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.
Babette's Feast - The best foodie films are about sensuality, and there's no better example than "Babette's Feast," where a pair of severe, religious Danish sisters find their convictions tested by a gift from their cook, Babette. The film is a sweet-natured moral fable at heart, more concerned with its questions of piety, spirituality, and the value of the arts than it is with the food. However, it also makes a fantastic case for enjoying what the world has to offer and not being afraid to live life to its fullest. There's plenty for viewers to chew on, so to speak.
The Princess Bride - This is one of the most well-written parodies of its era, with a slew of immortal one-liners, but it works just as well as a genial genre picture played straight. It beautifully balances cynicism and wonder, knowing humor with heartfelt romance and heroism. I can't think of a picture more charming or good-natured, and few have aged so well. Of the talented and memorable cast, the MVP remains Peter Falk, playing grandfather and narrator, who delivers gentle reassurances on the existence of love and miracles with a twinkle in his eye.
Au Revoir Les Enfants - A child's eye view of WWII, based on an event from the director's own boyhood. Louis Malle's nostalgic, intimate filmmaking captures the innocence of his young characters during wartime, and their gradual disillusionment. This one hits particularly close to home because the protagonist's life and experiences seem so ordinary at first, and the danger so remote. The young actors are compelling, and very effective at drawing us into the boys' private world of schoolyard rivalries, whispered secrets, and eventual friendship and loss.
Dirty Dancing - The ending is pure Hollywood fantasy, but everything leading up to it is far more interesting. A teenager's first eventful romance and confrontations with her own social privilege turn a dull family vacation into a voyage of self discovery. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey's onscreen chemistry is sensational to watch ignite, and Baby makes for an unusually smart and memorable female protagonist. The film also nails the Catskills resort culture of the 1960s like no other, making it as much of a time capsule as it is a timeless romance.
Full Metal Jacket - I have some issues with the second half of the film, but the first half with Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman breaking down the new recruits in basic training is perfect. I've never seen a better representation of the dehumanizing process of militarization. Kubrick's exacting visuals are as nerve-wracking as ever, and the performances by R. Lee Ermey and Vincent D'Onofrio are rightly considered iconic. There are surely more factually accurate Vietnam War films, but few are as psychologically astute and cinematically uncompromising.
Raising Arizona - From the opening yodels over the title credits, this is a uniquely Coen brothers film. Everything from the exaggerated characters to the florid dialogue to those racing Steadicam shots are unmistakably the work of the Coens, establishing a distinctive style and tone in what was only their second film and first full-fledged comedy. Off-kilter, outlandish, and surprisingly warm-hearted, "Raising Arizona" remains one of their best films, and easily their funniest. The chase sequence over a pack of Huggies is one of my favorite things they've ever done.
Where is the Friend's Home? - The film that brought Iran's Abbas Kiarostami onto the world stage. It dramatizes a child's seemingly simple dilemma with care and insight, using it to examine the larger society around him. The world of young Ahmed is one of stern adults and rigid rules, where trying to help a friend can be an enormous undertaking. This was also the first film in Kiarostami's innovative Koker Trilogy, named after the village where the films were shot. Each story leads to another and another, ultimately showing many different sides of the participants.
Withnail and I - Two frequently drunk young wastrels stumble through one calamity after another in Bruce Robinson's comedy based on his own experiences as a young actor. Of all the movies about being down and out, this is one of the most endearing and entertaining. Playing its blisteringly loquacious title character made Richard E. Grant a star. The film has naturally gained cult status over the years for its counterculture vibes, soundtrack, and black humor. However, I'll always love it for subverting the notion that there's anything romantic about alcoholism.
The Last Emperor - A sumptuous epic about a huge transitional moment in Chinese history, helmed by Bernardo Bertolucci with special permission from the Chinese government. Massively ambitious, with cinematography of the Forbidden City by Vittorio Storaro, the film offers a spectacle that few could match. It is also a deeply moving one, as we watch the fortunes of Puyi rise and fall with the changing times. The weight of so much history occasionally threatens to overwhelm the picture, but Bertolucci keeps the story very personal and very human.
Moonstruck - The irresistible story of a widow who finds love again, with complications, of course. Involving multiple members of two boisterous Italian families, a trip to the opera, a man with a wooden hand, and the magical powers of a full moon, the film frequently threatens to go over the top. However, there's such an easy charm and warmth to all the romantic farce, and there's not an unlovable character in the whole bunch. Cher proved herself a leading lady worth falling for, and it's a real shame that she never had another part as good as Loretta.
Wings of Desire