Thursday, August 12, 2010

Year in Review: 1989

There seems to be something about the final year of a particular decade that brings out the best in filmmakers. I have often noticed that lots of time, the best of the decade can be found in the final year. Probably no more than coincidence, but 1989 is certainly no exception – a great year where new filmmakers pushed themselves beyond where they had gone before.

10. The Seventh Continent (Michael Haneke)
Idiosyncratic Austrian auteur Michael Haneke made his debut film in 1989 with this icy cold film about a family who decides to “drop out”. Told in three parts – the first two detailing a day in the life of the family two years and one year before their departure from society, days that are remarkably similar and show a family becoming increasingly isolated from modern society. The third part has the family quitting their jobs, selling their car, emptying their bank accounts – and then just going around their home destroying everything they own – but even then they cannot work up much passion in their exercise. The Seventh Continent is a stunning debut from a one of a kind filmmaker – and in my mind the best of his early work (he would surpass this until Code Unknown a decade later). Despite the fact that this is his first film, his style seems to be all there – as well as his outlook on life. The film is disturbing and shocking – one that gets under your skin and stays there long after it ends.

9. Roger and Me (Michael Moore)
Personally, I think Michael Moore’s best film is Bowling for Columbine – where he brilliantly captured America’s obsession with guns and violence. But Roger and Me, his first film, is a close second. Here, he was still relatively unknown to his target – GM and their CEO Roger Smith – and as such got dealt with much more harshly than he would in his later films. As well, Moore’s ego hadn’t quite run away with him yet – he was pretty much what he seemed to be – a guy in a baseball hat fighting for the little guy. Moore’s look at what happened to his hometown of Flint, Michigan following the closing of a GM plant is harsh and unblinking. He follows around the one guy in town with a stable job – the guy who is responsible for evicting people from their homes. He tries in vain to get an interview with Roger Smith, and never can seem to find him. He is kicked out of pretty much everywhere he tries to go, and he paints of picture of corporate greed and its effects on the lives of the people in community that is unforgettable. Moore’s penchant for the dramatic, and the humorous, was there from the beginning. He has tried to tackle bigger issues since Roger and Me, but this is the film where everything kind of fell into place for him – and is one of the best documentaries of the 1980s.

8. The Killer (John Woo)
The Killer is probably John Woo’s best film – more thought out than his earlier films, which were little more than gun battles, and not as stylistically over the top as much of his more recent films, The Killer sits somewhere perfectly in the middle. The movie is about a hit man with a conscience, played brilliantly by Chow Yun Fat. He comes out of retirement for one final job – in the hopes of making enough money to pay to fix a girl’s eyesight, who was blinded in a previous job. A cop (Danny Lee) swears to bring Chow down, but ends up seeing himself in the hit man – both of these men are sick of the lives they are living, of being so easily bought and sold, and are now trying to stand up for themselves. The gun battles in the movie are brilliantly stylized – better than pretty much any American action movie I can name – and they serve as tension breakers, as the dialogue driven sequences constantly build the tension up. The Killer is the best of John Woo’s films because in it, you understand precisely why everyone does everything they do – including killing. These are not just the mindless robots we get in most action movies killing without feeling or reason – but real people who kill to try and save their souls.

7. My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan)
Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot is usually the type of movie that wins a lot of awards, but I don’t warm to. It tells the story of Christy Brown, born to a poor Irish family in Dublin with cerebral palsy and had control only over one part of his body – his left foot. But Brown didn’t let that stop him, and became a painter and wrote his memoirs, of which this movie was based on. What separates his story from others of courage over adversary and handicaps (I’m thinking of someone like Helen Keller), is that Brown was far from a saint, and the movie makes no efforts to paint him that way. He is a drinking, smoking, swearing beast of a man. He was a genius in some ways, and like many geniuses, he was hard to live with. Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant in the role of Brown – who plays him, flaws and all, and yet still manages to inspire us, and create a tremendous amount of sympathy for the man. Brown’s life was not easy, and although he was full of frustration and anger at times, he never let it get him down and he kept right on trying every day of his life.

6. sex, lies and videotape (Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape is a movie about sex, yes, but more than that is about conversation. It is film in which we very rarely actually see anyone having sex – but is erotic in a more profound, and disturbing way. The movie centers on a married couple – Peter Gallagher and Andie McDowell, who no longer have sex – but that doesn’t seem to bother McDowell who feels that sex is overrated. It doesn’t bother Gallagher either, because he is having a torrid affair with McDowell’s sister, Laura San Giacomo. Into their lives comes James Spader, Gallagher’s old college roommate, who is very quickly able to get to the bottom of these people and their lives. He confesses to McDowell that he is impotent, which disarms her a little. He explains how he gets off sexually – by videotaping women confessing their sexual fantasies and feelings to him. And soon all of their lives are in upheaval. Soderbergh’s screenplay and direction are just about perfect, but the movie really depends on the performances to keep the film interesting. If one of these performances went wrong, the movie would fail. But McDowell gives her best performance as the seemingly perfect Ann, Giacomo is perfect as her jealous sister and Gallagher is wonderful as the man caught between them. Best of all is Spader who somehow finds the right mixture of charm and creepiness for his character. Spader has made a career out of being this sort of twisted, sexual man who somehow makes you willing to follow him anywhere – consider his work in Cronenberg’s Crash or in Secretary. Here he delivers perhaps his best performance – in a movie that is certainly one of Sodebergh’s best.

5. Say Anything… (Cameron Crowe)
There have been countless movies made about two high school kids falling in love. A lot of them share a similar plot to Say Anything in that a rich girl falls for a poor boy, much to the chagrin of her parents. And yet Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything is so unlike the rest of the movies in the genre that it feels constantly fresh and original. In a way, John Cusack has been trying to play Lloyd Dobler for the rest of his career. Dobler is the honest, heart of the movie who falls in love with Ione Skye’s rich girl and unlike most teenagers in love, he doesn’t lie to her at all. He tells her the truth from the beginning – he has no career plans, no goal in his life except to love her. She falls for that honesty, particularly when she discovers that her beloved father (John Mahoney) is not quite as honest as he seems. Crowe’s dialogue sparkles in the film, and is delivered to perfection by Cusack and Skye (what by the way ever happened to Skye, who was so good in this movie, and River’s Edge?). This is a film that respects its teenage characters, doesn’t sink to vulgarity or cheap laughs. It could just be the best movie about teenage romance ever made. If that sounds like hyperbole to you, it’s probably because you’ve never seen the film.

4. Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant)
Drugstore Cowboy is one of the best movies ever made about drug abuse – in fact, I would say that it was probably the best until Requiem for a Dream came out a decade later. The movie is about two couples on the run. They move from one roach infested motel to another, constantly on the prowl to find more drugs. Their favorites are prescription drugs, and they have a system that they use to score them when they need to. When they need money, they also sell drugs – but only the ones they don’t actually want themselves. The center of the movie is Matt Dillon, in the best performance of his career. He is like the father of this loosely connected “family” – he makes the plans and the others follow. He is married to Kelly Lynch, but they love drugs more than they love each other, and have for years. They have a goofy kid as a sidekick (James Le Gros), who has a teenage runaway girlfriend (Heather Graham) who doesn’t really know what she is getting herself into. In his first major film, Gus Van Sant finds the perfect tone for the movie – detached, ironic, sometimes darkly humorous and offering only the slightest glimmer of hope in the film. It is a masterful film on every level.

3. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen)
Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of the best films of his career – right up there with Annie Hall and Manhattan in my books. It is essentially a two pronged story. In one, a documentary filmmaker (Woody Allen) struggles to get his films made and is hired by his brother in law (Alan Alda), a success in TV to make a documentary about him – which Alda uses to patronize Allen with his “insights” into comedy. Allen falls in love with a production assistant, Mia Farrow, and proposes marriage – even though of course, Allen is already married, and perhaps Farrow has her eyes on Alda. In the other, a successful doctor (Martin Landau) has been having an affair with Anjelica Huston – who has started to become clingy. He never wanted to leave his wife and family for her, but now she’s threatening to tell his wife about them. He reaches out to two people for advice – his gangster brother (Jerry Orbach) and a patient – a rabbi who is going blind (Sam Waterson) for advice (even though the conversation with the rabbi is all in Landau’s head) on how to handle the situation. He finds that he can justify anything, as long as he doesn’t get hurt. The two halves of the movie make a complete film – Allen’s half a funny examination of adultery and affairs, and Landau’s half quietly shocking as we see this respected man sink to murder, while God turns a blind eye. That Allen not only knew these two halves would make the whole movie better, but was able to pull off the balancing act so brilliantly is a testament to his skills. This is one of his very best.

2. Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone)
Born on the Fourth of July is the middle part of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy (his recent plan to make a film about the My Lai massacre, thus making it a quartet has been put on the backburner indefinitely). This film follows idealistic young soldier Ron Kovic as he enlists in the army right out of high school, goes to Vietnam where he kills a fellow American in a friendly fire incident, and comes home from the war paralyzed from the waist down – bitter and angry at the government who sent him over there. He drowns himself in self pity and alcohol for a while, before channeling his energy into protests against the war. In a perfect piece of casting, Stone gave the role of Kovic to All American superstar Tom Cruise. In the early scenes, he plays the Cruise we already knew – energetic, sympathetic and idealistic, but the real feet of Cruise’s acting comes as the film progresses, and he becomes almost unrecognizable behind the wheelchair, the long hair and beard. Cruise has, in my opinion anyway, too often coasted on his charm, but when he wants to be, he can be a great actor – and here he perfectly captures Kovic in all his struggles and contradictions. Stone’s direction is assured from the start, keeping the film moving from one scene to the next, and brilliantly visualizing the story. There are other inspired pieces of casting – like having Tom Berenger as a gung ho recruiter early in the film, and Willem Dafoe as a fellow paralyzed vet who helps Kovic – they play off their roles in Stone’s earlier Platoon. Hal Ashby’s Coming Home was in part inspired by Ron Kovic – but Stone’s film is an even better, even deeper exploration of coming home to a country that hates what you have done – and how a soldier can hate himself even more.

1. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee)
Sometimes it feels like a filmmaker is put on the planet to make one film. No matter how great a career Spike Lee has, no matter how many great films he has made, his masterpiece will always be Do the Right Thing – the most incisive examination of race relations in America to ever make it to the screen. The amazing thing about Spike Lee’s film is how even handed it is – this is a film without heroes or villains, but about everyday people living one day of their lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The film ends with two shocking acts of violence – the murder of a young black man by two white cops, and the neighborhood blacks taking out their anger by burning Sal’s Pizzeria to the ground. The shocking thing about it is that you walk out of the film understanding precisely why everyone did what they did – you may not agree with it, but you empathize. Some have accused Lee’s film of being anger, and an incitement to riot, but none of that is actually in the film, which is thoughtful and masterfully written and directed. Lee spends most of his movie, which takes place over one extremely hot day, focusing on the characters, slowly building them up, so that we get to know each and every one of them. The casual racism – on both sides – is seething underneath and waiting to blow. Lee’s cast, including Danny Aiello as Sal the owner of the pizzeria, and the only white owner who has stuck by his business as the neighborhood demographic changes, his sons John Turturro, a more overt racist, Richard Edson, who likes the people in the neighborhood, Lee himself as Mookie, the delivery man, Giancarlo Esposito as the quick to anger Buggin’ Out, Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, who tries to keep everyone calm, Ruby Dee, as a old woman who spends her time out on the stoop and so many more that it would take too long to name them all. Lee captures them all in their joy and their pain, their happiness and their anger. Yes, the whole movie leads to two shocking acts of violence – but they do not come out of nowhere, they are ingrained in the film. Spike Lee is one of the best filmmakers in the world right now – and Do the Right Thing is, and always will be, his masterpiece. Other than the music, this film hasn’t aged a bit in the last 21 years.

Just Missed The Top 10: Batman (Tim Burton), Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir), Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford), The Fabulous Baker Boys (Steve Kloves), Field of Dreams (Philip Alden Robinson), Glory (Edward Zwick), Heathers (Michael Lehmann), Henry V (Kenneth Branagh), Jesus of Montreal (Denys Arcand), Violent Cop (Takahasi Kitano).

Notable Films Missed: A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-Hsien), Close Up (Abbas Kiarostami), Time of the Gypsies (Emir Kustrica).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Driving Miss Daisy
Driving Miss Daisy is an odd choice for Best Picture for a number of reasons. First, the film is considered a comedy, although it does touch on some serious issues as well. And second, for the first (and so far only) time since 1932, the Best Picture winner did not have its director nominated. But aside from those two things, Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the type of film the Academy always gives its Oscar to. I cannot complain too much – the film is certainly charming and entertaining – and both Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy are excellent in the lead roles. I do find it kind of sad though that in a year that saw Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing – the best, most honest film about race relations in America ever made – that the Academy gave it to a film whose view on the same subject is just about as opposite to Lee’s as you could get. True, the Academy was never going to give Lee the Oscar for his controversial film (they didn’t even nominate it for Christ’s sake), but it feels like a slap in the face nevertheless. I think that they would have done better to give the prize to Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July – but perhaps coming just three years after rewarding Stone’s Platoon with the top prize, it felt too soon (something that would happen in the 1990s to Spielberg and his WWII epics).

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Oliver Stone, Born on the Fourth of July
With no Bruce Beresford for Driving Miss Daisy gumming up the nominees, Stone was perhaps the only choice that the Academy could truly make here. They couldn’t very well give the award to Woody Allen or Kenneth Branagh after they didn’t nominate their films for Best Picture, and they couldn’t really give it Jim Sheridan for My Left Foot, because two of his actors already won, and it would silly to give it all those prizes and not Best Picture, and they couldn’t give it to Peter Weir for Dead Poet’s Society, because, well, it just wasn’t quite good enough. So Stone was probably a compromise choice. And yet, I have to say that of the nominees, they gave it to the right guy – Stone’s control of Born on the Fourth of July is total, and he made far and away the best visual film of the nominees. Yes, it is a shame that the Academy didn’t nominate Spike Lee, but given their error in the nominating round, they gave it to the right one in the winning round.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Daniel Day Lewis, My Left Foot
While I think Daniel Day Lewis’ first Oscar was well deserved, it still would not have been my choice. In my mind, Tom Cruise gave the year’s best performance in Born on the Fourth of July – and I think that he would have won the Academy award if not for a few factors. After all, like Day Lewis, Cruise played a handicapped person – something the Academy loves. But the history of the Academy has shown a bias against handsome, young male stars – something that kept Cary Grant from ever winning an Oscar, and delayed Paul Newman’s win for more than 30 years. Having said all of that, Day Lewis was excellent in My Left Foot, never pandering to the audience for sympathy or trying too hard to get them to like his ornery character. It is a great performance, and a worthy winner, but it would not have been my choice.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy
I find it hard to argue too strenuously against Jessica Tandy’s win for Driving Miss Daisy. She is excellent in the movie – hilarious and touching in equal doses, and she has tremendous chemistry with Morgan Freeman, her co-star. She is also an actress who had a wonderful career behind her working for such directors as Hitchcock, Howard, Ivory and having a tremendous stage career where she was among other things, the original Blanche Du Bois. And yet Miss Daisy has become the role for which she will forever be remembered. To me, she was neck and neck with another of the nominees – the sexy, seductive Michelle Pfeiffer who came between The Fabulous Baker Boys, but I will not argue too hard against her.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Denzel Washington, Glory
Denzel Washington delivers a powerfully angry performance in Edward Zwick’s Glory as a former slave who joins the all black regiment of soldiers fighting for the North in the Civil War – and still having to face the racism of their so called heroes. The film itself is perhaps Zwick’s best – but it suffers the same problem I often find in his work – that is he tells the story of minorities from the point of view of white people, something I have always found patronizing. There is no arguing with Washington’s performance however (which oddly follows his Oscar nominated turn in Cry Freedom, a film that found the white man’s journey to smuggle the black characters memoirs out of Africa more compelling than the black characters story in the first damn place). Personally, I think Danny Aiello was the best in Do the Right Thing, and could argue that Martin Landau’s work in Crimes and Misdemeanors was also more worthy, but it’s still a good choice, even if it wouldn’t have been mine.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot
This was inarguably a weak year for this category – especially since the Academy felt the need to overlook the single best performance in the category – Laura San Giacomo’s in sex, lies and videotape. And yet, I find I have no real problem with Brenda Fricker winning for her performance as Christy Brown’s ever supportive mother in My Left Foot. Her key scenes are early in the film, when Brown was still a child, and her decision to raise Brown not as a coddled child, but someone who has to take his lumps like everyone else, is perhaps the key to him turning out the way he did. Like all the acting winners this year, this would not have been my choice – but I have a hard time arguing too strenuously against it either.

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