To a certain extent, trying to pick a ‘best’ year for movies — or best decade, or any other arbitrary epoch — is fundamentally meaningless. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, however: so is having an intellect capable of anything more than basic efforts at survival — that doesn’t make it any less fun to play around with it.
Besides, narratives are important, and it is to this writer’s not inconsiderable ire that as far as American cinema goes, the 90’s have seemed to be taking a bit of pounding recently. So, possible imaginary windmills notwithstanding, I’m here to put right the fallacious notion that the 90’s were somehow a bad time for American cinema.
To wit: when most people think of Great American Cinema, they either think of the Golden Age of Hollywood — a fairly nebulous collection of decades in the early days of the industry during which styles crystallised and some genuine all-time classics were produced; or they turn to the American New Wave — that much romanticised auteur resurgence that ran roughly from about 1966 to 1982. Both eras are certainly deserving of the attention they get, and the 1970’s, if taken as a whole, would put up a hell of a fight in any contest for the title of Single Greatest Decade. But it’s when you drill down to Greatest Year that it gets interesting, because it’s on that granular level that the strongest contender emerges not from the days of the American New Wave, but instead from the decade which we once so foolishly proclaimed The End of History and from which it’s sometimes now claimed sprung only mediocre art.
In terms of number of fantastic releases, 1974 is probably the pinnacle of 70’s. In twelve remarkable months audiences were treated to an unfathomably great double from Coppola in the shape of The Godfather Part II and The Conversation; Pakula’s classic conspiracy thriller, The Parallax View; one of the greatest scripts of all time, Chinatown; and the Mel Brooks one-two of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. In any other year, a brilliant heist thriller like The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 would be the absolute standout. Not 1974. 1974 was an embarrassment of riches.
But I’m here to make a stand for another year.
Just over two decades later — after the dust had settled from the macho, synth-laden 80’s, and while the aftershocks of the Tarantino-flavoured indie boom of the early 90’s were still being felt — there came a truly bountiful year. 1995 was to be filled, start to finish, with gems from almost all genres. Let’s start with the two towering works of art that bookended the year (and which also happen to be two of this writer’s favourite movies of all time), and then dive right into the rest of the feast.
Before Sunrise, dir. Richard Linklater
If Before Sunrise had been the only movie released in 1995 it would have been enough for the year to go down in history. Richard Linklater’s naturalistic romance saw in 1995 with a warm, poignant ray of sunshine. Keen cinephiles would have had their eyes on the filmmaker before this — Slacker and Dazed And Confused had already hinted at what he was capable of — but nothing could have really prepared anyone for the opening chapter of one of the most remarkable cinematic creations of all time: the Before Trilogy. If Sunrise had been the only movie Linklater ever made about Jesse and Celine, that would have been special enough, but looking back and knowing what was to come brings it into the realm of the superlative.
Heat, dir. Michael Mann
Closing out the year is a movie that in many ways appears to be the polar opposite of what opened it — where Before Sunrise is small and intimate, Heat is sprawling and operatic; where Before deals in naturalistic detail, Michael Mann’s crime epic seems to be the pinnacle of hyper-stylisation. And yet, as anyone who has looked beyond Heat’s surface could attest, there are far more similarities between the two than might initially be apparent. Yes, Heat is an epic, but like all grand tales it succeeds not because of the bombast of its spectacle, but because its characters are so sharply drawn and carefully observed; because the emotion it trades in is true and well-earned. Sound familiar? Similarly, while it cannot be denied that Michael Mann is a stylist par excellence — with Heat being his (as well as the genre’s) undisputed masterpiece — the movie would have a fraction of the power that it does if that style was not backed up by vast reservoirs of substance.
The other heavy hitters:
Leaving Las Vegas, dir. Mike Figgis
Nicolas Cage is one of the greatest actors of his generation. That might seem an odd pill to swallow now, with memes aplenty mocking him and the amount of good movies he stars in being drowned in the sheer volume of ridiculous roles (which are still always entertaining thanks to him, mind you), but in 1995 this would have been taken as almost a given — especially if you had just walked out of Leaving Las Vegas. Mike Figgis’ heartrending tale of an alcoholic who upends his life and moves to Las Vegas to drink himself to death revealed Nicolas Cage to be a true artist, no two ways about it. The Academy certainly thought as much, awarding Cage his first Oscar for the role of Ben Sanderson. While it is Cage’s sensitive and penetrating performance that anchors the movie, Las Vegas is great overall — it’s beautifully shot and excellently written, avoiding any easy answers or cheap pathos; and Elizabeth Shue is fantastic as Cage’s co-star. The only possible mark against this movie is the soundtrack. There is only so much Sting a person can handle after all, but then I guess it was the 90’s.
Die Hard With A Vengeance, dir. John McTiernan
For a brief few years, John McTiernan was The King of Action Movies. Within three years at the tail end of the 80’s he made Predator, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October. That’s one of the greatest action movies ever made; the greatest action movie ever made; and a damn solid entry in the canon. But then the 90’s happened, and even though McTiernan never fell into the cheap, trashy traps of his 80’s contemporaries and so was in theory more capable of withstanding changing trends, he nevertheless faded away quite rapidly. The one exception was Die Hard With A Vengeance. Not originally conceived of as a Die Hard movie (like most entries in the series), it found itself transforming into one as it moved through the Hollywood studio grinder. And thank god for that, because Vengeance is so damn good, it would now be constantly hailed as a high water mark for action movies if it wasn’t fated to stand forever in the shadows of its perfect antecedent. Part of the reason for this how it daringly takes one of the main ingredients of the original Die Hard’s success — its singular, confined location — and it blows it the hell up. Forget Nakatomi Plaza, all of New York is now the playground. Sure it sags under the weight of its ambition a little bit near the end, but when you have Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Irons, and Bruce Willis delivering pitch perfect performances underneath that swelteringly hot New York sun who cares about a bit of sag?
Se7en, dir. David Fincher
Not David Fincher’s finest effort by a long shot (that would be Zodiac), Se7en was nevertheless the moment that the world sat up and took notice of the man who would become one of American cinema’s most distinctive, skilful auteurs. (It was also Fincher’s debut, if you discount the mismanaged release that was Alien 3. Which you probably should.) Brad Pitt’s eager over-acting aside — he still had a fair few years before he grew into himself — Se7en remains a powerfully disturbing and darkly atmospheric thriller. Morgan Freeman carries the narrative’s weight on his shoulders with aplomb, granting layers to the human side of Fincher’s morbidly meticulous serial killer procedural. While Se7en is now doubly interesting as a sign of things to come from the director — the perfect camera angles, the rigorous set design — it still stands on its own as a shining example of what 1995 could do.
12 Monkeys, dir. Terry Gilliam
Similarly oppressive to Se7en but otherwise entirely distinct was another Brad Pitt-starring entry — Terry Gilliam’s brilliant 12 Monkeys. As with any ‘time travel movie’, one shouldn’t treat the machinations of the plot device with excessive amounts of scrutiny (unless that movie is Primer, in which case: go to town.) Time travel is impossible, so don’t worry about it too much. Is it written in such a way so as to interfere with the story the filmmakers are trying to tell? Does the quality of the characters suffer because of it? In 12 Monkeys’ case the answer is a resounding double ‘no’. A thriller about a potential apocalypse that might yet be averted, Gilliam’s twisty story throws us into the protagonist’s mind with glorious visual and narrative verve. There is a through line here with Gilliam’s other works — especially visually — but 12 Monkeys is otherwise a beast of its own.
The rest of the year:
As if that all wasn’t enough for one cycle around the Sun, 1995 would also herald the dawn of the Pixar era with Toy Story; Bryan Singer would announce his presence with the overrated but still delicious The Usual Suspects; and Martin Scorsese would deliver his underrated swearathon, Casino.
1995 also turned out to be a great year for women directors. Amy Heckerling would gift to the world one of the all-time great teen comedies, Clueless; Katrhyn Bigelow’s Strange Days was a solid, energetic slice of paranoid action; and Rachel Talalay’s flawed-yet-notable Tank Girl would become a bit of a cult classic.
Further contributing to the (painfully, glacially slow) popping of the white-male director’s bubble, 1995 also saw the arrival of F. Gary Gray (Friday); an excellent noir from the sometimes-genius Carl Franklin (Devil In A Blue Dress); and one of the most critically acclaimed literary adaptations ever from Ang Lee (Sense And Sensibility).
Aside from all of that you could also walk into a cinema in 1995 and catch, if you were so inclined, Sam Raimi’s fun neo-Western, The Quick And The Dead; see a talking pig do its thing with Babe; pretend that you were watching a good movie with Empire Records; be shocked by Larry Clark’s Kids; or indulge in some gibberish with Mel Gibson (Braveheart) or Michael Bay (Bad Boys.)
The 1970’s may well have been the single greatest decade in American cinema history, but when it comes down to individual years, you’ll be hard pressed to beat the one smack bang in the middle of the 90’s.
And if you really, really still needed convincing: