A roundup of the year's silver screen extremes

By Owen Gleiberman
December 30, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Movie of the Year

1 Pulp Fiction
From its opening frames, Quentin Tarantino’s wild, shocking, impassioned, zigzaggy, rudely hilarious crime thriller is more sheer fun than a great movie has any right to be. It’s as packed with pleasures as a toy store for adults, and the pleasures are right there on the surface. Just think of Uma Thurman’s gimlet-eyed moll doing a coked-up dance of eternal-adolescent rapture to ”Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”; of Bruce Willis’ scruffy-noble palooka escaping an S&M torture den, and then pausing to pick the perfect weapon (the chainsaw … no, the samurai sword!) so that he can go back and save the man who’d sworn to kill him; of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, as the two most eloquent hit men in history, transforming their workaday discussions of foot massages and Parisian Big Macs into goofily irreverent moral debates — mental cross fire for the age of pop. For two and a half hours, Tarantino dedicates all his energies as a filmmaker to keeping you blissfully entertained. Yet it’s his instincts as an artist that make Pulp Fiction take up permanent residence in your imagination. In a brilliant act of cinematic time juggling, Tarantino kills off one of his main characters, only to confront us, in the end, with the stubborn reality of his existence — a structural coup that becomes a kind of sleight-of-hand resurrection. In Pulp Fiction, what Tarantino has resurrected is the primal joy of American moviemaking.

2 Natural Born Killers The most controversial film of the year — and not just because of its violence. What so divided audience reaction to Oliver Stone’s apocalyptic fever dream was the question of whether you experienced his dense, kaleidoscopic, now-color-now-black-and-white-now-sitcom-now- home-movie style as a glorified MTV stunt or as a dizzying evocation of contemporary consciousness. Having seen Natural Born Killers three times, I’m more convinced than ever that Stone, in this fable of two giddy white-trash killers (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), has created a work of mystery and catharsis, a journey into the glassy dark heart of the image culture, and into the life of sensation and violence it feeds on and breeds. To dismiss the film, as many did, for being about the sins of tabloid television is to miss the point: In its psychodramatic river of imagery, which has the effect of looping the characters, the audience, and the movie itself into the same surreal circuit of past and present, nightmare and cheap thrill, Natural Born Killers is never ”about” any less than three things at once. It’s like a punk-rock anthem played through Salvador Dalí’s brain — hard to take if you’re not on Stone’s wavelength, impossible to get out of your head if you are.

3 Ed Wood Why make a movie about the worst director of all time, the man responsible for such brain-dead travesties as Plan 9 From Outer Space? The beauty of Tim Burton’s one-of-a-kind biopic is that it’s a tender, ironic celebration of Wood’s absolute awfulness as a filmmaker. Embodied with spooky innocence by Johnny Depp, Wood may not possess a drop of talent, but his ludicrous and total belief in what he’s doing comes through in every tacky detail of every ”perfect” take. As his friend and star, Bela Lugosi, Martin Landau gives a revelatory performance, turning the desperation of a burnt-to- the-core Hollywood relic into something funny, poetic, and heartbreaking.