The year that was 1992 is the year art-house audiences got their first taste of writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s affection for ’70s-style exploitation flicks and predilection for contemporary pop-cultural references. Michael Douglas reigned as Hollywood’s poster boy for flawed machismo, and Michelle Pfeiffer and Sharon Stone both teased and tantalized in sexy leather with whip and with icepick without undies, respectively.
Also in 1992, Tom Clancy’s everyman CIA analyst Jack Ryan received a facelift, morphing from Alec Baldwin to Harrison Ford (the first of four such changings of the guard, if you count the upcoming Netflix series). There were two competing Christopher Columbus movies commemorating the quincentennial of his fateful voyage, Al Pacino finally won a Best Actor Oscar, and Tim Burton’s highly anticipated sequel to 1989’s Batman turned out to be darker and more violent than the McDonald’s executives who snagged the Happy Meal rights sight unseen ever expected.
More than anything else, the year 1992 will be remembered as the last hurrah of old-school analog visual effects—with its predominance of matte photography, scale miniatures and practical sets over the newfangled animated pixels of computer generated imagery as seen in the previous year’s blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day. One movie rose the bar of “morphing” effects in 1992—the genre-mash-up Death Becomes Her, which won the Best Visual Effects Oscar—but three other high-profile sci-fi/horror/fantasy pictures—Alien3, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Army of Darkness—are notable because they represent the pinnacle of old-school visual effects artistry, with only minor digital embellishments. From here on out, movies would rely increasingly on CGI, with 1993’s Jurassic Park changing the game by setting a new photorealistic standard for the fledgling technology.
Without further ado, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Best of Class: Basic Instinct
Dutch bad boy Paul Verhoeven, riding high on his twin Hollywood successes of RoboCop and Total Recall, directs this slick psycho-sexual pot-boiler that marked a coming out of sorts for Hollywood studios and their increasingly liberal attitude towards depicting homosexuality in the movies.
Though it doesn’t seem quite so scandalous now, the film was a hot-button topic of controversy even while still in production, targeted for the perceived homophobic stereotyping in Joe Eszterhas’ screenplay, which prominently features a flagrantly bisexual female antagonist who’s into S&M and likes to kill men with an icepick post-coitus. Verhoeven’s uncompromising attitude towards depicting graphic sex and violence only poured gasoline on the flame: irate protesters picketed movie theaters on opening weekend, spoiling the twist ending for patrons as they queued up to purchase their tickets.
As expected, this only fueled the fire of the film’s popularity, and it became a sensation during the then-typically-dull springtime movie season (it ranks #9 among the top grossers for the year). Stone is in top form as the femme fatale, and Michael Douglas brings his usual charisma and gravitas to yet another flawed and/or morally dubious character (for others, see Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, Black Rain, Disclosure, and A Perfect Murder). Jan de Bont’s stylish widescreen photography and Jerry Goldsmith’s slinky musical score are considerable assets. Too schlocky to be considered art, yet this one has been imitated (poorly) more often than many other brainier and more critically acclaimed thrillers.
If that’s not a testament to the movie’s enduring influence, I don’t know what is.
Best of Class: The Crying Game
The Crying Game was also controversial in its day for its bold sexuality, but even stripped of the shock value of its most infamous gender-bending peek-a-boo, Neil Jordan’s IRA thriller remains a nuanced and impeccably performed character-driven nail-biter.
Compare To: Bitter Moon; Deep Cover; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle; Raising Cain; Single White Female.
Fewer Will Remember: Final Analysis; Jennifer 8; Whispers in the Dark.
Best of Class: More than any other genre, the year 1992 is chock full of exceptional and highly quotable dramas, from intimate character-driven pieces like Reservoir Dogs, Scent of a Woman, Glengarry Glen Ross, and A Few Good Men to old-fashioned and grand-scale epic adventures such as The Last of the Mohicans and 1492: Conquest of Paradise, as well as a pair of important films that fit into both categories—Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Western Unforgiven.
Compare To: The Babe; Bad Lieutenant; The Bodyguard; Chaplin; Far and Away; Hoffa; Howards End; Medicine Man; Memoirs of an Invisible Man; One False Move; Orlando; A River Runs Through It; School Ties; Singles; Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me; Wind.
Fewer Will Remember: A Midnight Clear; A Stranger Among Us; American Heart; American Me; Article 99; Back in the USSR; City of Joy; Consenting Adults; CrissCross; Crossing the Bridge; Crush; The Cutting Edge; Damage; Equinox; Folks!; Forever Young ; Gas, Food Lodging; Husbands and Wives; Juice; Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.; Kuffs; Leap of Faith; Leaving Normal; Light Sleeper; The Living End; Love Field The Mambo Kings; Man Bites Dog; Man Trouble; Map of the Human Heart; Newsies; Night and the City; Of Mice and Men; Passion Fish; Peter’s Friends; Poison Ivy; The Power of One; Praying with Anger; Prelude to a Kiss; The Public Eye; Pure Country; Radio Flyer; Rich in Love; Romper Stomper; Ruby; Sarafina!; Shining Through; Sidekicks; Simple Men; South Central; This Is My Life; Thunderheart; Toys; Unlawful Entry; Used People; The Waterdance; Waterland; White Sands; Wuthering Heights; Year of the Comet; Zebrahead.
Best of Class: Batman Returns
Tim Burton’s cold and kinky follow-up to his super-sized 1989 blockbuster Batman is perhaps the director’s purest vision, undiluted by the studio pressures and mandates that made the first film feel like a mere product, and starring the best cinematic Bruce Wayne/Batman: Michael Keaton.
Admittedly too dark and macabre for the Happy Meal set, though methinks the prudes were protesting too much over the level of brutality and sadomasochism on display—Gotham City has typically been portrayed as a dispiriting hellhole and its inhabitants have always been a bit, shall we say, “touched;” just what did these folks think they were signing up for when they bought their tickets? If the high camp quotient and gaudy glitz factor of Joel Schumacher’s two increasingly risible sequels are any indication, the character of Batman works best in the shadows.
Christopher Nolan knew this instinctively, and until he rebooted the series in 2005 with Batman Begins, Burton’s Returns stood as the most satisfying adaptation of the tortured DC comic book hero. Trivia tidbit: of the four films in the original Batman cycle from 1989 to 1997, Batman Returns is the only one in which the actor behind our hero’s mask receives top billing.
Best of Class: Patriot Games
Were it not for the presence of Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, (pinch-hitting for Alec Baldwin) the underwhelming Red October follow-up may very well have ended the Tom Clancy-penned series before it really got going. Today, a quarter century later, the film pales in comparison to the better Ryan flicks because its action is too confined and does not rely on a global threat. Even so, there’s no denying the immense star power of Ford, who makes Jack Ryan seem more humane and less pompous here than the character comes off in Red October. It’s the only Ryan movie to be issued with an R-rating, earned for some salty language and several excruciating bits of realistic violence.
Compare To: Hard Boiled; El Mariachi; Lethal Weapon 3; Passenger 57; Police Story 3: Supercop; Under Siege; Universal Soldier.
Fewer Will Remember: Aces: Iron Eagle III; Christopher Columbus: The Discovery; Gladiator; Rapid Fire; Trespass; Twin Dragons.
Best of Class: Death Becomes Her
Robert Zemeckis’ dark fantasy is in equal measures a comic and gothic horror show of bodily decay, a grotesque tale of the undead, a pitch-black satire of elitist narcissists, and a twisted triangular anti-romance and battle of the sexes. It defies simple encapsulation and classification, though it is often shuffled into the “comedy” category for Meryl Streep’s fiercely funny over-the-top turn as an aging and vindictive diva. Plays like an overlong episode of Zemeckis’ TV series “Tales from the Crypt,” but for its visual flair and ample gallows humor it has rightfully earned a devoted cult following.
Compare To: Beethoven; Boomerang; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Diggstown; The Distinguished Gentleman; Home Alone 2: Lost in New York; Captain Ron; Encino Man; A League of Their Own; The Muppet Christmas Carol; My Cousin Vinny; The Player; Sister Act; Sneakers; Strictly Ballroom; Wayne’s World; White Men Can’t Jump.
Fewer Will Remember: 3 Ninjas; Blame It on the Bellboy; Bob Roberts; Brain Donors; Breaking the Rules; Class Act; The Efficiency Expert; Frozen Assets; Guncrazy; The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag; Hero; Honey I Blew Up the Kid; Honeymoon in Vegas; Housesitter; Into the West; Ladybugs; Love Potion No. 9; The Mighty Ducks; Mo’ Money; Mom and Dad Save the World; Mr. Baseball; Mr. Saturday Night; Noises Off…; Out on a Limb; Passed Away; Stay Tuned; Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot; Storyville; Straight Talk; There Goes the Neighborhood.
Best of Class: Aladdin
Gorgeous hand-crafted animation blends with some inventive CGI, conjuring a bright and colorful storybook tale that is filled with humor, adventure, romance, magic, memorable characters, and jubilant songs. It remains one of the Crown Jewels of the Disney Kingdom, and stands up a quarter-century later to anything the Mouse House has created since—including The Lion King, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Frozen, Moana, and etcetera. Not all of the jokes and pop-culture references have aged as well, but as a time-capsule snapshot of the manic genius of the late, great, incomparable Robin Williams, this movie has few equals.
Compare To: Bébé’s Kids; FernGully: The Last Rainforest; Tom & Jerry: The Movie.
Best of Class: Alien3
Much maligned upon its original release, it took a few years until the arrival of the bizarre and schlocky Alien: Resurrection for folks to finally warm up to David Fincher’s bleak, apocalyptic third entry. Granted, the movie suffers from not being as exciting or fun as James Cameron’s Aliens or as spooky as Ridley Scott’s original Alien, but the striking production design, the unnerving musical score, and especially Sigourney Weaver’s heroic performance are all assets that have helped the movie gradually earn some respect.
Fincher has gone on to more prestigious projects and has since earned an unparalleled reputation as one of Hollywood’s most technically adept and visually seductive filmmakers, but even through the murky haze of Alien3 you can witness his dark cinematic genius on full display. A sad state of affairs, perhaps, that a movie of such ill repute ties for “Best of Class,” but this one definitely holds up better today than you may recall.
Best of Class: Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola delivers his finest film in over a decade, adapting the Bram Stoker novel with audacious sexuality and wondrous visual flair. The in-camera visual effects are a celebration of old-school optical illusions, plus there’s a whole lot of bloody violence. Quibble over Keanu Reeves and his spotty English accent if you must, but the remainder of the cast is top notch, including Anthony Hopkins as vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, Gary Oldman as a romantic yet melancholy Count Vladimir Dracula, and Winona Ryder as the embodiment of Dracula’s eternal love.
Compare To: Army of Darkness; Candyman; Dead Alive; Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth; The Lawnmower Man; Pet Sematary II.
Fewer Will Remember: Body Parts; Cool World; Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice; Critters 4; Dr. Giggles; Dust Devil; Fortress; Freejack; Innocent Blood; Sleepwalkers.
See you next year!