Toto The Hero, Belgium-France-Germany, 1991, 90 min. Starring Michel Bouquet, Mireille Perrier. Directed by Jaco van Dormael. Bouqet plays Thomas, a man who has come to believe he was switched at birth with the neighbor boy, who subsequently lived the life he was meant to live. As the film flashes back and forth between three stages of Thomas’s life, we get a sense of what he longed to be and how he came to feel that he was cheated out of fulfilling his dreams, and yet van Dormael, a former circus clown, transforms a story that could have been suffused with bitterness into a charming fable of life’s absurdities.
In The Name Of The Father, USA-Ireland, 1993, 127 min. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Posthelwaite, Emma Thompson. Directed by Jim Sheridan. A young Irishman is intimidated into confessing to involvement in an IRA bombing, which ends up landing his father in prison as well. Despite evidence of their innocence, they are put through hell, until a British attorney manages to find substantiation of a frame and subsequent cover-up. Wrenching tale based on a true story boasts electric performances, and may be even more relevant now than it was when first released.
The Piano, New Zealand-France, 1993, 121 min. Starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin. Directed by Anna Campion. A woman, mute by choice, is sent to New Zealand in an arranged marriage, bringing with her the two things she loves most in the world: her daughter and her piano. When her husband sells the piano to a local man who has adopted the Maori customs, she strikes a deal with the man that leads to a truly unusual situation indeed. A demanding film with strong characters and a mysterious unconventional eroticism.
Naked, UK, 1993, 131 min. Starring David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge. Directed by Mike Leigh. Nihilistic film follows the exploits of Johnny, a crude, sexually violent young man who flees his native Manchester after raping a girl to shack up in London with an ex-girlfriend and her dim roommate. Leigh, famous for his depictions of Britain’s assorted classes, most especially the working class, shoots for something darker here, peeling away the surface and showing the UK’s darker underbelly of dispossessed souls. Thewlis is particularly unforgettable in his Cannes-awarded performance.
Farewell My Concubine, China, 1993, 155 min. Starring Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li. Directed by Chen Kaige. Sprawling film tells the tale of two men, both opera performers, one straight, one gay, and their relationship over the years, while simultaneously depicting the political changes that occurred in China throughout that time, especially the ramifications of the Cultural Revolution. Kaige made this highly personal film against great obstacles (and saw it banned in his native land repeatedly), which makes his ultimate achievement all the more remarkable.
Toy Story, USA, 1995, 80 min. Starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Annie Potts. Directed by John Lasseter. The debut feature from Pixar Animation studio is a sweet story of a group of toys who come to life when no one else is around, most especially a cowboy doll who fears he may be replaced as the favorite toy by a new spaceman doll. Amazingly three-dimensional animation – in what was then the new computer-generated style – combines with a nice, never saccharine tale of whimsy, nostalgia, and good old-fashioned adventure.
The Usual Suspects, USA, 1995, 105 min. Starring Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Benicio Del Toro, Chazz Palmentieri. Directed by Bryan Singer. Gripping crime film recounting a botched heist that went to hell – maybe literally – when a purportedly mythical underworld figure showed up to wreak havoc. Great performances abound though Spacey is truly unforgettable as the oddball felon who recounts in flashbacks the events that lead up to the bloodbath. This jigsaw puzzle of a film will keep your mind in twists, even through the repeated viewings it certainly warrants.
Shine, Australia, 1996, 105 min. Starring Geoffrey Rush, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Noah Taylor, Lynn Redgrave, John Gielgud. Directed by Scott Hicks. Inspiring based-on-a-true story of troubled pianist David Helfgott, who, torn between his own talent and the pressure placed on him by his overbearing father, plunged into madness only to eventually be saved by a woman’s love. The film presents a fascinating look at the powerfully emotional aspect of music, the kind of manic obsession such emotion can inspire and the barely-there boundary between artistic genius and complete insanity.
Shall We Dance, Japan, 1996, 136 min. Starring Koji Yakusho, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka. Directed by Masayuki Suo. A withdrawn businessman finds release from the mundane formalism of his life when he signs up for ballroom dancing lessons with a former professional dancer (played by the director’s wife) whose career once suffered an unfortunate setback. Can he break out of his shell enough to enter a competition? Very appealing film uses the dancing not only to tell a story but also to tweak the quirks of Japanese societal standards.
American Beauty, USA, 1999, 121 min. Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Chris Cooper. Directed by Sam Mendes. Spacey stars as a thoroughly disenchanted suburbanite who has decided he can no longer go on pretending that the life he has made for himself is what he wants. His regression into adolescent behavior horrifies his career-minded wife and awkward teenage daughter, especially when he begins fixating on one of the local cheerleaders. Darkly funny look at the decay of the American Dream makes familiar thematic territory seem fresh by mixing harsh realities with biting wit and fantasy sequences dreamily photographed by the late Conrad L. Hall.
All About My Mother, Spain, 1999, 101 min. Starring Celia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz. Directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Following the tragic death of her young son, a woman sets out to carry out his final wish to know his father. In looking for the man she encounters many unusual characters, which one would logically expect from an Almodóvar film, similarly the outrageousness and the humor tempered with emotion. What comes as a surprise is the degree of naked honesty that the director brings to this work. In his ultimate tribute to the concept of motherhood, Almodóvar has also managed to arrive at a place that his work had always strived to reach.