writes for SmugFilm.com and ShotContext.blogspot.com. On Twitter@jodamico1.
TV movies never get their due and this one, the story of a slave in the antebellum South secretly teaching an enslaved young girl to read, is exceptionally powerful. Directed with subtle grace by Charles Burnett (whose 1977 film Killer of Sheep still ranks as one of the all-time great debuts), Nightjohn is the rare film that celebrates true resistance - intelligence, knowledge, and ambition.The actors are uniformly incredible and the complexity of it all is really well-handled. There's no cloying and there's no sense of grandstanding until the ending, a big inspirational speech in a church that involves all the characters, which WORKS against all odds because of the time and effort Burnett put into the character work. Gary Paulsen of Hatchet fame wrote the book it’s based on (adapted from a true story), which makes me kinda sad that all young adult books now are about post-apocalyptic bloodsports.
Disaffected but well-meaning thirtysometimes come home for their high school reunion. The evocative wintery atmosphere and leisurely pace elevate it. The cast is just spectacular - Matt Dillon, Michael Rappaport, Mira Sorvino, Uma Thurman, and a 15-year-old Natalie Portman who’s already the most talented of the bunch. We just don’t do this kind of movie well anymore, but slice-of-life dramedies were on fire in the ‘90s, when budgets could be lower and studios like Miramax were searching for young talent.
The People vs. Larry Flynt
Probably the most successful film on this list, but I’d argue that this crisp, piercing, thorough polemic on the importance of the First Amendment is like a more vulgar Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. It anticipates The West Wing’s combination of neurotic characters passionate about, not just politics, but TALKING about politics. Woody Harrelson is, as always, wonderful, and Ed Norton finds his groove for maybe the first time in his career.
Tromeo and Juliet
The apotheosis of the Troma formula. It manages to inject vulgarity and violence back into a play that’s been done so many times we’re all numb to it now. Gutter punk is always so damn cinematic, and the script, written entirely in verse by James Gunn and Lloyd Kaufman (who, don’t forget, is a Yale grad) reminds you that they’re nobody’s fool. Despite pearl-clutching outrage, the gut punch of sexual excess and lowbrow comedy probably make it the closest in spirit to the original play. In the end, the most shocking thing of all is that it’s actually pretty sweet.
The commandant of the Confederate’s Andersonville Prison was the only person charged with war crimes in the Civil War — period photographs of survivors look hauntingly like the photographs out of Auschwitz and Dachau. No movie has ever really captured that kind of horror, but veteran director John Frankenheimer gives it a shot and comes out with something pretty unique - a four hour tour through a vast field of improvised shelter and sick men.
Beavis and Butthead Do America
Still one of the best of the decade. What a cast, too! Did you know Cloris Leachman and Richard Linklaker are in it??
Eerie love story about a necrophiliac, this is like halfway between an X-Files and Altman’s 3 Women. The ‘90s had a strong undercurrent of low-budget empathetic thrillers - The Delicate Art of the Rifle is another good one from this year.