Looking back over the summer of 1994, I can safely say that it's a serious candidate for the worst movie summer of all time. It's a jumble of big-budget flops, bad sequels, awful kids' movies, all-but-totally-forgotten comedies and other general misfires. Worse, and even more alienating, there were three high-profile, highly-acclaimed and much-beloved hits that I just couldn't go crazy for. Yet I remember that summer very fondly for delivering one perfect summer movie, which I saw on the perfect day, with all the right friends. Even if I never saw anything like it again all summer, it was worth it. (The titles of my favorites appear in bold.)
May 13: The summer started out early and promisingly with Spike Lee's warm, nostalgic Crooklyn, which is still one of his most underrated films. Then we got Alex Proyas' remarkable The Crow, which, despite the eerie overshadowing of Brandon Lee's untimely death, turned out to be a solid sci-fi/action/comic book movie.
May 20: Right now, we're in the era of remakes and reboots, but there was a time when the hottest ticket was big-screen remakes of old TV shows. Director Richard Donner put aside his profitable Lethal Weapon series for a version of Maverick, which seemed to me too slick and self-aware to make much of a lasting impression. (It was a big hit, though.) That same weekend, Gus Van Sant dropped the first of the summer's big bombs, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
May 27: I guess this was supposed to be the summer's first big weekend, but what are you supposed to do with two colossal duds like The Flintstones -- another update of an old TV show -- and Beverly Hills Cop III? At least the latter promised some kind of auteur interest, since it was a re-teaming of Eddie Murphy with director John Landis (Trading Places, Coming to America). It turned out that Landis didn't have much of a touch for comedy mixed with action, and the action came out both too ridiculous and not funny enough. Somehow, somewhere, someone made a deal with the devil, however, and The Flintstones went on to become the fifth highest-grossing film of the year.
June 3: Another dud weekend. Does anybody remember The Cowboy Way, with Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland as rodeo champs? Whose idea was that? Then there was the new Penny Marshall comedy Renaissance Man, with Danny DeVito, about a former ad man who gets a job teaching Hamlet to some army recruits. Roger Ebert called it "amazingly bad."
June 10: It continues with City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold, which was a perfect example of how a surprise organic hit can turn out a calculated, artificial sequel. But here it is: Jan de Bont's Speed, a truly amazing, high-energy, high-concept film that took a ludicrous idea and ran with it -- fast. Keanu Reeves perfectly holds the picture together with his deadpan, almost robotic performance; any hint of wisecracking and the whole thing would have flown apart. And Sandra Bullock's richly, organically comic performance injects life to what could have been a factory widget. (In one scene, her acting actually brings an unplanned smile to Keanu's face.) Dennis Hopper is the great, scenery-chewing villain who strikes up a bond with Keanu. Best of all, de Bont somehow manages to capture the feel of a typical sunshiny, hung-over Los Angeles day. Coming out of this movie, my friends and I all felt like driving around town, really fast, charged up for the rest of the day on happy, summer movie adrenaline.
June 17: Back to business. Getting Even with Dad was a lame attempt at cashing in on some more Macaulay Culkin's Home Alone magic, with arguably the summer's worst hairstyles. Then the perpetually dull Mike Nichols struck again with his attempt at a prestigious, middlebrow horror film, Wolf. I didn't like seeing The Lion King in the middle of summer; for me, Disney movies work best in the winter (they're just cozier). And I also hated the awful Elton John songs, which were several steps down from the great Ashman/Menken songs in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Thirdly, I just wasn't impressed by the movie's generally sluggish, somber tone. But lo and behold it went on to become the second highest grossing film of the year, and the highest grossing Disney animated film of all time (not adjusted for inflation). Go figure.
June 22: Lawrence Kasdan delivered the summer's longest movie, and its biggest flop, with Wyatt Earp, another, dull, lethargic attempt at making something prestigious-looking. It was 191 minutes, though Kasdan later released a 212-minute extended version. It earned about $25 million on its $62 million budget. Most people preferred the shorter, more buoyant Tombstone from the previous year, but at the end of 1994, Quentin Tarantino named Wyatt Earp as one of his five favorite pictures of the year.
July 1: Yawn. For the big holiday weekend, we got two bad children's movies, Baby's Day Out (written by John Hughes of all people) and Little Big League; a Julia Roberts flop, I Love Trouble, a failed superhero franchise, The Shadow, and Blown Away, an soulless action thriller about a bomber that totally wasted the recent Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones.
July 6: The year's #1 movie, the multiple Oscar-winner and the cultural phenomenon, about an idiot who never thinks to question authority: Forrest Gump. In Film Comment's wrap-up of the decade in film, more than one writer called this film "evil." If you were a woman in this movie, you were reduced to either a sexual or political stereotype and punished. And if you blindly followed, purchased and consumed, and had a nice day, you reaped great rewards. I just couldn't get on board with it...
July 16: If you weren't paying too much attention, the bland kids' movie Angels in the Outfield could easily be confused with the bland kids' movie Little Big League from two weeks earlier. But fortunately James Cameron came to the rescue with the final James Cameron movie before Titanic: True Lies. It was a big, expensive, ridiculous explosion movie, but it was funny and savvy and lively in all the right places. Not long after, the now-defunct Movieline magazine audaciously named it one of the 100 greatest American films of all time.
July 22: If the summer's bad movies weren't quite bad enough so far, along came Rob Reiner's North. For more information on this film, check out Siskel & Ebert's memorable, angry rant. A dumb version of Lassie was another choice that weekend, but the surprise was Joel Schumacher's John Grisham adaptation The Client, which, in comparison with all the other garbage, seemed like a pinnacle of intelligence. Susan Sarandon even earned an Oscar nomination for it.
July 29: Yet another forgotten kids' movie, Black Beauty opened this week, plus a small, delightful Nicolas Cage comedy that I went to see on the basis of Siskel & Ebert's recommendation, It Could Happen to You. I remember that the filmmakers spent months wrestling with several awkward titles, including Cop Tips Waitress $2 Million and Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip, before settling on the bland final title. But the winner this week was The Mask, which was a brisk antidote for the stupid Ace Ventura movie from earlier in the year. Fast, furious and funny, it was inspired by old Tex Avery cartoons with some great makeup and visual effects. It also gave us the notable acting debut of a model named Cameron Diaz.
August 5: In a year of stupid comedies about stupid people, Airheads was one of the most likeable, with Brendan Fraser, Adam Sandler and Steve Buscemi as a brain-dead heavy metal band taking over a radio station. It was from cult director Michael Lehmann, of Heathers fame. The third Jack Ryan adventure, Clear and Present Danger -- starring Harrison Ford -- was a small improvement over the awkward Patriot Games, though still a long shot from The Hunt for Red October. And Penelope Spheeris veered even further off her career track with The Little Rascals.
August 10: Seven words: In the Army Now, with Pauly Shore.
August 19: There were just no end of bad kids' movies this year, and Andre, about a little girl and her seal, was another one. Damon Wayans tried to make us laugh and didn't with Blankman, while Richard Rush and Bruce Willis didn't try to make us laugh and did with Color of Night. Meanwhile, with Pulp Fiction hovering just on the horizon, viewers could go see the Quentin Tarantino-produced, Roger Avary-directed Killing Zoe, which eventually did nothing to satisfy cravings.
August 26: Bringing the August dumping ground to a close with the dregs of comedy: a family comedy, Camp Nowhere, with Christopher Lloyd, poor old John Candy in Wagons East; the legendarily bad It's Pat, and Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow. Finally, we got another appetite-whetter for those waiting for Pulp Fiction to open in October: Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, which was based on a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. (Tarantino hated Stone's re-writes and settled for a "story by" credit.) I read Tarantino's original screenplay after the fact and loved it, but for some reason Stone got hooked on the idea of filming the movie like a 1960s "underground" film, with all kinds of switching film stocks and razzamatazz editing. In the end, the presentation brought nothing to the material -- a commentary on the role of media in real-life violence -- and Stone wound up, as usual, bashing his audience over the head again and again, just in case we missed his message. But there was one bright spot: Robert Downey Jr. as a frenetic Australian TV journalist. Roger Ebert, Michael Wilmington and Entertainment Weekly eventually named it one of the ten best films of the year. My personal favorite films of the year were yet to come.