20/20 Hindsight: The Best Movies of 1995

1995 always struck me as an odd year for movies, and I have never really been able to articulate why exactly that is.  Caught in the intersection of the good (or at least the interesting) Hellraiser movies and John Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy, we got a rare outpouring of Lovecraftian horror movies that, if not exactly great, were incredibly compelling.  We got the start of Pixar’s unbroken run of critical hits, the first in Richard Linklater’s long-running Before trilogy, the first of David Fincher’s dark thrillers and both the first and last moment that Bryan Singer could be unequivocally called good.  It was a clear demarcation from the hyper-middlebrow sensibilities of the 90s and a stronger push into the more interested, more segmented content that would come to dominate the 21st century.  In short, it feels like it is the simultaneous start of (or at least the prelude to) the modern era of movies and the final death knell of the old way of the world.

10. In the Mouth of Madness

Earlier, I called this strain of Lovecraftian horror movies much more interesting than it was, strictly speaking, good.  I stand by that, just as I stand by the idea that, even with the complications posed by its disjointedly uneven script and direction, In the Mouth of Madness more than warrants its place among 1995’s more assuredly greatest movies.  This subgenre is so rarely seen and so rife with potential that every time filmmakers take advantage of what it has to offer, it demands to be taken note of.  Between the film’s pervading existential dread and brooding atmosphere, both articulated by moments of explosive violence, it perfectly captures what is so endearing about this style of horror.

9. Jumanji

With every passing year in this movie retrospective, I’m painfully, acutely reminded of what a darling talent we lost with the passing of Robin Williams.  A remarkable comedian and fierce dramatic talent, Williams was in as many different kinds of movies as the broad spectrum of characters he was able to play.  Jumanji, though in the same wheelhouse of the more typical Williams star vehicles, shows yet another side of him: the literal (not figurative) child.  Like Tom Hanks in Big (1988) — or, more recently, Zachary Levi in Shazam! (2019) — Williams turns the clock back to embodying the pint-sized (in his heart, at least) Allan Parish.  Paired with material and costars worthy of his talents, the resulting film is an inimitably fun feature that I am constantly compelled to watch whenever I chance upon it.

8. The American President

You may have noticed that many of the films discussed thus far on this series have been the product of either incredible actors or visionary directors.  While it makes sense that these more visible filmmaking roles would hog the lion’s share of the limelight (after all, they always seem to), I’m glad to give credit to the too-often unappreciated film scribe with this entry.  Although The American President is certainly well acted and capably directed, it’s the script that puts this otherwise middle-of-the-road romantic drama over the edge.  The crackling dialogue and elevated speeches that structure the larger plot and characters and entirely the product of high-end screenwriting, and breathe considerable life into the ensuing production.  And while some aspects of the film haven’t exactly aged well into the new century, the comparatively optimistic vision of national politics has its own sort of throwback charm, giving as much as is taken from it by the years that came after it.

7. Heat

While I certainly understand the appeal of down-to-Earth, ‘realistic’ (or at least realistic-feeling) action movies, emblematized by the Mission: Impossible franchise, I’ve never been wholly sold on them over the more bombastic, more cartoonish versions that have come to define blockbuster cinema.  Yes, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) were incredible works of revolutionary art, but The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and even the widely praised Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018) never seemed to rise above simply being okay.  When you tone down the inherent ridiculousness of the genre, you are often left with something that’s less than impressive.  Not so with Heat, however, a white-knuckled heist flick that mixes tense scenes of cat and mouse with tense human drama, whose action sequences heighten the dramatic stakes between the characters and whose relationships between characters make the action that much more harrowing.  If all similarly-styled action films did likewise, maybe I’d be more excited to see them.

6. The Usual Suspects

It’s actually kind of amazing how gross this movie is in retrospective.  Directed by Bryan Singer and starring Kevin Spacey, it tells the story of a notorious criminal hiding in plain sight, smugly satisfied that he fooled his coworkers, the authorities and the world as a whole about the truly horrific things that the did.  Yeah… everything about this setup and the people involved is just untenable in 2019.  But twenty or so years ago, divorced from the knowledge that we must grimly take into account in the present, there is no denying the craft on display in this film: a tightly-woven narrative depicting a fascinating set of characters, portrayed by a masterclass of actors, that ultimately culminates in one of the all-time great knockdown twist endings in cinema.  It stands as a genuine must-see, even if neither of the key men involved in its creation should ever work in the industry again.

5. Apollo 13

I don’t know what it was, but I hated this movie as a kid: capital letter Hated it.  Looking back, I really can’t say why that was.  It is by all accounts a sweeping film: possessing an exceptional cast, bold cinematography, incredible special effects.  Ably helmed by Ron Howard, it presents an accessible, well-realized version of the Apollo 13 story, hitting all the right beats that you’d expect from a big Hollywood drama.  Like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or Forrest Gump (1994), it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, nor does it have to.  Simply being the best version of the kind of story that it’s trying to tell was enough.  Don’t believe me?  Go watch First Man (2018) again and try to figure out exactly why that movie — despite its similar story and quality — nevertheless fails to live up to a movie from two decades prior.

4. Toy Story

Pixar, like Marvel, has always had the golden touch when it comes to movies: every single movie might not be a classic (though, lets face it, most of them are), but not a single one of them was genuinely bad.  Yeah, Monsters University (2013) was decidedly underwhelming and Iron Man 2 (2010) was an obvious narrative fumble, but both of those are at least as good, if not actually better, than other films of their kind.  And with both studios’ output, their first, though not their best, was emblematic of the kind of content that they would become justly known for.  Toy Story is a gorgeously animated, tightly plotted, well-characterized movie that tackles a shockingly mature sets of themes and storylines (all of which did nothing but improve as they continued to develop sequels to it).  It’s the start of something wonderful, and you can see the blueprint for all the better Pixar movies in this first one.

3. Se7en

While Se7en is certainly not director David Fincher’s first movie, I hardly think that it’s fair to count a mangled studio hit-job like Alien 3 (1992) as part of his larger body of work.  I say this as somebody who actually likes that movie (at least the Assembly Cut of it), but the film was a production train wreck, was hacked down to the marrow in post-production and never once afforded Fincher to explore the dark, cerebral kinds of filmmaking that defines every other film he made.  Se7en, however, is Fincher’s Ur-text: the platonic ideal of what his creativity is.  It’s grim and daunting in the same way that the real world often is (and even has the unfortunate, if fitting, addition of Kevin Spacey as a deranged criminal that drives everybody around him absolutely insane).

2. Ghost in the Shell

Located smack dab in the middle of an amazing decade-long stretch of anime features — a stretch which includes Akira (1988), Grave of the Fireflies (1988), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Only Yesterday (1991), Porco Rosso (1992), Perfect Blue (1997) and Princess Mononoke (1997)Ghost in the Shell, in many ways, represents the very best of its contemporaries.  It was as richly animated as it was written, as maturely directed as it was plotted.  It was imaginative and visionary and set the standard of what cyberpunk movies would look like well into the present day (and was cannibalized by Hollywood so completely that its own live-action remake couldn’t help but somehow feel derivative of the original’s imitators).  This first movie, however, more than holds up to the modern eye, and deftly explores the increasingly inhuman condition of a tech-integrated society.

1. Before Sunrise

Whenever one comes out, it’s hard not to just automatically put that year’s Linklater movie at the tippy-top of the year-end best list.  But, gosh darn it, if this isn’t one of the most beautiful, transfixing, well-crafted films ever made (to say nothing of just those released in 1995).  The first of Linklater’s celebrated Before trilogy is simple enough to understand: boy meets girl on a brief layover in Vienna and they spend the night enjoying each other’s company before they have to got their separate ways in the morning.  But the degree to which these characters are brought to life by its soulful script and electric leads, by Linklater’s insightful direction and the Zen simplicity of their situation, to say nothing of the bitter-sweet yet hopeful note on which it ends, is what elevates it to the rank of a masterpiece.

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