Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Year in Review: 1987

To me, 1987 has always been missing one thing – that one film that stands above the rest as clearly the best film of the year. There are a lot of great films released in 1987 – as you can see for the higher than normal number of films in the Just Missed the Top 10 section, and yet I do not think the year has any true masterpieces – try as I might to find one. Some years are like that. I will say that I find it odd that three great directors took a look back at their own childhoods in the 1940s this year – and all three pulled off wonderful films.

10. Au Revoir Les Enfants (Louis Malle)
Based on his own memories, Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, Les Enfants is about life for an 11 year old boy in his Catholic boarding school in 1943. The benevolent head master introduces three new students at the beginning of the semester, and the main character, looks at them strangely. He can tell there is something different about them, but since no one else is saying anything, neither does he. He becomes friends with one of the boys, and quickly discovers the truth – the boy is Jewish, and the headmaster is hiding him, and the other two students, from the Gestapo. Things, of course, do not work out for them. Au Revoir, Les Enfants avoids the traps of many of the films about the Holocaust that involve children – The Boy with the Stripped Pajamas being the most recent example – because it does romanticize the situation, it doesn’t turn it into a ridiculous cliché, and portrays the children not as simpletons, nor as little adults, but as people who do not fully understand what is happening, but still feel outrage. The main character in the movie remains haunted by what happened – and his role in it – for the rest of his life, even if he really didn’t do anything wrong. Much like Malle’s previous film, Lacome, Lucien, Au Revoir Les Enfants is an intelligent look at the role the French played in the Holocaust – it neither forgives them their sins, nor condemns, but simply watches in horror as it plays out.

9. The Dead (John Huston)
The Dead was John Huston’s last film – a film he directed while being confined to a wheelchair and on an oxygen tank. As a result, death hangs in the air all throughout this adaptation of the infamous James Joyce short story that was thought to be unfilmable. Somehow, Huston manages to capture the tone and spirit of Joyce’s story, and keep the film cinematic, instead of merely literal. The film is about a Christmas party in 1904 Ireland. The party is being hosted by the Moran sisters, and gradually the guests arrive, participate in small talk and then head to the dining room for dinner, where the talk continues. An awful lot is said, but gradually our attention turns to Gabriel (Donal McCann), a pretentious man who holds himself above the rest of the guests, and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston). As the night dwindles, Gabriel notices a change in his wife after hearing a song performed. When they arrive back at their hotel room, she tells him the story of the true love of her life. The Dead is about many things – yes, it is about death and mortality, but it is also about the impossibility of anyone really knowing anyone else. Gabriel is a pathetic man who thinks he knows everything – only to realize that he doesn’t even know his own wife. Somehow this feels like a film that Huston simply had to make before he died. That he took on such an ambitious project – and pulled it off – is almost astounding.

8. Hope and Glory (John Boorman)
John Boorman’s Hope and Glory is a look back at his own life as a young boy at the outbreak of WWII in London. His father, although aging, enlists in the war, and leaves his mother, Sarah Myles, to raise three children by herself. The family huddles together beneath the stairs during air raids that terrify the mother, but excites the only son. He loves going out every day into the houses destroyed by bombs and discovering shrapnel with his friends. To him, the war is a fun and exciting thing because he doesn’t fully understand it. His older sister has discovered sex with a soldier, and her life is torn apart when he is shipped out. Occasionally their father comes home on leave – but these visits are far too infrequent, and although he is a loving father, he spends much of his time drinking. Hope and Glory captures the time period perfectly, and the mixture of excitement and confusion felt by the boy at the center of the movie, who is after all only a kid and doesn’t truly understand what is going on, but understands enough. It is meticulously detailed, with great period production design and cinematography, and is a lot more emotional (one could say sentimental) than the usually tough as nails Boorman gets. A wonderful, unique film.

7. Wall Street (Oliver Stone)
For better or for worse, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street pretty much came to define business in the 1980s. Stone thought he was making a film about a horrible man named Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) – a man who cares more about the game of making money, than about morals, ethics or even the money itself – and how his greed is contagious, and essentially ruins the innocent Charlie Sheen. But over the years, Gecko has become a hero to many on Wall Street – young brokers tell both Stone and Douglas on a regular basis that they idolized the man, and have modeled their careers after his. Perhaps that’s one of the reason we are in the financial crisis that we are in. As a film, Wall Street has its flaws – the Daryl Hannah character can pretty much be eliminated, and at times he lays it on a little thick (this is Oliver Stone don’t forget). Yet, it also has the power to grip you in its narrative, and Douglas’s Gecko can still seduce you with his slippery lies, his easy charm and a chance at all that money. It’s sad to think that some people listened to Gecko’s infamous Greed is Good speech, and came away agreeing with him. But for that very reason, Wall Street remains a timely film – one whose influence still hangs over the business community. I eagerly await the sequel later this year, to see what Gecko is up to now.

6. Broadcast News (James L. Brooks)
Broadcast News is, for me anyway, the best film that James L. Brooks has ever directed. It is an intelligent look at the world on television news – where being good looking and photogenic are more important than being good at your job. The film revolves around a producer (Holly Hunter) who has worked with her best friend (Albert Brooks) for years. He is in love with her, and hurt by her constant rejection of his affections. However, they respect each other, and continue to work well together. That is when William Hurt arrives. He is a local news anchor, who got his start being a sports broadcaster. He is good looking, and projects warmth on screen, but he just isn’t very smart – something he knows all too well. But he is attracted to Hunter as well, and sees her intelligence as something he can exploit. Against her better judgment, Hunter becomes involved with him. He may not be smart like Brooks, but he’s good looking. Broadcast News is intelligent, well written, well directed and especially well acted by its three principal characters (and in a hilarious cameo by Jack Nicholson as the network anchor). It is also a tough minded movie that looks at television news, warts and all. This is a world where being talented comes in second to being good looking. We expect that in certain fields, but shouldn’t we expect more from the people who bring the world into our homes every day? The only thing dated about this movie is the clothing – it is just as relevant today as it was back then.

5. Radio Days (Woody Allen)
Woody Allen’s Radio Days is his nostalgic look back at his own childhood, growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s, with a family who listened the radio constantly. For a filmmaker who has admired Fellini, the film brought to mind that master’s Amarcord, which may not have painted things how they actually happened, but instead how the director remembers them. The film is essentially split into two parts – though Allen jumps effortlessly from one to other. One is about the kid Allen was (played by Seth Green) is 1940s Brooklyn, growing up in his eccentric family in a working class neighborhood, and living out his fantasies through the people he hears on the radio. The other part is the stories of those heroes themselves in Manhattan – all the glitz and glamour of the era on full display for the audience. By its very nature Radio Days is the most episodic of Allen films – he isn’t concerned with telling a clear narrative, but rather in evoking an era. On that level, Allen has succeeded brilliantly, and that is why Radio Days belongs on any list of the best films Allen has ever made.

4. House of Games (David Mamet)
David Mamet’s House of Games is a movie that continually twists it plot, and yet never seems to confuse us. Watching the film, I never fail to be drawn into the story of con men, their tricks, and the tricks used against them, as the film gradually ups the ante more and more with each passing scene. The film is almost all talk, and yet it is never for a second boring – even the most seemingly innocent exchanges are fraught with dramatic tension, because we know something is going on beneath the surface. Only after the movie is over do we fully understand who conned who and why – and more importantly, how Mamet has conned us, the audience. The movie is about a psychologist (Lindsay Crouse) whose patient is being threatened by a gambler (Joe Mantegna) because he owes him money. She tries to threaten him, but it doesn’t work. He sees through her, knowing that she is getting an aroused by acting tough, and he gradually includes her in a con of his own – and she becomes even more aroused. What follows is like a dance between these two people, who are always on guard, always watching each other to see if they can discover the others tell – their weak spot. House of Games was Mamet’s first film – and it remains his best film as a director. It is the one where everything fit together perfectly – the performances, the dialogue, and the direction. It is one of the best con games ever put on film.

3. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)
The first time I watched Full Metal Jacket, I was let down by the films second half. The first half of the film ranks among the best that Stanley Kubrick ever directed, by the second half seemed like an afterthought – something to fill out the rest of the film. And while I still think the second half does not live up to the first, I have gradually changed my mind about it. I have never wavered in my love for the film’s first half. The portrayal of basic training, where a tough as nails drill sergeant (R. Lee Ermy, who in his first role, delivered the best performance of his career) breaks down the new recruits with a non-stop barrage of swearing and yelling, turning them from young men into killing machines. Vincent D’Onofrio is perhaps even better as the recruit who cannot withstand the pressure put upon him and eventually snaps. This part of the film is masterful – and had the rest been this good, it easily would have been my choice for the year’s best. The second half, about two of the recruits from the first during the Tet offensive in 1968, is not as good. In a way, after all the Vietnam war films we have seen, it at first struck me as not quite good enough. The fact that Kubrick refused to leave England to shoot it, meaning that he had to recreate the jungle of Vietnam in England, also gave this part a kind of unrealistic feel – it almost felt more like a WWII movie than a Vietnam one. But as I watched the film again and again, this part of the film continually gets better. Perhaps knowing that it wouldn’t live up to the first half helps. What does stand out is Kubrick’s direction – how he litters the background with so much information and how he pushes the point made in the first half of the film even further. I still don’t think it represents Kubrick at his best – but having said that, it is way better than most directors in their finest hour.

2. The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor is a grand, glorious epic about a wasted life. Pu Yi was in fact the last emperor of China, who become so at the age of 3, and then abdicated his throne at the age of 7. He never had control over anything in his life at all. He is constantly told where to go and what to do. For a man who supposed to have so much power, he actually had none. He is tutored in the ways of the West by Peter O’Toole, but can never set foot outside his own house – The Forbidden City (where, miraculously, the Chinese let Bertolucci shoot). He was thrown out of there, used by the Japanese and captured by the Russians near the dawning of WWII. He expects death, but instead goes through a 10 year “reeducation” where the emperor is trained how to be a gardener. Even then, he has no control of his life. Pu Yi is a man who lived his entire life as a symbol – a different symbol at different times, to different people, but never got to be who he really was – even he doesn’t really know what that is. Bertolucci’s film is long and lacking in any real action or even evil plots. It doesn’t need to be, because that isn’t what this story is about. It is the story of a man who was never allowed to be anything other than what others told him to be. What a shame. What a waste.

1. River’s Edge (Tim Hunter)
I am fascinated by movies about teenagers who kill. This past decade has seen a lot of them from the films of Gus Van Sant (particularly Elephant and Paranoid Park) to Mean Creek about a prank that goes horribly wrong, to pretty much Larry Clark’s entire body of work – particularly the criminally neglected Bully. But for me, all these film owe a debt in one way or another to Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, a pretty much forgotten film. The movie is about a teenager who kills his girlfriend, and leaves the body out in the woods. For days after, he took his friends to see the body, who brought their friends, and gradually a whole hell of lot of teenagers knew there was a dead girl in the woods, and yet no one reported the crime. The film offers no explanation for that, no reason why these kids didn’t report it; expect that they don’t seem much to care. The movie does not center itself on the murderer (Daniel Roebuck), who is dim bulb if I have ever seen one, but rather of Crispin Glover – who seems perpetually strung out on drugs, who takes it upon himself to hide the crime. Why? I doubt even he knows, but he thinks that Roebuck had his reasons, so they know owe it him to help out. Dennis Hopper gives one of the best performances of his career as the local drug dealer who doesn’t seem to have much more maturity then the teenagers, but is a hell of a lot scarier than them. Even the portrayal of the two good kids – Keanu Reeves and Ione Skye – who are the ones who eventually report the crime (days after they found out about it) is sad. They may eventually feel bad enough to report the crime – but not before they stop off in the park to have sex under the stars. River’s Edge is a film about moral bankruptcy. The kids in the movie are already long past the point of caring about other people, for they are too caught up in their own lives. It is a haunting film about crime, based on facts though fictionalized here, that deserves comparison to films like In Cold Blood. Directed by Tim Hunter, who for some reason has pretty much been stuck making television ever since (although he has directed for some of the best shows in the last two decades – Twin Peaks, Homicide: Life on the Street, House, Mad Men and Dexter among them), River’s Edge is a film that deserves to be seen by far more people than have actually watched it.

Special Mention: Superstar: The Story of Karen Carpenter (Todd Haynes). This is one of my favorite little films made by a genius director for no money. It is a short, and since it was never released, I really couldn’t put in on the list. However, this story, told with Barbie dolls, which marks the slow decline of Karen Carpenter is pure movie genius – something that Haynes wouldn’t top until Far From Heaven in 2002.

Just Missed the Top 10: Angel Heart (Alan Parker), Barfly (Barbet Schoreder), The Big Easy (Jim McBride), Dark Eyes (Nikita Mikhalkov), Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg), Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (Sam Raimi), Good Morning Vietnam (Barry Levinson), Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner), Matewan (John Sayles), Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes), Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears), The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner), Raising Arizona (Joel & Ethan Coen), Robocop (Paul Verhoeven), The Untouchables (Brian DePalma).

Notable Films Missed: Hotel Terminus (Marcel Ophlus), Law of Desire (Pedro Almodovar), Red Sorghum (Zhang Yimou), Where is the Friend’s Home (Abbas Kiarostami), Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci).
The Last Emperor is the kind of huge historical epic that the Academy always seems to give the big prize to – but not entirely. This isn’t a war movie, or a love story or even a movie with a lot action or suspense. Instead, it is a look at a wasted life, so on that level, it is actually a rather refreshing choice for the Academy to make. They nominated some great films that year – Hope and Glory and Broadcast News – to go along with some weaker choices – Fatal Attraction and Moonstruck – and I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised that they went with Bertolucci’s film. Not only because a great filmmaker, who rarely makes Academy friendly movies, won the Oscar for Director, but also because they picked the best of the lot – and the most difficult film. It would have been easier to go for one of the other films – all of which make you leave the theater feeling better than this one, but they choose wisely this year. Good for them.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Michael Douglas, Wall Street
I have admitted that Wall Street has some flaws – but none of them involve Michael Douglas. Douglas is fantastic in the role of Gordon Gecko – so much so that this largely supporting performance (he disappears for large chunks of time) was elevated to lead status, and has since become one of the most iconic performances of the 1980s. Douglas has gone on to play the wealthy business man many times since Wall Street, but he has never done it with so much style, so much venom dripping off his fangs. Gecko is a villain just as evil as anything put on screen before – he just hides it better. A truly great performance, and easily the best of the year.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Cher, Moonstruck.
I feel like I am the only person in the world who didn’t like Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck. The film was a huge box office hit in 1987, and was nominated for tons of awards, and yet when I watched the film I was left completely cold by the film – and by Cher’s Oscar winning performance. I don’t think that Cher is necessarily bad in the movie – but like the rest of the film, I find it to be too far over the top to be believable. Part of it maybe that she played many of her scenes with a young Nicolas Cage, who seems to be one drugs, and not in a good way like in Bad Lieutenant, but in a very bad one (the scene where he talks about losing his hand is especially egregious). I understand that Jewison was trying for a larger than life comedy – and Cher simply did what she was told – but for me the movie, and the performance just didn’t work. If they wanted over the top, and great, they could have gone for Glenn Close’s maniacal villain from Fatal Attraction – if they wanted truly great, they should have gone with Holly Hunter in Broadcast News.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Sean Connery, The Untouchables
I like Sean Connery a great deal. He remains the best James Bond, and he has kept that charm with him throughout his entire career and has rarely been downright awful in a film, no matter how bad the movie is. Still though, I have to wonder what it was that the Academy saw in his performance in The Untouchables. This was his only nomination for his entire career, and I don’t think it’s that much better than most of his work. Yes, he is excellent in the role – especially in that speech he gives about sending them to the morgue, but I can’t help but think that this was the Academy giving an award to a veteran they liked but ignored before. Fellow nominees Albert Brooks and Morgan Freeman, in Street Smart playing a viscous pimp, were much better – and the Academy overlooked two great performances from Full Metal Jacket (Vincent D’Onofrio and R. Lee Ermey) and one of Dennis Hopper’s great performance in River’s Edge as well. I don’t think this is an awful choice by any means – just one I don’t think was really deserving.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck
This was, it must be said, a very weak year for this category. Out of the nominees, who exactly should I have won? I don’t have a clue. Personally, I didn’t think too much one way or another about Olympia Dukaksis’ performance in this movie. I found the entire subplot featuring her and Vincent Gardenia as Cher’s parents to be rather dull, and not a very accurate depiction of an old married couple – one of whom has decided to step out on the other. I suppose it was supposed to be a kind of offshoot of the main plot, showing that no matter what the age, people still cheat, still love, still hurt, but like the movie it didn’t work for me. A rather uninspired choice if you ask me.

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