Some years simply glow with cinematic excellence. Take, for example, 1939, which saw the release of enough immortal films to fill its own library: The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Ninotchka, Gunga Din, Destry Rides Again, Only Angels Have Wings, The Women, Son of Frankenstein, La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), At the Circus, and the eventual Best Picture Winner, Gone with the Wind.
1992 was another such year, not quite as bountiful in their longevity but exceptionally varied in content. A peek at the nominees reveals a cornucopia of cinematic delights: a rewritten M. Butterfly, except with the IRA; an old-fashioned courtroom drama; a Merchant-Ivory costume drama; a showcase for Al Pacino; and a revisionist Western.
But in a year as bountiful and varied as this, these five are hardly the only Great Films of 1992…
Aladdin not only gifts us with a dollop of early 90s pop culture via Robin Williams’s hyperverbal genie but also provides us with one final, perfect score by Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken, capping off their unparalleled trilogy of masterpieces for Disney. Add to that some magnificent hand-painted animation under the direction of Ron Clements and John Musker (who had previously collaborated with Ashman & Mencken on The Little Mermaid) and the end result is a delight for all ages.
Batman Returns is very much not for all ages. It was Tim Burton’s idea to hire the screenwriter of Heather, Daniel Waters, to pen this sequel, and the quirky sensibilities of both men are well on display here. A strong vision is nothing, though, without a committed cast, and everyone here is on their best worst behavior, with special note given to the two most brazen performances, Michelle Pfeiffer as the femme fatale Catwoman and Danny DeVito as the pitiful Penguin. When Michael Keaton is playing the straight man in your film, you know you’ve gone merrily off the deep end.
Many horror films are content to be gore parades, but Candyman, while at times very gory, shimmers with style, care of director Bernard Rose and his cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, and relevance. Smartly transporting British author Clive Barker’s short story about class conflict to the projects of Chicago, Rose mines the ore of urban legend to create one of the true original villains of the decade. Special attention must be paid, too, to an artfully bombastic score by Philip Glass which accompanies us on our journey here into the darkness of Americana.
Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, much like his previous biopic Gandhi, is bad history but excellent fiction. It is anchored by a transformative performance by Robert Downey Jr., a winking script co-written by William Goldman, and eye-popping art design by Stuart Craig and Chris A. Butler. Stunt-casting Geraldine Chaplin to play her own grandmother is a nice touch and the critically acclaimed actress is very, very good here. Additionally, I dare you not to tear up during the climax, which recreates the standing ovation that Chaplin received at the 1972 Academy Awards.
What if you took con man schtick of The Sting and set it in the world of amateur boxing? Now add James Woods at his smarmest, Louis Gossett Jr. at his orniest, and Bruce Dern at his slimiest, and you’ve got yourself an absolute hoot of a film. Director Michael Ritchie fills out his main cast with gifted character actors like Oliver Platt and Heather Graham and Randall “Tex” Cobb and everyone looks like they’re having a blast. I bet you will too.
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce. Surely one of the best ensembles in recent memory, their effort would be for naught if they didn’t also have a killer, quotable screenplay, written by David Mamet from his play, and some quick-footed direction by James Foley. The cast referred to the film as Death of a Fucking Salesman and they couldn’t be more right. Much like the Miller classic, this is an incisive critique of dog-eat-dog capitalism and the role of man in American society.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
Penny Marshall was never nominated for an Academy Award. Not for Big, not for Awakenings, and not for A League of Their Own. And one need only look at the latter movie for a possible answer. Just as baseball shrugged off the remarkable contribution of women, so did (and does) Hollywood. What a loss, too, because A League of Their Own can hold its own with any other film from 1992. It is rich with humor and pathos, steeped in history, and filled with the kind of small character moments that can only come from true artistry.
The second biography on this list, Malcolm X may be the anti-Chaplin. Where Chaplin is flighty, Malcolm X is grounded; where Chaplin dances around its protagonist’s controversial politics, Malcolm X embraces them. But director Spike Lee has never been afraid of confrontation, and with Denzel Washington as his lead, he pushes through the tumult of Malcolm X’s life with vigorous language and passion. Some biopics only look backward; Malcolm X also looks forward.
A MIDNIGHT CLEAR
This quiet WWII film flew under the radar when it first came out, but it has since become a bit of a cult classic, and rightly so. Much like Glengarry Glen Ross, Keith Gordon’s A Midnight Clear sports a remarkable all-male cast (Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Arye Gross, Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Frank Whaley, John C. McGinley) and deals with the nature of male relationships, though the touch here is wry instead of caustic. The salesmen in Glengarry are isolated from each other; the soldiers in A Midnight Clear are isolated together.
MY COUSIN VINNY
In this witty film, an inexperienced attorney defends a pair of men on trial for murder and has to travel south with his female associate to investigate the crimes…but which witty film am I describing, My Cousin Vinny or A Few Good Men? It’s an accident of history that both movies debuted in the same year. But only one of these movies is taught in law schools, and it’s not the one you think. My Cousin Vinny, much like director Jonathan Lynn’s earlier comedy Clue, is infinitely rewatchable. In fact, I think I might rewatch it right now…
The comeback film for director Robert Altman, The Player marries his trademarks — overlapping dialogue, tracking shots, all-star casts, peculiar zooms — to a pitch-black satire of the industry that tossed him aside. It’s been said that a great work of art is both of its time and ahead of its time and certainly The Player, with its cynical take on the intersection of art and commerce, fits that criteria.
Only Quentin Tarantino could get away with making a heist film in which the heist isn’t shown. Neither do we actually see the most violent shot in the film, the sawing off of the police officer’s ear, although I’ll bet you think you saw it. Such is Tarantino’s mastery of mise-en-scene, even at the age of twenty-nine. Observe what he and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula confidently choose not to include in the frame. Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing may have been his narrative touchstone but the visual work is all Roman Polanski.
Other notable movies from 1992: Army of Darkness, Bad Lieutenant, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Consenting Adults, The Cutting Edge, Dead Alive, Death Becomes Her, Enchanted April, Far and Away, Hard Boiled (Lat sau san taam) Hoffa, Husbands and Wives, The Last of the Mohicans, Leap of Faith, The Mighty Ducks, Mr. Saturday Night, Newsies, Of Mice and Men, One False Move, Passion Fish, Rapid Fire, A River Runs Through It, Single White Female, Singles, Sister Act, Sneakers, Strictly Ballroom, Trespass, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Under Siege, The Waterdance, Wayne’s World, White Men Can’t Jump
Like I said, it was a heck of a year.
How would 1993 compare? Let’s find out next time.