Friday, April 9, 2010

Year in Review: 1991

1991 was an excellent year in film. So many modern auteurs were doing some of their best work this year. And yet, for me, there has always been one film that towered over every thing else for this year. As good as the rest of the films on my top 10 list, they do not compared with number 1.

10. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)
Very loosely based on William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho is about two gay street hustlers in Portland. River Phoenix plays the poor one (based on Falstaff), a narcoleptic, obsessed with finding the mother who abandoned him years ago. Keanu Reeves comes from a rich family (he is Henry V), who is slumming it for a while, before he will take his place in his fathers company and become a pillar of the community. The film is a surreal character study of these two men, expertly directed by Van Sant, who gives River Phoenix the best role of his all too tragically short career, and he makes the most of it, delivering an emotionally powerful performance, as these two young men travel across the country, and then to Italy, to search for his mother. Reeves is less impressive, but still excellent, and the film has a wonderful supporting cast. Phoenix would go onto to make a few more movies before his untimely death, but nothing he did can compare to his brilliant work here.

9. Jungle Fever (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever is about a married black architect (Wesley Snipes) who has an affair with an Italian secretary (Annabella Sciorra) and the fall out that happens afterwards. The affair destroys his marriage, and everyone in both families react with either disapproval or racist tirades. Some even accused Lee of racism in the movie, but that was ridiculous – Lee is clearly against this relationship because both Snipes and Sciorra’s characters are drawn to each other because of their skin color – they give into the “jungle fever”. Lee offsets this relationship with a much sweeter one between John Turturro and a black woman that is based not on stereotypes, but on a genuine affection between the two of them. Lee’s film is more than just about sex and race, but families, and the cracks in the foundation that stuff like this causes. Samuel L. Jackson gives a haunting performance as Snipes’ drug addicted brother, who also somewhat destroys the family. The ending is admittedly a little weak, but it fits in thematically to what Lee going for in the film. This is one of Spike Lee’s most interesting films – one that warrants repeat viewings.

8. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou)
Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern is one of the most visually stunning films that you will ever see. Brilliantly shot, with bright vibrant colors (especially the reds in the film), Yimou’s film a poor 19 year old girl, who after the death of her father is forced to marry a powerful and rich man 30 years her senior, who already has three wives. The wives each have their own house in the master’s castle – across from each other – and each night a red lantern is lit in front of the house where the master will be spending the night. The wives scheme to ensure that the lantern is front of their house – because with it comes power, privilege and influence. Gong Li is brilliant in the lead role, and the film is simply stunning to behold. Although Yimou denied that the film was an attack on contemporary China (perhaps, in fear that it would led to him being banned from making movies, a fate that more than one Chinese director has succumbed to), it is impossible not the see the film as such as Gong Li is driven insane by the rules that slowly crush her spirit. This is a visual masterpiece, with an emotional storyline to match.

7. Bugsy (Barry Levinson)
Although directed by Barry Levinson, from a script by James Toback, star Warren Beatty was the obvious creative force behind this biopic of the famed gangster Bugsy Siegal. Beatty gives one of his strongest performances in the title role – a fast talking, violent New York gangster in the 1940s, who first travels to LA, where he falls for move starlet Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), and then goes to a backwater town in the desert known as Las Vegas, where gambling is legal, although people are taking advantage of it. Bugsy hits upon an idea to make Vegas a tourist destination, with huge casinos and hotels – all glitz and glamour. He uses a lot of mob money to make it happen, and if it doesn’t pay off, things will go badly for him. The film is both touching and humorous, violent and entertaining. Supported by an expert cast, including great Oscar nominated turns by Harvey Keitel as Mickey Cohen and Ben Kingsley as Meyer Lansky are also excellent. Barry Levinson keeps the period detail just right, and the movie moves quickly, despite its long running time. Bugsy is first class entertainment all the way.

6. Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg)
Once again when it comes to a film by David Cronenberg, I am at a loss as to how to explain the tremendously surreal experience this film is. Not so much an adaptation of the William S. Burroghs novel, but a combination of adaptation and biography about the man, Peter Weller gives a fascinating performance as the Burroughs surrogate – an exterminator who along with his wife becomes addicted to the bug powder he uses to kill bugs – which will eventually led him to shoot his wife, and hallucinate that his typewriter has turned into a giant bug itself. The film is wonderfully bizarre – a piece of surrealist cinema that deserves comparison to the work of Luis Bunuel. Cronenberg is a one of a kind talent, and in Naked Lunch he proves why. What an odd, brilliant movie this is.

5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron)
In the debate that rages among movie buffs and film geeks everywhere about what film is better the original Terminator, or Terminator 2, I have always come down in the later camp. Not that there is anything wrong with the original film – which is a brilliant indie movie that allowed one of the visionaries of modern movies to start his career, but Terminator 2 has always been a complex, more action packed, more satisfying movie to me. Cameron’s filmmaking was no longer restrained by a budget, and the film contained groundbreaking special effects, and a expert visual look that contains some iconic and brilliant imagery (the entire sequence in the mental hospital where they go to break Linda Hamilton out is stunning). One of the best pure action movies of the decade, Terminator 2 is a brilliant film – exciting, edge of your seat entertainment. Action directors today would do well to watch the film and learn how it’s supposed to be done.

4. Barton Fink (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers Barton Fink won three top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991 – the Palme D’Or, to go along with the Director and Actor prizes – and it remains an inspired piece of Coen lunacy. Set in 1941 Hollywood, John Turturro gives an excellent performance in the title role – a New York playwright hired by a movie studio in Hollywood to write for them. Barton is convinced that movies need to be more real – he values his supposed connection to the “working man”. One such man lives next door to him in his dour hotel – played with ferocious wit, comic timing and at times scary intensity by John Goodman, a salesman who takes a shine to him. The film makes allusions to several real life people – Barton is supposed inspired by Clifford Odets, John Mahoney plays a drunken writer supposed based on William Faulkner, and the towering Michael Lerner (in an Oscar nominated performance) is inspired by old school film magnets like Louis B. Mayer. The film is an excellent black comedy as only the Coens know how to make them – a masterwork of art direction and cinematography, excellent performances throughout, and a biting satire on Hollywood. In short, it’s the Coens at their best.

3. Boyz in the Hood (John Singleton)
Boyz in the Hood has been copied so many times that every time I watch it, I am amazed by how power the film still retains. Singleton was only 21 when he made the film – not much older than the characters in the film itself – and he tells their story with honesty. Opening in the 1980s, the kids in the movie are trying to be good, but they are surrounded by crime and poverty all around them. It doesn’t help that for two of the boys, their mother isn’t much there for them. When it flashes to 1991, Cuba Gooding Jr. gives his best performance as a teenager just trying to survive on the streets on LA and get out and go to a good college. His role model is an excellent Laurence Fishburne as his father. His two childhood friends have bigger problems. Morris Chestnut is a football star trying to earn a scholarship, but already has a kid of his own. His half brother, Ice Cube, has already started down the path that is going to lead him to be shot or put in jail. Boyz in the Hood pretty much started the genre of films where young, black men try and survive in the hood, and while some of the films (like the Hughes Brothers Menace II Society) come close to the power of this film, it remains the best in the genre. It is one of the biggest shames in modern American moviemaking that Singleton has never come close to matching this film in the years since.

2. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme)
The Silence of the Lambs was certainly not the first movie to feature a talking serial killer playing games with the police – but its massive success – critically, financially and at the Oscars – has ensured that every year we seemingly get at least a dozen attempts to try and replicate the success of this film. Hardly any of them even come close. Jonathan Demme’s direction of the film is dark and moody, perfectly capturing the atmosphere and making the film one of the creepiest I can recall seeing. Jodie Foster is excellent as Clarice Starling, the young FBI agent assigned to try and get information out of the brilliant Hannibal Lector to help them solve a current case. As Lector, Anthony Hopkins gives one of the most iconic and brilliant screen performances in history. The rest of the cast is wonderful, the films plot about the serial killer on the loose (the expertly insane Ted Levine) is great, but it is the byplay between these two actors that make this movie such a creepy pleasure to watch. Often imitated, but never duplicated, The Silence of the Lambs is one of the best thrillers to ever come out of Hollywood.

1. JFK (Oliver Stone)
Oliver Stone’s JFK was attacked as a nutty, left wing conspiracy theory of a movie before a frame of film was even shot. To this day, whenever conspiracy nuts are mentioned, Oliver Stone’s name inevitably comes up. But viewed apart from the controversy that has always surrounded the film, what emerges is an absolute masterpiece of film construction. Stone has made the best film of his career here, with great cinematography by Robert Richardson, and expert editing, bringing together different film stocks, interesting use of color and black and white, real footage interweaved with footage he shot himself, and come up with a dizzying movie so packed full of information that it makes your head spin. Did things really happen the way Stone proposes here? Almost assuredly not, but that hardly matters. What Stone is doing here is spinning a country myth to the Warren Commission report that he views as full of lies. What emerges after all the “facts” he puts in front of us, is a portrait of a country struggling with the death of their beloved President, fighting for answers that they cannot get. This does not even mention all the wonderful performances in the film – so many great actors fill every role in the movie – and the film is an absolutely brilliant exercise in style and storytelling. JFK is one of the very best films ever made.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam), Dead Again (Kenneth Branagh), Life is Sweet (Mike Leigh), Beauty and the Beast (Kirk Wise & Gary Trosedale), Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese), The Doors (Oliver Stone), Homicide (David Mamet), Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr & George Hickenlooper), Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasdan).

Notable Films Missed: A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang), The Double Life of Veronique (Krztof Kieslowski), Van Gogh (Maurice Pilat), Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (Leos Carax), La Belle Noissese (Jacques Rivette), Un Couer en Hiver (Claude Sautet)

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme)
It would have been more daring for the Academy to tell the media to suck it, and given the award to Oliver Stone and his brilliant JFK, but since The Silence of the Lambs is A) my second favorite film of the year and B) the only time anything approaching a horror film ever won the award, I find it impossible to complain about this one.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs
How could this award have gone to anyone else? Sure, Warren Beatty is fine in Bugsy, and Robert DeNiro is terrifically unhinged in Cape Fear, but neither of them – let alone brilliant non-nominees like John Turturro and River Phoenix – cannot even come close to matching Hopkins.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs
As seemingly the only person in the world who absolutely hates Thelma & Louise, I could not be happier than Foster’s brilliant work as the young FBI agent won this award, as she certainly does match Hopkins Lector step for step in this film. Would have loved to see someone like Gong Li sneak in as a nominee however.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Jack Palance, City Slickers
Palance won this award because he was a Hollywood veteran, and past nominee, and had never won an Oscar before – there really is no other explanation. Sure, it’s charming and funny as Curly in this offbeat comedy, but seriously, this is an Oscar winning performance? Fellow nominees Harvey Keitel and Ben Kinglsey for Bugsy, Michael Lerner for Barton Fink and Tommy Lee Jones for JFK were all much better – but I am of the opinion that the two best performances in this category this year – John Goodman in Barton Fink and Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever were criminally overlooked. .

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Mercedes Ruehl, The Fisher King
I think Mercedes Ruehl is quite good in Terry Gilliam’s offbeat comedy/drama The Fisher King, but I have always found it odd that the best performance in the movie – by Jeff Bridges – was the only one of the three major ones not to get an Oscar nomination. Really though, who else was the Academy going to give it to out of those nominees? Personally, I think that Juliette Lewis is excellent in Cape Fear, and was the best of the nominees, but like Best Supporting Actor, the Academy overlooked the best work the category had to offer this year – Judy Davis in either Barton Fink or Naked Lunch and Jane Horrocks in Life is Sweet among them.

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