Continuing our year-by-year retrospectives of the best films depending on the dates, I now introduce to you 1992. This was the year when the US Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to abortion, four officers were acquitted in the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles; violence erupted in Los Angeles. It was a year that saw a Clinton defeat a Bush and a billionaire (Ross Perot); the Cold War officially ended; and, sadly, four officers were acquitted in the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles. Sadly, 30 years after these events, America seems to be on the cusp of women losing their reproductive rights, billionaires can win the White House, a new Cold War has emerged, and data shows black people are still 2.9x more likely to be killed by police than white people. Despite the alarming discourse, and like any year, you can find good and bad things that occurred. The same can be said about cinema, as in 1992 you could find a lot of duds like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! Medicine Man, and Cool World, to name a few. However, there were many other gems where many titles have gone on to become beloved treasures, films that have stood the test of time, and many that are still embraced today. As usual, films are always decided by their U.S. theatrical release date. The Best Films of 1992:
1. The Player (d. Robert Altman)
Out of all the Hollywood satires we’ve had in these last decades (there are many bitter artists out there condemning the arrogance and vileness of Hollywood), Robert Altman’s 90s comeback movie was his best film since Nashville and also his most sophisticated. It’s an entirely brilliant narrative and screenplay by Michael Tolkin (The Rapture), which is also based on his novel. But Altman, as he always does, gives a lot of creative liberty with improvisation, but the film doesn’t feel as chaotic as some of the other Altman films. Tolkin’s script allows the flow to feel seamless, and Altman’s direction, staging, and pacing are top-notch. Tim Ribbons, in one of his greatest performances of his career, plays Griffin Mill, a cunning hot-shot Hollywood producer who only cares about profits over art. Eventually, he gets anonymous postcards sent to him by a rejected screenwriter, which leads him down a journey of confronting a failed screenwriter named David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) over a few drinks after a film screening of “Bicycle Thieves.” Once the meeting goes awry, Griffin ends up murdering David in a parking lot in somewhat self-defense, only to cover-up the murder and fall in love with David’s girlfriend (Greta Scacchi). The police department led by Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett were certainly on the case, and now Griffin is guilty. Meanwhile, David’s world begins to collapse in Hollywood as a new producer named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) is hired, who threatens his position. Meanwhile, Griffin begins to get things under control as he puts new energy into a new film after hearing a great pitch that’s more art-house and indie-driven and could reinvent his career. The Player, all around, is a brilliant satire that encapsulates modern Hollywood and feels even more relevant today. Altman’s innovative and stylish film has an ingenious mix of satire, mystery thriller, wit, and absurdist humor. It’s easily one of the most impressive films of the 1990s.
2. Unforgiven (d. Clint Eastwood)
Clint Eastwood, still as prolific as ever at age 91, certainly transcended the western genre in 1992 with his elegiac Oscar winning Unforgiven, which was the defining western of the 90s, perhaps the greatest western since the work of Leone and Peckinpah. Working with an original screenplay by Davd Peoples (12 Monkeys, Blade Runner), Eastwood has crafted a somber, constantly thrilling, twisty saga about redemption and transcendence. While staying true to the western genre, the film deserves credit for also reinventing it with such grace, humility, and sharp character depth. The film also features memorable performances from Eastwood himself, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, and Frances Fisher, as well as a first-rate, Oscar-winning performance from Gene Hackman in a very sinister turn as a power-hungry sheriff named “Little” Bill Daggett. And yet, as familiar as the film could have come across, it is a monumental western that pivots into a refreshing work of art with absolute brilliance and grace.
3. Malcolm X (d. Spike Lee)
One of the greatest historical biopics ever created could have just been another tiresome biopic of a very historical and pivotal character in US history. Instead, it’s a riveting tour-de-force because director Spike Lee explored the material with complexity and energy and tackled the iconic figure of Malcolm X with such passion and vigor. Lee utilizes his astonishing visual style to make Malcolm X an exciting and equally confounding character study. He’s the only living director that understands the man behind Malcolm X and can make the material so alluring. Of course, Denzel Washington’s performance as Malcolm X remains his greatest, and Lee knows how to pull you both emotionally and intellectually with his passionate personal touch.
4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (d. David Lynch)
With David Lynch now being one of the world’s most celebrated and renowned filmmakers of our time, a lot of his films are often dismissed, abandoned upon release, but they are often revived as years go by. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is one of those films, and his final entry in the Twin Peaks saga until he returned with Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017. Upon the release of the 18-episode series of Twin Peaks: The Return, Fire Walk with Me resonated even more, as more dots connected even more, while a few are still left perplexing. Fire Walk with Me is perhaps the most chilling of all of Lynch’s work, and it always gets better with each revisit. Lynch also explores some rich ideas about duality and the facade of family—how darkness can reside in even the ones we consider the closest to. Settling into a world that appears innocent on the outside but is absolutely frightening on the inside. Lynch uses motifs of doppelgangers, realms, portals, split rooms, split personalities, and double lives that many keep secret amongst us. It’s really an intellectual and profound piece of cinema. Like all of Lynch’s greatest works, it’s an unsettling experience that invokes certain emotions that are beyond description. Fire Walk with Me is always a tragic journey that gives fascinating insights into the iconic Laura Palmer character (Sheryl Lee), who delivers one of the most emotionally raw and wrenching performances of the 90s in her role as Laura Palmer, as we go through an odyssey of her demise and tragic fate.
5. Reservoir Dogs (d. Quentin Tarantino)
A timeless and brilliant piece of cinema that is one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time, Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” is great to see an auteur being born. By showing a heist gone awry, Tarantino is able to show his visual literacy with amazing film culture knowledge. The flashback device is impressively utilized, and this was the film that showed QT as a true cinematic force with strong sensibilities. Upon its release, what a surprise this was. In fact, the audience grew even more upon Tarantino’s sophomore hit Pulp Fiction. Reservoir Dogs eventually found a very wide audience throughout the video store and cable days. Tarantino proved with his brilliant directing, crisp dialogue, and ferocious characters that he was a first-rate talent after years of struggling to get projects greenlit. While it might have been a heist film with very limited settings, Reservoir Dogs ended up becoming a pop-culture sensation with its memorable dialogue, but it’s also exhilarating from beginning to end. With a memorable narrative structure and a super cast led by Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen, and Lawrence Tierney, Reservoir Dogs will forever be championed of time as more years go by.
6. The Crying Game (d. Neil Jordan)
In a decade full of films about the IRA that explored conflicts between Ireland and England, Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game is the most complex, layered, and engrossing. Jaye Davidson delivered one of the most transformative and astonishing performances of the decade, very layered as a hairdresser transgender woman who falls in love with her dead ex-bf’s capture Fergus (Stephen Rea). Jordan, who has also made one of the best vampire films in the last 30 years with Interview with the Vampire, gives The Crying Game a haunting spell, never shying away from being compromising. A highlight of Jordan’s impressive filmography and of the 90s decade, The Crying Game is an unforgettably thrilling and highly engaging suspense thriller about unconditional love, redemption, stoicism, and remaining true to oneself. Both Rea and Davidson as Dill deliver some of the most memorable characters and performances of the 90s. Truly an essential and unmissable piece of cinema.
7. Husbands and Wives (d. Woody Allen)
While it is not fashionable these days to admit you love a Woody Allen film, it would be dishonest of me to not include some of his greatest gems in my retrospective top ten lists. A highly amusing and equally thoughtful exploration of love, marriage, and relationships. Woody Allen’s greatest accomplishment from the 90s is a work of genius that always holds up upon rewatch. Even though it shares a lot of the same sensibilities and themes as Allen’s previous endeavors, it’s aesthetically different than anything Allen has shot before with its stripped-down, handheld style that plays out like a mockumentary about people’s marriages. Allen’s use of sharp and witty dialogue merges complex and conflicted characters, attempting to sort through what they yearn for in their middle-age crisis, and how situations do circle back in life. Fostered by a first-rate (Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Judy Davis, Sydney Pollock, Juliette Lewis, and Liam Neeson) in which each character is given great character depth, layers, and finally some pathos that captures a lot of truth in the agonies, elations, and uncertainty of love.
8. The Last of the Mohicans (d. Michael Mann)
One of Michael Mann’s biggest hits, which is an incredible historical drama and an energetic adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel. With The Last of the Mohicans (which is also faithful to the 1936 George B. Seitz-directed film), Mann was able to stage some of the most breathtaking battle sequences of the era that still astonish today with their seamless pacing while simultaneously delivering an engaging romance, rich themes, first-rate action, some loose history, and gorgeous landscape cinematography by Dane Spinotti. Best of all, Mann delivered a spectacular epic for the ages. A film with rich themes about culture clash, racial prejudice, and changing loyalties. Out of all the historical epics released in the last 30 years—Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy—The Last of the Mohicans remains the most impressive.
9. Glengarry Glen Ross (d. James Foley)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Mamet was revitalized by James Foley into a sharply observed, well-scripted, and well-acted saga drama about four real estate salesmen competing with each other to save their livelihoods as greed runs amok. By far, one of Mamet’s strongest adaptations, even outdoing some of Mamet’s own directed films. Foley hasn’t made a memorable film since—though he did infamously direct the lousy Fifty Shades of Grey films—Foley utilized Mamet’s vision to create a highly engrossing and wrenchingly twisty portrait that was about double-crossing, desperation, and rampant individualism and the role it plays in modern capitalism. Foley’s blocking of mostly limited locations that take place mostly in offices and in a Chinese restaurant is greatly staged as the dialogue keeps the narrative flowing, while Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon, and Al Pacino overall deliver first-rate performances in a top-notch ensemble piece.
10. Bad Lieutenant (d. Abel Ferrara)
Abel Ferrera was one of the grittiest and most uncompromising filmmakers of the 80s and 90s. With Bad Lieutenant, he has crafted a very bleak and complex study of self-destruction and Catholic guilt, changing the beats from character study to police thriller. Best of all, he allows Harvey Keitel to deliver his most gripping performance to date, as a nameless police officer billed as The Lieutenant, which includes many scenes of him practicing such deplorable behavior with his abuse of power, which leads to addiction to gambling, drugs, and pulling women over and bribing them to not write traffic tickets in exchange for sexual favors. Yes, it’s very disturbing and unnerving material, but Ferrera deserves credit for his tour-de-force experience that is audacious and holds some brilliant theological ideas on sin, redemption, repentance, and finally atonement.
Runners-Up (In Alphabetical Order)
Candyman (d. Barnard Rose)
The film, directed by British filmmaker Bernard Rose Candyman and based on the Clive Barker novel, was a career-defining film that had a large impact on the horror genre upon its release in 1992. Looking back, it’s one of the most stylish and effectively creepy horror films to emerge from the 90s, A terrifying yarn that ended up spawning 3 sequels, including last year’s sequel that shared the same title. But it’s this Candyman (1992) that remains the strongest in the franchise due to just how nuanced, sophisticated, and well-acted it is. It’s every bit as engaging, just as eerie and even gory. Rose’s Candyman is one of the most atmospheric horror films of its era, and easily one of the greatest horror films of the 90s decade. Rose also seems to respect the horror genre while adding plenty of art-house gloss that makes it feel stylish. Virgnia Madsen’s performance is really strong as it takes many terrifying and shattering turns. Overall, Candyman is a superb film in the horror genre. One of the most shocking ones is also one of the most unforgettable.
Center Stage (d. Stanley Kwan)
A luminous, melancholic ode to Chinese silent movies, the movie blends behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, and film stock into its narrative to keep the material fresh and innovative. The film is a chronicle of the real-life events of China’s first silver screen actress, Ruan Lingyu (Maggie Cheung), who lived a very short career and life but remains an icon today. What could have just been a bland film lesson and a routine biopic ends up being a visually arresting celebration on artistry, collaboration, and the power of acting. This is a movie that does a deep dive into Raun’s short movie career, her great collaborations and behind-the scenes drama on quite a few films that are lost, and her rivalries with filmmakers. The film also explores the tabloid she was trapped in that led to her self-destruction. You don’t have to be a huge cinema buff to appreciate the material, but if you are, you will be in awe from beginning to end.
Damage (d. Louis Malle)
Louis Malle’s Damage is the film we should be talking more about instead of Fatal Attraction. A haunting and elegantly made film about desire, passion, and infidelity all done with rich layers and stark complexity. The performances across the board by Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, and Miranda Richardson (which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination) all reign supreme. A very melancholic film that explores the traps of desire,the consequences of deception, and philosophical dilemmas of betrayal. Both raw and passionate, Damage is deeply compelling from start to finish.
Gas Food and Lodging (d. Allison Anders)
Based on the novel Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt by Richard Peck and written and directed by indie icon Allison Anders, Gas Food Loding has all the elements of a coming-of-age story film, mostly revolving around a single mother named Nora (Brooke Adams), who waits tables at a diner in a small town in Texas, while trying to raise two teenage daughters. Nora’s oldest daughter, Trudy, frustrates her by skipping school as she enjoys going out on late-night dates with guys, which causes a lot of tension between her and Nora. Meanwhile, Shade (Fairuza Balk) finds her joy watching mostly old Mexican classics at the local theater. She also tries to find a boyfriend for her single mother. Each woman is given a fair share of screen time and their own subplots, adding up to something very sublime with sharp insights and character depth. A great deal of the film observes mostly Shade and her insecurities, as well as a very tender moment when she finds out who her father really is. Trudi also has a lot of empathetic scenes, trying to find what she wants at her age as she gets pregnant by a young guy who runs out of town once she discovers that she’s pregnant. Anders keeps the film adaptation of Peck’s novel very fresh, with visual sensibilities and tonal shifts that are in part inspired by her mentor, Wim Wenders. Delicate and moving, Gas Food Lodging is one of the impressive American indies of the 90s, thanks in part to its skillful writing, genuine performances, and strong storytelling. The music by Dinosaur Jr. is also superb. See this film on the Arrow Blu-Ray.
Hard Boiled (d. John Woo)
One of John Woo’s greatest accomplishments, recalling the likes of The Killer and A Better Tomorrow, Hard Boiled unfolds with even more audacity with expertly staged shootouts and breathtaking action sequences. Yet, as Woo has always proved with his work, he’s also skilled with characters, as both Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung show great rivalry and eventually great buddy movie chemistry as they take on a powerful triad of criminal underworld. The over-the-top, the action and narrative never become tedious, despite the tad long 128 minutes towards an electrifying climax that takes place in a hospital where most of the action and shootouts take place in a hospital and on the floor of a labor, delivery, and recovery room. It does so without ever feeling exploitative, but always thrilling, with an action ballet and all, and it manages to always be jaw-dropping without ever losing its brisky energy and momentum.
One False Move (d. Carl Franklin)
This is my favorite Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Time) film so far in his career, and, indeed, it’s without a doubt his most nail-biting and thrilling film. It’s also one of the most remarkable American independent films of the early 90s that generated a lot of buzz during its time. Reflecting back, the film still holds up, with the focus on three criminals (Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams, and Michael Beach) who commit brutal murders over the course of a night in Los Angeles. They end up taking a bag of cash and setting out to the southern states, where one of the criminals’ ex-boyfriends (Bill Paxton) just happens to be a sheriff who works with the LAPD and FBI to anticipate her return. What begins as a routine thriller, ranging from police procedural movie elements, ends up becoming a very layered film in which the film becomes more involved with the characters than the plot. Ending with a spectacular and tragic climax, One False Mood is a stylish and satisfying film that transcends the crime thriller genre.
Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order)
Aladdin (d. Ron Clements and John Musker)
Basic Instinct (d. Paul Verhoeven)
Batman Returns (d. Tim Burton)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
Brain Dead (d. Peter Jackson)
Deep Cover (d. Bill Duke)
A Few Good Men (d. Rob Reiner)
Howards End (d. James Ivory)
Lessons of Darkness (d. Werner Herzog)
Light Sleeper (d. Paul Schrader)
The Long Day Closes (d. Terence Davies)
Mississippi Masala(d. Mira Nair)
Until the End of the World (d. Wim Wenders)
Other notable titles– A League of Their On, Aileen Wournous: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Baraka, Betty, The Bodyguard, Chaplin, Hoffa, Hyenes, In the Soup, Indochine, Innocent Blood, Juice, Laws of Gravity, Lethal Weapon 3, Lorenzo’s Oil, The Lover, Mac, Of Mice and Men, Man Bites Dog, A Midnight Clear, My Cousin Vinny, Passion Fish, Patriot Games, Porco Rosso, Raising Caine, A River Runs Through It, Romper Stomper, Singles, Sister Act, Strictly Ballroom, Thunderheart, Trespass, Wayne’s World, White Men Can’t Jump