Back in 1993, I had absolutely no interest in movies. Of course, how could I? I was barely 8 months old. I was preoccupied with topics of more crucial importance, like eating, sleeping, and learning that the word “cow” isn’t pronounced “moo”. The simple things in life.
There has always been something darker and more compelling going on in the outskirts of both life and film, even if toddlers have oft been negligible to them. 1993 more than most, though, felt like a watermark of the pure and innocent. Take for example Jurassic Park, deserving of recognition even when it’s not prepping a return to theaters in 3D. I may not remember precisely when I first saw it, but I recall in an instant the way it made me feel. Joy, simple as it is, is the most precious and underrated commodity cinema can give us.
That sense of childlike wonder is Spielberg’s trademark, even in his adult films and occasionally to his own detriment. While not all wonder in the year 1993 was childlike, it was certainly a sign of greater sprightliness in it’s filmmakers. Even the likes of Martin Scorsese and Mike Leigh, who were both 50 at the time, had greater exuberance in their cinematic strides. We’ll leave discussion of cinematic signs of aging to each director’s individual Top 10 lists, but film in that year especially was a celebration of life.
There were so many films I wanted to experience in time for this list, but as my free time has been rather constricted at the time – apparently college is suddenly something I have to try to succeed at – I was forced to cut my losses and focus on the bare essentials. It’s times like this when the Sight & Sound repository is useful to wean down films to what critics would consider the greatest of all time.
I must mention a couple I viewed and considered for the list, but missed out for one reason or another. Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father was quite a hit in the Academy sector, a pulsing prison/legal drama that only lacked in performative flair, though not on the part of Daniel Day-Lewis or Pete Postlethwaite’s respectively railing and warming performances. I had quite a good time with Dazed and Confused, but it’s more a piece of entertainment than anything deeper in the context of the year. Perhaps when assessing Linklater’s filmography it will rise up.
I wasn’t able to squeeze in time for the lengthy but lovely Farewell My Concubine, and I felt it’d be dishonest of me to see Akira Kurosawa’s last film, Madadayo, without first catching up with his greater past works. The last film I viewed for this list was James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day, which I had to view out of respect for screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who also recently passed away. The dialogue may not be as snappy as what the performers bring to it, particularly a stony Anthony Hopkins and a sharp Emma Thompson, but it’s an astutely constructed tale of opportunities not lost, but simply ignored.
Apologies are also in order for those I didn’t catch on to, including but not limited to The Fugitive, The Sandlot, Much Ado About Nothing, Menace II Society, Sleepless in Seattle, True Romance, Baraka, Orlando, Philadelphia, Searching for Bobby Fischer, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Faraway So Close!, Manhattan Murder Mystery, We’re Back! A Dinosaur Tale and Groundhog’s Day. If I’m sorely missing out on any of these, or any others, I rely on you to let me know. Unless it’s Groundhog’s Day, because it’ll be 10 months before I make that film a priority again.
Film Misery’s Top 10 Films of 1993
I have yet to catch up to the film’s 3D theatrical update, but I’ve already been surprised by how much my childhood wonder with the film transitioned into adulthood. It’s the kind of film made for my science-fiction loving father to introduce to me and my brother, spawning the latter’s love of dinosaurs and my love of movies. Long before Avatar set a precedent for CG world building, Spielberg set the standard for giant monsters, without which Guillermo Del Toro’s career would be a much smaller thing. It may indeed be adventure simply for the sake of adventure, but that’s actually the whole point of the film. If we could bring dinosaurs back to life, why the fuck wouldn’t we? Steven Spielberg has done just that with his best films, conjuring the most impossible worlds so that we can behold them. 3D may be a money motivation, but I’ll take any excuse to be put back in that world.
Long before Rise of the Guardians‘ manipulative prostitution of holiday lore, this stop-motion gem was already confusing us as to which holiday is more suitable to revisit it for. That’s much of the film’s mastery, criticizing the vague boundaries of these most child-pandering days of the year. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a tricky rhythmic balancing act of a stop-motion musical, with credit in that regard going to skeleton director (pun intended) Henry Selick breathing life into Tim Burton’s twisted tale, but also to Danny Elfman for his greatest musical contribution to date in the film’s varied song choices (How was “What’s This?” not nominated for an Oscar?). It’s the rare children’s film that embraces it’s darker instincts and is all the more entertaining for it. Some may call it a missed opportunity for Tim Burton the director, but it’s also shows that his best stories are the ones from his heart. If this and Frankenweenie are any indication, he definitely has one.
Ang Lee’s been a strong presence in America since his beginnings in 1992, but The Wedding Banquet gives a definitive indication of where he’s heading. As Justin noted in his Ranking Ang Lee’s Films list, “reductively known to some as his other gay movie,” the homosexual themes were entirely foggy to me as I entered into the film. Certainly less intense than Brokeback Mountain, but within seconds it’s clear that this isn’t meant to be serious. The awkward family affair that’s indulged in for the first act, played for laughs which work precisely because of the sitcom feel to them, Lee successfully transforms it into an warming tale of the resilience of traditions in an increasingly nontraditional world. Let it never be said that Ang Lee had to find his nerve. He had it from the beginning.
Whatever happened to the Academy’s fancy with Jane Campion? They seemed to hit it off pretty well with her second theatrical feature, The Piano, possibly because it’s her most conventionally romantic film to date, though not for lack of Bright Star. At first breathe, it seems like little more than sentimental loveliness, but beneath the gorgeous skin of this piece is a powerfully wordless tale of connection between two outcasts by choice, Harvey Keitel’s rough-skinned Maori tribesman George Baines and Holly Hunter’s frigidly composed Ada McGrath. Hunter in particular provides a sturdy backbone to the film through her counter-intuitively brittle and controlled performance. It’d all be entirely unextraordinary, practically nonexistent, without Campion’s lightly-veiled paper-sheet aesthetic mind. One hopes that Oscar may one day be wise enough to take notice of her skills again.
In between gangster films, a state Scorsese is in more often than most, Marty tried his hand at the period costume drama to remarkable and comfortably nonconformist effect. Not just an age of innocent desires, but more oppressively an age of prime cut social articulation, the best films of this genre are those that use their romantic trappings to mount a critique of formalist society. Scorsese never goes so far as to demolish the societal structure, but he does use his flourish to emphasize it’s alternating elegant and obnoxious tendencies. It helps to have two sensuous leads mounting the affair, Michelle Pfeiffer continuing her voluptuous seductions with greater sympathy and turmoil than Batman Returns, and Daniel Day-Lewis playing up charisma to a point of tragedy in a more entertainingly theatrical setting than Nine. Even when copping to formal tendencies, Scorsese went against to his own beat. If only he could’ve taken his own hint with Hugo.
I know, Justin would have this not just at the top of this list, but leading the decade in film. The fact that it’s only at #5 speaks for the high bar set in 1993. Just as Spielberg was playing in the park with his dinosaurs, he was also reaching a level of maturity with this Holocaust drama that, against all odds, avoids manipulating audience emotions. Well, for the most part. I admit the ending cracks a bit around the edges, but I still find it a guilty pleasure. What makes this film so powerful is how honestly a Spielberg film it is, never once betraying his excited sentimental values. The girl in the red coat is the kind of obvious symbolic point that no other filmmaker would make, but it’s because Spielberg makes it that it proves so devastating. All the while the central homoerotic love triangle between Neeson, Kingsley, and Fiennes’ characters is the nerviest the man has ever been. It’s the kind of dangerous work I’d like to see him tackle more often.
The best films from Steven Soderbergh’s vast filmography tend to be his loosest, and this depression era coming-of-age story makes an unexpectedly nice match with his stripper odyssey Magic Mike. Both see characters having to grow up under intense economic conditions, and here child actor Jesse Bradford juggles that dynamic between youthful ambition and adult responsibility with unfiltered honesty. At first it’s peachy warm appearance feels like that of an ABC Family feature, but in spite that, King of the Hill continues the vibrant period construction he mounted earlier in Kafka. Some may wince at it being a place ahead of Schindler’s List, but somehow the childhood opportunities lost during that period struck even deeper here.
The fact that I hold the uncommon opinion that Blue is the “weakest” of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy, the unprecedented trilogy that gets inexplicably more masterful with each installment, only speaks for the incredible heights he reached in his final cinematic work. This “Anti-Tragedy” scoffs at the typical formula by time and again putting off heartache, and becoming all the more an intriguing character study for it. Juliette Binoche offers a remarkable steely, cool toned performance as a woman trying to give the impression that she also died in the accident that kills her husband and daughter in the film’s shocking opening, or at least that she ought to have. The colour’s representation of liberty ironically means freedom not to do things, but she increasingly finds out how impossible it is to block out the world when others expect things of you. It’s a poignant film, and would be a masterpiece absolutely on it’s own.
Who knew that I’d ever be so won over by Robert Altman after my mishandled first shake with his work in M*A*S*H? Nothing’s changed in it’s style, which is still undeniably desensitized to the horrors of the world, but what comes off as ignorant in M*A*S*H is a straight up gut-punch in Short Cuts. It’s impossible not to see the similarities to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, as this was in many ways an inspiration for it, but this is less overpoweringly operatic and more of a slow strangle by our detached culture. Hyperlink narrative here goes to emphasize how inconsiderable people are to familial boundaries, abusing them repeatedly to devastating consequence, but never for themselves. The title proves to be less prophetic to it’s split structure, and more for the superficiality that permeates each character in every scene. They can never see how they really are, but we do. Man, do I need to brush up on more Altman!
The best film of 1993 was a bolt from the blue for me, but also a pleasant surprise for a die-hard fan of Mike Leigh’s recent work. At the age of 50, he seemed to be in the edgy middle ground between reckless youthhood and destructive adulthood, which was frankly also the state of cinema at the time. The plot of a newly homeless man’s rapid-fire charismatic demeanor degrading throughout a series of awkward acquaintances may seem all too simple, but it’s livened by a pre-millenial apocalyptic paranoia that’s made all the more real by the fact that Y2K didn’t actually happen. London is somehow shown in an even worse state than in 28 Days Later, with it’s inhabitant living in a festering scumhole. David Thewlis’ frantic and fragile performance is amongst the greatest never nominated by the Academy, and Naked is Mike Leigh’s greatest cinematic achievement to date. No pressure on the J.M.W. Turner biopic!
So there you have it, and to recap: