Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Year in Review: 1984

1984 was a good, but not a great, year in movies. It contained a lot of excellent films by great directors, and yet I’m not 100% sure any of them is the best film for any of them. That certainly does not mean however that the year doesn’t contain some great films, by some great filmmakers.

10. Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise was his breakthrough film – and the one that established him as the heir apparent to John Cassavettes in the independent film movement. It is, of course, a strange movie that is largely plotless, and establishes Jarmusch’s style of long takes, with little camera movement that observes the its characters. The film is about three characters that will appear familiar to people who know Jarmusch – a hipster (John Lurie) and his friend (Richard Edson) living in New York when Lurie’s cousin for Hungary (Eszter Balint) shows up to stay with him for 10 days. They bond, but then she leaves for Cleveland, and after winning some money, they follow. They then decide to head to Florida, and things get confused for there. This movie probably sounds awful and pointless – but that’s because there really is no way to describe the film without making it sound painfully slow, or perhaps pretentious. The “joke” of the film, or perhaps the point, is that no matter where you go, everything is always the same, as long you don’t change. Stranger Than Paradise is one of the most influential films of the 1980s, and the key film in the career of one of independent cinema’s most idiosyncratic voices.

9. A Passage to India (David Lean)
An upper class woman (Judy Davis) and her mother in law (Peggy Ashcroft) go on a tour in India during the 1920s – as British rule is coming to an end. Their guide (Victor Banerjee) takes them all around, eventually winding up at some caves, which Davis eventually flees bloody and disshelved, resulting in Banerjee being arrested and charged with attempting to rape her. Director David Lean has made a powerful epic film – his speciality – full of gorgeous imagery, and a plot that draws the viewer in. The film is also hauntingly ambigious – we know Banerjee is innocent, but what propels Davis’ character to do what she does, and what makes her change her mind remains a mystery in the film. This was Lean’s final film as a director, and while it doesn’t quite rank with his best work, it was a fitting way to say goodbye to the film world.

8. The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe)
It saddens me when I think of the career of Roland Joffe. He made this wonderful film as his debut, along with the flawed but still interesting The Mission, and has spent the rest of his career making crap. What happened? I have no idea, but what I do know is that The Killing Fields remains a marvelous movie. Set during the Vietnam war, Sam Waterson (who will always be DA Jack McCoy to me), plays a New York Times reporter, who when he is ordered to evacuate tries in vein to get his interpretor – Oscar winner Haing S. Ngor – out of the country. What follows is Ngor’s desperate attempt to escape from the murderous Khmer Rouge. The film is brilliantly crafted by Joffe, and wonderfully acted by the cast – especially non-professional Ngor who is simply brilliant. It doesn’t often rank among the best films about the Vietnam war – but it should.

7. The Terminator (James Cameron)
James Cameron burst on the cinematic scene with this film – that remains one of the best films of his career. Not as polished as his future efforts would be, and I still say that Michael Biehn is merely adequate in the lead role, not great, but the film retains a raw energy that Cameron would never quite be able to match in his future efforts. Linda Hamilton is wonderful as Sarah Conner, the innocent young woman who is thrust into the middle of a future war she doesn’t understand. Arnold Schwartzenegger is a terrifying presence as the robot sent to kill her. The film has some wonderful action scenes – Schwartzenegger in the police station, the final fight where he just won’t die - but is also intelligent sci-fi as well. Yes, I will always prefer Terminator 2 to this film, but this one is masterful in its own right.

6. Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman)
There are some movies that you love during your childhood and when you try to revisit them as an adult they seem hopelessly dated, cheesy and awful. Ghostbusters is NOT one of those movies. I loved the movie – not to mention the wonderful animated TV show – as a kid, and whenever I watch the movie as an adult, I love it all over again. The screenplay by Ivan Reitman is wonderful – full of great one liners deliver to perfection by Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd and especially Bill Murray. The supporting cast – including Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts, Rick Moranis and Ernie Hudson – are perfect as well. The special effects were groundbreaking at the time, and remain effective today. Truly, there is nothing about this movie that I do not absolutely love.

5. This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner)
I am not a huge fan of director Rob Reiner, but even I have to admit that This is Spinal Tap is one of the great American comedies of all time. This mockumentary would set the bar high for all subsequent entries in the genre – a bar I believe has never been cleared since. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer are brilliant as clueless rock band Spinal Tap, who travel the country in their bus, completely unaware that they have become a joke to most people in the music industry, with their offensive heavy metal music. The film has many hilarious set pieces, like the replica Stone Henge that doesn’t work out the way it was planned, and of course the great sequence with the amplifiers (“Yeah, but this goes to 11. That’s one louder”). There are wonderful throwaway moments scattered throughout the film, and there is hardly a line that isn’t downright hilarious. A truly great comedy.

4. Secret Honor (Robert Altman)
Robert Altman fell out of favor in Hollywood in the 1980s, but never stopped making movies. This movie is the best film he made during this decade. Philip Baker Hall gives an astonishing performance in this one man movie, where he plays Richard Nixon rallying against his enemies, becoming increasingly drunk, belligerent and profane as the movie wears on. Set the night before Nixon resigns from office, and taking place in the Oval Office, the film is a masterwork, as Altman keeps the film visually interesting, and Baker Hall delivers his powerful monologue. Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella would go on to play Nixon in Oscar nominated performances, but Baker Hall is every bit their equal in this performance. A wonderful, one of a kind movie.

3. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)
Paris, Texas is probably my favorite film of the great German director Wim Wenders. Unlike many directors when they come to the USA, Wenders does not either sell out, nor make a foreign film simply set in America, but rather he has made a powerful movie about the country – especially Texas, with his barren, sun burnt locations where it becomes impossible for the characters to build roots. Harry Dean Stanton gives the best performance of his career as Travis, a lonely man who disappeared four years ago, and has apparently been wandering around that whole time. When he comes back, he is taken in by his brother (Dean Stockwell) and tries to figure out what happened between him and his wife (Natasha Kinski) and their son. The cinematography by Robby Muller, combines with Ry Cooder’s interesting score give the entire movie a haunting look and feel. The scene where Stanton finally gets to talk to Kinski – through the glass at the peep show where she now works – is one of the best scenes in any movie I have ever seen.

2. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)
Sergio Leone is justly remembered for his spaghetti westerns – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly being the most famous example, and one of the best Westerns of all time. However, his gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America ranks right along side his best films, and is the crowning achievement of his career. Robert DeNiro and James Woods play two childhood friends who start off as petty crooks, and become big time gangsters in the prohibition era – but when something forces them apart, things get ugly, but the questions will not be answered for decades. The film is hugely long – nearly four hours – but it is never dull. The period detail is fantastic, as is the cinematography, score by Ennio Morricone and the performances. Leone may have made mainly Westerns, but this films proves he made more in him.

1. Amadeus (Milos Forman)
Milos Forman’s Amadeus is one of my favorite epic costumes dramas. Criticisms that the movie departs too far from reality don’t really matter to me – the film is absolute genius as drama. F. Murrary Abraham gives an astonishing performance as Saleri, a famed composer who has the ear of the king. But Mozart (Tom Hulce) is a true musical genius, and it frustrates Saleri to no end that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot compete with Mozart, who seems to be able to toss off masterpieces on a whim. Saleri is determined to get “even” with Mozart for that. The film is epic in scope, but intimate in its details – a sweeping biopic that is at once soaring and personal. There are only a few times in cinema history when someone pulled off a movie like this – and when they do, it is cause to celebrate.

Just Missed The Top 10: Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen), The Karate Kid (John G. Avildsen), Beverley Hills Cop (Martin Brest), Gremlins (Joe Dante), Body Double (Brian DePalma), Nausicca (Hayao Miyazaki), 1984, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg), The Element of Crime (Lars von Trier), A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven) , The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola).

Notable Films Missed: Love Streams (John Cassavettes), Heimat, Yellow Earth, The Times of Harvey Milk, And the Ship Sails On (Federico Fellini).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Amadeus (Milos Forman)
Another one of those rare happy years when I agree completely with the Academy’s choice for the Best Picture. The line-up this year was fairly strong – The Killing Fields and A Passage to India were worthy, Places in the Heart and A Soldier’s Story less so, but still good – but they picked clearly the best film. Good job.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: F. Murrary Abraham, Amadeus
Again, they picked the best performance here by a mile. Abraham’s performance as Saleri is one of the all time great performances, and it makes me sad to think that he would never come close to this level in his career ever again. Oh well, sometimes actor are born to play one role – and that seems to be the case here.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Sally Field, Places in the Heart
Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart is a fine depression era film, and Sally Field’s lead performance is the best thing about it. Do I think that it deserved to win an Oscar? No, but it’s not that embarrassing either. Personally, I think Judy Davis’ mysterious performance in A Passage to India is much better.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields
Really quite a weak year for this category, but there is no faulting the Academy in giving the Oscar to Ngor, making a powerful film debut. He wouldn’t make many other films before his tragic murder just over a decade later, but this performance will always be remembered.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Peggy Ashcroft, A Passage to India
Ashcroft is wonderful in A Passage to India as the woman who insists that Banerjee is innocent, and sent away before she can do the case any harm. I have no problems with her winning. But the two best performances in this category – Natasha Kinski’s one scene wonder in Paris Texas and Melanie Griffth’s sexy performance as a porn star in Body Double were tragically overlooked by the Academy.

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