While The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, and Forrest Gump dominated the conversation in 1994, the year also had a number of movies that were unfairly undervalued or have been largely forgotten over time. This Roundtable makes a case for some of our favorites from that year.
Wikipedia has a helpful list of all the films released in 1994.
The most underrated film of 1994 has to be Mixed Nuts. Why, you ask? Directed by Nora Ephron, starring Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Anthony LaPaglia, Juliette Lewis, Adam Sandler, Liev Schreiber, and Rita Wilson, not to mention cameos by Parker Posey, Jon Stewart, Garry Shandling, Steven Wright, and Rob Reiner. Need I go on? The snappy dialogue, neat and tidy plot, along with a southern California Christmas setting all made it a holiday tradition in my house growing up. It wasn’t until college that I realized not everyone grew up watching this classic. Maybe the themes of suicide and serial killers, lightly mixed in with the miracle of Christmas, made it off-putting to the more pious or traditional families that time of year. (Mine is made up of morbidly hilarious heathens.) It isn’t necessarily the best film of the year, but it certainly deserves more clout than it has now.
M. Enois Duarte
One of the best Christmas movies ever hit theaters in the spring of 1994. Not only did it completely go under the radar that year, it’s also rarely talked about or included on the holiday must-watch list. That movie is the cult black comedy The Ref, starring an extra-flippant Denis Leary, an excellent Kevin Spacey, and a fantastic Judy Davis. At first glance, the R-rated film is not the sort that immediately comes to mind when deciding to watch a heartwarming holiday feature with the entire family. However, the plot touches on all the tropes moviegoers expect about the importance of family and what really matters during the holidays. Every year, I include this movie on my list of Christmas flicks to watch, sometimes as a double feature with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Sadly, The Ref doesn’t enjoy the sort of love it truly deserves.
One of 1994’s biggest surprises for me, and a film I’ve always felt never quite received its proper due, was Mike Nichols’ Wolf. A horror movie for grown-ups, this literate, entertaining thriller cleverly combines suspense and satire to produce a werewolf film that has both bark and bite. Jack Nicholson stars in the title role (if anyone was born to play a salivating, wild-eyed werewolf, it’s Jack!), playing a mild-mannered editor at a hallowed New York publishing house whose life is gruesomely transformed after he’s bitten by a ferocious wolf one night on a deserted Vermont road. Not long after, he begins his metamorphosis in both a literal and figurative sense, becoming not just the physical incarnation of a wolf, but the vernacular one, too! The incisive, often inspired script by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick (with uncredited help from Nichols’ erstwhile and legendary sidekick Elaine May) transmits the message that deep down we’re all wolves living in a dog-eat-dog world barking up a host of trees while voraciously searching for our share of juicy red meat (the rawer the better!).
Nicholson deliciously chews the scenery in a typical no-holds-barred performance and creates crackling chemistry with the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer, who brandishes some sharp claws of her own. Excellent support from James Spader, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Plummer, Richard Jenkins, and David Hyde Pierce enliven the tale (eagle eyes will also spot Allison Janney and a young David Schwimmer in bit parts), while Nichols fashions an eerie yet tongue-in-cheek atmosphere that nicely mixes tension with wicked humor.
As I wrote in my Blu-ray review of the film a decade ago: “Wolf is a monster movie for grown-ups, and for those seeking ghoulish fare with a touch of perverted romance, plenty of humorous overtones, and a mild fright quotient, Nichols’ stylish film fills the bill. It may not be one of the director’s best efforts, but it’s an intriguing curio that deserves a look.” And that still holds true today.
Delving into the films of 1994, it’s a little staggering how many I’ve seen, remember, and yet don’t really care for. It’s also staggering that one of the lesser movies that I like, Junior, came out the same year as True Lies. Skirting that line between hit and gem, When a Man Loves a Woman fits the underrated bill. With some real-life drama involved, the movie is not an easy watch, but both leads, Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan, are fantastic and playing at least a bit against their typical roles. In spite of being a lengthy drama, it’s the kind of movie that I can catch somewhere on cable and be very tempted to stay for a while. It’s almost as though taking a taste of this movie after having watched the whole thing, and taking in the performances and a tough scene or two, is enough. That speaks to the special quality of the movie.
With absolutely zero attention from the Academy or whatever you wanna call that HFPA cult in charge of the Globes, the Coen brothers’ New Year’s classic The Hudsucker Proxy isn’t just, you know, for kids. Paul Newman is sublime as Sidney J. Mussburger, Tim Robbins is at peak goofy, and oh my is it fun to see Jennifer Jason Leigh chew dialogue with aplomb. From a pair of filmmakers who have made their share of brilliance, the fact that a movie like Hudsucker is still kind of a cult thing is a downright shame. Even lesser Coen fare is still miles ahead of almost any other film in contention
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
The Hudsucker Proxy isn’t exactly a title that rolls off the tongue. Still, Warner Bros. was undaunted, offering the Coen brothers what was by far the largest budget they’d ever had up to that point in their career.
It was a colossal flop. The critical reception was decidedly mixed: a far cry from their usual adoration and the multiple Academy Award nominations they’d enjoyed with Barton Fink just a couple of years prior. Audiences, if they were even aware of its existence, avoided The Hudsucker Proxy like the plague. And that checks out, seeing as how the title evokes some kind of infectious disease. It’s hard to fathom that three of the brothers’ most successful, most enduring films would immediately follow this critical and commercial misfire.
The odd man out as ever, I’ve always loved it, from the moment I first read in the trade press about its premise. Even with as awful as my taste in movies was in high school, I could not possibly resist a fictionalized account of the invention of the hula hoop. Its loving, art deco recreation of the Big Apple is stylish as hell. I still can’t get enough of the snappy dialogue and performances, prone to quoting “You know, for kids!” and Paul Newman’s gruff “Yeah yeah, sure sure” at any possible opportunity. I get all warm and fuzzy when I recognize nods to it in pop culture, such as the homage to Charles Durning’s boardroom plunge in the most recent season of The Venture Bros. Oh, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as an ace reporter with that Gatling gun patter straight out of a Hepburn screwball comedy… ! It’s heaven.
There’s nothing out there quite like The Hudsucker Proxy, and… well, that uniqueness is part of the reason why it cratered at the box office. It’s one of the most underappreciated gems in the Coens’ filmography, and it’s waiting for you on Blu-ray if you haven’t yet basked in its warm, nostalgic glow.
Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)
One excellent film that mostly flew under the radar in 1994 was The Professional (a.k.a. Léon, a.k.a. Léon: The Professional). Directed by Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), the movie features truly standout performances by Gary Oldman as a corrupt cop, a young Natalie Portman as the only survivor of a family brutally murdered by Oldman and his crew, and Jean Reno as a simple-minded hit man who reluctantly gets drawn into the conflict. Portman and Oldman would go on to earn Oscars later in life (Portman for Black Swan and Oldman for Darkest Hour), but it’s Reno’s calm, cool, and menacing hit man – with an unexpected soft side – who wins us over and has us cheering. The relationship that blossoms between Portman’s and Reno’s characters is simultaneously sweetly innocent and awkwardly inappropriate. This aspect of the story may have been one reason the film didn’t fare better at the box office, but if you haven’t seen it, definitely check it out.
I reviewed The Last Seduction earlier this week, so I wrote up a long entry about The Hudsucker Proxy for this post instead, only for two of our other contributors to do the same immediately afterwards.
Some other notable titles from that year include Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (featuring another excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh performance, playing famed witticist Dorothy Parker), Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Ang Lee’s delightful Eat Drink Man Woman, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter. I need to find time to revisit all of those.
We’re not looking for the big blockbusters or the major Oscar nominees, so no Speed or Shawshank Redemption, please. Those movies have gotten plenty of attention over the years. What smaller movies from 1994 do you think are worthy of another look?