiar in La Haine. It was just how it should be. Maybe because to the young angry protagonists, the world is very much black and white. Set in the aftermath of a riot in the suburbs of Paris, we follow three youths (Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Hubert Koundé) during one day as they drift around and try to amuse themselves, often leading to tense confrontations with the police and others. La Haine is tightly-wound, powerful, and captivating.
5 – THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Bryan Singer)
“It all makes sense when you look at it right. You gotta, like, stand back from it, you know?”
A risk with making a movie with a twist ending is that the twist might be what sticks to people’s memory of the film. Time and time again, I find myself thinking that maybe The Usual Suspects isn’t that great, and I only think it is because the ending is so cool. But then I sit down to rewatch it and am reminded of what a fun and wonderfully paced movie it really is. Teriffic cast too, with Kevin Spacey as the obvious stand-out.
4 – LEAVING LAS VEGAS (Mike Figgis)
“You’re like some sort of antidote that mixes with the liquor and keeps me in balance.”
A go-to rebute for whenever someone says that Nicolas Cage is a bad actor. Playing the alcoholic Ben certainly leaves room for the typical Cage craziness, but throughout the film there is a dark and somber feel to the character that keeps him grounded and tragic. Perhaps even more impressive, however, is Elizabeth Shue in what could have been an empty stock character – the hooker with a heart of gold – but instead becomes something more poignant and human. The whole film bathes in a melancholic blues-y atmosphere, illuminated by the neon lights that serves to highlight the self-destructive path Ben is on. Utterly captivating.
3 – TWELVE MONKEYS (Terry Gilliam)
“I am insane. And you are my insanity.”
A time travel movie, or maybe just a film about a delusional conspiracy theorist. Bruce Willis is at the top of his game here, showing unexpected dramatic range in the lead. And yet it’s Brad Pitt who everyone remembers in the role of the ranting nutto Jeffrey Goines. If set designs and art direction are more your cup of tea than story and acting, Twelve Monkeys still has something for you with its harrowing vision of a future post-apocalyptic world. Would you expect anything less from a Terry Gilliam film? This one’s clever, fun, and very rewatchable.
2 – BEFORE SUNRISE (Richard Linklater)
“Um… I want to keep talking to you, you know?”
Yesterday’s news that a long-awaited sequel to Before Sunset will be shooting this summer had me overjoyed. Getting to spend some time again with Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) is something I’m so looking forward to, and it all started with Before Sunrise when the two met each other on that train in Austria. Hindsight via the sequel gives the youthful romanticism in this extra weight, but this is a touching and affecting film even when viewed on its own merits. Rarely does two people walking and talking make for such compelling cinema.
1 – SEVEN (David Fincher)
“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”
The modern thriller.