Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Year in Review: 1986

1986 contains a number of great films – so many in fact, that I’m sure that some will complain that I overlooked some their favorites for the films on this list. So be it. I stand behind every title on this list.

10. The Great Mouse Detective (Ron Clements & John Musker & Burny Mattinson & David Michener)
I am sure there are going to be some who wonder how I could put this film on this list, while I didn’t find room for Tarkovsky’s final film The Sacrifice, or Frears’ wonderful My Beautiful Laundrette, or one of the great sports stories of all time in Hoosiers, or Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire or Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast or any number of other films. My answer is simple – I like The Great Mouse Detective more. This is one of the my first movie going experiences that I remember, and all these years later, the film still holds a special place in my heart. It is not the greatest Disney animated effort of all time, but God do I love it still. My love of Sherlock Holmes comes from my love of this movie, with its ingenious mouse modeled after Holmes, who has to track down the evil Professor Ratigan (voiced by Vincent Price of course), who has kidnapped a brilliant mouse scientist and his daughter so that he can have a clockwork mouse in the guise of the Queen of the Mice, so he can rule England. At least the Mouse part of it, I guess. So call me a sap if you want to, but I love this Disney classic with all my heart.

9. ‘Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier)
Dexter Gordon was not a professional actor, yet he delivered one of the very best performances of the year in 1986. Gordon plays a version of himself – a veteran jazz musician, considered to be one of the great saxophone players of his era, who was also a drug addict and alcoholic. The movie is set in 1960 Paris, where Gordon goes to play at a club, and maybe dry out a little bit. He has very little willpower of his own, so he relies on the manager of the club and his landlady, and later one of his young friends, to keep him off drugs. But eventually, he knows he will start using again. The film is full of jazz music, that director Bertrand Tavernier recorded live to give it the feel of real jazz – and it works wonderfully. The movie has the best jazz in any narrative feature I have ever seen. Yet, when I think about ‘Round Midnight, I don’t think of the music – at least not at first. I think of Gordon’s face, and his steady decline in the film. He knows he is going to die soon – and he seems to have accepted his fate. But he keeps right on playing anyway.

8. Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan)
It’s funny how much we come to care about the two main characters in Mona Lisa. After all, he (Bob Hoskins) is a low level British mob guy just out of prison, and she (Cathy Tyson) is the high class prostitute he is assigned to drive around. But like them we do, because they are so well written, so well acted that we see past their jobs, and see the people they are. Eventually, the two characters, who hate each other at first, do the same thing and they share a bond. It’s not a bond based on sex, but upon mutual respect. Hoskins has been assigned by his boss (Michael Caine) to find out all he can about one of Tyson’s clients, and this at first helps to break the wall down. But things get more complicated when Tyson confides her fear for a friend to Hoskins – they started out working the street together, and Tyson fears that her friend is still there, and still at the mercy of a merciless pimp. He agrees to help find her. What starts out as a character study of these two people turns into a thriller, but because by the time the thriller elements come in, we care so much about these two people, the thriller elements take on an additional level of intensity. Hoskins delivers one of his best performances as the ex-con that we take some time getting to know, and Tyson matches him showing off her tough exterior, and then letting her guard down. Michael Caine is chilling as the boss, because although he is a villain – and an evil one at that – he plays it straight, as if he is little more than a businessman. He just happens to know what his business is. Neil Jordan has had a spotty career as a director – making some great films like this, The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy and so not so great ones as well. But with Mona Lisa, he made one of his best films.

7. Manhunter (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann’s Manhunter was the first screen appearance by Hannibal Lector – here embodied in one unforgettable scene by Brian Cox. Yet, Manhunter is much more than simply a curiosity item for people who want to see someone other than Anthony Hopkins play the famed cannibal. It is a great thriller in its own right. William Peterson gives an excellent performance as Graham, the FBI agent who arrested Lector the first time, and was almost killed in the process. He is drawn back into the fold when a family annihilator, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) starts killing people. Peterson is really the center of the movie, and he does an excellent job in the lead role, as the brilliant, yet now somewhat hesitant Graham. Noonan is tremendously creepy as Dollarhyde, and the cast also includes great work by Joan Allen, as the blind woman that Dollarhyde befriends. The film is an intense thriller, assembled brilliantly by Mann, and shot by the great Dante Spinotti to maximum effect. The climax, scored to In a Gada da Vida, is a classic of the genre. Overall, I think the cheesy score hurt the movie a little bit – but not much. Yes, Brent Ratner remade this film by its original title, Red Dragon, years later with Hopkins in an expanded role as Lector. But as Mann stated when he was told that Ratner said that his version was better than Mann’s “He must be mistaken”.

6. Aliens (James Cameron)
James Cameron did not set out to simply repeat the success of the Ridley Scott original film when he made a sequel to Alien – he essentially set out to change things. The original movie was a horror film in the grand old tradition where you have a monster stalking a group of people who are trapped, picking them off one by one. While Aliens certainly has horror movie elements, it is more a balls to the walls action film – what that starts early on with the intensity and never lets up. While I prefer Scott’s films, there is no denying that Cameron’s is one of the best the genre produced in the 1980s. Sigourney Weaver goes from “survivor girl” in the original film, to a kick ass action star here – and the transformation is seamless and believable. The rest of the cast is fine, but the fact remains that the movie rests on the shoulders of Weaver, and Cameron’s special effects – which are better than the original film, given the higher budget. The film is gritty and intense from beginning to end – and just maybe Cameron’s best film.

5. Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox)
Sid and Nancy may just be the best movie ever about the life of a rock star. Gary Oldman gives an electrifying performance as Sid Vicious, the bass player for the Sex Pistols, who had little discernible talent, but had the right attitude. And Chloe Webb is every bit his equal as his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. The film opens with Vicious being arrested for Spungen’s murder, but then flashes back to show how the couple got to where they were. The film is full of sound and fury all the way through, but amazingly, Cox is able to tell his story in a coherent fashion. The film is built on the amazing lead performances, and they are amazing – there is never a moment of doubt watching them that they are who they are. Oldman plays Vicious as a naïve kid – someone who achieved great fame at the age of the 17, and never really recovered. Who was Sid Vicious really? I doubt he even knew, because at the time when most of us are figuring that out, he had already descended into his heroin addiction. Webb makes Spungen the more grounded of the two – the more ambitious. She mothers Vicious, because that’s what he needed, and also what she needed. But soon, she is as far gone as Sid is, and there is no turning back. Did Vicious kill Spungen? Does it matter? They were so strung out at the time, who knows what happened in that hotel room. And just a few months later Vicious was dead. Sid and Nancy tells their story in unblinking detail – it is the story of two lives completely wasted.

4. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)
Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters is one of his greatest achievements. Taking the basic structure of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander – where a theatrical family gathers at three different holidays – the first a time of happiness, the second a time of pain, and the third after the pain has subsided, Allen spins off Bergman’s film and makes one of his incisive, yet funny, movies about the lives of his characters. Mia Farrow is Hannah, a successful Broadway actress, whose husband (Michael Caine) is having an affair with her sister (Barbara Hershey), who has just left her much older lover (Max von Sydow). Hannah’s ex-husband is Mickey (Allen), who is a lifelong hypochondriac, but may in fact now have a serious disease. He goes on a date with Hannah’s other sister (Dianne Wiest), and it goes horribly wrong, but the two will eventually find each other again. The film is at times touching and heartbreaking, at times painfully honest about the lives of this family, and at times downright hilarious. One of the best moments in the film – and really in Allen’s entire career – comes when his character is completely depressed, but wanders into a screening of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, and reminds himself why life is worth living. It is an ode to how the power of cinema. Like all of Allen’s films, the acting is great – Caine and Wiest both won Oscars, but they are matched by everyone in the cast. If I were to make a list of the best Woody Allen movies of all time, Hannah and Her Sister would easily rank in the top 5.

3. The Fly (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg is perhaps the perfect filmmaking to make The Fly. He has always been obsessed with “body horror” – how the real horror is not what is outside the body, but what is inside. Jeff Goldblum gives a tour de force performance as the scientist who accidentally mixes his DNA with that of a fly. At first, he thinks it is great, as it allows him greater strength and speed – which increases his confidence. But he also becomes increasingly arrogant, and violent, thus setting in motion the events that will lead to his inevitable downfall. The transformation sequences, where Goldblum slowly starts to become a hybrid of a man and a fly are absolutely brilliantly well done by the makeup, making the “Brundlefly” one of the most hideous monsters in screen history. Somehow though, Goldblum manages to keep the performance underneath all that makeup real, and emotional, right up until the final moments of his life, when he places the shotgun in Geena Davis’ hand up against his head (in a shot that I find chilling, touching and unforgettable). The film is among the most disturbing and gross of Cronenberg’s career – but also among the very best. The Fly is a masterful science fiction movie that gets under your skin, and stays there. Once you see, you will never forget it.

2. Platoon (Oliver Stone)
As a grunt’s eye view of the war in Vietnam, Oliver Stone’s Platoon cannot be beat. The story centers of the young, idealistic Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), based on Stone himself, who enlists in the Army in 1967, because he believes it is his duty to his country. But as he experiences the war firsthand, he becomes disillusioned with it. At first he is torn between the two Sergeant in the unit – the sympathetic Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the tough as nails Barnes (Tom Berenger), but soon it becomes clear which side he is on – Elias’. The movie features several great, intense set pieces – the raiding of the village, where Barnes cold bloodedly murders a innocent woman, before the burn the village to the ground, and Taylor finds some of his fellow soldiers raping a civilian, the battle in the jungle, where Barnes shoots Elias and leaves him for dead, and of course the final napalm battle, where Taylor and Barnes suddenly come face to face with each other. Stone based the movie on his own experiences, and doesn’t exaggerate. The film’s depiction of violence and the moral ambiguity that the film seeks are the strengths of the film. This is a harsh, unrelenting view of the war in Vietnam. While it doesn’t reach the heights of something like Apocalypse Now, it doesn’t really strive to. This is Stone’s story of the war, and the film that he had to get made in order to move on.

1. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is perhaps the most divisive film of the 1980s – some like Roger Ebert absolutely hate it, while some, like me, think that it maybe the best film of the entire decade. While I understand why some hate the film, to me Lynch’s twisted, dark version of suburbia is a film that never fails to get under my skin and draw me into his vision. Taking his lead from films like Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Ray’s Bigger Than Life, Lynch creates a seemingly perfect suburban landscape, and then perverts it with the darkness that lurks beneath. Kyle McLachlan plays the perfect, all American boy, home from university. He even starts to date the pretty blonde cheerleader (Laura Dern). But then, in a field, he finds a human ear, crawling with ants. He turns it over to the police, but remains fascinated by the ear, and its implications, so he starts digging deeper. He should have left it alone. His search eventually leads him to Isabella Rossellini, who catches him spying on her, and tries to humiliate him – but then the terrifying Frank (Dennis Hopper, in one of the best villain performances in screen history) shows up, and as McLachlan watches from the closet, does some terrible, unexplainable things. Things only get worse from there. What Lynch has excelled at his entire career, is creating dream worlds, and turning them into nightmares. The upbeat, sunny, cheery phoniness of the opening scenes is just a façade covering the darkness in the small town. Lynch then twists and turns this perfect world into a sick, twisted place. The filmmaking is impeccable, the performances amazing and the screenplay, no matter how strange it gets, never loses focus. This is quite simply one of the best films ever made.

Just Missed The Top 10: Hoosiers (David Anspaugh), At Close Range (James Foley), Labyrinth (Jim Hensen), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (John Hughes), A Room with a View (James Ivory), Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch), The Mission (Roland Joffe), She's Gotta Have It (Spike Lee), Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki), Stand By Me (Rob Reiner), Salvador (Oliver Stone), A Better Tomorrow (John Woo), My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears), The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky), The Decline of the American Empire (Denys Arcand), The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir)

Notable Films Missed: The Green Ray (Francois Truffaut), My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Axel Gherman)

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Platoon (Oliver Stone)
When I stop and think about it, I am somewhat amazed that Oliver Stone’s Platoon won the Best Picture award. This is a war movie with heroes or villains. In fact, the enemy is barely seen at all in the film, and Stone gives us the sense that they are all around you. He has made a film about scared kids who become angry, and how that anger leads to violence. He has made a film that strips war films of all the glamour and honor and valor that we have come to expect from them. The film is morally ambigious at best, and doesn’t offer the traditional payoff we expect. Of the nominees, it was clearly the best film of the bunch – but the Academy overlooked the best this year in favor of films in their comfort zone – A Room with a View, Children of a Lesser God, The Mission and Hannah and Her Sisters. They made the right choice – especially considering that I see no way in hell that Blue Velvet could have ever been nominated.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Paul Newman, The Color of Money
Far be it for me to criticize the Academy the one time they decided to give Hollywood legend Paul Newman an acting Oscar. The man who was nominated for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict before this film, and Nobody’s Fool and Road to Perdition after, certainly deserved to win an Oscar. But look again at those other 8 films he was nominated for, and tell me if you think that any of them are not as good as The Color of Money, which is perhaps Martin Scorsese’s least interesting film as a director, because it was the least ambitious. True, Newman is charming in The Color of Money, reprising his Hustler role a quarter century later, but an Oscar for it? I don’t think so.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Marlee Maitlin, Children of a Lesser God
Marlee Maitlin joins that select group of people who have won an Academy award for their one great performance. It really isn’t Maitlin’s fault that her career never took off after Children of a Lesser God – after all, how many roles are there for a deaf actress? But Maitlin has built a good career for herself, and her performance in the film is quite good, as the janitor at a school for the deaf where she used to be a student, although I do think the story of the film itself is rather trite and clichéd. She and William Hurt, along with the heart Piper Laurie, save the film from becoming saccharine, and I have a hard time arguing against her win (especially considering they didn’t nominate Isabella Rossellini or Chloe Webb), but I don’t necessarily think she deserved to win.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Michael Caine, Hannah and Her Sisters
Michael Caine had an excellent 1986 – delivering not one, but two great supporting turns here and in Mona Lisa. Here he plays an accountant married to one sister, but in love with another. Or is it just lust he feels for Barbara Hershey’s character, and not love? It says a lot about Caine that although he is one of those actors who appears to be the same in every movie, all his performances have subtle differences. Perhaps the moment we remember most on Caine’s in the movie is when he is so happy that he finally got his answer – it may not have been the one he wanted, but he got one, and he’s happy (something I can relate to all too well). This was a strong category this year as alongside Caine, they nominated Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger for Platoon, and Dennis Hooper (for his great turn in Hoosiers, not his miraculous one in Blue Velvet) – all of whom would have been deserving.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Diane Wiest, Hannah and Her Sisters
I know that many remember her second Oscar winning performance for Woody Allen – as the egotistical actor in Bullets Over Broadway - as the better one I have always preferred her performance here, as the sister full of emotional tics, and whose cocaine addiction has had a greater impact on her than she wants to admit. Of the nominees, she was the most logical choice to win, although had they also nominated Barbara Hershey for her role in Hannah and Her Sisters (and they should have), I might have found it harder to choose.

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