Fargo - The crown jewel in the Coen Brother's film library finds a gritty crime drama entangled with heartfelt Midwest values. When a man hires two hitmen to kidnap his wife in order to make bank from her rich father, things begin to take a dark turn and a mother-to-be detective is hard on the case. This film finds perfect balance of humor and richly felt drama. The Coen's have made many fantastic films, but this is easily their strongest film. The character work is exceptional. Frances McDormand rightly won her first Oscar for her portrayal of Marge Gunderson, one of cinema's finest screen detectives. She is incredibly smart, cunning really but always maintains Minnesota Nice, even during the film's climax. The film is gorgeously photographed and offers a fair insight to what it is like to live in the Minnesota tundra. Also giving great performance work is Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy. This is a must see.
The Frighteners - Peter Jackson was originally offered a chance to helm the 3rd Tales from the Crypt film, but when producers saw his final product it was felt that the film was so good that it didn't need the Tales from the Crypt logo or Cryptkeeper to sell tickets. What came of it was a strong supernatural film that balances horror and comedy. Michael J. Fox plays a ghost-buster, but he is a fraud. He can in fact see ghosts, but he has hired them to haunt specific people who then hire him to bust the ghosts. It is a solid gig but when the spirit of death begins hunting people, he finds that he might be matching wits with something far more sinister than an ordinary ghost. This film has some great characters (John Astin is fantastic as an Old West ghost and Jeffery Combs is wonderfully smarmy as a man who tries to discredit Fox's character) and the visuals are neat and haunting. It was the special effect work in this film that gave Jackson the confidence to try and make The Lord of the Rings. For all intents and purposes, this is a fun and inventive supernatural thrill ride with one hell of a final act where Dee Wallace and Jake Busey steal the show.
From Dusk till Dawn - Robert Rodriguez directs a Quentin Tarantino screenplay in this crime thriller that takes an unexpected 3rd act turn. The movie follows stars George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino who have just escaped from prison and are on a murder spree. Clooney's character just wants to get across the Mexican boarder but QT's character just won't stop killing. Clooney kidnaps a former priest and his two children who have a caravan with the promise that they will be released once they make it to a bar just inside the Mexican boarder. All the family has to do is follow the criminals rules from dusk till dawn and then they are free to go back to their ordinary lives. But this bar hides a dark secret. Just as he did with Antonio Banderas, Rodriguez makes a movie star out of Clooney who gives a performance that is nothing short of magnetic. Tarantino plays a deranged psychotic very believably and Harvey Keitel gives an unexpectedly quiet and nuanced performance as an ex-priest who has lost his faith in God. Tarantino's script is filled with wonderfully quotable lines and Rodriguez direction of action is in top form, but his ability to catch the nuances of Tarantino's script shows his talent as a filmmaker. The film is abrasive when it needs to be but also allows the character beats to really cement. The final act is what the film is primarily known for, but not unlike a Steven King novel, the film breaths a lot and simmers the slow burn for over an hour before all hell breaks loose. Clooney's commanding presence and the care you develop for this family really drives the final act and elevates the material. Some people just are not into the 3rd act twist, but so long as you can embrace it you will find yourself watching Robert Rodriguez's best film (and I could argues that this is in Tarantino's top three screenplays).
Hamlet - William Shakespeare's strongest work was transcendentally brought to life by Kenneth Branagh in this massive FOUR HOUR direct adaptation. This is fully for Shakespeare fans and if you are one, this film will leave you gushing adoration. There have been many adaptations of this work before and many of them are quite good; Laurence Olivier's took home Oscar Gold and Mel Gibson was in a lean and well made adaptation just years before this one. But none had dared the feat of adapting the entire work and doing so with such gorgeous imagery. Branagh has a distinct visual eye that paints frames that could be slung on your wall as canvased art and this film is easily the most stunning looking film of his entire directorial catalog. It doesn't stop there though. The performances are fabulous from everyone; Billy Crystal, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, and Branagh himself (just to name a few). His "Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio..." speech is so finely textured. Many of Hamlet's iconic monologues are exceptionally performed by Branagh that it is a wonder he didn't win for Best Actor. I urge you to just sample some of his work in this film on Youtube. The work is genuinely stunning. And at four hours, the film actually moves well. It helps that the performances are top notch and that he put such emphasis on the visual translation of the play, but I was shocked by how swiftly it carried me through to the conclusion. For Hamlet fans, this is really the strongest version with which to view.
Scream - "It all began with a scream over 911 and ended with a bloodbath that would rock the town with world," are the closing lines to Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson's gripping love letter to and sharp criticism of slasher films. The film boldly and unconventionally (at the time) dissected the genre of horror slashers that grew to fame with 1978's Halloween and in doing so made the very best one. There is a reason that Scream is hailed as a masterpiece of its genre and those reasons, I think, are three-fold; Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson and Sidney Prescott.
The history of Scream is truly fascinating because it almost didn't happen and expectations were so low with the film that Craven had near creative freedom to mold the film effectively into the game changer it would ultimately become. The story starts when young screenwriter Kevin WIlliamson is home alone watching a Dateline episode chronicling the Gainsville Ripper; a maniac who murdered a handful of teens in a small town. Williamson noted that the events that played out from the first victims to the ultimate capturing of the killer sounded like they were right out of a movie and, alone at home, he was scared out of his wits. The idea stuck in his head to write a screenplay that would capture that essence of that true crime story but also re contextualize the slasher film in a fun, intelligent and self-referential way. He rented a hotel room and banged out the script over the course of three days. This script started a bidding war in Hollywood. Many studios bid on the screenplay but it was Miramax that one out.
Finding its home at a prestigious film studio, the next challenge was to find a filmmaker up to the challenge of making it. Several directors were approached including Wes Craven but Craven turned it down as his film Wes Craven's New Nightmare was his intended swan song to the genre that made him famous. He really looked to distance himself from horror and make art films for which he had a greater interest in. Robert Rodriguez was set to direct but when scheduling conflicts arose and Drew Barrymore signed on to lead the picture, Craven decided that the script was too good not to do and he had always wanted to work with Barrymore.
It was during many production meetings that the film began to take shape in some interesting ways. First was that many people viewed the screenplay as a comedy because there is so much humor in it, but Craven really wanted to ground the film in 100% reality. He didn't want to use conventional horror movie gimmicks and have a killer that was in any way more than human. Craven found some resistance to this notion (one I will touch on later when I got into a more spoilery territory), but he was adamant that the film play to the reality of the script in order to send a somewhat provocative message that had haunted many films.
His films had been often scrutinized as displaying gore and the taking of human life as being fun and only a depraved mind would see that as art. Craven made sure that this was refuted in Wes Craven's New Nightmare, but here was a chance to do so in a much more direct way. His stance was always that violent movies don't produce violent people; they don't create fear, they release it. The fears are already out there because these events happen but seeing it happen in the safe environment of film allows for the cathartic experience of releasing that fear, acknowledging it and confronting it in a healthy way. There is even a character in the film that say "Don't you blame the movies! Movies don't create psychoes, movies make psychos more creative." This comes after the killer has detailed their motive. The movies are facing the blame but they aren't to blame. The killer is the one who chose to take life. That is where responsibility lay. Inf fact, most of the characters in the film love horror films every bit as much as the killer and they are not committing the crimes. The arc of responsibility is dissected further in the sequels but this is where he first makes a statement. It always comes back to his quote of the ugly person smashing the mirror; "it's not the mirror that is ugly, but what is reflected." This story alone was inspired by a real life murderer that had no evidenced ties to being a fan of cinema violence and yet violent films are often the scapegoat for atrocious actions, particularly for young individuals. Craven was excited to explore this.
It was also during production meetings that Barrymore became enthralled with not playing Sidney but rather the first victim. She liked the idea of shocking the audience and Craven jumped onboard that notion. The press releases on the film had already slated her as the star so it would come as a major shock to audiences if she were taken out so swiftly, not unlike Psycho. Mirimax agreed and really upsold her involvement in the film and almost all of the marketing material was sold on her being the star.
With Drew out, they needed a new Sidney. SIdney was an important character because she would be the stand in for a new generation of final girl. Craven had often been committed to having a female character that stood with equal power to the villainous characters they faced. Nancy of the Elm Street films stands shoulder to shoulder with Laurie Strode of Halloween or Ripley of Alien. Scream needed its final girl to be of that ilk. Vulnerable but never in a position of diminished power and the casting of Neve Campbell was a glorious stroke of luck. She fully embodies the character of Sidney and gives her every element that is required of her and more. Sidney is a character that goes through a fascinating character journey throughout these movies. That is another interesting element to these films. They dont hinge themselves on the killer, but rather the survivors. These films are character driven, first and foremost. Some are more successful at achieving their ends than others, but specifically the first tow films are purely character driven and they each have a logical flow that guide them with a weight of reality.
The film itself is a well made who-dun-it of a murder mystery. After the opening scene, which to this day still has a riveting effect, it becomes a well constructed mystery to determine who the killer is. The cast brings spectacular life to these characters with Skeet Ulrich as boyfriend Billy, Courtney Cox as media journalist Gale Weathers and Jamie Kennedy as movie junkie Randy Meeks being stand outs. All good mysteries need a gripping backstory and this film doesn't let down. The murders are coming at the one year anniversary of the murder of Sidney's mother. Did they put an innocent man in prison for the original murder? Gale Weathers seems to think so, but if Cotton Weary didn't kill Sidney's mom, who did? Brimming with plausible red herrings and several wonderful scares, Scream really is the best slasher of its kind. All the while, the film deconstructs genre tropes and then lovingly reconstructs them as when Sidney criticizes horror films for being stupid because the "big breasted girl who can't act is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door," and then the film sets up the scenario so that the character has no choice but to do just that. It is really quite brilliant and,, at the time, never before seen.
The absolute best part (and this is where spoilers set in so if you have not seen the film, now is when you stop reading) is that the mystery and twist of the climax makes sense. When things start to happen where no one could possibly do what the killer is seen to be doing on screen, the audience is taught (having watched many bad horror films) to chalk it up to sloppy filmmaking, but when it is revealed that there are two killers all begins to make sense. One is always on phone duty and the other is in the mask. If you go through the film, you can even figure out who does what using logic and some unique clues. First off is Billy and Stu (played so damn convincingly by Matthew Lillard) off each others girlfriends. Billy kills Casey and Steve while Stu is on the phone. Stu attacks Sidney but runs away when Billy jumps through the window to 'save' Sidney (phone in hand). Stu sends Tatum into the garage where Billy is in wait and after Billy kills her, he gives Stu a eyebrow signal after Billy 'arrives' to the party. Stu 'kills' Billy and is the one is costume through the exterior of the house that chases Sid and kills Kenny. He also stabs Dewey. There is some question as to who kills the Principal but it is likely Billy as Stu is outside convincing Sidney to come to his house party. The killer in the bathroom that attacks Sid is likely Stu but could be one of the students fucking with Sid by wearing the mask as seen in the scene right before. Few movies really map out the logistics of the murder mystery but this film does it quite nicely.
I could go on about how great the film is, but at this point, I think the point is made. Scream is a masterpiece of horror. It revitalized the horror genre, birthed many copycats (for better or worse), and give Craven's career a third wind. Through this film's success, he was able to make a few personal films such as Music of the Heart and Paris Je T'aime as well as to continue deconstructing the genre with Scream 2 and its sequels.
Best Picture : The English Patient - A WW2 set romance that I hear is quite good but I have not seen.
Biggest Box Office : Independence Day - Alien invasion cinema got hopped up on steroids in this explosive love-letter to disaster cinema and alien invasion media. There are lots of easter eggs for genre fans including a great War of the Worlds one where viruses are responsible for taking the aliens down. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum shine in this fun actioner.