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Out of the Mush

The Best Movies of 1990



Looking over a list of all the new movies I saw in 1990, I was shocked to discover how forgettable many of them were--so much so that it took considerable effort in many cases for me to remember much more than their titles. Crazy People, Bad Influence, Opportunity Knocks, I Love You to Death, Short Time, Cadillac Man, Die Hard 2, Another 48 Hrs., Funny About Love, and Sibling Rivalry all started turning into mush as soon as I saw them. Summoning them up weeks or months later is a bit like trying to remember what I had for lunch on the days I saw them.

Maybe it's my middle age talking, but I think something else is involved as well. We've been told repeatedly over the past couple of years that the most serious problem affecting this country is not poverty, not AIDS, not violations of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, not a warmongering president or racism or misogyny, and not corporate and governmental skulduggery and deception--but the sale of harmful drugs. Yet during this same period Hollywood movies that will cause comparable amounts of brain damage have commanded almost as much space and attention in the media as all these problems combined. These movies are by and large designed to function much like drugs--they provide instant escapist kicks, extended fantasies of strength and fulfillment, temporary or ongoing memory loss, and an appetite for more of the same (as a side benefit, they also manage to increase the sale and consumption of junk food). They're also meant to create enormous profits, and there's no denying that money tends to buy respectability and validation in this culture, regardless of where it comes from.

Obviously one can push this parallel too far. Ghost and Pretty Woman, the two biggest money-makers of 1990, can't be considered as addictive as crack or heroin, and the sort of brain damage they promote is cultural, ideological, and aesthetic (rather than a simple derangement of the senses, for which one has to turn to, say, Flatliners). Indeed, apart from the proprostitution underpinnings of Pretty Woman, the sexual-racial cop-out of Ghost, and the high consumerist gloss (as well as the box-office performance) of both pictures--a gloss that sold products and life-styles along with romantic stories--these movies were almost as forgettable as the also-ran titles above. (Even the hero's patriarchal obsession in Pretty Woman and the denial of death in Ghost struck me as routine Hollywood silliness.)

While it's possible to speculate how much hipper Ghost would have been if director Jerry Zucker had the guts to show Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg getting it on (an outcome virtually promised by the plot), the fact remains that with or without this minor audacity, the film is still a pretty dopey yuppie fantasy whose charms are fleeting--as they were clearly meant to be. Similarly, even if Pretty Woman had stuck with its original "tragic" ending, I doubt that audiences a century or two from now would rank the film higher, as Gene Siskel suggested to director Garry Marshall on TV a few weeks back. (It would be nice to think that people in the year 2090 or 2190 might have other things on their minds.)

So let's consider instead which movies it might be fruitful to think about a year or so from now. I can easily think of more than five dozen movies superior to Ghost or Pretty Woman, all of which are listed below.

Just as we sometimes grudgingly admit that some illegal drugs in some circumstances can be beneficial, we have to admit that some questionable movies in some circumstances can be beneficial. From this point of view, my favorite movie highs in 1990 all gave me some lasting insights into the world I inhabit--and by "lasting" I mean that I haven't fully consumed them yet. One major reason is that they aren't "consumable" in the ordinary sense--that is, our culture hasn't yet succeeded in turning them into mush.

It's widely believed that style counts for more than content, but while making up my ten-best list for 1990 I found that the movies that made the most lasting impression on me generally did so more because of what they said than because of how they said it. This clearly isn't the case with my first three selections--masterpieces whose content is indistinguishable from their style--but it explains why a virtuoso exercise de style with relatively familiar content, GoodFellas, didn't make it onto my list, while the more conventionally (though adeptly) directed Pump Up the Volume, which gave me much more to think about, did.

1. Sweetie. Jane Campion's first theatrical feature has just about everything a great film should have. Above all it boasts the creation of a world peculiarly its own, including ways of seeing, hearing, and understanding that world that illuminate the world we already know. On a primary level it deals with a life-and-death struggle between two odd sisters, rivals whose estranged parents provide both the theater and the psychological backdrop for their daughters' personalities and conflicts.

Precisely how those parents function in this poetic tragicomedy has been a matter of considerable dispute. No less than three letters from women were published in the Reader that strenuously objected to my failure to write about child abuse and incest as essential ingredients in the title heroine's makeup--a charge that struck me as peculiar inasmuch as I am unaware of any other reviewers having been criticized for not discussing them. Clearly one part of Campion's brilliance is her capacity to open up enough cans of worms to stock a bait-and-tackle shop--multiple questions concerning narrative as well as family, and truth as well as fantasy. And it's entirely to the film's credit that it's capable of stirring up passions about all of these matters without necessarily resolving any of them.

Perhaps I was in error in not assigning more importance to the roots and implications of Sweetie's promiscuity--factors the film hints at without conclusively spelling them out. But because the film is fiction rather than autobiography--and because Campion has stated in interviews that the principal real-life model of Sweetie was male, and she hasn't alluded to incest or child abuse in any of those interviews--it seems to me that issues of this kind, while they're certainly worth exploring, can be singled out as definitive explanations only if one has particular axes to grind. I wouldn't presume to claim that I don't have my own idees fixes as well. (One good friend has pointed out that I have a taste for films about troubled families.) But it's part of my critical credo that my Sweetie--or my Pretty Woman, for that matter--isn't necessarily supposed to coincide in every particular with everybody else's. Responses differ--and if they didn't, I can't see what point there would be in any of us reviewing anything. In any case, whatever my partial disagreements, I learned something from the letter writers' remarks, and I hope they learned something from mine.

2. City of Sadness. I've only seen Hou Hsiao-hsien's epic Taiwanese family saga once, at the 1989 Toronto film festival. But I have few doubts that this multilingual meditation on communication--intricately framed, consummately acted, powerfully felt--will endure for many decades, in spite of the fact that it received only two Chicago screenings (both at the Film Center in June). The only new Asian film I saw this year that was even remotely comparable in achievement was Zhang Yi-mou's ravishing and provocative Chinese film (shot with the help of the Japanese) Ju Dou, shown as Secret Love, Hidden Faces at the Chicago International Film Festival, which had the good sense to accord it first prize but failed to show it a second time as announced. I'm told it has a distributor, so if it returns to Chicago in 1991, it'll be a strong contender for my list next year.

3. To Sleep With Anger. Seeing Charles Burnett's fascinating feature for the third time with a largely Asian audience at the Hawaii international film festival last month, I discovered that they seemed to be enjoying it every bit as much as the mainly white audience I saw it with in Toronto and the largely black audience I saw it with in Chicago--even if all three audiences tended to laugh in different places. This deceptively simple folktale about the encounter of a black family in Watts and an old friend from the south (Danny Glover), who winds up disrupting and threatening the entire household, is surely the densest narrative film in English I've seen this year after Sweetie--the richest in character and behavioral observation, with some of the finest performances I've seen anywhere (Glover, Mary Alice, and Paul Butler all deserve special mention).

To Sleep With Anger is the third of writer-director Burnett's features, but the first to be distributed. (Facets Multimedia Center will screen the first two, Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding, this month, and they shouldn't be missed.) Burnett, a recent recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, is one of the indisputable masters of narrative filmmaking in this country, with an eye and ear resembling no one else's. Yet it seems typical of the scrambled priorities in our film culture that he probably has less than a thousandth of the public profile of Spike Lee, simply because his uncommon talents don't include the sort of salesmanship and self-promotion that Lee is so adept at. I'm not trying to suggest that Lee doesn't deserve his reputation. I am suggesting, though, that confusion between talent and the benefits of a well-oiled publicity machine has kept an uncommon number of gifted filmmakers out of the public eye, and that Burnett is one of the best examples of this scandalous neglect.

4. White Hunter, Black Heart. The year's most masterful and suggestive Hollywood movie takes on artistic and political egotism, macho bluster, U.S. imperialism, and Hollywood itself--mostly in conjunction with one another and always in a way that precludes the satisfactions of a simple yarn that one is supposed to get lost in without thinking about. The fact that it's Clint Eastwood making these demands and offering such dividends--both as lead actor and director--is apparently more than some simple souls know what to do with. But this film is the logical climax of a career that has become increasingly exploratory and daring.

Lawrence of Arabia, successfully revived last year, is just about everybody's favorite "thinking man's epic," but even that movie falls back on certain received notions about Arab history and heroism. This skillful and intuitive adaptation of Peter Viertel's 1953 roman a clef about the European and African preproduction work on The African Queen, written by Viertel with James Bridges and Burt Kennedy, may have fewer intellectual credentials, but it arguably offers every bit as much of an intellectual challenge. Proceeding dialectically throughout, it gives us not John Huston (the director of The African Queen) but "John Huston," and not Clint Eastwood but "Clint Eastwood." In the course of one actor-director looking at another, a stylized approximation of the first director is presented as an actor in his own existential drama, while a stylistic alteration of Eastwood's usual persona as an actor is given a lethal cutting edge by his own resourcefulness as a director. What makes this both dangerous and exciting is Eastwood's flouting the idea that stars are supposed to both contain and resolve certain contradictions--the very idea that made such mythic constructions as the Man With No Name and Dirty Harry "believable" as well as possible. This time, however, Eastwood insists on bringing all of his character's contradictions up front for us to mull over and critique, a performance that some spectators find "unconvincing" simply because it obliges them to think.

5. The Icicle Thief. The fact that this movie works so well with ordinary audiences seems to make some intellectual viewers a mite suspicious. But populist or not, Maurizio Nichetti's fourth feature--his first to open commercially in this country--has more to say about contemporary TV culture than any other movie of the 80s that comes to mind. Inattentiveness, a basic ingredient in the comic vision of Jacques Tati, is equally important here in depicting how an Italian middle-class family slides over the discontinuity of an ordinary evening of TV by unconsciously superimposing a continuity that makes each viewer regard the screen as the purveyor of her or his own desire. This constitutes only one of the many levels in Nichetti's madcap farce, which also works out an arresting encounter between Italian neorealism and contemporary Eurotrash consumer culture.

6. Pump Up the Volume. An energizing Hollywood protest-exploitation film that had the courage to be hopeful (and the good fortune to have Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis as its leads), writer-director Allan Moyle's youth movie divided audiences more than any other commercial movie on this list. Indeed, the fact that it was hopeful--in contrast to such relatively defeatist youth protest films as Over the Edge, River's Edge, and Heathers--was the principal objection lodged against the film by many younger viewers, a curious response that points to a currently pervasive taboo against genuine politics of any kind in pop movies.

If all political action is hopeless, then it becomes a lot easier to live with the notion of doing nothing. So it seems to me that Moyle's scenario remains challenging precisely because it refuses to buy into this self-serving prophecy. Ironically, David Lynch--the filmmaker who is widely felt to be the most "daring" creative figure around--is someone whose total lack of interest in politics and uncritical support of the status quo (kinkiness and all) makes him as emblematic of the current zeitgeist as anyone one could hope to find. (Lynch also happens to be very talented. But I had much more fun reading the scripts for his still-unrealized Ronnie Rocket and One Saliva Bubble and watching the episodes he directed on Twin Peaks than sitting through Wild at Heart.)

7. The Plot Against Harry. Michael Roemer's lovely black-and-white comedy about a reformed New York Jewish gangster was made between 1966 and 1968 but was not released for more than two decades--yet another sign of how much the arbitrary whims of the marketplace obscure our sense of what the good movies are in any given period. The absence of stars may have had something to do with this movie's lack of commercial cachet, but it gives this beautiful, bittersweet movie a handle on ordinary life that most star vehicles don't even come close to. (A case in point would be the other best Jewish-American movie of the year, Enemies, A Love Story, which may actually be the best movie Paul Mazursky has ever made, though it's still limited in certain respects by its talented stars, Lena Olin, Anjelica Huston, and Ron Silver--who even at their best don't reside in my memory with the kind of complex resonance that Martin Priest and Ben Lang in Roemer's film do.)

8. Texasville. It isn't widely known that Peter Bogdanovich was a close friend of the late John Cassavetes, and that the two had a somewhat reciprocal creative relationship: Bogdanovich directed a day or two of the shooting on Love Streams, and Cassavetes advised Bogdanovich on the script of Texasville. I bring this up because the priority of people over plot has a lot to do with what makes Texasville as "uncommercial"--and as beautifully acted and mysterious, in many ways--as much of Cassavetes's work, despite the considerable difference in directorial styles. Like all of my preceding favorites (with the arguable exception of White Hunter, Black Heart), Texasville is concerned with families--makeshift and otherwise, lost and found, biological and spiritual--and much of its strength comes from the richness, ambiguities, interplay, and regroupings of the characters in this bittersweet comedy, all of which has a great deal to do with redefining what constitutes a family unit. (Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, and Annie Potts were standouts in a striking and able cast.)

Set in the mid-80s, the film is an unexpected sequel to The Last Picture Show (1971) because while the earlier film owed much of its appeal to nostalgia, Texasville is largely built around the hard facts of historical amnesia. The strange relationship between these movies goes further. The earlier film is set in the early 50s, but it needs to be seen in part as a film about the early 70s; Texasville may well be remembered as one of the few movies that told us something substantial about the early 90s. When both films eventually become available on tape, they should be seen back-to-back so that their dialectical relationship can register with optimal force. After only a single viewing of Texasville, I'm reluctant to say more, but something tells me that this is a movie to be savored, not gulped--which surely had something to do with its commercial failure in a period when the fortunes of films are calculated over single weekends, not over weeks, months, or years.

9. Mr. Hoover and I. The last film of the late Emile de Antonio proved to be something resembling his last will and testament--a spiky, crotchety, straight-from-the-shoulder essay about himself and J. Edgar Hoover, a "declaration of independence" in every sense. Making room for John Cage's notions of indeterminacy as well as autobiography and political protest, the film elegantly leaps between diverse materials in a manner that recalls the shape and drift of de Antonio's own career, forging a memorable self-portrait of an artist whose "found" material consisted of himself and the 20th century in perpetual dialectical encounter.

10. The Freshman and Miami Blues. A photo-finish tie between two adroit revivals of older Hollywood traditions. The first offers a warm and luminous critique by Marlon Brando of his earlier showboating as The Godfather's Don Corleone, snugly integrated into a daffy and inspired comedy that represented the welcome comeback of writer-director Andrew Bergman. The second teamed another neglected writer-director (George Armitage) with three charismatic and talented actors (Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Alec Baldwin) to give us a tart New Wave thriller, craftily adapted from the first of the four Hoke Moseley novels written by the late, great Charles Willeford (a remarkable noir quartet about the way we live now; for my money, his Sideswipe is as impressive a performance as Rabbit at Rest, for related reasons). Both movies are reminders that Hollywood isn't really dead; it's merely suffering from the sort of elephantiasis that Bergman and Armitage know exactly how to cure.

I have ruled out of competition three restored movies that finally received their U.S. premieres in their original forms--Jacques Rivette's The Nun (1966), Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1974)--the first two of which would surely have made my list had they been full premieres. I have similarly eliminated from the running Leslie Thornton's still-unfinished but already mind-boggling and monumental Peggy and Fred in Hell, which finally got a screening in Chicago thanks to the School of the Art Institute after having been either rejected or ignored by every other independent and experimental venue in town. And I still haven't had enough time to reflect on the virtues and flaws of The Godfather Part III to determine whether this conclusion to Francis Coppola's trilogy should have made it into my list; but even if further reflection makes it seem less impressive, I would still probably place it near the top of my selection of runner-ups.

Some of the year's best movies came and went so fast that hardly anyone had a proper chance to evaluate them--or even see them. Among the contenders I managed to see, the most conspicuous instances of films getting the bum's rush from their distributors--opening without any press screenings and closing before I could review them--are, in roughly descending order of preference, Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound, Abel Ferrara's The King of New York, Karel Reisz and Arthur Miller's Everybody Wins, William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist III, and James Scott's Strike It Rich. Only slightly less neglected, but no more deserving of their hasty demises, were John Boorman's Where the Heart Is, Sandra Seacat's In the Spirit, and Howard Franklin and Bill Murray's Quick Change.

My other favorite independent and foreign films that were shown here in limited runs at the Film Center, Facets Multimedia, the Music Box, Chicago Filmmakers, the Chicago International Film Festival, and the Chicago Latino Film Festival were Jacques Rivette's The Gang of Four, Bela Tarr's Almanac of Fall, Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal, Istvan Darday and Gyorgyi Szalai's The Documentator, Bob Hoskins's The Raggedy Rawney, Idrissa Ouedraogo's Yaaba, Ferid Boughedir's Child of the Terraces, Raul Ruiz's 20-minute Snakes and Ladders, Wayne Wang's Life Is Cheap . . . But Toilet Paper Is Expensive, Michael Almereyda's Twister, Norman Rene's Longtime Companion, Christian Blackwood's Signed, Lino Brocka, James Klein's Letter to the Next Generation: Kent State Twenty Years After, Paul Joyce's Motion and Emotion: The Films of Wim Wenders, Kay Armatage's Artist on Fire, Aki Kaurismaki's Ariel, Nina Rosenblum's Through the Wire, Stephanie Black's H-2 Worker, Eliseo Subiela's Last Images of the Shipwreck, and Atom Egoyan's Speaking Parts.

Among also-rans that had open commercial runs, let me cite in addition John Boskovich and Sandra Bernhard's Without You I'm Nothing, James Foley's After Dark, My Sweet (an improvement on Jim Thompson's novel and a model of how to use locations and ambiguous offscreen narration), Michael Moore's Roger & Me, Paul Brickman's Men Don't Leave, Mike Nichols's Postcards From the Edge, Joe Dante's Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Mel Smith's The Tall Guy, Alan Rudolph's Love at Large, the first half of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, the second half of Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves, selected sequences from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams and Jacob's Ladder, the script of Night of the Living Dead (the remake), the scenery in Quigley Down Under, the set decoration in Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, the period ambience in Waiting for the Light, some of the dialogue in The Unbelievable Truth and Metropolitan, the editing in Mo' Better Blues, Jeremy Irons's performance in Reversal of Fortune (a skillful film without a soul), and Kathy Bates's performance in Misery (ditto).

When it comes to bestowing my annual F.W. Murnau award --given each year to "a new or old film that provokes a radical revision of our sense of film history"--Manoel de Oliveira's No, or the Vainglory of Command, shown at the Chicago International Film Festival, seems the obvious recipient. Made by a master filmmaker from Portugal who is still full of beans in his 80s--an unpredictable visionary artist whose impressive career stretches all the way back to the silent era--this lucid, luscious, and imaginative meditation on colonial wars is such a wise and beautiful work that George Bush and all TV reviewers should be required to watch it at gunpoint. Those who were lucky enough to catch its only Chicago screening should savor its memory and hope for its speedy return.

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