Thursday, April 29, 2010

Year in Review: 1990

1990 contains one of my all time favorite films by my favorite director – so obviously, you know what the number 1 film will be. Having said that, there are a wealth of good movies by great directors this year.

10. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton)
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a graphic and disturbing movie. Although the film was made in 1986, it was so violent and disturbing it took the film 4 years to get an actual release. Michael Rooker gives the best performance of his career as Henry – a life long criminal who kills without feeling and remorse. Because he varies how he kills his victims, no one even suspects that there is a serial killer at more. In Otis (Tom Towles) Henry finds a partner that is equally depraved as he is – someone to share his crime spree with. With Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), Henry finds someone he is attracted to, and seems to like him too. But this doesn’t stop him and Otis – who kill anyone they feel like. The film is graphic in content, and disturbing to its core. As the dysfunctional family that the three of them have set up comes crashing down, the violence becomes even harder, more difficult to stomach. The final shot of the movie is haunting – as Henry simply leaves a bloodstained suitcase on the side of the road and we hear screaming on the soundtrack. Although it has since been proved that Henry Lee Lucas, the real life serial killer on which the movie is based, killed nowhere near the number of people he claimed – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is still a brutal, unrelenting and powerful movie.

9. Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner)
Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves is the kind of epic Hollywood film that they pretty much forgot how to make by 1990. This long Western is about a Civil War solider (Costner himself) sent to a remote outpost, where it turns out he is the only one there. Gradually, he gets to know and bonds with the local native tribes. Costner’s film is expertly made by him as a director – which is impressive since it was his first film behind the camera – and acts as a necessarily corrective to all the classic Westerns which portrayed the Natives as little more than bloodthirsty savages. This isn’t exactly the most exciting or innovative movie ever made – Costner himself admits that his style is fairly conservative – but what it does, it does extremely well. It is grand, sweeping, old fashioned entertainment.

8. The Godfather Part III (Francis Ford Coppola)
No, The Godfather Part III is nowhere near as good as the first two in the series – which are two of the very best films ever made. And no, I really do not think that the movie was in any way, shape or form necessary – the first top perfectly documented Michael Corleone’s rise and fall. However, once I got past that (not to mention the awful performance by Sophia Coppola), and take the movie on its own terms, I found that what I was left with was an expertly crafted gangster epic. Pacino is as good as always as Michael – now in way too deep to ever get out of the mob life, and alone since Diane Keaton’s Kay has long since left him. But he is still haunted by the sins of his past, and finds that he cannot escape them, no matter what he does. Coppola’s direction is excellent – the screenplay quite good, and the supporting cast wonderful. So no, the film is nowhere near as good as the first two in the series – but seriously, how could it be?

7. Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder)
The main attraction of Barbet Schroeder’s wonderful Reversal of Fortune has got to be the cold as ice performance by Jeremy Irons (who won an Oscar for the role) as Claus von Bulow. Claus was charged with attempted murder following his wife Sonny (Glenn Close) falling into a coma, apparently because she was given too much insulin. The movie is narrated by Sonny from her coma, and details what led to the apparent crime and the trial – which became a huge media event. Throughout the movie, Irons cold performance is a marvel to watch – no more so than in the final scene, where following his acquittal, he walks into a pharmacy and can tell that the pharmacist recognizes his picture from the front page of the paper and he asks for “a vial of insulin” to the shocked pharmacist, before winking and say “Just kidding”. A marvelous performance at the heart of a great movie.

6. Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty)
Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy is a comic book movie which literally looks like it was torn straight for the pages. Shot is basic, classic colors – bright yellows, deep crimsons, loud greens – like an old time comic strip, the film is a visual marvel from beginning to end, bringing to life a comic book like no other movie before it – or really since either. Beatty himself gives an excellent performance as the title character – a no nonsense cop torn between the good girl and the bad girl (Madonna, one of the films only weak spots) on the trail of Big Boy (Al Pacino is a deliciously over the top performance). This is a comic book movie with style to burn – but also tells a wonderful, old fashioned pulp story. Marvelous.

5. Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton)
Easily one of the best films Tim Burton has ever made, Edward Scissorhands also gives Burton’s favorite actor – Johnny Depp – one of the best roles of his career as the the title character – a sort of cobbled together Frankenstein, with hideously long, scary scissors for hands. Although he looks terrifying, Edward is really a lost, gentle soul who finds a place in the family who takes him in (including Winona Ryder, who is wonderful and Dianne Wiest who is even better). Like all of Burton’s films Edward Scissorhands is a visual marvel for beginning to end – a dark homage to the Universal horror films he loves so much. Unlike most of them though, this one has a story that connects to the audience and breaks your heart. A wonderous movie.

4. Wild at Heart (David Lynch)
David Lynch’s darkly comic Wild at Heart is like The Wizard of Oz on acid. In the film, Nicolas Cage gives an excellent performance as Sailor, who goes on the run with his young girlfriend Lulu – an equally great Laura Dern – to get away from her domineering mother – a wickedly warped Diane Ladd, who gets the mafia involved in tracking them down. The film is full of bizarre supporting characters – the vile Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) who tries to rape Lulu before laughing it all off, and eventually blowing his own head off by accident, Harry Dean Stanton as a PI who tries to track them down, JE Freeman (also wonderful in this year’s Miller’s Crossing) as a gangster also on their trail – and in one completely off the wall sequence Crispin Glover as Lulu’s mentally ill cousin screaming about cheese sandwiches. The film is gruesomely violent and wildly over the top – it will likely infuriate as many people as it gets to love it – but I definitely fall into the later category. Only from the mind of David Lynch could something this bizarre emerge – and work as wonderfully well as it does here.

3. The Grifters (Stephen Frears)
Stephen Frears’ The Grifters is one of the greatest con man movies ever made – and an excellent example of neo-noir. John Cusack is Roy, a small time grafter who gets caught in one of his scams and is beaten almost to death. His mother is Lily (Angelica Huston), a con artist of much more skill who tries to convince him to get out of the game when she sees him for the first time in years. Lily instantly distrusts Myra (Annette Bening) his son’s older girlfriend, who is also a con artist, who tries to get Roy to go in on a scheme with her. When he refuses, she is angry and blames Lily – and sets out to get her revenge. The movie then takes twist after twist, and we are never sure until the final scene who is really scamming who, and why. The film is expertly crafted by Frears, wonderfully written by Donald Westlake, based on a great Jim Thompson novel, and acted to perfection by the three leads. For those who think they don’t make movies like they did in the 1940s anymore – this one is for you.

2. Miller’s Crossing (Joel Coen)
The Coen brothers obviously love the American films of the 1940s, and with Miller’s Crossing they have made their version of the film noir – a dark gangster tale, with it own light Coen touches. Gabriel Byrne gives an excellent performance as a hitman for mob boss Albert Finney, who gets himself in trouble with his rival Jon Polito, by refusing to giving up John Turturro to be killed. Turturro is the brother of Marcia Gay Harden – a hardboiled gun moll who is Finney’s girlfriend, and has been having an affair with Bryne. A gang war breaks out between the two rivals, with only Tom being able to go back and forth. The film is expertly crafted – with marvelous cinematography, and great production design throughout. This is perhaps Bryne’s best performance as the hit man who at first looks into his heart to save Turturro – but later, cannot do the same thing again. A wonderful neo noir as only the Coen brothers can do it – Miller’s Crossing is great entertainment – perfectly acted, written and directed, and one of the triumphs of the Coen’s career.

1. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas is the greatest mob movie ever made – greater than even the first two chapters in The Godfather saga. Unlike those films, which looked at the top of the Mafia foodchain, this one looks much further down – at the lives of the foot soliders. Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill narrates the story of how he got hooked on life in the mob as a teenager, and then spent his entire adult life with them – robbing, killing, partying and basically living the high life, until drugs among other things, makes it all come crashing down around him. Scorsese’s movie is restless and moves with supreme energy throughout – introducing us to dozens of characters over the span of 30 years. The other key roles belong to Robert DeNiro as Hill’s mentor, the cold blooded Jimmy “The Gent” Conway, Paul Sorvino as the mob boss Paulie who looks at Henry like his own son, and is devastated by what happens to him, Joe Pesci as his insane friend Nicky, who kills at the slightest provocation and Lorraine Bracco as his long suffering wife, who is both repulsed and turned on by the life. The film is masterfully directed by Scorsese – violent in the extreme, but also honest. This is one of the very best films of his career – and of all time.

Just Missed The Top 10: After Dark, My Sweet (James Foley), Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (Akira Kurosawa), Q&A (Sidney Lumet), The Hunt for Red October (Jon McTiernan), The Freshman (Andrew Bergman), Texasville (Peter Bogdanovich), Last Exit to Brooklyn (Uli Edel), Monsieur Hire (Patrice Leconte), Misery (Rob Reiner), Ju Dou (Zhang Yimou), White Hunter, Black Heart (Clint Eastwood).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner)
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Academy went for the safer, more old fashioned choice for its best picture and director awards this year. You leave Dances with Wolves feeling good – which is not quite the case with its main competition – Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Costner’s film has had its reputation tarnished in recent years for two reasons – 1) It beat GoodFellas and 2) Costner’s subsequent career behind the camera hasn’t been stellar (although I maintain that Open Range is an excellent Western). Neither are the films fault and I think that if you watch it again, you would have to admit that it is a fine epic film – the kind that Hollywood has seemingly forgot how to make in the last few decades.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune
Jeremy Irons Oscar was richly deserved this year – especially considering his competition. I love Robert DeNiro more than any other actor in history, but his performance in Awakenings is nowhere near his best, and do not get me started on that turd of a film that is The Field that got Richard Harris a nomination. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Irons thanked David Cronenberg, perhaps a sign that he – like me – thinks his work in 1988’s Dead Ringers really deserved this award. But Irons deserved it here as well – he is absolutely chilling as Claus von Bulow. I am a little saddened that Ray Liotta didn’t get nominated for his great work in GoodFellas, or that Gabirel Bryne was overlooked for Miller’s Crossing, or hell, even Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III, but Irons was better than even them, so I’m happy here.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Kathy Bates, Misery
Horror movies are so rarely honored by the Academy that any time they are, it is a reason for fans of the genre to celebrate. I do not think that Rob Reiner’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel Misery is a great film – but it is a very good one, and Kathy Bates as the crazed fan of writer James Caan is simply brilliant in the lead role. She walks that fine line – that so few have before – that allows her crazy character to still seem completely believable from beginning to end. It also says something that this is essentially a two character piece, with little action and a lot of talk – and yet the film is still edge of your seat excitement. Yeah, I probably would have voted for Angelica Huston’s heartless mother in The Grifters, but I have no problem with this win.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Joe Pesci, GoodFellas
Joe Pesci’s performance in GoodFellas is one of the great supporting performances of all time. As the crazed psychopathic gangster, Pesci turns on a dime from fun loving guy to cold blooded killer – you are never quite sure what he is going to do next. Like we have seen in recent years, the Academy loves giving bad guys this award – and in Pesci’s case it was richly deserved. Am I the only one who noticed that all three of the winners discussed so far are psychopaths? Strange. Pesci’s competition was average – Davison, Garcia and Greene are all fine, but not exceptional, and I do love Al Pacino’s cartoon performance in Dick Tracy – but there were a lot of great supporting performances that were overlooked – Turturro in Miller’s Crossing, DeNiro in GoodFellas and Brando in The Freshman to name but three that were better than most of the nominees.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost
Perhaps it was the fact that the other three Oscar winners this year are all playing horrific individuals, perhaps it was just that the Academy loves Whoopi Goldberg, but whatever the reason, I cannot believe that they felt this was the best supporting actress performance of the year. True, Goldberg is the best thing about this incredibly cheesy, incredibly annoying “classic” romance – but that isn’t saying much – Ghost is still, in my mind, perhaps the worst film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in the 1990s. Given that they could have rewarded Lorraine Bracco’s amazing performance in GoodFellas, or even Annette Bening’s sexually fun performance in The Grifters or Diane Ladd's absolutely crazy work in Wild at Heart, this one stings a little.

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