Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Year in Review: 1985

1985 contains some great films by great filmmakers. This is one of those rare years where all of the films on my top 10 list come from legitimately great filmmakers – one who didn’t just have one or two successes but many in their career. True, I’m not sure any of these films would be considered the best of the directors respective careers – but they are all worthy of praise

10. To Live and Die in LA (William Friedkin)
14 years after William Friedkin made The French Connection, which contained what is still regarded as one of the best car chases in history, he tried to outdo himself in To Live and Die in LA. Although the car chase in the film (not to mention the film itself) is not quite as good as The French Connection, it still remains one of the best action films of the 1980s. William Peterson gives a wonderful performance as a Secret Service officier on the trail of the counterfeiter (a wonderfully evil Willem Dafoe) who killed his partner. Peterson will stop at nothing to bring down Dafoe, and soon he is committing major crimes himself in his attempts. Friedkin’s movie is a tough as nails police movie, that refuses to compromise its macho stance, and is brilliantly structured by him. The film wasn’t highly thought of when it was released, but as time goes on, it looks better and better. A great action film.

9. The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg)
Spileberg’s first attempt at making a “serious” movie is not quite as good as the best work he would do when he wasn’t trying to film a blockbuster. There are certainly flaws in the film, but there is also a power to the film that is undeniable. Whoopi Goldberg made a stunning acting debut in what remains her best performance as Alice Walker’s hero Celie who is raped by her father, has the two children her gave her taken away, and then forced to marry a widower (Danny Glover, in a fine performance), who treats her like a slave. The film is a powerful depiction of life for black women in the early 1900s, when slavery was technically over, but they still had to deal with racism and sexism. Not only are Goldberg and Glover excellent in the film, but also Margaret Avery, who plays a jazz singer whose kindness (and lesbian affair, which Spielberg only hints at) helps to Goldberg to see her worth, and Oprah Winfrey (yes, that Oprah), as a strong woman who refuses to put up with the same kind of torment Goldberg accepts. Personally, I don’t think Glover’s character deserves the redemption that Spielberg gives him in the movie (that Alice Walker did not in her novel), but that is a small complaint. The Color Purple remains a powerful film, expertly made by Spielberg, and acted by his great cast. Yes there are flaws – many flaws in fact – in the film, but at its heart it has the power to move us, and shouldn’t that all we ask for in a movie?

8. Brazil (Terry Gilliam)
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a bizarre look into a future that George Orwell would have been proud to call his own. A mild mannered government worker (Jonathan Pryce)exists in a world where everything is controlled but the government and their computers, and the world chokes on all the bureaucracy that surrounds it. He escapes into his daydreams, where he is a hero saving a beautiful woman. But then he meets the woman in his dreams in real life. At the same time, the government mistakes him for Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro, brilliant in a cameo appearance), a renegade looking to overthrow the government. Gilliam’s film is a masterpiece of set design and film construction. By now the story of the film has become infamous, with the studio refusing to release his original cut, until they were pretty much forced to. The ending is a downer, but is the only way the film would have worked. One of the best films of Gilliam’s career.

7. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis)
Back to the Future is a such a joyous film, and such a big part of my childhood, that I cannot help but fall for it every time I see it. Michael J. Fox is charming as Marty McFly, typical teenager who hangs out with a strange scientist (Christopher Lloyd) who has invented a time machine in the form of a Delorean. When things go wrong, McFly ends up in 1955 with no way of returning home. There he meets his parents, who shockingly were real live teenagers once, and a younger Lloyd who he hopes can fix the time machine. Back to the Future is perfectly structured mass market entertainment. Perhaps if I saw it first when I was a cynical adult, I wouldn’t love it so much. But every time I watch it, I feel like a kid again.

6. Lost in America (Albert Brooks)
Although there are moments in every film Albert Brooks has written and directed that are brilliant (except his latest, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, which was dreadful), I think he has only ever made one truly great movie – this one. Brooks and Julie Hagerty are great as a couple who have high paying jobs, who decide to sell everything and drop of society (You know, like Easy Rider) a buy a Winnebago and spend the rest of their lives travelling the country. But when Hagerty loses their entire nest egg in Las Vegas in the first week, their plans change drastically. Brooks keeps the comic momentum up throughout the film, and the film is full of hilarious moments and dialogue (I love it when Brooks has to take a job as a crossing guard). Brooks has always been talented – and he has always been able to make me laugh, but in Lost in America he goes one step further, and that’s why it is his best film.

5. Blood Simple (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers debut film remains as bloody brilliant and original as ever. A woman (Frances McDormand) is cheating on her much older, but rich, husband (Dan Hedaya) with one of his employees (John Getz). Suspecting the affair, Hedaya hires a PI (M. Emmett Walsh) to at first confirm the affair, and later to kill them both. This basic plot – which could have been a film noir in the 1940s – spins off wildly in different directions, so we are never quite sure what is going to happen next. The Coens play this one mainly straight, but there are undercurrents of black comedy that run throughout the film. The performances are great (particularly Walsh), and the Coens show their original, brilliant cinematography, which would become their trademark, throughout the film. One of the best debut films ever made, the Coens showed right off the bat that they were as talented as any other filmmaker out there.

4. Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston)
John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor is a terrific black comedy about two hitmen in the mob (Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner) even though they may have to kill each other. Nicholson is wonderful in the role. He forgoes his normal tendency to go all “Jack Nicholson” in the role, and instead plays it fairly straight – he is a member of a family, even if he has to kill people. Turner doesn’t quite match him, but is wonderful nonetheless as the blonde bombshell he falls for, but betrays them. Angelica Huston justly won an Oscar in her role as Nicholson’s long time lover that he callously throws aside when Turner shows up (which mirrored real life, as Nicholson had just dumped her). The film doesn’t sensationalize things, but plays things straight, just like Nicholson does. Huston is one of those rare directors who never seemed to lose his skills – for more than 40 years, he made great films, and Prizzi’s Honor is one of his best.

3. The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen)
Woody Allen’s wonderful comic, but also melancholy, film is one of the best of his career. A waitress (Mia Farrow) in depression era Manhattan is trapped in a loveless marriage to Danny Aiello, but escapes the drudgery of her life by going to the movies. She loves the latest movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and when one of the characters (played by Jeff Daniels) realizes that she is seeing it yet again, he leaves the world of the movie and comes to join her. This angers the Producer of the film, as well as the actor who played the character, who fly to New York to try and get the character back in the movie – and setting up an odd love triangle between Farrow, the movie character and the actor. The film is hilarious – with great performances by Farrow and Daniels, but ends on a note that rips your heart out. But, like he would prove again a year later with Hannah and Her Sisters, sometimes movies can take all your pain away. This is one of the very best films of Allen’s career.

2. After Hours (Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s After Hours is the only true comedy of his career – it is a pitch black comedy, but a comedy nonetheless, and the master filmmaker pulled it off brilliantly. Griffin Dunne plays our hero – an office drone, who meets a pretty girl (Rosanna Arquette) at a coffee shop, and when he calls her up, she invites him to her place across town. Even though it’s late he goes. What follows is the most nightmarish night imaginable for poor Dunne, who cannot seem to get home, as everything goes wrong around him. Scorsese made this film when the funding for The Last Temptation of Christ fell through, at a time when he was incredibly down and depressed – and it invigorated him. The filmmaking is masterful, as Scorsese gleefully plays with Dunne just like a cat would play with a mouse before lowering the boom. I wish Scorsese would make another film like After Hours – but then again, since he cannot improve on it, I wonder if there’s a point.

1. Ran (Akira Kurosawa)
Akira Kurosawa’s Ran was the last masterpiece from a director who made so many in his career. Based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, the movie stars a wonderful Tatsuya Nakadai as a powerful warlord in Sengoku era Japan, who decides to step down, and split his kingdom among his three sons – which ends up having castrophic consequences, as the brothers cannot get along, and war ultimately ensues. Aside for Nakadai, the other key performance in the film is by Mieko Harada, brilliant as a Lady Macbeth style wife, egging her husband on to more and more extremes in terms of violence and war. The film is among the most visually colorful, and stunning, films ever made. The film is long, at 160 minutes, yet it is never boring, as Kurosawa keeps the pace up brilliantly well. The themes of nihilism, chaos and warfare play out brilliantly. Kurosawa led a troubled life – which included a few suicide attempts – but behind the camera he was one of cinema’s greatest directors. Ran remains his final masterpiece – one of the very best films of the 1980s.

Just Missed The Top 10: Kiss of the Spider Woman (Hector Babenco), Streetwise, Witness (Peter Weir), Cocooon (Ron Howard), The Breakfast Club (John Hughes), Runaway Train, Day of the Dead (George A. Romero), The Falcon and the Snowman (John Scheslinger), Mala Noche (Gus Van Sant).

Notable Films Missed: Shoah, The Time to Live and the Time to Die, Come and See, My Life as a Dog, Vagabond.

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack)
Out of Africa is a fine film for what it is – a historical romance – and does contain two great performances by Meryl Streep and Klaus Maria Brandeur. But I never bought Robert Redford in the romantic leading role in the film, and as such all the scenes that feature him (and there are a lot) don’t quite work as well as they should. This is one of the more uninspired choices the Academy made in the 1980s - one of those films you see once, and then never think of again.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
William Hurt is excellent in this adaptation of the famed play, set in an South American prison, and considering his career, I am glad he has an Oscar at home. However, I do think that the film has aged poorly, and Hurt’s depiction of a homosexual is a little too stereotypical for my liking. I would have preferred Nicholson winning for Prizzi’s Honor, but that’s just me.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful
The Academy pretty much had to give Geraldine Page this Oscar. She was a legendry method actress, who had been nominated for her work in Hondo, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth, You’re a Big Boy Now, Pete N’ Tillie, Interiors and The Pope of Greenwich Village and had never won when she did this movie, for which she received her 8th nomination. And Page, playing an aging woman on a bus trip is excellent in the role, and is really the only reason to see the rather bland film. Whoopi Goldberg, who should have won, was in her first major role, so you can hardly blame the Academy – except, of course, for not giving it to Page for one of her truly great performances.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Don Ameche, Coccoon
Along with Page, Don Ameche was a veteran actor who had never won an Oscar, so he was predisposed to win here – even though his performance could arguably be called the lead. Ameche is fine as one of the old people in this movie who get rejuvenated by alien powers, and Ron Howard’s film is quite good. Added to the fact that the Academy didn’t exactly nominate a great crop this year, means that Ameche was assured a win – and that’s ok.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Angelica Huston, Prizzi’s Honor
The only winner this year that I truly love, Angelica Huston’s performance in Prizzi’s Honor is excellent. Clearly the best of the nominees – although both nominees from The Color Purple are also excellent, Huston deserved this win whole heartedly – and I am happy that she won.

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