Monday, March 19, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 1990

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Close-Up - A fascinating conundrum of a film, about the nature of filmmaking itself. "Close-Up" was originally meant to be a documentary about an imposter who passed himself off as a famous filmmaker. However, the involvement of Abbas Kiarostami, whose examinations and recreations of the events heavily blur the lines between fact and fiction, wind up changing the course of the story in some key ways. By the end of the film, you could say that the imposter's actions ultimately did allow him to make good on his word and become a real filmmaker in his own right.

Edward Scissorhands - Tim Burton's most sentimental and heartfelt fairy-tale creates a new kind of movie monster in Edward Scissorhands, played by Johnny Depp channeling the great silent comedians. Simultaneously an homage to the the Gothic creature features of his youth and a goof on the pastel suburbia of Southern California, this was Burton at the height of his creative powers. The imagery may have clashed and some ideas were dead ends, but there was never a film more soulfully earnest in its portrayal or more sympathetic to the perspective of the lonely outsider

The Match Factory Girl - Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki presents a brief, but memorable tale of a poor soul who lives a life of unrelenting misery. The protagonist, Iris, is a curious figure who seems to absorb all the cruelties inflicted upon her with a passive detachment, until she hits a crucial breaking point. Past that moment, she goes from victim to merciless villain with chilling ease. It's never clear how much sympathy we're meant to have for Iris, but it certainly is easy to identify with her, and to become invested in her campaign of cold revenge with uncomfortable ease.

Awakenings - The 1990 Robert DeNiro film everyone remembers is "Goodfellas," of course, but I prefer him the the gentler, quieter role of Leonard Lowe, an encephalitis patient who is "awakened" from catatonia one day by a new treatment, decades after falling ill. "Awakenings" is the kind of warmly humane, perfectly balanced tragicomedy that nobody seems to make anymore. The material is handled with such delicacy and good humor that it never comes across as schmaltz. And neither does it shy away from the poignancy and pathos, which feel unusually well-earned.

Ju Dou - The film that really cemented the brilliance of Zhang Yimou's work with his greatest leading lady, Gong Li. As with many of Zhang's best films, the story reveals the cruelties of strict traditional Chinese family roles, and the folly of rebellion. It is also visually spectacular, taking place in a silk dyeing mill where the brightly colored fabrics and dyes often mirror the emotions of the passionate lovers. My favorite sequence is a funeral toward the end of the film, that requires the relatives of the deceased to be subjected to several unexpectedly hilarious mourning customs.

The Grifters - A story of confidence artists and criminal dealings that is the opposite of slick and stylish. "The Grifters" exposes a seedy, desperate world where loyalties are few and everyone's luck ultimately turns bad. This is the film that first got me to pay attention to British director Stephen Frears. It also features career highlights for Angelica Houston and Annette Bening, plus a key transitional role for former teen star John Cusack. As crime thrillers go, there are few that can match this one for narrative twistiness and pitch-black humor. The ending in particular is a stunner.

Miller's Crossing - The sight of Albert Finney gunning down his would-be assassins with a Thompson, in his bathrobe, and then relighting his half-smoked cigar, is one of my favorite images in all of the Coen brothers' extensive and wonderful filmography. Full of classic characters and dialogue, with a melancholy atmosphere, this is a mobster story that isn't afraid of a little levity, a little whimsy, and a little existential musing. Also note that this is one of the two films on this list with cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld before he embarked on his directing career.

Misery - Directed by Rob Reiner, shot by the aforementioned Barry Sonnenfeld, written by William Goldman, based on the book by Stephen King, and totally dominated by the menacing performance of Kathy Bates, "Misery" remains one of the best claustrophobic thrillers ever made. It's also one of the scariest King adaptations because the situation is so plausible, and it just escalates and escalates to these terrifying heights. As for Annie Wilkes, she's a good reminder that screen villains don't have to be ostentatious to be effective. Sometimes they can even be terribly sweet.

Goodfellas - This is not a film that I am fond of revisiting, but "Goodfellas" has been such a massive influence on every crime picture and television show that came after it, there's no denying its power and importance. The Copacabana tracking shot, the dinner at Tommy's with his mother (played by Scorsese's mother), and Ray Liotta's opening and closing monologues are my favorite moments, but they're not even among the most iconic parts of the film. To this day, Scorsese retains a reputation for making mob movies, largely due to the success of "Goodfellas."

Quick Change - The Bill Murray comedy everyone forgets, though it's one of his best. He plays one of a trio of bank robbers trying to make it to their flight out of town with the stolen loot, but of course there are unforeseen complications. I love the movie for the surreal dark comic vignettes throughout, like the unintelligible taxi driver played by Tony Shalhoub, or the final stretch to the airport with the old Mexican flower seller. And I love it for the cast, which includes a winning Geena Davis and a lovable Randy Quaid, who gets more and more hilariously distraught as the film goes on.

Honorable Mention

Joe Versus the Volcano


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