50 movies proving 1994
is the greatest movie year of all time
by Louis Hare, Guilty Pleasures host
Recently the internet has been awash of articles discussing 1999 and its position as possibly the “Greatest Movie Year of All Time.” The case has been made in articles, podcasts and even a published book citing 1999’s slate as an ambitious lot of films that signify a new generation of filmmakers.
And while I certainly understand the points being made, they all beg the question: Why is everyone sleeping on 1994? One only has to go back five years to find a year as important to the industry, while also providing a much deeper bench of films that run the gamut of genre and style. On its 25th anniversary, here are 14 reasons (and 50 films) why 1994 is the ACTUAL Greatest Movie Year of All Time.
1. Forrest Gump
Let’s just address the 500-lb. Alabamian in the room first. If we’re basing the ’94 vs. ’99 argument off of nothing but each year’s highest-grossing film, I don’t want to meet the person who would choose Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace over Forrest Gump. Unlike The Phantom Menace - an instantly derided piece that seemed to make money in spite of itself - Forrest Gump was beloved from the moment it was released until it won six Academy Awards and grossed $700 million worldwide. In between, we got books, shirts and, eventually, a mediocre seafood restaurant franchise. Has this 2 ½-hour piece of baby-boomer nostalgia porn aged well? Debatable. Is it better than you’re probably giving it credit for? Absolutely. Tom Hanks’ performance remains an all-timer that many lesser actors would try to emulate in their own hopes for an Oscar. Meatier than the maudlin dramas of the '80s and arriving at just the right moment before its sentimentality would’ve been openly mocked in favor of the edgier films of the mid-'90s, Forrest Gump is a movie about the passage of time that arrives at the exact right time.
2. Pulp Fiction
Oh, you like the subversive films of 1999? Thank Pulp Fiction. Debuting at Sundance, Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece sent shockwaves through the film industry. Its nonlinear story telling wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but Tarantino’s intoxicating mix of '70s-era style, '90s-era violence and his own signature dialogue (not to mention a killer soundtrack) created an experience unlike any film we’d seen to that point. Tarantino remains a polarizing filmmaker (and person), but denying the film’s uniqueness and impact is as wrongheaded as it is futile. The rest of the decade would see countless knockoffs, with lesser filmmakers trying and failing to make “the next Pulp Fiction.” Soon enough, great filmmakers would get the platform to make their own edgy, inventive films, but it’s hard to think that films like The Matrix, Magnolia, Three Kings, and especially Fight Club are given even a passing glance without the unbridled success of Pulp Fiction five years earlier.
3. The Shawshank Redemption
You’d be forgiven for forgetting that The Shawshank Redemption came out in 1994, as it’s highly unlikely you actually saw it in 1994. Only grossing $16 million in its initial release, it would top out at $28 million after a 1995 re-release following seven Academy Award nominations. It ultimately wouldn’t find an audience until its home video and cable releases later that year. But once it did, it went on to become a universally-beloved modern classic. Unlike Forrest Gump, its legacy seems to grow as time passes, as evidenced by its current place as IMDB’s highest rated film of all time. While calling it the greatest film of all time feels like a slight overreach, it is a beautifully filmed character piece with career-defining performances from Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. It is a film that deals with friendship and hope in a refreshingly straight-forward manner that remains accessible to audiences regardless of when and how it’s viewed. It doesn’t have the revolutionary feel of Pulp Fiction or the bank account of Forrest Gump, but 25 years later, audiences have given Frank Darabont’s prison drama its own redemption.
4. Great directors making their best films
While Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction were taking up most of the critical conversations in 1994, the year is an embarrassment of riches in the form of A-list directors giving us some of their best work. Name a great director, and they gave us something in 1994 that belongs at the top of their resume:
Tim Burton – Ed Wood
The Coen Brothers – The Hudsucker Proxy
Ron Howard – The Paper
Robert Redford – Quiz Show
Oliver Stone – Natural Born Killers
John Waters – Serial Mom
What’s particularly intriguing is that not only are these films among the best of their careers, but for many of them, these films are some of their most daring as well. 1994 saw great directors taking big swings and connecting in big ways.
5. The year of Jim Carrey
Speaking of big swings (and so you know that ’94 gave us more than just high-art classics), here’s a man becoming the biggest star in the world by talking out of his ass. It’s not just that Jim Carrey had one big hit that would define his legacy – he had THREE of them in the same damn year. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb & Dumber served as a trifecta of iconic comedies in a 12-month span that has yet to be duplicated. Jim Carrey went from moderately-known actor to global superstar in 1994, but he wasn’t the only one …
6. Brad Pitt’s breakout year
Brad Pitt was starting to make a name for himself earlier in the decade with a memorable turn in Thelma & Louise, but 1994’s Interview with the Vampire (where he steals scenes from Tom Cruise) and Legends of the Fall (his first true lead role) confirm what many had suspected: America’s Next Great Leading Man had arrived.
Every great movie year needs a great summer blockbuster, and they don’t get much better than Speed. A fast, dumb, fun movie, Speed has aged remarkably well thanks to the chemistry of its leads and a premise so absurd, you have no choice but to turn your brain off and go with it. Keanu Reeves broke out of his surfer-bro typecasting, and Sandra Bullock became America’s sweetheart overnight. And while we’re talking romantic chemistry and overnight sensations …
8. Four Weddings and a Funeral
If there’s one criticism about 1994, it’s that it’s a pretty thin year for romantic comedies. While there were some attempts, there’s really only one that makes any mark that year. Fortunately, it’s a pretty big mark. If you were to look up “surprise hit” in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure you’ll see the poster for Four Weddings and a Funeral. Made on a shoestring budget, this English comedy became a massive hit (and Best Picture nominee), turning Hugh Grant into an A-list star faster than it takes him to stammer through a declaration of love.
9. The Lion King
Disney’s probably had better years, but it’s hard to find a more diverse year in their modern era than 1994. Christmas staple? The Santa Clause. Silly slapstick? Blank Check. Sports comedy? How about TWO of them (Angels in the Outfield and the Mighty Ducks sequel D2). But the tentpole is The Lion King, an unqualified masterpiece so imbedded in the culture that you may be reading this while awaiting the live-action (sorta?) remake’s release this summer.
10. The rest of the summer of ‘94
Since the advent of the blockbuster, you can’t judge a year in movies without looking at its summer movie season. By that metric, it’s hard to argue that 1994 is one of the best. In addition to the films already mentioned (Forrest Gump, The Mask, Speed and The Lion King), the summer of ’94 also featured James Cameron’s True Lies, the Jack Ryan sequel Clear & Present Danger, the John Grisham adaptation The Client and big-screen adaptations of The Flintstones and Maverick that I promise are much better than you remember.
11. Generation X at the movies
All these mainstream films leaving you a bit apathetic? No worries slackers, 1994 had something for you too! First off is Reality Bites, a film that captured the angst of Gen X in a way that spoke to its young audience, not down to it. Elsewhere is The Crow, a great comic book adaptation back when that was a foreign concept anchored by Brandon Lee’s tragic performance (he died during filming via a prop gun mishap) and a soundtrack from the grunge era’s finest. There’s also the Animal House knockoff PCU, which is still fun for a few choice quotes, a George Clinton concert and a pre-hair-plug Jeremy Piven. But the award for achievement in Gen-X filmmaking unquestionably belongs to Kevin Smith’s Clerks. A marvel in do-it-yourself filmmaking before everyone could make a movie on their phone, Smith’s profanely hilarious comedy encapsulates the indie spirit of the 90s as well as the generation that came of age during it.
12. Sci-fi franchises
Two major sci-fi franchises had big moments in 1994, though one wasn’t known as franchise yet. Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s Stargate became a surprise hit that launched multiple television and web series that continued well into the next 20 years. Less surprising was the success of Star Trek: Generations, a film designed to phase out the original series’ regulars and segue into the film adventures of the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew. Almost a quarter of a century before we got to see Iron Man and Captain America team up, Captains Kirk and Picard would be fighting side-by-side in a crossover event that would launch the Star Trek franchise into its own next generation.
13. The year of the basketball movie
NBA popularity was at a peak in the early 90s, so it’s no surprise that the biggest (non-Disney) sports movies of the year centered on basketball. While Above The Rim is mostly remembered as “That one that had ‘Regulate’ on the soundtrack” and Blue Chips as ”The Shaq movie where he doesn’t rap or play a genie,” both are unique looks into the sport and the world around it that subvert typical sports movie tropes and merit revisiting. Blue Chips is especially prescient given the debate over the compensation of college athletes that continues to this day. That said, if you only watch one basketball movie from 1994, it should unquestionably be Hoop Dreams. This riveting story of high school basketball stars is so good, it inevitably comes up in the conversations for both best sports movie and best documentary of all time, as evidenced by the universal outcry when it failed to get nominated for Best Picture.
14. Great bad movies
1994 is the greatest bad movie year of all time, and I will die on this hill. Every year sees its share of failures, but 1994’s group fails on an unprecedented level. Now, gentle reader, you may ask “If there were so many bad movies, how can you argue it’s the best movie year ever?” To that I say, “Have you met me?” But for real, it’s not just the quantity of bad movies, it’s the quality of the bad movies, and these are some top-notch pieces of pony loaf. In case you missed them, here are some highlights: On Deadly Ground, where Steven Segal drowns Michael Caine in a vat of oil before lecturing us about the environment; Clifford, where Martin Short plays a 10-year old boy who harasses Charles Grodin; Timecop, where Jean-Claude Van Damme is COP who travels through TIME; and Wolf, where Jack Nicholson seduces Michelle Pfeiffer while turning into a FUCKING WEREWOLF. Top that off with two video game adaptations (Street Fighter & Double Dragon) and a whole host of sequels that range from mediocre (City Slickers II, Beverly Hills Cop III, Major League 2) to downright embarrassing (Death Wish V, House Party 3, The Next Karate Kid), and we’re already in top 10 territory. But at the head of the pack (or rear, depending your tolerance for nonsense) is a Holy Trinity of garbage films the likes of which no year can touch. First up is Chris Elliot’s Cabin Boy, an absurdist piece that could most charitably be described as a noble failure. Second, the SNL skit adaptation It’s Pat: The Movie, a movie you’ve only heard of in articles about awful SNL adaptations. (It’s easily the worst and that’s saying A LOT.) Then there’s North, Rob Reiner’s all-star disaster that inspired Roger Ebert’s most gloriously hate-filled review. Think the term “hate-filled” is an overstatement? Take it from the man himself:
"I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."
1994 was a year of big swings, big hits and big misses. It was a year where new stars were made and new trends were born, and even its failures were the stuff of legend. It was a year where the independent spirit broke into the mainstream and the mainstream exceeded its own expectations. 1999 certainly deserves its due for the amount of innovative films that came out that year, but it builds its success on the template laid out by 1994. The slate of movies celebrating their silver anniversary this year may be one of the most diverse slates in the history of the medium. From prestige dramas to blockbuster spectacles, family hits to genre fare and even historically bad movies, 1994 had something for everyone. It truly is the greatest movie year ever.
Lou Hare is an adjunct professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. Lou is the host of Guilty Pleasures on the Front Row Network and a regular on many other FRN shows. His greatest joy in life is making his friends watch terrible movies and talk about them..... and being a GIF.