Now here's a movie. Three stories that begin as cliches but soon go wild and wily. A gallery of tough guys who minor in philosophy. Career-defining turns by John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman. Peppery dialogue that brings macho swank into the '90s. Quentin Tarantino's adrenaline rush of a melodrama is a brash dare to timid Hollywood filmmakers. Let's see, he says, if you can be this smart about going this far.
Red Rock West
Film noir is more than a lighting style. It's a seedy, cynical world view: people are motivated by greed, stupidity and sexual avarice. Director John Dahl gets it all right in his mean, hilarious tale of a drifter (Nicolas Cage) mistaken for a contract killer. The title town is off all the moral maps, and so -- deliriously, invigoratingly -- is this lowbrow, low-budget assault.
Pauline and Juliet, two love-struck teenagers in 1950s New Zealand, created a voluptuous fantasy world and moved into it. Director Peter Jackson moves in with them; his fevered camera style communicates the rapture and peril of adolescent hysteria. This hurtling, upsetting film, based on a true murder case, has a thrillingly nervy performance by Melanie Lynskey as the darker, needier Pauline.
The Shawshank Redemption
Jailbirds and moviegoers both do time -- and depending on the picture, two hours can seem like a life sentence. Time is the preoccupation of Frank Darabont's deeply satisfying prison drama about a man wrongly convicted of murder who plots revenge and escape. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are tough, smart, patient. So is the film.
At 14, William Gates and Arthur Agee are sports heroes and working stiffs -- magicians on the high school basketball court who stagger under the burden of producing wins (and glory and revenue) for their team. Documentarians Steve James, Fred Marx and Peter Gilbert have produced an epic of love, betrayal, heartbreak, true grit.
Bullets over Broadway
Woody Allen rounds up the usual show-biz subjects -- egomaniacal star (Dianne Wiest in a great, bold comic performance), earnest young playwright, desperate producer -- and an underworld hit man (Chazz Palminteri) who has what none of them has: theatrical genius. He teaches them all a thing or two about art and life in Allen's happiest, most assured comedy in many years.
The Lion King
Primal Disney on the African plains: a lion cub survives banishment and his father's death. This cartoon feature (directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff) has the glories of narrative savvy, voicemanship, lively songs and scenic splendor -- familiar Disney virtues but still fresh and fine.
The March sisters navigate the passage from girlhood to womanhood with grace, spirit and infinite appeal in Gillian Armstrong's passionate realization of the 19th century children's classic. Winona Ryder leads an entrancing cast in a family film that interrupts our pious pratings about "family values" to say something truthful and unsentimental on the subject.