“Strange Days” (1995) dir. Kathryn Bigelow

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Kathryn Bigelow has always been one of the most exciting directors around. It’s nice she’s getting some acclaim, box-office love, and Oscar nominations/wins to boot (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”). However, one of her most underrated films is 1995’s thriller “Strange Days.”

Produced by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron, “Strange Days” is one of those films that makes you think, “Man, that was soooo 1990s.” Not only for the flashy visuals and maximum volume / intensity action and violence, but also because the film takes place in the days right before Y2K. And as such (given millennial fears), the film shows America on the verge of a social, economic, and racial apocalypse (not entirely inaccurate).

The film features Ralph Fiennes in the lead as a sort of virtual reality drug dealer, selling lifelike virtual reality experiences of illicit and sensual pleasures. However, like any drug, the virtual reality experiences can sometimes be addictive and people find themselves slavishly addicted to “playback.” As the film unfolds, there’s elements involving “snuff” clips (people being killed for the purpose of making a virtual reality user experience murder), assassinations, and political/legal corruption.

A lot of this is very melodramatic and sometimes laughable (it’s always interesting to see how older filmmakers and storytellers envision a future we’ve already lived through). But what’s most amazing is in how much it predicted: the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (and ensuing conspiracy theories involving the LAPD, record label moguls, and rival gangs), the addictive nature of an internet life (as seen with people – mainly in Eastern countries – who have literally died playing multiple hours of video games at a clip without rest), the addictive need to watch more and more disturbing imagery (because it’s only a click away, remember), and how we all are just a significant event away from mass chaos and confusion (i.e. Katrina).

“Strange Days” may be flawed, but even nearly 20 years later, it’s still an undeniably exciting film. The acting, from Fiennes to Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D’onofrio and Michael Wincott, is excellent. I had the privilege of seeing “Strange Days” the day it opened in October 1995 on a huge screen with a very loud (and then novel) digital soundtrack … and tellingly, only 2 other people in the audience.  This is a film that seriously needs reevaluation, along with a deluxe Blu Ray edition that takes full advantage of the medium.

4. “True Romance” (1993) dir. Tony Scott

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This selection on my all-time favorite film list shouldn’t come as any surprise if you’ve been following the blog recently. I recently posted two clips from this film due to director Tony Scott’s recent demise. While the clip on the rooftop between Christian Slater’s and Patricia Arquette’s characters is my favorite scene from the film, this one also ranks high on the list.

Since my entry about this film on my previous blog is gone, I’ll briefly summarize why this film has so much meaning for me (and you can skip this part, if you’ve read this already on my earlier blog). I saw this movie during the fall of 1993, which at that point in my life, I was very similar to Christian Slater’s character Clarence: no girlfriend, dead end jobs, and the only beacon of light was maybe the chance I’d get accepted into a grad school program somewhere. Anyway, not only was this movie enormously entertaining, it gave me a beacon of hope, in an odd way. Granted, my personal beacon didn’t involve a suitcase full of illegal drugs, a prostitute girlfriend, and 10 million bullets, but it did put a big smile on my face back in the day … and still does.

This is my favorite Quentin Tarantino film, even though he was only the screenwriter. Tarantino has admitted that Clarence is autobiographical to a certain degree, because he was a lot like him when he was in his 20s. It’s a very special script and Tony Scott so respected it that he allowed Tarantino to be an integral part of the process of making the film (something unheard of in Hollywood). Their most passionate argument during the making of “True Romance” involved the ending. In Tarantino’s original, Clarence dies. However, Scott made an impassioned case to Tarantino to let Clarence live, not for commercial reasons, but because he said he loved Clarence and Alabama (Arguette’s character) so much, he wanted them to have a happy ending. Scott’s respect for Tarantino was such that he shot two endings, one where Clarence dies and the one where he lives. And Tarantino admitted that Scott’s ending was the better ending for the film that Scott made. A true gentleman’s agreement if there ever was one.

Yes, this is Tarantino so the attached scene is not safe for work or little ones.