There are landmark years in the history of cinema that define the direction of movies and shake up the status quo of these movies. The year 1994 is a special one. Hollywood, independent, and global cinema found themselves with a slate of films that remain classics to this day, thirty years later. Oscar-winning or not, a stake was claimed by various directors and actors that changed the course for good. As some would say goodbye, others would become world-renowned and the year would never be forgotten. It isn’t just a chapter from a book, but a year worthy of being written as a whole (probably is, but I haven’t found it), and to look back on it is to recognize how much creativity was released that has made a cultural impact today.
Hollywood Banks It In
The first film that stands out is Forrest Gump, which went on to win six Academy Awards including Best Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Director (Robert Zemeckis), and Best Picture. The crowd-pleasing film of a man who talks about his life in the middle of major historical moments while finding his lost love earned $677 million at the box office and made “Life is like a box of chocolates” a part of the cultural lexicon. Disney, in the middle of their Renaissance going back to 1989, released The Lion King, a safari version of Hamlet. It may not have Alan Menken doing the score, but Hans Zimmer’s music, along with an incredible slate of original songs, seemingly continued to be unstoppable and topped itself once again.
In September that year, Warner Brothers released the Stephen King prison drama, The Shawshank Redemption. Starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, the film received positive reviews and would get seven Oscar nominations, but not win any of them. Plus, it seemed to be almost missed out on as it failed at the box office. However, director Frank Darabont’s film would get the legacy it deserved through cable as continuous replays of the film brought in more viewers, making it one of the most revered films post-theatrical release.
Outside of Oscar winners, the thriller Speed, True Lies directed by James Cameron, the Farrelly Brothers’ comedy Dumb & Dumber, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers would make a big splash, the latter of which was co-written by Quentin Tarantino. Jim Carrey had three films that would cement his status as a comic A-lister; along with Dumb & Dumber, he was the lead in The Mask and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
After the success of releasing The Crying Game and The Piano in the previous years, Miramax was about to have their most successful slate ever. At that year’s Cannes Film Festival, they put out Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and won the Palme d’Or. The film became the sensation of the festival with its mix of homage, punchy dialogue, mixing narratives, and creative camerawork, all by someone not even thirty years old. Its success carried into awards season whenit was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture and won Original Screenplay for Tarantino and his writing partner, Roger Avary.
That same year, Miramax released one of Woody Allen’s most successful films, Bullets Over Broadway, as an ode to the screwball genre mixed with the mob. John Cusack, Chazz Palminteri, Jack Warden, Jennifer Tilly, Rob Reiner, and, in her second Oscar-winning performance, Dianne Weist starred in Allen’s 1920s-themed comedy of gangsters involved in Broadway. Another comedy released by Miramax was a self-made film bought from Sundance that introduced the world to Kevin Smith. Clerks, which he made while working at a convenience store, was backed heavily after the NC-17 rating for the never ending explicit sexual dialogue which had no nudity or violence. On appeal, it would be reduced to R, and a trilogy, plus an extensive career continuing today, was born.
Also released by Miramax was Robert Altman’s fashion comedy ensemble Ready To Wear (Pret-a-Porter), the historical drama Tom & Viv, Bernardo Bertolucci’s drama Little Budha, the action cult classic The Crow (where star Brandon Lee was killed on set by accident), and the true story drama Heavenly Creatures. From New Zealand, it would be the breakthrough film for director Peter Jackson. It starred Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet in their film debut as two high school girls who develop an obsessive friendship which leads to a violent climax. Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, would receive an Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay.
Across the pond in the UK, Mike Newell’s Four Weddings And A Funeral, written by Richard Curtis, became a surprise box office smash. Hugh Grant won a Golden Globe for his performance and became a massive star with his infectious charm and proper Brit attitude as a man late for weddings who falls for a lusty American, played by Andie Macdowell. Across the other direction to Australia, another comedy that became a cult hit was made. Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert follows three drag queens who travel by bus cross-country meeting various people along the way. The film was acclaimed for its pro-LGBTQ themes and positive look at the backgrounds of each character. Also from Australia that year was Muriel’s Wedding, which introduced Toni Collette to an international audience.
The last two films of his career were part of a trilogy that solidified Krzysztof Kieślowski’s legacy with universal acclaim at the three major international film festivals: Blue (Venice, 1993), then White (Berlin, 1994), and finally, Red, at Cannes. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy wrapped up an amazing career as it became the biggest talk of the art film world with its connecting stories on love, loss, betrayal, and unique fraternity. He scandalously lost at Cannes (Tarantino thought Kieslowski was going to win the Palme d’Or), but was rewarded with three Oscar nominations for Red, including Best Director. From North Macedonia, Before The Rain by Milcho Manchevski co-won the Golden Lion at Venice that year and would be nominated for an Oscar, telling a story set in the then-current, turbulent Yugoslav wars that had torn the former nation apart.
In Russia, its post-communist form allowed stories from Stalin’s infamous purge to be told and Burnt By The Sun follows a Red Army officer whose former lover visits him and his family while on vacation. The film would win the Best International Film Oscar. Ang Lee received his second consecutive nomination in the category for Eat Drink Man Woman before being hired to direct his first Hollywood film, Sense And Sensibility, and Cuba found itself also competing for the Oscar with the comedy Strawberries And Chocolate, one of the last films directed by Cuban legend, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. One more film, from Italy, was Il Postino (The Postman) starring Massimo Troisi, who died one day after filming was completed. It would make its debut at the Venice Film Festival that year, but receive critical acclaim from the United States the following year.
In a year where countless cultural and world events were happening – FIFA World Cup fever in America, OJ Simpson and the Bronco chase, the suicide of Kurt Cobain, apartheid in South Africa officially ending – cinema had its watershed moments also. Many figures were introduced, others finally crowned, and others were given a farewell to their career or their lives. Along with Troisi, Burt Lancaster, John Candy, Derek Jarman, and Jessica Tandy also died that year. 1994 seemed a very special year across all subjects in the world, especially for cinema on what debuted in that time. And just like that, we’ve already reached thirty years since that period.
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