Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Year in Review: 1988

What a great movie year 1988 was! There are many years in the 1980s when coming up with 10 worthy films can be hard, but the challenge this year was limiting it to 10. I’m sure that many people will find films that I left off of the top 10 worthy, but I really did agonize over what to include and what not to.

10. Who Framed Roger Rabbitt? (Robert Zemeckis)
22 years after it was made, Who Framed Roger Rabbitt? Is still an utter and complete joy to watch. Zemeckis, who now spends his time trying to push performance capture animation forward (with mixed results if you ask me), has done, in my mind, the best combination of animation and live action filmmaking ever with this film. This delightful family film trades on film noir clich├ęs, with the hard boiled detective (a great Bob Hoskins), the sexy, if animated, femme fatale Jessica Rabbitt (brilliantly voiced by Kathleen Turner), and turned it into a film that families can enjoy on one level, and movie buffs can enjoy on another. Zemeckis has made a lot of interesting films in his career, but I don’t think I enjoy any of them as much as I do this film.

9. Midnight Run (Martin Brest)
Martin Brest and company certainly did not invent the kind of action/comedy teaming on display in Midnight Run, but they certainly did perfect it. Robert DeNiro is a no nonsense bounty hunter who arrests a mob accountant (Charles Grodin) and tries to bring him back to jail – all the while bickering with him as they are chased by people who want Grodin dead. DeNiro has made a lot of comedies in the last decade (much to my chagrin), but he has never delivered a better comedic performance than he does in this movie – an hilarious, dead pan straight man to Charles Grodin who is perfect in his best role. Midnight Run in the one of the best action comedies of the 1980s – a decade when there seemed to dozens of them every year.

8. Die Hard (Jon McTiernan)
Bruce Willis and a series of directors have tried to recapture the perfection of this action film in its three sequels, and while I think all of them (yes, even Live Free or Die Hard) are entertaining, none of them can compare to this film. This is the type of action movie that Willis is best at – playing a beaten down everyman who somehow pulls off almost superhuman feats. It helps in this film that he has one of the all time best screen villains in Alan Rickman to play off of. Endlessly enjoyable, forever quotable, packed with action and thrilling climax, Die Hard is what action movies can be when done properly.

7. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
Wings of Desire is one of the gorgeously sad films ever made. It looks at the life of angels in Berlin, whose job it is to watch over humanity – they cannot involve themselves in our lives, cannot change their outcome, but are destined just to sit back and observe us for good or ill. When one of the angels decides he is tired of simply watching, and wants to join humanity, he has to decide how to do it. Brilliantly shot in black and white, this is one the best films that German master Wim Wenders ever made – sad, yet touchingly human and profound. Forget the remake (City of Angels with Nicolas Cage), and the pretenders (Luc Besson’s Angel A) this one is utterly masterful.

6. Talk Radio (Oliver Stone)
To me, Oliver Stone’s run from 1986’s Salvador to 1995’s Nixon is one of the best runs any director in history has ever seen. During that time Stone made 10 films, all of them are great in one way or another. Talk Radio, sadly, is perhaps the most overlooked of all of his films in that period. The film stars Eric Bogosian, who recreates his stage role (of the play he also wrote), as a late night radio talk show host who makes his listeners angry with his endless rants about just about any subject you can name. Most of the action takes place right inside that radio booth, and yet Stone’s film is not a stagy film – it is not a photographed play – but an intensely cinematic rendering. Bogosian was never given a role this juicy again, and Stone’s film got increasingly frantic (for better and for not) as he progressed, but Talk Radio remains a triumph for both of them – one that more people really should see.

5. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris)
Errol Morris is perhaps the most well known serious documentartian in the world (note how I said serious, so Michael Moore need not apply). This documentary, one of his very best, looks at the 1976 murder of a Dallas Police Officer where a man was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime. Morris became skeptical that the man was guilty, and conducted interviews with all the players involved, and create re-enactments of the differing scenarios that were possible. Set to a wonderful score by Philip Glass (who does his best work with Morris), The Thin Blue Line is one of the few films that can claim that they actually made a difference in the real world – the man convicted of the crime was set free a year after the movie, because of what Morris uncovered.

4. The Vanishing (George Sluzier)
George Sluzier’s The Vanishing is an almost unbearably intense thriller. A young Dutch woman on holiday with her boyfriend in France goes missing from a rest stop on their trip. Her boyfriend cannot accept her loss, and obsessively searches for her years after the disappearance, but cannot discover even the slightest clue as to what happened. But then a mysterious stranger shows up and tells him he knows what happened. The Vanishing is a wonderful thriller, full of psychological torment and interesting twists and turns. It holds you in its grip throughout the entire movie, right down to its shocking final image. Sluzier remade this film for America in 1993, but the reviews were so bad, and my love for this film is so strong, that I never bothered to see it – why sully the memory of a masterwork like this?

3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman)
Great literature very rarely makes for great movies – but Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundrea’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a rare exception. Kaufman’s films, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a Czechoslovakian doctor in the Communist era, right before 1968 invasion that would throw the country into chaos. Day-Lewis is a lothario, whose main lover is Lena Olin in Prague, but things become complicated when he meets a waitress (Juliette Binoche) and falls in love with her – although he does not want to give up his sexual freedom. Their happiness is crushed by the new regime, who sees Day-Lewis’ sexual ways as wrong, and kill his chances for employment. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is at turns deeply sexual, political, erotic and intelligent. The performances by the three leads rank among the best work any of them have ever done. This is one of the few films about sexuality that is intelligent and thought provoking – it has much more on its mind other than sex.

2. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg has always made strange films that were fascinated with the body and the inner workings of identity. His Dead Ringers is one of his very strangest films – creepy beyond belief, but also wonderfully well written directed and acted. Jeremy Irons gives the best dual performance in cinema history as Elliot and Beverely Mantle – twin gynecologists. Elliot is outgoing and confident, whereas Beverely is shy and trapped inside his own head. Elliot seduces women, and then passes them off to Beverly without them knowing as a way of controlling his brother. But when Beverly becomes obsessed with a patient – Genevieve Bujold – who has a rare disorder (she says her internal arrangement has “three doorways”), he slowly starts on a downward spiral, that involves him creating horrific looking tools for use on mutant women. Irons gives two separate, but equally stunning performances as the twins, and Bujold is also brilliant as the woman one of them falls for. Cronenberg’s imagery is strong and disturbing, and his follows the movie to its logical conclusion. Dead Ringers is not a film a lot of people will be able to stomach – but it’s a masterwork nonetheless.

1. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese)
Watching Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, 22 years after it caused such a firestorm, will likely have the viewer wondering why the film was as controversial as it was. It doesn’t really stray all that far from the Bible – except that it portrays Jesus Christ as a real person, full of the same sort of doubts and insecurities that plague all of mankind. Scorsese’s film is powerful in its opening two acts – covering much of what we know from the Bible, with Willem Dafoe being the definitive screen Jesus. The last act, where we enter Jesus’ mind as he is dying on the cross, and see the “temptation” that Satan uses to try and get him down is just as masterful and thought provoking. Only a narrow minded person hell bent on their own version of religion could see anything truly wrong or offensive in this movie. This is the one movie I can think of that treats Jesus as a real, complex human being. That his direction of the film is masterful is to be expected. That it would be this thoughtful and immersive is what makes this a masterpiece of the highest cinematic order.

Just Missed The Top 10: Another Woman (Woody Allen), Bird (Clint Eastwood), Beetle Juice (Tim Burton), Tucker: A Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola), A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Cricton), Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears), The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasdan), School Daze (Spike Lee), Rain Man (Barry Levinson), Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet), Big (Penny Marshall), Working Girl (Mike Nichols), Akira (Katsuhrio Otomo), Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker), Eight Men Out (John Sayles), A Cry in the Dark (Fred Schepsi) Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahate), A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo)

Notable Films Missed: Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore), My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki), Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies)

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Rain Man (Barry Levinson)
Rain Man is a fine movie in its own right. Its story of two very different brothers - Tom Cruise’s young hotshot and Dustin Hoffman’s austitic older man - is clever and funny, and touching in its way. The performances are good, and the direction by Levinson is also good. But that’s just it - Rain Man is a good film - not a great one. Considering how they didn’t see fit to nominate any film I think is great though, it’s hard to complain too much.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man
Out of the nominees, Hoffman is a fine choice, even if I would have rathered rewarded the sheer joy in Tom Hanks’ performance in Big. But the Academy over looked the four best performances of the year here - Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Daniel Day Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Eric Bogisan in Talk Radio and Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Jodie Foster, The Accused
Jodie Foster is excellent in The Accused, a movie where she plays a lower class woman who was gang raped as the crowd cheered on. The movie itself is merely good however. Personally, I would given the award to either Glenn Close, so fabulously evil in Dangerous Liasons, or Meryl Streep, mastering another accent in A Cry in the Dark.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda
I find it impossible to complain about this win, as it is one of the only times the Academy has ever rewarded a screwball comedy performance, and Kevin Kline’s in A Fish Called Wanda is one of the best the genre had to offer.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist
Geena Davis is fine in the role of young woman William Hurt falls in love with after his divorce. It really is one of her finest performances. Personally, I would have gone with Lena Olin for her breathtaking work in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but they didn’t even nominate her, so what do I know?

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